Artillery Row

Burning down the House

Parliament will be destroyed if the narrow-minded idiocy of MPs like Dehenna Davison get their way

Parliament’s been aflame with talk of heritage this past week, and not just problematic statues. After the abominable, potentially unlawful upholding of Tower Hamlets’ decision to destroy the Whitechapel Bell Foundry, Robert Jenrick (after shunting responsibility to his underling Luke Hall) has further tried to pass the buck by commissioning a judicial review into the way in which heritage concerns are assessed by the Planning Inspectorate. In apparent penance he overturned Tower Hamlets’ decision to murder the 400 year old Bethnal Green Mulberry tree, and the plans to demolish Whitehall’s excellent 1980s moderno-classicist Richmond House have been rescinded. 

The aim of the Richmond demolition had been to throw up a quick new build that could act as a temporary home for parliament during the ongoing, large-scale refurbishment work at Westminster Palace. The choice to retain is a good one, not least because it will be considerably easier on the environment (much greener to refurb than to rebuild) and costs will be significantly reduced. It is this latter point that Dehenna Davison, Tory MP for Bishop Auckland, felt compelled to weigh in on at a recent parliamentary debate. She shared a clip of the speech online, writing “Instead of spending £500m on gold plating Parliament, I’d rather spend money on stuff that matters”. After Twitter gave her the sort of hostile response she hadn’t been expecting (“Wow, aren’t people getting over excited?!”), she explained that actually the clip had been taken out of context (by… herself?), and linked to the full speech. In it she grudgingly acknowledges that Westminster Palace is an important building, “but” (so many buts), “I cannot stress how important it is that the cost of the work is reduced as much as possible” before quoting Katherine Fletcher, MP for South Ribble, on prioritising the shortest of deadlines: “no longer than six months is tenable or we risk … our global trading partners [asking], ‘Well, why would I use your company for my projects when you can’t renovate an old building to time?’”

The disdain for and ignorance of built heritage, and the complex and nuanced realities of restoration and repair, flows through the over-simplified speech as the River Wear flows through Davison’s County Durham. To cut corners on a project like this is to undermine it completely. To underfund it now only costs more money in repairs long term; to do a shoddy, hurried job leaves it vulnerable to the kind of large scale collapse that makes the entire enterprise pointless (one is put in mind of Notre Dame). To think that our “global trading partners” will give two hoots about the speed with which we “renovate an old building” is ludicrous in more ways than one. A country is not a company.

In 1834, parliament was on fire. Literally. After about 50 years of various official reports warning that repairs were urgently required, that the condition was degrading and posed a fire risk, the ancient Palace of Westminster, first built by the son of William the Conqueror, burned to the ground. The advice had been ignored. The MPs whined and dithered about costs, about inconvenience. In their drive to cut corners, inestimable records and architectural heritage built up organically over 700 years were destroyed. The astonishing replacement structure we have inherited drove one of its designers insane, killed the other, and was finally completed by his son in 1870, after 31 full years of construction. Not only is it Grade I listed, but since 1987 it has been a UNESCO world heritage site, acknowledged as “of universal value”. Today, after years of poor, slapdash maintenance, it finds itself in similar danger of fire, flood and destruction. This “old building” does matter. Without urgent work it will be lost.

To cut corners on a project like this is to undermine it completely

Jenrick’s judicial review into heritage comes in this context. Long overdue, the very decision which prompted it demands scrutiny; the Whitechapel Bell Foundry destruction was only upheld because Christopher Pincher, a junior Minister in the Department for Housing, crowed to MPs that Jenrick was going to save the foundry well before he’d finished reviewing it. This would have been improper pre-determination, so the developer could have appealed a refusal as unlawful and pushed for a judicial review; the government thus had no choice but to approve for fear of legal challenge.

But of course this is equally improper – the decision to approve was thus for the wrong reasons, still a biased pre-determination; the only difference is that the wealthy developer, Bippy Seigal, is not likely to challenge it.

Also overdue a review are Historic England themselves. Not only did they do nothing to protect the Foundry, but they actually sold their services to the developer to coach him on exactly how best he could get around the planning system. Why? Because of a concept called adaptive re-use, whereby they would rather kill the thing and have the corpse made up to look like it’s alive, than actually save it from death in the first place. They have no mechanism in place to appreciate or acknowledge the value of living heritage, of maintained human culture, trade and tradition.

It was the hubristic, narrow-minded idiocy of MPs like Davison and Fletcher that destroyed Westminster Palace the first time around

The flaws at Historic England run deeper than bodged, middle-class priorities. Take the case of Carham Hall, mistakenly de-listed in 1988 and unnoticed for over 30 years, causing untold damage in the meantime and taking it to the very brink of demolition, with no planned investigation into how it happened, why it wasn’t noticed sooner, or how to ensure it doesn’t happen again (the name change from English Heritage doesn’t baptise them of responsibility, and how had no county Conservation Officer flagged it up in 30 years?). Take the recently uncovered flaw in the listing system, whereby legally recognised minority religions like Spiritualism fall outside of the narrow definitions provided by the DCMS listing guides, and so little to no protection can be given to their buildings. Not a single piece of Spiritualist architecture has ever been granted listed status, despite the movements’ huge historic cultural impact. Today only a handful are left. For how long?

It was the hubristic, narrow-minded idiocy of MPs like Davison and Fletcher that destroyed Westminster Palace the first time around. Even after watching Notre Dame de Paris burn, their priorities remain unaltered. A review is certainly needed. Into the unlawful pre-determination surrounding the Foundry decision; into the position of heritage both in the current planning system and in any future revisions; into the many failings from Historic England to recognise the value of living culture, their favouring of adaptive re-use over maintained tradition, the murky betrayal of Carham Hall, the near total loss of Spiritualist architecture; most of all, perhaps, we need a review into the unqualified disdain in which establishment figures hold the public heritage which they have an obligation to protect. Then, when the reviews are complete, we need to actually take them seriously. If we don’t, it all goes up in flames.

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