Lazy, soulless architecture is ruining our high streets – Historic England must act

Around the country, even more historic high streets are undergoing attack. As a letter to the Telegraph on Wednesday pointed out, a “1960s retro horror” is being inflicted on the city of Chester, whose heritage dates back to the Romans and whose medieval and Victorian buildings now have to compete with entirely unsympathetic glass and steel structures that are not remotely consonant with local materials. At a time when many high streets may face a choice between being partly turned into residential properties, retaining 19th- and early-20th-century buildings of some individuality and charm makes it more likely that they would become places where people would be happy to live.

Chester is not the only town or city centre where scale and aesthetics appear to have been violated. All over the country, from the 1960s to the 1980s, traditional high streets were turned into shopping malls of uniformity and banality whose life, for various reasons, is now coming to a close. Some provincial towns that have been regenerated have been made to look attractive thanks to a degree of thoughtfulness – the dockside area in Ipswich, for example, and much of the area of Manchester that had to be rebuilt after the 1990s IRA bombing. The refurbishment in 2018 of Preston’s remarkably individualist bus station turned a building widely regarded as a brutalist eyesore into a remarkable work of art; and a well-known London landmark that has been re-developed for mixed use is the former BBC Television Centre.

There is abundant evidence of old buildings being successfully repurposed and, as such, not disrupting existing townscapes with unsuitable replacements. Planning authorities, however, may not have aesthetic sense, and they may be susceptible to arguments by businesses for whom commercial templates take priority over architectural quality. It is not too late for Historic England to think again about poor old Marks and Sparks – and they should, before they set a dire precedent for every other failing high street in Britain.

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