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Dunnett: ‘Historic England is failing in its mission’


Former DoCoMoMo-UK chief James Dunnett questions whether Historic England is doing enough to protect the nation’s built heritage

According to the opening sentence on its website, Historic England is ‘the public body that looks after England’s historic environment’. The organisation also pledges to ‘champion historic places’. But has it really been doing that?

On two successive evenings at the end of last year (16 and 17 December) London Borough planning committees allowed transformative works to major listed buildings on the strength of approval by Historic England (HE), even though both schemes had faced opposition from statutory amenity societies and numerous other conservation bodies.

In other words, the objections by the unofficial or popular groups have been rendered ineffectual by the approval of Historic England. I refer to the proposed transformation works to Erno Goldfinger’s Grade II*-listed Balfron Tower and to the 19th century Coal Drops in King’s Cross.

The Balfron Tower proposals developed by Studio Egret West are linked with the sale of the block onto the private market. The scheme would strip out all the existing flat plans – except for one of each type to be retained – and replace them with ‘open plan’ layouts by Ab Rogers Design. The project also includes the removal of all the surviving original white-painted timber windows – half of the present total – and the stained timber boarding, and their replacement with box-section brown anodised aluminium windows. They are thinner, but of similar layout on the east front but quite different on the west. The internal character will thus be transformed as will fundamental external relationships between key façade elements.

Objections by the unofficial groups have been rendered ineffectual

Detailed objections were submitted by the Twentieth Century Society, DoCoMoMo-UK, and numerous local resident groups concerned at the loss of social housing. But all was approved by Tower Hamlets Council on the say-so of Historic England.

The Coal Drops on the King’s Cross railways lands, meanwhile, were designed in the mid-1850s to allow coal to be delivered at high level by train and then transferred for local delivery by gravity through traps in the bottom of the wagons and onto horse-drawn carts below.

The buildings are interesting in section and have impressive long arcuated façades topped by plain slated saddleback roofs. There are two, roughly parallel, blocks – the East Coal Drop being listed Grade II and the West not. However, both are in the Conservation Area. Centrally placed in Argent’s wider King’s Cross Central development, they are now designated as the site for its ‘main retail offer’.

This means there is a demand, not present in the masterplan approved in 2006, for the provision of ‘anchor stores’ of much larger floor area than the small ‘craft’ units in the bays of the structure that were originally envisaged.

Heatherwick Studio’s scheme envisages hoisting these extra units and floorspace up into the air in the form of an additional storey spanning across the courtyard between the two Coal Drops, whose slated roofs will be twisted up and forward into giant curves so that they meet in the middle, becoming ‘kissing roofs’. This fanciful notion seems quite alien to the sturdy functional character of the Coal Drops, whose original roofs will be largely destroyed, and the extra storey spanning the courtyard between them will transform it from an open-air to a covered, darkened, space, and will also block views along its length from both directions.

But Historic England believes that while there will be harm to the listed structures it will not be ‘substantial harm’, and therefore acceptable in view of the benefits to the public of yet more retail space. This view was opposed by the Victorian Society, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Islington and Camden Civic Societies, the King’s Cross Development Forum and the Regent’s Canal Conservation Area Advisory Committee. But on the say-so of Historic England, the Camden Council committee approved it. The efforts and opinions of all these voluntary groups have thus been negated by the ‘champion of historic places’.

Eight years ago, when I was co-chair of DoCoMoMo-UK with Dennis Sharp, I wrote an article published in the Journal of Architectural Conservation questioning the record of English Heritage (the predecessor of Historic England) in regard to 20th century buildings, very cautiously entitled DoCoMoMo-UK – Questions of Assessment.

In the cases discussed, starting with Erich Mendelsohn’s Cohen House, and including the Royal Festival Hall, the Barbican Arts Centre, the Royal College of Art, and Goldfinger’s Trellick Tower (all listed), English Heritage had supported proposals which DoCoMoMo-UK and the Twentieth Century Society had opposed. I was careful to acknowledge that it had ‘done admirable work in persuading the government to list many important modern buildings’ while questioning ‘whether in all cases the local and regional officers responsible for administering the protection do so consistently’.

I also lamented that in the listings the importance of space was ‘by no means always recognized … Goldfinger’s Balfron and Trellick Towers are listed, but not the spaces in front and around them, which are the point of their design’. Last year, in face of the prospect of Balfron being privatised and in an attempt to rectify this omission, I nominated Balfron for a listing upgrade and Goldfinger’s surrounding work and spaces for inclusion in the listing.

Balfron itself was indeed upgraded, and nearby Glenkerry House was included, but in all other respects the nomination was rejected by Historic England and none of the surrounding space nor ancillary buildings were included. Indeed they lost the partial protection they previously had under the former ‘curtilage’ rule. So the important spatial factor remains unrecognised.

Only the previous year, English Heritage had belatedly recommended Goldfinger’s work at the Elephant & Castle for listing (rejected on previous occasions, with the result that much damage was done in the interval), and this was confirmed for the government by an appreciative minister, Ed Vaizey. But unfortunately English Heritage had decided to omit from the listing the block actually housing the Elephant & Castle pub – small, but the cornerstone of the composition. It was promptly covered by full-height advertisement hoardings and much of the remaining original detail trashed, with the result that the listing of the remainder of the composition was rendered almost ineffectual. As at Balfron, smaller ancillary buildings may look secondary but can be of primary importance.

On the same evening as Tower Hamlets was approving the transformation of Balfron, Professor Wessel de Jonge, co-founder of DoCoMoMo, was giving a talk illustrating the many important buildings, such as the Zonnestraal Sanatorium and the Van Nelle Factory, for whose careful and exemplary conservation of Modern Movement buildings he has been responsible, respecting for example not just the original character of window frames in detail, but of the glass also.

There appears to be a failure of spatial understanding

There was just one junior Historic England officer present. But this talk illustrated the kind of care and attention to detail on which Historic England should be insisting – in the more recent ‘heritage’ as much as the earlier.

Alongside this, there appears to be a failure of spatial understanding, resulting in the exclusion from listing of vital elements of compositions such as at Balfron and the Elephant & Castle, and the approval of the works to the Coal Drops, which will evidently have a catastrophic effect on the space between them.

Historic England, and English Heritage before it, has of course suffered a succession of budget cuts, which have doubtless undermined its confidence and the expertise on which it can draw. For the sake of our heritage, they need to be restored.

Response by Chris Smith, director of planning for Historic England

’James Dunnett is right to ask whether Historic England is succeeding in its mission but wrong to assume that the measure is whether he and others always agree with us.

’Historic England has a statutory role in the planning process and our duty is to provide expert, independent advice within the framework of legislation and guidance. This means that on occasion we may well reach different judgements from amenity societies and others, but does not mean that we have failed to consider proposals carefully. Our advice is firmly based on an understanding of the significance of the building or historic site in question and necessarily informed by the National Planning Policy Framework which requires proposals to be justified. It is for the local authority, as the decision maker in the planning system, to take all factors including heritage into account when making the decision on a proposal.

’The assertion that Historic England treats our recent heritage with less care than earlier periods is disappointing and incorrect. Indeed the recent public acclaim for listings of inter-war pubs and post-war offices is a welcome counterpoint. From the pre-historic to the post-war, our work focusses on recognising, celebrating and protecting the best of all our heritage. Whether it be considering bronze age settlements, Victorian industrial buildings or post-war housing, we give advice with care and consideration.’



Readers' comments (2)

  • Chris Smith's justification for Historic England's behaviour is itself 'disappointing and incorrect' - there is no valid excuse for nodding through Studio Egret West's gratuitous messing with the elevations of Balfron Tower, or turning a blind eye to Heatherwick performing tricks with the Kings Cross coal drops.
    Is Historic England taking too much notice of developers' business cases, and distorting its perception of its statutory duty to protect historic buildings from damage?
    Is it perhaps also open to accusations of political correctness - of kowtowing to the clout of the great god Retail and perhaps also to a designer who might be clever, who seems to have gained the favour of some politicians, but who nevertheless shows scant sign of respecting or understanding the significance of historic buildings and landscapes?

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  • Agree with Robert. These examples were already listed and it is incumbent on Historic England to be fighting their corner with independent expert advice. Missing the key points quoted by James Dunnett shows that are not doing their job properly. Ultimately the planning authority decides but they must have the best possible advice. I looked at the Camden Council's recording of the planning meeting on the coal drops and was appalled by the lame presentation of the conservation case.

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