Why English Heritage is failing in its duty

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The Independent Online

More than1,500 historic buildings in England have been given an at-risk rating by English Heritage, whose financial ability to slow the terminal degradation of listed buildings is often overshadowed by the increasing flow of cash being pumped into urban regeneration projects. The bricks and mortar of history, it seems, are rarely considered a lifestyle bonus – and English Heritage's ability to respond is in effect on hold for the next three years.

Last year, English Heritage cobbled together £5.7m in grant aid to maintain less than 100 buildings on its at-risk register. To save all of them would cost at least £400m. Yesterday, Sir Neil Cossons, the chairman, urged the Government to "recognise the enormous regeneration potential that an investment of this amount would achieve".

Among the handful of success stories is the Keeling House in Bethnal Green, east London, a Modernist block of flats designed by Denys Lasdun, and Sefton Park, a once derelict, Kew-like glasshouse in Liverpool. They owe their redemption to lessons learnt from historic building blunders such as the unconsidered demolition of the Greek revival-style Euston Station arch in the Seventies. A decade earlier, the streamlined Art Deco Firestone factory in west London was destroyed over a Bank Holiday weekend, just before it was to be listed as a Grade I building.

But saving historically interesting buildings remains tough, and complicated, on the ground, particularly in the case of less than grand Grade II structures. Three-quarters of local authority planning departments have not compiled registers of buildings at risk, and this is tied to the lack of trained conservation officers in almost half of all local authorities.

Those shortfalls, with lack of funds and a rash of peculiar incidents, have this year contributed to the loss of starred-Grade II buildings such as the Cathedral Church of Our Lady of Perpetual Help at Middlesbrough, gutted in an arson attack a few weeks before a public inquiry was to re-examine plans to demolish it, and Heybridge Hall near Maldon, Essex, which English Heritage says was knocked down without permission. Neither was considered to be at risk.

These are dramatic examples of historic building loss. The more typical scenario is of a gradual disintegration of building fabric followed by redevelopment. And English Heritage's historic buildings inspector for London, Delcia Keate says this syndrome is not always benevolent. "The issue of neglect and misuse and redundancy applies to all grades of buildings," she said.

"And we have a duty of care. It's a much wider problem. Unless we can harness better funding, and unless there is better recognition of the potential of these buildings for other uses, there is a real problem because there simply isn't enough money to deal with buildings of national interest.

"There is a lot of money for regeneration projects that are mopping up old buildings. But they are not eyesores or brakes on development. They can create money. We need people to tap into that."

But money creation is more likely to be tied into high-profile urban regeneration projects, which carry the risk of clumsy gentrification based on consumer requirements. This challenge is highlighted in the culture and urban development commission report, which the London borough of Lewisham will publish tomorrow. Its subtitle, Creative Lewisham, highlights the fine line between trendy clean-slate redevelopment and careful, incremental improvement. The report's author, Charles Landry, refers to transformation and the challenging of "old assumptions and prejudices". But he also emphasises that the area is "peppered with hidden treasures and architectural surprises".

Lewisham, though not as powerfully effective in conservation terms as posh boroughs such as Westminster and Kensington and Chelsea, is lucky to have two conservation officers. One of them, Phil Ashford, said modest grants to preserve listed buildings were the order of the day. More often, "it's a matter of targeting individual buildings and chasing owners and persuading them to do the necessary works".

Ms Keate said: "What we have [in funding] is inadequate. It's not just English Heritage. Very few local authorities give restoration grants, though they are entitled to. Giving money to historic buildings is not an issue." Neither, apparently, is giving money to English Heritage. With an ideal total target of £400m to ensure the medium-term future of England's notable historic buildings, a spokesperson confirmed that government grant aid to English Heritage would remain at about £5m for the next three years – "but now the new government is in we want to remain in discussion with our minister, Tessa Jowell". They are braced to make do with little more than small change.