Our Research Director Claire Harding sat down with Rebecca Eng to discuss how we can embrace London’s heritage while also adapting these buildings to meet our environmental goals.
Claire: Your job in Kingston is about heritage-led regeneration. What does that mean?
Rebecca: It’s an interesting question, because there are different ways to look at it. Conservation and regeneration are both processes of managed change: the former is about assessing, evaluating and managing changes to heritage assets, while the latter combines building reuse, urban design and new-build projects within the framework of economic development. Both depend on sound economic viability and good partnerships. The background of my role is to balance both of these positions, whilst championing and centring the former.
Kingston, as I’m beginning to discover, has a really rich and significant history. It was first granted a Royal Charter in 1200, was the site of the coronation of 10th Century Saxon kings and was an important centre for trade and industry – for centuries Kingston was the only place where you could cross the Thames up from London Bridge. Pevsner, the architectural historian, recognised the medieval street plan of the old town centre as “the best preserved of its type in outer London”. I’ve recently joined the council to champion this heritage, and try and make sure any change prioritises the significance of the existing historic environment.
More generally, I think because 20 percent of our houses in the UK date from pre-1919 and we have something like 500,000 listed buildings, plus the fact that the built environment plays a significant part in our understanding of our cultural identity, it’s almost a given that heritage leads successful regeneration projects. This is counter to the so-called ‘Bilbao effect’ of the 90s and 00s, which was very much about new iconic architecture. Heritage can often be seen as a constraint, but it’s really an asset of value. This is increasingly recognised by the government in the National Planning Policy Framework, the National Design Guide and the Levelling Up agenda, and by the Greater London Authority (GLA) in the current London Plan.
Claire: What does good heritage-led regeneration look like? Are there places which are already doing it well?
Rebecca: Strong partnerships and good community engagement are central to it, because our understanding of heritage and historical value shouldn’t be given top-down: it really comes from a communal understanding.
One compelling and oft-cited example is the case of Covent Garden and Seven Dials in Soho, which demonstrates the fluidity of shifting values in heritage. In the 1960s, the Greater London Council (GLC) had plans to comprehensively demolish and redevelop the area, after the market moved to Nine Elms. But public opposition to the plans, and calls to preserve the character and fabric of the area, resulted in a public inquiry and the listing of 200 buildings in the area. The GLC was instructed to draw up a new plan and form a formal consultation body – the Covent Garden Forum of Representatives. A new Area Action Plan was created in 1978, and the GLC was itself responsible for the development of many of these buildings. The Market House was restored and the London Transport Museum moved into the former Flower Market. Now the area’s conservation is still managed by the Covent Garden Area Trust. I think it’s a really interesting example of how one of the most well-known places in central London has become a national exemplar of regeneration through partnership between community groups and representatives, and planning authorities, with the active conservation of built heritage – when the original intention was to do the opposite.
Historic England are also working with a range of partners on Heritage Action Zones, and High Street Heritage Action Zones, specifically to look at re-invigorating historic High Streets. Neglected and disused buildings and streets are being celebrated and brought back to life, with the aim to kickstart wider regeneration.
Claire: We sometimes talk about ‘adaptive reuse’ – adapting heritage buildings for new purposes. What are the big questions when doing this, and can you share any good examples?
Rebecca: Any changes to listed buildings or structures are likely to require Listed Building Consent. The current National Planning Policy Framework also requires that any proposed development that affects any (whether designated or non-designated) heritage asset comes with a heritage statement that explains the significance of the assets that will be affected. This is a process that, when followed through as intended, allows both the applicant and the local planning authority to assess what is significant, how it will be impacted, and how any changes can work to ideally enhance and make the most of that significance. Successful adaptations will also depend on the building’s location, and whether the new use is viable in that location.
While the focus on cultural significance is derived from the Australian Burra Charter, conservation practice in the UK has also been heavily influenced by the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), which was founded by William Morris and Phillip Webb in the 1870s. The Society has a fabric-first approach which calls for maintenance and repair over removal of fabric, and is against ‘false’ restoration or historical pastiche. Any adaptations or alterations should complement what exists, and not compete or pretend to be original.
It’s interesting that the term ‘adaptive reuse’ is seen as a relatively new strand of design, when buildings have been adapted for different uses since they were built in a way that enabled them to last! One historical example of this in Kingston is the Grade 2* listed 37-41 High Street, which is a unique example of a Tudor open hall house dating from around 1550. It’s thought to be the oldest surviving example of domestic architecture in the area, which was later adapted to include shop premises on the ground floor: now occupied by Pizza Express and Nando’s. As noted by Julian McCarthy in the book Kingston upon Thames in 50 Buildings, even though our statutory listing system only really exists from 1947, this building was kept in really good condition. A record from 1891 states, “the building is kept in remarkable repair, and presents some architectural features, typical of the age it was erected…. although the house has evidently got into hands that can appreciate it as a relic of a bygone time and treat it accordingly, [the butchers] have also their trade to consider and have apportioned a part of the frontage to the uses of commerce”. That demonstrates appreciation of what was significant about the building, whilst adapting it for contemporary needs.
Continuing outside of central London, a very contemporary example is the new Woolwich Works in Greenwich. This project was led by the council and renewed five listed industrial buildings as part of the Royal Arsenal, to create what they hope will be a new cultural hub in London. I look forward to visiting it and seeing how they have dealt with the transformation from the place of the manufacture of arms to a place of free artistic expression.
Claire: What are the challenges for adaptive reuse, modern sustainability and low carbon criteria?
Rebecca: There seems to be a renewed interest in the intersection between heritage and the climate emergency, which people who have been in the conservation sector for a long time might be frustrated by. That’s because the practice of conservation is inherently sustainable. So it’s interesting that conservation is sometimes seen as a barrier to retrofit, whereas a balanced, risk-based assessment of different interventions and their effects on the different parts of a building is what conservationists do in their day-to-day work. As I previously mentioned, maintenance and repair are central. The key challenge is that not enough people in the built environment sector are skilled up to grapple with all the issues, which includes the fact that the performance of a traditional building is different from a contemporary one. It’s not ‘one method fits all’; time needs to be given to properly assess the existing building’s performance, and to understand how it should perform if it were functioning as it was originally designed to. There are risks of unintentionally making the problem worse, for example, by installing non-breathable insulation all over the walls without the proper assessment.
Because of this, it’s often seen as easier to take the modernist ‘tabula rasa’ position, which is to demolish and rebuild. And development pressures, the difference in VAT rates – between new-build and refurbishments – add to this. The GLA is introducing Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessments, and that will help, but more needs to be done to support the prioritisation of reuse over demolition. 42 per cent of the UK’s carbon footprint is from the building and construction industry, and most of the focus is currently on reducing the emissions from buildings when they are in use, whereas we could be saving significant amounts of embodied energy and carbon that are used to build new buildings and to demolish old ones.
I should add that the various technical issues, and guidance on how to deal with them, have been well set out by various heritage organisations including Historic England, Historic Environment Scotland, the Sustainable Traditional Buildings Alliance, SPAB and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation.
Claire: What would you recommend London residents do if they are interested in a local heritage site?
Rebecca: It depends on ‘how’ they are interested! They can check whether the site is nationally listed, and if it’s not, anyone can apply for listing via Historic England. They can also contact the local Conservation Officer in their local authority – if there is one – or ask their local planning authority to point them in the right direction. If it’s an empty house, it may also be worth contacting their local Empty Homes Officer. They could also connect with any local heritage societies who may be able to advise. If it’s something of particular concern, they could raise the issue with their local councillors. Community groups can also nominate certain assets to be listed as Assets of Community Value. If it’s something that needs funding, they could look to the National Lottery Heritage Fund or the Architectural Heritage Fund.
Claire is Research Director at Centre for London. She joined the Centre in 2020 and is responsible for our research programme. Before joining Centre for London, she worked at Coram Family and Childcare. Claire has also previously worked in mental health and local government consultancy.
Rebecca Eng is Heritage and Conservation Lead at the Royal Borough of Kingston Upon Thames. She is part of the Regeneration and Economic Recovery team; liaising with various council services, external clients, stakeholders and the general public to manage change affecting heritage assets. Rebecca is currently a Public Practice Associate, and an architect with experience in heritage, community-use and housing projects.