Northern Ireland's crumbling heritage
Survey of at-risk historic buildings is so far behind schedule it’s feared many will disappear before report is completed
A report on Northern Ireland’s precious built heritage which was due to take 11 years is actually likely to take around three decades to complete, it has emerged.
Not only are the costs of the Northern Ireland Environment Agency’s bogged-down survey growing, the length of time it is taking means historic buildings could be lost before they are listed.
The process of surveying Northern Ireland’s historic buildings was supposed to be complete by 2008 — but according to the Northern Ireland Audit Office, which gave evidence to Stormont's Public Accounts Committee — the sluggish survey is not likely to be finalised until 2020.
The survey is expected to identify many building types that would not have been considered worth protecting when the first survey was carried out between 1974 and 1994 — historic barns, for example.
NIEA has paid out around £20m since 2005 to the owners of listed buildings, but these funds did little to help the organisation reach its goal of removing 200 buildings from the Built Heritage At Risk in Northern Ireland (BHARNI) register.
“In addition, the scheme isn't targeted in any way. It doesn't focus on either the most valuable or the most vulnerable of the listed building stock. And although the Environment Agency has a target to remove 200 buildings from the at risk register, it doesn't actually use the grant scheme directly to help achieve that target,” Mr Bradley said.
Before 2007, NIEA did not set out in advance the work contractors were expected to undertake or what it was expected to cost, effectively allowing contractors to set the volume and cost of the work.
Yesterday, assistant auditor general Eddie Bradley said Northern Ireland has around 8,500 buildings of special architectural or historical significance, of which roughly 10% are owned by the public sector.
“The agency itself recognises that if progress in undertaking the survey is slow, then it created the risk of losing historic buildings before they had an opportunity to identify, consider and list them,” he said.
“However, despite that, the survey has fallen significantly behind schedule and it's not now likely to be completed until 2017 at the earliest.
“It was originally planned for 11 years, but actually is likely to take 30 years.”
Mr Bradley said DoE Planning is responsible for enforcing the conservation of listed buildings and needs to work closely with NIEA which has the specialist expertise.
“However, work on this is being undermined by poor quality management information.
“The two bodies really do not have readily available basic information on the types of breach, details on investigations or en
forcement activities. And a proposal to develop a single enforcement database has still not been developed,” he said.
“The Environment Agency has a range of enforcement options at its disposal.
“It can issue urgent works notices, it can issue repairs notices or binding building preservation notices. However, external stakeholders have expressed concerns about a perceived reluctance and slowness on the part of the Environment Agency to actually use the weapons at its disposal in this regard.”
Environment Minister Alex Attwood said the report endorsed much of what he has been doing and would help drive reform and the profile of the built heritage further.
Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS) said that since the report was published last year there has been a noticeable step-up in activity with respect to the use of enforcement tools, prompting the repair of neglected prominent buildings.
“The minister is right to be proud of his impact in this area, but sustained action is required, not least in respect of Government-owned buildings at risk, which form 14% of the register,” research officer Rita Harkin said.
“We are pleased that since the report was published there has been growing recognition of the need for Government to lead by example and that local guidance for the Protocol for Care of the UK Government's Historic Estate is currently being finalised.
“The boost to the listed building grant was a heartening development and is widely viewed as an excellent investment of public money, with every £1 leveraging £5.7 from other sources. There is still much to do to unlock the potential of listed buildings.”