A Compulsory Purchase Case Study
Buildings are sometimes abandoned following years of neglect either because the owners cannot afford to do the basic building maintenance or because the cost of refurbishment or conversion to an economically viable new use would exceed the value of the property once refurbished.
When a listed building is abandoned and left to decay, the local authority can serve an urgent works notice on the owner, and if necessary, carry out the works itself at the expense of the owner. However, an urgent works notice is not a panacea. It risks bankrupting the owner of the building, leaving the local authority with a heavy bill, a building it does not want, and a lot of bad publicity. In this case neither the owner nor the local authority gains and, as a result, local authorities are often reluctant to take action.
Matters are further complicated when the preservation of a building would be more expensive and less profitable than the redevelopment of its site. Some owners would prefer to see their property fall down and are prepared to exploit local authority reluctance to take action to achieve this end. Nevertheless, many conservation officers have used the threat of urgent works notices to ensure that a building is preserved, particularly where their council has an established track record of taking action.
Where an owner clearly does not have the resources to preserve an historic building, one way out of the impasse is a 'back-to-back' agreement whereby the local authority buys the property, if necessary by compulsory purchase, and immediately sells it to a building preservation trust (BPT) for refurbishment.
Arguably one of Wales' most important historic buildings, Sker House was successfully purchased in this manner by Bridgend County Borough Council and immediately sold to the Buildings at Risk Trust, a BPT based in Derbyshire. (At the time there were no BPTs in the region with the resources to take on a project of this size.) A scheme for the renovation of the building has now been prepared by the specialist conservation architects, Davies Sutton Architects, of Pontyclun.
Sker House is a large medieval house near Porthcawl in Glamorgan. It was originally founded by the monks of Neath as one of five farms or 'granges' to support the Abbey. The main house was remodelled in the mid 16th century following the Dissolution. Architecturally it is large and rambling, with tall gabled wings. Only the main hall on the first floor is more refined, with stone mullioned windows in the Tudor manner and the remnants of a fine plaster frieze of foliage interspersed with bird-headed men shooting arrows at dragons.
Made famous by RD Blackmore in his book The Maid of Sker, Sker House has been tenanted since the late 17th century. Its condition declined in the 19th century and in 1977 it was declared unsafe. Not long after its tenants moved out, the southern gable end collapsed. The building is now in a ruinous state with ugly farm buildings nearby detracting from its setting, and the grounds are used as a farmyard.
The proposal is to restore Sker House with the collapsed end remaining as a ruin, its walls enclosing a garden within, sheltered from the winds. The project has been supported by the Historic Buildings Advisory Council for Wales which has contributed £250,000 for the relocation of the modern farm buildings and to provide new access, and by the Heritage Lottery Fund who have contributed £413,000 for its repair.
The original owners and its tenants will gain from the new barns, and the future of this great medieval house seems assured. After a long delay, work started on St David's Day (1st March) 1999.
SKER HOUSE - THE SAGA CONTINUES
The troubled history of Sker House seems set to continue despite starting the restoration project back in March 1999. Since then the first contractor went into receivership at the end of that year. The site then lay dormant for three years whilst legal matters were resolved. The same contractor (under a different name) was reinstated in November 2002 but suddenly resigned last April. A third contractor, Restruct Ltd of Bridgend, is now completing the project, which is programmed to finish in July 2003.
The main structural work was completed three years ago, and the remaining works involve: installing the heating and electrical services, completing the plastering, fitting metal windows and oak plank doors, laying floors, and laying the external drainage. There will also be a measure of external landscaping, such as rebuilding garden walls, and introducing paths around the house. Whilst excavating for drainage recently the archaeologist discovered a series of possibly Medieval structures at the front of the house - probably belonging to the earlier Medieval Grange.
The level of completion of the House has been a topic of discussion for many years. It has been decided to take the project to about 90 per cent completion, leaving the finishing touches to the new owner so they can decide upon the final fit-out. This provides maximum flexibility so the sale of the house will attract as many uses, and therefore buyers, as possible. Covenants will be attached to the sale to ensure that future works will conform to the trust's wishes.
Davies Sutton Architects
Postscript: the conservation of Sker House was successfully completed by the autumn of 2003 after a £1.2 million restoration, aided by the Heritage Lottery Fund. It is now a private house.