WITH some fanfare, the Government recently launched a scheme to let local people name the buildings and other landmarks they would like to preserve in their community.
Indeed, but will they be heard and respected, or will the exercise be as useful as calling spirits from the vasty deep? The scheme is to be supported by a special fund of £700,000 – across the whole country.
This is barely pocket change. To put it into perspective, York Minster needs £2.5m a year for maintenance and repair. That is for one building, although a very special one.
The scheme could achieve much more by a matching provision to let local people name the eyesores they would like to demolish in their community.
I would predict a massive response. It would be highly instructive to developers, local authorities, and planners to have a bare list of the most hated buildings and structures in a locality, and even more so if people gave their reasons.
In some cases, it might be the result of bad maintenance and decay, in many more cases, a building or structure will be hated for its impact on its local environs, especially when it generates unmanageable traffic, or blocks a view of something which people would rather see (such as the sky).
Some tall buildings create their own microclimate for passing pedestrians, turning the slightest breeze into an Atlantic squall in winter or a Saharan sandstorm in summer.
Others may reflect the vanity of architects, particularly those in the form of pointless gigantic imitations of everyday objects, such as gherkins or cheesegraters. The word “iconic” is often a giveaway: I suspect that buildings so described, especially by their designers and promoters, will be highly placed as candidates for demolition orders.
Some buildings are unpopular not individually, in one place, but because there are too many of them and they all look the same in any place – such as supermarkets and hamburger chains – and make towns and cities look identically drab. This is especially true if they have replaced a distinctive building which people wanted to keep. One might therefore vary the scheme to offer people the chance to opt for demolition plus restoration.
Other buildings, particularly large-scale developments, are unpopular not because of what they are but because of something they do not have (a decent pub, café or restaurant, facilities for leisure, entertainment or children’s play, green space).
Let’s have a simple vote on buildings and structures, like the EU referendum, to let local people say “No! I don’t like looking at it and I don’t like going there”.
It would be especially instructive if, as is likely, many people asked for demolition of the places where they have to work and live, such as the dismal estates, unloved, unwanted and unsafe where councils have dumped people, or the cheap boxes put up by private developers for quick profits from desperate buyers.
Anger and despair might well induce some people to list entire neighbourhoods for demolition – although that has happened all over the country without necessarily generating anything better.
Yorkshire is the ideal place to pilot a scheme of this kind, containing a great range of landscapes and towns and cities which have been benighted by thoughtless ugly buildings and structures. If I may say so as a Londoner, Yorkshire people are noted for their independence of mind. They are enemies of abstract theory and pretentious folderol, in architecture and planning as in everything else. Their selections of the ugliest buildings in Yorkshire could galvanize the rest of the country to demand the demolition of their local monstrosities.
If architects and developers and planners everywhere knew which buildings were hated and why, it is just possible that they would not repeat them.
One afterthought for planning authorities. They should not approve any major non-residential development unless it offers public toilet facilities. I hear sniggers: suppress them.
Well-maintained public toilets make a major contribution to public health and public decency. Without them, people excrete or vomit in the street or even in private gardens, and they are not necessarily drunken yobs but law-abiding respectable people in desperation. Public toilets are already under-provided and I am certain that they are being lost faster than being replaced. Some have even been turned into fashionable cocktail bars, and are thereby creating additional demand from their patrons when they finally stagger out of them.
New public toilets might become part of the replacement for any building subject to a democratic demolition order – turning an excrescence into a convenience.
Richard Heller was chief of staff to Denis Healey and Gerald Kaufman.