Danger, developers at work

Some of London's finest Georgian terraces are under threat of demolition. Dan Cruickshank despairs
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The Independent Culture
The 18th-century terraced house has long been recognised - for almost as long as it has existed - as one of Britain's great contributions to European civilisation. It is a thing of simple beauty, a monument to the sound and sensible utilisation of limited space and, organised into coherent compositions, has produced urban quarters, such as Edinburgh New Town, and entire cities, such as Bath, that are harmonious and extraordinarily satisfying works of corporate art.

Sadly, Britain lost vast amounts of Georgian urban architecture during the Second World War and as a result of ill-considered post-war redevelopment. Remarkably, and quite shockingly, it is still being demolished to make way for banal new commercial buildings. Much of it is unprotected by conservation laws. In central London alone there are at least three important groups of late-Georgian buildings unlisted and under early threat of demolition.

The most remarkable of these, and the one that raises a number of key questions about conservation in this country, involves a terrace in Baker Street (numbers 20a to 34) built between 1788 and 1792 as part of the Portman Estate. The buildings are not of exceptional quality, and all have been altered by the insertion of shop-fronts, but they remain the epitome of late-Georgian London terrace development: they are pleasingly uniform in composition, yet enlivened by diversity of detail and form to reflect the enterprise and means of their various builders. This terrace is a key component in one of London's most important late-18th- century streets, and plays a central role in an outstanding conservation area. It is, as Westminster City Council's planners observed in 1990, a "remarkable survival of the 18th-century estate development of the area". Its importance was also recognised by the Department of the Environment (DoE) in 1981, when the then Secretary of State, Michael Heseltine, refused demolition consent after a planning appeal because the houses made a significant contribution to the Portman Estate conservation area.

Things have changed since the early Eighties, and for the worse. After much arcane wrangling between owners, conservation bodies, government authorities and local councillors, the Baker Street houses, along with the adjoining and also unlisted late-18th-century 58-68 George Street, stand poised on oblivion. Their fate seems to have been sealed in 1990 when a planning sub-committee of Westminster City Council granted consent for redevelopment despite its own officers arguing that the terrace should be kept.

One of the reasons demolition has not already taken place is that an inquiry is under way into possible impropriety in the way Westminster City Council authorised demolition. There was, it seems, some confusion over declarations of interest and the role played in determining the decision in favour of demolition by council members involved with the owner of the buildings. To avoid any implication of bias in its decision making, Westminster City Council's chief executive commissioned an independent investigation by Michael Barnes QC. The resulting report concluded in October 1994 that a "prima facie case of impropriety has been made out" and makes its clear that, in Barnes's opinion, the conduct of some councillors "constituted a substantial breach of the guidance given in the National Code of Local Government" and is "contrary to the recent guidance given by the Local Government Ombudsman".

However, last May, the council's Policy and Resources Committee voted to reject the Barnes report and to allow the planning consent to demolish the buildings with the exception of 34 Baker Street, which has been given a reprieve because it is structurally integral with the listed no 36. The Barnes report has been submitted to the Secretary of State for the Environment and it now up to the DoE to determine whether the demolition consent is valid or whether the fate of the terrace must be decided by public inquiry.

The fate threatening 20a-32 Baker Street has an unusually complex history, but is not a mere aberration. A terrace of modest houses of the late 1820s - 139-161 George Street - is also unlisted and consigned to demolition. Meanwhile, in Hackney, 5-15 Sun Street seems likely to go the same way. This tall and handsome terrace was designed in about 1810 as part of the development by the City Corporation of Moorfields, which resulted in the creation of Finsbury Square and Finsbury Circus. This was one of the most significant urban developments of the later eighteenth century and was controlled by one of the century's most talented and influential planners and architects, George Dance. Despite this impressive pedigree, and despite the fact that so few of the original buildings around Moorfields survive, the Sun Street terrace is unlisted. English Heritage has let it be known that it considers the terrace ineligible for listing because its interiors are too altered and its exteriors too patched. As a consequence, an application for redevelopment is expected to be submitted soon.

The fate seemingly awaiting these fine terraces would surprise many abroad, even if it does not raise a murmur at home. In 1934, the Danish urban historian Sten Eiler Rasmussen published an inspirational book, London, the Unique City. In this study Rasmussen set out to explain to Londoners why their strange and idiosyncratic city was so remarkable, indeed wonderful. It was the Georgian terraced house in particular which elicited his admiration. To judge by the way in which London's Georgian buildings continue to be demolished, there are those in authority who are not so captivated.

Would Parisians or Romans be prepared to see the demolition of those very buildings that give their city a distinct character? Surely not. Yet in London, it seems that not even the authorities charged with the protection of the city's architectural heritage are prepared to act forcefully. There should be one simple rule. No more of London's dwindled stock of Georgian buildings should be demolished. There should be no compromise, no negotiation.

But, under the current government, the position seems to be deteriorating. The former Secretary of State for the National Heritage, Stephen Dorrell, initiated a review of listing earlier this year which could make the position of buildings such as those in Baker Street and Sun Street even more precarious. He suggested that owners should be consulted before the listing of their building is authorised. This may sound reasonable, but if the owner is also a developer this consultation process provides him with an opportunity to demolish or set fire to a building before it is listed.

In addition, Dorrell floated the idea - long lobbied for by developers - that the interiors of grade two listed buildings should not be covered by listing legislation. This is a potentially catastrophic amendment, since the interior of a building can be as historically important as its exterior and the consequence of this would be that many more old buildings will be reduced to the state of those houses in Blandford Street - mere facades, preserving little of their historic, social or architectural interest.

It remains to be seen if Virginia Bottomley, now at the Department of National Heritage, develops these deeply flawed proposals or attempts to reconstruct her battered image by showing a concern for the nation's architectural history that she was unable to display for the health service.