The State of Heritage in Chester

Gavin Smithies
gms505 [at]

I am currently reading for a MA in Cultural Heritage Management here at York. However, I am also a History, Heritage and Archaeology graduate and an ex- resident of Chester. My dissertation discussed the issues of heritage conservation in the city from the Victorian period to the present day and as such, some of the issues raised are relevant to the present heritage "debate".

One of the major challenges for any conservation policy in Chester is that the city is historically and architecturally a multilayered site, not simply Roman. Around the walls there are areas of deep historical significance but also buildings and sites that have been altered so radically over the years that they contain only a fraction, if any, of their original fabric. The issue of authenticity has therefore become of paramount importance to the interpretation of Chester's heritage. However this has become significantly convoluted by conservation policies that do little more than chase funding in the face of extensive re-development. These strategies have become short term solutions to provide short term financial gain. Nevertheless, since 1945 there have been a plethora of expensive conservation reports, studies and reviews in which many important recommendations for long term conservation strategy in Chester are recurrent but largely forgotten themes.

That said, we must understand that towns and cities can not remain static. Chester cannot become a museum piece. Urban growth is the driving force behind any economy and new opportunities, markets and trends must be tapped into if urban centers are to survive. Chester's Victorian vernacular renaissance is a fine example of a balance being struck between the need for urban re-development and the City's heritage. Since then public funding, the increase of stakeholders through privatisation and the subsequent town planning agendas have meant that the 'conservation consciousness' which emerged in the 19th century has now been diluted. However it is clear from the various letters and articles in the local press every week, that the local community has a valid opinion about the direction and form that conservation policy should take and has now become the voice of common sense. For example, there is a consensus that the Amphitheatre should be preserved and developed into a world class visitor attraction. Nevertheless to date, all recent work has been backfilled and the future of the site is unsure. The future for Chester Castle is also lamented; all hope for it resting on a tenuous bid to redevelop the site into a hotel. These are just two examples of the appalling waste and neglect to our heritage which is reported and commented on with alarming regularity in the local press. Chester's historic environment is what sets it apart and therefore it must not repeat past mistakes as of those of the 1960's.

Therefore, in my opinion, it is about time the planners listened to the recommendations of their expensive conservation reports and also acknowledged the validity of community participation. Perhaps this would then lead to the implementation of a more long term and sustainable approach by better exploiting the Cities historic legacy rather than replacing it with yet another quick economic fix.## Some useful links