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Prevention is better than cure

Attic maintenance

Roof-top maintenance

Roof-top maintenance


Do we really want to put it off again?
Richard Pollard

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Wilton’s Music Hall today for the launch of Putting it Off, the first ever major investigation into the maintenance of the UK’s historic buildings. The report is the culmination of wide-ranging and extensive research undertaken by Maintain our Heritage over the last 18 months. It is in effect a call to arms.

It demonstrates that wholesale changes are needed in policy and practice — in government, the construction industry the professions, local authorities and owners — to promote the maintenance of historic buildings pointing the way to a reshaping of the way we care for our built heritage.

In many ways this is a report that shouldn’t be needed. For what it is advocating is as old as the conservation movement itself. This event is part of the SPAB’s National Maintenance Week, and it was the SPAB’s founder, William Morris, back in 1877 who said "stave off decay by daily care". That fundamental truth has underpinned the work of the SPAB ever since, and reappeared time and again in official advice and conservation literature – in the bible of conservation PPG 15, in the review of heritage policy Power of Place and in the Government’s response to it, The Historic Environment: A Force for our Future. In all these places the message is clear, as it says in PPG 15:

Regular maintenance and repair are the key to the preservation of historic buildings. Modest expenditure on repairs keeps a building weather tight, and routine maintenance can prevent much more expensive work becoming necessary at a later date.

But what the report shows is that:

  • this is a message that is not widely and loudly enough disseminated to the hundreds of thousands of historic building owners;
  • that those owners are not provided with enough advice, information and fiscal support;
  • that by and large the major heritage bodies have in the past failed to lead by example in the management of their own estates;
  • and that there is an overall lack of leadership and coordination.

That is not to say there are not good things being done: English Heritage have a raft of policy measures that they are putting in place as part of the organisation’s much greater commitment to the concept and practice of maintenance. Historic Scotland are also beginning to grasp the issue seriously and imaginatively, and so too are some local authorities. The SPAB of course offer simple practical advice to owners. We ourselves are planning to take the experience of running a pilot maintenance inspection in Bath and, with the support of the Ecclesiastical Insurance Group, to launch a similar service for places of worship.

However, this is not enough. We have for too long had a system in this country that across a spectrum of fiscal measures rewards those that ignore maintenance. Reform of the present, perverse, VAT rules is long overdue. Did you know that the UK is the only country in Europe not to allow taxation relief for maintaining historic properties? But we don’t need to wait for fundamental fiscal changes, or a statutory duty of care, another of the report’s recommendations.

We can do a lot, lot more now to help owners understand why maintenance is important and to tell them of the simple steps that many can take to maintain their own homes, and where to go and who to call when outside help is needed. We can promote and encourage.

For too long we believe that in this country that despite all the good and honourable words there has been only passive endorsement of maintenance: now is the time for pro-active encouragement and support. The report includes a series of recommendations, practical and workable suggestions we believe, for all parties – agencies, industry, professionals, government. It is an agenda for action.

There is nothing inevitable about what happens next. Time and again the report comes back to the question of a lack of leadership. We have here under this roof a galaxy of people who can help us and our partners take this forward. We can all help put maintenance at the centre of conservation policy. Do we really want to put it off again?

Richard Pollard, Chairman, Maintain our Heritage
speaking at the launch of the report
Putting it off: how lack of maintenance fails our heritage
on 24 November 2004
at Wilton’s Music Hall, Grace’s Alley, London E1 8JB