English Heritage and Mayor of London Mark 20 Years of Rescuing Heritage at Risk in the Capital
The legendary Camden Roundhouse, Wellington Arch, the Modernist Isokon Flats, the Albert Memorial, and Georgian masterpiece, Danson House in Bexley - these are just five London gems that would probably have been lost without the attention brought to them by inclusion on the English Heritage Buildings At Risk Register. They are among hundreds of other rescued landmarks, a selection of which are featured in Saving London - 20 Years of Heritage at Risk in the Capital published today (30 September 2010).
Twenty years ago, English Heritage took a bold step into the unknown - it attempted to record all grade l, ll* and ll listed buildings in London that were neglected or decayed and without a certain future. The result was the Buildings at Risk Register, setting a standard for recording vulnerable heritage that is now copied by other countries across the world, but unmatched for its comprehensive nature and its ability to generate positive action.
In 1998 the winning formula of the London Register led English Heritage to start a national Buildings at Risk Register which in 2008 was expanded to become the Heritage at Risk Register, now covering listed buildings, scheduled monuments and archaeology, registered historic landscapes, parks, gardens and battlefields, conservation areas, protected wreck sites off our coast, and, from next year, listed places of worship.
Philip Davies, English Heritage Territory Director for the South Region, said: "The purpose of compiling the annual Heritage at Risk Register is now well understood, but 20 years ago it was considered radical and daring. We were trying to get a clear picture of the condition of the capital's historic buildings for the first time and simply didn't know what the exercise would reveal."
The results from that first survey were a cause for widespread public concern. In January 1991, almost 1,000 listed buildings were identified as either vacant, underused or in a state of disrepair - a backlog of years of neglect across the capital. Twenty years later, over 90% of all the buildings on the first Register have been saved and brought back into use. In total, over 2000 listed buildings have been repaired, restored and given a new lease of life.
There are numerous reasons why listed buildings become 'at risk' - and many of the factors identified as part of the first survey continue to exist today. Buildings may have become redundant or are no longer suited to the purpose for which they were originally designed; their context may have been compromised, but often it is recalcitrant owners who simply refuse to carry out repairs.
English Heritage found that London local authorities were reluctant to use the statutory powers available to them to secure repairs, mistakenly believing there would be too much red tape, or the procedures would be too costly. This misconception still exists but our experience demonstrates that statutory action, or the threat of it, invariably encourages an owner to repair or sell.
Joining English Heritage to help launch the publication, Mayor Boris Johnson said: "London's enduring success in the future will depend not only on its drive for excellence and innovation, but on its ability to cherish and honour the past. English Heritage's Saving London has seen tremendous results over the past 20 years in breathing life back into some of the city's most important buildings, and it is vital we ensure that success continues.
"Developments such as Kings Cross Central are leading the way in proving how the old can be integrated with the new, with the grade ll listed Granary now looking forward to a bright future as the home of the University of the Arts. It is much to the credit of English Heritage that the legacy of such buildings can be preserved."
Saving London shows that even the most intractable cases can be resolved, 549 Lordship Lane, often referred to as the Concrete House, in Southwark being the most recent example, where the service of a Repairs Notice by Southwark Council has unlocked a solution after years of dereliction. However, the reality is that many successes were achieved during times of prosperity and some of the most challenging cases on the Register will continue to struggle as we enter an unprecedented period of financial restraint.
1991 and 2010 - Economic Parallels
One factor common to both the 1991 survey and 2010 Register is the economic climate. In 1991, the collapse of the property market saw many buildings abandoned and subsequently placed on the Register and the concern that this could happen again is a very real one.
Philip Davies added: "We understand that local authorities are under huge pressure to slash spending. Resources for heritage and the built environment might be identified as easy targets - but short term financial considerations should not cause long term damage. We encourage local authorities to look at the success achieved over the past 20 years, the community benefit of investing in our heritage and to think before they cut Conservation officer posts and funding
"As champions of these benefits, Conservation officers have a crucial role to play in helping to achieve the government's new agenda of localism. Without them far less local heritage will be rescued and removed from the Register. Heritage provides not only a sense of place and continuity; it acts as a focus for social cohesion and offers a sense of identity as well as a catalyst for regeneration and good new design. Heritage is core - not a luxury."
The disposal of historic buildings from the public sector is a perhaps one of the biggest challenges we face. Over 24% of buildings on the register are in pubic ownership. This is likely to grow as local authorities and other bodies cut costs and sell buildings. Responsible stewardship is vital, which means planning ahead for redundancy and disposal, considering interim uses, and preparing planning briefs to highlight both the opportunities as well as the constraints. Saving London shows how this can be done for the benefit of all.