The redbrick universities crumble away

Repairs would cost pounds 144m, writes Chris Mowbray
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They were built to last, in the 19th century, to educate the progeny of newly-rich industrialists, but now they're showing their age. The Victorian halls and spires of England's "redbrick" universities are crumbling.

Among the "redbricks" - so called because of the frequent use of terracotta to adorn them - whose buildings are falling into disrepair are Liverpool, Leeds and Manchester. Their magnificent halls, designed by the eminent Victorian architect Alfred Waterhouse, need millions of pounds spent on repairing damaged brickwork, treating dry rot, and patching leaking roofs.

Other universities badly affected are Newcastle, Birmingham and especially Bristol, where pounds 40m-worth of repairs are needed to its 70 listed buildings including the Wills Memorial Building, named after the tobacco tycoons who helped fund the academic institution.

Indeed, the backlog of repairs is now so bad that a Government survey shows pounds 144m needs to be spent to keep the halls of learning open. The bill is so high because many of the buildings require highly specialised repairs to be carried out on fine architectural detailing. For instance, when Leeds University recently completed a pounds 2m refurbishment of its Great Hall, designed by Waterhouse in 1877, it had to spend pounds 150,000 renewing just one marble-chip terrazzo floor.

Although Waterhouse, the leading designer of English public buildings in the late 19th century, was the architect most responsible for the look of the redbrick, the term was not coined until 1943 when Bruce Truscott wrote The Red Brick University and used "redbrick" and "Oxbridge" to contrast the 19th-century civic universities with the medieval foundations.

Bruce Truscott was a pseudonym for Edgar Alison Peers, who based the book on his experiences of college life as professor of Spanish at Liverpool, where the biggest concentration of Waterhouse's terracotta creations are to be found. The Waterhouse campus, dominated by his magnificent Victoria Hall, now has problems including damaged brickwork, dry rot caused by a maintenance shortfall, rotten window-frames, re-wiring, and the replacement of antiquated heating systems.

Just 35 miles away, Manchester University is tackling a pounds 40m backlog of repairs at the rate of pounds 3.5m a year. One major current project is the rewiring of Waterhouse's Whitworth Hall,the venue for degree ceremonies.

Leeds University has identified pounds 44m-worth of repairs and has launched a 10-year programme to deal with them, but accepts that it will take longer. That is despite substantial grants from the Higher Education Funding Council's emergency fund and a pounds 1.2m donation to the Great Hall project by the Clothworkers' Federation, with which the college has a historic association. In the next three years, Waterhouse's Baines Wing must be refurbished at a cost of pounds 5m, and the university must raise all the money itself.

"The Baines Wing has not been touched since it was built, and we have problems with roofs, windows, heating and electrical wiring," said Robert Sladdin, director of estates development, who is responsible for Leeds' pounds 360m-worth of buildings.

"It has got to be stripped out and then brought up to modern standards, yet the planners will want us to keep as near as possible to the masterpiece which Waterhouse created.

"Two-thirds of our precinct is within conservation areas which even include Georgian terraces. Like many universities we have to cope with being stewards for part of the nation's heritage when our real business is education."

The repair problems for all the universities have been exacerbated by economies they have made in fabric maintenance following public-spending cuts.

"The difficulty is that if you do not fix a small leak, it becomes a big leak," Mr Sladdin said. "The best value for money is to carry out a repair when it first needs doing, but we cannot always afford to do that."

Repairs are also costly in many of the universities because as well as having to satisfy health and safety legislation their listed status means that any work must not undermine the architectural quality of the buildings.

But the amount of disrepair is so serious that a Government-commissioned survey recommends that repairs be completed in the next two years. Although the Higher Education Funding Council is contributing more than pounds 44m of the cost, it still leaves the universities themselves facing a bill of pounds 100m at a time when Government grants towards their equipment and capital expenditure are being slashed by 30 per cent.

Historic buildings are also under threat at Birmingham University, which has launched a pounds 1m appeal fund to refurbish its Great Hall, and at Bristol.

Among those concerned by the universities' plight is the Victorian Society. Richard Holder, its architectural adviser, explained: "Because of the sponsorship deals in which university departments are becoming involved, the privatisation of individual departments may not be far away. If that happens, there could be immense problems in maintaining this enormous stock of historic buildings."