Belfast Telegraph

Why the partial destruction of Primark is just the latest in the death by a thousand cuts endured by Belfast's built environment

The loss of historic buildings - both accidental and otherwise - continues at a disturbing rate, particularly in the city, but also across the whole of Northern Ireland, writes Nicola McVeigh

The fire at, and partial destruction of, Belfast's Bank Buildings has awakened the Northern Ireland public yet again to the shock of the potential loss of yet another historic landmark.

The outpouring of concern for a historic building, under threat of loss or desecration by inappropriate development, for whatever reason, is always significant. And yet the "death by a thousand cuts" of Belfast's built heritage continues unabated.

Historic buildings - and, indeed, quality in modern architecture - form the fabric of our lives: our streets, towns and cities.

Most of us recognise the importance of these buildings and share the perception that, because historic buildings are important, perhaps even protected, they will always be there.

With a good number of buildings, due to the care and enthusiasm of many private owners and some protection afforded by listing, this is the case.

However, loss of historic buildings, both accidental and otherwise, continues at a disturbing rate - particularly in Belfast, but also across the whole of Northern Ireland.

With every building threatened or demolished, accidentally or otherwise, we awaken more to the reality of Northern Ireland's unrelenting, cumulative loss.

To widespread horror, Belfast suffered the still-unexplained weekend demolition of three buildings earmarked for imminent listing and other unlisted, but significant historic warehouses on and around Upper North Street in late-2016.

Other listed buildings throughout our city centre - the former Bank of Ireland in Royal Avenue, the former Assembly Rooms and, more recently, the Masonic Halls on Rosemary Street - lie land-banked for speculative development, with The Orpheus and Metropole gone - despite massive public concern.

The Cathedral Conservation Area, including listed and unlisted buildings therein, faces continuing threat as part of the proposed Cathedral Quarter plans.

Characteristically, development hunger for square footage of modern blocks, devoid of character, appear to mesmerise our decision-makers.

In this more general context it is not surprising that the people of Belfast are taking stock of what their city, their historic environment, means to them and how it may, or might, have been better protected.

This is not the first time Northern Ireland has had to stand and ask for better measures to protect our fragile, irreplaceable and finite built heritage asset.

Fifty years ago we did not have listed buildings.

And, at that time Northern Ireland was 27 years behind legislation in the rest of the UK.

A group of passionate people, led by Sir Charles Brett, formed the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.

And a plea was put to Stormont for "a carefully thought-out scheme, based on sound criteria, to preserve what is worth preserving, to improve what needs improving and to build anew in such a way as to add to and not detract from the individuality" of Northern Ireland.

In 1974 that plea was answered and the Grand Opera House and the Palm House in Botanic Gardens became the first of now over 8,500 listed buildings, designated in recognition of historical and architectural significance.

Subsequently, conservation areas, areas of townscape character, the Heritage at Risk register and European Heritage Open Days have followed - all measures to better protect and promote the heritage now recognised as valuable to us.

The Grand Opera House, at risk and proposed for demolition, was only saved by weight of public opinion subsequent to its listing.

St George's Market, once at risk, threatened by proposals for a car park, is now award-winning, welcoming over one million visitors a year and supporting over 250 local traders.

With such success, some might ask: why?

If we have designation and policies for the protection of built heritage, is Ulster Architectural Heritage - and many other groups - forced to continue to campaign for better protection for historic buildings at a growing pace?

Simply because, when it comes to the protection of built heritage, we still have considerable work to do.

Despite listed building legislation, despite policies, despite the proven high value to the local economy and the value as a statement of our individuality and quality as a destination and base for investment, still there is the steady, cumulative loss.

Northern Ireland's historic environment is a finite, fragile and non-renewable asset, which showcases our unique historical, cultural and physical identity and promotes our pride of place.

The historic environment is internationally accepted as key to sustainable income-generation and tourism, with considerable untapped potential to deliver tangible economic, cultural and social benefits.

Over 50 years from our first call for the legislation of listed buildings, the Bank Buildings blaze has generated a clear and renewed plea from Ulster Architectural Heritage, with the people of Northern Ireland: that call is for better protection for finite, fragile and non-renewable built heritage - now.

  • Nicola McVeigh is chief executive of Ulster Architectural Heritage

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