People & porcelain
I’ve been lucky to meet many of the men and women whose skill, passion and graft made Worcester Porcelain the international phenomenon that it was. I love hearing their tales; more than anything I love their unabashed pride in the story of which they were a part. Their products were a marriage of beauty, art and science made possible by the extraordinary skill of Worcester workers.
For 250 years, Worcester excelled in the production of exceptional porcelain. From exquisite pieces for royal tables to the production of 30,000 spark plugs a week during WW2, through numerous changes of ownership and direction since the first firings in 1751, porcelain production has been synonymous with the city. The city takes enormous pride in its sons and daughters whose talents graced the dining rooms and exhibition halls of the world: people such as Richard Seabright, the Doughty Sisters and Harry Martin.
My childhood memories of the porcelain works are vivid: visits to grandparents in Worcester marked by trips to the vast ‘seconds’ store, rack upon rack of endless gleaming and glittering wares. A feeling of life, work and industry that made it quite unlike any other shop. I never could spot the flaws which had consigned a vessel to the ‘seconds’ outlet: all seemed impossibly perfect.
The city is steeped in porcelain. The factories were in the heart of the city: the Royal Worcester works lie just 50 metres from the Cathedral Close. Factory waste was often sold as rubble: it finds its way into yards, gardens and fields for miles around. Contorted slithers of kiln furniture and biscuit-fired wasters are familiar friends in the archaeological assemblages that I work on week in, week out; Worcester Porcelain is quite literally embedded in the soil of the city.
Production ended in the city in 2006, after years of falling demand. The Severn Street factory site lies empty. Parts have been sold off to property developers. The wonderful Museum of Royal Worcester occupies part of the site; it tells the breathtaking story of the finest English porcelain ever produced: a story of industry and aesthetic perfection, but above all, a story of people. I’m delighted that, last week, the Museum announced the receipt of a £1.2 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund to explore and celebrate the social history of porcelain production in the city, telling the story of the workers, the community and the factory’s significance to the city.
Pride & Planning
Two days after that announcement, a decision was taken that will see the demolition of eight buildings within the conservation area, including many of the remaining elements of the Porcelain Works; the late-18th century ‘Farmhouse’ will go, as will many other 19th century buildings including all bar the façade of the factory buildings fronting Severn Street. And what’s to go in their place? Seven townhouses and three apartments.
The Severn Street factory façade will be retained in front of these dwellings, but that’s all that will remain. There’s a name for this practice: ‘Facadism’. It’s a bad idea. What façadism does is to cement the idea that the architecture is all: you can erase all trace of the human element, the lived experience, as long as you keep a small section of the most visible part of the outer shell. No matter that the shell, removed from its context, is a meaningless bauble, in this case uncomfortably juxtaposed with some smart townhouses.
It’s a cop-out. If a new build is truly worthy of its place, and the benefits outweigh the loss, let it stand on its own terms. If not, then it doesn’t justify the removal of the old. A façade is an apology: an acknowledgement that the new can’t match the old, and a tacit betrayal of the observer.
In order to understand how we’ve got to this point, it’s worth looking at the background. In 2012, The Bransford Trust put forward plans for a ‘cultural quarter’ on the site. The philanthropist and local businessman behind the proposal, Colin Kinnear, said at the time:
“We are not intending to knock down the existing buildings, as these are sacrosanct, but we do believe we can enhance the glories of the site’s past and use music and art to create a wonderful place”. Colin Kinnear, 2012.
The proposals were universally warmly welcomed, and planning permission was granted in 2014 for an £11 million scheme that would see the site transformed into a cultural hub including a concert hall, viewing tower and open courtyards with cafes and restaurants, alongside studios and workshops for potters and artists, retaining most of the existing buildings.
However, the Bransford Trust has now decided the scheme is unviable, and proposed a new scheme costing £3 million. The revised scheme retains the concert hall in the (Grade II listed) former showroom, but little else. The ten proposed residential dwellings that will replace the demolished factory buildings will generate just one-sixth of the funds required, with the Bransford Trust meeting the remaining costs. Internationally significant industrial heritage will be demolished for a net gain of just £550,000.
The new proposals drew criticism from just about everyone with expertise in the significance and management of historic sites. Historic England objected. The Council for British Archaeology objected, as did the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society, the conservation area advisory committee and several former Museum curators. Many local residents, myself included, registered objections. I’m sure there would have been many more, but few outside of Worcester City Council were aware of them before it was too late. An unadvertised ‘public exhibition’ and small notices in the classified ads of the local paper appear to have been about the sum total of the public consultation.
The objections were overridden. Planning permission was granted. Behind-closed-doors meetings between developers and councillors had evidently convinced them of the worth of the new scheme. One Councillor is quoted as arguing that few of the buildings earmarked for demolition are “historically pure”, as if buildings are valuable only if they are pickled from the moment of creation, unsullied by use or adaptation. I feel for the heritage team at Worcester City Council, many of whom I respect and admire, who were placed in an impossible position by their employers.
This is a difficult and complex case. I am sure that Colin Kinnear is genuine in his concern for the site, and his desire to enhance the use of the former showroom as a cultural venue. He has demonstrated his commitment to other cultural venues such as the Swan Theatre, and is by all accounts a decent and charitable man. However, he is not a historic buildings specialist, and there are aspects to this project which are bound to raise alarm, and which risk being seen in a less favourable light. It comes perilously close to a pattern which anyone with experience of historic buildings and property development will recognise: a vacant site is acquired with grand stated ambitions, time passes, buildings are allowed to deteriorate, the scheme is found to be ‘unviable’, a much less sympathetic alternative is proposed, the new scheme is accepted as ‘only feasible option’. It’s a trick as old as the hills. I’m sure that wasn’t Mr Kinnear’s intention, but when so much is decided behind closed doors, it risks being seen as such.
Ten dwellings is hardly the answer to the housing crisis. Worcester has a very comprehensive document that sets out how to meet the demand for housing supply. It’s called the SWDP. It took a lot of work, is very detailed and is nothing if not comprehensive. This site is not in it. Mr Kinnear’s original vision is expensive. There is no doubt that the site needs considerable investment. Any scheme has to be ‘viable’ and sustainable, and someone has to foot the bill. But Worcester City Council has demonstrated the will to pursue capital projects of a similar scale, such as its £8 million investment in a replacement swimming pool. And if the long-term economic health of the city depends on tourism, as the City Council’s ambition for Heritage City status attests, then surely more funding options for the original scheme could be pursued. At the very least, the people of Worcester deserve the opportunity to engage in open and honest consultation, rather than private briefings behind closed doors.
Here, in a nutshell, is why I believe that the revised scheme is ill-advised:
- Worcester performed impressively in the RSA’s recent Heritage Index: ranking in the top 10 nationally for the potential of its heritage, it topped the national table for its industrial heritage. Demolishing much of the most significant industrial site in the city would seem a perverse way of capitalising on this success.
- Worcester City Council is committed to pursuing ‘Heritage City’ status, with the aim of increasing revenues from tourism and capitalising on the rich architectural and cultural heritage of the city. An invigorated cultural quarter would be a boon: ten private dwellings behind an empty façade, juxtaposed with an oddly-isolated concert hall, would not.
- The proposals, in their current form, risk re-igniting anger and resentment at loss of heritage in a city in which demolition of historic buildings has been a source of considerable reputational damage to the City Council in the past, most notably in the case of the demolition of Lich Street in the 1950s and 60s, which caused a national outcry and led directly to the formation of RESCUE, the British Archaeological Trust.
- The developers’ heritage statement admits that “the overall character of the site will see a negative effect, as a number of buildings which contribute to the group value and historical association of the site to the Royal Worcester Porcelain Works, will be demolished. This will have a moderate detrimental impact on the significance of the complex as a whole”.
I simply can’t see how this development would meet the requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) to be sustainable. Planning practice guidance urges that “When considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation. The more important the asset, the greater the weight should be. Significance can be harmed or lost through alteration or destruction of the heritage asset or development within its setting”.
This site offers the opportunity to engage in constructive conservation which enhances, rather than demolishes, the heritage associated with our city’s most famous industry. This proposal falls far short of that ambition. It boils down to whether it is worth compromising 250 years of industry and civic pride for the sake of £550,000. I don’t believe that’s a price worth paying. If you agree, I’d urge you to make your feelings known.