Lottery Fund is just the ticket for heritage projects
The Heritage Lottery Fund has £375m for projects this year – welcome news for a particularly hard-hit sector. Stephen Cousins reports.
See the case studies accompanying this article:
Ruined castles dilapidated country houses and neglected archives are among the heritage projects that stand to benefit from £375m in funding being offered by the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) during 2013-14. The total, which is more than double the £180m available after the credit crunch took hold in 2008-09, is the result of increased lottery ticket sales and the return of funds previously diverted to the Olympics.
This is good news for the conservation, restoration and refurbishment sector, which has suffered considerably as a result of public spending cuts and reduced availability of funding from banks and other heritage trusts and foundations.
English Heritage (EH), steward of more than 400 significant historical and archaeological sites and Britain’s other major heritage funder, had its government grant cut by 32% in the 2010 public spending review, forcing it to reduce staff by 200 and suspend various programmes.
The years of economic strain since then have led to the collapse of several well-known names in heritage contracting including Linford Group, Quibell Construction Group, Quarmby Construction and E Bowman & Sons, which has had a knock-on effect on their supply chains.
At the same time, the downturn has affected local authority conservation departments. According to recent research published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC), council conservation teams have been hit by a 31% reduction in overall staff numbers during the past six years, which is having a significant impact on the amount of project work going forward. Fiona Newton, projects officer at the IHBC, explains: “There are now very few staff working on generating new projects for council-owned properties or seeking funding through organisations such as the HLF. Some of these staff were also involved in running conservation-led local regeneration schemes, traditionally a good source of work for heritage building contractors.”
In the past, speculative developers might have repaired or refurbished a historic building knowing they could sell it and recoup their costs. But from 2007 to 2012 the “conservation deficit” – the shortfall between the cost of repairs and the market value of a repaired property – increased from £330m to £423m, and the average deficit per site rose from £267,000 to £366,000, according to EH.
As a result, only 13% of the Grade I and II* buildings on EH’s Heritage At Risk Register are thought to be economic to repair, which highlights the scale of public subsidy required if these historic treasures are not to fade into dereliction.
“Before the recession we received a large amount of work from property developers wanting to revitalise buildings, but now these projects either aren’t going ahead or are getting held up,” says Tony Townend, managing director of restoration contractor William Anelay. “It’s partly because they can’t secure matched funding [to augment grants] and have to find alternative non-traditional means of financing, or they are struggling to find end users. We recently completed the £4.8m Wakefield Waterfront historic warehouse conversion for developer CTP St James, but they couldn’t find a tenant.”
In an effort to improve access to funding, in November 2010, the HLF reduced its matched funding requirements from a minimum 25% contribution to project costs to as little as 5% for grant requests of up to £1m and 10% for grant requests of more than £1m. It also introduced a more flexible approach to grant increases when live projects hit trouble.
Unsurprisingly, pressure to bring down project costs is having a negative impact. Townend has found that the documentation architects send to contractors to price against is often less thorough than before the recession, and as a result, contractors submit higher tender prices than the client has budgeted for and projects are unable to go ahead.
And the overall dearth of work means that non-specialist contractors are now competing for heritage projects, with a detrimental impact on quality. “People try to cut corners and use cheaper materials, or less well-designed solutions,” says Greg Luton, Heritage At Risk director at EH. “The client may want English hardwoods, or lead finishes, but cheaper materials are specified to improve margins.”
But conversely, there’s also evidence that forward-thinking contractors are using innovation and modern techniques to shrink costs and win projects. “Contractors are being challenged to find alternative ways of integrating modern construction methods and materials into traditional features,” says Townend.
Many current projects – such as the two featured here – show the sector is still delivering on quality and innovation. But with the number of historic buildings at risk rising and the economic background still extremely challenging, the increase in lottery funds is welcome news indeed.