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Developing historic England

14.12.17

This week Richard Upton was appointed a Commissioner for Historic England. Here he reflects on the importance of heritage for those creating new places.

History is too important to be left to historians. It affects all of us, helping to define us as a nation and a people. It is, in part, history that makes a country the place it is.

Take England for example. Some of that is about the physical aspects of the country. The rainfall and climate that allow grass to grow which, combined with the absence of wolves, meant sheep have been able to graze for centuries in a way they couldn’t on mainland Europe. This enabled the wealth of the wool trade on which late medieval England was built. It is about the rivers that made moving that wool so much easier, and the sea which we crossed to export to Europe and the rest of the world.

It is also about the physical assets we have built, the places we have created through history. Ask a tourist what they think of when they think of England, and they’ll probably mention Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Downton Abbey. Ideally, they might also mention the delights of post modernism and more contemporary architecture and places such as Tate Modern. 

Just as history helps define a nation, so, on a smaller scale, should it help define and shape the places that we create as developers. If we ignore it, we risk creating places that are not authentic and do not work for the local community. To be authentic one needs to be inclusive: it is as simple as that. With inclusivity and authenticity come belonging, place and sustainability. 

Take for example Mayfield in Manchester which we have recently been appointed to develop. This 24-acres at the heart of the city was home to the Mayfield railway station which opened in 1910 and has been derelict for the last 30 years. Before that Mayfield was home to Thomas Hoyle & Sons’ print works. Renowned for its technical innovationand design, it was a "must" on the route of Victorian visitors to Manchester who came to experience the spectacle of a mile of calico being printed in an hour.

Do we ignore all this history and reduce the magnificent Victorian railway buildings currently on site to rubble as the original plan for the site assumed? Or do we instead take inspiration from our understanding of the site’s history and blend these iconic buildings into a new future for Mayfield and by embracing local history build a better place? Can we use the seeds of what once grew into world class to help re-imagine a new world class order - for Hayes for Hastings for Harlow or wherever? Look carefully enough and the raw material exists to make things great. 

There are other lessons history can teach us. As the post-war German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer said: history is the sum total of the things that could have been avoided. We can learn from its mistakes. We understand that if we put up concrete blocks of flats with no sense of community, we create a recipe for social problems. Right now, as we dash to build more homes, that is a vital lesson to learn.

So, we must work with the grain of historic places and buildings, and we must learn from them. Learn not just what is right, but also what is wrong. The lessons are too serious to ignore. If we in the property industry can really embrace place, heritage and culture in everything we do - shift to working with the grain rather than fighting through appeal and inquiry what might seem troublesome or applying references like sticking plaster, we will see a new dawn of growth in our industry. Better still the tens of thousands of people we employ will be a greater force for good, enjoying what they do every day so much more. 

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