What is the future of Urban Heritage?

The National trust has this week published new research on the everyday built heritage in urban places. In this blog, Head of Government Affairs Georgie Holmes-Skelton reflects on this research and its findings, and considers why thinking about future of buildings may be as important as restoring their physical fabric.

What makes a place unique?

Every town and city in the UK has the same basic ingredients – you’ll find housing, shops, schools, businesses – and of course people. And yet, each looks and feels a bit different. Each has its own culture and history, landscape and geography, and these factors have over time shaped our towns and cities and made them into the places we know and love today.

One of the things that makes every place feel distinctive is the historic features and buildings. From the everyday, Victorian terraces, Georgian crescents, and older cottages and homes that make up around 22% of the UK’s housing stock, to the unmissable landmarks of the large civic buildings, monuments, churches, and industrial buildings, these historic buildings are a core element of the built environment in many towns and cities.

And these buildings don’t just serve as the backdrop to our lives. If I think about the historic buildings around where I live, I think of the Victorian Temperance House used as a community space for art and cultural events, the church hall which holds yoga and dance classes, restaurants and cafes in old canal and factory buildings, and the bandstand in the park which is used for a whole host of public events. These buildings are not only part of the character of the town, but also places which are providing real benefits to people and communities.

Aerial photo overlooking Leeds City Centre, ©Adobestock/Duncan,

Urban Heritage under threat

We’re learning more and more all the time about the economic and wellbeing benefits of heritage. However, these every day heritage assets are increasingly under threat. Historic buildings are costly to restore and to maintain, and with local authority budgets under ever growing pressure, looking after historic buildings, and getting the most out of them for communities, can fall to the bottom of the priority list.

80% of the UK population live in towns or cities, and that’s forecast to grow to over 90% by 2030. The National Trust tends to be associated more commonly with the rural mansion estate or stately home, but we do also look after a number of historic buildings within these towns and cities – often smaller buildings and sites, which are no less interesting in the stories they can tell, and in their contributions to local communities. Places like Sutton House and Breakers Yard in London, or the Back to Backs in Birmingham, for example. However, it’s not possible for us to look after every special place ourselves, and so we’re exploring other ways that we can help communities protect and make the most out of the historic buildings in their towns and cities.

What is the future of Urban Heritage?

Our 10-year strategy outlines how we will ‘play our part’ in helping to look after special places that sit outside of our ownership. The Urban Places Programme has been established to deliver on this part of the strategy by helping others secure their local greenspaces and heritage. As part of this work we’ve just published new research looking at the scale of the challenge and threats facing Grade II listed buildings with potential for public value. It also assesses the trends and challenges around work to sustain urban heritage projects, reviewing relevant current policies and programmes to pinpoint strengths, gaps and weaknesses.

One of the most interesting findings of the report is that there is insufficient focus on sustainability in terms of existing support for heritage projects. This reflects a need to think not only about protecting the physical fabric of heritage assets, but to build a plan for future use into restoration and rescue of historic buildings. If this holistic approach is not taken, there is a risk that buildings fall into a pattern of disuse and disrepair, emergency restoration and then a slow return to decline as projects and funds dwindle. Thinking innovatively about how buildings can be used to generate income and support their own long-term future is absolutely key if we are to not only hold on to our heritage, but use it to bring long term benefit for people and communities.

However, there are real barriers to developers and community groups accessing funding and the right skills and expertise to do this successfully – undoubtedly aggravated by the reductions in the budgets of local authorities and bodies such as Historic England, which reduce the level of advice and input they are able to provide, and ability to ensure that reuse is done sympathetically, in a way that protects the important historic features and character of such buildings.

A view of 50-54 Inge Street and 55-63 Hurst S ©National Trust Images/Robert Morristreet, Birmingham.

Working in Partnership in our Future Parks Programme

The National Trust is working with a wide range of partners to understand the different challenges and opportunities we face to protect our urban built heritage, and to help in a practical way on the ground to share our expertise and experience. We will be seeking to understand more about the structural factors that this report identifies as barriers to conserving our historic buildings and will use this work as an opportunity to consider what national and local government could do differently to get more benefit for the public out of our heritage. This work sits alongside the Future Parks Accelerator, an initiative that will help secure the future of everyday local parks.

Ultimately, we want to play our part in ensuring that it’s not only the places that we manage which are available for everyone, for ever, but that all historic places that people value, and which mean the most to communities, have a future.

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