How can councils conserve our built environment? In this article, we hear from Donegal County Council about the heritage-led capital project in the heritage town of Ramelton, a project which garnered an award at the Chambers Ireland 2022 Excellence in Local Government.
Donegal County Council was awarded the Chambers Ireland 2022 Excellence in Local Government Award under the category ‘Heritage and Built Environment’ for the design and delivery of an urban-scale conservation heritage-led capital project in the heritage town of Ramelton.
Ramelton is a picturesque coastal heritage town in Donegal. It is one of the best-preserved historic towns in the Northwest of Ireland, but its built fabric has experienced a significant decline in recent years. A heritage audit of the town carried out in 2019 showed a high rate of vacancy (13%) and dereliction (7%), and that a large percentage of historic buildings were ‘at risk’ (approximately 20 structures).
An opportunity for funding for the delivery of a heritage-led regeneration project came up under the ‘Historic Towns Initiative’, where local authorities could apply to The Heritage Council in respect of one historic town in their functional area. In response, Donegal County Council, working in partnership with the local community, designed a single large-scale urban regeneration project to reverse the effects of neglect and advancing decay.
The project was guided by a number of documents and responded to the findings of a heritage audit of more than 450 buildings in the town centre. These documents included a prioritised conservation plan, and an action plan which provided a future vision for the town, based on the repair of its historic buildings and places as a priority.
The Historic Towns Initiative project proposed the repair of 14 historic buildings (eight identified in the Conservation Plan as being ‘At Risk’) located in close proximity to each other in the town’s historic core. The properties chosen were all of historical merit, and Donegal County Council worked with nine private owners to tackle vacancy, dereliction and achieve the greatest improvement in the appearance of the town’s historic core.
The initiative was undertaken on a shoestring budget, and every stage was tightly controlled. The final account was €508,000, including professional fees and VAT. The main funding source was awarded under the Historic Towns Initiative 2020 with a further portion funded by private leverage from property owners and Donegal County Council. Other grants were targeted to make up the difference. Payments were managed centrally through a residents’ association bank account. The limited funding available required that historically-informed restoration and repair works were carefully targeted from the outset.
The Grade 1 Conservation Architect responsible for the preparation of the project conservation and action plans, developed a prioritised schedule of external repairs for each of the 14 buildings including repairs to roofs; chimneys; rainwater goods; reinstatement of missing external lime render; repairing historic windows and reinstatement of new historic-pattern timber windows; repairing timber shopfronts; renewing missing shopfronts and appropriate painting using a palette of authentic historic colours. The scheduled work on all 14 buildings, including the stabilisation of eight buildings identified as being ‘at risk’, was completed to the highest conservation standards.
Best practice takeaways
Whilst the project is grounded in best practice conservation, as reflected in local and national plans, policies and strategies, the design and implementation of the initiative was innovative. The scheme required undertaking an immersive process, in the most challenging of environments, working with local community stakeholders, and changing a culture of neglect and demolition by demonstrating the possibilities of heritage-led regeneration through undertaking sustainable cost-effective repair and gentle adaptive reuse of the old buildings.
The unique and innovative public-private partnership team worked with the local community, proactively reaching agreements with landowners. Property owners benefitted from support, specialist advice, expertise and funding to help tackle the conservation of challenging buildings. This included surveys; advice on sustainable new uses where necessary, preparation of method statement, schedules and specification of prioritised work; estimated costs to suit individual budgets; preparation of tender documentation; procurement of builders and joiners; liaison with funders: quality inspections and oversight of work executed under separate building contracts.
The council worked beyond the scope of the scheme, working to obtain additional funding for the community-owned ‘House on The Brae’ for a conservation plan and feasibility study in support of an application for capital funds to establish a viable new use (it has since received a grant award at the end of 2022 to enable it to be fully brought back into a community use). The partnership team provided free consultations with all property owners; provided planning applications for change of use were required, proactively enabling, and helping owners to remove barriers to getting these historic buildings back into use.
The visual transformation of the town has been remarkable, increasing public confidence and creating a new sense of civic pride and well-being among residents. The example set has provided an impetus for other property owners to follow. This overall transformation has assisted economic regeneration to the benefit of local businesses that were strongly behind the project. Restoring the attractiveness of Ramelton’s unique built heritage has maximised the tourism potential of this coastal heritage town, which is strategically located along the Wild Atlantic Way. Working with local groups has empowered individuals to become community ambassadors, establishing connections to inform residents, seeking funding, and undertaking further plan-led regeneration and conservation projects.
Four local building contractors and five different joiners were employed to undertake the work. Whilst experienced, none were specialist conservation contractors, and their involvement has increased the capacity for traditional building skills to be found locally for use in future projects.
The project demonstrated to the building owners and the local community how to approach the restoration and repair of structurally unstable historic buildings by means of minimum intervention, and showed how small interventions can result in a large impact in terms of securing a future for a building. It challenged the false perception that demolition and rebuilding is better and cheaper.
It demonstrated that significant visual streetscape transformation can be achieved through best-practice conservation and can be undertaken on a modest budget. It developed the capacity of the community to act in their own interests, to improve awareness of building conservation and increased the availability of local craft skills to conserve the historic environment.
This exemplar project demonstrated how heritage buildings can assist in the development of new uses in an important historic town centre, sensitively adapting them to contribute to its economic function and shows how sensitive reuse and adaption of heritage buildings can contribute to providing much needed housing. This project has sustainability at its core. The reuse and keeping-in-use of buildings incorporating substantial embodied energy is an inherently sustainable activity.
This heritage-led regeneration initiative has positively impacted the townscape of Ramelton, which is once again a ‘heritage jewel’. The project has demonstrated the potential for incremental cost-effective small-scale conservation and repair works to have a cumulative impact and act as a catalyst for further sustainable regeneration at an urban scale.
The Heritage Council is a public body whose mission is to develop a wide understanding of the vital contribution that our heritage makes to our social, environmental & economic well-being.
The conservation plan was informed by international practice deriving from the ICOMOS Burra Charter.
The partnership team consisted of two members of the local community, a Conservation Architect and three Donegal County Council staff members including the Conservation Officer, the Heritage Officer and an Administrative Officer.