Ladies and Gentlemen, when Lord Iveagh bequeathed Kenwood to the nation in 1927 he said he wanted it to be free for everyone to enjoy. So it is wonderful to be here at Kenwood this evening to see it open once more for business, with the wonderful works of art back on display again. And a free dinner for nearly all of us, except those who have to sing for it! And rather unenviably, by the look of it, you have to preach to the converted here in this remarkable tent.
I was also very touched to be invited to help celebrate one hundred years of effort to protect as much of this country's rich and unique heritage as possible. Incidentally, as well as the centenary, it also happens to be the year English Heritage celebrates its 30th anniversary. And as I recently reached 65 myself, I am even more conscious of the ongoing need for restoration... !
When taken in comparison with other parts of the world, it is remarkable to think that since 1913 there has been a government body charged with identifying those buildings, monuments and open spaces in need of protection for the sake of this country's heritage. The idea first appeared forty years earlier, so the original “Ancient Monuments Department” when it finally came into being really was a world leader.
It is also a particularly powerful example of people taking an all-important long-term view, which makes the work done by English Heritage very close to my heart. Being a historian by inclination and training, I suppose I realized a long time ago just how powerful heritage can be when it comes to uniting people and strengthening the identity of a community. “Heritage” can all too easily be thought of as a static, museum-bound concept, but I regard heritage as very much a living thing after all, what it represents and enshrines is the accumulated skill, devotion, craftsmanship and creativity of countless men and women who have gone before us. In this sense, and apart from helping to tell the story of these islands of ours, we surely owe it to them to find new uses where appropriate for the buildings they have so beautifully crafted...?
I suspect it must be many years ago now that I first began to see the madness of abandoning perfectly sound buildings very sound buildings, if the Victorians had built them simply because the original use for them had run its course. I was convinced that with a little imagination, well-constructed old buildings can very easily be transformed into particularly attractive structures for contemporary use that not only serve a practical purpose, but also act as a powerful catalyst for social regeneration within communities.
I remember vividly in the early 1990’s that there were so many buildings going to waste: those magnificent mill complexes and other historic buildings in town centres that had become derelict,the target for arsonists and vandals and a real blight on their communities; the vast military complexes; the historic hospital sites and all those imposing but beautifully planned mental asylums that were coming out of Government ownership; all put on the 1 market without proper thought about their future and, invariably, bought by people who left them derelict and disintegrating.
And yet we know particularly through the work of my Regeneration Trust that heritage- led regeneration can help to turn a local economy around and create jobs. So far, in the sixteen years or so since I created the Regeneration Trust, the projects it has been involved in have helped, in one way or another, to bring new life to abandoned buildings, to provide a major contribution to the heritage-based sector of the tourism industry, which is now worth £26.4 billion to the UK economy. And from the analysis I have seen of the difference it makes to a business if it operates out of a restored or listed building what you might call the “heritage premium” that comes with these buildings amounts to an extra £13,000 per business per year. So heritage is good for business too!
Ensuring the future of our heritage is not, however, just about giving businesses nice places to work in. It is a powerful way of bringing back to life the often deprived communities in which so much of this heritage is situated. The experience of taking on the rescue and restoration of Dumfries House has confirmed the added social, psychological and environmental value of heritage-led regeneration. It is frequently forgotten, I find, just how much so many people love the old buildings in their area, surrounded as they are by increasing ugliness and disintegration. When consulted, they vote with their feet for the re- use of much-loved old buildings, many of which of course their relations and forebears will have worked in or, indeed, helped to build.
This, of course, is why the work of English Heritage matters so much, but it does hinge on how a building is either acquired or disposed of, and that has not always been done well. English Heritage, though, has taken some remarkable steps to improve the situation.
It has long struck me as a problem that if we want to save and convert the sort of heritage property I have mentioned, we have to find better ways of dealing with the sale of historic sites so that if a purchaser fails to do anything with the building within, say, two or three years, or fails to find a sensitive, sympathetic solution for it, then they should be required to return the property to the public body that originally owned it or, at least, have it transferred to a charitable body which has the experience, talent and means to do something with it.
There is no doubt that the introduction of a set period of time in which to maintain or restore a building can be a key element in making the most of what is left of our heritage. It was this kind of conditional disposal in order to avoid the embarrassment of such a prominent building becoming derelict that was a significant and crucial factor in the successful re- development of Admiralty Arch, and I can only pray that Historic England, as it will become, will be able to work closely with other, related organizations to develop this approach in the future especially bearing in mind a fresh round of Government disposals taking place as we speak. Surely, this time, we could get it right?
And, surely, if property developers began to see heritage buildings as a brand asset in other words, as offering a distinguishing degree of character that improves the marketability and its returns then what remains of our heritage building stock might be seen less as an irritating and complicated problem of conversion and more as the driver of high quality new building that respects local identity and enhances the wealth of our built environment. In this sense, I am delighted that the trading arm of my Foundation for Building Community has managed to raise commercial funds to acquire heritage sites that have character and offer opportunities 2 for conversion and for new build. If sites are developed sensitively and commercially, not only does it enhance the quality of life for communities, it also contributes to the richness of our heritage in the future. It produces decent commercial returns and also offers the kind of sustainable future that creates a building legacy of which future generations can be proud.
Of course, much of this is really only possible if we have a strong, expert and independent national heritage agency. So I certainly wish English Heritage every success in its new guise. But I will also watch with mounting interest and concern as to how the protection work improves in its effectiveness when the new, non-departmental public body, Historic England, sets up on its own!
Ladies and Gentlemen, there can be no greater guarantee for the future of a truly civilised society than one that treasures and keeps alive the heritage of its past. It is a heritage that should not be locked away, nor fenced off, but simply put responsibly beyond the reach of accident. Long may you and this remarkable organization continue to ensure that this is so.