Protected structures in rural villages throughout the country are boarded up, with many in danger of collapsing because the owners cannot afford to preserve them, according to an engineer.
In a report to Sligo County Council, which met to discuss challenges facing rural Ireland, chartered building engineer Orlagh Cawley said that the State's Historic Structures Fund, formerly known as the Structures at Risk Fund, needed to be "drastically increased" to save rural villages, as so many protected buildings on the main streets were derelict.
There are more than 45,000 protected structures spread across all 31 local authority areas in the country, according to the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht.
“I have no problem with buildings being protected. A lot of them deserve protection but if they continue to be neglected they won’t have much merit,” said Ms Cawley, an engineer and building surveyor with Ballina-based OMD Design.
She said that in many cases buildings were included on the register of protected structures on the basis of a roadside survey or because they were listed in the National Inventory of Architectural Heritage (NIAH) but without the physical condition of the buildings being considered.
She cited one example of a protected structure which from the street “looks like a lovely building” but which she said comprised of little more than the front wall, as the remainder of the property had collapsed.
Ms Cawley said that heritage works cost approximately 1.75 times more than standard repair work on a building.
“It is great and we love to see it being done but where is the help for these people? A lot of them have inherited the buildings.”
She said that simply putting a protection order on a building did not mean it would be saved.
Asked how much funding would be required to maintain 45,000 protected buildings, Ms Cawley said: “Do we just ignore them so and let them all fall down? That is what is happening. Nearly all the ones I go into have some form of vegetation on the roof”.
She said she was concerned about the smaller buildings in rural villages which were protected either because they were part of the original streetscape or because they were of local historical interest. She believes the owners in many cases wanted to preserve them but could not afford to.
“I know of one case were someone inherited a thatched cottage and he challenged the will as he did not want it’,” she said.
The engineer said the issue was especially important at a time when “we are crying out for accommodation” as so many properties were currently boarded up and unlikely to be developed.
“Funding could provide badly needed accommodation while saving these buildings. And it would bring a bit of life back into villages in need of regeneration.”
In a statement, the department said that under the planning and development acts, planning authorities had the main responsibility for identifying and protecting architectural heritage by including structures on their record of protected structures. Inclusion placed a duty of care on the owners and occupiers of protected structures, and also gave planning authorities powers to deal with development proposals affecting them.
Ms Cawley said she did not know of any property owners who had been prosecuted by local authorities.
The department confirmed that the Minister draws on information provided by the NIAH, to recommend structures to the local authorities for inclusion on their record of protected structures. The decision as to whether to include or remove a building from the record was a reserved function of the relevant local authority.
The department said that last November the Minister had announced €4.3 million in funding under the Built Heritage Investment Scheme and the Historic Structures Fund 2019.
A spokesman said that €1.2 billion would be available in funding over the next 10 years under the Investing in our Culture, Language and Heritage 2018 - 2027 programme, as part of Project Ireland 2040.