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Thursday, 14 December, 2000, 21:53 GMT
Heritage protection tax urged

By media correspondent Nick Higham

The government should introduce a VAT rate of five per cent on all building work to protect historic heretage, according to a consortium of heritage organisations.

The consortium, led by English Heritage, says the present VAT rules give owners of historic properties an incentive to alter rather than repair them, and encourage rebuilding rather than re-use.

The proposal is one of the most important in a report on the future of the historic environment, Power of Place, commissioned by the departments of culture and the environment.

Power of Place
Power of Place: Protecting historic heretage

Under the present rules new buildings do not attract VAT; repairs and alterations do, except in the case of listed buildings, where repairs are subject to VAT but alterations requiring listed building consent aren't.

The steering group which drew up the report says it would make sense to equalise VAT at five per cent on all kinds of building work.

The proposal stands out as one of the few controversial elements in a document that otherwise reflects a rather bland consensus.

According to specially-commissioned research, almost all of us believe the historic environment is a vital educational asset.

Three-quarters of us believe our lives are enriched by it and that the country is right to preserve as much as it does.

The heritage organisations say the country could do more to encourage renewal, regeneration and the repair and use of historic buildings.

Community involvement

They say some people - especially those from ethnic minorities - feel excluded from the heritage and need to be drawn into it.

And they call for reforms of the planning system to make it easier for local people to get involved in decisions about an area's future.

The historic environment is what generations of people have made of the places in which they lived

Power of Place report
Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of English Heritage and of the group which drew up the strategy, said the present planning system allows public participation but does not promote inclusion.

"I stroll down to my local telegraph pole to see a planning application written in opaque language, and with an invitation to visit a planning office at times when I can't make it," he said.

The strategy was launched at a site which illustrates many of the issues raised in the document: the disused nineteenth century St Pancras Ironworks, in a courtyard off York Way in Islington.

It's part of what English Heritage calls "one of the most complex and intractable redevelopment projects in the country" - four blocks of old warehouses, factories and cobbled yards next to Kings Cross station.

A few hundred yards away are the former Kings Cross and St Pancras railway goods yards, a massive area scheduled for redevelopment when the Channel Tunnel Rail Link into St Pancras is built.

Local opposition

The blocks next to the station are owned by P&O Developments, whose plans to demolish many of the older buildings and replace them with new ones have been modified after opposition from local people and English Heritage.

Local residents, in the shape of the Copenhagen Neighbourhood Forum, say the revised plans don't conform to the local council's planning brief for the site.

The council's conservation advisory committee has also criticised aspects of the scheme, saying the proposed new office block and hotel are out of scale with the surrounding buildings.

For their part P&O Developments say the objections have led to delays and added to the cost of the development.

Paddy Pugh, English Heritage's assistant director for London, says the site has taken on a symbolic importance.

He maintains it is possible to stop developers tearing down historic buildings unnecessarily, and that mixed developments in which many historic buildings are kept can be made to pay their way: "People will pay good rents because these are interesting and desirable places to be.

"Some tenants want to be in a development like this rather than some anonymous modern building."

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30 Oct 00 | UK
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