What do we do with our heritage – when there’s someone living in it?

Tramping through the snow in Bute Town and knocking on doors has got me wondering about how we maintain our heritage and what happens to the people most affected by it.

I am delighted to be working as an Associate of Ceridwen with Caerphilly County Borough Council in Bute Town. I’m the Evaluation Consultant for a large bid to Heritage Lottery Fund. Bute Town is a fascinating village at the top of the Rhymney Valley. It is a unique piece of Welsh heritage; a model village built in the 1820s and still lived in today. The client needs to know the local residents’ views on the current condition and management of its heritage.

The three terraces of Bute Town were designated Grade II listed buildings in the 1970s. Quite right. They are amazing, unique; unlike anything you’ll see in the industrial heritage of working-class housing in Wales. They are all still occupied: living heritage. “Auntie lives in the next terrace. Gran is two doors up.” And there’s the rub.

As listed buildings there are regulations about what can and can’t be done to them: what sort of doors, windows, roofs. Ah, the roofs.

The roofs were renovated in early 1970s and it seems a pretty poor job was done. The previous local authority decided to use a concrete composite which had the appearance of stone, but – sadly – only a 30 year lifetime. 40 years on, there are buckets in attics, rain running down inside walls.

Some residents would be willing to re-roof their properties, but are told they can’t because it would need to be in keeping with the rest of the terrace. Other residents simply can’t afford to re-roof their home. Bute Town is in Twyn Carno ward: the 7th poorest ward in Wales – one of the poorest spots in the UK.

So what do we do with heritage that people are still living in; indeed whose families have been living in for generations? They can’t patch up the roofs because that wouldn’t meet Grade II regs. They can’t afford to do the proper restoration; we’re not talking about wealthy people here.

My fingers are crossed that Heritage Lottery Fund will ride to their rescue. But even if HLF do make an award (bless them), the local authority will still have to find a large amount of match funding from somewhere.

Or we could let local residents do patch-up jobs and ruin the heritage – not something the locals want. “We’re trustees of these houses,” one resident told me. “I want them to be here in 300 years time.”

Something’s gotta give.  At the moment, we are condemning people to live in damp, cold houses, changing the buckets in the attic.

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