Out with the old
The statistics are striking: whereas in 1950 there were 30,000 thatched cottages in Northern Ireland, today there are just 120.
Rita Harkin, researcher at Ulster Architectural Heritage Society, says:
'Vernacular has a negative image and it is still official policy to demolish rather than restore.'The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) has launched a 'vernacular pilot scheme' to encourage standards of conservation. However, 'domestic' developers can still receive a higher NIHE grant (plus VAT benefit) to replace a given structure than to reuse it.
Clearly, many historic structures, especially those unfit for habitation, have reasonably been destroyed.
But just as there is a distinction between historic buildings and listed buildings, so Jim Murray, NIHE information officer, says that there are replacement grants and improvement grants. 'If a building is listed, then there are no replacement grants given and improvement grants have to take account of the listing criteria.'
It is clear that criticism centres on the policy of delisting; seen as taking a building off the protected register.
This is a responsibility of the Department of the Environment.
A source within the Historic Buildings department confirmed that it is due to publish a rebuttal to all the criticisms. Conservation areas were only introduced in 1972, and some buildings of historic or architectural merit situated within these areas may have been delisted, but only because they would have been covered by blanket conservation powers. Separate buildings are only delisted if they no longer meet the criteria, and the department has enforcement powers to prosecute those who 'hasten' their demise (although staff shortages prevent regular intervention).
A recent Newsnight programme exposed the 'widespread destruction of old buildings, in the headlong rush towards investment and development'. But this is an economy ceasing to be rural, and aspiring to developed standards. Northern Ireland has the lowest proportion of pensioners in the UK: one third of the population is between 20 and 45; one third is under 20. Even though housing is booming (with 2,760 applications to build new homes in the first quarter of 2000), living in thatched cottages may not currently be high on this young demography's list of aspirations.