How Stormont can breathe new life into old buildings
We should cherish our built heritage and focus on measures which could rescue unused buildings from the wrecking ball, says Dawson Stelfox
Boom times are generally not good for historic buildings, as the headlong rush for development and the value of sites can precipitate hasty demolition, but recessions are often bad as well as the 'any development is good development' mentality takes over.
Whilst the old Co-op building comes down to make way for the new University of Ulster campus, the fate of the former Athletic Stores – Swanston's warehouse in Queen Street – awaits the verdict of a Judicial Review taken by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society against the decision by Planning Service to allow demolition.
In a sense, once we get to Judicial Reviews, planning appeals and 'occupy' protests, we have already failed to recognise the value of our built heritage and put in place the legislation policies, tax regime, resources and grant support necessary for its survival.
There is now a protocol in place between government departments for the responsible disposal of redundant government buildings which includes a requirement to find a new use before the building becomes empty, and there are many good examples of government taking the lead – the investment in Crumlin Road Gaol being one.
Yet there are still many government buildings without a sustainable new use being identified. For example, the magnificent Riddel's warehouse in Ann Street has lain empty for over 20 years without a new use being sought.
The private sector is no better – the former Bank of Ireland in Royal Avenue, Cairn Dhu house at Ballygalley and Hilden Mills at Lisburn are but a few examples of prominent listed buildings that have fallen into disrepair.
Crumlin Road Courthouse, off-loaded by the public sector to the private 15 years ago is now subject to a DSD-funded study to try and identify a viable future and so far the private sector has failed to take up the challenge of Ormiston House as the Assembly seeks to dispose of a now unwanted purchase.
But there are plenty of good examples, albeit more modest in size, where a public/private/social enterprise co-operation has unlocked the potential of an historic building and brought it back to life.
Typically, these projects have involved a small local group of committed volunteers who see the value in a derelict historic building and also can identify community needs – crèche, restaurant, homework club etc. They generally have no money but a lot of energy. If their vision can be channelled by the availability of grant support then capital costs start to look achievable. The real challenge, though, comes with the ongoing running costs – and that's where a partnership with the private sector can come in, either taking some equity or a simple tenancy arrangement. Examples include Markethill Courthouse, Holywood Old School and Gracehill Old School, but it's time, I think, to elevate this hard-won knowledge to more ambitious levels, to tackle the Crumlin Road courthouses and Ormiston houses.
It is unlikely that the private sector will tackle these on their own and government will be nervous about taking on further open-ended commitments, but government has to rent premises somewhere so why not use its potential to rent space in historic buildings in difficult areas where the market has failed?
A tenancy from a government department would open doors to both social enterprise trusts and the private sector to find capital funding and grant support, for example through the new HLF Enterprise Grants. It wouldn't cost government anything more than its current rental in a 1970s office block as rundown areas get regenerated government benefits back through taxation.
For things like this to happen, attitudes must change – we must put a firm value on our built heritage and not just rely on negative planning policies to try and stop demolition but instead focus on pro-active measures to bring unused buildings back to life. Expanding the scope of tax breaks for renovation, removing the VAT inequality between restoration and redevelopment, and co-ordinating the various grants available would all make a difference.