I am very grateful for the opportunity to speak to so many of you today and I am particularly grateful to the Minister, Arlene Foster, for the interest and enthusiasm she has shown in heritage and regeneration in Northern Ireland.
Some of you may realize that these are issues I have been trying to emphasize for over 20 years. Why?
We are what we’re surrounded by, as we are what we eat. The 20th Century has seen fragmentation and zoning on a grand scale, leading to ghettoes.
We need to break the conventional mould and re-discover the timeless principles about place-making, building communities, emphasizing local identity and culture.
Heritage-led regeneration – not wasting precious assets – respecting dedication, skill and commitment of our forebears – we owe it to them, the unsung craftsmen and women, to honour their memory and to convert and to re-use the legacy they have left us.
The Built Environment of Northern Ireland offers challenges and opportunities in equal measure and I applaud the fact that the Minister and her civil servants in the Department of the Environment and the Environment and Heritage Service are clearly placing a high priority on finding new ways of releasing the potential of this unique legacy. I have also been struck by how much of the energy and creativity in re-using buildings in Northern Ireland has come from the voluntary sector, such as the work of the Building Preservation Trusts at Christ Church and Belmont School in Belfast and, in a small way, my Prince’s Regeneration Trust, which has been supporting a project to regenerate Conway Mill in West Belfast since 1997, as well as the regeneration of the Crumlin Road Gaol.
This involved advising on all aspects of project development and I understand that The East Belfast Community Development Agency was sufficiently impressed by the competence and consistency of our support that its Chairman, Sammy Douglas, invited my Regeneration Trust to help a project in East Belfast on a similar basis, which we were delighted to do.
Following several discussions and a site visit by the Trustees of my Regeneration Trust and Advisers, it was agreed that we would adopt Templemore Avenue School as a project for charitable support and I understand that the marvellous Fionnuala Jay-O’Boyle, who is a Trustee of my Trust – and who is such a help to me and is, I am sure, well known to many of you – together with my Regeneration Trust’s Chief Executive, Ros Kerslake, both of whom are here today, are now taking forward work to this end. I know that they are very much looking forward to being helped on the Advisory Group by Richard Rogers, after his retirement from the Environment and Heritage Service,
So the initiative taken by the Department of the Environment and, in particular, the Minister, Mrs. Foster, in organizing this conference, is a most important milestone which I trust will be warmly welcomed. I understand that The Minister is determined to put in place a “Heritage Strategy” that will have at its heart heritage-led regeneration and will offer incentives to building owners, as well as enhancing the role of Building Preservation Trusts.
And in a city and province that has previously been so divided, it is refreshing to hear that the conference celebrates heritage for all communities – old and new.
Dare I say it, I think the challenge for business, commerce and the wider community in Northern Ireland is to respond to this strategy by recognizing the economic, environmental and social returns that come from supporting buildings of heritage value. In a nutshell, heritage regeneration is good for business and a great deal better for the environment by not wasting precious assets and by enhancing sustainability through, perish the thought, beauty and attraction.
Some examples of successful regeneration from other parts of the United Kingdom are the regeneration of Stanley Mills and Anchor Mills in Scotland – both achieved through the agency of my Prince’s Regeneration Trust. They show what can be done in terms of enhancing property values, as well as demonstrating the vital importance of consulting the local community around all these issues of regeneration and the local built environment. If local people can feel involved in this process wherever possible it can make an immense difference to future sustainability.
Moving on from regeneration to issues of design and planning, I know that the Minister and some of her civil servants have visited my Duchy of Cornwall development at Poundbury, in Dorset, within the last year, and I just wanted to tell you – very briefly – about my Foundation for the Built Environment, which seeks to improve the quality of people’s lives by teaching and practising timeless and ecological ways of planning, designing and building.
The Foundation's Enquiry by Design process, which puts community engagement at the heart of planning and design for sustainable neighbourhoods, has proved to be extremely useful in achieving consensus about development and regeneration, thereby, very often, reducing the normal planning time from some two-and-half years to five days. The Enquiry by Design might, conceivably, be useful for projects such as Templemore Avenue School, where the issue involves more than one neighbourhood, and perhaps in dealing with some of the many redundant Ministry of Defence Estates. My Foundation has demonstrated – both in practical projects and in research with Savills – that walkable, mixed-use and mixed-income development, that tells a local vernacular story, generates premiums, both in gross development value and in environmental and social benefits.
All I can say is that my Foundation for the Built Environment would very much like to work with builders, developers, engineers and planners to help demonstrate these benefits in Northern Ireland, particularly – perhaps – in relation to the need to overcome, and reconcile, the tragic fragmentation of communities.
Finally, one thing that has occurred to me over the last year or two is that here in Northern Ireland you have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to ensure that some of the large sites currently being disposed of by the Government in Whitehall – one or two of which, such as St. Lucia Barracks, near Omagh, contain interesting and historic buildings – are re-used in a sympathetic way, and in a way which helps drive regeneration. All I want to say is that – irrespective of who ends up owning the sites – it seems to me that it would be such a tragic missed opportunity (an opportunity that has been missed all too often in England, I hasten to say) if these sites, particularly those with some historic buildings attached, were not given a new and sympathetic use that at the same time provided a physical means of reconciliation in a creative way.
Needless to say, I look forward to seeing what is done in due course and both my Prince’s Regeneration Trust and my Foundation for the Built Environment stand ready to be of what assistance they can in terms of finding ways to work with building owners and the public sector to ensure that heritage-led projects are not stifled by regulation and delay. Thereby resulting in unique buildings becoming ever more derelict and pointlessly wasted. It is important to remember that such projects can give a real boost to the confidence and aspirations of deprived communities.