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A historic waste of our legacy

Putting anything on an "at risk" list suggests something needs doing pretty quickly to prevent serious harm.

'There is a strong case for the Executive to put more money into protecting buildings'
Terry Levinthal

Yet if you take a look at the buildings in Edinburgh which have made it on to the Buildings at Risk Register for Scotland, you'll find that despite being branded as such, they've still been left to rot.

It's a strange way for a World Heritage Site to treat its architectural legacy.

One place, the Victorian Infirmary Street Baths, is to be sold and turned into flats after a decade of languishing on the register.

Campaigners who fought to get the B-listed baths restored to their former glory for the public to enjoy were upset, but at least the building will now be put to good use rather than left to gather dust.

A glance at the register points up hundreds of other historic buildings throughout Scotland in danger of crumbling into oblivion - including 13 in Edinburgh.

While three in every ten are finally restored and put to good use, one in ten are demolished.

The list was set up in 1990 by Historic Scotland, the agency tasked by the Scottish Executive with safeguarding Scotland's built heritage, and is compiled and maintained by the Scottish Civic Trust, a non-governmental body.

But the SCT has no powers to order anyone to do anything about any of the buildings on the list.

Local authorities do have the power to order owners to carry out crucial repairs but are not obliged to use them. It is also common for councils to also be the owners.

Even where councils do order owners to carry out and pay for repairs, or they carry out repairs on the owner's behalf and charge them, they are only allowed by law to require owners to carry out the minimum of work needed.

And owners know they can make much more money by letting buildings fall into ruin so they can be cleared for redevelopment.

SCT director Terry Levinthal says there are around 1300 buildings on the list at the moment, including 13 in Edinburgh.

"We would like to see local authorities given a duty to implement the powers they have," he says. "We'd also like a review of repairs legislation which most local authorities don't bother looking at because it is complex and costly.

"We think there is also a strong case for the Scottish Executive to put more money into protecting and maintaining Scotland's historic buildings, and similarly for local authorities to do the same."

City architect James Simpson of the Royal Incorporation of Architects in Scotland's conservation architecture committee has been involved in saving another "at risk" property - the 16th-century 2 North Gray's Close. It has been on the register since 1992 and is now being converted into a useable property as an office.

He describes it as a "success story" but agrees such successes take too long: "I don't think there's a huge amount wrong with the powers local authorities have but there needs to be a greater political will and more resources."

He also called for Historic Scotland to be more willing to step in and use its statutory powers if councils are not using theirs.

Historic Scotland, however, maintains that councils do have the powers to "safeguard and order the repair of historic buildings". The body hands out around £11.5 million in grants a year to repair historic buildings.

A spokeswoman adds that it has simplified its grant application forms to speed up the process.

So with North Gray's Close and Infirmary Street Baths off the register, what's about the rest?

Comiston House Stables and Doocot, Camus Avenue, on list since 1994, condition poor, risk high. B-listed 16th-century building found abandoned, bricked-up and "marooned" within a new housing development. Owners Camus Property Co Ltd say only the doocot remains "at risk and partly ruinous" and they are "not prepared to spend money on it until it becomes crucial".

Lauriston United Presbyterian Church, Lauriston Place, on list since 2001, condition poor, risk high. Gothic church fell into disrepair, hit by fireraising, added to list at council planners' request. Owners the Arab Social League of Edinburgh hope to rent out the church to fund repairs. A spokesman says: "I am currently in talks with students from a Gulf state who wish to hire part of the building to use as a social club."

Generating Station, 95 McDonald Road, on list since 2004, condition very poor, risk high. Power station and stack fallen into ruin. Owners unknown. In February 2004 Historic Scotland said works were being undertaken.

Laverockdale Cottage, Dreghorn Loan, Colinton, on list since 2000, condition poor, risk high. House vacant for five years, vandalised, boarded up and for sale. Owners Defence Estates have been served with a Building Preservation Notice after their bid for planning permission for residential development of the site was refused by the council.

Craigmillar Primary School, on list since 2001, condition fair, risk low. Listed building closed in 1999. Handed to Castle Rock Housing Association in 2004 for conversion into a community arts centre. Alister Steele, managing director of owners Castle Rock Housing Association, says: "Work started in spring this year but we had a major fire a couple of months ago so that's caused a bit of delay and it's now due for completion late spring next year."

Liberton Bank House, on list since 1998, condition poor, risk high. Childhood home of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, threatened with demolition in 1999 when McDonald's proposed a restaurant on the site. Owners the Cockburn Conservation Trusthope to turn it into a special school.

Blackfriars Street United Presbyterian Church, on list since 2001, condition poor, risk high. Owners the Italian Consulate bought the church in 1992 but despite plans to turn it into an Italian Cultural Institute the property has remained vacant and fallen into disrepair. Owners unavailable for comment.

Odeon Cinema, Clerk Street, on list since 2003, condition good, risk moderate. Owners Duddingston House Properties plan to demolish the building but keep the frontage and build a bar, restaurant and 240-room student complex. In June 2005 council planners said the planning application was still under consideration.

Portsburgh Chapel, Grassmarket, on list since 1991, condition fair, risk low. Owners Edinburgh College of Art bought it in 1994 to turn into a gallery. Restoration began via a Historic Scotland grant, stalled for lack of funds.

St James' Episcopal Church and Hall, Constitution Street, on list since 1990, condition poor, risk low. Gothic church closed in the 1970s. Owner: Richard Orttewell of Ludlow, Shropshire. It is understood to have been identified for possible heritage lottery funding.

The White House, Niddrie Mains Road, on list since 2004, condition fair, risk moderate.

Owners: Unknown. PARC Craigmillar was interested in purchasing and restoring the roadhouse after its former owners went into receivership but PARC general manager, John Quinn, says this is no longer the case. "I honestly don't know who owns it as I believe they formed as a new company and changed names."

Cammo House Home Farm, Cammo Road, on list since 1999, condition poor, risk high. Owners Edinburgh City Council wanted to demolish it to make way for new housing, but this was against its own policy. Director of cultural and leisure Herbert Coutts says: "We're in negotiation with the legal representative of the long term tenant, together with the National Trust, to safeguard the future of the buildings."

Cammo House Stables, Cammo Road, on list since 1991, condition ruinous, risk high. Stables are roofless. Owners Edinburgh City Council "looking for a solution".

Source: Julia Horton, Evening News, 17th October, 2005

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