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Martin Pawley: passing the buck at Fortress House

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A couple of years ago, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, chairman of English Heritage, spoke at an aj/Bovis Awards dinner. After praising the even- handedness of his own organisation - just as happy to recommend the listing of an estate of prefabs as an eighteenth-century country house - he delivered his punchline: 'The people who take care of the past are the best people to take care of the future.' Most of his audience seemed to be satisfied with this, and no one queried who was going to take care of the present. Last week they found out.

Deploying hard hats in the manner of medieval knights (the more hats the more trouble some luckless owner of a priceless monument was in for), the English Heritage militia lined up behind their leader to present their new strategy for dealing with the Achilles heel of conservation: listed buildings that are not only useless and falling apart, but are also supposed to be invaluable.

According to Sir Jocelyn, there are some 2000 buildings in this category (a number culled, it must be said, from an at-risk register of nearer 28,000). Although eh has always refused to acknowledge the contradiction posed by their pitiable plight and their supposed value, they have been causing heartache at Fortress House for some time. Now the organisation has decided to deal with them; in doing so, what used in conservation circles to be euphemised as 'the ownership problem' has suddenly become 'the ownership answer'.

Adroitly, Sir Jocelyn has plugged the last loophole in cradle-to-grave health and welfare care for non-human beings - by serving at-risk building owners with an order to keep their listed buildings in a continuous state of good repair, or else sell them, or have them compulsorily purchased. The cleverness of this strategy, of course, resides precisely in its use of the value paradox. Non-compliant owners can be sure that the value assigned to their property for compulsory purchase will not be an inflated 'heritage' value, but a deflated 'ruin' value. This sort of Morton's Fork- style wheeze cannot work without enforcement. So, along with a paltry £5 million towards repair grants - which averages out at only £2500 for each building, although many bills will run into millions - comes another tranche of money to part-fund new posts for conservation officers, who will crack down on repairs-dodgers.

Shamelessly, Stevens' Fork was described by signatories to a letter to The Times, appearing on the same day as the eh press conference, as addressing 'sustainability and the re-use of non-renewable resources, the brownfield debate, and making a significant contribution to housing needs'.

Odd, then, that the most prominent London building to be threatened with compulsory repairs turned out to be that well-known non-renewable resource, the Grade I-listed Wellington Arch at Hyde Park Corner. The first recalcitrant property owner to be pinpointed was the master of that famous brownfield site at Saltwood Castle, in Kent - Alan Clark mp.

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