The conservation of an exceptional Regency shopping street – Part VI

5. WOBURN WALK IN THE 21ST CENTURY: AN ASSESSMENT OF THE THREATS TO THE SIGNIFICANCE OF WOBURN WALK

i. ASSESSING THE VUNERABILITY OF WOBURN WALK

Major physical issues contained in the Significance and Conservation Table
Understanding the root causes of damage and decay is essential in forming a plan to conserve the buildings for the future. This is not a Conservation Management Plan for Woburn Walk, nor do I have access to the whole of the asset to undertake a complete survey from which to compile a complete list of specific threats to each building that would be desirable for a full plan. This section will highlight five broad issues threatening the condition of the fabric of Woburn Walk with reference to individual items from the Significance and Conservation Table. Details of the individual threats and their recommendations can be found within the table in Appendix II. These threats will be addressed in the next chapter where I will offer short-term actions for repair and longer-term policy-based actions for ongoing preservation.

1. Serious and ongoing structural decay to roofs, walls and vaults
The extent of structural compromise is a matter for timely consideration.

Main concerns:

a) Structural movement at No. 1. (See images 58-61.) The offices are entered through the door to the left of the bay window, and the extension, set back and to the left, has provided a double width hallway at ground floor (see image 63.) The stairs in the extension communicate with the offices on each floor, with large sections of the side elevation removed for each office doorway. (See image 62.) There is a strong possibility that the extensive movement at no. 1 is linked to the loss of structure in the side elevation.
b) The continued problem with damp in the vaults and basement should also be addressed. All the vaults have some damp penetration, which is not uncommon in such buildings, however certain features may be exacerbating the problem, such as the roots of the trees planted in the 1990’s. (See images 64-66.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2. Lack of ongoing general maintenance of the terraces

Even the most cursory survey of the external elevations gives rise to the conclusion that the street as a whole has deteriorated from its last round of major repair work in the 1980’s.

Main concerns:

a) A continued, ongoing lack of maintenance to the facades will increase damage to the building and inflate the cost of inevitable repair work to the render, and masonry and timber within. (See image 67& 72.)

b) No. 4 appears to have had little attention since the work of 1956-8 when the council first acquired the building. (See images 68 & 69.)

c) Poor patch repairs to render and shop front timbers can cause more damage and look very unsightly. (See images 70.)

 

 

 

 

 

3. Incremental impact upon the streetscape
A lack of coherent streetscape policy for Woburn Walk has had the most significant impact in its appearance, although the additions themselves are, with one exception, not a threat to the buildings.

Main concerns:

a) As well as a physical threat to the vaults and basements, the trees create the largest visual impact upon the street. Images before they were planted give pause for thought on how the street should look. Trees were not part of the original plan by Cubitt or the Bedford Estate. (See images 73 – 76.)

b) Litterbins are sited in central locations. Signage (especially estate agents’ boards) are both visually and physically damaging. (See image 77 & 78.)

c) The arrangement of tables, chairs and umbrellas, shop signage has not been fully considered in terms of style or appropriateness to the setting. (See image 67 above.)

d) Surrounding buildings with their security measures, downpipes and bird proofing are obscuring the original pilaster detailing on the side elevations. (See images 78 & 79a & b.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

4. Incremental damage to uniformity of elevations
Various additions to the street and the elevations have created an untidy whole, distracting from the uniform detail of the buildings. Much of this could have been prevented by stricter controls over the small alterations and especially additions made to the front elevations by the owners of the north terrace and Duke’s Road.
The malaise of an un-listed street suffering from poor replacement windows, doors, drainpipes, render etc is to be regretted and within Conservation areas it may be tackled, or at least curbed in the future. The damage of such alterations to the fabric and cohesiveness of a group of a GII* Listed buildings should be cause for concern.

Main concerns:

a) UPVC dormer window at no.1 (See image 80.)
b) Swinging signs at 1-7 (See image 81.)
c) Downpipes fed over the cornice and facia boards (See image 82.)
d) Mastic asphalt on York stone shop plinths on north terrace and Duke’s Road (See image 83)
e) Inappropriate canted bay window at ground floor of no. 9 (See image 84.)

5. Dangers of Change of Use and Conflicts arising between conservation of fabric and viability for modern needs

Main concerns:

a) The upper floors of 1-7 have been significantly altered by the re-modelling of the rear to provide a connection between Duke’s Road and the Ambassador Hotel at the opposite end of the street, part of which has subsequently been removed when these become office space. This change of use has eroded the original plan form and relevance to their original residential purpose. This conversion and change of use was sanctioned in 1981 when the owner successfully argued that the upper floors were no longer viable as residential accommodation, although they are still successfully inhabited elsewhere on the street. (See images 85 & 86.)

As the street has altered to serve food to workers, students and tourists in the area, the equipment for food preparation as well as eating and serving areas could, if not carefully controlled, exert pressure on the small buildings that were not designed for such a purpose.

b) The substation in the basement of no. 7 is hardly an appropriate use and must have caused significant damage to the original building. (See image 87.)

 

Solutions for the next sections on ownership and management will be addressed in Chapter 7.

 

ii. THE CHALLENGES IN MANAGING AN ASSET IN MULTI-OWNERSHIP

Current owners, leaseholders and tenants of Woburn Walk
One of the key characteristics of Woburn Walk is the group value of its uniform architecture. This is partly threatened by the inadvertent individual actions of a wide range of owners and users. Mixed ownership (private, council and commercial) and mixed use (residential, retail and offices bringing tenants, shop & office workers), all increase the potential for piecemeal degradation of the fabric and uniformity, and therefore significance, of the buildings.

Nos. 4 to 18 Woburn Walk are still owned by Camden Council. Around half the residential units have been bought through the Government’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme. The shops are let on commercial leases and the Council, as the freeholder, has responsibility for overseeing the work to the external, for which the leaseholders must pay towards the works undertaken. These elevations are in fair condition although basic maintenance is now overdue.

What becomes apparent in talking with residents of the council owned buildings is a frustration with arrangements for the maintenance of their buildings. Despite speaking with numerous staff, I was unable to locate an office responsible for these works. There is a clear antagonism amongst residents over who is responsible for what; what the costs should be; how often repairs should be carried out; and how much is paid for the repair work.

No. 4 Woburn Walk is leased by the council under one lease, the terms of that lease being different from the remainder of the south terrace, excluding it from the programme of repair works and placing responsibility on the leaseholder to maintain the fabric of the entire building. This arrangement is in keeping with Cubitt’s original ‘repairing leases’. No. 4 has received minimal attention since the work of 1956-58.

On the north terrace, nos. 1 to 7 are owned by a private freeholder. The commercial leases for retail and office space along the north terrace are likely to follow a similar arrangement, with the freeholder retaining responsibility for the overall structure, shared elements and external decoration of the buildings. These buildings are also in a compromised structural and decorative condition externally, and show the greatest level of minor alterations that significantly detract from the appearance of the terrace.

No. 9 on the north terrace is privately owned and in good external repair. There are a number of minor alterations, especially at ground floor, notably it is the last remaining incorrect re-instatement of a canted, rather than curved, bay window.

So in total there are 2 major freeholders, and 4 separate parties responsible for repair and upkeep, including the tenant of no. 4 and the freeholder of no 9. There are around 14 separate tenants or leaseholders on the south terrace and a similar number on the north terrace. All have some degree of liability with regard to maintaining (and not causing damage to) the buildings, but there is an obvious divergence of interest and self-interest in the approach to this care. As well as motivation, the ability of each to seek out information and to fund repair works will vary greatly between, for instance, the commercial freeholder and the elderly council tenant.

In order to protect this type of heritage, the nub of the issue must be how to preserve the special character of a street owned and used by stakeholders with wildly differing concerns and objectives, competencies, budgets and liabilities. Any organised approach to managing the asset in the future should address this issue with due consideration, and engage with each stakeholder to assess what can realistically be achieved by each party within the group.

iii. PROBLEMS WITH THE ORGANISATION AND MANAGEMENT OF WOBURN WALK AND THE SURROUNDING AREA

The dangers inherent in ‘event conservation’
By ‘event conservation’ I am referring to major restoration programmes of which so little systematically recorded, and little effort is spent on maintaining newly restored fabric, resulting in another cycle of deterioration and eventually another application for grant aid for urgent and necessary repairs. Woburn Walk is an exemplary model of this short-sighted approach to conservation, having relied for its continued existence upon the knowledge and interest of enthusiasts, rather than any established system of organised maintenance and record keeping.
Lack of retained knowledge of past work could threaten the future significance of Woburn Walk. Significant effort went into the specification and recording of the restoration programmes of the south terrace, but the only files now available are the Borough Engineer’s Report which was written for a general audience, and the general specifications for both restorations projects for the south terrace (one held at Woburn Abbey Archives, the latter at English Heritage) which do not give details of work carried out specific to each house.

There are also no files of restoration work in the archive files at the Planning Office at Camden. It is a great pity that detailed files on the work have not been retained in any form in order to help those who look after the buildings better understand what was done.

The Listing record held by English Heritage is the other key repository for reliable information on the significance of a listing building. However there is no description of any of the works done or of the internal features on the listing record, and again, the record does not differ from house to house. Despite their significance, each side of the street is described only externally and as a group, rather than individually, externally and internally.

Despite the key role of the Georgian Group in saving the south terrace from complete destruction in the 1950’s, they now hold no material on it in their library – much to the confessed surprise of the Librarian!

Clearly, these principles extend beyond the conservation of Woburn Walk to the care of any listed buildings. The interesting case for Woburn Walk is that the events of its colourful history are not recorded in one place in any detail, yet those with knowledge of it assume that it is.

The value of record keeping
The lack of it for Woburn Walk has been covered. The need for it still needs further discussion.

Whilst the importance of well-trained conservation officers conducting a full survey of an individual property in the light of a planning application cannot be understated, it appears to me rather churlish to suggest that this is the only productive means of establishing the value of a historic building. Not only does this present the possibility of overlooking an important original feature which might be alien to the officers body of knowledge of the period, but also important decisions or compromises may have been taken in past conservation schemes which cannot be realised until the work is undone. This becomes particularly important when we learn from the Engineer’s specification papers that all the internal timbers, roof slates and lath and plaster were removed, cleaned back and /or replaced.

Further, the skills of reading a building and understanding its original fabric do not help the officer appreciate any later features which have been retained for other historic values, such as the porch over the balcony at no. 4.

For a variety of reasons (primarily due to the issue of right of access and time constraints at the initial point of listing) most listed building records do not contain many, if any, details regarding interiors. Also, it is generally agreed that the listing should not act as the sole basis for understanding which individual parts of the building should be preserved and retained, as already said, this can be best left to the conservation officer to judge on a case-by-case basis.

However it would almost certainly benefit any judgement to have a more detailed description of what is known about the buildings and the work that has gone on. In summary, it would be favourable to ensure that the bodies that play advisory and consultative roles in its future have a level of detailed information on it.

Given that current standards for record keeping and archiving are far higher than in previous generations, and as we are now able to store large files of various media electronically, there can be a reasonable expectation that documentation can be added to a comprehensive file held by both English Heritage and the planning department of the local authority for their listed buildings. However, in 2005, Chris Miele’s paper in the Journal of Architectural Conservation stated that there was no register held by English Heritage or the National Monuments Record of existing Conservation Management Plans. I am equally unable to find any such record in 2009.

Failure of the current control systems for preventing unauthorised alteration and non-compliant repair
Local authority management of listed buildings can be described as operating a system of control which prevents or limits damage and is not ideally suited to providing support for conservation initiatives. There is a certain degree of assumption – not without some justification – that much of our heritage is still economically viable and therefore its owners should take responsibility for it whilst the local authority keeps a watching brief and exerts controls as required.

Still, the small number of records for listed building consent concerning the street suggest that unauthorised alteration and non-compliant repair to the elevations has been undertaken over the years. Whilst the sweeping argument claiming a limitation of resources can hold practical weight, it is clear that these changes have been occurring since the 1980’s without any (publically recorded) attempt at addressing them. When lack of resource becomes the only reason for a failure of proper care, perhaps the system of care should be reviewed?

Encroachment of surrounding buildings
It is reasonable to suppose that its scale was always meant to appear smart but diminutive in comparison with the grand residential buildings of the Bedford Estate. As the area became less residential, much of the land was re-developed for educational and commercial purposes with the addition of many much taller buildings. Current development policy at the national level is keen to restrict the extent of new building in close proximity to a listed building where it would impact on the perceived value of a historical asset, however pressure for development in London is understandably intense. The street is now dwarfed by surrounding offices on Euston Road; hotels on Upper Woburn Place (to which it has lost its north-western flank wall); and the British Medical Association on Burton Street (to which it has lost its south-easterly flank wall). (See images 88 – 90.) Woburn Walk now appears incongruously small and precious in its urban setting and has, perhaps in keeping with its character, an Alice-in-Wonderland quality about it.