Context 169 - September 2021

24 C O N T E X T 1 6 9 : S E P T E M B E R 2 0 2 1 the River Dee clean and safe. We offered to prepare some pro-bono layouts to help the group pursue a possible route of funding from local industries, but it soon became obvious that a vehicle was needed within which a viable project might develop. In Chester we support the Cheshire Historic Buildings Preservation Trust (CHBPT), of which I am chair. After checking with other trustees, the CHBPT offered to help the Hydro group – and gained a couple of enthusiastic new members at the same time. When working with and for community groups, we have to advise on the realities of getting a project under way. That basically comes down to funding. Although it is perfectly feasible for a community enterprise to partner with a private developer in order to gain a viable public-private partnership, the risk pro- file, conservation deficit and ownership hurdles all stack up against this as an option. It certainly did with the Hydro. The CHBPT has become the vehicle through which a new use can be designed, a funding framework developed and pre-application discussions made before it is handed on for another trust to manage. What helped the Hydro was its location: not the joys of the Dee but its proximity to one of Chester’s principal, Roman, roads as it passes into the walled city at the Bridgegate, and its eli- gibility for new government high street funding. I put together CHBPT’s funding application to the Architectural Heritage Fund, the first resort of building preservation trusts. Working on the early stages of projects like this usually means a bit of effort in your own time. I can not expect Insall to pay my wages while I chase every con- servation rainbow in Cheshire. The application for a project viability report was successful. The scientific faction of the community group made a parallel and successful funding application to CheshireWest and Chester’s climate emergency fund by promoting the project’s key aim of expressing alternative energy sources. It is at this point in such an enterprise that the architect, design team and business planner normally come into the picture. There are probably two basic ways that a building preservation trust (BPT) might get its team together: either by gaining heavily discounted fee quotes to include in the grant application, or by telling the consultants how much money they have and how much heavily discounted work they can squeeze out of them. BPTs or other community groups necessarily lean heavily on the goodwill of consultants; some friendly engineers and quantity surveyors dread me phoning them to see if they are interested in an ‘interesting’ project. My personal involvement and Insall’s support for the CHBPT and other groups is not wholly altruistic. There is always the chance that a nice project will develop. The agreement with the CHBPT is that Insall will take on early stages, for the usual heavily discounted fee. It is always fun and rewarding, and good training for younger colleagues. We do get some income (in case any of my fellow directors read this), even though we have to go through a tender process for any more lucrative project phases. As with the Hydro, the usual client-architect relationship develops. As I write this, we are in the early stages of developing design options to test the viability of the project with the business planning team, and to gauge the reaction of the conservation officer and planners to the interventions necessary for access, function and financial sustainability. Another key point for the conservation team to clarify for community groups is that even if money can be raised for the capital works, the project must be made economically sustainable. Revenue for rent, rates, wages, maintenance and all the inherent costs of populating a building has to be found. At the Hydro this might mean adding a glass box on its roof. Although we are all used to the tensions of managing change for regeneration, within the context of the National Planning Policy Framework the groups’ passions for making radical change in a building to find it a new life have to be balanced with the possibility of gaining consent. If the planners and conservation officers are set against a radical regeneration scheme but the project needs the value of the additional floor space, the project will not be viable. If you are tempted to get involved with, or indeed set up, a building preservation trust (check out the Heritage Trust Network), be prepared for the long haul. The level of unpaid and voluntary support intensifies at each fund- ing round, the level of uncertainty and emotions increases at each, and more often than not someone else steps in, collects the awards and reaps the rewards of your efforts. But it’s worth it, isn’t it? Tony Barton is chairman of Donald Insall Associates and of the Cheshire Historic Buildings Preservation Trust. The Hydro is eligible for government high- street funding due to its location next to one of Chester’s principal, Roman, roads as it passes into the walled city at the Bridgegate (Photo: Richard Thorn)