Pressure is growing on Northern Ireland's Department of Environment (DoE) to reform building conservation and strike a balance between preserving heritage and attracting inward development. One radical proposal is to establish a dedicated environmental protection agency, but architects and conservation bodies believe that a coherent policy matched by grass-roots investment is the real answer.
At present, in what SAVE Britain's Heritage has described as 'bureaucratic confusion', day-to-day responsibility for the built environment is devolved to specialised agencies;
the Environment and Heritage Service (EHS) deals with listed buildings and the Planning Service handles conservation areas.
The confusion is best illustrated by the debacle over College Square North, Belfast, adjacent to the recently refurbished B1-listed Christ Church. Paul Millar, partner with Belfast's Kriterion Conservation Architects, says a lack of cohesion within the DoE was exposed when the Planning Service ignored strong advice from EHS architects to refuse, or have amended, a 'poorly designed' apartment scheme in the square. The situation is also exacerbated by a severe shortage of resources - EHS employs just six conservation architects to administer 8,500 listed buildings, and the Planning Service has two dedicated conservation officers policing 59 conservation areas.
Key projects, such as EHS's second survey of Northern Ireland's listed-building stock, are being hit hard by under-resourcing. According to SAVE, the survey will take at least 20 years to complete at the current rate of progress.
Ironically, more historic buildings are being de-listed than listed, contrasting sharply with England, where the listed stock has quadrupled. Elsewhere, a proposal to pilot Article 4 Directions, designed to protect the character of buildings, has been dropped, as has a conservation-area education programme.
Crucially, EHS is not going into battle where there is a risk of failure, presumably because of the financial implications, asserts SAVE's Adam Wilkinson: 'I don't think it's a preoccupation on the part of government with internal politics that is causing the underfunding of conservation - it is the case that, as ever, conservation is at the bottom of the pile.' But resources aside, the core weakness within the DoE appears to be a lack of any cohesive strategy buttressed by political will. 'While policy supports sensitive reuse alongside new development, there is no push towards sustainable development and the defence of the built heritage, ' says Rita Harkin of the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society.
'Essentially development is developer-led.' Harkin cites the Dromore conservation area in County Down as a prime example of this inconsistency. Although the DoE recognised that Dromore's unlisted terrace houses were typical of the scale and character of the conservation area, it approved their demolition, saying that it 'would enhance the character of the area, as well as assist in the prospects of a more general regeneration'.
Millar agrees that this demonstrates the province's 'fragmented' approach to regeneration and restoration of historic buildings:
'There seems to be a lack of appreciation at the highest level that regeneration can be initiated and sustained through the restoration of historic buildings. This needs to be recognised.' This political inertia has allowed a spate of high-profile unauthorised demolitions of listed buildings to pass unchallenged. These include Belfast's B2-listed Malone Place, the B+-listed Tillie & Henderson shirt factory in Derry and the B1-listed Rock Castle in Portstewart. The latest controversy surrounds Belfast's Victoria Square site and a striking £300 million mixed-use regeneration scheme, opening in 2007. The redevelopment has resulted in the loss of the city's last surviving 19th-century theatre bar, and while a public inquiry proved it was possible to incorporate the Kitchen Bar into the scheme, the developer, AM Multi Development Corporation, and the government rejected its suggestion.
Naturally, the DoE defends its strategy for balancing inward development with the need to protect architectural heritage. It recognises that there are 'situations when the built heritage may be damaged or destroyed without consent'. But the ministry highlights a new 'early-warning system' designed to flag up potential infringements of the law. A spokesman says: 'The system alerts Angela Smith, the Northern Ireland under-secretary of state for the environment, to potentially contentious applications for the demolition of listed buildings during the early stages of consideration, and ensures that senior officials are made aware of all applications involving the full or part demolition of listed buildings.' Another powerful DoE weapon is the Building Preservation Notice. Introduced in April 2003, this legislation allows the DoE to 'spot list' buildings deemed worthy of listed status. Asked whether a notice had yet been issued, the spokesman said: 'We have not yet identified a case where action under this power would be appropriate, although a number of cases have been considered.' The British Urban Regeneration Association (BURA), which identifies and promotes best practice in regeneration, also defends the DoE's track record. Gerald Cary-Elwes, BURA's business development director, believes the province is gradually achieving a balance between regeneration and conservation: 'There is no doubt that the authorities recognise the need to reconcile the balance between conserving heritage and attracting inward investment through development.' While many in the province feel the DoE needs a kick up the proverbial backside, key players in the debate remain ambivalent about the establishment of yet another agency. So what is the answer? For Belfast-based architect Boyd Partnership, the solution lies in devolving ultimate responsibility for conservation to those who know best: qualified architects.
'Clearly a cohesive strategy does not exist and resources are being spread too thinly, ' says Arthur Acheson, a partner at the practice. 'The only option is to delegate decision-making to qualified professionals who are truly familiar with the buildings in question.' In the meantime, fostering greater debate and understanding between all parties seems to be the only logical course of action. But the DoE's refusal to attend a workshop on the future preservation of Belfast's Cathedral Quarter last month does not augur well.