The Planners dilemma: Do we really need old buildings?

I thought I would briefly write about a question that has been on my mind for quite some time now, modernisation versus heritage.  Our towns and our cities have been battling with this question for centuries, the Georgians put new faces on to old buildings, the Victorians tore down old buildings because they got in the way and the twentieth century saw town planners redesign how towns and cities should look.  In this, I am going to look specifically at the developments after the Second World War, a period which saw a lot of new ideas, ideas that were considered foreword looking, but had little appreciation for the things of the past. 

It is very relevant because in recent months we have heard Boris Johnson’s new slogan “Build, Build Build” in reference to the current economic situation.  This has led to disscussions about relaxing planning regulations and oppening more space and sites to be used for new developments.  This language all very reminiscent of the 1940s and 1950s, where developments were encouraged to help kickstart Britains economy after the Second World War. However, what does this all mean for our Heritage sites?  Fortunately a lot of heritage sites are covered by law but this was not always the case and there are still sites under threat today. 

The war left many towns and cities visibly scared from arieal bombing, and town planners had two options, either rebuild the towns as they were, or redevelop these towns with their new ideas and use the sites to express themselves.

The remnants of Coventry Cathedral. Source: Wikimedia

Countries varied on their approach.  Germany would often redesign their cities in the same style, if you venture to places like Dresden or Nuremburg you would unlikely think that many buildings were twentieth century constructs.  However, England was different.  Cities such as Canterbury and Conventry were heavily affected by bombing, and many old medieval sites were destroyed, Coventry cathedral is an example of this.  But town planners used these new avaliable sites to construct buildings in the 50s and 60s design. 

Out with the old and in with the new in Coventry. Source: Wikimedia

The post-war scene inspired many towns and cities to tear town old buildings to build new ones.  In Rainham, Kent, old flint buildings were pulled down to build shopping centres, and in Colchester churches were destroyed and whole sections of the town were demolished to make way for new roads such as Southway.  You will probably find that your local town went through drastic changes during this period, as the old was thrown away and new ideas and concepts were brought in.

If you look at any town planning documents in this period, you would find that issues of herritage were never mentioned.  Sometimes important buildings were noted and suggested that they should be preserved, but there was no law in place and if the developer felt the site was in the way it was at huge risk of being demolished. 

The Dutch Quarter in Colchester. Source: Wikimedia

It was because of these drastic changes that we see the creation of Civic Trusts in the 1950s.  These socities helped to preserve areas and sites from destruction.  In Colchster, for example, the Dutch Quarter was going to be demolished as it was not deemed fit for purpose; it wasn’t modern and therefore was on the list to go.  The Civic Society stepped in and saved the site.  They could not save all sites.  St. Nicholas church in Colchester was located in the centre of the high street but was sold off in the 1950s.  It was demolished soon afterwatds.

St Nicholas Church circa 1880. Source: Wikimedia

Colchester’s town centre underwent drastic changes in this period as town’s moved away from being industrial hubs and became centres for shopping.  In this, old sites such as St. Nicholas were destroyed, and some were kept (Holy Trinity in Colchester).  A lot of the debate regarding Heritage, was centred around the issue, ‘Was it in the way?  Was it really needed?’  If the answer was yes, then the site would be pulled down.  Heritage was generally on the loosing battle against modernisation.

Holy Trinity survived the destruction. Source: Wikimedia

It was only when we get to the 1970s where acts were brought in to preserve more historic sites.  The Town and County Amenties Act of 1974 ensured that permission had to be aqquired to demolish buildings in Conservation areas (which were formed in 1967).  However the fine was only £100, and many developers took the risk and destroyed the sites. 

Nonetheless, the 1970s saw a change in public attitude.  The desire for new and modern buildings wanned and there was a growing appreciation for historical sites and buildings which held stories of the past.  More campaigns were run to save certain sites and more laws woud be introduced to protect them.  Heritage sites became museums, they told certain stories which people could connect with.  The importance of Heritage sites has always ebbed and flowed through the tweniteth century, the need for them would decrease during the late 1990s but during the Olympics they became the centre of the country’s national pride as Britain showed itself off to the world. 

British History at the 2012 Olympics. Source: Wikimedia

But the question remains the same, how far should towns go in modernisation?  Should Heritage ever be under threat?  If so, under what circumstances?  These are questions which town planners have to wrestle with all the time.  Towns do need to keep up with the times, but are also incredibly proud of their past, and rightly so.

By Michael Sewell

Michael, a long-time resident of Kent, now in exile in Essex, is currently researching how the British Civil Wars were remembered in the long nineteenth century, focusing in on Colchester. He has a real passion for the seventeenth century, as well as looking at how History is used and remembered by people. Michael spent the majority of his university life at the University of Winchester where he picked up a keen interest in how nations were formed and how we as nations remember our past. Now at Essex, he has a keen interest in public history and loves talking about history to people!