From the Journal of the London Society number 471 (Spring/Summer 2017), SAVE's executive president Marcus Binney looks back over four decades of heritage campaign battles, in conversation with London Society chairman Peter Murray
Architectural historian and author Marcus Binney co-founded SAVE Britain's Heritage in 1975, part of a group of architectural historians, journalists and planners determined to provide 'a strong, independent voice in conservation, free to respond rapidly to emergencies and to speak out loud for the historic environment'.
Over the decades, they've galvanised public support for architectural heritage and fought planners and politicians to ensure treasures such as Smithfield and Billingsgate markets have been spared the bulldozer; SAVE was also the first organisation to campaign for the introduction of the Thirty Year Rule, which now makes outstanding post-war buildings in England and Wales eligible for listing.
Peter Murray: SAVE is described as the most powerful conservation group since William Morris founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB); why do you think you have been so successful when other organisations such as the Civic Trust have gone down the pan? What's the secret?
Marcus Binney: It is not power but influence. We don’t have any actual power in terms of decision making, but we are very effective and influential. SAVE was founded to champion and engage in buildings in European Architectural Heritage Year 1975. We rapidly found that there were many buildings that were not necessarily the subject of applications to demolish but were either being allowed to fall down or gently decay. They needed publicity. Then there were occasions when we had to propose new uses for a whole series of different building types, from country houses to churches, to power stations to food markets.
That is the important element of SAVE. We are not just shining a spotlight, we can put resources in to finding practical solutions and funds, if necessary. Even when these buildings are very derelict they can be given a life, which will provide an income to look after them and make them decent investments for their future owners.
We have built up a good track record of success dealing with some difficult cases, almost impossible-looking cases, and finding solutions, whether country houses like Calke Abbey in Derbyshire (saved in 1984, now National Trust), or Dumfries House (saved in 2008), which we set in motion and was supported by the Prince of Wales.
Then, of course, Smithfield Market has been a big battle (saved 2013), and a great battle over the little houses in the north of England. We have had a long battle over the Welsh Streets in Liverpool (saved 2014), 10 streets of nearly 400 houses that had been emptied out under the Government’s Pathfinder scheme and nothing was happening. We felt that they should be restored and refurbished. Liverpool was determined to knock them down and we bought one right in the middle to show what was possible. It went to a public enquiry and we won.
We recently heard the good news that the developer Place First has agreed with the council to take them on. It will be a great success. They are not going to all be two-up- two-down anymore, they will be converted into one-, two-, three- and four-bed houses by jigging around with the interiors. It is exciting that we can turn these back into places where people live.
We care about the traditional townscape, and not just the set pieces of places like Bath and Leamington Spa. There is a real history to the Welsh Streets. They were built for the Welsh builders who came to Liverpool in its golden age of prosperity. It was laid out as a model settlement by an architect and the builders built the houses themselves. It is a rather wonderful story.
PM: SAVE has always been a master of publicity. Right from the start you were hitting the headlines on a regular basis.
MB: We felt that European Architectural Heritage was, as Simon Jenkins memorably put it in our first annual report, yet another occasion for architects, planners and politicians to pat each other on the back and give themselves awards. All the while there were a lot of buildings at risk and which were going to be demolished. We have always aimed to bring the threat to historic buildings out into the public arena through the press. During the Cool Britannia years, things were not so easy, there was less interest in heritage; now I think the situation has changed and the debate involves big planning issues, particularly around all the proposed high-rise development.
PM: How do you fund SAVE’s work? A long drawn-out battle like Smithfield with a public enquiry must be very expensive.
MB: Two ways. We get a lot of people doing pro-bono work for us. We can operate at quite a sophisticated level in fighting proposals and drawing up schemes. ere are architects, engineers, lawyers, and surveyors who will help us. We do have to do fundraising: we have gone out to charitable trusts, we have individual supporters, angels, as well as friends. It is a continuing struggle to raise funds but SAVE has always been a small organisation and that has been important. It is not easy to raise money but we have been getting more and more support in recent years, building on our success, and are able to take on bigger projects.
PM: Do Government cuts and the splitting up of English Heritage give greater responsibility to the things you do?
MB: Obviously Historic England has had to cope with cuts and that is also true of local authorities and conservation officers. We have had a lot of battles over the years with English Heritage as we thought they were too pro-developer. With the present leadership of Historic England, we feel much more comfortable. They are more committed to working hard to save difficult cases.
PM: What is your key advice to campaigning groups who want to rescue a building?
MB: The central point is that all our campaigns work best when there is a good local action group, with local people who are on the ground rallying public opinion and engaging with people. That makes a huge difference so that we at national level can provide high-profile support people. That is the most effective way. We have a leaflet about that which is a whole manual for action; there is also a lot on our website.
PM: What are your most satisfying victories?
MB: Billingsgate Fish Market; in 1980 it was going to be demolished by the City Corporation who said the whole fishing industry and market would collapse if they did not knock it down. Eventually they sold it for £21m when they had only been asking for £7m! That was on the basis of a scheme that we drew up with the help of architects Alan Stanton and Ian Ritchie.
PM: Then, of course, more recently there was Smithfield Market, another battle against the City. They insisted that it had to come down but now it is going to be the Museum of London with a huge investment from the Corporation (again with Alan Stanton, now Stanton Williams, as architect) so that is really exciting.
MB: The Grange in Hampshire was another one that really went to the wire two or three times. We saved that and then the civil servants in charge decided they weren’t going to spend a single penny on it as it was a waste of public money. We had to take them to court. We found the Deed of Guardianship in which the Department of the Environment undertook to repair it and let it to the public. So it was a complete breach of trust. Anyway, the shell was restored and it has been nursed back to life. It is fantastic.
PM: What do you see as the big upcoming battles?
MB: Well, we still have a lot of industrial buildings coming our way and they do convert extremely well. There is an issue with big cinemas right now. They were great landmarks of the Art Deco age. The interesting thing is quite a lot of them that were converted for twilight uses like bingo or auction rooms, are now being made back into cinemas. This is exciting as it is something everyone can engage in and see the more recent past returning. However, we have also seen a flood of applications to demolish. We are losing the Kensington Odeon at the moment, which is a really good one. The problem is that a lot of them have been partitioned up and you can’t see much of the original interior because it's behind the partitioning. Quite often you find the wall decorations and ceilings are untouched.
PM: What are your thoughts as we mark the 50th anniversary of the conservation areas?
MB: The two great pillars of preservation are the introduction of listing in 1947 and then Civic Amenities Act 1967, which was the result of a private members bill introduced by Duncan Sandys. That is the extraordinary thing about it. The Government felt it couldn’t do it because it would come up against property interests and would be defeated. Sandys cleverly piloted it through with parliamentary support and it has been the foundation and success of preservation ever since. By protecting whole areas, it encouraged people to invest. The Act brought about lots of physical improvement in the areas, but it has also delivered economic growth.