Crumbling away: the former heroes of British industry

English Heritage reveals its struggle in trying to revive famous landmarks, writes Jack Watkins
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The Independent Online

The Bank of England may be about to put two of its greatest pioneers – James Watt and Matthew Boulton – on new £50 notes, but the nation's industrial heritage is crumbling, says a new survey by English Heritage.

Emotive sites like Sir Giles Gilbert Scott's Battersea Power Station, Chatterley Whitfield Colliery, George Stephenson's Bowes Railway, and Liverpool's Stanley Dock are among those listed as most "at risk" in what the organisation says is the largest research project ever carried out into the sector's historic buildings and monuments. Chief executive Simon Thurley said: "As this country's traditional manufacturing base continues to shrink, our industrial heritage falls ever more prey to dereliction, decay and ultimately demolition."

While Mr Thurley urged developers to do more to "unlock the potential of the industrial past", the report Industrial Heritage at Risk, released at the launch of English Heritage's annual Heritage at Risk register, shows the recession is having a serious impact on the care of its legacy.

It says property developers are put off from entering into conversion schemes because of heavy costs associated with large-scale industrial buildings and fears about contamination. Reduction in public subsidies and problems in raising private finance mean that many sites are left derelict.

Shane Gould, English Heritage's industrial heritage advisor, said it was "heartening" that a public attitude survey showed that 80 per cent thought industrial heritage was as important as historic houses and castles, while 71 per cent thought sites should be reused for modern living, as long as their character was preserved.

He said: "People are recognising the importance of England as the first industrialized nation, with many sites unique in world terms. In some areas, they've become familiar parts of the landscape." However, he pointed to difficulties with structures from obsolete industries, with most in the North East associated with coal mining, including engine houses and pit head winding gear, unable to find alternative uses.

"You have a high concentration of such sites in the region where there is no commercial solution and you are relying on public subsidy," added Mr Gould. He cited Wheal Peevor, a former copper mine near Redruth, as an example of how remote, once derelict sites can be revived as landscape features and visitor attractions Buildings in urban settings present further challenges. The Soho Foundry in Smethwick was built by Boulton and Watt for steam engine manufacture in 1796, and survives within a factory which makes weighing-scales. "It is no longer part of the working factory, and because of its landlocked situation, effectively it's been mothballed until the economic climate improves," says Mr Gould. The Stanley Dock is described in Pevsner's architectural guide as Liverpool's "most evocatively derelict dock". A brooding relic of the city's heyday, it contains a number of large, listed warehouses.

"It is a real challenge finding a reuse for a place on that scale, while retaining historic interest," admits Mr Gould.

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