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Save what can be saved, but allow our old buildings new life

“Save what can be saved, restore what can be restored, and let the rest be improved”. Comments made by Maurice Bradley MLA as he stood last Wednesday in front of a committee of Causeway Coast and Glen councillors imploring them to approve plans for a new hotel in Portrush.

Amongst others, including a lobby from the NI business community, he successfully argued for councillors on the planning committee to override an objection of Historic Environment Division (HED) and approve, against planning officer advice, an 87 bedroom boutique hotel on the site of the former Londonderry Hotel in Portrush.

The proposals will see two historic buildings retained, alongside other salvageable features and the partial demolition of a derelict and poor condition extension in order to bring back into use a site that first began trading as a hotel in the 1890s.

Decisions by councillors to disregard a statutory consultee and overturn a recommendation to refuse the application remain rare, although are increasing as Councils become more confident with their powers. 

That said, to date it is one amongst only a handful of listed building consent applications that have been overturned by councillors, since planning powers were devolved to Northern Ireland’s 11 councils in April 2015.

But in an effort to bring more of our listed building back into modern use, should this be happening more often? Could a more co-operative and less adversarial approach between statutory agencies and developers result in more of our built heritage being saved?

As the property market has recovered, commercial interests have begun to reconsider the viability of redeveloping buildings that are also important to our civic heritage and built environment. By their nature many of these listed and otherwise architecturally significant properties occupy prime sites in our cities and town. In Belfast, in particular, it is clear to see that there has been a renewed energy and interest in buildings that were largely left empty, and to decay further, during a decade of post-recession austerity.

Regenerating our built heritage is challenging, but as these projects continue to become increasingly viable I have been lucky enough to be involved with some of the arguable early successes of this trend; the conversion of what is now John Bell House as student accommodation, likewise the former Athletic Stores on Queen Street. We will soon see Deloitte occupy the former Ewarts Warehouse on Bedford Street, the King’s Hall will become accommodation for GPs and nurses, and the Sixth - the site of the former Belfast Telegraph building will become Grade A office for media and creative industries.

Most of these buildings have been passed with the blessing of, or conditions recommended by Historic Environment Division, and few have seen the high drama of last week’s committee decision.

There has been a renewal of public interest led by groups like Save CQ, the Royal Society for Ulster Architects, Belfast Buildings Trust, Belfast Civic Trust and Ulster Architectural Heritage Society. All of these projects have rightly commanded significant public interest. They are after all part of a built heritage and environment we all share - just consider the public concern following the Primark fire.

However, the process to bring listed buildings back into use remains largely opaque to those not well versed in planning policy and procedures. At times this paints developers and government agencies in adversarial poses, with the private sector desire to redevelop challenging the statutory responsibilities to preserve and conserve. In actuality the process is far more complex, and finely balanced.

Good developers understand both the commercial and social value of their buildings as historical or cultural assets. Often employing specialist conservation architects and expert heritage professionals in order to develop sympathetic conservation led designs. Whilst less responsible developers may rail against the enforcement of HED’s conditions, they serve to protect society’s wider interests and should be respected.

However, the planning process to secure consent to redevelop a listed building remains too complex, drawn out and contentious.  In the meantime, and with the potential for cooler economic conditions ahead, the viability of such projects could begin to dwindle - resulting in more of our listed heritage being boarded up. Through the Local Development Plan process councils can now develop their own bespoke heritage policies for development of listed buildings and in conservation areas.

If we want to see more of our built heritage in use within our towns and cities, we will need more collaboration between agencies and developers in the design process. It’s time we all placed a greater emphasis on understand the required balance between long-term viability and the preservation of our heritage assets.

Originally published in the Belfast News Letter

29 January 2019

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