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Wrangham’s wrangle exposes conflicts over heritage

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A plan to remove heritage protection from one of St Helena’s historic houses has been thrown out by councillors. They acted only days after The Castle issued a newsletter about the importance of the island’s built heritage for future tourism.

From the upstairs windows of Wrangham’s, one might have seen Napoleon wander down to take tea at Mount Pleasant, just across the valley. From its elevated psotion above Sandy Bay, the jaded mansion has seen some plenty of comings and goings in three centuries or so.

Just lately, though, matters have been more hither-and-thither for those charged with care for historic assets such as Wrangham’s.

On Friday, 23 August 2013, the government press office said councillors were to discuss “the downgrading of Wrangham’s from II to III listed building”.

The idea, it later emerged, was to allow the government to sell it off. It has stood empty for five years.

Meanwhile, Enterprise St Helena was declaring the importance of the island’s built heritage in its latest newsletter – also dated 23 August 2013.

“St Helena’s historic built environment is crucial to developing tourism on the island,” it said. “The heritage of the island is acknowledged as being globally unique, both on account of its role in world history and the remarkable intactness of the historic landscape.

“However, this heritage tourism resource is in a poor and deteriorating state of repair. St Helena will only capitalise on its assets through retaining and bringing them to life. This entails fully restored buildings…”

The newsletter went on to promote a training course on traditional building crafts.

As it was, executive councillors quickly threw out the idea of downgrading the status of Wrangham’s, to get round rules that say grade-two buildings can only be leased. It would have taken away much of the protection for its remaining original features.

Afterwards, councillor Ian Rummery said: “I was concerned at the principle of both selling historic properties and in particular downgrading properties in order that they can be sold.

“These buildings are part of our history and not just properties to be traded to the highest bidder.

“We are not just making decisions for the present. We must consider the effect that our decisions will have on future generations.”

Councillors declared Wrangham’s to be a significant cultural asset, and recommended that it should be put back on the property market – for long-term lease.

They refused to start allowing historic buildings to be downgraded simply to make it possible to sell them – which would have undermined the entire system of listing them.

Nick Thorpe, a strong critic of the government on conservation, said: “If SHG want to sell it they should change their policy rather than downgrade the building.

“Wrangham’s has fallen into disrepair whilst in the government’s possession.

“It is worth saving as an example of a late 18th Century house in three acres, and could look smashing.”

Wrangham’s dates back to the days when the island was run by the East India Company, though its original interior was ripped out long ago.

An inspection in 2011 found it was deteriorating and needed treatment for white ants – but that it could be brought back into use as a home, or as tourist accommodation.

Ian Rummery said he hoped any offers to lease it would be judged on both economic and social grounds, “so that it can be developed for the benefit of the whole community”.

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