IHBC 2020 Yearbook

R E V I E W A N D A N A L Y S I S 45 the high streets in both towns. But the balance between site-based investment and area-based investment is a difficult one to strike. There is a risk that large-scale building projects may divert attention and resources from the fabric and character of the wider urban landscape. Major buildings such as Cyfarthfa Castle urgently need investment, but there is also vulnerable heritage value in the housing stock surrounding it. An ambitious new plan for Cyfarthfa focuses on the castle, park and furnaces, and the area immediately surrounding them. It aims to set a standard for development throughout the town; the challenge will be to identify a vehicle that puts this aim into practice. Investment in specific building projects should be a catalyst for wider regeneration, and it is important that opportunities for that to happen are fully realised. Although there are many iconic buildings in the Valleys’ towns, their built heritage also rests in the character of the general building stock. Although there have been some attempts to capture the heritage value of the ordinary, there has been no consistent framework for doing so, and initiatives have come and gone. For example, My Valleys House was a web-based resource aimed at providing home owners with information about how to care for and improve Valleys’ housing, and provide a historical and architectural context for it. It emphasised the importance of the ordinary and promoted the reversal of unsympathetic renovation. There is no obvious trace of it now. This illustrates the truism that investment in individual heritage projects does not automatically lead to the kind of step change that puts the historic environment and its conservation at the heart of regeneration for the long term. Progress has been made, but it has been sporadic: there are still many historic buildings at risk across the region. The traditional character of the wider housing stock is being eroded by incremental change, and modern developments can undermine local identity. One notable success story is Blaenavon, where the protection of heritage has formed a consistent theme since the 1970s. At that time, the town faced a loss of purpose and of population in the wake of a series of pit closures, but the historic ironworks were taken into state care in 1974 and plans to convert Big Pit into a museum predated the closure of the mine in 1980. Just three years later Big Pit opened as a museum and in 1999 responsibility for the site was assumed by the National Museums and Galleries of Wales (as NMW was then called). The town centre was designated as a conservation area in 1984. All of this laid the foundations for World Heritage status, and after a period of sustained effort, the Blaenavon Industrial landscape was inscribed in 2000. This encouraged a massive programme of investment. New uses were found for derelict buildings, and property improvement grants were used to preserve or restore historic features such as sash windows, chimney stacks or traditional render. This investment continues in a Townscape Heritage Programme which builds on previous regeneration activity and is seeking to continue the momentum of earlier conservationbased investment. The programme is a partnership led by Torfaen County Borough Council and the lead funder is the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Being part of a world heritage site, Blaenavon is clearly exceptional for the extent and completeness of the industrial landscape, and its capacity to illustrate in material form the social and economic structure of industry in the 19th century. But many of its characteristics are shared with other towns in the South Wales Valleys, some of which arguably have a richer urban heritage, albeit perhaps a more fragmented one. Blaenavon has worked consistently to protect and promote its heritage, which it has put at the heart of its planning. It had begun to do this before inscription as a world heritage site, and although inscription has clearly helped it to attract funding support and visitors, there are lessons in its story that might resonate elsewhere. The argument for protection and conservation of the historic environment is never won, and must be made again and again. Turning the promotion and celebration of heritage in general into the protection of specific qualities of place requires commitment, investment, and painstaking attention. It also needs leadership, partnership and vision as well as consistency and focus over the long term. But it is worth it. With care, the sense of place forged in the South Wales Valleys in their extraordinary glory days can also be the basis of their identity, culture and appeal for the future. Judith Alfrey is Cadw’s Head of Regeneration and Conservation (Judith. Alfrey@gov.wales). She was the co-author of two books promoting the preservation of industrial landscapes, and has written various articles detailing the conservation work of her organisation. Big Pit and Blaenavon (Photo: © Crown copyright 2020, Visit Wales)