‘I was dismayed to see brewery engulfed in flames’ - open letter by Griff Rhys Jones
Sarah Lucy Brown/Archant/Sky Cam East
As president of the Victorian Society, Griff Rhys Jones has written an open letter following the Tolly Cobbold and Fisons fires, published below.
Living as I do in Suffolk - I was dismayed to open my East Anglian Daily Times a week ago and see the Tolly Cobbold Brewery, a fine set of handsome buildings, which featured on the Victorian Society list of endangered buildings some while ago (a list which I helped to promote) engulfed in flames.
It was deja-vu. Less than a year ago another part of our local heritage, the Fisons Fertiliser factory building at Bramford, suffered a similar fate. We featured that in our endangered buildings list too. Fisons, Tolly Cobbold - these are names associated with the essence of South East Suffolk.
What is going on?
Well I don't like to say it, but we told you so. These sites are not on our at-risk list simply because they are lovely and need a new owner. We are not estate agents. They are there because they are in danger. Schemes come and go. New owners come along. Plans start and fail. They lie empty and decaying and that is dangerous.
It is true that some developers would prefer to start with a clear site. When they discover that they have instead a building that has to be conserved they enter paralysis. They face planning issues that put the whole development on hold. They might decide that they are better off selling it, or possibly that the building will become so derelict that conservation becomes impossible, or more often simply (because planning takes a long time and changes to a listed building are going to involve waiting discussion and complications in adapting usage to the modern world) they are set for a long haul. The building has to just wait and is vulnerable while it does so.
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There is unfortunately an inevitability about this.
Personally, I am frightened by empty buildings. They gradually sink. They become a lure to intruders. There are great books (like those by John Harris) and websites, that detail exploratory break-ins. They can feature stunning photos that make the act of entering a deserted building an adventure in itself, but for every visitor with a respect for the building, there might also be one who destroys what they have found or steals what they can sell.
Some simply torch what is there. Why? Who? In the case of Fisons we will never know. At the brewery they have their suspects.
But the truth is that most culprits, nationwide, are aged between 14 and 16. This is thrill-seeking opportunism, isn't it? Re-education is a long shot. But proper safeguards are not.
Buildings under threat need strong security. They need maintenance. They need alarms and lighting. Most of all they need concerted imagination and help to be brought back into the community quickly. The Tolly Cobbold Brewery could have been (and who knows still may be yet), a great adornment at the corner of the redeveloped Ipswich Docks.
But perhaps the real secret is for planners and owners, developers and legislators to start looking at better temporary-use proposals for some of these buildings. If conversion is needed it is a long and painful process. Article Four directives for commercial premises can take two years to process. Even security measures require lengthy planning applications. If a listed building can stay used, surely it has a better chance of living on.