The Heritage Action Zone – A Review

Our Secretary, John Payne, has been looking back at the Heritage Action Zone which ends this month.  John writes…

Back in 2018 we reported on the Heritage Action Zone and what was planned for the city as part of it. A lot has happened in the four years since then, not least the Covid pandemic. The HAZ ends in March 2022 and in this article, I look back on the progress made and what hasn’t been completed.

The Heritage Action Zone (HAZ) was one of ten in England won, in a highly competitive selection process back in 2016. At that time the City Council had already applied successfully to Historic England for funding for the repair of the city walls and had also applied for a grant for Hales Street as a partnership scheme in conservation areas. Historic England therefore saw Coventry as ‘oven ready’ and were impressed by previous work undertaken in Far Gosford Street.

In essence the HAZ was a partnership between Historic England, the City Council and other local partners and included a package of research, grant aid, local community engagement and support. The Heritage Action Zone Agreement for Coventry was signed in April 2017 and at that time City Council senior officers and Councillors were strong supporters of the programme.

The aim of a Heritage Action Zone is to achieve economic growth by using the historic environment as a catalyst. A Heritage Action Zone provides a targeted response to the economic, social and environmental needs of a particular area. Heritage Action Zones work with local partners to deliver and implement a programme of support that best meets these local requirements.

The six  key objectives of Coventry HAZ were to:

1. Raise the profile of Coventry’s heritage;

2. Demonstrate and harness the benefits of heritage to the economy of Coventry and the wider area;

3. Protect and enhance Coventry’s heritage;

4. Better understand Coventry’s heritage;

5. Reduce heritage at risk in Coventry;

6. Connect the local community to Coventry’s heritage.

The original HAZ budget was £1.3 million, largely contributed by Historic England (£985,000). However, the 2020 update of the delivery plan reports a budget of over £10 million, made up of Historic England £1.5 million, City Council £2.1 million and others £6.5 million. The resource expansion was due to the inclusion of a number of projects after their funding was secured, rather than the allocation of additional resources.

The Delivery Plan for Coventry’s HAZ included a number of individual projects which have been kept under review by the Partnership over the intervening years.

The first project was a Conservation Area Partnership Scheme for Lady Herbert’s Garden and  Burges and Hales Street. This project aimed to conserve the surviving historic fabric of the shop-fronts and facades along Hales Street and reinstate architectural details where they have been lost. The project sought to improve the environment of the street for both traders and visitors and enhance the setting of the Grade I listed Old Grammar School.

This project became a High Street Heritage Action Zone in its own right and a National Demonstrator project for Historic England. The HAZ demonstrator project was led by Historic Coventry Trust after the proposed Townscape Heritage Initiative was rejected by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. 

This project is largely complete, and is considered a success. A scheme to open up the River Sherbourne in Palmer Lane has been delayed but will begin soon. However, Lady Herbert’s Garden and the Burges Conservation Area remains on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk Register.

City Centre Listing Review The programme included a review of which buildings in the city centre should be listed, focusing on the 20th Century buildings following the 2016 publication of Coventry: The Making of a Modern City by Jeremy and Caroline Gould. There was also the option of a Precinct Conservation Area.

The proposal to list the Upper Precinct unfortunately coincided with the purchase of the Upper Precinct by the Shearer Property Group and everything changed overnight. Where previously there had been support for listing the Precinct and doing a post-war Townscape scheme, Shearers persuaded the Council that conservation of the C20 fabric would scupper city centre redevelopment. In the continuation of a long Coventry tradition of selling out to developers, the HAZ was “remaindered” and thwarted at every opportunity.

The council used the full plethora of tactics to try to stop the listing of the Upper Precinct, including political lobbying, but despite these tactics, the Secretary of State upheld the listings and in total 8 new Grade II listings were made.

However Historic England were put off by Coventry’s attitude and other proposed listings did not go ahead. As a result, Bull Yard and City Arcade got no protection and they are now set to be destroyed by the same Shearer Property Group as part of City Centre South. A low-rise domestic scale city centre is to be replaced by another high rise “anywhere town”.

The Coventry Society welcomed the listing of the Upper Precinct, but unfortunately the City Council got the last laugh by overriding the Listing and the advice of Historic England (and both the 20th Century Society and the Coventry Society) in approving the plans for the Upper Precinct, which ignored some of the historic features of the precinct. Fortunately, the original plans to bring forward the frontages of the shops was later dropped, although the canopy outside the former BHS store could not be saved. It is disappointing that the City Council, in its craving for development, ignored it’s incredible heritage.

City Centre Historic Area Assessment This was an assessment of the historical and archaeological value of the city centre.

The old County Hall

This comprehensive 200-page report was published in 2020. It outlines the heritage significance of the distinctive character of the city centre’s historic townscape, encompassing the legacies of Coventry’s history as a major medieval town, a booming industrial powerhouse, a centre of innovation in post-war redevelopment and as a city of rich cultural heritage.

The Society reported on this document at the time and we value it highly. However, it did not lead to the designation of new conservation areas or the extension of existing ones which had been anticipated.

Heritage Information Accessibility. This element of the programme included a number of projects aimed at sharing information about the city’s heritage. It included digitising the City Architects photo archive which has led to the creation of the Coventry Atlas, which is very good.

Enriching the List for Coventry – this project included workshops to train community volunteers. It was due to be developed in the later stages of the programme and has been affected by the Covid epidemic. The project is part of a wider national initiative to enrich the formal list of heritage assets with local photographs, stories etc. It is proposed to make it into a Legacy Project, instead of within the HAZ timeframe.

Coventry HAZ Project Officer – the programme originally included resources for a project officer located within the City Council. However, the City Council’s falling out with Historic England led to this element not being taken up and the grant lapsed. The post was actually advertised and one of our members described to me the disappointment and consfusion that arose when the scheme was dropped and no appointments were made.

It is hard to know what the impact of this was, but it is clear that the project has had a much lower profile and made much less impact than it would otherwise have done.

Heritage at Risk Review – A detailed survey of the city’s heritage was completed and Holy Trinity Church was added to the list of buildings in the city at risk. We have reported previously about the review of heritage at risk in the city. Although there are still a disappointing number of buildings at risk on the register, things are generally moving in the right direction.

Medieval City Walls and Gates – this has involved repairs to the surviving lengths of the Medieval city wall at Lady Herbert’s Garden, Upper Well Street and Cox Street and the restoration of the C15 Grade 1 listed Swanswell Gate and the C14 Cook Street Gate. This work is complete and to a very high standard. Both buildings are now open for tourist lets.

Cook Street Gate – now complete

Heritage in Coventry Schools – this project involved auditing Historic England’s engagement with schools in Coventry and identifying ways and means to fill any gaps. This was to be followed by CPD training for teachers in ten schools in the city. The audit is complete and we understand that a number of training events have been held in “Heritage Schools”.

Coventry City Heritage Strategy – The aim was to produce a strategic document, including an Action Plan, through extensive consultation and engagement with a wide range of stakeholders across the HAZ and city as a whole. It was to provide the strategic framework for managing and celebrating heritage across the city. This strategy is now being led by the City Council. It has seen considerable delays and a consultant has only recently been appointed.

Heritage Tourist Trail for Coventry – This project involved the creation of a signposted heritage tourist trail for Coventry that links the Cathedral Quarter with the City Centre. This project was delayed because of the absence of a HAZ Project Officer and has not been completed.

Coventry’s Hidden Heritage -this project provided resources to undertake detailed investigation work on five historic buildings in the city centre to understand them properly. The first building was Whitefriars Gatehouse and the published report on this is anticipated shortly. The other four buildings were never identified and have not been surveyed.  

Picturing Coventry – This project was to source images from local archives, as well as the Historic England Archive and aerial images taken during the course of HAZ related research projects. An exhibition was staged at the Coventry Evening Telegraph offices prior to the construction of the new hotel.

Traditional Building and Conservation Skills – it had been intended to use the programme to develop building and conservation skills, using local colleges. However there has been no progress with this project. 

Conservation of Twentieth Century Fabric – the project aimed to produce information for owners, occupiers and non-specialist heritage and planning professional on the conservation of post-war 20th century buildings. An international symposium on issues affecting C20 buildings was held at Coventry Cathedral in March 2019 and four public events were held about 20th Century design as part of the Great Place programme. It was surprising to hear that the C20 Society was not invited to these events.

The programme includes the repair and conservation of Whitefriars Gate and HE allocated £180,000 for repair work. Work is just about to start on the repair phase of this project by the Historic Coventry Trust and this phase is due for completion by the end of 2022. The buildings remain on Historic England’s “At Risk” register. Resources are still to be secured for the wider project required to make this building viable for the future.

Non-Conformist Chapel, London Road Cemetery – £150,000 has been granted by HE for repair works to this building. The repairs phase, by Historic Coventry Trust, is due to be completed by the end of 2022.

3-6 Priory Row (Lychgate Cottages) – these buildings have been restored by Historic Coventry Trust to create four luxury holiday cottages, for unique city centre stays. Funding for the project has come from the City Council, the Architectural Heritage Fund and Coventry & Warwickshire LEP. This work is now complete and the properties are being let.

Lychgate Cottages

Coventry Underground Heritage – This project aimed to bring together and synthesize the results of archaeological excavations in Coventry since 1960 to enhance our understanding of Coventry’s past preserved in archaeological remains, and to identify gaps in understanding. The outcome was to produce a publication on the archaeology of Coventry to enhance our knowledge of Coventry’s past and make it more accessible to the public. However, this project was delayed because of the absence of a HAZ Project Officer and has not been completed.

Draper’s Hall – this project to restore Draper’s Hall was not included in the first Delivery Plan but was added in later versions. The project has been successfully completed and provides a wonderful music venue for the city.

The restoration of the Charterhouse – was added to the Delivery Plan at a later date. Work has been delayed due to the Coronavirus epidemic, cost over-runs and the shortage of building materials. It is hoped that the project will be completed later in 2022.

Conclusions.

As can be seen from the report above, the Heritage Action Zone has produced an extensive range of outputs, including many restored buildings and some excellent printed documents. The programme has cemented the importance of the Historic Coventry Trust as the preeminent force for heritage in the city.

However, the Coventry’s Heritage Action Zone has largely remained invisible in the city and there has been almost no public engagement in the programme.

The impact of the HAZ can mainly be seen in the conservation of the city’s medieval buildings and there has been relatively little impact on the conservation of the city’s 20th Century architecture. The Upper Precinct was listed but the listing was ignored by the City Council in meeting the demands of developers and other important parts of the city centre’s 20th Century heritage have now been scheduled for demolition. In this fundamental way the HAZ has failed our city.

Senior Councillors turned their back on the initiative in a well reported falling out in the early years of the programme. The Coventry Society attended most of the HAZ meetings and it was noticeable that the City Council was represented by relatively junior officers and Cabinet Members and senior Officers rarely, if ever, attended its meetings.

An undoubtable loss to the programme was the unceremonious removal of the city’s Conservation Officer and the extreme delay in appointing a replacement. The council’s refusal to appoint a HAZ Project Officer, despite the availability of resources, was lamentable and reduced the impact of the programme considerably.

Looking at the objectives of the programme, my assessment of success is as follows:

1. Raise the profile of Coventry’s heritage;

In my assessment the HAZ made good progress with raising the profile of the city’s medieval heritage but little progress with raising the profile of its twentieth century heritage.

2. Demonstrate and harness the benefits of heritage to the economy of Coventry and the wider area;

In my assessment the HAZ made good progress in demonstrating the benefits to the economy in relation to the medieval heritage but there was a complete failure of vision in relation to the benefits to the economy of the twentieth century heritage. An enlightened public leadership could have positioned the city for designation as a World Heritage site – now that really would have boosted the city’s economy.

3. Protect and enhance Coventry’s heritage;

The HAZ has made some progress with protecting the city’s medieval heritage, but little progress with protecting the city’s twentieth century heritage.

4. Better understand Coventry’s heritage;

The City Centre Historic Area Assessment is excellent, but the failure to appoint a HAZ project officer limited the capacity to do all of the research that was anticipated.

5. Reduce heritage at risk in Coventry;

There has been some progress in reducing Heritage at Risk in the city, but the failure to recognise the heritage value of our twentieth century architecture will inevitably lead to the destruction of much of what remains from that era.

6. Connect the local community to Coventry’s heritage:

The HAZ programme made little, if any, attempt to engage the city’s community at a strategic level, although some of the resulting projects have made great effort to engage with people.

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