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Historic building rescues slowed by recession

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.

Dr Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: "In the current uncertain climate, English Heritage has two vital contributions to make. First is our Heritage at Risk programme itself. It gives communities – local people, local authorities and the larger community of both official and voluntary heritage groups – accurate information about the condition of local neighbourhoods. It encourages them to become actively involved in restoring what is precious to them, and it reassures them that any public funding goes to the most needy and urgent cases.

"Second is our grants and expertise. Where private investors won’t venture, where developers have walked away and where public bodies have other priorities, it is often only an English Heritage grant, coupled with our world-leading expertise, which can save a building from being lost. Our budgets too will be under pressure but we will do all we can to continue to provide a life-line for the nation’s past. The Heritage Lottery Fund is also of enormous benefit to buildings and other heritage sites which are open to the public and we are delighted the Government intends to restore its share of Lottery income."

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, continued: "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.

"We are delighted that the governmental Planning Policy Statement 5, published earlier this year, for the first time requires local authorities seriously to consider how they are going to tackle local heritage at risk. But local authority cuts, both in terms of funding and conservation staff, could result in catastrophic losses. Sixteen percent of historic buildings at risk are the libraries, schools, hospitals, police stations and other typically Victorian or Edwardian edifices owned by local councils and greatly cherished by local communities. Their condition could deteriorate even further and their numbers increase. And will councils still put money into other local heritage, parks and public monuments for example, which give no direct financial return but are central to the lives of those around them? Lack of public funds will hit regions differently. The North East could be particularly vulnerable as only 23% of its Heritage at Risk entries are capable of the sort of re-use which could traditionally attract private investment.

"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." 

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