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Some time ago, a friend and I spent a day clearing knee-deep rotting leaves from the parapet gutters of St Botolph’s. Aldersgate, in the City of London. The churchwardens had done nothing to clear the gutters for five years, as a result of the long-threatened redundancy of the church. Our work was, unfortunately, in vain.
The leaves had caused rainwater to overtop the guttering and penetrate the building, causing an outbreak of dry rot which has cost £500,000 to repair. It might all have been prevented by regular attention from one man with a brush and a bucket, costing about £200 a year.
This demonstration of the combined power of leaves and rain to ruin our heritage made me question why I – and most of building conservation movement in Britain – had become preoccupied by heroic, last-minute rescues of historic buildings, from extreme dilapidation brought on by lack of even the most basic care. For every building at risk triumphantly saved with huge amounts of scarce public money, hundreds more are getting on quietly with the businesses of rotting away, often unnoticed. Why, I asked myself, did the movement not see, and act upon, this paradox?
Further surprises greeted my inquiries. Ruskin had realised this nearly 150 years ago, and Morris a generation later. As Ruskin put it in 1849 (speaking of Rouen Cathedral):
"The principle of modern times.....is to neglect buildings first and to restore them afterwards. Take proper care of your monuments and you will not need to restore them. A few sheets of lead put in time upon the roof, a few dead leaves and sticks swept in time out of a water course, will save both roof and wall from ruin. Watch an old building with an anxious care; guard it as best you may, and at any cost, from every influence of dilapidation"
In this article, I want to set out why I believe we must put preventive
maintenance back at the centre of our strategy, if the condition of the
nation’s historic buildings is not to go into relentless decline,
from which we will never have the resources to rescue more than a fraction
What Maintenance is
Clearly, maintenance is not a complete substitute for repairs, and like
anything else, if done badly, it can cause problems. Some elements - particularly
roofs and rainwater goods - have a lifespan and need periodic renewal.
The role of maintenance is therefore to keep the elements of a historic
building functioning for as long as practicable, thereby preserving materials,
craftsmanship and character, while minimising both risk and cost.
Why we don’t Maintain our Buildings
First of all, it is not just our historic buildings we as a society neglect. We neglect them all: schools, theatres, hospitals, public housing - the lot. And it is not just the UK – it is the same virtually everywhere else, with one significant exception to which I will return.
We are surrounded by many things – from childhood inoculations to MoT tests for cars – which experience has shown to be good long-term investments in preventing bigger problems later. But for buildings – even historic buildings – there are few such influences.
Recent research into attitudes towards repair and maintenance has shown
that only a tiny fraction of private owners take a long-term view of the
needs of their properties. They spend money on cosmetic rather than priority
needs, as the mood takes them, and get their advice, if any, from informal
contacts in the building trade. Building surveyors are regarded as poor
value for money, producing reports so hedged about with exclusions as
to be virtually useless. It is in this environment that neglect thrives,
prompting the obvious question – what are the institutions of building
conservation doing about it?
The Role of Maintenance in Conservation Strategy
Central Government – DETR and DCMS – at least make the right noises in PPG15:
"Regular maintenance and repair are the key to the preservation of historic buildings. Modest expenditure on repairs keeps a building weathertight, and routine maintenance (especially roof repairs and the regular clearance of gutters and downpipes) can prevent much more expensive work becoming necessary at a later date..regular inspection is invaluable."
So what happens to these fine words in practice?
English Heritage imposes maintenance conditions on its grants, but refuses to grant-aid it, as Parliament empowered it to do. This has been its policy, and that of its predecessors, since 1955. This was helpfully explained to me by Oliver Pearcy of EH, in 1995, as follows:
1. owners are unlikely to take up grants because, if they cannot be bothered to spend any of their own money on maintenance, thereby decreasing the value of the building, it is unlikely that they will be swayed by an offer of grant aid which will inevitably be smaller still;
2. diverting funds into maintenance to avoid buildings becoming at risk in the future would be at the expense of buildings that are at risk now and will be lost without grant aid for repairs;
3. complete neglect may be less damaging than enthusiastic do-it-yourself or "improvements" such as plastic windows; and
4. "maintenance schemes for buildings at risk might well delay achievement of satisfactory long term solutions through the identification of an appropriate new use and owner coupled with full repair".
I find none of these convincing. Because some owners bodge their buildings, none should be encouraged, still less given grants, to prevent the decay of the nation’s heritage, by well-informed maintenance, to the long-term benefit of the heritage, their bank balances, and EH’s hard-pressed grant budgets.
The final reason is important. I am astonished how much energy goes into the search for the elusive "final solution", while the building itself is left to rot. The resulting decay may render the search for a new use completely pointless. Why not extend our options by "mothballing" problem buildings until economic conditions improve and sympathetic owners appear?
Have things changed with EH’s glossy new buildings at risk initiative? Sadly, I doubt it. Clearer priorities and more grants, certainly – but as before, for repairs notices, acquisition and rescues, not prevention. Apparently Ruskin and Morris got it all wrong.
The Heritage Lottery Fund, fortunately, seems to have maintenance firmly
on its agenda. Its recent strategy document makes it clear that local
initiatives to carry out preventive maintenance will be viewed favourably
by HLF, and moves are afoot to follow this up.
Other building conservation bodies subtly reinforce the repair-led culture of the movement. They fund and give awards to glamorous and expensive rescues, conversions and final solutions, not maintenance.
The Architectural Heritage Fund, for example, is endowed with some £11M of largely public money, regularly topped up with more, and lends money to charities to purchase and repair historic buildings - but only as long as the project involves a new owner or a new use. Charities or congregations struggling to maintain their buildings in their original use are ineligible. Is it a surprise that BPTs have always focussed on major repair projects, have few sources of funds for anything else, and hence contribute little to solving the problem, when the AHF’s vast resources are available only for heroic last-minute rescues?
There are honourable exceptions. SPAB has kept the candle burning for everyday care for over 100 years. It organises courses for owners and publishes literature, and another charity "Upkeep" aims to educate the public in appropriate repair and maintenance techniques of all buildings.
Kent BPT has been experimenting with volunteer maintenance teams, which visit buildings principally to remotivate existing owners towards taking appropriate care measures. Apparently sane adults will spend a day clearing gutters and rodding drains on church roofs, if properly motivated and trained, and at almost nil cost!
The Church of England’s quinquennial inspections, and Council for the Care of Churches are examples of good, long-term thinking. Sadly, although the quinquennial system can work well, its main focus is on repairs rather than maintenance, which is often skimped or ignored, causing the need for further repairs, as it did at St Botolph’s. What the Church needs is more people to wield the ladders and drain rods.
Local authorities largely follow the EH model and grant-aid repairs rather than maintenance. But the Oxford conference on Buildings at Risk on 22nd May heard from a number of authorities quietly carrying out maintenance-led initiatives. One district carried out a free survey of all its Grade 1 and 2* buildings every five years. Another organised routine gutter-clearance operations, and a third repaired the rainwater goods of town centre buildings as part of street-repaving works. Sadly, these are isolated examples.
What about the professions? It is clear that they are part of the problem.
Large repair budgets and daring, complex rescue projects provide glamorous
work for large numbers of professional people, but they have entirely
failed to dispel the fears that discourage many owners from getting timely
An Alternative Strategy
The time has surely come for a decisive switch in strategy. We cannot go on spending huge sums on repairs while doing nothing to avoid or reduce the need for them. How, then, should we go about it?
First, I believe local authorities already have plenty of ideas for tackling the problem at a local level, using surveys, publicity and grants. A little thought- a conference or two – and whole range of "best practice" activities could spring up. They could even start with preventive maintenance of their own historic buidlings!
Secondly, BPTs are a natural vehicle for volunteer maintenance work, with new thinking, leadership and training, and the HLF appears to be ready to consider applications to fund them.
Building owners must be wooed and encouraged to think of the long-term care of their buildings. The "Make do and Mend" report referred to earlier contains an admirable agenda for action, principally involving information and advice, which is as relevant for historic homes as it is for others.
Perhaps the most exciting possibility, however, is the creation of specialised professional maintenance teams along the lines of the Dutch "Monumentenwacht".
This charity operates 45 teams of dedicated maintenance workers, who tour the country’s historic buildings carrying out agreed maintenance plans and immediate temporary repairs, advising owners on any further work required. Because they do not do the further work, they are seen as trustworthy and impartial.
A seminar in Bath on 9th October 1998 organised by the University of the West of England and the Bath Preservation Trust heard the Director of Monumentenwacht give an account of its work, and saw one of its experienced and well-equipped teams in action on the Countess of Huntingdon’s chapel.
A steering committee has been set up to take this idea forward in the
UK, and anyone interested in this initiative is welcome to contact me.
There are major differences, such as the high degree of public subsidy
the service enjoys in Holland, but we are determined to persevere.
Preventive maintenance makes such profound sense that it is remarkable that we have to re-learn so painfully what was obvious to Ruskin and Morris. The challenge is immense, but there are signs that new thinking from local authorities, BPTs, and the HLF may turn the tide towards a more sustainable future for our historic buildings. I urge everyone concerned to start thinking seriously about what they could do to prevent, rather than cure, disrepair.