Innovative Rennie building reprieved at Sheerness

Mast House NE

Mast House north-east face

The CPRE Protect Kent Historic Buildings Committee is always on the lookout for threats to the County’s unmatched stock of listed and other valuable buildings. It speaks on these issues on behalf of the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) who recently described the Committee as one of its most active agents.

Early this year, the Committee joined with a number of other heritage conservation organisations to oppose the demolition of the Grade II* listed Working Mast House at Sheerness Docks to make way for a wind turbine manufacturing plant. The developer (Vestas) touted the environmental benefits of wind power and job creation as reasons why the demolition should be considered “wholly exceptional” under the new National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). This argument was accepted by Swale Borough Council who voted to approve. We could not accept, though, that the demolition was absolutely necessary to obtain these benefits. We had submitted three alternative layouts for the facility, clearly demonstrating that there were solutions which did not involve loss of the heritage assets.

Sketch 2

One of the layouts submitted to the Planning Committee

Before the approval was issued Vestas withdrew but the port itself (supported by the Borough and County Councils) was keen to get planning consent so as to attract alternative investors. Swale now accepted our argument that any new developer might have very different ideas about how to lay out the site. The demolition applications for the Mast House and the Pumphouse for the dry-docks were withdrawn and outline planning permission for the rest has now been granted. Probably, the case for demolition will be made again should a new developer emerge.

The Working Mast House (1826) is one of the few remaining buildings from the time of the re-building of the Royal Naval Dockyard which John Rennie Snr designed. It is a brick-walled two-storey building with a cast iron internal structure and roof. The modular scheme developed by architect Edward Holl, and perhaps Rennie himself, was innovative and must have made for very economic and quick construction. Although parts of the structure are missing, as are many windows, the building still says a lot about the early days of metal-framed structures and the latter days of wooden shipbuilding.

The case raised a number of issues about the balance between public benefits and harm to an important heritage asset. In particular, the CBA’s specialist conservation team questioned the legitimacy of using the environmental benefits of wind power to outweigh any heritage arguments. There was also much debate about the value of reconstructing the building on a remote site, divorced from its associated structures, all of which are now hidden from view. The developer convinced the Council and English Heritage that it was better to spend money on smartening up the remaining heritage assets in the Dockyard (including the Grade I Boat Store) and providing for some public access to them. In our opinion however, what was proposed barely exceeded the port’s existing obligation to protect and preserve the heritage in the Docks.

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