A little more conservation!

The former Waterside Railway Station. 2001JM65
The former Waterside Railway Station. 2001JM65

MARK LUSBY, Project Coordinator with the City Walls Heritage Project, says partnerships should be created with community and heritage groups to attract high level heritage grants needed to restore and regenerate some of Derry’s historic buildings.

Another building in Derry’s historic city core has been efficiently demolished because it had become an eyesore and was deemed unsafe.

Gt. James Street Presbyterian Church. 2001JM66

Gt. James Street Presbyterian Church. 2001JM66

And, this week, we seem to be following exactly the same pattern of activity which occurred after Tillie’s was demolished i.e. heritage groups, regeneration experts, community activists, politicians and civic officials line up to rake over the ashes, bemoan the loss and to seek a review of processes and new legislation.

As we can see from the number of demolitions subsequent to Tillie’s, Derry’s heritage buildings and Derry’s Conservation Areas were no safer as a result. Rather than seeking new legislation, we just need the DOE Planning Service and the NI Environment Agency and the other public services to fully use the powers and resources available to them to protect Derry’s Conservation Areas and Listed Buildings.

Conservation is not about stopping progress; conservation is about managing the pace of change to maximise the economic and social benefits of our heritage. Ireland’s built heritage supports more than 30,000 FTE (full-time equivalent) jobs and contributes in excess of €1 billion to the economy. Such is the importance that is being placed on heritage to help pull Ireland out of recession that the keynote speakers at the Heritage Council’s recent annual conference were from the IDA and the World Bank!

The quality of Ireland’s built heritage is also a powerful motivating factor for attracting tourists, with one fifth of total visitor expenditure being attributable to our historic environment. When you walk around Derry’s historic city core and try to assess what percentage of the buildings and of the public realm is actually pre-1970, you begin to wonder if we are near the point where to market Derry as an “historic city experience” risks misleading potential visitors?

The historic fabric of our city is a finite resource and focused action is required. From the Buildings at Risk Register, five landmark buildings stand out which are without a publicly obvious regeneration plan and are, therefore, vulnerable: the Sinclair Factory on Abercorn Road, Gt James’ Street Presbyterian Church, the Old Convent on Pump Street, the Stable Block at Boom Hall, and the Old Aberfoyle Gate Lodge at Magee.

There are other vacant historic buildings in the dity which, although they are in reasonable repair, are likely to join the at-risk register unless they gain a proper function soon. A prime example of such a building is the Old Waterside Railway Station which has been vacant for some time; reinstating it to the purpose for which it was originally designed seems an obvious solution.

Conservation is about communities being involved in the shared stewardship of their city’s heritage. The civic authorities and heritage groups - Council, ILEX, Foyle Civic Trust etc., - should now commit themselves to have all six landmark buildings conserved and regenerated during the City of Culture year. Given the difficulties facing developers in accessing bank finance and, given that these buildings do not appear to have benefited from much investment during the past 5-10 years, those buildings which are in private ownership may need to be brought into public ownership.

Partnerships could be created with community groups and heritage groups to attract in the high level of heritage grants needed to restore and regenerate these buildings.

Conservation means action! Heritage means jobs!