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Sunday20 August 2017

Don’t let heritage become a victim of our economic recovery

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Reintroducing enterprise zones has inadvertently put heritage buildings within them at risk of demolition, warns Justin Birch

The coalition government has introduced many policies and initiatives over the last five years in the hope of stimulating economic growth. Two that particularly come to mind are the National Planning Policy Framework, the most radical overhaul of planning policy ever seen in the UK, and the re-introduction of the Enterprise Zone scheme. A Thatcherite policy of creating areas of deregulation within poorly performing pockets of the country, in the hope that the private sector (with cash incentives) will rush in as a panacea for regional economic ails. 

Although it is acknowledged that our former planning policies were unwieldy to put it mildly, from the outset such radical reforms have been viewed with caution by many, not least by those concerned with conserving our built heritage. When combined with Cameron’s enterprise zone scheme, the significance of heritage assets appears to have fallen between the gaps, with those charged with their protection seemingly powerless to intervene; undoubtedly due to the political cost of derailing any hope of development, jobs or prosperity. Indeed, when Bristol City Council carried out a heritage assessment of their enterprise zone, it highlighted such significant heritage value that those involved felt it worthy of designation as a conservation area. It goes without saying that this was no longer an option. As a result at least one undesignated heritage asset has already been demolished for the “greater good”: Herbert House on Temple Gate.

The government’s approach to planning policy has undoubtedly increased construction activity across the country and supported our economic recovery, but have we not learnt the lessons of post-war redevelopment? Surely we should not being risking one of our country’s most valuable assets for short-term economic gain. Historic England has demonstrated the tangible long-term benefits of using heritage to strategic advantage, in terms of both sustainability and hard cash. But this aside, surely we all acknowledge that disregarding heritage leads to wholly uninspiring places?

With exemplary cases of pre-recession success plain to see at developments such as Plymouth’s historic Royal William Yard and Woolwich Royal Arsenal, I would hope that as the recovery takes hold it will become easier for all of us to champion our built heritage, to ensure that despite entering an era of more relaxed planning control, our legacy is still one worth inheriting.  

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