At the AGM a celebration birthday cake was shared by everyone present and a copy of the Anniversary booklet ‘Fifty Years on securing North Craven’s Heritage’ was distributed, copies being posted to other members not able to be present. The following week the booklet was formally launched at an evening function held at the Folly for Trustees of the North Craven Heritage Trust, the North Craven Buildings Preservation Trust and the Museum of North Craven Life and invitees who had played a part in these organizations in past years. Anne Read, President of NCHT, opened the proceedings by welcoming James Innerdale who gave a talk on all aspects of conservation of current concern, followed by a response from John Asher, Chairman of NCHT, all as follows.
Anne ReadWelcome to the Folly as we continue with our 50th Anniversary celebrations of the NCHT which began last week at the AGM in Victoria Hall. There could be no better place than the Folly for this gathering tonight. Over the last 50 years it has been the centre of all the endeavour that the NCHT and its off-shoot organizations the NCBPT and the Museum have made in their work. I think I also feel strongly that it is a place which symbolizes everything that we aspire to in terms of our aspirations, resilience and faith in the future of our organizations. It is also a building which is extremely familiar to our guest speaker this evening. James is the immediate past chairman of the NCBPT and a very well-known conservation architect who provides advice on building restoration with hands-on practical workshops given all over the country. We are delighted that this evening he is back on home territory where he has spent so many hours in many capacities, either with tape measure or chairing lengthy meetings and I would like you to join with me in giving him a very warm welcome.
I would like to talk a little about building conservation and my experience of it in the North Craven area. I have been here for just over 20 years, so not quite the length of the life of the Trust, but a good amount of time. We are all here today because we are interested and passionate about the historic environment and historic buildings but I think it is quite important to take a step back for a moment and ask ourselves why? What is it about the historic environment that we value? Why do we value it? It is more than the fact they are old buildings. Looking back at the origins of conservation it all started with William Morris and John Ruskin. To quote John Ruskin from the Seven Lamps of Architecture he said ‘God has lent us this earth for our life. It is a great entail. It belongs as much to those who come after us, as to us. We have no right by anything that we do or neglect to do, to deprive them of the benefits which it was in our power to bequeath’. That idea of trusteeship is also something that William Morris was very passionate about when he set up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, including in the manifesto with reference to old buildings, the line ‘they are not in any sense our property we are only the trustees for those who come after us’.
I think that it is very important to understand that buildings are not set in aspic, they are not isolated icons, they are living, breathing three-dimensional history. Most have been changed and adapted over time; some of them are representations of the accumulation of power and wealth, but there are also lots of lovely simpler farm buildings where the opposite is true, their simplicity being part of their value and quality. There is also the craftsmanship and the beauty associated with the construction of many buildings and they are also very significant because we value them in this respect. This is something that Historic England now identify as part of their ‘Conservation Principles’ document that is the overarching guide as to how we should be approaching looking after historic buildings. They have recognised that there is a range of different values associated with historic buildings, not just the fact they are old, and the Folly in Settle is a good example of this range of values. There is historic value in the fact that it is a building of age. There is archaeological and evidential value in the fabric we have uncovered but also evidence of how it was used as a lawyer’s property in its past. There are also architectural and artistic values associated with the building’s form and design, the quality of the windows and the detailing and craftsmanship associated with its construction. Then there is also crucially the communal value, the fact that we all value the Folly as a building. With this in mind I was interested to read in ‘50 Years On’ the reference to the mounting steps in Alan’s introduction. The steps are a very simple structure, but the point about the mounting steps is that they held very important communal value. They were not necessarily of architectural beauty or quality but they had an important value to the community. They also hold historic value from the perspective of the purpose they served.
Interaction with historic buildings forms part of our daily life and it is important that when we are thinking about how we use, adapt and go forward with historic buildings we appreciate all the values that I have been talking about. They can very readily be lost, and if we are going to do some work on an historic building it should be informed by an understanding of that building rather than having proposals imposed upon it. There is a danger that subtle, less obvious values can get lost as part of this process, particularly in the current climate when perhaps from a planning perspective at local authority level the officers may not necessarily have the skill base to fully appreciate and understand the buildings that they are looking at. This is why the role of the three Trusts is really important for a number of reasons; their existence and experience over 50 years; the Museum’s archive which is really important in terms of developing our understanding of the various buildings, and the combined knowledge and skill of all the members of the Trusts.
As I have said, I have been practising building conservation in this part of the world for about 20 years. Do I think it is has got better or worse over that time and how has it changed?
Well, positively I think the risk to listed buildings and losing them through demolition is thankfully a very rare thing and probably will not happen. But I think the increased pressures of development, also highlighted in ‘50 years On’ is going to more subtly impact on a lot of our historic buildings. In rural areas like ours it may not be the building itself, but the context and the setting, be it within the town or a farmhouse out in the countryside. These two issues are very important so I think there is some good and bad there.
Other positives I am encouraged that there is an increased understanding of traditional building construction, an understanding of the idea of breathability and the availability of traditional materials as well. When I first started you had to go up to Scotland or down to Derbyshire to get materials rather than sourcing more locally. There is also an increase in traditional skills and crafts. There are more contractors, both smaller scale one or two-man bands and bigger ones who are genuinely interested in the built environment and doing things the right way, and that was not necessarily the case when I first started. If you had an important project you would probably bring a contractor in from outside the region to do it, but now we have more of a local skill base.
From a negative perspective, I have already mentioned development pressures and we have just had a revised National Plan Policy Framework (NPPF) which whilst generally good, includes the potential to penalise local authorities if they don’t actually meet their housing measure in terms of numbers of houses. That is perhaps fine but to achieve the targets requires a greater amount of staff resource at local authority level to assess the proposals and their impact on the existing historic buildings and setting. Unfortunately as we all know at the moment staff resource is going in the other direction. Making cuts within the heritage sector at local authority level is a fairly easy thing to do without people kicking up too much of a fuss. I am therefore concerned that poor decisions will be made because of the lack of resources. That is where the skills of the three Trusts again comes in and will become more and more important going forward on the assumption that things are probably going to get worse rather than better.
In my experience, working with our two local planning authorities, there is also unfortunately an inconsistency of approach. Craven as we know does not have a Conservation Officer per se and relies on the planners having a degree of conservation knowledge which unfortunately it does not really have. This is happening not just here, but across the country. I have been doing some training for Historic England, training planners and conservation officers who have just started out on their career about the idea of conservation, which recognises that planners are going to have to deal with historic environment on a regular basis. On the flip side the YDNPA have a Conservation Officer and a conservation team who are generally good, but I have concerns that they are perhaps at times slightly less flexible or less practical than desirable leading to property owners just going ahead and doing work rather than putting in a listed building application. Understandably this inconsistency of approach can also be frustrating for owners of historic buildings.
So on balance I think we are in a better position than we were when I first started working in North Craven but I think we are probably in a slightly worse position than we were five, ten years ago, which has as much to do with resources rather than anything else, sadly. So going forward, I again emphasise the importance of the Heritage Trust and Building Preservation Trust and their ongoing pivotal role. But also I think it is important that the role needs to be constructive. There is a tendency for heritage bodies to be viewed as organisations who just say ‘no’, rather than making a positive contribution. Activities that raise people’s awareness and appreciation of historic buildings as a positive and valuable asset are equally important.
That is all I have to say other than to quote from Anne Read’s piece in ‘50 years on’. It says:
So what lies ahead? We must try to live in the present, take care of the past and plan for the future. I think that is a very good philosophy to have.
Response from John AsherThank you James. Thanks also to all the hundreds of trustees and volunteers over the last 50 years; it is you who have created the achievements which the booklet records. Without you, nothing would have happened. It is fitting that we meet in the café here, a symbol of the work of NCBPT trustees to put the Trust on a firmer financial footing. So thanks to all those who brought our commemorative booklet into being:
And Alan Bennett. What can I say? He was our catalyst in countering inappropriate re-development when our local politicians didn’t want to know. He led us as President of one or other of our Trusts for almost all of the past 50 years. He has supported us with this booklet. We hope that both Alan and the booklet will be an inspiration for the future because in the coming years there is more to do.
I thought a few months ago that we were winning the arguments about inappropriately developing Hellifield Flashes, Runley Mill and so many of our towns and villages. Not so. 21st century development is based around an urban model of estate, residential or industrial, put up as a mechanised development. Historically, most of our Craven towns and villages have grown steadily, but generally as individual buildings, designed in varying styles, coming in ones or twos. This preserves a gentle ripple of variety without seriously detracting from the vernacular cores of our communities. Now one drives into villages whose first impression looks, as Alan Bennett says “just like suburban Leeds”. The rows of similar faux-stone and detailing are inappropriate and overpowering. More of this is promised. Yes, we can grow our housing and places of employment. But please, not at the price of dropping suburban estates onto our countryside, towns and villages. There is so much that is wrong with this model. So thank you, Alan, for defining a major task for our future, in the very area where it all started....
Other challenges for the future are a-plenty:
We hope that Trustees will use this small volume to raise awareness and to inspire recruits to the benefit of the North Craven we all love.
Cover of the Fiftieth Anniversiy Book