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Chris Smith discusses re-use of industrial buildings in the Stroud Valleys.

It is my view that the underlying principle illuminating re-use policies is pragmatism. The result is often schizophrenic. In its views on industrial buildings, the Montagu report serves as a good example.
First, one is faced with the theoretically excellent and pre-eminently positioned Conclusion no 1: “ . . . let us state unequivocally that we consider the best use in most cases is the use for which the building was aheady designed..
In specifically focusing on industrial buildings, the fact of a declining industrial base waters this down first to “. . . converting premises as small units. . .“. The report then proceeds to Condusion no 7: “We recommend that where there is no demand for industrial space in such buildings there should be a presumption in favour of change of use to residential.” Although SAVE is quoted as seeing residential conversion as a way of providing for a social need, there can be little doubt that the prime motivation behind this condusion was experience. Already the committee could quote major examples of buildings successfully re-used in this way from all around the world.
Circumstances in the property markets were first to fulfil the aims of Condusion no 7 and then far to surpass them. That process is dearly exemplified in the Stroud Valleys. The Montagu report acknowledged, in an aside, that a major group of mills is to be found in Gloucestershire. By the mid 1980s, that group had become the centre of attention and concern. As the primary weaving industry continued to decline, environmental awareness grew. People became increasingly concerned that the character of the Stroud Valleys, where dramatic Cotswold scarp beauty mixes with industry in a uniquely balanced way, would be lost if the principal mills were to disappear. By 1986 when Urbed (Urban & Economic Development Ltd) was commissioned to report on the potential of the area and the future of the mills, one group of buildings was giving particular cause for concern.
Dunkirk Mills, Nailsworth, is a massive landmark building, built serially from the late 18th century onwards and listed grade 11*. Visible from both the main A46 and the cydetrail along the former Stonehouse to Nailsworth railway, its decline symbolised the problems of the valleys. The Urbed report stressed that the scale of the building called for a variety of uses which could indude an industrial museum, with the potential of success leading to out-station
developments around the valleys. This proposition was further grounded on a financial assumption: “Dunkirk Mills, if it were converted entirely into flats, would produce over 80 units which is far more than the market could absorb, or a single investor would fmance.” When the full heat of the property boom reached the Stroud Valleys, that assumption was to be, briefly, questioned.
It was Matthew Saunders’ evidence to the Montagu Working Party which induded the excellent observation that “The optimum stimulus to the re-usc of historic buildings is a buoyant, but not booming, economy coupled with a tough exercise of development controL” This holds equally true when looking at a ‘knock it down’ redevelopment boom or, as in the 1980s, at a phase when re-use is an accepted principle. In the case of Dunkirk Mills, the boom finally changed one developer’s perceptions enough for him to believe that the market could absorb about 70 flats, that entirely residential conversion was viable and accordingly to buy the mills. Hardly surprisingly, the District Council, which by this time definitely had a PROBLEM on its hands, accepted the proposition. As a result, the great landmark building in its dramatic wooded setting, is now (almost completely) repaired, its future secure. It has, of course, a lot of smallish internal spaces, only a token area for the display of industrial features, ruched curtains and pansies in the gardens
but perhaps only the churlish will dwell on that.
More importantly, the achievement is flawed in two further regards. First the boom market assumptions have been fiercely tested in the late 1980s and, few flats sold, the building is being mothballed to a chorus of internal recriminations. Secondly, around the Stroud Valleys, buildings, many of which would be more easily re-used than Dunkirk, stand empty, while owners await the domestic conversion bonanza. Kimmins Mill, grade II, 1849, hardly ideal in that it
stands next to a working foundry, is one example. Churches Mill, Woodchester, is worse. Small enough only to accommodate four residential units, it was actually in industrial use when the owners relocated the traditional stick manufacture as part of the process of applying for residential conversion. The scheme, which also induded ‘enabling development in the mill yard, was approved by members despite a District Council policy specifically adopted to combat this pressure by insisting that residential conversion should be the last option. (Boom gone, the building now stands empty and for sale at a far higher hope value). On balance then, and with the benefit of a great deal of hindsight, Stroud Valleys experience could not support Montagu’s Condusion no 7.
In a far lower key, re-use in the valleys has an excellent pedigree and significant successes to its credit. First, it must be said that the industry in these valleys has shown itself to be remarkably adaptable. As weaving declined, diversification into engineering and services proceeded. In many cases, these new businesses moved into parts of major mill complexes. Many buildings thus survive and are re-used, although not always with adequate investment ensured. Similarly a number of buildings have been converted for use by high tech new industry coming into the area.
It is a matter of regret that the great flagship gesture of the District Council in converting Ebley Mill to its headquarters has fallen under the shadow of financial difficulty. Whatever the reason for the soaring contract cost, the unfortunate impression that repairing industrial buildings costs a very great deal has been reinforced. Stroud District Council will have to survive politi
GLOUCESTERSHIRE: PRAGMATISM
IN THE STROUD VALLEYS
Dunkirk Mills, Nailsworth, Stroud Valleys.
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