Contributed by Dr. Angela Drakakis-Smith
Although there is no overall development plan, piecemeal planning is going ahead. After a recent survey of all the buildings in the town centre conservation area, it was obvious that this has been the strategy adopted by the council in the past – a strategy which it intends to perpetuate, it seems. The sheer ugliness and bad temperedness of some of the buildings in the centre are testament to the ad hoc policies of not seeing the big picture or of having an overall vision for the town centre. This means that each building has been assessed on its own merit and not with regard to other buildings around it. In visual and aesthetic terms this often means disaster for a townscape. The old has been removed and replaced with new which often means cheaper materials and poorer workmanship. Buildings thus deteriorate more rapidly giving the overall impression of being run down, and looking old before their time. The problem with any building is maintenance. The shoddier the construction and materials used the more maintenance a building requires. Already newly erected buildings are in need of external repair within the first two years of its life. Because older buildings were better built, where they are allowed, they survive despite neglect. The ethos of development is to tear down the old and replace with new. Thus how can the old which is of value (and not everything that is old is) be preserved? National government has suggested that each local authority in England prepare a local list of those buildings worthy of retention, and to preserve those of note from some developers who have scant regard for history or historic landmarks. Architects are often not concerned with their designs fitting in – indeed the object of their exercise is to make their building stand out – and often they do, like sore thumbs. Already in Newcastle there are too many of these. How can the old become reconciled with the new? First there needs to be some empathy between place and architect/developer. This is often lacking. Second, there needs to be some agreement between architect/developer and the local population of what is good and what is acceptable and what is worth building and retaining – also lacking. Instead we have groups like Urban Vision who are treated by the local authority as if they are the sole arbiters of taste and of what is ‘good’. Big mistake! Third, instead of blanket demolition there needs to be more assessment of how a new development can meld with or be incorporated into the old. A case study might be the Market Lane area which is already being groomed for development. Many of the buildings there have little architectural merit and are derelict from neglect. It is likely that the bulldozers will move in and flatten it wholesale. And this would mean demolishing a very interesting Victorian building – possibly once a warehouse – which could usefully be retained. The Civic Society has attempted to place this building on the local list, which, hopefully, will protect it. It has also suggested that it be incorporated into any new building and made a feature of that building. Will this happen? Only if the NBC begin to inform developers of what they want and expect (rather than what they don’t want) – and before developers draw up their plans. It will also depend upon whether the NBC have the skills to curb the slash and burn tendencies of some developers.