What are the major threats to our heritage today? It is always fascinating to have an inside view of what English Heritage sees as the looming threats to the heritage, so what does Simon Thurley, the Chief Executive of English Heritage think to be the major current problems?
What are the major threats to our heritage today? It is always fascinating to have an inside view of what English Heritage sees as the looming threats to the heritage, and on 20th February, Simon Thurley, the Chief Executive of English Heritage gave his presidential address to the London and Middlesex Archaeological Society, entitled: Is London’s Past Finished? Simon Thurley was in sparkling form – he is a superb performer, always fascinating and always incisive, and he highlighted four particular threats to the heritage.
We tend to think that the highlight , or should we say the depth of the heritage problem came in the 1970s and 80s, with protests against the excesses of the massive urban renewal programmes. Today’s problems are different; we are undergoing a massive change in society as we move to the post-industrial era, and these deep underlying changes are leaving many of our old buildings redundant.
The greatest single problem is what he calls the godlessness of our society. Church going has collapsed since World War II and this has left us with a huge problem. It is not just the wonderful churches in the countryside, but also the great Victorian churches in our inner cities, often huge and beautifully decorated, but now increasingly deserted. He recently visited a church in Manchester where the dynamic young (female) vicar had succeeded in raising the regular congregation from four to 30. But neither of the church wardens had ever had a bank account in their life and none of the congregation owned their own homes: yet they were expected to look after – and indeed legally owned – this huge ornate Victorian masterpiece.
The second problem is that of civic architecture. In the Victorian and Edwardian periods, many proud and go-ahead local councils erected magnificent town halls and other civic buildings. But local government has been reorganised, the councils often no longer exist and the pride they once engendered has been sneered away. A particular problem are swimming baths, often magnificent but now abandoned and replaced by more modern pools erected in industrial barns.
A third problem is of industrial archaeology. The trouble here is perhaps better known, though in London at least, projects like the Thames Gateway Project pose a major threat. The redevelopment of brown field sites is seen as vastly superior to the acquisition of green fields: but to the archaeologist, which proposes the greater threat?
A particular, rather unsuspected threat, is to our pubs. The way people spend their evenings is changing. Pubs used to be the temples of male gregariousness, but now many prefer to drink at home around the television, and consequently 66 pubs a month are closing – indeed five pubs close every week in London. Wouldn’t the Temperance Movement be delighted? Some pubs can be converted to restaurants and others to dwelling but inevitably interior architecture is lost.
The most insidious threat of all is to our schools. The government is proudly launching a huge schools building programme: the Building Schools for the Future programme — it even has its own initials, the BSF programme — which, they proclaim, is “the biggest ever school buildings investment programme. The aim is to rebuild or renew nearly every secondary school in England over a 10 to 15 year period, beginning in 2005-6 “. Traditional buildings are out — after all we do not want our children to be educated in buildings that reek of tradition: far better that they should be educated in modern up-to-date surroundings where any idea of tradition or continuity can be firmly squashed. Thus the great Victorian Board schools with their lofty rooms and large windows that are often among the most prominent of our civic architecture, are to be pulled down and replaced by modern prefabs which will only last 20 or 30 years when they too can be replaced. Even better, why not erect a grand new building on the outskirts of the town where, in our increasingly motorised society, the parents can bring in their children by car every morning rather than having an old-fashioned town centre school to which the poor darling would have to walk? The government is very enthusiastic about their BSF Programme and believe that by throwing lots of money at the rebuilding programme they can solve all the ills of the state education system. Meanwhile our Board Schools, grim relics of our Victorian past, can all be pulled down and replaced by nice new office buildings. And who are we to stand in the way of Progress?
To this latter problem, there is surely an obvious solution: since the state is clearly incapable of running schools in a responsible fashion, let’s privatise them all, by means of a voucher system . Then instead of an education minister giving a blanket command to all schools round the country, then each individual school could decide how to spend its vouchers, whether on rebuilding, more teachers, better equipment or smaller classes. But if only choice could be localised in this fashion, at least we would prevent the blind centralised planning that threatens to destroy our schools heritage.
(And looking back at my own education, I don’t think I went to a single school that was not at least partially accommodated in premises at least a hundred years old. Surely a feeling for tradition, a feeling that one has a link with the past, is an important part of the whole educational process?)