Irish Georgian Society

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Conservation Living City Initiative

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The Irish Georgian Society has made the following submission on the proposed Living City Initiative:

The IGS strongly supports the Government in the Living City Initiative and ‘encouraging people back to the centre of Irish cities to live in historic buildings’ through a tax relief incentive scheme.  Having regard to the measures set out in the Finance Act 2013, the IGS wishes to congratulate the government on their clear commitment to the protection and conservation of Ireland’s architectural heritage in the Living City Initiative and look forward to the expansion of the Initiative to other cities. A number of comments proposing minor changes to the scheme have been set out below for your information.

The Contribution of Heritage to the Economy
Heritage and Ireland’s historic environment is estimated to account for €1.5 billion or 1% of the State’s Gross Value Added (GVA) and some 2% of overall employment (approximately 65,000 employment positions) .  However, this contribution is under threat.  The 2009 Council of Europe publication, ‘Funding the Architectural Heritage: A Guide to Policies and Examples’ by Robert Pickard, states:

‘There is a need to increase private investment, which is only likely to be achieved according to the principles of profitability, which govern the free operation of the market…

Studies have been carried out by ICOMOS, and reported by the European Union, that reveal the direct and indirect benefits to be gained from investing in the cultural heritage. Direct benefits include the conservation, restoration and rehabilitation of heritage property: long-term preservation. The indirect benefits are much wider. These include the provision of accommodation for living and working, and tax revenues gained as a result of occupation; supporting traditional crafts and professional employment, with the tax revenues gained through people employed in conservation work; tourism and the associated employment, income and tax revenue; and the improvement of facilities and enhancement of the environment to the benefit of society as a whole. Moreover, these studies have consistently shown that public investment in the heritage usually levers a considerably higher amount of investment from the private sector (with resultant tax revenues for the public budget), with an overall gain for the built heritage and a gain for society.’

This document provides examples of how various Council of Europe member and observer countries implement various financial incentives to promote conservation and the success of those measures in terms of both increasing tax revenues and securing the protection of that country’s architectural heritage.

Under the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, planning authorities are obliged to list structures considered to be part of the architectural heritage of the state in the county’s record of protected structures. While there is a legal obligation on the owner of the protected structure to keep their properties in good repair, the threat of criminal prosecution for endangerment of a protected structure is really only effective in ensuring the protection of the structure in circumstances where the owner has sufficient funds to carry out necessary repair works or indeed where the owner can be identified at all. Following the collapse of the Irish property market, significant numbers of protected structures and heritage buildings (often owned by now defunct property companies or impecunious investors) have been destroyed or fallen into severe states of dereliction while planning authorities are powerless as they struggle to identify the owner. Ultimately, the burden of ensuring the protection of the structure falls on the local authority. However, as a result of dramatic budget cuts, local authorities are unable to respond in the majority of cases. For example, in the case of 110 protected structures identified as being at risk in the Dublin City Council area, the local authority were only able to carry out emergency works and save one structure in 2011.

The Living City Initiative
The Living City Initiative, if implemented correctly, could represent an opportunity to take advantage of the special contribution made by architectural heritage to the Irish economy, while ensuring the protection of that architectural heritage into the future.  However, the IGS has a number of concerns regarding the narrow terms under which the Living City Initiative has been drafted and its potential for success.  In addition, having regard to Ireland’s commitments as signatory to various international charters and conventions on the subject of the protection of heritage, it is of crucial importance that incentives to increase private investment in heritage do not sacrifice the long-term protection of heritage assets in favour of short-term gain.

With this in mind, the IGS makes the following comments about the Living City Initiative as set out in the Finance Act 2013:

•    Pilot Cities. The Finance Act proposes that the Living City Initiative be piloted in specific sections of the city centres of Limerick and Waterford.  It is understood that these cities were chosen as the pilot locations for the Initiative on the basis of how those cities rank on the Pobal HP Deprivation Index for selected Irish Cities and unemployment figures.  However, it must be acknowledged that the cost of refurbishing Georgian buildings is not the only obstacle to families moving back into these city centres and both cities face considerable challenges in building sustainable communities for residents of the city centres.  It is considered likely that it will be particularly difficult for the Living City Initiative to spark interest in city centre family living in circumstances where there remains ample provision of affordable family housing in suburban areas.  Conversely, demand for residential accommodation in Dublin’s city centre is strong and residential stock is low.  The Irish Georgian Society supports proposals made by the Mountjoy Square Society for the inclusion of a defined part of Dublin City’s North Georgian Core (specifically, electoral districts Mountjoy B and Rotunda A) in the Living City Initiative pilot project proposed under the Finance Act 2013.
Mountjoy Square and the streets radiating from it are a vital part of Dublin’s eighteenth century architectural heritage.  Unlike the southern squares including St. Stephen’s Green, Merrion Square and Fitzwilliam Square, much of the North Georgian Core has suffered continuous decay and dereliction since the mid-nineteenth century.  This decay and dereliction has resulted in the permanent loss of much of Ireland’s Georgian building stock including significant sections of Mountjoy Square and of Gardiner Street. As detailed in the Mountjoy Square Society’s report, Case for the extension of the Living City Initiative to parts of the North Georgian core in North Inner-City Dublin, many of the remaining buildings in this area are vulnerable and, without investment, there is a definite risk that they too may be lost.
This is recognised by Dublin City Council in the 2010-2016 Dublin City Development Plan, which seeks to facilitate the ‘regeneration of the north Georgian core to its former cultural and historic importance so as to leverage economic and social benefits for the entire city’.  Critical to ensuring the regeneration of this area is addressing the disparity in investment between the Dublin’s North and South Georgian Cores.  On this basis, the Irish Georgian Society supports the Mountjoy Square Society’s proposal that extending the Living City Initiative to this area provides a clear opportunity to address this lack of investment in an area desperately in need of renewal after centuries of neglect.

•    Eligible buildings. The Finance Act provides that the tax relief incentive shall be available in respect of Georgian houses, a Georgian house meaning ‘a building, constructed in the period 1714 to 1830 for use as a dwelling, comprising at least 2 stories [sic.], with or without a basement’. This definition is problematic, given that a large proportion of houses built in the Georgian style in Ireland were constructed after 1830. This is evidenced by Limerick City Council’s Record of Protected Structures, which indicates that a large proportion of the houses built in the Georgian style date from the 1840s and 1850s. Moreover, the Act provides that the tax relief incentive will only apply to buildings with a total floor area of ‘not less than 38 square metres and not more than 210 square metres’. The size of Georgian townhouses varies dramatically and it is not unusual for Georgian houses to have a floorspace of up to 500 square metres. It is noted, in particular, that a sizable proportion of Georgian buildings in Limerick and Waterford City Centres have a total floor area of the order of 210 to 400 square metres. It should further be noted that floorspace is often a somewhat meaningless indicator of habitable space within a Georgian house as, while such a building might have a large floorspace, the number of rooms is often relatively few. It is, therefore, suggested that the size restriction be removed or significantly increased to take account of the typical size of Georgian buildings within the pilot Cities.  Given both of these factors, the IGS is concerned that the Finance Act has been so narrowly drafted as to exclude the majority of ‘Georgian’ buildings in both pilot cities, thereby rendering the Initiative difficult to implement or totally unworkable.

•    Residential use. Continuity of historical uses is a key pillar of national and international conservation policy and promoting a return to residential use in the Georgian housing stock should, where practical, be given preference over other proposals. However, it is important that any proposals for urban regeneration of historic areas be cognisant of the requirements of international charters and conventions and national policy for the protection of heritage. In this regard, it is noted that the Australia ICOMOS Charter for Places of Cultural Significance of 1999 (the Burra Charter), of which Ireland is a signatory, states that ‘the best conservation often involves the least work and can be inexpensive’. Similarly, the Architectural Heritage Guidelines for Planning Authorities, as re-published by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht in late 2011, states: ‘On the whole, the best way to prolong the life of a protected structure is to keep it in active use, ideally in its original use. Where this is not possible, there is a need for flexibility within development plan policies to be responsive to appropriate, alternative uses for a structure. A planning authority should carefully consider any proposed change of use and its implications for the fabric and character of the structure. A new use may have many implications for the structure which may not be immediately obvious, for example with regard to compliance with the Building Regulations’. The level of intervention required to subdivide an existing Georgian house into up to four individual units (as contemplated by the Living Cities Initiative Information Note) and comply with the requirements of the Building Regulations relating to fire safety and universal access has the potential to result in significant and irreversible damage to original fabric of architectural heritage value. For this reason, the Irish Georgian Society would recommend that the availability of the incentive for the division of properties be considered only on a case-by-case basis as the impact of interventions will be dependent upon the scale of properties and the degree of architectural and decorative quality.

•    Reasonable cost. The Finance Act requires that a ‘letter of certification’ from the Local Authority state ‘that at the time of issuing of the letter and on the basis of the information available at that time the cost of conversion into, or as the case may be, refurbishment of, the house appears to be reasonable’. This provision suggests that there may be circumstances in which the Local Authority may decide that there is a level above which the cost of conversion or expenditure would not be considered reasonable. This provision could be interpreted as meaning that there is a level of expenditure above which it is no longer practical to seek to refurbish a heritage building. A determination by a Local Authority in a letter of certification that the cost of refurbishment of a heritage building is not ‘reasonable’ could later be used as an argument for the demolition of that building. It is, therefore, respectfully suggested that this section be clarified or deleted in favour of the insertion of a maximum limit of costs (e.g., a maximum proportion of the value of the building).
•    For political briefings: We fully understand that in this deep recession it is hard for politicians to justify spending on heritage and the arts in general when there are budget cutbacks in areas such as healthcare. We would highlight the difference between the better management of existing modern facilities and the need to preserve heritage buildings that demonstrably adds value to the economy.