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Public, Civic and Communal Buildings NHPP Activity 4A4

Research carried out 2011-2015 on understanding the significance and character of our threatened heritage of public buildings. We targeted this to help protect the best examples and to engage with the issues relating to changes in ownership of historic buildings, structures and sites from public to private hands. This work was part of the National Heritage Protection Plan.

A modern colour photograph showing Bilston Town Hall
The former Town Hall in the Bilston conservation area of Wolverhampton. It was successfully brought back into use in 2008 as a home for Gazebo, a Theatre in Education Company. © English Heritage

Scope of the activity

A nation often expresses its collective civic pride through the design, scale and materials of its public buildings. These buildings can embody the relationship between a local authority and the people it serves, the authority of the legal system, the dignity and decency of the emergency services or the philanthropic purpose of its health buildings.

Examples of this type of buildings and structures are town halls and local government buildings, libraries, schools, police and fire stations, law courts, public baths, clinics and hospitals . These include solid, dignified, well designed, well constructed and often elaborately decorated structures that embody many of the values that previous generations held dear.

Since the post-war years, those charged with protecting our heritage have identified buildings from this group as having architectural and historic interest and gave them Listed Building status. Yet in recent years, and particularly with the onset of the economic recession from 2008, many public buildings have been vulnerable to closure, inappropriate change of use, and transfer out of local authority or civic authority ownership and care. Too often, this vulnerability ends in a cycle of neglect, vandalism, deterioration, ruinous condition and demolition. Sometimes this can have a knock-on effect of the decline of quality of the surrounding environment.

This Activity will investigate how best to preserve and protect the most significant examples before it is too late, and to ensure a use, as far as possible in uncertain economic times, for future generations to enjoy.

Modern colour photograph of a small Listed stone built historic library
Milnrow Carnegie Library, Rochdale, built in 1907 by Butterworth and Duncan (a Grade II listed building). It successfully combined Arts and Crafts and Art Nouveau styles with Mannerist detailing. © English Heritage

Protection results

The protection results of this Activity consisted of:

  • Strategic designation programmes with enhanced guidance (in the Introduction to Heritage Assets series of guides)
  • Training through the Historic Environment Local Management programme
  • Updating our guidance to local authorities with examples of best practice

Photograph of an inter-war period library in Huddersfield
Huddersfield Library and Art Gallery built in 1937, designed by E H Ashburner. Listed at Grade II in 2005. © English Heritage

The projects

Assessing national knowledge base for public and civic buildings

We carried out a full review of published and unpublished literature, formerly held by English Heritage (now by Historic England) and by other organisations, about a range of public civic and communal buildings. Collecting this material has already proved invaluable for two new national projects on threatened libraries and drill halls. 

National threat assessment of municipal buildings

This project was a rapid assessment of threats to municipal buildings resulting from cuts to local authority budgets, the recent Localism Act (November 2011), and the transfer of public assets to other ownership. The results provide important information towards reaching appropriate protection measures and responses.

English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) jointly commissioned a report on Local Authority Heritage Assets: Current Issues and Opportunities. Historic environment consultants Green Balance produced it.  The report gives an overview of the issues and challenges facing local authority-owned heritage assets, and draws attention to the opportunities for improving heritage asset management, both at strategic level and in detail.

It suggests how the roles of the key organisations, at the time including English Heritage- now Historic England, can be strengthened to ensure better protection for the heritage assets; whether they are kept by the local authority or are transferred to new ownership and use. The report is available on the Historic England website (ree related documents below). It is accompanied by a statement of intent, made at the time by English Heritage, to address some of the issues through updating existing guidance and providing training and funding advice.

Thematic survey of rural schools in Norfolk

The Norfolk Building Recording Group and the University of East Anglia (UEA) carried out an assessment of the heritage of rural primary schools in Norfolk. The project created useful information that will help make informed decisions in the potential designation and future management of these threatened buildings.

We commissioned The Norfolk Historic Buildings Group, in collaboration with the University of East Anglia to produce a report: Building an Education: An Historical and Architectural study of Rural Schools and Schooling in Norfolk circa 1800-1944.

They completed the report at the end of July 2012 and it has been published by UEA press. See the Norfolk Historic Buildings Group website for details on how to buy the report. The English Heritage Designation Team (Now Historic England) supported the project throughout.

National assessment of purpose-built public libraries outside London

This project worked towards a national overview identifying and characterising public libraries of architectural and historical importance. It will collected useful information to help make decisions about designation and other means of protection.

The project led to two publications in the Introduction to Heritage Assets series: a guide on public libraries 1850-1939 and another on public libraries in the post-war period to 1985.

Pilot heritage data project on courts facing closure

In 2012, the government announced a reduction in the number of magistrates' and county courts across England. It made this decision to cut costs in the Ministry of Justice. The project created individual database records about the courts threatened by closure, which are available online through the PastScape website. The records used information gathered through our architectural surveys, along with other desk-based research.

Colour image of the interior of a post-war library at St Austell, Cornwall
St Austell library, 1959-60, by Cornwall County Architects' Department, A Grade II Listed Building. © English Heritage, James O Davies, (image reference DP136726)

Links with other NHPP activities

This work linked closely with the following other areas of the plan:

Black and white image of a former Magistrates' Court at Ely, showing the prominent pedimented entrance
The former Magistrates' Court at Ely: an early 19th century purpose-built courthouse. © Crown copyright. English Heritage (Image Reference AA96/05799)
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