25 April 1999 - The Observer
ONLY LAST month the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, published a list of prestigious sites to be recommended for world heritage status. If these submissions are accepted by Unesco, then some of this country's finest historic mills, factories, docks and public buildings will share the status of the Pyramids.
Some may find such comparisons slightly far fetched, yet these buildings are an important piece of our heritage, and represent the pinnacle of architectural and functional achievement during Britain's time as the workshop of the world. Each of them is a symbol from a time of momentous change and innovation, a physical expression of profound human endeavour, which, in its context does deserve&emdash;I believe&emdash;to stand alongside other wonders of the heritage world.
Over years of visiting communities throughout this country, I have watched in despair as one great building after another has been swept away, with no realisation of their potential for conversion. Now, at last, there is a growing demand that they be brought back into use for new purposes.
The recent publication of figures on the amount of land needed for new house construction has concentrated minds. People are at last seriously looking at the implications of an inexorable march of construction on to green fields.
The challenge is to catch the popular imagination with a policy that will conserve our precious countryside, use the many resources in our cities that now stand idle, and so help create a more invigorating and diverse community life.
More jobs and enterprises are likely to be created on a very small scale, clustered together in supportive networks. In this new, more complex set of conditions, the quality of the urban environment can be a fundamental influence on economic success.
The communities that flourish will probably be those where people choose to live and work. In many cities historic industrial buildings, many abandoned for years, can provide exactly that kind of environment.
Manchester is a good example. Some of its extraordinary legacy of Victorian and Edwardian warehouses, mills and workshops, much of which has lain unused for years, now provides homes, cafes, restaurants and workspace for a flourishing city centre community, whose population has risen from 400 to 6,000 in seven years.
I am not talking about the restoration of heritage industrial buildings solely because of their architecture, nor the creation of 'theme park Britain' where we repackage our heritage merely for the benefit of tourists. But there is no doubt these buildings can provide a uniquely attractive atmosphere for modern living.
In case I am instantly accused of arguing that we should seek to re-create these heritage buildings as we think they originally were, I am not suggesting we try to build a better yesterday. We should encourage and welcome appropriate new additions and adaptations that can help bring new vitality. Sensitive contemporary design can add to the value of an old mill or warehouse and open up future opportunities.
I have visited factories, warehouses and mills now used as offices, art galleries, workshops, housing, restaurants, high value precision manufacturing and many other uses. I am not entirely alone in concluding you can do almost anything required of a modern economy in a refurbished heritage industrial building. (Try converting a modern building to new uses and see what happens!) Indeed, they are ideal for creating flexible workspace where people can start businesses at low costs. The former Spirella Corset factory in Letchworth is an outstanding example. Bennie Gray's Custard Factory in Birmingham is another. Providing cheap workspace for more than 100 small design businesses &emdash;including some started by my Prince's Trust&emdash;it offers a highly successful environment for those who otherwise would struggle to establish themselves in isolated, inappropriate premises.
Despite all this, public and private policy-makers seem obsessed with putting up new buildings. All too often the presumption is for demolition. We could take better advantage of the buildings we already have if funding arrangements were simplified, and a longer term view taken to give developers and regeneration agencies time to do a decent job.
Tomorrow I am visiting the Great Western Railway Works in Swindon to address a conference on the potential industrial buildings offer for contemporary uses. The works stood empty for many years until a partnership involving the local authority, English Heritage and the Anglo-American company, BAA McArthur Glen, came together to offer a vision for these amazing, abandoned buildings. BAA McArthur Glen applied the successful retail formula it has developed in the fashionable shopping malls of the 'New World' to one of the most important heritage industrial buildings in the Old.
Swindon now has a shopping centre in the middle of town that people can reach by bus, train or car, and the country has saved 40 acres of green fields. I hope that before people rush to demolition in future they will look to buildings like this as classic examples of what can be achieved.
I hope too, that the new Regional Development Agencies and the Heritage Lottery Fund, which have done so much to help conserve industrial heritage, will see that the long-term investment in these buildings will help retain our distinctive built environment, while offering real solutions to urban problems.
Last updated 2/5/99