Building preservation trusts offer a lifeline to vacant heritage buildings at risk
Saturday night on 5th August saw another vacant property succumb to fire, the Crooked House at Himley near Dudley.
Days later the building was demolished. Whatever the outcome of the ongoing investigations into the fire at this location, people and organisations the length and breadth of the country are mourning the loss of this distinctive landmark building where coins and marbles appeared to roll uphill along the bar.
Sadly, this isn’t an isolated incident, in 2020 the Victorian Society reported the loss of the Grade II listed Great Northern Railway Warehouse in Derbyshire, when fire tore through the building causing the roof to cave in. The warehouse had been left derelict for over 50 years and was at tipping point back in 2017. It followed similar incidents at the Grade II listed Tolly Cobbold Brewery and the Fison’s Factory, both in Ipswich.
In our own region, a spate of attacks in 2012 on derelict buildings in Walsall saw three disused buildings connected with Walsall’s leather industry substantially damaged by fire – the Grade II-listed Boak leatherworks, William House and the former Jabez Cliff factory reduced to rubble.
The impact of damage to any building by fire can be substantial and significant, devastating communities. In the case of historic buildings, Historic England recognises that the effects of fire (and arson in particular) are often compounded with the irreplaceable loss of cultural, social and artistic heritage.
Historic England’s Vacant Historic Buildings – Guidance on Managing Risks (2018 updated in 2021) states: ‘When historic buildings are left vacant they are at a greatly increased risk of damage and decay as well as being a potential blight on their locality’. The guidance’s aim is to help owners and purchasers of vacant buildings to reduce the risks by undertaking an ‘active management approach’ as opposed to mothballing. It recognises the role of building preservation trusts in supporting a sustainable future for heritage assets at risk from dereliction and vacancy, with potential to unlock additional sources of funding.
West Midlands Historic Buildings Trust was established in 1985 and is empowered to operate within and around the West Midlands conurbation covering the local authority areas of Birmingham, Coventry, Dudley, Sandwell, Solihull, Walsall, Wolverhampton and surrounding districts.
We are a registered charity and act as a not for profit developer to secure long term sustainable futures for listed buildings at serious risk. Together with our partner Trusts in Wolverhampton and Worcestershire, we have restored 20 at-risk historic properties and acted as a catalyst to enable several other projects to be taken forward by others.
Trust Chair, Sue Whitehouse said “It is so incredibly frustrating that the loss of heritage buildings much loved by local communities continues to occur on a regular basis. Our Trusts stand ready to assist owners, communities and local authorities to find solutions to often complex problems to breathe new life into buildings at risk.”
With the support of Historic England, we have also recently developed an app that allows members of the public to help identify heritage buildings at risk, and to nominate buildings for Local Listing, sometimes leading to Statutory Listing. We hope it will become a useful tool for members of the public to support the work of our Trusts and Conservation Officers in local authorities. Our app currently covers the West Midlands, but we have ambition to extend it beyond our region. If you are interested in supporting Buildings at Risk, please do consider volunteering with us and supporting the wider work of the Trusts. Find out more on our website BAR Hub pages at Volunteer Opportunities – Buildings at Risk Volunteering Hub (wmhbt.org.uk)