Money, not hand-wringing, saves buildings

The case of Preston Bus Station shines a light on the role of councils

A lot has been said on the listing or the demolition of Preston Bus Station in Lancashire. Very recently the council decided to demolish it, because restoring it would cost £23 million, and demolishing it, just £16 million. The people in favour of listing it then said they doubted the numbers and produced even more evidence of its cultural and architectural value in a last-ditch attempt to save it.

What is universal in this debate is the asymmetry in the arguing. On the one hand we have a group of people who wear their ideological and aesthetic heart on their sleeve, stressing the architectural imperative to save this building, out of reasons of dignity, history and culture. On the other hand we have councillors, accountants and developers who “do not take sides” but “simply” present us with the budgetary effects of the choices. The decision they make is then presented as an inevitability.
Preston City Council simply cannot afford not to demolish the immense bus station and this we should accept as a fact. It is also a fact, however, that if there is one thing that has proven elastic, ideology-driven, fluid and volatile, it is budgets for real estate projects, especially those in which local government is entangled. Since councils all over Europe are playing the double role of both the democratically legitimated arbitrator, and the risk-taking co-investor in project development, budgets have lost all connection to any accountable reality. This is exacerbated even further by the near surreal complexity of real estate financing, in which interest rates and speculation are much more important than any intrinsic costs or value, but are also subject to constant manipulation.

We need councils to stop mixing up their roles of arbiter and player

In the topsy-turvy world of semi-public real estate projects, demolishing a functional building can save money; building vacant office buildings makes financial sense. Budgets can be endlessly tweaked by subtly altering expected visitor rates, maintenance costs or taking out different credit default swaps to protect against interest changes, causing exponential increases or decreases in the budget. On top of this we have the political volatility of councils, whose rhetorical common sense tends to give in to political pressures, and is replaced by actions based on public perception.

Saying “the council’s numbers are wrong” does not cut it, however; they may by accident just be right. What should be addressed is the credibility gap. Because while the “simply economic” argument of politicians is obfuscating something that is a political choice, the arguments of conservationists are often so vague, metaphysical and genteel that they are ineffective in attracting support.

For a serious debate about questions of conservation, urban development and renewal, we need councils to stop mixing up their roles of arbiter and player. But we also need architects and conservationists to present a compelling case, both narrative and economic, both cultural and functional, preferably even by entering the fray themselves as co-developers. When public support is needed to conserve — or build — something that is outside mainstream taste, putting your money where your mouth is, is more convincing than a unilateral appeal to our obligations to architecture.

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