Development versus built heritage: Striking the right balance
By Dr Keith Farrell
Although this argument seems to be a recent one, the sacrificing of old and/or historic structures is anything but.
We still have a few examples which act as a continuing reminder of past losses, for example, the loss of a Bastion wall at Chatham Counterguard to construct Ocean Heights, the demolition of the Assembly Rooms to build the Queens Hotel and Cinema and the building of the Moorish Castle Housing Estate in the middle of the Moorish Castle precinct.
Of course, those were different times when we needed to consider a great public housing shortage and the need to promote tourism on the Rock. Public land was in very short supply as the MOD estate was much larger than it is today.
What is the polemic between new development and heritage all about then?
There are a number of issues which are of significant importance to the local population of Gibraltar:
1. The ever-increasing rate of building, particularly of high-rise apartment and commercial blocks runs the risk of converting Gibraltar into a smaller version of Hong Kong or Singapore.
2. These new apartments are primarily for outside investors and speculators who are of course primarily focused on making money. The building of such apartment blocks are only of a modest long term financial benefit to Gibraltar but it drives the exponential rise in property prices here almost to London prices. Meanwhile we continue to suffer the inconvenience of multiple building sites and the loss of open spaces and the claustrophobia of the Hong Kong look.
3. There is an increasing push to demolish our older vernacular buildings in the town to get more floor space by building to the maximum number of floors permitted and thus changing the look and feel of our old historic town to satisfy the financial investment. The issues and pressures are great. On the one hand HMGoG, with its post pandemic debt burden is under pressure to sell off land under the tender process to help finance Gibraltar. In the old town, private property owners too have seen the potential value of their assets skyrocket as property developers seek to maximise on their investments by pushing for demolition rather than sensitive redevelopment to promote sustainable urban renewal. This upward trend on land premiums is unsustainable and dangerous as the model only works on complete demolition rather than renewal and beautification.
4. Of particular curiosity in Gibraltar where leasehold properties predominate, purchasers of these leasehold properties feel that they are entitled to demolish a property which at the end of the lease they are theoretically supposed to hand back intact. This seems bizarre and of course further puts our historic town at risk despite the scrutiny of the Development and Planning Commission. The poor state and viability of old properties can be overstated to encourage agreement to demolish.
The property development boom shows no sign of plateauing out. Low interest rates continue to drive investors to put their money into bricks and mortar.
Gibraltar is too small to be subject to the investment needs of developers selling to speculators and high earners.
Affordable housing and public rental accommodation for local need has at least a moral prerogative and is more defendable, although it too must be based on actual need.
Unfortunately, Gibraltar cannot expand in the way other small territories have been able to and therefore we must have a finite vision of where we are heading with regards to the built environment.
Our very identity is at risk by the sacrificing of our built heritage for new development.
Let us reflect on the end game with adherence to a sensitive and sensible development plan.
As we stand at the crossroads of future development following the economic crisis imposed by Covid, let us take time to ponder on what could be lost and how our town could change if we do not strike a balance.
Dr Keith Farrell is the Chairman of the Gibraltar Heritage Trust