Azara Blog: Victorian homes should not be demolished

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Date published: 2005/04/03

The Financial Times says (subscription service):

A heritage watchdog has urged ministers to halt the demolition of thousands of culturally important Victorian homes.

Despite the government's belief that Britain does not have enough houses, an estimated 750,000 stand empty. Many of these are said to be in "failed" areas and are destroyed as a result.

But Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage, has called for the protection of many of these streets, saying they give towns character. In addition, Victorian homes were often better built than their contemporary equivalents, he said.

"We accept there is a case for demolition of some houses in areas that the government has identified as market failure areas," Mr Thurley said. "But in some towns those buildings make the character of the town; if you replace them with new buildings you erase that character."

English Heritage scored a victory in September 2003 when John Prescott rejected a bid by a local authority in Nelson, Lancashire, to demolish more than 100 Victorian terraced houses. The deputy prime minister backed a planning inspector's report that the retention and renovation of the properties was more likely to promote cohesion in the community.

Many people presume that most empty buildings are in the north. But according to the Campaign to Protect Rural England, a surprisingly high level - 40 per cent - are in the south and east.

English Heritage claims older houses cost less to maintain and occupy than modern housing.

"It is expensive to maintain modern houses," said Mr Thurley. "Victorian homes have better materials, such as copper plumbing. Modern ones have clipped-together plastic plumbing and UPVC windows that need replacing every seven or eight years."

English Heritage has been working with Pathfinder Partnerships in former industrial areas such as Lancashire and Manchester, north Staffordshire and Yorkshire.

The group admits that some demolition may be necessary. But it is trying to find more "creative solutions" to the issues of rundown, deprived areas where the housing has gone to seed.

The cost of repairing such homes can be only 50 per cent of the cost of building a new replacement.

"Crunching up bricks and mortar and building more in their place does not seem to be a sustainable activity," said Mr Thurley. "Our policy is not to go in with boxing gloves and duff people up . . but to persuade councils to think about it before they go ahead."

The sentiments of this article pretty much completely contradict those from an article from a couple of weeks ago in which it was stated that the UK was not demolishing enough homes and that 80000 homes (four times the current level) should be demolished every year, including (by 2050) perhaps three quarters of the houses built before 1919 (those that are not listed or in conservation areas) if they were "deemed unhealthy and incapable of providing affordable warmth".

So on one side we have English Heritage which wants everything conserved (although there are far too many listed buildings) and on the other we have a group of academics who claim we need to demolish almost everything which is old because they want the average British house of 2050 to produce 40% of CO2 emissions of the average British house of 1996. Both sides claim they are promoting "sustainable" development. The problem is that (probably) neither side has looked at the complete picture, i.e. the capital (build) plus the operational (lifetime) costs (or energy consumption). And there is no acknowledgement that the error bars are large on anything to do with the future (especially in 2050).

We need a neutral arbiter who does not have an axe to grind and who can do the sums and report the error bars correctly. We also need people with practical experience (i.e. builders and architects) to be involved, not just academics and English Heritage. But such a requirement is unlikely to be fulfilled. So the next best option is to take the decision out of the hands of the ruling elite and instead leave it to the marketplace (i.e. effectively the public) to decide. If the public wants to live in Victorian (or other old) buildings (and can afford the cost of heating, including a carbon tax) then so be it. If the public does not, and there is no alternative use, then demolish the old houses and put something else up.

As it happens, in Cambridge there were until recently half a dozen fine Victorian villas on West Road. The last few years two of them have been demolished and another one is soon to be demolished. They had long since stopped being used as ordinary single household residences, and were deemed not to be suitable for their current uses (two of them as university departments and the third as housing for Gonville and Caius College). It was all a bit sad but hopefully at least the replacement buildings will be more energy efficient, etc. (almost certainly the case) and last a hundred or more years (not so obvious).

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