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Are conversions really preserving heritage?

Farringdon heritage buildings

A better marriage between planners, developers and local people could ensure reuse of heritage buildings that properly respects the history and character of place, says Michael Tomlinson

As urban regeneration gains momentum in cities across the UK, the act of retrofitting historic buildings to suit new purposes is becoming fashionable.

In Belfast, for example, the Titanic Quarter regeneration has seen a mixture of excellent developments growing out of the surrounding brownfield land and some ‘sympathetic’ uses being dreamed up for the docks’ pre-existing built heritage.

As a key enabler of developments like these, which may have regional importance, planning must ensure such proposals are given due precedence. Offices, hotels and the like encourage broader investment in cities, as well as offering modern uses, and a new lease of life, for heritage buildings. But if only the shell of the original building is retained, and its inside has been cored and redeveloped, can we really say the ‘heritage’ of that building been preserved?

“In some unfortunate cases planning falls short of an appropriate solution”

It is understandably important to find a solution for what to do with derelict buildings. But is stripping them of their historic importance to secure shotgun investment the right solution? Is converting docksands buildings, which were never intended to be apartments or hotels, into apartments and hotels, preserving the heritage of the area?

By stripping out the core and converting them into something else, buildings are stripped of their heritage. The importance of areas such as the docks in Belfast lies in more than their marketing value. To historians, families of the original workforce and anyone particularly interested in the preservation of the built heritage, these areas are a tribute to the expansive industry standing strong and proud within the city.

The people of an area are a key asset to any regeneration project. Family histories and connections are at least as important as the buildings. Through better marriage of planning and development, local people could be better used in creating a deeper, less material outlook to preserve the fabric of these vital areas. Greater cohesion between planners and developers could help to fulfil more than a minimum of development criteria.

The developers’ concerns with brand and the planners’ concerns with the importance and improvement of place for people can surely be married. Planners have the power to control the regeneration of built heritage, but in some unfortunate cases planning falls short of an appropriate solution. Offices and hotels are far from unique.

Perhaps more engagement at pre-application level, understanding the wants and needs at the local level before appealing to a global stage may offer a more comprehensive solution to the regeneration of our built heritage. 

Michael Tomlinson is a second-year planning student at Queen’s University Belfast


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