Recession hurts efforts to preserve heritage buildings in England

English Heritage has published its annual Heritage at Risk Register today, which shows a significant slow-down in the number of historic buildings being saved from neglect and decay prompting fears that England might lose the very thing which makes it most special in the eyes of the world and could help to underpin economic recovery. They include a number of sites dating back to the Middle Ages.

Between 1999 and 2007 the number of Grade I and II buildings on the Heritage at Risk Register fell by 17% but since then there has been no percentage change in the number coming off the Register after being rescued. In 1999, one in six buildings on the “at risk” register was fully economic to repair. Now, 11 years on, it is just one in eight. The “conservation deficit”, the difference between the cost of repair and the end value of the 1,218 buildings and structural scheduled monuments on the Register, is now estimated at £465 million, a 10% rise from 2009.

Other key facts revealed by the Heritage at Risk Register this year are that:

  • 1 in 32 grade I and II listed buildings are at risk
  • 1 in 14 conservation areas surveyed are at risk
  • 1 in 6 scheduled monuments are at risk
  • 1 in 16 registered parks and gardens at risk
  • 1 in 7 registered battlefields are at risk
  • 1 in 6 protected wreck sites are at risk

Overall the number of entries fell by 139 between 2009 and 2010 to a new total of 4,955, a 2.7% decrease but past experience shows that reduced spending on heritage takes several years to show up. Conservation areas are excluded from the totals above as this is the first year that they have been properly incorporated into the Register. However, English Heritage’s focus on them last year is leading to councils and local groups achieving considerable improvements in many parts of the country. The number of scheduled monuments at risk has fallen by 140 to 3,395 largely because of the success of English Heritage’s drive to help owners undertake often quite simple and inexpensive methods of repair and prevention. There are now six registered battlefields, down from seven in 2009, and eight protected wreck sites at risk, down from nine in 2009 as one has been removed as a direct result of improved management of the site.

Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: “The fact that historic buildings at risk are getting harder to save is very worrying. Removing domestic buildings from the Register has been the real success story of the last 10 years but with decreased house prices, the difficultly of getting mortgages and the uncertainly of the jobs market, private buyers and small developers are less likely to invest in a building at risk. We might also see more buildings coming onto the Register as people spend less and less on maintenance and repair. Government figures show that in private housing as a whole this spend fell 12% from 2008 to 2009 and continues to fall.

“Larger developers and construction companies are also facing difficulties. Fewer are embarking on big regeneration projects and some are having to halt work or even abandon a site altogether. And where public bodies and development agencies could previously support such schemes, they too are unable to invest.”

The dozens of medieval sites that are at risk include Stanlow Abbey Cistercian Monastery and Monastic Grange near Chester. The report notes that the late 12th century monastery and other buildings, which date back to the thirteenth century, are “overgrown and collapsing. Almost inaccessible.” Delves Hall, a 14th century tower also known as Doddington Castle, needs urgent repair because of “erosion and cracks.” Meanwhile, the 13th century bell tower in Cockermouth Castle in Cumbria ” is badly leaning and potentially dangerous.”

Of England’s 43 registered battlefields, six are considered to be at risk of losing some or all of their historical significance from the pressures of modern development – one less than a year ago. Among those remaining on the list are three medieval battlefields, including the site of the Battle of Towton, the scene of a ten-hour fight in March 1461 during the Wars of the Roses. According to the report it is “consistently targeted by metal detectorists, some unauthorised and working independently of any agreed archaeological survey. At least one episode of deep ploughing may have disturbed a possible mass grave.” The sites of the Battles of Stamford Bridge (1066) and Boroughbridge (1322) also face pressure from modern development.

Among the sites which have come off the register this year after successful rescues are Mettingham Castle, near Bungay in Suffolk, and the Medieval Whitby Abbey Brewhouse . The ruins of Mettingham Castle had been in rapid decline over many years, exacerbated by weather damage and ivy growth. English Heritage grant aid of over £330,000 has helped the owners achieve an immense repair project and conserve the important remains for future generations. Meanwhile, the Medieval Whitby Abbey Brewhouse has been saved by an enterprising man who has incorporated the crumbling ruins into a luxury dwelling.

Among the sites in West Midlands which have come off the register this year, after a successful rescue, is the Hereford Cathedral Close Barn. Dating from the 1200s, the Cathedral Barn is the second oldest secular building in Hereford and the only visible one that pre-dates Tudor times. This, in addition to its prominent position, makes it one of the most significant buildings in the city. Over time the barn’s medieval features were concealed by weather-boarding and brick and timber infill. As a result, it was ignored by historians until a detailed survey in the late 1980s re-established its importance and led to its Grade II listing.

It was put on the At Risk Register in 1998, but since then it has been at the heart of a £5 million Heritage Lottery supported project to restore the whole of Hereford Cathedral Close. The project, supported with an English Heritage grant of £98,000 brings the barn back into use as a vital educational facility for the cathedral and sees its removal from the At Risk Register.

Another successful project was the restoration of over 150 medieval wayside crosses in Cornwall, which were in imminent danger of falling. Being relatively small, they were also at risk of being stolen. To mitigate the risk of theft, the crosses were also fitted with microchips. Once discretely fixed and hidden, these provide each cross with a unique code and allow it to be identified with absolute confidence should it be stolen.

Dr Simon Thurley added, “Neglect is a slow, insidious process whose costly damage takes time to become clearly visible. Cuts in both private and public spending are currently inevitable but armed with our Heritage at Risk Register, English Heritage is well-equipped to guard against the loss of the nation’s greatest treasures and to suggest effective and economical strategies to protect our national heritage.”

Click here to read the 2010 Heritage at Risk Report

Click here to access the Heritage at Risk website

Source: News Distribution Service

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