Budget savings ‘pose threat’ to listed buildings

SCOTLAND’S historic buildings are at increasing risk from government budget cuts and a weakening of the protective role of the agency charged with their protection, according to leading architects and conservation bodies.

Critics of a new corporate plan produced by Historic Scotland fear that the agency is giving away control of some of the country’s important listed buildings to councils, which will favour economic development over preserving the built heritage.

They also claim that the agency’s plans to boost the profile of its own flagship properties, such as the castles at Edinburgh and Stirling, will leave less money to help private owners of world-famous historic homes to market their properties.

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The concerns over Historic Scotland’s future have sharpened following Perth City Council’s decision last week to demolish its century-old City Hall building.

It is feared that the agency may pull back from recommending protection of the B-listed Edwardian structure to the Scottish Government. Critics claim it is under rising pressure to leave B-listing decisions – the secondary level of protection – to local authorities.

Neil Baxter, secretary of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland, said: “If Historic Scotland were to approve the demolition, then there is a huge question mark over the future of all of Scotland’s listed buildings, because expediency and cost savings become the priority, rather than the quality of our built heritage.”

The corporate plan, which has been put out for public consultation, says the agency is embracing the “strategic priorities of the Scottish Government’s economic strategy... to accelerate economic recovery and drive sustainable economic growth”.

“We are profoundly concerned if Historic Scotland intends to move away from its role as the protector of Scotland’s heritage towards something that looks more like a marketing organisation,” said Baxter. “Both are necessary, but without protection there will ultimately be much less to market or promote.”

Leading Scottish architect Malcolm Fraser, who specialises in converting historic buildings, said: “There is a terrifying threat to the built heritage and a great fear that Historic Scotland is going to have its powers removed. It seems to me that the Scottish Government is wanting to look as business-friendly as possible, at a time when we should know that letting big business and development get on with things has hardly worked for Scotland.

“There is the fear that if Historic Scotland shows its teeth over Perth City Hall, and in general, the powers that be will make it pay.”

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An observer, who asked not to be named, said: “It is a general loss of direction of Historic Scotland that people are angry about. It’s trying to align itself with government economic policy and let that dominate everything. They want to put their money not into the best buildings but in what meets government policy.”

Major concerns over the direction of the corporate plan were echoed by the Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS), which represents voluntary and non-government organisations in Scotland, as well as the Historic Houses Association (HHA).

The BEFS noted there is no mention in the new plan of Historic Scotland’s grants for heritage buildings and warns “delegation of decision-making on B-listed buildings to local authorities at a time when local authority capacity is diminishing is a cause for concern”.

“There is concern amongst BEFS members that there is a shift away from the safeguarding/regulatory role, towards a softer education/outreach role. It is crucial that the document strongly articulates the safeguarding role of Historic Scotland.”

Historic Scotland’s statutory duties include scheduling sites of national importance, listing buildings and taking sites into state care.

It is the last arbiter in listed building disputes, as in the case of Perth City Hall.

An HHA spokesman, representing owners of 250 historic homes, including Blair, Inveraray and Glamis castles, warned of a “sea change” in Historic Scotland’s approach.

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It said that with Historic Scotland suggesting it will aim to make an extra £13 million a year from its big money-making attractions to cover the funding gap, it is concerned it will draw their own visitors away from its properties.

HHA council member Finlay Lockie said: “There appears to be a sea change in the government’s view of what the purpose of Historic Scotland is, that its regulatory and protective functions appear to have dropped away.

“From the HHA’s point of view, it’s the competition on revenue that’s the biggest worry.”

A spokesperson for Historic Scotland said its corporate plan sets out the agency’s vision for the nation’s rich historic environment and its strategic priorities for the next three years.

“We have had an excellent response to the consultation on our corporate plan that closed last week and appreciate the time and effort from all of the individuals and groups that took part.

“This is the largest internal and external consultation the agency has ever undertaken and aims to represent the wide-ranging interests and expertise of all aspects of the historic environment. We are currently examining the responses in detail to take the comments received into account. It will be published in early 2012.”