The destruction of a 17th century ceiling in Bristol, controversially ripped out by a developer before it could be assessed by Historic England, has prompted renewed calls for an interim protection system
Conservationists were outraged at the destruction of the ornate Jacobean plasterwork, calling it an ‘act of vandalism’. It was torn down before inspectors could gain access to the building at 15 Small Street to assess its historic significance.
But Historic England has said the building that housed the 400-year-old ceiling, which is set to be converted into student homes, did ‘not meet the criteria for listing’ and had been turned down for statutory protection by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport on its advice.
A spokesperson said: ‘The destruction of the beautiful 17th-century ceiling and the fact that the rest of the building had been heavily altered over the years means it does not meet the high benchmark for listing.
’Had we been able to continue with our planned inspection of the building, before the ceiling was deliberately removed, we could have had constructive discussions with the owner about managing changes to the building in a way that respected its remaining historic features.’
The incident has triggered renewed demands for the introduction of interim protection for buildings in England awaiting assessment, similar to the temporary prevention mechanism recently introduced in Wales.
A petition calling on the government to amend the law to include an automatic interim protection for vulnerable buildings while their status is decided has received nearly 4,000 signatures and the support of numerous heritage groups.
Momentum is growing for a change in the law and for new pre-assessment measures to be introduced as had been suggested, but never taken forward, in the Heritage Protection Bill from 2008.
Bristol-based architect Neil Mckay, who launched the campaign, said: ‘This is only the latest in a long series of similar incidents, which illustrate the urgent need to introduce this legislation. Every delay means the near certainty of further preventable harm to England’s built heritage.
’A mechanism already exists to provide interim protection via Building Preservation Notices. But these are optional, and are frequently not served. This leaves buildings of interest exposed to harm at the very moment when unscrupulous or unsympathetic owners might feel most inclined to damage or destroy them.
He added: ’Although this measure was removed from the 2008 Bill, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport stated at the time that they would like to introduce reform at the earliest opportunity. I would urge all who are concerned about this issue to sign the petition to demonstrate the strength of public concern, and to contact their own MP to seek his or her support to pass this overdue reform immediately.’
Among the organisations backing the petition include SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings and The Twentieth Century Society.
A spokesperson for The Twentieth Century Society said: ‘[We are] wholeheartedly supporting this petition, and have campaigned for interim protection since the Firestone Factory was demolished over a bank holiday weekend [in 1980] ahead of the building being listed.
’This sort of behaviour is all too frequent. In 2015 the 1920s Carlton Tavern in Maida Vale was demolished in a similar situation, although owners have been compelled to rebuild in facsimile. A change in the law to protect our heritage when it is at its most vulnerable is long overdue.’
Statement from Jim Tarzey, the executive director of Pegasus Group, who is acting as planning adviser to the developers and building’s owners, Midas Properties/G&E Baio [as reported in the Bristol Post].
’Pegasus Group are aware of the internal building works that been carried out to the ceiling […] and the timing of these, and are content that the works needed to be carried out to respect the safety of the building, and were done so lawfully in association with ongoing refurbishment works, irrespective of the outcome of the submitted planning application.’
SPAB director, Matthew Slocombe says
’An ornamental Jacobean plaster ceiling is a rare and precious thing. Unlike some later plasterwork, it is not mechanically produced but a hand-modelled work of art, distinct to the craftsmen involved and the area in which they worked.”
’15 Small Street has early 17th century origins and stands at the centre of Bristol’s medieval core. It is one of the few buildings on Small Street that retains 17th century fabric, primarily in the form of a rear parlour block which included the plasterwork Jacobean ceiling and vaulted cellars. The parlour, built by prominent city merchant Humphrey Brown in the 1620s, would have been the house’s principal entertaining space. Until 30 August 2017 a ribbed plaster ceiling of geometric design with pendants, a moulded cornice and a decorative frieze from the 1620 decorative scheme survived.’