Select Committee on Office of the Deputy Prime Minister: Housing, Planning, Local Government and the Regions Written Evidence

Memorandum by Evelyn Cook (CAB 22)


  Our historic buildings are a finite resource. While not opposed to new architecture, it should not be at the expense of the historic environment. Concern is expressed at the way in which CABE's Design Review Panel appears to be working outside of its remit and apparent expertise where the historic environment is concerned and not only commenting on the quality of a proposed development, but actively engaging in making judgements on the quality of the historic architecture it is intended to replace. This is illustrated by a discussion of issues surrounding CABE's involvement in the process which led to the decision to demolish Span 4 at Paddington Railway Station, an important part of a Grade I Listed building.

  It is recommended that CABE's panel, if this is to continue, expands to include those with specific historic buildings expertise and an in-depth knowledge of the laws and Government Planning Policies relating to historic buildings and wider areas and that it engages more fully with other bodies which have expertise in these areas:

    "Do not sacrifice what future generations will value for short-term and often illusory gains."

    HM Government Planning Policy Guidance 15: Planning and the historic environment.


  1.  I write not as a representative of any organisation, but as a concerned individual member of the public. I am, however, a member of several historic building conservation organisations, and while not professing major expertise I have knowledge of the charters, laws and Government planning policies which exist for the protection of historic buildings and areas. I am also a historic transport enthusiast, with an interest in the architecture of railway buildings.

  2.  I am not opposed to quality modern architecture. The innovative buildings of today will become our admired historic buildings of the future. Much built in the 20th century has huge architectural and/or historic merit, as is now recognised by inclusion in our national lists of buildings, thanks in part to the work of and expertise embodied in national building conservation organisations. However, in building new we must not lose sight of the importance of the work of past eras, and strive to retain it. Government policy on the historic environment recognises that our historic buildings are a finite asset, and the listing process and the designation of conservation areas (as in the 1990 Act) was designed to afford protection. Sadly commercial interests and those who have no regard for our history often ensure that too much bulldozing still takes place.

  3.  I was born in Newcastle upon Tyne. That city, in the 1960s and 1970s, the era of T Dan Smith and John Poulson, as with many northern towns, had handsome historic buildings, perfectly capable of retention and re-use, torn down and replaced by buildings of dubious architectural merit in the pursuit of building "the Brazilia of the north". I cite buildings such as John Dobson's Eldon Square, and his fine Royal Arcade, along with others. Today the loss of these buildings is regretted, and Newcastle, along with Gateshead, another town with its heart torn out in recent decades, is recognising that regeneration can also include conservation—retaining and adapting our historic buildings to new uses to add to the variety of our townscapes. Examples include the Baltic in Gateshead, a former grain store now a major centre for contemporary art, and the regeneration of the Grainger Town area of Newcastle, using the expertise of people such as David Lovey, former Historic Areas Adviser for English Heritage NE. However, those buildings now demolished cannot be replaced; historic buildings are a finite asset. Alongside this retention of historic buildings of course new architecture is being constructed. Time will be the judge of its quality. Thoughtful commercial organisations and civic leaders alike, however, are recognising that retaining the historic interest of our built environment alongside the new also has financial as well as social benefits.

  4.  Thankfully Newcastle has also abandoned its "Pathfinder" initiative, a move which could be considered elsewhere in the north, and further demolitions halted of the unlisted 19th century terraced houses of sturdy build which can and should be retained and refurbished. They are pleasing and on a human scale and the sort of homes in which many want to live. The human costs of bulldozing homes and familiar landmark buildings and surroundings and re-locating entire settled communities I experienced first hand in my teen years; I hoped that lessons learned from that time would ensure these mistakes were not repeated. Sadly, this is proving not to be the case. The environmental costs, in terms of junking finite resources, also need to be considered when assessing any perceived benefits in bulldozing buildings and rebuilding new.

  5.  Such retention, adaptation and re-use of our historic buildings, which we must and should do for future generations to have some link with our nation's history and provide continuity and stability, is at the heart of our system of listing buildings and designating conservation areas. However, the interface between the Government's policies for the retention and adaptation of historic and interesting buildings and the building of the new appears to being skewed at the moment by some of the work of CABE.


  6.  CABE's remit for its Design Review panel I understand is to review the quality of a building design in isolation. It appears to possess no particular remit or expertise to additionally judge the quality or importance of historic buildings and areas affected by the development on which it is commenting, and the impact such a development may have. It apparently has few formal links with other bodies within which much expertise resides regarding the historic environment—and in this I would extend the scope beyond English Heritage, with whom it has some dialogue although it appears at times to be an uneasy relationship, and include our national amenity societies, SAVE Britain's Heritage, other interested organisations, and indeed many local civic societies. Yet in a wider view the adverse impact of new and unsympathetic developments on historic areas can be huge. This seems to be a major failing. CABE appears out of its depth at times in this area of our built environment. It would also seem, to an outsider, that some who serve on CABE have limited understanding of, or sympathy with, the ethos underpinning Government policies in existence to protect our historic buildings and areas.

  7.  The Design Review process in itself is therefore a cause for concern. It appears to be at times used by commercial developers, who have much financially to gain from new development, and little regard for the wider public benefit of retaining our historic buildings, to gain endorsement by CABE for schemes which go against the spirit and indeed at times the letter of the Government's Planning Policy Guidance 15 Planning and the historic environment. Thus formal endorsement by a public body, ie CABE of the quality of a scheme can skew the balance in planning decisions between retention of listed buildings and key buildings in conservation areas and demolition and replacement.

  8.  Additionally, there have been occasions when, in my view, CABE has also exceeded its remit to comment on new design, and denigrated the existing building also, despite having apparently little formal expertise on historic buildings represented on its membership and no requirement to formally consult other organisations. This has, as stated in 7 above, had a major impact on subsequent planning decisions, and ultimately led to the decision to demolish important historic architecture which I feel could and should have been retained and incorporated into new development, as Government planning policy states to be eminently desirable.

  9.  I cite as a particular concern (although not an isolated case) the situation at Paddington Station, 1852-54, listed at the highest grade, Grade I, one of our most magnificent pieces of historic railway architecture, embodying within its structure so much which characterised the pioneering age of railways, which set standards of great engineering allied to a concern for high quality design for railway buildings, great and small. Paddington, along with other listed stations such as Newcastle Central and York, is a wonderful feat of engineering, architecture and handsome decoration, made particularly fine by its four glorious roof spans. As with most historic buildings, Paddington grew and developed to accommodate growing demand for rail travel; it is a not a work of a particular moment in time, nor indeed of one person, and it should not be regarded in isolation from other railway buildings which were being constructed around the country in the great age of railway expansion.

  10.  This is not the place for a history of glass and metal buildings, which were a marvel of the pre-Great War era, eg the Crystal Palace (Paxton 1851 for the Great Exhibition) other huge glasshouse designs, and in railway trainsheds, but many have now been demolished and what we have I believe we should treasure and ensure that they remain for the future. However, some background context on Paddington is required.

  11.  The trainshed roof structure which covers spans 1, 2, 3, and, with some adaptation, 4, at Paddington Station has its basic design developed from that at Newcastle Central, where John Dobson, drawing on the inspiration of other glass structures of the time (Decimus Burton and Richard Turner's Palm House at Kew, with its curved roof, was begun1835) and the experience gained from previous structures where he had used glass and metal for roofs (eg the Listed Grade I Vegetable Market at Grainger Market in Newcastle upon Tyne 1835, although destroyed by fire in 1901 and replaced with a different design of roof) and utilising technology devised by Thomas Charlton of the Gateshead ironfounders Hawks Crawshay for the High Level Bridge. Dobson developed the process of using curved metal supports rolled from sheets (they are not cast as is often mistakenly supposed—rolling was in fact a cheaper process) and covering over the railway lines and station buildings to afford protection for stationary trains and passengers with a sequence of soaring and elegant linked curved glass, wood and metal spans:

    "Newcastle Central is one of the great achievements of the Railway Age and provided the climax for the career of John Dobson, one of the most distinguished architects to have practised in north-east England. It was conceived in 1846 and opened by Queen Victoria in 1850 . . . Prior to Newcastle Central few designers had exploited the visual potential of station trainsheds as an expression of space."

    "Newcastle Central's trainshed shares with the Dublin ironfounder Richard Turner's Liverpool Lime Street (completed 1849 and later replaced) the distinction of having been the first to be designed and built in Britain employing curved wrought-iron ribs to support an arched roof . . . Both the Dobson and Turner roofs proved highly influential, an early tribute to the former being its use in a modified and embellished form by Brunel at Paddington Station. "

    Dr Bill Fawcett, A History of North Eastern Railway Architecture, Vol 1 The Pioneers 2001 NERA

    "The use of curved non-iron principals for the roof, with its three arches each spanning 60 feet, was, as Dobson himself noted, `a new style of roofing'. Much imitated subsequently, as at IK Brunel's Paddington Station, London (1854), this technique was achieved by rolling the iron out between bevelled rollers. This saved the considerable expense of cutting the iron out of flat plates of iron, a virtue illustrative of the architect's practical approach to engineering and constructional matters."

    Thomas Faulkner and Andrew Greg John Dobson Architect of the North East 2001 Tyne Bridge Publishing

  12.  Paddington Station and Spans 1, 2 and 3 are a combined effort—the engineering skills of IK Brunel, the architectural expertise of Sir Matthew Digby Wyatt; and input from Owen Jones. Brunel did not invent the construction used in the roof—he developed and adapted the work of Dobson at Newcastle Central. There are certain differences, but it is certainly not entirely original work. It is recognised that Brunel, at Bristol, had realised that the trainshed was an important and integral part of the design of a station and a key element in the pleasure of travel brought about by the advance of the railways. Obviously at Paddington this desire to provide a beautiful and functional building was continued. However, it must also be stated that Brunel's design as originally built had certain design flaws, which had to be rectified later, when it was found that the structure was leaning. The original cast iron columns were replaced by hexagonal steel stanchions 1916-24.

  13.  In the north as elsewhere, Dobson and Brunels' work was further adapted by NER Chief Architect Thomas Prosser RIBA for York Station, 1877 and indeed two further spans of similar, although developed, design were added to Newcastle Central 1892-94 by the then NER Chief Architect William Bell. These are listed as Grade I along with the rest of the station, which also by then had the addition of Prosser's great portico.

  14.  At Paddington, a need for increased capacity led, in 1914-16, to the addition of Span 4, joining onto the three earlier spans. It was probably the work of WY Armstrong, Chief Engineer of the GWR; although not a slavish copy of Spans 1, 2, and 3 (it is constructed from steel rather than iron) it is again a soaring arched structure of distinction and of its time, using some engineering elements of the earlier spans, yet designed and decorated to carefully blend with and complement Spans 1, 2 and 3 to which it is attached. Together, all four spans make a magnificent trainshed roof. Shockingly, although Spans 1, 2 and 3 have been carefully restored in recent years, Span 4 has, despite being an integral part of a Grade I building, been neglected and hidden from view for the past decade by scaffolding. I believe this to be the last great trainshed span to be built of its type, and it makes up 25% of the station interior. Bill Fawcett, in his History of North Eastern Railway Architecture, Vol 1 p 62, has a picture, with the caption "Detail of Paddington Station, showing the Warren truss at the junction of the Brunel roof with the 1914-16 Span 4. This is identical with the trusses at the valleys of the other spans".

  15.  When Paddington was given Grade I listing in January 1961 doubtless its connection with Brunel was part of the reason for such status. Its listing description, however, clearly recognises that it is work of many individuals and a building which has evolved over time. The lawn and the offices along Eastbourne Terrace are specifically included also, even though "much altered" from the original. Newcastle Central is also listed Grade I and is the work of a number of people also. I believe that these buildings were listed and are valued in the main for their intrinsic engineering, historic and architectural interest, regardless of who designed them. International charters on conservation and the system of listing in England make it clear that buildings are listed in their entirety, and all significant and quality additions over time are to be regarded as part of that listing, valued and conserved. Indeed, most listed buildings consist of the work of more than one era—buildings do develop and are added to over time.

  16.  In recent times Network Rail decided that it needed to alter Paddington for a variety of reasons and build new offices, shops etc to bring in more revenue, despite the glut of empty office space in London. Although not within the scope of this submission, although further information can be forwarded if required, there is much which I perceive to be flawed in what then developed. Network Rail and its architects Grimshaw Associates devised a scheme retaining Spans 1, 2 and 3, which dispensed with Span 4, despite this being an integral and elegant part of a Grade I listed building, which should have the highest level of protection, claiming all manner of "public" (although which section of the public is not clear) benefits for the new scheme (and presumably major financial benefits for Railtrack). I have no doubt a scheme could have been devised which would have incorporated a repaired Span 4 into it, as Government guidance demands, but this was apparently never properly explored, and the "bulldoze and replace" scheme was the preferred option.

  17.  The new design went through the Design Review process, and was apparently duly pronounced excellent. At that point however CABE acted outside its apparent area of expertise and commented also on the quality of the existing structure of Span 4, which I understand it bizarrely derided as "pastiche" and dismissed as not worthy of retention. Although images of the proposed interior were minimal, it decided that the new build would complement and blend with Spans 1, 2 and 3 in a far superior manner than the Grade I listed Span 4.

  18.  A representative of CABE, architecture journalist Paul Finch, then proceeded to engage in public debate regarding Paddington with Adam Wilkinson, Secretary of SAVE Britain's Heritage, a body horrified by the demolition proposals for obvious reasons, on Radio 4's Front Row in July 2003 (an archive recording is available via the internet).

  19.  What I heard during this debate appalled me. Mr Finch dismissed Mr Wilkinson's very valid concerns and undoubted expertise regarding international charters and English law on the protection of historic buildings, the attraction and importance of Span 4 as an integral part of a Grade I listed building, and the desirability and indeed capability, in terms of adaptation and re-use to the benefit of the traveller, of retaining this, and displayed in turn singular lack of concern for, and knowledge of, the laws pertaining to listing buildings. He seemed to feel that listing cathedrals and their additions over time was acceptable, and that is really what Grade I listing protection is about, but the same laws did not really apply to Paddington, as Span 4 was only "technically" part of the Grade I listing, despite it clearly being included in the listing description. He stated that Span 4 was "only listed as Grade I as it was attached to Brunel's work" (ignoring the input of others into Paddington) and stated Brunel's work "is the work of a great genius" the other work is not. He also, in my view, went way beyond the remit of CABE, and must surely have had some undue influence on those listening, speaking as a representative of a publicly funded body.

  20.  Span 4 and its demolition is a hugely controversial matter; the President of ICOMOS International, Prof Michael Pretzer, wrote to English Heritage, stating that "As Paddington Station forms part of the proposed Great Western Railway World Heritage Site, the demolition of such an integral element of the station, reflecting the rapid development of railways in Britain, is not acceptable and could threaten the inscription of this site on the World Heritage List."

  21.  Westminster Council, faced with an application for the largest demolition of a Grade I listed building anywhere, had to consider the claimed public benefits for a section of the public to be gained by allowing its demolition (although I believe similar benefits may have been achieved by a scheme retaining Span 4 if the wider commercial interests of Network Rail had not also been involved) against the long-term public interest of retention. It had also to weigh up the importance of Span 4. I gather what tipped the balance in favour of demolition was CABE's endorsement of the new build ("a magnificent scheme" according to Mr Finch on Radio 4) and its comprehensive dismissal of Span 4 as "pastiche" and of no architectural or historic merit.


  22.  This is not an isolated case, but it is a hugely serious one. To allow demolition of a major and far from unimportant (in architectural and historic terms) part of a Grade I listed building and replace it with work of unproven merit, when it could and should be retained into any new scheme, is a disturbing national precedent. It calls into question the protection supposedly afforded to Grade I listed buildings. The fact that CABE went beyond its remit in this case to so very publicly dismiss the importance of Span 4 and promote a replacement building, without there being any official membership representing conservation bodies on CABE to provide an expert opinion, is a cause for great concern.

  23.  The membership of CABE at the moment does seem to be weighted in favour of those with development and new architecture expertise and interests. If CABE is to continue to pronounce on the quality of a proposed development, without any apparent balancing overview taking into account the broader interests of that building's effect on existing architecture and its surroundings, which process then facilitates the needless destruction of our important built heritage, that is in my view an unacceptable state of affairs and one in need of rectification sooner rather than later.

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