Building on the Past – What does the future hold?

Our Building on the Past journalism project was born out of the removal of a previously available database from the Department of the Environment website – the antithesis of open data.

For years the Built Heritage at Risk (BHARNI) register had proven to be a valuable resource for historians, investors and conservationists – identifying areas of concern and opportunities for improvement. Among the 200 odd buildings that found new life after featuring on the database are Belfast’s St George’s Market, the Merchant Hotel and Sion Stables in Tyrone – highlighting that many of these structures should be viewed in terms of their untapped potential rather than the ‘eyesore’ tag they are often labelled with.

As such, the Detail Data project began with the simple question ‘why was the database removed?’ Initial investigations through media requests, Freedom of Information requests and interviews revealed that annual DOE funding for historic building restorations had been completely removed. From over £4.4m a year in 2014/15 to ZERO in 2015/16. We then began exploring other areas impacting upon the protection of the estimated 8,500 listed buildings in our housing stock. With funding removed we looked into whether enforcement action was being taken against owners who failed to maintain their protected properties. Interestingly, we found that enforcement action was thin on the ground even when funding streams were available. This was exemplified by the fact that more than 650 listed buildings had been stripped of their protection in the past 20 years (many due to unsuitable alterations) whilst only a few dozen had been the subject of enforcement action (just one had been vested).

Working with a number of groups involved in historic building restoration including Ulster Architectural Heritage Society (UAHS), Hearth Housing, Mourne Heritage Trust and independent consultant Rita Harkin we were able to highlight the challenges faced by those hoping to protect and enhance our limited built heritage. Following publication, the project received substantial coverage in the Irish Times, Irish News (online edition) and a number of local newspaper titles as well as being the subject matter of a live debate on BBC Talkback. That same afternoon Environment Minister Mark H Durkan faced questions, based on the report, in the Assembly.

Weeks later, the BHARNI register was reinstated on the DOE website. This was followed by at least 20 written questions to the Minister on the topic, a further session of questions in the Chamber and a debate by the Environment Committee. In January, the Detail Data team and Rita Harkin were invited to speak to members of the Environment Committee about ongoing issues such as funding, delisting and the future for built heritage in the new council and Assembly departmental structures. The issues raised in the project will also form part of the subject matter for a feature on a new television programme due to be broadcast this year.

With such continued pressure, it is hoped that there will be renewed commitment and investment in our built heritage and regeneration by the Department of Environment – and the Department of Communities in the years to come.

The data behind the Building on the Past data story can be viewed here

The opinions, views or comments in this article do not necessarily reflect any views or policies of NICVA.

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