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Small buildings integral to Northern Irish history

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Letters

The short piece concerning the demolition of vernacular and listed buildings in Northern Ireland (AJ 8.11.01) skirts around what is a very serious, and very depressing, situation.

Among the many issues faced on a daily basis by the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society and recently highlighted in the SAVE report 'Blink and You'll Miss It - Northern Ireland's Heritage in Danger', Austin Williams only chooses to dwell on two - the destruction of vernacular buildings and the delisting of buildings in general in the Province.

Listing criteria are largely based on those used in England so, in many cases, are not appropriate to Northern Ireland's built heritage, where small vernacular buildings are an essential part of the historic landscape. The government-sponsored vandalism that is wiping out an entire layer of history gives, through the inequity of the VAT system, more money to those who knock down their vernacular buildings (to replace them with similar sized bungalows) than to those who want to repair traditional buildings.

The standards by which traditional buildings are judged unfit include staircases that are too steep by modern standards and uneven floor surfaces. The playing field is far from level - it is entirely incorrect to say that these buildings have been 'reasonably destroyed'.

The issue of the delisting of historic buildings in the Province is nothing short of scandalous. Buildings have been delisted not because their core historic value has been permanently diminished, but for minor reasons, such as changes in fenestration which could, and should, be reversed. Instead of the owners being punished, it is the buildings that suffer - delisting is usually the signal for demolition and redevelopment.

On top of all this, the resurvey of buildings of historic and architectural significance in Northern Ireland has all but ground to a halt, and while the resurveys in England and Wales have resulted in an overall increase in the number of buildings being granted statutory protection, in Ulster the resurvey has so far led to a decrease.

At the root of this situation is a complete lack of political will to solve the situation. The statutory instruments available for the protection of historic buildings are very rarely used, and the Environment and Heritage Service (the body responsible for the historic environment) is hideously under-funded.

Action is required now but, true to form, the Department of the Environment's response to our report is somewhat overdue.

Adam Wilkinson, secretary, SAVE Britain's Heritage

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