The conservation of an exceptional Regency shopping street – Part IX

  1. CONCLUSIONS

 

 

  1. CONCLUSIONS ON THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WOBURN WALK

 

Woburn Walk is an exceptional survival of a purpose-built Regency shopping street. It is unique in its symmetrical and uniform architectural composition, reflecting that of the fashionable arcades built at the time, particularly the Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly, which is the likely inspiration for the street. It is an expression of the social moirés of the day, a small, controlled enclave of retail establishments on the outside of the gated principal streets of the respectable Bedford Estate. It is the only example of a shopping street designed and built by Thomas Cubitt. A number of famous literary figures have lived on the street. The larger part of it is still used for the same residential and retailing purposes as it was designed for nearly 200 years ago. It is a pioneering example of partnership in heritage protection between a local authority and a government agency: the first site to be placed under a Building Preservation Order by a metropolitan borough council and an early Ministry of Works grant-aided purchase and repair programme.

  1. SUMMARY OF THE PHYSICAL CONDITION OF WOBURN WALK

The strict controls contained within the original leases helped to preserve the buildings’ use and appearance for many years. Shops were prohibited almost everywhere else on the Bedford Estate which must have helped to preserve their popularity for many years. However the Estate as a whole did not flourish. The fashionable classes were drawn west to Mayfair and Belgravia, and this started the steady decline of the neighbourhood in the following decades.

In its early years Woburn Walk may not have been afforded any special consideration, although the attractive design was in all likelihood appreciated. The perceived value of the street clearly diminished along with that of the neighbourhood, and dereliction proved especially destructive to the intricate detailing of the facades. Images from the 1920’s show a very dilapidated street, and in 1939 permission was granted for the demolition and re-development of the south side of Woburn Walk. Although in all likelihood the outbreak of WW2 saved the terrace from destruction, the buildings were still worsened by the privations of war.

The street was saved by government legislation when the amended Town & Country Planning Act of 1947 came into force, which enabled St Pancras Council to place a Preservation Order on the street and to purchase and restore the southern terrace of Woburn Walk with grant aid from the Ministry of Works. For the time, immense care was given to restoring the terrace in the 1950’s and 60’s and since then the area has enjoyed a second birth.

The protection afforded by Listing has subsequently prevented any major developments which threaten the character of the buildings. The exception to this is the conversion of the upper floors of 1-7 to hotel use in 1961 and later to office use in 1981.

Despite the last restoration effort of the south terrace in 1986-8, a lack of subsequent general maintenance has allowed much of the street to fall back into disrepair. This is regrettable considering the major preceding efforts to preserve it. Signs of ongoing structural movement and continued problems with wood rot, together with the negative effects of piecemeal alteration are all living threats to the future of Woburn Walk. Without an organised and informed programme of basic maintenance to the fabric of the existing structure, future repair will be sufficiently intense as to greatly reduce the authenticity of the buildings again. In the meantime the street looks a sorry shadow of its intended image.

In collecting together a history of Woburn Walk, hindsight highlights the importance of maintenance and recording change in preserving the street.  Concluding the revolving pattern of decay and restoration will benefit the street by minimising the extent of replacement of fabric and will also prove more economical in the long-run.

  • SUMMARY OF PROPOSALS FOR THE FUTURE STEWARDSHIP OF WOBURN WALK

Over fifty years ago Woburn Walk was a spearhead example of a complex partnership conservation scheme; its defenders rose to the challenge of saving it by using powers at their disposal but within an original plan of their making. The Engineer’s report is testament to a pride in their achievement.

The likelihood of complete loss of the street is now remote, but this does not in any sense guarantee the future of Woburn Walk, or its significance as anything more than an aged, picturesque shopping street. In order to preserve its significance in the flesh, and not just on the pages of its scant listing entry, a new approach to management is essential.

Buildings are listed due to their individual value, rarity, or because they are exceptional for their kind, and therefore the starting point for assessing their care must surely begin with an assessment of their individual needs.

The street is both exceptional for, and challenged by, its uniform design, as it is held in multi-ownership and fulfils multiple uses; the differing requirements of each placing pressure upon its fragile aesthetic. If the many users and owners of Woburn Walk do not have a clear and accessible guide to what is permissible and how to maintain their own buildings, the continued significance of the asset is threatened.

The street would be an ideal test for a site-specific, interactive management system which brings together the buildings’ owners, residents and users with council and other professionals who can, with the assistance of English Heritage, manage the maintenance of the street and allow residents and users to gain greater benefit from it themselves. Other than the traditional offering of grants for physical repair, a grant to create a user-orientated, web-accessible Conservation Management Plan (with future potential to become a Heritage Protection Agreement) could provide the long-term solution that Woburn Walk needs to secure its future.

However, funding – or lack of – should not be regarded as the final word on developing a tailored conservation strategy.

Whilst accepting the vast obstacles to bringing about positive change to the policies and management systems of listed building control, I would lay down the challenge that individually tailored solutions developed at a local level are far more likely to provide effective controls, more easily, efficiently, and effectively, than the implementation of generalist planning policy, written by many who will have, almost certainly, never heard of Woburn Walk.

In practice, reluctance to initiate change at the local level seems to rely upon an assumption of the need for new legislation and funding for implementation.

Although efficient administrative and physical management of listed buildings may not produce such an interesting post-implementation report as that of the restoration work of 1956-8, were another John McGregor of this discipline to step forward, Woburn Walk could continue to break new ground with a new approach to allow positive engagement between all its stakeholders. Otherwise, another wholesale restoration project funded by English Heritage might one day reverse decades of poor repair and inappropriate alteration.

Hopefully this time around a more forward-thinking outcome might arise from the wealth of professional expertise, public interest in historic buildings, and the application of information technology.

Finally, the importance of listening to those who own and use the street cannot be underestimated if they are to be expected to play a part in its conservation. Their livelihood and accommodation needs should be carefully considered when forming further conservation policies for the street, and what they may be able to offer in terms of their time and organisation as well as their financial capabilities should be positively harnessed. Whilst accepting that some of the suggested improvements to the terraces may, for now, be beyond the purse of the offices, agencies and individuals involved, I hope this scoping project might kick-start the overdue debate and the actions required to arrest decay and secure its successful future, and in doing so set another example of good practice in partnership.