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Losing built heritage comes at great cost to society

By John Anderson

We can live with the loss of the Flamingo but not with ongoing destruction of our individuality.

Let's face it, Ballymena's former Flamingo Ballroom had nothing going for it architecturally - in blunt terms, as a building, it wasn't worth preserving. Its value today lies in the story of the ballroom and the prestige and distinction it brought to Ballymena as a top-class entertainment venue. But its lack of architectural merit is far from typical. Across Northern Ireland, the individuality and character of county and market towns and villages is being continually eroded by the demolition of characterful buildings unprotected by legislation.

It must be realised by local councils that distinctiveness of place is actually a national asset, which brings tourist income, health benefit through well-being and pride of place, and opens potential for attracting new residents and businesses.

Distinctive buildings that have been allowed to become miserable through failure to recognise their inherent quality and long-term value in promoting individuality, should be regenerated, not replaced with genuinely miserable, poorly designed new build.

Examples are everywhere: fine heritage warehouses on the Newry quays replaced by the delivery areas of superstores, the Model School Enniskillen which won prestigious modern architecture prizes and, inexplicably, is not protected, now due for demolition rather than imaginative adaption to modern standards, the genuinely world class industrial heritage of Belfast swept away for car parking and bland property development, Herdman's Mill in Sion Mills lying derelict and burnt for want of imagination and political awareness of the brand image of Northern Ireland.

Cinemas, classic Ulster shopfronts, country town hotels and simple rural buildings all contribute to our unique selling point. Anecdotal stories of visitors' disappointment at not seeing the quality they expected from tourism promotion are ignored at our peril.

Why does the Programme for Government contain no specific recognition for the importance of built heritage to our economy and our sense of community well-being when the tiny annual spend needed can produce such impressive returns?

To finish, though, on a positive note, 'before and after' photographs of the Glenarm Building Preservation Trust's Seaview Old School show just what can be done with an unlisted building given the will and imagination.

  • John Anderson, Vice Chair, Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS), and Committee member, Glenarm BPT

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