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Historic England on high street resilience in Derby and Nottingham

View of Iron Gate with corner of Saddler Gate and Derby Cathedral in background - East Midlands Business Link

Future Cities Forum has been speaking to Clive Fletcher, Historic England's Principal Advisor and Lead Specialist, Historic Places, about the current opportunity to re-purpose heritage buildings for shop and office space in the economic regeneration of towns and cities.

The UK government in its 'build, build, build' announcement last June, called for a radical change to the planning system suggesting that new regulations would give greater freedom for buildings in our town centres to change use without planning permission. Builders it said would no longer need planning permission to demolish and rebuild vacant commercial buildings if they were rebuilt as homes. A building used for retail would be able to be used for a café or office without requiring a planning application and local authority approval.

Clive told Future Cities Forum that in his opinion converting the upper floors of heritage buildings is easier to deliver than new build, with less risk and more available finance:

'My experience is that the space above shops is very flexible, often great spaces that are not used and a better performance in terms of carbon footprint. However, they are usually tatty and difficult to let but the money needed to convert them sensitively is often modest.

'We have tended to lose bits of heritage in town centres and cities over the decades and this has been a real blow. It has been on a large scale like the original Bull Ring in Birmingham or on a smaller scale to shop fronts in many of our towns. Our work on shop fronts in Derby has meant that there is now an award-winning high street.'

In 2009, after years of gradual decline the historic streets of Derby were designated a 'conservation area at risk' and added to Historic England's Heritage at Risk Register. The city topped a national table of struggling towns and cities with nearly a quarter of its shops lying empty and many in disrepair. However, Historic England and Derby City Council took action by launching a partnership scheme and since 2009 this has refurbished 97 properties in the Cathedral Quarter and beyond. Both organisations contributed £844,000 over eight years with £900,000 coming from the private sector.

The payback Historic England says has been impressive. The scheme has brought back 2,800 square metres of floor space back into use. It's also created 42 new jobs and helped the Cathedral Quarter win the category of Best City Location in the 'Great British High Street Award' for 2016. As a result it insists, between 2008 and 2012, Derby weathered the recession far better than other cities. In the UK as a whole, high streets suffered an average 26% decline in footfall.

Research in Derby's Cathedral Quarter shows that it remained vibrant: footfall fell by only 7-9%, helping to make Derby much more resilient than similar cities. The designation of Derby's historic streets as a Conservation Area has been a major factor in turning the area's economic fortunes round. For businesses and shoppers in Iron Gate, Wardwick, the Strand, Saddler Gate and surrounding streets, the historic character of the buildings is an attraction.

'Development in towns and cities means keeping close to your ideas of how you want to brand a place and making sure that the changes that are made are consistent with that', Clive says.

Clive spoke about Historic England's work to redevelop lucrative office space in Nottingham's wharf buildings, which he says are very popular with the creative industries sector.

Historic England says its' 'Heart of Nottingham Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) initiative comes at a moment when ambitions for the heritage in the city are higher than they have been for a number of years. Building on the multiple award winning Nottingham Station project, it states that there is a desire to use the historic environment to improve the city's attractiveness to investors and visitors and to engage its residents.

The organisation states that in 2015, Nottingham was ranked eighth for the proportion of its wards in the top 10% of the Index of Multiple Deprivation. Thirteen of its 31 conservation areas are at risk in Historic England's conservation areas survey. On the local register, compiled as part of a pilot survey of Grade II listed buildings, 81 of its listed buildings are at risk, it says.

Resources requested are £1.6 million over five years from Historic England to be matched by £1 million public and private capital and a further £902,000 in associated projects and in kind contributions from Nottingham City Council.

Bromley House, the Georgian subscription library situated on the Old Market Square has approached Historic England for a substantial grant towards roof repairs. Research and publication of a book about the Old Market Square will tell Nottingham's history through the key themes illustrated by that single area.

Clive also spoke of the importance of Historic England's work in encouraging younger generations to appreciate the value of heritage. Developed in response to the government report on cultural education in England, it aims to help school children develop an understanding of their local heritage and its significance. In Nottingham, local schools will use the heritage schools project to explore wider themes, telling the story of Nottingham in a way that will engage with the national curriculum.

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