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Prevention is better than cure

Attic maintenance

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Roof-top maintenance


The Logic of Maintenance - Nigel Dann


In this article I want to examine, first, the concept of maintenance, and then look at the major change in emphasis in conservation strategy in the Netherlands towards maintenance as the primary strategy for conservation intervention. Lastly, I will describe our efforts to build on this experience in the UK.

The logic of maintenance?

There is a profound problem with building maintenance generally. Money and effort expended on maintenance buys nothing new. Despite all the homespun metaphors about timely maintenance such as ‘a ha’porth of tar’, ‘a stitch in time..’ etc, individual and corporate owners stubbornly refuse to give maintenance the appropriate priority. Why?

Maintenance does not make the owner money, and even if it can save them money in the medium and long term, they never see the return in an accountable way. Despite the best efforts of those championing regular maintenance, it is seldom seen as either an attractive or a lucrative option. Maintenance also remains wrongly perceived as a low status professional activity.

The Case for Maintenance as the primary conservation strategy

Maintenance is central to protecting cultural significance because, if properly implemented, it is the least destructive of all the ‘interventions’ which inevitably occur in the process of conserving historic buildings. The fabric of the building is important in itself - not just the function it performs.

This is recognised in all the key national and international documents on the protection of historic buildings. For example, the Burra Charter, defines conservation as being "all of the processes of looking after a place so as to retain its cultural significance" and goes on to state:

"a principle of conservation is that the cultural significance of a place is embodied in its fabric, its setting and its contents.."

Closer to home, British Standard BS 7913:1998 on ‘The Principles of the Conservation of Historic Buildings’ emphasises the important role of maintenance:

"Systematic care based on good maintenance and housekeeping is both cost effective and fundamental to good conservation".

PPG 15 ‘Planning and the Historical Environment’ makes the case succinctly:

"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 regular clearance of gutters and downpipes) can prevent much more expensive work becoming necessary at a later date . . . regular inspection is invaluable".

The majority of the bodies charged with the conservation of historic buildings follow the logic and common sense of prioritising maintenance over repair. Yet recent empirical research we have carried out suggests that even some of these organisations are confused and relatively ill prepared to implement a coherent maintenance strategy.

Organisations who described themselves as primarily ‘heritage building-focused’ had generally well organised maintenance management services, while the responses of ‘non-heritage focused’ organisations caring for significant numbers of listed buildings suggested that there was a serious failure to consider conservation principles or maintenance.

If this is true for some organisations with a professional property management department, specialist advice and considerable resources, what chance is there for those private owners who look after the vast majority of the UK's historic buildings?

Other research reveals a staggering £50 billion backlog of repairs on housing, listed and unlisted, caused by a failure to carry out basic regular maintenance and inspection.

Financing Failure

English Heritage’s main grant schemes can only grant aid structural repairs to Grade I and II* buildings and yet its budget is still heavily over-subscribed. Although grants usually carry a condition requiring maintenance after repair, this is virtually never verified.

This approach favours intervention after failure, and is unsustainable. In fact the whole building conservation movement, which has made huge progress in the last 30 years, has largely failed to resolve the issue of maintenance. Whilst the loss of historic fabric by development and demolition has been addressed, the more pernicious and widespread loss of fabric by casual neglect has not.

One of the principal arguments we have encountered against grant-aiding maintenance is that it would divert funds away from repairs. It is as if the fire brigade had been asked its views on fire prevention and replied that this is undesirable, as it would divert resources from putting out fires! Of course there will always be a need for grant-aided repair. But the current ‘crisis management’ strategy is neither balanced, economic nor sustainable.

The Netherland’s approach- 27 years of development

‘Monumentenwacht’, founded in1973, is an organisation in the Netherlands which has been instrumental in moving the Dutch government’s policy away from subsidising repair and towards regular systematic maintenance. It started as an annual inspection and first aid repair service, by subscription, for a small group of private listed building owners, who felt they didn’t have the appropriate skills or knowledge to undertake this for themselves.

From this simple beginning the organisation has grown and is now firmly established in all 12 provinces of the Netherlands, with 40 teams of inspectors annually inspecting and providing prioritised maintenance reports to the owners of nearly a quarter of the Netherland’s listed buildings.

The Dutch subsidy system

In the Netherlands there are approximately 50,000 nationally listed buildings and 560 historic town and landscapes (this includes most city centres). Under the 1988 Monument Act, the National Department for Conservation still designates nationally listed buildings and maintains the list, but gives municipalities responsibility for planning and building control on nationally listed buildings, and allows them to establish their own list of locally protected buildings, of which there are 27,000.

Financial aid for conservation works is provided via three means;

1. owners of nationally listed buildings can obtain a direct state subsidy for specific conservation works to their building, whether the works consist of a large-scale project or maintenance. The percentages vary according to the type of building owned i.e. Churches and charities can receive up to 70%, on any building type, whilst the maximum a householder can expect is 50%. Municipalities can subsidise owners of locally listed buildings. Recently this aid has become increasingly combined with urban renewal schemes.

2. individual owners of nationally listed buildings are able to offset the costs of maintenance of their building against their income tax.

3. the National Restoration Fund provides a revolving loan fund service to owners (who pay interest on their loans at 5% below bank base rate) to top up grants. The fund has been remarkably successful and is potentially set to largely replace lump sum grants as the conduit for financing conservation.

Recent research into the effectiveness of these financial arrangements is remarkable: the multiplier on the subsidy budget has been shown to be 3 times the state investment. For every Guilder in state investment at least 2 guilders are invested privately. Money returning to the state (in VAT and other taxes) has been shown to be 75% in the first year, while over the longer-term 114% returns to the state.

Maintain: Bringing Monumentenwacht to Britain

Monumentenwacht has long had admirers in the UK and in October 1998 a group of them formed a steering committee to develop and promote a similar service here, following a public seminar organised by the University of the West of England and Bath Preservation Trust in October 1998. It includes people from the University of the West of England, SAVE Britain’s Heritage, English Heritage, The National Trust, SPAB, and the Bath Preservation Trust.

We have now registered a company limited by guarantee," Maintain our Heritage", and charitable registration is being applied for.

The project has received a grant of £42,000 from the Pilgrim Trust. This is being used to employ a Project Director, Nick Carter, who will be responsible for developing our strategy - preparing business plans, commissioning market research, finding commercial sponsorship and submitting funding bids.

The most important difference between the Netherlands and the UK is the fact that the Dutch have accepted maintenance as the optimum approach to conservation, and some 60% of Monumentenwacht’s operational costs are granted-aided. We are under no illusions that a similar fiscal and subsidy situation will be introduced in the UK in the short term.

The Service

The service that we currently envisage that Maintain UK will provide to its subscribers includes:

an independent annual inspection service providing the building owner with a report containing prioritised recommendations, in layperson’s language, for maintenance and repair work to safeguard the long term future of the building. This we call a ‘Maintenance Action Plan’.

an explanation of the report to the owners in person so that they are better able to take decisions based on it.

the carrying out of limited amounts of first-aid ‘on-the-spot’ repair where small, but critical, areas of disrepair are encountered during the course of the inspection.

The monitoring of structural movement where required.

A referral service to a list of suitably-experienced professionals.

We have also defined what the service does not include:

A survey for acquisition, valuation etc. purposes

The preparation of detailed work specifications

Anything other than limited amounts of first-aid repair

The testing of services such as electrical, plumbing, protection systems etc

The supervision of work by contractors

Other consultancy or advisory services

A ‘Call out’ service.

We may vary the service to meet the needs of different types of client. For example, private owners’ needs are likely to differ from those of a local authority.

In the light of trial inspections, and recognising issues of liability, we currently believe that inspections will be limited to the external envelope, the principal structure of the building and roof voids. The exact nature of the service will be informed by further consultation and market testing.

As this description makes clear, we don’t intend to poach work from existing professionals in the conservation field. Our role will be new – an independent maintenance inspection, advice and referral service - but with no role in contracting, specifying or supervising works. In the Netherlands the Monumentenwacht service was initially regarded with suspicion by conservation professionals, but fears of a loss of work proved to be unfounded and the effect was quite the opposite .

Our early sums showed high costs, and may need some form of subsidy, at least to start with. This would, at least, enable the large conservation funding bodies to support the maintenance of tens of thousands of listed buildings without the need to deal with their owners on an individual basis. In the longer term, this would lead to fewer buildings needing grant-aided repair.

We are well aware that the success of this venture is dependent on our ability to convince possible funders of the value and viability of our project.

The Structure - a Dual Approach

The current plan is to establish well-organised regional pilot schemes, supported by a national advisory body dealing with marketing, training, quality standards and a national awareness campaign. The regional pilots will need to be designed so that their structure and status can easily be replicated across the UK. We are looking at a variety of possibilities for the pilot schemes in Bath and Bristol, Liverpool and Essex.

Maintain will build and promote the case for a change of policy towards the positive encouragement of regular systematic maintenance by all parties responsible for historic buildings. In particular, we see opportunities in the arrival of a new Chairman of English Heritage and the call from the Culture Media and Sport Select Committee for a study "..on the factors affecting the effectiveness of the maintenance of Grade I and Grade II* listed buildings with particular reference to buildings at risk, to inform future funding and target setting arrangements for English Heritage".

Currently the biggest opportunity for bringing about change is the EH "Review". The Review appears to recognise some of the issues but for us the key issue is whether this is followed through into practical recommendations which correct the imbalance between repair-led and maintenance-led approaches. Among its encouraging statements are

‘Despite the long pedigree of conservation philosophy, there is still no widely-shared, explicit framework for the management of the built environment in England.’ (Caring:26).

"the need for extensive repairs is almost always the result of a lack of long-term maintenance ..’ (Enriching:37)

‘Repair grants may seem to reward neglect, penalising prudent owners who have maintained their property in good condition at their own expense.’ (Introduction: 19).

Any support for our approach from Context readers will be welcome.

Opportunities to get involved in the project

Clearly, Maintain has a long way to go and its success will depend entirely on the support it gets from conservation professionals and the wider public. We are setting up an Advisory Panel of leading figures in the conservation world, and are busy planning and fundraising for the pilot schemes and beyond.


Fifty years ago, the challenge was to get people to identify and care about historic buildings. Twenty-five years ago, the challenge was to avert redevelopment. Today, the challenge is to stop the unnecessary loss of historic buildings through neglect.

Maintenance as an approach has had little support in the UK. Until now. Perhaps, after the UK has exhausted all the alternatives, we can learn from the Dutch that a maintenance-led approach is such common sense that we should, at last, give it a try.

From Context 67
Institute of Historic Building Conservation - September 2000