Former industrial buildings in the West Midlands should be redeveloped to house new “green” industries to preserve the region’s manufacturing heritage.
Tim Johnson, English Heritage’s planning director for the West Midlands, said buildings that once housed firms which drove the country’s economy could be re-developed to contain new advanced manufacturing and creative businesses and industry on which the UK’s future now depended.
He said: “We’re trying to find a beneficial use for these buildings and if it means they are converted and enjoyed, that’s far better for them than being kept as monuments.
“We’re not the manufacturing capital of the world any more but these buildings are a legacy of our past.”
Mr Johnson was speaking in response to the launch of English Heritage’s latest Heritage At Risk register, which revealed that 83 per cent of people polled in the West Midlands rated the region’s industrial relics as highly as castles and country houses.
Nine out of 10 people in the region also considered it vitally important to value and appreciate the country’s industrial treasures. Just five per cent wanted industrial sites demolished and replaced with modern buildings and structures.
Nationally, listed industrial buildings are more at risk than almost any other kind of heritage.
Almost 11 per cent of Grade I and II industrial buildings are at risk, against just three per cent of structures used for other purposes.
There are 44 industrial sites in the West Midlands on the Heritage at Risk register, including the historic Soho Foundry in Smethwick, Curzon Street railway station, which will house Birmingham’s link for the planned High Speed Two rail service, and the waiting room at Worcester’s Shrub Hill station. Sites were said to be under threat because they were not considered attractive by developers due to possible contamination and the scale of conversation costs.
Difficulties in raising finance were also a hurdle to development and led to more industrial buildings remaining empty for longer, Mr Johnson said.
Mr Johnson said: “Britain led the way in global industrialisation and the West Midlands was the cradle of the industrial revolution.
“As a result, we are custodians of the world’s most important industrial heritage. It is vital to remember, however, that it is one of the elements of our heritage most at risk.”
He warned that 60 per cent of industrial buildings would never attract new developers and businesses.
“Its future could be bleak but as our poll shows people are passionate about their industrial past,” he said. “Since the 1960s there has been a strong tradition of local groups taking on the preservation of their industrial heritage. That is why we are working closely with organisations like the Prince’s Regeneration Trust to safeguard the future of our industrial heritage.”
English Heritage is planning to introduce a series of measures to combat the decline of Britain’s industrial landscape and will undertake at least 25 projects nationwide to protect sites.
Successful schemes include the redevelopment of the Newman Brothers Coffin Works by a building preservation trust and the English Heritage-owned Evans Silverworks in Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter.
The heritage body is planning to turn itself into a “marriage agency” to bring together developers and the 40 per cent of listed at-risk industrial buildings which can be put to sustainable and economically viable new uses.
And to recognise that the tough economic climate, English Heritage said it may need to encourage owners to “mothball” important buildings so that they did not fall into disrepair before uses could be found for them.
It is bringing out a new set of guidance and £2 million in grants to help owners protect vacant historic buildings until uses can be found for them, for example by making sure the roof is on and pigeons are kept out.
There will also be help for heritage rescue groups which could be the answer for those buildings which cannot be reused, typically because they have historic machinery, engineering structures or the remains of mining operations.
Mr Johnson said: “We’re not naive to believe change isn’t going to happen but at least we can raise the profile. “People can be made aware of the industrial heritage on their doorstep and if there is willingness to keep these sites, maybe there’s an opportunity.”