Words and photos by By Rose Lister
In recent years the idea of creating a sense of place has been reoccurring through planning. But what does this mean? In broad terms it is finding the individual character of a place and encouraging it to create a thriving community. So what better way to do this than with an area’s heritage assets? Listed buildings, scheduled monuments, green spaces – all these can be used to drive regeneration and reignite community spirit. In 2013 the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) commissioned a report looking at how breathing new life into old buildings can help spark new business and regenerate an area. It looked into what businesses wanted when searching for a location and how the effect of working in a heritage area benefited them. The findings confirmed that the new ideas of the past were the perfect places for the new ideas of the future to be sparked.
Now Kent, with an estimated 18,400 listed buildingsThe HLF report singled out a number of reasons that new enterprise was more prominent in listed and historic buildings. These include:
- The ambience
- The historic features
- The size, and
- The rental price
It found that listed and historic buildings were more homely and welcoming than newer buildings putting employees and visitors at ease. The historic features of heritage buildings and areas were considered important; and the size of listed buildings were on average smaller than 1000 square feet which encouraged smaller rental prices. To a new business starter these were what they were looking for. A small area that is cheap and has a nice atmosphere for their workers and visitors is a mix for economic growth that is a winning situation. It also encourages the diversification of the area’s businesses as a whole.
With this in mind there is an eclectic mix of historic buildings within Kent that much of the time falls under the radar, buildings which are ripe for a spring clean and a new breath of life. For example Kent has a wealth of disused old industrial buildings. Encouraging the local communities to get involved with these brownfield sites can be the catalyst for a new economic wave. By refurbishing these old buildings new community space can be acquired with associated small businesses.
A successful example of this is the Fellowship Inn, Lewisham. Built in a post WWI war heroes’ community, this historic building was the heart of the area and remained the soul of the community until the 1970s. Sadly since then the building had fallen into disrepair. It was in 2014 that the community came together to resurrect this historic building, turning it into multiple community areas and small businesses, including a microbrewery, bakery and cinema. With examples like this where a community can regenerate a historic building and breathe new life into an area, it makes sense to encourage the new ideas that use our heritage to look forward.
That is not to say that we can only use these buildings for business. By transforming these buildings into a mix of homes and business, new communities can be created that would ease the housing crisis in a sustainable way. The change of use of historic buildings from industrial to other types or business or housing is not a new one. Over the last 15 years there have been examples of industrial buildings being turned into housing, such as the Hartley’s jam factory in London Bridge converted in 2003 and the Pioneer centre in Peckham converted in 2000. Though the original use of these stunning buildings has been abandoned, they still make a contribution and create large living areas. In the case of the Pioneer centre, a listed building, the original features are still widely seen such as the large windows and the original swimming pool from when it was a leisure centre in the 1930s. It can also be said that older buildings have the story and the romantic ambience that many find attractive, as such they increase the economic, financial and social value of an area.
When considering regeneration using Kent’s heritage assets, Dover has been a forerunner. Their Heritage Strategy explores the variety of ways that heritage can be revamped to encourage the modern. By examining the heritage assets around them they have taken the disused and given them a purpose again. By linking new development with the historic fabric of an area a sense of place has been found and developments based on a heritage asset can connect the new with the existing and avoid looking out of place and artificial in the framework of an area.
Though many argue that the cost of renovation and maintenance is a major negative in these matters these costs can be outweighed in other ways. Historic England’s report ‘Heritage Works’ published in 2013 set out a case whereby using historic buildings can be economically viable if done carefully and correctly. In short, they argue that done right first time through consultants, management plans, economic foresight and environmental strategy the old becomes more viable than the new. With resources becoming ever decreasing it is important to use what we have sustainably rather than to put our heritage to one side and begin again.
However, there are still those who would argue that the cost of refurbishing an old building is too much; and it would be better to leave the asset be and continue developing around it. The government has stressed in many ways that the conservation of our assets is important and any that can be used sustainably should be. It shows an understanding that an empty building left to crumble on the edge of a new development can be damaging to the building and to the new development. Buildings in this condition can be detrimental to the environmental quality of the area and counteract the positive effects of wider regeneration projects and initiatives.
Using historic buildings to offer large scale housing solutions without intrusion on the existing infrastructure and community can increase the durability of new developments. Heritage assets break up the design of the new, creating breathing space and break from the cultural monotony. Historic England’s publication goes on to suggest that people are drawn to developments based around an historic focal point as they can relate to the scale of the development. The warmth and design and rich associations with the past help create a sense of place and quality of life. In this way our heritage assets can prove an anchor for the evolution of an area.
In light of this it should be time that Kent saw our historic buildings as opportunities rather than obstacles. With the right frame of mind our heritage can solve more problems than first thought. In areas such as Thanet and Medway, where empty buildings and low employment are an ever increasing issue, by looking at the historic environment as an opportunity for new small businesses and using the historic buildings to encourage community activity, the challenges of restoration and regeneration can be tackled through conservation; and drive development into our urban areas rather than expanding out into our green spaces.