Ian Morrison, director of planning at Historic England, speaks warmly of his love of heritage but that doesn’t mean he’ll be a pushover

Ian Morrison amid the rubble and rebuilding at Shrewbury Flaxmill Maltings.
Ian Morrison amid the rubble and rebuilding at Shrewbury Flaxmill Maltings. Credit: Edward Moss

To be director of planning at Historic England means judging whether to seek call-in for  planning inquiries, guiding staff to get the best for heritage in a time of cuts, and proactively using the value of heritage to help areas where historic buildings are left mouldering. But for Ian Morrison, six months into the job, it most of all means loving heritage. As he talks with warm moderation of his many responsibilities you sense a calming, confident hand on the many processes and priorities of this large organisation. There are also hints of a firmer stance on planning inquiries. 

‘Jane Jacobs’ thesis has been proved over time, there is an economic need for old buildings,’ he says. ‘That agenda is very personal to me.’ Morrison’s started his professional life in the South West, as an archaeologist, before specialising in the regeneration of former industrial sites such as Plymouth’s Royal William Yard with English Heritage. Later, as head of historic environment at the Heritage Lottery Fund, he set up the Heritage Enterprise grants programme to help communities bring life to old buildings. And most recently, at the Architectural Heritage Fund, he was doing that working closely with building projects on the ground in Wrexham, Derbyshire and Somerset among others.

Back when Morrison was at the HLF he commissioned New Ideas Need Old Buildings (2013), looking at how old buildings are a base for new businesses, like Birmingham’s Custard Factory and Bristol’s Paintworks. Permitted development rights allowing change of use from industrial to residential are eating away at these. In response Historic England is embarking on a more in depth study to tease out the relationship between the creative economy and old buildings.

As English Heritage’s mission statement says, it is about ‘places’. Morrison certainly sees HE’s role as wider than preserving the set pieces and fragments of history. ‘It is a way of seeing heritage, less in isolation and more how [buildings?] relate to each other as a place.’ This was visible at St Michael’s development in Jackson’s Row Manchester, backed by footballers Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville. Starting with two Make towers and the demolition of a number of protected buildings HE originally objected to it not just for its simple demolition but for erasing layers of the city centre’s history. It pointed out that not only did the towers dominate; they also focussed inwards rather than bringing life to the streets. The redesign by Hodder and Partners had a more positive response, although HE remains ‘unable to support’ the scheme which would still have an ‘unavoidable impact’. Notably it didn’t object though.

  • Inside the Flaxmill.
    Inside the Flaxmill. Credit: Edward Moss
  • Under the roof.
    Under the roof. Credit: Edward Moss
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Morrison knows developers and HE won’t always agree. He believes the ­organisation has a duty to use its full powers to oppose significant harm, including requesting call in for planning inquiries. In recent years there was some retrenchment as costly planning inquiries were avoided and costs rarely claimed – perhaps an attempt to demonstrate a positive working relationship. But for 2018 Morrison has set aside national resources for inquiries that can be seen looming on the horizon, plus some contingency. And he plans to go after costs as a pragmatic approach, as HE did in west London on 9-42 The Broadway. Here Allies and Morrison’s scheme for British Land was up for inquiry with HE as the formal (rule 6) party. The application was withdrawn just days before the inquiry was due to start. HE was awarded costs. ‘We are now working closely with British Land as to alternative proposals for the site,’ writes Morrison in his attentive follow up after our interview. It is clear he is aiming not for a combatitive approach but for boundaries to be drawn more clearly. ‘Of course it is the last resort,’ says Morrison. ‘But when we are unable to agree we need to be clear about our intention to use it and resource it properly.’

It is a way of seeing heritage, less in isolation and more how buildings relate to each other as a place

London has moved a long way since the planning battles of the 90s when English Heritage, as it then was, appeared ranged against development in the city, characterised as defending antiquated ideas of viewing corridors. From HE’s City office Morrison and I look out over the roof garden that was built instead of extra storeys, preserving views of St Paul’s Cathedral. Not all such views have survived: from Richmond Park the glimmer of the dome in that protected view has been lost to a bully tower at Stratford. And over the last few years, as a rash of undistinguished towers have shouldered their way into prominence along the Thames, more people are asking the wider questions about how the city should deal with growth. Does London have to be a high, super dense city, losing sky to streets churned by vortices of wind, its infrastructure creaking at the seams? Or could densification of the outer suburbs prove more palatable? HE-commissioned research on the character of those kind of areas will surely lead to a more informed approach to any such moves through the London Plan and beyond.

  • Historic England is bringing the main historic buildings back into use at Shrewsbury Flaxmill starting with the visitors’ centre.
    Historic England is bringing the main historic buildings back into use at Shrewsbury Flaxmill starting with the visitors’ centre. Credit: Edward Moss
  • It has now moved on to refurbishing the 1797 grade I listed main mill and grade II listed kiln, for public and office use.
    It has now moved on to refurbishing the 1797 grade I listed main mill and grade II listed kiln, for public and office use. Credit: Edward Moss
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Commenting on and contributing to local plans is an important role for Historic England. Beyond London and the South East, the context is very different, says Morrison. ‘With low land values it’s often difficult to produce economically viable schemes.’ His previous jobs gave him experience of this. So he was right behind HE’s campaign last year to make better use of old mill buildings – Engines of Prosperity. Morrison is also pushing Heritage Action Zones. ‘Lots of our work is reactive and we want to be more proactive in creating public value,’ he explains. ‘So we are focussing expertise of staff from planning – and designation and research – where there are opportunities for growth.’ This spring and summer should show some of the results from the second round of zones, including conserving fishing heritage in Grimsby, protecting bottle kilns and rejuvenating Longton High Street in Stoke on Trent. 

‘Working upstream, there is more influence and a more efficient use of ideas and resources,’ says Morrison. Others in the amenity societies that get consulted alongside HE fear such work doesn’t engage the public, as HE must. ‘It’s hard to get a debate until the wrecking ball threatens,’ says Catherine Croft of the Twentieth Century Society. It is also concerned that extra planning inquiries could also divert resources from front line case work, but Morrison says not. He feels strongly about this but is not relying on previous experience here. ‘The first thing I did when I joined was to ask each regional team to show me a piece of casework they were proud of, that could have been better, that was live and they were engaged with and one that had proved contentious.’ He saw many on site too.

When we are unable to agree we need to be clear about our intention to use call-in and resource it properly

Morrison has a light in his eyes when he talks of the tangible and the heritage that has made up the fabric of places over the years. Shrewsbury Flaxmill Maltings is a small project in the scheme of things but one where his bit of HE is developer of last resort. It is rescuing the oldest iron framed building in the world – a precursor to skyscrapers. ‘We are getting to understand what it is to be a developer,’ says Morrison with energy. He likes what architects can bring to re-use and is editing a book that celebrates their role – while looking at what can be learnt from the many projects on the pages. He is excited by the ‘subtle’ ways the best practices use scrape and reveal: ‘You don’t have to go for the big flashy exterior or adaptation. It takes an incredible skill and humility to produce something subservient to the original… it sets a context of the past for our future.’

 

Reanimate! Heritage, Architecture and Place, RIBA Publishing is out later this year


 

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