Covid-19 - urban planning and conservation deficit in cities

Mid-century heritage re-purposed: MICA Architects' transformation of Centre Point, London

This month, Future Cities Forum held a discussion on the impact that Covid-19 has had on the heritage sector, which underpins so much of the tourism and visitor economy. The panellists looked at the future opportunities for preserving and re-purposing heritage buildings in our towns and cities, and what has been learned from successful projects that have anchored regeneration.

Chief Executive of The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Ros Kerslake, Leeds City Council's Head of Regeneration, Adam Brannen and MICA Architects' Director, Stuart Cade joined the discussion.

Ros commented:

'Nobody had Covid-19 in their business plan. We moved fast to survey the heritage sector to see what the effect would be of the pandemic, so we were able to get strong evidence of a devastating impact. Much of what we fund depends on tourism and visitors that do much to keep our economy going. We set up an emergency £50 million fund with a focus initially on what organisations would need to keep going. Many of the volunteers were older and in the shielding category so there was a dramatic loss of resource. These organisations had a lot of challenges around issues for example of sufficient insurance, so we did not put a fixed deadline on the scheme. When we first announced the support the Chancellor had not put his furlough scheme through but that was a terrific help. As time moved on we put the focus on what help people needed in practical terms in order to open with Covid-19 still around, so there was lots of demand for signage and so on. We stood by the commitments we had already made including £1.1 billion pre-Covid-19, and actually increased these in some cases. I don't think there is a business plan out there that hasn't had to change.'

Temple Works - engraving from the 1800s when it was a working flax mill (Leeds Civic Trust)

Leeds City Council's Head of Regeneration, Adam Brannen, reflected on the Covid-19 landscape and the impact on the city's built environment:

'From a regeneration point of view - and my role includes housing and economic development across Leeds - we recognise that heritage has a powerful role to play. But an uncertain economic climate means that buildings can be difficult to bring back into use because of the conservation deficit. This deficit is market failure on the cost involved so these deficits get bigger as invest-ability decreases, so the question is how can we fill this growing chasm with our expertise?Investors and developers are just beginning to retrench.

'We have some great heritage-linked projects and a current example is Temple Works, which is a fantastic project for the British Library and Leeds. However the cost is massive. It's an amazing building. The confidence is good with the British Library as strong as you can get for a global brand and with the prospects for bringing real change in that area (of Leeds Southbank) by being an anchor. The government has set aside £25 million to bring the British Library into Temple Works but this is only part of the solution. There are engineering challenges, especially regarding the span of the roof over what was at the time of building the biggest room in the world. There are some structural failures which make for cost challenges. We are working closely with Commercial Estates Group, the building's owner, to find solutions.'

According to Leeds Civic Trust, Temple Works - which was constructed as a flax mill in the 1800s, with a striking Egyptian-style colonnade and sheep grazing on the roof - is 'a crucial piece in the wider South Bank jigsaw', being close to the proposed Leeds HS2 station. The site had stood empty and near derelict for many years. In 2017 Burberry shelved its plans for a restoration of the building.

Director at MICA Architects, Stuart Cade, was asked about whether re-purposing older buildings was always better than demolition, especially given Net Zero concerns:

'The greenest building is the one that is already there and we have to reinforce that. These cost discussions are the ones which we challenge and think about in the early days of a project. The client is often advised (by others) that there is a premium for keeping a building. We always challenge those who think that retaining and re-purposing rather than demolishing puts an extra 20% on the costs of a project. This is is lazy thinking.'

'Attitudes have changed to our mid-century buildings since 10 years ago. Centre Point is a good example. Revered and hated in equal measure when built, the site became effectively a roundabout. Part of our proposal for the Centre Point project was to remove the buses that circled, and to put in new public realm creating a public square instead. There was a heritage debate about removing traffic at the base of the building.

'We have also been working on a major cultural project in Croydon. Only fifteen years back Fairfield Halls - a Festival of Britain-era concert venue - was going to be replaced with a new auditorium on Purley Way. That would not be considered in 2020. Now there is a national, lovely warm feeling towards our mid-century heritage.'

Historic England defines 'conservation deficit' as the 'amount by which the cost of repair (and conversion to optimum viable use if appropriate) of a heritage asset exceeds its value on completion of repair and conversion, allowing for all appropriate development costs ('Enabling Development and Heritage Assets, Historic Environment Good Practice in Planning - Note 4' Published 30 June 2020).

The full discussion will be included in our next master planning report due to be published shortly.

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