The National Trust for Jersey
Living on a small Island of 45 square miles in the Bay of Mont St Michel, I find myself reflecting upon whether Unesco’s World Heritage Day will have a tangible effect upon our ongoing battle to safeguard modest but none-the-less important historic buildings in our town. At the moment 18 listed buildings are threatened with partial or total demolition in an attempt to bolster our economy through large scale office, retail and residential development. Our Planning Minister recently announced with great pride and not the slightest hint of regret, that another listed building would be demolished to make way for further office development. So much so, that the Planning Department subsequently trumpeted that consents had now been granted for a 1,000,000 sq ft of office development.
Does Jersey’s finance industry need a 1,000,000 sq feet of office space? Will this prevent our construction industry from further decline? Will the charm and architectural quality of our town be improved and engender greater civic pride? Will such development create an environment appealing to visitors? Does the community support such planning decisions? I suspect such questions have fallen on deaf ears, as like rabbits blinded by bright lights, Ministers and Civil Servants make panic decisions in the hope that development will be the salvo for all our economic woes. Of course such development is not currently economically feasible and so we have a Catch 22 situation with consents languishing away due to lack of demand whilst our architectural heritage is being needlessly sacrificed to placate unachievable and unrealistic demands from the construction industry.
So wherein lies the solution? I suspect it lies in better engagement with our politicians, planners and business community about the overall benefits of heritage led re-generation. Some might call it education but there is a risk that that such terminology might be viewed by those we are targeting as a little patronising, although hopefully we all recognise whatever our position in life, that education spans from cradle to crave. Over thirty years ago Lord Esher was advocating the benefits of safeguarding our built heritage stating:
“You do not merely protect old buildings and give them a new lease of life, but you conserve more than buildings; you conserve the gross capital value. You conserve the investment that previous owners have put into a city in which they believed and on which they thought it was worthwhile to spend their money. You conserve their investment and you conserve that city’s attraction to the outside world. It becomes a place worth visiting, worth seeing, worth staying in. These are inevitable but vital economic factors. They are not sentimental factors…..conservation is often thought of as just a fad of a few…..the truth is that it is hard economics.”
Can it be that some thirty years later, despite the high profile successes of such organisations as The Prince’s Regeneration Trust, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, the Architectural Heritage Fund and numerous building preservation trusts throughout the British Isles, that we still have to demonstrate the “value” of our built heritage.
The situation that we currently find ourselves in Jersey is succinctly summed up by the Prince’s Regeneration Trust :
“Although re-using historic buildings can minimise construction waste, reduce our carbon footprint, encourage a vibrant local economy and reinforce a sense of place and civic pride, if a narrow asset management perspective is taken heritage assets can come to be regarded as liabilities and obstacles to development, rather than the community assets they are and should continue to be.”
In Jersey we struggle with the concept of any private building being seen as a community asset. As a result some buildings are allowed to fall into disrepair as the rights of private ownership are sacrosanct and despite the tools of compulsory purchase and repair notices being available to our Minister, through our Planning Laws, they have never seen the light of day. However, recent surveys have demonstrated that our community truly values our built heritage with
73% strongly agreeing that historical buildings are an asset to the regeneration of St Helier. Such figures give me hope as I believe that in time the community will demand greater protection for their built heritage and by default greater support from our politicians for heritage led re-generation. Indeed within 2 weeks of starting an online petition via change.org (a wonderfully simple and cost effective empowerment tool) to protect 6 historic buildings in Pitt Street and Dumaresq Street, we secured 650 signatures. This has subsequently resulted in a constructive meeting with the owners as they recognise that our community places a value, other than financial, on these buildings. That “value” will be different for each signatory but from the comments received there is an overwhelming recognition that these buildings contribute to our sense of identity and provide a tangible link with the history of our town.
Will World Heritage Day make a difference in Jersey? Perhaps not straight away but if greater public awareness of the fragile and threatened nature of our historic buildings is highlighted it can only help in the longer term. Education about the value of our heritage is crucial together with greater engagement and community empowerment.
- Today the National Trust and the International National Trusts Organisation are hosting a world wide ‘blogathon’ for World Heritage Day. For more information on World Heritage Day 2013, please go to website: www.icomos.org