Losing publicly owned heritage buildings is not only economically damaging but also damaging to the health and well being of a community. Heritage is part of the anchorage of a community when the upheavals of factory, pit, or farm closures have left communities with a feeling of loss.
English councils are selling off 400 publicly owned buildings a year. To add to that are closures of churches, working men’s clubs, and local pubs. For those on lower income public spaces and buildings are the only places they can afford to use. In the case of historic buildings and sites it also incorporates a history of ordinary people like themselves that goes back generations.
Children growing up in social housing are more likely to suffer from depression and poor self esteem than children from families in same income and same hardships who live elsewhere. Research has found that lonely elderly people have a 31% higher risk of death, and that each older lonely person costs health and social care services up to £6,000 over 10 years. They are 1.8 times more likely to visit their GP, 1.6 times more likely to visit A&E and 3.5 times more likely to enter local authority-funded residential care. But it is not just the elderly who suffer from loneliness, 40% of 16-24 years olds say they feel lonely. 400,000 children and young people are in contact with the health service for mental health problems. The number of “active referrals” by GPs is a third higher than two years previously. There is a sharp increase in children seeking help for depression and anxiety.
If people have nowhere to meet as a community, people grow more isolated, more anxious. People stay indoors, and areas begin to show neglect and there is a rise in vandalism, racism and violent crime. Sheffield has a lot of great green spaces but in housing estates like Gleadless Valley
Since the removal of wardens and kids clubs the area has become litter strewn and prone to anti-social behaviour.
At Manor Top, DeHood has taken over the old school as a community gym, and cafe, as well as being a drop in centre for recovering addicts. The crime rate is down 60%, arson has halved. The savings to emergency services, social services and health services must be quite substantial Yet the site is to be sold to create a new shopping centre. There is a suggestion that a new place could be found but part of the success of the club is the building’s strong historic links to the community.
Public buildings that have a long history have an advantage that newer buildings without a history haven’t. It gives older people a chance to talk about their experiences to the young and builds up trust. Most older public buildings are geographically as well as emotionally central to the community. The history and appearance gives the area an identity that is unique to their area.
The loss of historic buildings matters to ordinary people. Over 11’000 people signed a petition about protecting the character of the Devonshire Quarter in Sheffield. In Sheffield there are approximately 130 Heritage groups and organisations. Many organisations have several hundred members and have been around for over thirty years. Feelings run deep in Sheffield but finding a similar response from National heritage organisations and funders is prone to failure.
Our heritage and culture has the lowest level of funding in the country. It was found that for the north to get the same Arts Council England funding per head as the capital it would need £691m more in the 2018-22 funding round, and HLF funding is not only lower in Yorkshire than elsewhere it is lower in South Yorkshire than it is in the rural Yorkshire dales. Research would suggest that this is down to a National and local cultural snobbery. Recently the Government granted £7.6m to Wentworth Woodhouse whereas most grants through the Heritage Lottery fund rarely reach the £1m level in South Yorkshire. It is hard to get funding for “working class” northern heritage. Perhaps that is why the Council had no active plan for protecting and utilising buildings like Birley Spa, or Meersbrook Hall, and the medieval Concorde barn is used as a store, and instead of accepting the community based plan for Mount Pleasant it was sold to a private developer. Most of our prominent heritage buildings are there due to pressure by local groups such as the Lyceum, Abbeydale Hamlet, Kelham Island Museum, Bishops House, Wincobank church, and the General Cemetery to name but a few.
Sheffield Council cut its preventative health budget by £880,000 for 2018/19. In January 2018 Sheffield Council predicted an overspend of £20m in their social care budget. All the community properties put together, sold and put into the Council’s coffers would only make a slight dent in one year’s required income. How many £m would they save over the years by transferring them to the community rent free? Birley Spa has an asking price of £70’000. How much will it cost the community and health services to see it go, rather than put it back into community use?
Friends of Meersbrook Park have calculated that a community asset transfer of Meersbrook Hall would save the Council £65m per annum by removing their need to maintain and heat the building, and further savings in staff time, administration and unforeseen costs such as damage repair.
The tenacity of heritage groups in Sheffield is amazing. It took 6 years for the Grenoside community to get HLF funding to fully repair and restore the 18th century reading room, but meanwhile they continued cleaning out the rubbish and landscaping round the building. As Grenoside’s 1st listed building it has brought back a sense of community and gave them space for their community.
Our communities have to be the primary focus of any Council’s planning decisions, especially if their decisions may result in the loss of our culture and impact on our health and well being.