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How to preserve Edinburgh's heritage and build a modern city

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5 Jun 2008

Historic Malcolm Cooper, Chief Inspector at Historic Scotland, looks at the tension between preserving Edinburgh's heritage and responding to modern pressures

Edinburgh’s historic environment – its buildings, and monuments, its places and spaces – is incomparable and is, without doubt, worthy of its world heritage status. And yet an all-too-familiar argument has recently broken out in the press and in the professional journals. Heritage, the argument goes, is by its very nature a constraint, heritage protection has gone too far, heritage bodies are unrealistic, and finally, heritage (some would argue arts and culture as a whole) can only be afforded once the economy and physical infrastructure is in a sound state.

There is a belief that heritage is about the past while regeneration is about the future. The two, therefore, are by their very nature incompatible. It follows then that heritage will always be a constraint to development and, incidentally, development will always be bad for heritage. It sounds convincing and yet is, I believe, in most circumstances misplaced.

The historic environment, in Edinburgh and across Scotland, offers major opportunities not just for tourism and education but for social and economic regeneration, for place-making, for identity and social cohesion and, of course, for sustainability and tackling climate change. The real debate needs to move away from unhelpful caricatures and instead should be focussed on how we release heritage’s extraordinary potential against this broad agenda.

In my experience of heritage and land-use change across the UK, there are, essentially, two approaches that developers can take. Two similar regeneration proposals, seeking to bring late Victorian mill complexes back into use as mixed-use residential schemes, illustrate this. In both cases the complexes comprised a series of brick structures, designated as listed buildings.

In the first case the developer recognised and engaged with the potential of the heritage at the outset. Their development team included heritage expertise, they commissioned studies so that they fully understood the significance of the site and could identify where the areas of flexibility existed in terms of demolition and adaptive re-use. They also involved the relevant heritage bodies at an early stage in the project to check that there was a common understanding of the site, its potential and how the historic environment was to be used to help deliver the wider project goals. By the time the application was submitted, the project team were as expert on the complex as the heritage bodies and the proposals went though the planning process with exemplary speed. Importantly though, the result was that the majority of historic buildings survived with sympathetic modern additions, but that the historic environment added significant value more broadly across the wider development goals, including profit, sustainability, place-making, marketing, and local character, all attractive to developers with an increasingly discerning market.

In the second case, the developer decided that the historic buildings were of no value (despite their listed status) and worked on the assumption that they could and would be demolished. The result was entirely predictable. There were very significant delays, adverse press coverage, local and national politicians involvement, public funds were lost and most importantly, the empty buildings continued to blight the local businesses and the local community for an extended period. They also missed the significant opportunities that the historic buildings could offer to their wider goals.

The key point here is that heritage is an opportunity or a constraint, not in itself but because of the way we approach it. Crudely speaking, if you treat heritage as a constraint, you undoubtedly will turn it into one. If, however, you treat it as an opportunity it is likely to reward you in ways which go significantly beyond your expectations.

So how can we ensure that the historic environment plays a strong role not just for those interested in heritage but for the broader social, cultural and economic agenda? The answer lies in strong working relationships between the local authority, the landowning and development community and those bodies in the heritage sector.

Local authorities always will play a key role. In setting out clearly why they value heritage and importantly, by identifying the role they see for heritage as an integral part of their broader social and economic agenda, they can provide an important framework within which change can be managed. The use of planning powers, particularly through master-planning wider areas and preparing development briefs for specific sites, can help reduce risk and uncertainty for all by highlighting the historic environment considerations, identifying where change is more or less likely to be acceptable and how new buildings can fit within a historic context.

For developers and owners, the key is to identify at the outset that heritage is an opportunity and then to explore how it can contribute across both the scheme’s and a local authority’s broader financial, social and environmental agendas. This process can be readily unlocked if the development team has the benefit of historic environment expertise so that both the nature and the flexibility of the historic building(s) or area can be identified at the outset. This in turn unlocks the potential of the historic environment to actually inform and inspire development – something I call characterful regeneration.

The heritage sector is often seen as opposed to all change but this is more of a caricature than reality. I believe it is widely recognised that some change is inevitable and indeed beneficial for historic areas. A healthy economy is, after all, necessary to generate the funds for maintenance and repair of historic buildings and areas. This is not to say that anything goes of course. The key is informed change, understanding why elements of the heritage are important, where flexibility for change exists, and where preservation in part or in full is desirable. The heritage sector is well placed to contribute to the development of informed change and to help release the potential of heritage for broader social and economic goals. In this context it is important to mention that our historic environment can play a crucial role for sustainability and climate change. Historic buildings are adaptable and can offer, therefore, very significant benefits over demolition, land-filling and rebuilding.

Edinburgh’s historic environment is important on a world stage and such a legacy brings with it significant responsibilities for us and for generations to come. But it also brings with it major opportunities. It is both unhelpful and ultimately impossible to separate out managing a city’s heritage from managing a city as a whole. If we can manage the city’s heritage in a mature and informed way and as an integral part of wider social and economic agendas, not only will we get the heritage we deserve, but we will also get a stronger society, culture and environment, something that Patrick Geddes recognised only too well. Heritage is about the future as much as it is about the past.

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