Building on the past: The push for progress doesn't have to be at odds with preservation

Written by Mark McLaughlin on 28 April 2017 in Inside Politics

In defence of nimbys - historic preservation means looking at the big picture

Princes Street, Edinburgh - image credit: Creative Commons

There are few people more roundly mocked in modern society than ‘nimbys’.

“Not in my back yard,” they cry, causing eyes to roll and prompting the kind of sotto-voce mutters also reserved for ‘curtain twitchers’ and green ink letter writers.

But ‘nimbys’ are often the guardians of our nation’s heritage, protecting communities from the seemingly unstoppable march of private-finance ‘progress’ and taming the natural human desire for all things shiny and new.


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It’s often not only their own backyard they are protecting, but whole cities from monstrous carbuncles which can upset the entire character of the area.

“You will not find me being a nimby in any way,” said Ann Laird, chair of the Glasgow Civic Forum.

“We don’t stand in the way of development – we basically want to ensure that all development is good and adds value to what we want to already have.

“The human desire for progress can be likened to a rushing torrent of water flowing down a mountain.

“It’s powerful, it’s advancing, and you can either let it run out of control and damage what you value at the bottom of the mountain, or you can channel it into useful functions like hydro-electric power stations and not destroy the village.

“That is like the force and power of development finance. It is to be applauded because that is what put our great buildings there in the first place, but it has to be channelled to the best uses that will provide the most long-term value.

“Glasgow’s old buildings were built to be functional spaces to conduct the business of the city in the Victorian era. Glasgow was the second city of the Empire, it carried out huge trade and business, was extremely prosperous and required a big administrative infrastructure, just like today.

“We know that architecture can be an expression of power – but it has also left us with a most valuable and amazing collection of buildings which can also be regarded as public works of art.

“We’re mainly focused about protecting buildings from the Victorian and Edwardian eras, plus a few more recent buildings that people value.

“Like most things in life, at the time they were built to serve a function, if they had enough money they did it well, and occasionally someone would do it with a bit more flamboyance, leaving us with a high quality, functional cityscape from the Victorian era which is, essentially, irreplaceable.”

The Glasgow Civic Forum brings together conservation bodies from throughout the city, and is a key contributor to Glasgow’s planning process.

They scored a recent victory resisting a block of student flats which was threatening to overshadow Glasgow School of Art, one of the city’s most famous buildings completed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh almost 100 years ago.

Laird said: “There was a post-Second World War building on the site which, perhaps, wasn’t so highly valued so we didn’t object to its demolition, but we did object to the very large student accommodation proposed beside a very highly valued, world-renowned listed building.

“In Glasgow city centre, there are lots of planning applications to demolish small, often Victorian, buildings which have a certain footprint in the city centre in order to put up brand new multi-storey commercial buildings. While this might make short-term commercial sense, and provide better value than repairing the old buildings, the Glasgow cityscape has a high value to everyone in cultural and heritage terms.”

The firms that occupy these modern buildings can often become the worst nimbys once they’ve got a foothold in the area, fighting as hard as the locals they trampled on in the not too distant past to resist any further change.

“Companies that want to locate in the city do so because they want to benefit from the Glasgow experience,” said Laird.

“But they think they can just destroy the little bit that belongs to them while enjoying the remaining conservation around them. You can’t do that, because the whole point of a conservation area is the group value, the collective communal value of the public space. Our society is heavily programmed to be individualistic, so we are less comfortable with the idea of common good.”

But sometimes the notion than a building is ‘irreplaceable’ can rub some people up the wrong way.

Many were aghast when the brutalist Banana Flats in Edinburgh – the curved 1960s council flats that were home to the junkies in Trainspotting and are still a magnet for violence and crime today – were recently given A-listed status, putting them on the same historic footing as Edinburgh Castle and Holyrood Palace.

Anniesland Court, another brutalist residential block in Glasgow, also raises some eyebrows when people discover that it is A-listed – but listed status isn’t just for grand castles built centuries ago.

“It does become controversial if something that appears ugly is listed, but you have to look at the bigger picture,” said Laird.

“It’s obviously more difficult to list more recent buildings, because they haven’t had the test of time to decide exactly what people will value in 100 years’ time.

“But I don’t think the listing process is unfit for purpose. I think it is technical, and perhaps it doesn’t explain itself very well.

“Everyone was quite surprised that Anniesland Court was A-listed, but it was a perfect example of its era. I know some people might question why a 1960s tower block should be listed, but Historic Environment Scotland have very strict criteria and they would be failing in their duty if they did not apply this criteria.”

Pauline Megson, deputy head of architecture and industry at Historic Environment Scotland, said buildings are usually listed following widespread consultation with the local community, to establish whether they have cultural significance to the area.

“With the Banana Flats, we did a lot of work in talking to the people who live there, people who live in the area, finding out what they thought,” she said.

“It’s not just the traditional buildings that we list – we want to have a good range of buildings recognised for their architectural or historic interest, and that can cover new buildings, modern buildings, as well as more traditional buildings.

“When we list buildings from the post-war period, we apply very careful scrutiny to make sure that they are of outstanding significance.”

Listed status can also rehabilitate buildings that have been neglected, compelling owners to carry out necessary repairs and maintenance and preventing the building from falling into irreparable disrepair.

“If we’re dealing with a building at risk, it’s usually one that is needing to find a new use which will give it a future,” said Megson.

“We run the Buildings At Risk Register, which is a database full of buildings which are in various states of condition and risk, and part of our role as a lead public body for the historic environment is to help give advice on how those could be reused.

“So we very much see that the long-term sustainability of the building is really important, otherwise we’re going to lose it altogether.

“So we take an approach through managing change to historic buildings, which allows it to have a new use, because that is going to give it a future, rather than ending up losing a building.

“In terms of consents, the local authorities and ourselves would look at the building and the scope for change, and we’re very much about enabling that change to happen without taking away the special character of the historic building.

“For a lot of people, old buildings are the heart of their communities. They give a sense of place to that area, and often people have associations with that building as it may be where they went to school, or to church, or their town hall, but if those buildings fall into disrepair and become what is often termed an ‘eyesore’, when those buildings are re-inhabited and restored, you often see such a great response from the local people, because they have such an attachment to those buildings and they do help to give a place its own regional identity in terms of its architecture and building materials.

“The other thing we do as an organisation is give capital funding to projects to bring buildings back into use. Through our grants programme we are looking at projects which will bring a building back into use, but also through that repair of that building will also bring about benefits for local people, whether that is through jobs or training in traditional skills or similar benefits. Our grants are up to £500,000 towards a repair of a historic building as part of a wider project.”

However, sometimes there is no option but to destroy an old building to make way for something new, particularly if is seriously dilapidated or unfit for reuse.

“When it comes to demolishing buildings, we would look at whether all avenues to reuse of the building have been explored, and whether it is feasible in terms of the financial aspects to keep the building,” said Megson.

“If all those tests have been met then in some cases there is no option [other than] for the loss of the building, if it has been shown that it is beyond economic repair and that all avenues to find the use have been exhausted.

“These things do happen, historic buildings do get demolished.

“If it’s a really significant building of such importance that it outweighs everything else then that might be a reason to retain it, but if it is shown that it is not possible to find a solution, an applicant makes the case for demolition and the local authority accepts that, then unless we thought the building was of national importance to stand against that then we wouldn’t.”

It’s not just demolition or overshadowing of old buildings that set conservationists’ teeth on edge. Sometimes developers will hatch a plan to modernise a beloved old building, with varying results.

Uber-nimby Prince Charles – whose backyard will one day stretch throughout the entire country – infamously resigned as patron of National Museums Scotland over the extension to its flagship museum in Edinburgh, which saw a modern wing with a prominent rotunda attached to the original Victorian building.

Another pre-Victorian marvel in the sights of the modernisers is the Old Royal High School at the foot of Calton Hill, which is currently the subject of a planning row over proposals to turn it into a posh hotel with two new contemporary wings.

Cliff Hague, chair of Edinburgh conservation society The Cockburn Association, said: “The plans at the old Royal High School have generated quite a significant amount of opposition from citizens, with over 3,000 objections against fewer than 300 who supported it.

“The developers predict that this would bring jobs, GDP growth and tax revenues into the economy, but this development would have, by any standards, a major detrimental impact on an iconic part of the World Heritage Site.”

The school overlooks the Caltongate site, another modern development that was stalled for years amid fierce objection by the local community.

The plans drew the ire of UNESCO which slammed the “puzzling” decision to demolish listed buildings in the heart of Edinburgh’s World Heritage Site, while authors Irvine Welsh and Alexander McCall Smith have also joined the chorus of ‘nimbys’.

The site was due to be completed last year but it has yet to be unveiled, over 15 years after it was first proposed.

Hague said: “The objections to Caltongate were, partly, that it had an impact in the Old Town by displacing existing uses and users in the area and changed the character of the community.

“There were also objections that the architecture was seen as rather bland and mundane in an area that is quite crucial in terms of the overall historic World Heritage Site, the centrality of the city and the approach to the city from the east.

“It’s essentially the first thing that you see on the train as you approach the centre of Edinburgh.

“The development that has been approved is pretty unexceptional. There’s nothing particularly ‘Edinburgh’ about it, it could be anywhere from Glasgow, Dundee, Aberdeen or even Birmingham, and it doesn’t add anything to the World Heritage Site.

“It doesn’t have the same structure as the surrounding streets, the herringbone structure of wynds coming down from the Royal Mile, or the same materials.

“We’re not saying you can’t do it in a modern way, or can’t use modern materials, but you’ve got to respect the context, look at what is there and consider what gives that part of town its particular quality and character rather than try and replicate that.

“There’s a heck of a lot of development proposed in the city.

“We’re not ecstatic about the developments at St Andrew’s Square, the future of the Ross Bandstand, we were disappointed with the development at India Buildings which blocks off potential expansion for the Central Library, there’s some concern about what’s intended in Charlotte Square Gardens.

“We know the Book Festival is moving out and there have been some comments that the proprietors that control the gardens want to see a wider range of uses. We would be concerned if that became a semi-permanent ‘tent city’ to squeeze maximum use out of the space.

“Public spaces are a really important part of Edinburgh and we need to respect them.

“There’s also issues around how you handle growth at the edge of the city, with piecemeal releases of greenbelt land which haven’t necessarily followed the existing plan.

“You have to consider the question: at what point does change go so far and become so drastic that it tips the balance?” 

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