I got on my high horse and dispatched another epistle to the Herald which was published today:
This was something we at the AHSS were coincidently having a debate about last week, partially prompted by Elgin Place Congregational Church's demolition and just general concerns about the listing process not working. Steve Inch's comments struck a cord. So I thought it might be worth opening it up to the floor. Do you think that listing buildings saves them, or does it just condem them to a long decline? Is the system we have in place at the moment working or does it need reformed?
This is the original letter as that link will stop working in a day or so:
Letters to the Editor
200 Renfield Street
Glasgow, G2 3QB
It was interesting to read Glasgow City Council’s regeneration director Steve Inch’s comments concerning the deterioration of some historic buildings in the Merchant City and that urgent action is needed to save them. We at the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland share his concern.
This issue has already been highlighted in the recent City Plan where it is stated that there are 450 buildings in the city centre with vacant upper floors. Glasgow City Council estimates that the accumulative under-utilised floor space is approximately 3.2 million square feet. That is an astonishing figure. To put it into perspective the Freedom Tower, the replacement building for New York’s World Trade Centre, which will be the tallest building in the world when it is complete, contains around 2.6 million square feet of accommodation. Is this floor space being maintained?
What bothers us about this is not the issue of preservation per se but rather what the townscape implications are. Steve Inch is correct when he states that there are buildings which if not refurbished will start to decline rapidly. We have already seen building collapses in Candleriggs, and the loss of the Greek Thomson warehouses in Watson Street. These could be the early symptoms of a larger underlying problem resulting from years of cumulative neglect.
If you view the city as the repository of a society’s culture and achievements then we risk losing a lot that is of value. Glasgow, with its grid structure, is unique amongst British cities. But if we do not act now the dense urban matrix, that gives the city centre its special quality, could be eroded. To get a glimpse of the potential urban future that awaits us, one need only take a walk along Bath Street or Jamaica Street. Neither of these streets reflects well on Glasgow at present, and an attractive urban environment is a prerequisite if we wish to continue to attract both the tourist revenue and the inward investment the city needs to regenerate.
Also all this seemingly redundant space is in itself wasteful. These buildings contain considerable embodied energy. How sustainable is it to simply let them decay? And we don’t have to perceive this space in a negative way. As urban commentators such as Jane Jacobs have shown an abundant supply of cheap second hand space can assist the economic growth of cities. This kind of robust accommodation can be a useful first nest for young start up companies that need a centrally accessible location. It can also help other urban pioneers such as artists or wannabe rock stars as Franz Ferdinand and their ‘Chateau’ aptly demonstrates. Furthermore much of our Victorian office and warehouse stock has proved adaptable to housing. Glasgow City Council officials have already suggested such a potential solution.
While Glasgow City Council, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Scottish Enterprise Glasgow are to be commended for their investment of £3.1 million on measures to improve the Merchant City, the reality is that this is going to be spread rather thin. We think that given the scale of the problem it is unfair to rely solely on local agencies to find the answers. Perhaps what is needed is a re-think at a national level?
It is arguable that fiscal policy, which since the Second World War has promoted new build over maintenance of our existing stock, needs reformed. The establishment of a level VAT playing field would help matters considerably. The architect Richard Rogers has already aired this view in an attempt to influence government policy and thereby start an urban renaissance. Frustratingly, with the sole exception of scrapping VAT on listed churches, the treasury has so far resisted biting.
Much of the stock in the Merchant City will be listed, and that may be part of the problem. Many owners see the listing process, with its increased restrictions and costs, as a hindrance to a return on their asset. However, if the flip side to this process could be the rewarding of a zero rating for VAT on maintenance would this not go some way towards changing this perception? Only then might you release the long term rolling investment required to bring this stock back into everyday use. Given their age and cultural significance many of these buildings have already won their spurs. Maybe it is time we gave them a break?