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Upstairs Downstairs

Tony Aldous discusses the work of the English Historic Towns Forum

On a warm summer evening last June, seventy men and women concerned with the conservation and management of historic towns converged on the beautiful, golden-stone town of Stamford to discuss an at first sight unlikely topic: Living Over The Shop. Though Stamford, like Grantham, is in Lincolnshire, this had nothing to do with Baroness Thatcher and her shopkeeper alderman father, but rather with increasing concern about the effect on historic (and other) town centres of unoccupied floors above shops.

Most of the seventy came from towns whose local authorities belong to the forty-strong English Historic Towns Forum, which had arranged a one-day seminar on the subject. There are several reasons why EHTF members are worried about empty upper storeys in their town centres. One is, quite simply, physical conservation. Upper floors with no use beyond the storage of empty cardboard cartons and broken chairs are prey to a condition known to conservation officers as 'deep roof.

Deep roof is the deadly sequence set in train when a tile or slate comes loose and is not noticed. Rain penetrates and damages the attic, water finds its way undetected through to the floor below, does more damage; wet rot gives way to dry rot; pigeons gain access and do more damage; and by the time the trouble becomes evident in ground floor shop, the repair bill is very expensive indeed. Sometimes, if the decay is not promptly remedied, they find themselves looking at the loss of a building: a gaping hole in a once harmonious townscape.

Other reasons are the deadening effect the windows of obviously empty rooms have on historic town centres; and the way in which life tends to desert them after shop hours, leaving them prey to vandalism and crime. Towns, like Stamford, which look to tourism as an increasingly important element in the local economy, are doubly apprehensive about this 'dead centre' syndrome.

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