Britain is the custodian of much of the world’s most important industrial heritage but this legacy is increasingly at risk, the government heritage adviser for England warned on Tuesday.
Entire industrial landscapes have largely disappeared and increasingly rare examples of the buildings that made Britain a global leader in industrialisation are perilously vulnerable, English Heritage said.
The largest ever research project into the condition of England’s industrial heritage, which the organisation is publishing on Wednesday, reveals that listed industrial buildings are more at risk in England than almost any other kind of heritage. Almost 11 per cent of Grade I and II* sites – the highest rated – are at risk, compared with 3 per cent of highly rated listed buildings over all.
While acknowledging the difficulties posed by the current economic climate, English Heritage is launching a drive to safeguard the country’s industrial heritage, offering advice and help for developers and emphasising the £2m in grants it has available.
It estimates that 40 per cent of listed industrial buildings at risk, including mills, warehouses and factories, could be put to sustainable and economic uses, such as housing new advanced manufacturing. The remaining 60 per cent, typically buildings containing historic machinery, redundant engineering structures or mining remains, could, it suggests, be rescued by committed local groups.
“Other countries have taken much more care to make sure remains of industry have been protected,” says Simon Thurley, chief executive of English Heritage. “We have lost a lot. What is happening now is the last few things which are clinging on are dropping off.”
He says England’s attitude has been ambivalent, torn between valuing industrial heritage and valuing green countryside.
The research reveals that, although nearly half the population, or 43 per cent, do not know when the industrial revolution took place, 86 per cent think it is important that we value and appreciate industrial heritage, and 80 per cent consider it just as important as the country’s castles and country houses. Only 9 per cent think it depressing or an eyesore.
English Heritage says the country has thousands of industrial heritage buildings and sites at risk. These include 129 Grade I and Grade II* buildings. Lead, tin, copper and coal mines and textile mills feature prominently. Structures at risk also include kilns, furnaces, bridges and pit head winding gear.
It adds that the remains of 20th-century industries are also poorly understood, under-appreciated and very much at risk; for example, almost all the major car plants that existed in Coventry in 1994 have since been demolished. Just a handful of smaller factories survive in what was the hub of British car manufacturing.
Threats to industrial heritage conservation include developers being deterred by the scale of the sites and their possible conversion costs, current low property values and difficulties in raising finance, according to the group. But it says there can be “exaggerated notions” of the restrictions that listing might impose on conversion projects.
While the demolition in 1962 of the Euston Arch in London was a turning point for the conservation movement, entire landscapes of coal, iron and steel manufacturing, shipbuilding and heavy engineering have disappeared since.
But Mr Thurley is doubtful that, in years to come, people will rush to save the country’s recently constructed business parks. His verdict on most is that they are “pathetic”.
“They are thrown up very quickly,” he said.
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