It is unusual for public servants in New Zealand to publicly challenge members of the public or private companies for not looking after their heritage buildings. It is perhaps our attitude of ‘a man’s [sic] house is his castle’ which is behind our culture of allowing owners to do virtually anything they want to virtually any building they own, no matter its significance to the wider community. There are of course a few exceptions: buildings listed as heritage items on district plans have some restrictions on some development, but in many cases this is turns out to be a weaker system than many people think it is, and the listing of a historic place by Heritage New Zealand gives buildings no automatic protection whatsoever, despite what most people think. Furthermore, even if buildings are listed in district plans, owners can simply withhold maintenance, to allow them to fall to the ground; what heritage professionals call ‘demolition by neglect’.
Councils and Heritage New Zealand certainly work every day with owners and their architects to assist them to do better by their heritage buildings, but this is mostly behind-the-scenes advocacy. Local authorities and government organisations such as Heritage New Zealand very rarely put together lists of heritage buildings at risk, either by demolition or demolition-by-neglect, today. I remember seeing some such lists in the past: the Wellington Supreme Court was one example I remember was once on a New Zealand Historic Places Trust (now Heritage New Zealand) list – although in that case this didn’t involve the shaming of a private citizen, but rather the government shaming itself, as the building was owned by a government department.
A more recent exception was the mention in an article in the Dominion Post earlier this year written by Andrew Coleman, the new Chief Executive of Heritage New Zealand, about the neglect and then demolition of Ihaka House, near Feilding, by the Catholic School Hato Paora, also known as St Paul’s Maori Boys College.
Ihaka House, originally known as Parorangi, the house built for Ernest Short in the 1910s, in its original condition and in its more recent state, just before demolition. Ernest Short was one of New Zealand’s most noted farmers of his day, and the house was considered one of our finest country residences when built, and definitely one of the largest. When it opened the Evening Post noted that it was ‘built to endure’, but unfortunately it has not. The old boys of Hato Paora and the descendants of Ernest Short unsuccessfully tried to convince the school to save the building, which was demolished at the start of 2017.
Heritage At Risk in the United Kingdom
In contrast to the limited examples seen here, in the United Kingdom the idea of lists of ‘Heritage at Risk’ is a concept which is generally accepted by the public and the heritage profession. Historic England – the public body tasked with the listing of historic buildings and sites (previously called English Heritage) – maintains a list of historic places and sites considered at risk for a range of reasons. They have been collating this information since 1998. And it is not a handful of examples – it is a colossal undertaking. In 2014 the following places were considered at risk:
- 889 Grade I and II* listed buildings
- 497 conservation areas
- 887 places of worship
- 3,012 scheduled monuments
- 339 industrial sites
- 4 protected wreck sites
- 93 registered parks and gardens
- 6 registered battlefields
The buildings and places could be considered ‘at risk’ for any number of reasons. The principal risk listed for one motte and bailey castle in the West Midlands, for example, is ‘Stock erosion – extensive’, as it is for many archaeological sites, along with ‘arable ploughing’. Risks for other buildings are more specific, such as for a house in Birmingham: ‘Formerly converted to flats by a housing association, the building is now in private ownership but has been subject to vandalism and a small fire and is now suffering from dry rot and isolated structural issues. Localised repairs have been carried out, but more needs to be done; meanwhile it continues to deteriorate with missing tiles, decaying windows and other issues’.
The listing for each place is updated every year, and Historic England are careful to remark on any improvements made during the year. Each year the owner is given the opportunity to request changes to the listing, if they have removed risks to the building or they think it is inaccurate. Buildings in private ownership are listed as well as those in public ownership.
A published leaflet about Heritage at Risk in the West Midlands in 2016 highlights the specific example of the Moseley Road Baths, just near where I used to live in Birmingham (pictured above). The baths, which opened 100 years ago this year, are one of the most complete examples of Edwardian Bath Houses in England. They occupy an ornate brick and terracotta building, with round-arched cast-iron trusses over the pools. The building retains an amazing amount of original detail, including first and second class pools, changing booths, drying racks, ticket offices and ‘slipper baths’ for individual bathing. The listing for the baths in the Heritage At Risk Register states although the grade II* baths have been on the register since 2005 they continue to decline in condition. in charts that a Friends group and an Action Group which have responded to the plight of the baths and have begun to campaign to save it. The report concludes that through their hard work, and Historic England funding, a sustainable future for the building may have been found.
The colossal work done every year by Historic England to bring this Heritage At Risk list together means that the picture of heritage and its threats are easy to see, and publicly available. It also allows Historic England to carry out specific studies on trends and impacts on certain types of heritage: for example, their yearly studies have found recently that designated Places of Worship are in serious crisis, and that the percentage of listed industrial buildings at risk is three times greater than the national average for listed buildings at risk. Through this work it is possible to supports bids to government and lottery funds to preserve such places.
Heritage At Risk in New Zealand?
Is it a time to overcome our ‘house/castle’ mentality and develop a public list of heritage buildings at risk in this country – from earthquakes, development, planning decisions, vandalism, demolition by neglect etc? It would certainly be a lot of work to compile, so what would be the value?
It would allow help councils to see outside their own boundaries to understand the value of the particular at-risk building, style or architect on a nationwide stage. It could help to highlight the small number of modern buildings on district plans, and what could easily happen to all the others that are not listed. It could highlight the parlous situation faced by thousands of archaeological sites around the country. It could help us to understand in more detail the massive risk currently faced by the country’s stock of churches: anecdotally I have heard of a huge number of churches that are under threat as a result of dwindling congregations, but how can we possibly quantify this without a national list? And how can be work out what we want to do about it without this information? After the Christchurch earthquakes such a list could have quantified and highlighted particular types of architecture that were even more at risk than others – the tiny number of Art Deco buildings in Christchurch springs to mind – and allow better decisions to be made for those buildings, and for a neutral body to advocate on behalf of those places to the local authority. I have seen journalists write, after the Canterbury Earthquakes, that a particular building is the last example of the work of a certain architect, but it’s very difficult to know if that is true, without the work and oversight of a national body to collate this information. It would also shine a little public light onto owners, like that of Ihaka House above, who are not caring for listed heritage buildings as they should, before it is too late.
In the years directly before the Canterbury earthquakes, the Wellington City Council had a secret list of earthquake-prone buildings, which it would not publicly share, so as not to cause embarrassment to their owners. After those earthquakes, it changed its tune – realising that keeping secrets like that just didn’t cut it any more. The list is now available, and the stickers are on the buildings. Isn’t it the same for our heritage buildings and sites at risk?
Historic Image of Ihaka House: Feilding Public Library.
Other images: Heritage At Risk, Historic England, publications