The blogpost below has been adapted from a talk given at the 2023 Heritage Trust Network conference in Newcastle on 16 October.
‘People don’t want to go and look at old buildings anymore.’
This is a direct quote from a Wolverhampton resident, one of the eponymous Voices from Levelling Up Country documented in last year’s Public First report on heritage and civic pride. This sentiment doesn’t quite chime with the 86 million annual visits made to built heritage and museum sites by UK residents (according to the most recent report in 2016), but, while 86 million is an impressive sounding number, we know that these are not equally spread across the whole of the UK’s population, with each of the UK’s 67 million residents visiting their 1.3 heritage sites in each year. Simply put: for every history-buff out there, the UK is home to many people who agree with the Wolverhampton resident quoted above.
Part of the reason for this has been the long-standing misunderstanding that heritage is the story of – and by extension, therefore, is for – white, straight, powerful men. Many in the sector have worked tirelessly across the past couple of decades to combat this view, and today the histories communicated by built heritage sites are more diverse and inclusive than ever before. But while we must continue the important work to make heritage as accessible and interesting for as wide a range of UK residents as possible, I am afraid that no amount of ingenious interpretation will bring everyone into our tent. For me, a connection to the past is deeply rewarding, but not everybody agrees, and despite the many brilliant programmes aimed at encouraging ever broader audiences for historic sites, I suspect that many people never will perceive the same value in historic buildings that I see.
That is a problem for those of us who work in the heritage sector because there are very many more historic buildings across the UK that need new users or will fall into dereliction and eventually be lost than there are heritage centres we can sustainably manage. Even if we cloned our most dynamic and determined colleagues dozens of times over, we could not hope to save them all by ourselves. If we in the sector, therefore, care about the conservation of these buildings – if we find value in their continued existence or in preserving the character of our historic high streets and towns – then we need as many allies helping us as possible, even if those allies don’t necessarily love the buildings for all the same reasons we do.
Therefore, I want to share some key opportunities for engaging new audiences and potential end users of the country’s large number of unused and underused historic buildings. At the Architectural Heritage Fund, around half of the projects we are currently funding are led by groups who would not consider themselves heritage organisations. I believe that we can increase the number of such groups conserving, adapting and reusing historic buildings, and work together with these groups to help secure a prominent role for built heritage in the sustainable communities of tomorrow. The three key areas for potential growth of activity I see are:
- An increased focus on the adaptation and reuse of quality buildings, often in town centres, for environmental reasons mostly to do retention of embodied carbon;
- A more explicit engagement with the social benefits of local communities owning and using their own sites of local heritage (with an emphasis on *local* more than on ‘heritage’); and
- The better integration of historic building sites with the land surrounding them, and the maximising of this land for biodiversity.
Image: The former Lancashire and Yorkshire Bank, now home to Alliance Bacup. Credit - Valley Heritage.
1. Embodied Carbon
The National Planning Framework strongly encourages the reuse of existing buildings, rather than demolition and rebuild because it preserves the carbon already invested in building the structure. This ‘embodied carbon’ represents the energy needed to pull out of the ground, manufacture and transport all of the materials that go into constructing a building. As the carbon needed to operate a building decreases (due to more efficient renewable sources of energy), embodied carbon is becoming an ever-larger portion of the total carbon cost of any building, and buildings that already exist are therefore increasingly valued for the carbon that has already been invested in them.
A recent high-profile application of this thinking may be found in the decision this past July by Michael Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, to side with a campaign led by SAVE Britain’s Heritage and deny permission for Marks & Spencer’s to demolish and rebuild their flagship premises on Oxford Street in London. If you read Gove’s letter dated 20 July, you’ll see that the heritage impact of the potential demolition and rebuild was considered, but was also largely discounted since the proposed scheme was deemed to cause ‘less than substantial’ harm from a heritage perspective. The crux of Gove’s rejection is instead squarely focused on, ‘a strong presumption in favour of repurposing and reusing buildings’. Fundamentally, he was not convinced that Marks & Spencer’s had sufficiently demonstrated that retrofit and refurbishment of the building was not a viable approach to take.
Not every former department store threatened with demolition will be able to call on the Secretary of State for personal intervention, and it’s also possible the decision may be overturned on appeal. However, this ruling establishes an important precedent and – through the extensive media coverage it enjoyed – offers a wider lesson about public interest that people who care about the preservation of historic buildings may wish to heed. According to the 2021 census, three-quarters of adults living in Wales and England reported being worried about climate change – that’s around 29 million people who might, given the opportunity, choose to live in or to locate their business in a building deemed lower in carbon costs than a new-build. This is good news for heritage, because a large portion of the nation’s underused historic assets are precisely the kind of so-called ‘everyday heritage’ buildings that could be reused by green-minded people.
The heritage sector can encourage the wider public to see the green potential in the stock of historic buildings by promoting case studies that explore the potential of environmentally friendly adaptations to heritage buildings. Projects such as Alliance, based in the fairy tale Scottish baronial former Lancashire & Yorkshire bank in Bacup in the Rossendale Valley, where air-source heat pumps are warming apartments for young people at risk of homelessness and co-working facilities for start-up businesses. Other examples include the Art Deco Jubilee Pool in Penzance, where a geothermal well warms the water year round to a balmy 30-35 degrees, and the former Clydesdale banking hall in Fraserburgh in Aberdeenshire, where common-sense retrofit measures such as secondary glazing and a solar array on a south-facing roof have been combined with traditional conservation principles, such as the use of lime plaster. We can also change the way we talk about heritage reuse to ensure that, when we are speaking to media and to our communities, we talk about these projects as opportunities to help us meet our climate goals, as well as to preserve historic streetscapes and beloved community landmarks.
Image: Murphy's on Main Street, Ederney.
2. Local partnerships for local heritage
We know that many people feel an emotional connection to the place they come from, and that this connection often goes beyond aesthetic considerations or recognition of the kind of historic significance that might warrant a national listing. There are cafés where generations of immigrants have gathered, bars where communities felt free to express themselves, department stores where locals remember particularly vibrant Christmas window displays during their childhood. Historic buildings are tangible reminders of these shared histories, spaces that speak to the specific story of their place – and because of this, they have a particular power to bring communities together.
One way to realise this potential is through partnerships with local businesses and charities. An example of this is Pat Murphy's House on Main Street in Ederney, a small village in Northern Ireland not far from the border into Donegal. In an early Victorian tobacconist’s, the Ederney Community Development Trust has partnered with local businesses to create a hub that provides high-quality workspaces for local businesses alongside community spaces and co-working offices. Step inside and you’ll find panels about Pat Murphy, a local storyteller who took over the café business his mother had built at the heart of the village in the early 20th century. Pat was one of those great repositories of local knowledge, and at his café he passed on tales connecting the Ederney populace to their own past – memories of fair days, of the luxury of enjoying a jam tart in an impoverished time, and of the annual calendar at a time when society still revolved around the farming season. Thanks to the Ederney Development Trust, Pat’s story is still keeping that connection to the past alive. The building itself is modest but important as a rare surviving example of its type; that architectural significance was enough to earn the building’s Grade B1 listing. But the building is not significant enough to ever be able to sustain itself on its architectural merit alone. By working with local businesses and concentrating on telling the local story of Pat Murphy, however, this project is getting off to a great start.
Images: The Leper Chapel, Cambridge. Credit to Cambridge Past, Present & Future.
3. Biodiversity in heritage landscapes
The final opportunity I see for built heritage projects is to partner more closely with organisations focused on improving biodiversity to maximise the benefit provided by land surrounding your buildings. An excellent example of this is a parcel of land centring around the 13th-century Leper Chapel in Cambridge, the focal point of the famous Stourbridge Fair. Cambridge Past, Present & Future (a built and natural heritage trust) has been working here since 2018 to conserve land attached to the chapel as a micro-nature reserve – replacing an ecologically barren horse pasture with natural meadow grasses and hedgerows that provide space for insects, wildflowers and birds. At the same time, the trust has partnered with regional authorities to open a new foot and cycle path through the land, reconnecting the chapel with historic Stourbridge Common and acting as a green corridor linking two large commons that were for decades bisected by one of Cambridge’s busiest roads. The project has freed the Leper Chapel from being road locked, increased the visibility of one of Cambridge’s oldest buildings to its local community, and now provides a precious habitat for rare insects. By reconnecting the chapel with the main bulk of Stourbridge Common, new interpretation opportunities are also opening up to better tell the story of Stourbridge Fair, once one of the largest in Europe.
I know many of dozens of projects throughout the UK already deploying some of the ideas mentioned above – talking about their reuse in environmental and not just historic terms, building partnerships that will tease out the unique value locals will appreciate in their historic building, and using their land to support natural heritage goals. For those who may not yet have embraced these opportunities, I hope the projects I’ve mentioned above may inspire you as they have inspired me. By working with ever broader groups within society, I believe our built heritage can play important roles in tomorrow’s communities for generations to come.
Kelcey Wilson-Lee, Director of Programmes
 For the 2016 UK heritage tourism figures, see: The impact of heritage tourism for the UK economy (d2rpq8wtqka5kg.cloudfront.net)