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Last Updated: Monday, 3 September 2007, 09:35 GMT 10:35 UK
Stone, wood and love
By Victoria Bone
BBC News


York Minster's Great East Window
Two young glaziers are working on York Minster's Great East Window
Britain's historic buildings - some of the jewels in our architectural crown - are crumbling, not because of a lack of money, but because of a shortage of traditional skills.

Watch stonemasons at work and as you feel the tang of dust in your throat, hear the clash of metal and material and see objects painstakingly appear, it's hard not feel a certain frisson of magic.

Never mind shopkeepers, ours used to be a nation of trades people and craftsmen, but now it is easy to think those days are gone. When York Minster's spectacular Great East Window was recently found to be in a dilapidated state, there were no glass conservators in the country who could repair it.

Historic building stock is an invaluable asset to the UK, for homes, businesses and as a huge tourist draw. And just a look at TV programmes like Grand Designs and Restoration shows the desire to protect and "do-up" the old is there.

But according to an English Heritage report in 2005, there was a shortfall of 6,500 craftspeople in England alone.

Within that were gaps for 500 speciality bricklayers, carpenters and slate and tile roofers, 400 joiners, lead workers and stonemasons, 300 painters and decorators and 300 thatchers.

THREATENED SKILLS
Stonemasonry
Steeple jacking
Dry-stone walling
Bricklaying and lime work
Lead working
Painting and decorating
Carpentry and joinery
Iron work
Thatching

Stonemason Mike Moody is chair of the National Heritage Training Group (NHTG) which is now trying to unite contractors, unions, heritage bodies and colleges to tackle the problem.

He says: "Historically, the construction industry has moved away from the value of the artisan to the value of the professional, and the push to get more people into university has driven down the status of the craftsman."

Mr Moody believes we are already seeing the consequences of a lack of skill.

"During the 1960s, 70s and 80s there was some horrendously poor work done on our heritage structures and we're starting to see an exponential rise in the number of buildings on the at risk register as a result.

"And by the time the industry finally recognised this, there was no-one to fix the problem."

'Cheap and quick'

Nationally, one in 30 Grade I and II-listed buildings are on English Heritage's at risk register.

But beyond that are 5.9m historic buildings - those constructed before 1919 - which make up a fifth of the total stock in England and Scotland and a third in Wales. In England, about 89% of those are private homes.

Their maintenance and repair is worth an estimated 3.5bn a year - if there was anyone to do the work.

Scaffolding on Woodchester Mansion
Many of the UK's historic buildings are in dire need of repair

Seamus Hanna, heritage and conservation manager at industry body Construction Skills, says the problem has its roots in much wider economic and social change.

"After World War II there was a lot of movement away from building to manufacturing and processing. There was also more prefabrication of buildings. Everything became about building quickly and cheaply.

"On top of that, families used to stay together in the same area and skills were handed down. Later, people dispersed more, so that didn't happen."

Traditional repairs take longer and cost more - something which puts off builders and owners alike - but the consequences of not doing them could be severe.

"These buildings are the backbone of our tourist industry and losing them would be an economic disaster," Mr Moody says.

"People come from all over the world to see them, but how long will they keep coming if all that's left is an empty space and a plaque telling them that something great used to be there?"

Lottery fund

Since the 2005 report, a lot of work has been done.

The NHTG has introduced mentoring schemes and regional skills action groups, and most recently an NVQ Level 3 in Heritage has been created.

BUILDINGS AT RISK
Battersea Power Station, south London
Tynemouth Railway Station, Tyne and Wear
The West Pier, Brighton
Soho Foundry, Smethwick, West Midlands
The Mausoleum, Ryedale, North Yorkshire
Rothley Castle, Alnwick, Northumberland

There are also heritage academies being created, the first in the Cotswolds with two more planned for the North.

As well as the NHTG, a lot is being done through the Heritage Lottery Fund.

At York Minister, two historic glass conservators are now being trained on the job as they repair the Great East window.

In Northumberland, 50 young trainees have been recruited to repair dry-stone walls and hedges.

And in the Norfolk Broads, until recently, there was only one millwright to repair 74 mills - now five apprentices are in training.

Royal Insurance Building, Liverpool
Liverpool's Royal Insurance Building is on the at risk register

Mr Moody is pleased with the efforts so far, but now he wants to see a sea-change in attitudes.

"Contractors have to open their doors to trainees and customers need to demand it. At the moment, the cheapest quote wins and the cheapest contractors are the ones who don't spend money on training.

"Gradually, this lowers the skill level across the board until the historic fabric starts to suffer."

Better training and greater awareness have led the optimistic to hope for a 20% reduction in the skills shortage in England by the time the sector is surveyed again next year.

Progress is certainly being made, but much more needs to be done.


Below is a selection of your comments.

i have worked on lincoln castle as a mason for nearly 20 year 10 fondly repairing it and 10 managing the works and still a little hands on. I am proud of what i have achived working at this ancent monument i have also recorded a short cd for people to listen. If school leavers met with intresting down to earth people such as myself (and im sure there are lots more like me) possible they would be encouraged to take up more traditional skills
Michael Bunn, Lincoln Lincolnshire

As somone working with Norfolk Churches, we have 659 of them, I am only too well aware of shortages of crafts people. We are trying locally to raise these issues and to encourage young and retired people to consider thinking about heritage craft as viable and fantastic career opportunities.
Jennie Hawks, Tibenham Norfolk UK

These training schemes should be extended to the older person, maybe made redundant and having problems finding work as now past their "use by date".
Richard Seville, Brisbane Australia

It's about time that the country wakes up to this lack of important skills. How about creating a body like France's Companions? They train and give youngsers the key skills for historic professions.
Ronan, Manchester UK

When a person dies, we grieve, remember, and move on. Why is it worth moving heaven and earth to preserve all this stuff in metaphoric aspic ? History doesn't go away when the characters cease to exist. And it isn't only history that can draw crowds. Let's stop obsessing about the past, and focus on building creatively for the future.
Mark de Roussier, Basingstoke

The comment I have for the building trade is - serves you right! In a country where women are still under paid by 20% and locked out of most trades we only have a skill shortage because of sexism.
G Evans, Bristol

I lived in the UK for two years. I admired some of the most beautiful architecture while in England, and I would personally feel absolutely devastated to come back one day and see only an empty space, instead of some marvelous building I saw before. I hope all schemes and programs will work, and there will be a solution to this problem.
Carra Gough, Berchules, Spain

I am a stone mason/drystone waller and I have attended Bath stone masonry collage of excellence. I can see after a lot of recent work I have completed that there is also a problem with bricklayers trying to be stone masons and doing a very poor job. I have the pleasure of putting it right, much to my frustration as it would be cheaper and quicker to get the right person for the job in the first place,as you would not get a baker to do your plumbing.It is realy much the same.
Nathan Whittaker, Tetbury, Glos

I am surprised that it is assessed that there is a shortage of Thatchers - says who? And on what evidence? There are 60 plus in Hampshire, 50 plus in Wiltshire - that would appear to be more than enough. As a thatcher, find me a customer who has to wait more than six months and I will find her/him a thatcher who can do the job within that time frame. Six months equates to two or three jobs for a thatcher so not a long waiting time in relation to having an extension built etc
Adam Nash

Untill Tradesmen are recognised and renumerated as equal to or above the so called professions, I am afraid this shortfall will continue.
P Donnellan, Derby

I said that this would happen many years ago. Too much emphasis is placed on youngsters to go to, and learn, hopeless and useless University subjects, whilst traditional Trades are now looked down upon because those same youngsters wouldn't dream these days, of getting their hands dirty or of working the sort of hours needed to make a go of a trade. It's affecting every single trade in the country, and it will get much worse.
Ken Thompson, Exeter. UK




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