22 August 2023

Let the old pubs burn! How our heritage obsession is becoming a Nimbys’ creed


A few years ago I was touring Independence Hall in Philadelphia. Our guide was an exceptionally charismatic member of the National Parks Service. ‘This place is old AND stuff happened here’ he began, ‘My house is old, but nothing happened there. If something happened there, I’d be taking you there too. But it didn’t’. This spiel was entertaining, but it also captured something interesting about what we preserve and deem worthy of attention, and what we don’t.

Britain has often been bad at preserving its old buildings. The country’s first act to protect any ancient monuments was passed in 1882. Before then, if even Stonehenge itself had been on your land, you could have pulled it down on a whim. Countless buildings were lost before that – such as Henry VIII’s Nonsuch Palace, flogged and razed so a mistress of Charles II could pay her gambling debts. Even at this point, protection was restricted to the most ancient and important sights.

It was only after the war (in particular the damage from the Blitz), in the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, that a broader heritage scheme was developed, now widely known as ‘Listing’. Even then this was limited. The first surveys of buildings focused on those built before 1750, generally preserving mediaeval churches and other historic monuments that had stood for centuries. It largely ignored urban settings, allowing post-war designers to obliterate all sorts of Victorian gems which stood in their way, while countless country houses were dynamited when their upkeep became prohibitive.

The most high profile of these, such as the redevelopment of the old Euston station, led to public outcry and, eventually, government intervention. Michael Heseltine as Environment Secretary, issued an edict for the re-surveying of the country and the founding of English Heritage. This was almost a second Domesday, with years spent scouring the land for the old and the interesting until a new, much bigger list, was produced. The government also removed the block on listing things built before 1939, now allowing anything over 30 years old to be considered for protection.

Now we have become a country obsessed with preserving the past. Around 500,000 buildings are on the National Heritage List (the exact number is fuzzy as some listings cover multiple structures). The impulse to want to save things is even more widespread – with development in lots of towns and cities attacked for the impact that it would have on older buildings. As soon as almost anything a few decades old is threatened, a campaign comes along to add it to the List. The problem with this is that overzealous listing can become a NIMBY’s creed and hold back providing housing for the sake of structures that are often uneconomic and unimportant.

This conflict burst into life in the most dramatic way a few weeks ago. The Crooked House Pub, a landmark in South Staffordshire known for its wonky walls, burned down in the night and was demolished the next day. This was just weeks after an application was made for it to be listed, following its sale by the brewery to new owners. There has now been a public outcry, with some calling for the owners to rebuild the building brick-by-brick to its former wonky state.

Yet if that happens, it is unclear what comes next. Unless listed buildings have a profitable purpose, they generally become a burden for the owners. That the Crooked House was up for sale by the brewery implies it was uneconomical to run. This is hardly surprising. Many pubs are struggling, squeezed between falling demand and rising costs. Pubs like The Crooked House are especially vulnerable – out in the country, the social and legal clampdown on drink-driving has made them unattractive to customers. It’s likely this one limped on as a curio, but now the numbers no longer work.

Without a way to generate money, listed buildings have a problem. Repurposing them is fraught while maintaining them is expensive. Often they will be left to rot, boarded up and sliding into despair. Keeping them standing costs tens of thousands, while a full repair might need millions. Successive owners, whether private or charitable, scrabble around for cash to stave off the worst until they give up. It is hardly surprising that many seem to burst into flames, especially in places where land prices are rising rapidly.

This is seen in even the most high-profile of heritage buildings. The Victorian Baths of Hathersage Road, Manchester closed in 1993. Since then a charity has raised more than £5 million to save them, aided by a huge grant from winning a BBC popularity contest. This has perhaps staved off destruction but is nowhere near enough to bring them back to their former glory and function. At present, you can swim there once a year, or wander around on Wednesdays in the summer. When this is the fate of a statement building in a major city, preserving less impressive structures in smaller towns is a fruitless endeavour.

Around the country, protected brick piles fall into disrepair. Listing deters anyone who might save or take over the site, while charitable funds are insufficient for anything beyond piecemeal repair. These buildings get stuck, unable to be repurposed except with painstaking care, yet also unable to be brought back to how they ought to be.

They stand as broader monuments to our newfound heritage zealotry. Now almost anything with a bit of age will attract a campaign to save it, often without a plan for what happens when that protection is achieved. Furthermore, the introduction of the 30-year rule for protecting buildings now means fairly young and often unloved buildings can end up with protection, even if they are failing in their purpose. This might be a minor problem, but often this comes at the expense of creating new properties that are badly needed.

Whereas our forebears seemed happy to dynamite almost anything that stood in the way regardless of architectural importance, we have now swung the other way. In Scotland, campaigners are trying to save an historic scrapyard. In London, it’s a Sainsbury’s or an empty Travelodge. Bristolians are baulking at a plan to put buildings near some cranes and fighting to list “an innovative car park”. When almost any development is proposed, people rush to save some ugly unimportant building just because it has been there a while. Often this goes beyond the formal criteria of the listing process, using local political pressure to save something that the formal rules would not.

We probably shouldn’t be as iconoclastic as the pre-heritage world. Britain has a rich history, architecturally and otherwise, its gems and the real places of significance should be protected. But we should accept that we can’t save it all. Some buildings have exceeded their economic usefulness and preserving them without a use is both futile and pointless. Far better they become a building someone wants. A nation trapped in aspic serves no one.

The push to preserve everything simply becomes a rallying cry against new development, conveniently co-opted by those who oppose new developments. Rather than honouring the past and passing the torch from one generation to the next, it makes a burden of our history. We should be unsentimental about letting the unrequired but old be sacrificed for the needs of the new.

When it comes to preservation, we should be a bit like my tour guide. Being old isn’t enough. Significance of some form should matter more, an interest that goes beyond a mere curio or local sentimental attachment. As should sustainability, both in terms of the building and its usage. And if some unprofitable pub which could be housing happens to catch alight, well, in the immortal words of The Bloodhound Gang, ‘We don’t need no buckets, let the motherfucker burn!’

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John Oxley is a writer and broadcaster. He blogs at www.joxleywrites.jmoxley.co.uk

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.