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Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


APPENDIX 33

Memorandum submitted by Save Britain's Heritage

  1.  SAVE Britain's Heritage is a registered charity that campaigns for historic buildings. From its foundation in 1975 (the European Architectural Heritage Year), SAVE's overriding concern has been to save historic buildings from demolition and needless decay, and where necessary and appropriate to find new uses or new owners.

  2.  Our concern is for fine and worthwhile historic buildings of all periods and we have successively championed the cause of railway architecture, churches, chapels, textile mills, warehouse and maltings, farm buildings, theatres and cinemas, houses large and small, naval and military complexes, hospitals, town halls, pubs and now law courts.

  3.  Our work is based on a recognition that only a small proportion of historic buildings can be preserved simply as showplaces (though these can enthral visitors) and that most historic buildings must earn their keep or become worthwhile and valued investments to their owners.

  Equally, when historic buildings do need major grants to put them in repair, this is usually not because of any innate weakness of failing, but the result of simple neglect and lack of basic maintenance, a process by which minor problems which can easily be solved (such as slipped slates or blocked gutters) lead to major repair bills.

  4.  SAVE submitted evidence to the Environmental Sub-Committee of the House of Commons for its report on the National Land Fund. SAVE was one of only two bodies giving evidence which went the whole way in recommending that the NLF should be reconstituted under independent trustees. This Parliament, and I say Parliament and not Government, recommended and after further battles the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) was instituted.

  In SAVEs view the establishment of the National Heritage Memorial Fund was absolutely critical in:

    4.1  Re-establishing the vision of its founder Hugh Dalton that the fund should be, "a thank-offering for victory, and a war memorial which, in the judgement of many, is better than any work of art in stone or bronze. I should like to think that through this fund we shall dedicate some of the loveliest parts of this land to the memory of those who died in order that we might live in freedom . . . let this land of ours be dedicated to the memory of our dead, and to the use and enjoyment of the living for ever".

    4.2  Broadening the concept of heritage to the widest possible range of artefacts and landmarks, both natural and man-made.

    4.3  Providing funds to solve the great crises, notably the break up of grand country houses—such as Belton in Lincolnshire, Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and Fyvie in Aberdeenshire.

    4.4  In supporting buildings on death row, such as Barlaston Hall, which SAVE acquired for £1 to save it from imminent demolition, after serious damage from coal mining.

5.  HERITAGE LOTTERY FUND

  5.1  Our concern with the Heritage Lottery Fund is to ensure that:

    5.2  It helps to provide long-term solutions for individual historic buildings that need to be preserved with their contents and opened to the public.

    5.3  It directs substantial funds to special areas of crisis or need. One welcome example is historic urban parks; others in our view are isolated farm buildings, follies and temples of landscape gardens and parks, 20th-century industrial buildings and the numerous historic buildings being relinquished by the Ministry of Defence, the National Health Service and local authorities.

    5.4  It not only helps well-established heritage institutions like the National Trust and major museums, but that it recognises and fosters the many newer and often largely voluntary preservation initiatives which champion historic buildings and places whose values and need have only been recognised recently.

    5.5  It recognises that the value of historic buildings goes far beyond those that are open to the public as show places or museums, and that many buildings can give pleasure to a wide range of people who can see them in the street or the country, or experience them as places to live, shop and work. The HLF's definition of what constitutes "public benefit" must recognise this.

  5.6  That it recognises and supports schemes which seek to bring into use disused or underused buildings such as empty upper floors over high street shops.

  5.7  That it recognises that although educational and access initiatives are extremely important, the fundamental issue in conservation is one of building works to keep historic buildings in good repair. The HLF has resources of unprecedented size, far larger than ever available to English Heritage (EH), Cadw or Historic Scotland. It must use these above all else to grant aid building works.

 6.  AREAS OF MAXIMUM RISK

6.1  Buildings Left to Rot

  SAVE has published more than a dozen reports on historic buildings standing empty and left to decay and urgently in need of new owners and new uses. These reports are widely publicised in the media and from the huge public interest generated it is clear that the demand for historic buildings to repair far exceeds the supply.

  Following the appearance of our researcher Emily Cole on the popular BBC1 TV programme Watchdog our telephones rang without cease for a fortnight from people quite desperate in some cases to find properties and willing to make a huge effort in terms of time and effort to rescue them. There was particular interest in the idea of living in a country house community—that is a large country house divided up into self-contained houses or flats.

  In terms of building types we lay particular stress on the problems of:

    —  country houses;

    —  urban churches;

    —  upper floors of historic buildings in old town centres;

    —  industrial heritage;

    —  isolated rural buildings; and

    —  large complexes of Ministry of Defence and NHS buildings now being sold.

6.2  Country Houses

  A series of SAVE reports—Tomorrow's Ruins, Silent Mansions, Endangered Domains—has shown that at any one time there are at least 100 fine historic country houses standing empty and decaying. Some arelong-standing cases. The majority are houses acquired by institutional users who have then moved on. They may have been used as hospitals, borstals and schools. Often they have been surrounded by unsightly huts and modern additions but on the whole they still stand in fine grounds. Every year a number of these houses find a successful solution but others come on to the danger list. The need is to find a new owner who values the building for its beauty and history—rather than one who simply sees it as cheap floor space in a country area where it would be difficult to obtain permission to build. In such cases the situation simply repeats itself a few years later.

  In Scotland, where many country houses were unrolled to avoid paying rates, the numbers of problem houses are proportionately greater.

  Successive Governments have recognised that if many historic buildings are to survive with their historic contents on show to the public, private owners must be given every incentive to continue. The machinery exists for both EH and the HLF to help private owners, but in reality EH has cut back its grants to private owners and the HLF has not begun them. Some private owners do need help to do major works, and without it there will be a steady stream of break-ups. In recent years we have had the break-up of the Elizabethan Pitchford and the Victorian Stokesay Court. Our most serious criticism of the NHMF over the last 10 years is that where historic houses are concerned it has focused on the exceptional to the detriment of the typical. Stokesay, for example, was not a masterpiece in art historical terms, and some of its furniture may have been bought ready made from Maples rather than hand built by a cabinet maker. The point was that it featured absolutely complete and untouched late 19th-century interiors with all the bills to prove it. Its importance lay not so much in being a work of art as a document and that document has been lost to the nation for want of HLF support.

  The HLF is the one body with the financial resources to both fund repair works for such large buildings, and provide endowments in exceptional circumstances, to secure houses and parks intact in public or charitable ownership, It is vital that the HLF is prepared to do both these things.

6.3  Urban and Rural Churches

  At the time of the Victoria and Albert Museum exhibition Change and Decay in 1977 an avalanche of redundancies of all denominations threatened. The immediate introduction of grant aid for repairs to churches ameliorated the situation. A steady stream of redundancies continued and the first need has been to ensure that the most exceptional churches and chapels of all denominations should be preserved intact with their contents. Since then an impressive number of Anglican parish churches have continued to be vested in the Churches Conservation Trust (304 at the latest count), whilst the enterprising Chapels Trust has taken on eight fine nonconformist chapels and the Friends of Friendless Churches has courageously taken on 20 abandoned churches.

  In our view the work of the Chapels Trust and the Friends is an important priority for the HLF. We are also very concerned about the position in Wales and Scotland. A new Welsh Chapels Trust has been established but has yet to take on a building and deserves strong support. No less important are the many virtually redundant parish churches belonging to the Church in Wales, which has no equivalent of the Churches Conservation trust in England. The joint HLF/EH Places of Worship Scheme is to be highly commended for simplifying and concentrating grant aid availability for churches and chapels, but efforts must be extended: the problem of church repairs and church redundancies is still one of the greatest concern.

 6.4  Living above the shop

  SAVE is currently preparing a major report on making use of empty space in the upper floors of historic towns. In very many traditional high streets the space above shops, banks, estate agents and all kinds of premises is empty or just used for storage. According to available research up to 500,000 new homes could be provided in such premises. This would self-evidently be a major contribution to housing need and by encouraging new and better use of historic town-centre buildings, HLF and its partners can provide a springboard for the regeneration of communities. This is in an area which deserves sustained and substantial support if an impact is to be made.

  For this reason we welcome the fact that the remit of the HLF Town Heritage Initiative (THI) is broader than EH Conservation Area Partnership Schemes it replaced, and specifically targets living accommodation over shops as a part of an emphasis on regeneration and sustainable planning. However, we would also like the HLF to target projects to bring vacant upper storey space back into use which fall without the limited number of THI schemes, because the benefit of such projects to local communities and the nation as a whole is so strong, both in terms of revitalising town centres and meeting future housing needs.

6.5  Industrial Heritage

  The SAVE report and exhibition Satanic Mills in 1979 first drew attention to the plight of hundreds of fine textile mills in the Pennines, both Yorkshire cotton mills (well built in the local millstone grit) and vast brick built Lancashire cotton mills. The exhibition demonstrated that there was an immense attachment to the mills in many local communities and many people were sad to see them go. Since then an impressive number of mills have been rescued and enterprisingly reused, but the sheer scale of the problem remains enormous. Two organisations, The Phoenix Trust and Regeneration Through Heritage, are tackling this problem and both need strong support for schemes to rescue individual buildings. The Phoenix Trust is at work on Stanley Mills outside Perth (with HLF help) and RTH has four schemes in the making but there is the need and the opportunity for more schemes on such a scale. Once again the need for public money arises not from any innate defect in the actual buildings but the accumulated effect of years of neglect. Once put into beneficial use these buildings will be able to earn their keep for years to come.

  SAVE believes the HLF should mount an Industrial Heritage Scheme similar to its successful urban parks scheme. Key models should be the remarkable industrial parks established in former blast furnaces, steel works and power stations in the Ruhr around Dusseldorf, Dortmund and Essen and the regional cultural centre established in the former Royal Salt works at Arc-et-Senans near Besancon. These were abandoned derelict sites that would have seemed to many as suitable only for carving up as scrap. Yet these huge complexes with their gantries, towers, coal hoists, conveyor belts, overhead pipes and ducts are impressive sights. One of the solutions adopted in the Ruhr has not been to restore them, but simply to preserve them as monuments, open them to the public and above all let Nature take over, so that sites which were once black with coal and debris are now filled with trees, saplings shrubs and wild flowers, like the wood which grows up round the castle in Sleeping Beauty. The point is that these "greened" sites are immensely popular with the public, not only by day, but in the evening when they are dramatically floodlit and used for a whole range of pop concerts and musical events. They have given star status to towns which a few years ago were considered literally the pits.

  The identification and preservation of 18th- and 19th-century industrial buildings has long been accepted as important and practical, and given a great many people a great deal of enjoyment. However, we have hardly yet got to grips with the built legacy of 20th-century industry (with the exception of a few Art Deco factories) and we urge the HLF to take the lead in promoting the identification and imaginative reuse of such complexes.

  Some of the Ruhr sites are on an enormous scale and as a result languished for many years before imaginative solutions, such as Sir Norman Foster's art gallery in an Essen power station, revived them. The success of the recent campaign to restore seaside piers in Britain, vigorously supported by the HLF, shows that even the most problematic building types can be tackled. Major 20th-century industrial structures offer large amounts of interior floor space that with imagination and determination can be put to a whole range of uses.

  SAVE has argued that No. 4 Boathouse in Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, built as a part of the rearmament drive of the late 1930s, can be a focal point of the Dockyard, providing space for major exhibits such as boats and planes that cannot be accommodated in other warehouses. The Trafalgar vintage foretopsail of HMS Victory is to be displayed in the Boathouse during this summer's International Festival of the Sea. It is the only building in the Historic Dockyard large enough to accommodate it. Another building in danger is Brynmawr Rubber Factory, along with the Royal Festival Hall, one of the key buildings of the immediate post-war era. Again, it provides a spectacular amount of well lit covered space that, with imagination, could be used for sports, exhibitions, performance art and gallery space.

6.6  Isolated Rural Buildings

  SAVE's numerous reports on building at risk have highlighted hundreds of agricultural buildings, often well built of local stone or fine examples of timber frame construction. These were often missed in the first hurried listing surveys and even now only like to be listed Grade II. The results of the recent EH buildings at risk survey have emphasised that such buildings, in isolated locations with bad or non existent access, or marooned in the middle of working farm yards, constitute a serious area of concern. We consider once again this an area of urgent need where the HLF should run a special programme.

6.7  Ministry of Defence and NHS Estates

  Without question, this is the most serious heritage problem since the country house crisis of the immediate post war years (addressed by the Gowers report of 1950 which led to the establishment of the three Historic Buildings Councils) and the churches crisis of the 1970s. The problems of Defence and Hospital Buildings went largely unnoticed until the publication of the SAVE reports Deserted Bastions (1993) and Mind over Matter (1995) These reports were prepared on our own initiative and met with blank rebuttals from officials who simply sent us on our way and dismiss the idea that there was a problem with redundancy at all. This attitude, we are happy to say, changed at the Ministry of Defence and as our report neared conclusion and they recognised we could make a constructive contribution to the problem. Since then the MoD has taken a commendably positive role to most redundant groups of historic buildings, though we remain concerned about the methods of disposal in some cases.

  The Department of Health by contrast was not co-operative and it was with the greatest difficulty that we built up the catalogue of 98 large asylums (out of a total of 120) in England due to be closed. Very few had ever been studied or illustrated. Yet taken as a whole they are a remarkable example of enlightened philanthropy. Most were built on sunny south facing slopes in very spacious, well planted grounds (It was the practice in many cases to provide one acre of grounds to every 10 patients, and sometimes more, so that many asylums stand in 50, 100 or more acres of grounds). These asylums were built for individual counties and county boroughs and are often impressive compositions well built in the local stone. Public money via the Commissioners in Lunacy or the local ratepayers was often supplemented by local charitable giving. No less importantly these impressive buildings and their handsome grounds have been very well maintained (and rarely spoiled by unsightly additions) out of the public purse often for a century or more.

  It has been appalling beyond belief to see what happens to these buildings when vacated. One after another has been systematically vandalised, every window broken, tiles and slates ripped off, interior fittings smashed, so that within months rather than years they are desolate wrecks. The worst cases include Leverndale in Glasgow, where huge parapet stones have been tipped one after another from the roof and Cefn Mably in Wales, a beautiful house that has been so brutally vandalised it has now become the local fly tip. There are many more examples of such callous waste, notably Exevale outside Exeter where English Heritage and the DCMS are at last moving towards a compulsory purchase. Because of the long standing Crown Exemption of Government Departments from listing (only recently removed) and a rather cosy reluctance to cause Government Departments problems by listing too many of their buildings, many hospitals of architectural quality were not protected. Even when they were, however, the Department of Health too often paid scant regard to either buildings or their settings, appearing only concerned to maximise the amount of building land in the ground, despite the fact that the DCMS guidance notes on the disposal of historic buildings state that maximisation of receipts should not be the overriding objective when selling listed Government buildings.

  We draw the Committee's attention to the heroic rescue of the Moorhaven Hospital in Devon, transformed into a flourishing country village of almost a hundred families by two enterprising surveyors. Much more could be done on these lines if only the Department would co-operate.

  The recent demands stemming from the Comprehensive Spending Review that departments—and local authorities—raise billions of pounds from the sale of assets will see the disposal of many more historic sites. Pressure must be maintained to ensure their reuse is imaginative, sensitive, and response to local community needs.

7.  EMERGENCY ACTION

  From this catalogue of buildings needlessly left to decay, it is evident much more drastic action is needed to stop the rot at the earliest stage. SAVE addressed this problem in Left the Rot, published in 1978.

  The essential need is for local authorities and central Government to be more active in serving Repairs Notices followed up by compulsory purchase orders. More and more local authorities are beginning to do this now English Heritage under Sir Jocelyn Stevens is taking a strong lead, backed up by the DCMS, in tackling the larger crises which are beyond the resources of individual local authorities. First the crisis over Buxton Crescent was resolved and now Exevale looks set to benefit from the same treatment.

  At Buxton the owners were refusing to either repair the Crescent or sell at a price reflecting its condition. The repairs notice changed this. Local authorities up and down the country have found that repairs notices (with the implicit threat of a compulsory purchase order) do not land the ratepayers with a bill, but prompt owners to repair or sell. The HLF needs to make funds available to back up the new EH Buildings at Risk initiative to support local authorities serving repairs notices and compulsory purchase orders.

  We also recommend to the Committee the example of the Czech Republic, a country self-evidently poorer than our own, in carrying out emergency works to endangered or decaying buildings. The Czechs have an enterprising "tin lid" policy by which historic buildings are given an emergency roof, usually in corrugated metal, which stops water pouring into a building and arrests decay while a solution can be worked out. SAVE's reports illustrate numerous buildings which could be quickly and simply taken off death row in this way. The HLF should set aside funds for such emergency works and have in place the necessary mechanism to enable it to respond swiftly and efficiently when such works are needed.

 8.  MAINTENANCE

  For some years SAVE has advocated that Britain should adopt the Dutch model of the Monument Watch (Monumentenwacht). This operates on the principle that if we are to solve the problem of decaying historic buildings, then we must master the chore of routine maintenance rather than finance high-profile programmes of restoration. Most repair crises stem from failure to carry out routine jobs, such as cleaning out gutters and unblocking downpipes. It takes only a few rotting leaves, a dead bird or a tennis ball to block the top of a downpipe, causing the gutter to overflow. As walls become sodden, damp gets into the roof timbers and rot begins. "Drips come suddenly and do great damage", said Sir Christopher Wren. "Stave off decay with daily care", wrote William Morris. The need to master maintenance was recognised when the three Historic Buildings Councils (the predecessors of Cadw, English Heritage and Historic Scotland) were set up in 1953. They were given the powers to aid both repair and maintenance. However, with limited resources, they have decided to concentrate exclusively on repairs.

  We believe this is short sighted and wrong. In the Dutch system of Monumentenwacht, a pair of skilled operatives run a branch in each province. Each pair has a van stocked with slates, tiles and roof lead, a tool kit and a set of ladders. Owners of historic buildings pay a modest annual subscription to the Watch and pay for a regular annual inspection on an hourly basis. When at the building, the Watch do basic maintenance tasks, climbing ladders to clear gutters, fixing missing tiles, going into the roof-space to look for damp, worm, beetle or rot, and emerging through hatches to look at the roof leads and gutters hidden behind parapets. Having completed their inspection, they leave a list of essential tasks for the owner. If the owner repeatedly fails to carry out these, the Watch may eventually refuse to return.

  In the winter, when bad weather makes outside work difficult, they make roof access ladders, which they leave in the lofts of large houses and churches. Some roofs are too high to be reached by ladders and, given the hideous expense of scaffolding, the Watch have developed a system of placing harness hooks so that they can work their way along a roof in climbing equipment.

  All of this seems elementary common sense, but in Britain it requires a vast cultural shift. This is confirmed by the findings of a recent report by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation which found that the majority of householders of buildings of all types approach the maintenance of their properties in an entirely unsystematic way, ignoring basic maintenance and making repairs only once problems are so advanced that there is no alternative. This is in sharp contrast to the way in which people protect there investment in other high value purchases, such as cars, where maintenance and repair are carefully mapped out and addressed at regular service checks.

  The HLF is in a unique position to alter the culture of conservation. As a new organisation, it is not weighed down by the old orthodoxies. It can create new ones. The HLF has the financial resources to fund pilot schemes across the country. Perhaps in this country the system could make greater use of volunteer manpower, as the pioneering Kent Building Preservation Trust is doing in its own version of monument watch. Pilot schemes should have a high education content, as an essential element of any Watch programme has to be changing the attitudes of owners. A network of locally based Watches, with strong educational and volunteer elements, could become a strong force of community action, fuelling interest and pride in local heritage. It is all common sense, but common sense that it may require the full weight of the HLF to begin to put into practice.

 9.  VAT

  Every incoming Minister, and every incoming Government recognises that the current VAT policy as it applies to repair work to listed buildings is a major problem: indeed, a fundamental failure to be fair. But on every occasion the Treasury has triumphed and the anomalies remain. Currently, the full rate of VAT is charged on repairs, though "improvements" are zero rated. This has two outcomes. First, it discourages owners from making essential repairs, putting buildings at risk, and encourages them to make potentially damaging "improvements". Secondly, in effect it means that the HLF, and EH, are paying grant aid of17.5 per cent over and above the cost of repairs, which goes straight to the Treasury. For example, each year the joint HLF/EH Places of Worship Scheme commits £18 million to repair work on churches and chapels: of this in excess of £3 million is VAT liability. Despite near constant lobbying, this perverse situation remains in place. As a result, its resolution is still the one act that would have the greatest impact on conservation.

10.  ADDITIONALITY

  Finally, it is essential that the principle of additionality is defended. The HLF provides a very welcome new source of funds for conservation, but it should not be seen as an excuse for the Treasury to slough off its responsibilities for expenditure through taxation. EH's budget continues to be reduced year on year. The HLF has now taken over responsibility for funding Conservation Area Partnership Schemes and it is unacceptable that the Trustees had to step in to protect a programme threatened by the reduction in EH income through normal taxation. This must not be allowed to become a precedent.

July 1998


 
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