Listed buildings now deserve proper protection
Last month Straid Congregational Church near Ballyclare hit the headlines after some members began tearing pews out of their landmark 200-year-old church late one night.
While the church members involved said they were keen to build a new place of worship fit for the 21st century, others in the village were horrified that the building could be razed. This was all undertaken without neighbour or public consultation and without planning permission for the new church building.
The next day, demolition workers and a digger arrived at the site to tear down the building but were blocked by protesters which in turn led to an emergency preservation order being issued by the council.
The Historic Environment Division (HED), which had been considering the building for listed status, was in the process of completing its records when the attempted demolition took place.
To protect our built environment buildings considered to be of 'special architectural or historic interest' are listed to protect their character and appearance. Listed buildings are an important part of our heritage and provide a record of the changing world we live in. These buildings are irreplaceable assets which contribute to the quality and character of our built environment and Northern Ireland is home to over 8,500 of them.
However, current legislation in Northern Ireland offers no automatic interim protection to buildings which are under consideration for listing.
When the HED intends to list a building, a notification letter is issued to the local authority and the building owners. However, at that point the building is NOT yet protected by law.
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There is evidence to suggest that owners who do not appreciate the value of their irreplaceable historic asset or who have a commercial vested interest, can, and frequently do, demolish before the final formal designation is issued.
As a result, many historic buildings have been destroyed or deliberately vandalised to prevent them being listed and protected.
The situation at Straid shone a light on a weak spot within a structured and powerful array of protection measures which exist in Northern Ireland.
But as the church building, believed to be the oldest of its type in Ireland, was not protected at the time of the incident, the damage caused was not considered a criminal offence.
Until its listed status was confirmed later that month it was left in a very vulnerable position.
The internal demolition of this church is only one recent example where this gap in legislation has been exercised.
There are many other examples particularly within the last few years in Belfast city centre, for example when three historic buildings in North Street were demolished in November 2016 just before their listing was affirmed.
Such an attitude of disregard for the value of our heritage is astonishing, but what is more amazing is the fact that notification of intent to list a building is issued without any interim protection in place.
If we are to protect our heritage this must change, and the automatic interim protection for buildings under consideration for listing in Northern Ireland should be introduced.
In Wales buildings under consideration for listing are automatically given interim protection while their status is decided which seems a sensible way of approaching this extremely sensitive situation.
In Northern Ireland and other parts of the UK working with listed buildings is perceived to be costly and a burden, due to the additional consultation processes and constraints imposed to maintain their character.
However, to assist with this and to ease the financial burdens it's important for those who own them to know that some listed buildings are entitled to grant funding.