C20 Society Director, Catherine Croft, on the recent demolition of the Dorman Long tower:
This case is an example of how not to take irreversible decisions about heritage. Decision making has been extremely rushed, there has been no time for informed public debate, and many expert bodies, including the C20 Society have not been able to make their views known before a significant historic structure has been reduced to rubble. It’s a very bad start for the new Secretary of State at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS).
The Dorman Long tower was due to be retained as part of the regeneration of the wider site. This intention was backed by the local conservative MP, Jacob Young, and it was in the Local Plan that it should stay.
A turnaround was apparently prompted by the desire to announce that proposals to build a wind turbine blade factory on the site could be made ahead of COP26.
In response to this, concerned locals put in an application for emergency spot listing. Historic England (to which such applications are submitted) acted extremely quickly and sent a report to DCMS recommending listing. This recommendation was made on 10th September 2021. In Historic England’s Advice Report, the tower was described as ‘a recognised and celebrated example of early Brutalist architecture’, ‘a rare (considered to be nationally unique) surviving structure from the C20 coal, iron and steel industries’ and ‘an advert for, Dorman Long […] a leading firm nationally’.
The South Tees Development Corporation asked for the decision to be reviewed on 13th of September. DCMS immediately asked Historic England to look at the further information submitted which they swiftly did on the 14th of September. Their advice was that the extra information was not sufficient to make them change their mind, and that they still considered the tower to be of listable quality.
On 16th of September the newly appointed Secretary of State at DCMS, Rt Hon Nadine Dorries MP, reversed the decision to list. In her letter she says that this was done ‘with the benefit of Historic England’s latest advice and the evidence contained within the review request’. In other words, the information she had to draw on was Historic England’s advice that listing should not be overturned, and contrary information from private consultants employed by the Development Corporation, who wished to facilitate demolition. She appears to have valued these consultants’ advice over that given to her by a public body, Historic England, which is ‘the government’s expert advisor on England’s heritage’.
C20 Society has made a Freedom of Information (FOI) request to DCMS to see the information submitted by both Historic England and the Development Corporation, but in the meantime the tower has been demolished.
It didn’t need to play out like this. If the Development Corporation had thought that there was any possibility that they might want to change their minds and demolish the tower, then they should have asked for a Certificate of Immunity (COI) from listing. This triggers a process which ensures that a considered assessment of the architectural and historic interest of a building is carried out in good time. An application for a COI prompts a comprehensive investigation by Historic England, and if the certificate is granted, then the applicants (usually the building’s owners) receive a guarantee that no listing will occur for the next five years. The Development Corporation’s consultants are very aware of this process.
C20 Society is extremely disappointed that an amazing structure with a rich history has been destroyed. There was the potential for it to have been repaired and integrated into a new development, which would have been a culturally rich solution. Demolition is also environmentally deplorable. Going forward, it is really important to make sure that important decisions like this are not rushed as this one has been.
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