IHBC 2020 Yearbook

R E V I E W A N D A N A L Y S I S 21 OLD TOWNS, NEW FUTURES GRIFF RHYS JONES JUST BEFORE the 2020 lock-down I finished a stand-up comedy tour. It took me to a lot of small-sized towns. (And a few XXXL size too.) One of the duties I had set myself on arrival was to walk the place and take some photos for a piece about Instagram at the beginning of my show. I knew how to get laughs. I would talk about the sights. If I showed a huge Sainsbury’s supermarket – big laugh. If I featured a vast modern faceless office block, covered in odd radar and wireless masts, and talked about every town having a #WTF building, I got a great roar. If I wanted easy rapport, it wasn’t difficult to mock ‘the race track’ (picture of the inner ring road) or notable roundabouts (picture of ghastly intersection). In his article on “High Streets Heritage Action Zones” herein, Owen Lloyd James makes the point that any discussion of the decline of Britain’s high streets presents an incomplete picture. I would go further. In some places I just couldn’t find enough desecration and bad planning to make mock of. From Farnham to Bury St Edmunds and from Hereford to Shrewsbury, in Monmouth and in Tring, I found myself wandering and scratching my head, taking pictures of comfortable, successful historic urban environments. Nothing there to raise a laugh. This is true of many towns in Wales, England and Scotland. We have some great and well-preserved urban environments, worth every exploratory detour. All the articles here repeat one important consideration: that change is inevitable. And it will come. Needs alter. History continues. What conservation can do is offer help with that change, and provide planning for good management. I believe, more than anything, that conservation is about the future. The real future that we face. If retail is shrinking in our high streets, then it is even more vital that these streets become the focus of our city lives. Don’t we have to live there, instead, as we used to? If Aberdeen has a unique history and one that physically shaped it (page 30), then conservation can help us understand what the buzz of that story is. Don’t we have to embrace it to attract visitors? If we recognise that a small town gains value through being proud, ordered and well preserved, can we then manage those visitors, so that the commercial potential they represent doesn’t swamp the place? These are live issues. Engaging with them is vital for keeping city centres going. Heritage above all, by adding character, telling stories and, yes, enchanting our senses, makes them liveable, useable and ‘visitable’. Wherever citizens still live close to the hub of the busiest town centres (as in London and Edinburgh for example), and wherever important manifestations of the character and imagination of previous inhabitants are preserved as an intriguing and uplifting record of individuality and artistic expression, cities thrive. Icons do work – be they Gothic style orphanages in Preston, cathedrals in Peterborough, museums in Bury (on the outskirts of Manchester) the excitements of the close city streets of Leicester or the grandeur of Liverpool. With care, we can provide something unexpected, even peculiar and, above all, usefully interesting to our grandchildren. Because in a car-free, less commercial and less retail-focussed urban world, careful conservation of the unique heritage of our towns and cities will mean that people will want to live, use and experience them. Griff Rhys Jones OBE, as well as working as a comedian, presenter, writer and producer, is the President of the Victorian Society. He holds similarly high- ranking positions within the River Stour Trust and Civic Voice charities and he led the successful 2001 conservation campaign to save London’s biggest theatre. One of the Instagram photos from the start of my show, poking fun at poor urban centres (Photo: Griff Rhys Jones)