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Opinion

Glasgow’s historic buildings have been neglected – but we must not repeat the mistakes of the past

The disastrous tearing down of tenement districts in post-war Glasgow should be a lesson for policy makers eyeing up redevelopment, writes MSP Paul Sweeney.

John Betjeman, the celebrated English poet and passionate defender of Britain’s Victorian architecture said in the 1960s that the visitor, “was so entranced by Victorian Glasgow…this is the greatest Victorian city in the world.”

Indeed, at that time it was the fastest growing industrial city in the world and Second City of the Empire, with a river of shipyards that sent more ships to sea in a year than the whole of Germany. This great prosperity left a physical legacy that continues to bear fruit in the designs of Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson and Sir George Gilbert Scott.

Glasgow’s extraordinary portfolio of heritage buildings were predominantly built in the half-century between 1870 and 1920, and continue to provide well-loved homes, workplaces, and public attractions that are fundamental to the visual character and atmosphere of the city.

While many have stood the test of time, often despite the odds, others have not. In the 30 years from 1950 to 1980, over 100,000 tenements across the city were demolished, while in recent years, world-famous institutions like the Glasgow School of Art have been ravaged by fire.

While it might be expected that not all buildings will last forever, Glasgow’s plight is symptomatic of a lack of long-term public policy with preservation in mind, especially considering the majority of the city’s buildings are now over a century old and require ever more intensive maintenance as key building elements become life-expired.

Despite the post-war ravages of mass demolitions, there are still over 76,000 tenements remaining in the city dating back to pre-1920 period. Of them, the Built Environment Forum Scotland estimate that 60% are in need of urgent repairs worth an estimated £3 billion, storing-up a time sensitive maintenance crisis.

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It is a crisis that demands the immediate attention of policy makers at all levels, or we risk losing them forever. In 2020, a survey conducted by Glasgow City Council laid bare the scale of the challenge facing Glasgow’s historic buildings. They inspected 500 tenements at random across the city, resulting in some properties being hit with repair bills of up to £150,000, an eye-watering sum of money that means government intervention is essential as these bills can often exceed the value of the property, effectively leaving owners bankrupt.

Yet despite repeated warnings, both financial and physical, progress has been painfully slow. The current draft timetable provided by the Scottish Law Commission means that legislation to tackle the crisis would not be drafted until at least 2026, while the UK government refuses to budge on its perverse policy of charging 20 per cent VAT on retrofit or renovation projects while demolition and new builds are VAT-free.

Sadly, the laisse-faire approach of both governments to preservation of our built heritage seems set to continue.

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Just last month, Martin Robertson, chair of The Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland wrote to the Scottish government to express his concerns about the ludicrously lacklustre level of funding allocated to conservation amid reports that Historic Environment Scotland could leave many historic properties in its care to ‘die gracefully’ rather than actively maintaining them.

Given the cultural significance of the architectural assets concerned, deliberately allowing them to fall into irreversible disrepair, without so much as a public debate about it, amounts to gross negligence by those charged with their care.

Although Glasgow’s architectural landscape may be unique in Scotland, its challenges are not. Across the UK, policy makers are attempting to strike a balance between preservation of historic buildings and the housing crisis that is engulfing major cities. It is a tension that is unavoidable but one that we must ensure does not lead to unchecked erosion of our past.

Perhaps uniquely, Glasgow as a city still bears the scars of that approach in years gone by. In the post-war era, inner-city tenement districts were indiscriminately pulled down and replaced by sprawling motorways and wasteland.

Functional, vibrant communities were obliterated, and their residents displaced to soulless, car-dependent suburbs on the outskirts of the city, or shoddily built tower blocks with minimal amenities. It is a failure of public policy still felt to this day, with Glasgow’s population of just over 600,000 roughly half that of the 1.1 million living in the city during years immediately following the Second World War. Indeed, Glasgow is the only city in the western world – with the exception of Detroit – that has the dubious title of being a former ‘million city’.

Today with the pandemic leaving our city centre depleted of activity as people work from home, it feels as though we are at a similar juncture, facing many of the same dilemmas. It is therefore all the more important we do not just repeat the destructive mistakes of the past, but now take bold action to reverse it and re-urbanise Glasgow.

Paul Sweeney is the Labour & Co-op MSP for Glasgow and a trustee of Glasgow City Heritage Trust.

@PaulJSweeney

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