The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Former water-softening plant

Built in the 1930s, this former water-softening plant at Newnham appears to be a rare survivor. It forms part of a water treatment site constructed for Mid Kent Water plc, which also includes a pumphouse dating from 1937 and a pair of semi-detached houses, built to accommodate staff. The pumphouse is well maintained and still in use. The water-softening plant, however, was abandoned in the forties only a decade after it was constructed; it closed during the Second World War and re-opened in 1946 but it soon closed finally for numerous reasons, including difficulties in sludge disposal and high operational and chemical costs.

The water-softening plant is in poor condition but amazingly remains intact. It seems to be an unusual design – no-one at the Society has seen anything like it before, hence I have been contacting specialists in the industry. The plant is constructed of reinforced concrete. It consists of two circular tanks which taper towards the bottom – hopper-bottom sedimentation tanks, common in both water and sewage treatment – either side of a central cylindrical circulation tower. The tower stands at just over 13.5 metres and as each tank is 12.5 metres wide and nearly 9 metres high, it is large and impressive. It can be seen from the nearby M2 and was disliked so much by the local vicar that shortly after it was built poplars were planted in front of it by Mid Kent Water to screen it from his home. The structure certainly is brutal. It is immediately evocative of the photographs of old industrial buildings taken by the German artists Bernd and Hilla Becher, who were pre-occupied with photography reminiscent of industrial archaeology. They began working together in 1959 photographing and compiling systematic series of buildings in the Ruhr area in Germany, a heavily industrial part of Germany. Later projects included documenting buildings in the United Kingdom, United States, France and Belgium. One work, ‘Coal Bunkers‘, which is part of the Tate Collection and dates from 1974 includes two examples from Great Britain. Part of the Bechers’ impulse was to make a record of a vanishing industrial landscape. A few years after these images were taken, nearly all the structures had been demolished, which makes the survival of the Newnham structure all the more interesting.

English Heritage has been conducting a study on the Water and Sewage Industry as part of its Monuments Protection Programme (MPP) in which the Newnham site is mentioned. The report noted that the water-softening works were a unique identification among the sites assessed for the programme. However, this in itself points to limited research into the industry; at best it is patchy. While many studies have taken place a comprehensive survey has not and it is also acknowledged that the period to which the plant belongs has been little researched. Indeed, the sites assessed in the report could be the tip of the iceberg: no-one quite knows the exact statistics involved and a massive input of resources would be needed to extend the scope of research.

The water-softening plant was one of only three 1930s sites assessed, and of those it was the only water-softening plant. Its rarity is the sheer fact it survives, though it may also have been experimental in terms of its operation, but research needs to be done. (It has been suggested that this plant could be an early example of a sludge bank clarifier – used to soften water – and could perhaps be the first for public water supply). Most buildings in the industry were adapted as technology improved, radically altering them. However, and for reasons unknown, this one was abandoned. In terms of the MPP, it is of considerable interest as the other sites assessed dating from the 1930s are rather traditional buildings in the International Modern style, while this structure clearly differs radically. Although its importance is noted as high in the MPP report, there is at present no way of knowing whether others exist. So far no research has been done to uncover how many water-softening plants were constructed, how many survive – if any – and, if so, how many survive intact. However, we do know that no other water-softening plant like this exists within the operational area of Mid-Kent Water, which covers some 2,000 sq kilometres. The plant was apparently erected at the insistence of one of the local authorities to be supplied, as it considered the water to be much too hard. It is, therefore, the only one of its kind in the county and as it wasn’t part of a national programme, doubt is thrown upon the existence of others.
While the water-softening plant’s brick counterpart one hundred metres away still pumps water to the homes of Kent people, its concrete cousin had been forgotten. That is until Mid Kent Water decided to sell. Earlier this year the plant went to auction and the auction notice suggested it could be transformed into a dwelling, subject to planning approval. At that point a prospective buyer contacted the Society and we went on site. Even at this early stage we felt that the building was interesting as a representative of a rare building type and was of great historic interest, but that it was also a fine building in its own right. Our comments apparently convinced the owner to buy the property, who thought that it would be a fantastic structure to convert into his home.

As with any planning application, progress is slow. We have now met on site again, at the owner’s invitation, with various parties, including English Heritage and representatives of Swale Borough Council, all of whom recognise that this building is somewhat unusual. For the Society, conversion of the plant to a dwelling represents a fantastic opportunity to not only preserve the building but give it a new lease of life. It has stood abandoned for over fifty years, and those years have taken their toll. Swale Borough Council remains to be convinced that this structure is of high importance and is pushing the Society to recommend the building for spot-listing in order to prove its merit absolutely. Unfortunately, it isn’t as simple as that. Without a wholesale review of the water industry it seems it will be impossible to answer all the questions that need to be answered, answers which would give the crucial context to the building and which would better support what little information we have at present. But perhaps the plant should be listed pending this wholesale review. Certainly nothing like it is listed at present. But what if listing fails? Swale Borough Council, who as I said remain to be convinced of the building’s merit, could easily use a listing rejection to scupper the whole conversion. Planning guidelines rightly emphasise the need to regulate rural development. It has to be proved, therefore, that this redundant building is so special that it needs to be preserved, that its re-use is the right one, and that any conversion is sensitive to the character of the building.

The Society supports the wish to convert the former water-softening plant to a dwelling. The case is an interesting one as it shows that listing is not necessarily the best way forward and that its merits have to be clearly evaluated. It is never something to be taken lightly. At present this building has a very bright future and decisions must be made carefully. But no matter which way this case goes, the Society will be heavily involved with the conversion design at the request of the owner, who is keen to gain our guidance and feedback. I’ve been promised dinner at ‘Bernie’s Folly’ (as it has been nicknamed by the owner) – and I hope to make it!

Claire Barrett