Intrinsic value can make buildings worth preserving:
‘Thou shalt not kill; but need’st not strive
Officiously to keep alive’
This cynical couplet is probably the Victorian poet Arthur High Clough’s most quoted piece of verse; the only other phrase you might recognise was quoted by Winston Churchill in the darkest days of the Second World War.
In a BBC broadcast on April 27,1941, he quoted Clough’s ‘Say not the struggle naught availeth’; the poem’s last line, ‘But westward, look, the land is bright’ was taken to be a glance towards America and possible help in the conflict. Clough’s phrase about officiously keeping alive is often applied to medical matters, but it came to mind last weekend when Austin Mitchell, MP for Great Grimsby, addressed the Yorkshire and Humber Association of Civic Society’s meeting in Cleethorpes.
He told members from civic societies across the area that he believed that there are too many listed buildings and that the only criterion for keeping listed buildings should be that they have a current use.
He used the local example of the Ice Factory in Grimsby Docks to make his point. The Ice Factory was built in 1901 to supply ice to preserve fish landed in Grimsby from the deep sea fishing grounds as it was prepared for market.
As an Edwardian industrial building it was constructed with care and very solidly, but the significance of the structure is as much in the ice-making machinery it contains.
The combination of the building, the machinery and its location on Grimsby Docks makes it special – but also poses problems.
English Heritage has recognised the significance of the Ice Factory, which closed in 1990, by listing it Grade II*.
That puts it in the top seven per cent of UK buildings. It is the only surviving example of a type of industrial ice-making equipment which remains in its original surroundings – certainly in Europe.
Austin Mitchell says that there seems to be no other viable use for the building and therefore, with reluctance, he believes it should be demolished. His opinion is based on the amount of repair this very large structure needs; on the fact that the local authority, like all authorities at this time, has other –possibly more urgent – priorities; on the demands of keeping Grimsby Docks as active as possible and on the problems of security.
In 2010 the Victorian Society named Grimsby Ice Factory as one of its ‘Top Ten Endangered Buildings’; in the same year the Great Grimsby Ice Factory Trust (GGIFT) was formed by local people united by the desire to save the Ice Factory and find a sustainable use for the building. GGIFT believes that a solution to the problems of the building can be found without an injection of local authority cash.
The current proposals are to preserve most of the machinery in situ, and also for the building to house a variety of other uses, including, perhaps, an international arts venue, a renewable energy hub, a climbing wall, a performance venue and a microbrewery – as well as, logically, a refrigeration museum.
These are all good ideas, and they should be pursued. The Ice Factory should be saved. But if none of them achieves a sustainable future for the Ice Factory, what then? Following Mr Mitchell’s dictum, that should be the end; the building should be demolished.But that cannot be right. A building’s listing is not hedged about with caveats. It does not say “this building is listed as long as it has a useful function to fulfil”. Buildings are listed because of their intrinsic significance. That significance may come from their original use – the Ice Factory is a good example of this, of course, but then so are our great country houses and our churches and chapels, many of which have also outlived their original usefulness.
We now have a listing mechanism precisely because in past decades there were huge losses of important buildings; the 1974 exhibition ‘The Destruction of the Country House’ illustrated hundreds of them, and its successor exhibition, ‘Change and Decay’, catalogued an equally severe loss of churches.
Listing must mean that a building is to be protected unless there are overriding and immovable circumstances that cannot be overcome. The higher the grading, the stronger the protection is presumed to be – but even Grade II listing, the lowest we have, should offer a large hurdle for anyone wishing to demolish.
Owners of listed buildings have a legal duty to look after them; local authorities have a legal duty to ensure that they do so.
Arguments about sustainably can be discussed, and civic societies around the country, including Ripon Civic Society, are always deeply involved in discussions to find viable uses for ‘problem’ buildings.
Giving an historic building a new lease of life is important if it can be achieved. But that is not the sole purpose of listing, and its failure cannot be an excuse for demolition. We already have cause to regret that many important buildings have been lost – buildings that with care and thought could have been saved.
We must not take a short view; what today might seem a white elephant may tomorrow have an important role to play. Think, for example, of the disused Bankside Power Station in London, which, after much head-scratching about what to do with a large industrial building considered by most people ripe for demolition, has now been triumphantly reborn as Tate Modern.
So Austin Mitchell, persuasively as he spoke, is wrong. We do need to strive to keep buildings alive and working if possible – but if their future remains a problem for us, we still need to look after them properly. Future generations will not thank us for some of the decisions we have already taken. Let us at least accept that the listing system is a way of helping us to decide what we should pass on to our successors.