'Magnificent legacy' of public buildings at risk

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In Leeds, a former police station has found new life as a bar and restaurant, while the old Shoreditch town hall in the East End of London has become a venue for community events. Yet, all around the country many public buildings are facing an uncertain future through simple neglect of their worth, English Heritage says.

The conservation body warns that many of the nation's redundant town halls, fire stations, courts, schools and libraries are in serious danger of decaying over the next decade unless new uses can be found for them.

Simon Thurley, the government-funded agency's chief executive, said at the launch yesterday of the annual Heritage Counts report on the state of the historic built environment, that there was a "magnificent legacy" of public buildings left by earlier generations, particularly the Victorians, which embodied the spirit of their age. But some were at risk and their number could increase dramatically if action was not taken.

The problem, he said, was that these buildings had served communities effectively for more than a hundred years but were now ceasing to do so. Public needs had changed "dramatically", he said, and over the next 10 to 15 years it was likely that a number of such buildings will fall out of use.

"These buildings still have an important value locally that goes far beyond their original uses," said Mr Thurley. "They endow a sense of distinctiveness on a place as well as helping to shape its character and they often have an emotional resonance for local people.

"Because they are iconic their loss has a dramatic impact on the look and feel of a local area. At the moment the number of public buildings at risk is relatively small, but this so easily could turn into a flood."

The report argues that it is important to find innovative new uses for these buildings, such as restaurants, gyms, museums, community centres or music venues, in the same way that many former churches and public houses have been turned into housing. As well as Shoreditch town hall, now a community venue, and Chapel Allerton police station in Leeds, now the Old Police Station bar and restaurant, there is a former public library in Sheffield which has been turned into a gym, and a former courthouse in Nottinghamshire which is now a museum.

Buildings at risk, according to English Heritage, include a fire station in Southwark, south London, the county court building in Coventry and a library and public baths in Leeds.

English Heritage believes increasing public interest in the nation's environment and heritage will help to ensure the future of such buildings. It said more than one million people had signed up to support the History Matters campaign launched in July.