Old and new: time was stone masons and lime plasterers were two-a-penny but today those skills are in short supply. Neil Hudson discovered a Leeds project could help revive them
Leeds has its fair share of old buildings but now a new initiative is aiming to make the city a nationally renowned centre for their restoration.
The Heritage Lottery funded project - Re-Making Leeds - was launched earlier this month at Temple Newsam. It aims to reverse a decline in specialist skills needed to restore old buildings, so is offering training in things like stone masonry, lime plastering and carpentry.
The project will be run over the next three years, after which time it is hoped it will become self-sustaining, drawing experts from specialised professions to become tutors in what were once common skills but today could probably classed as dying arts.
Sarah Neville is development manager for Re-Making Leeds. She said: “Ideally, we would like to see some centre of excellence for heritage construction skills here in Leeds and the driving force for that is the sheer number of pre-1919 buildings we have here. Because of the glorious heyday of Victorian architecture, we have so many of these buildings.
“We are not talking here about buildings like the Town Hall and Leeds Parish Church but ordinary houses which people are living in - Leeds is full of them and so there is a real need for these skills, because when they do need to be repaired, it has to be done properly, otherwise it can lead to problems.”
“There’s a big skills shortage in this area, especially in stone masonry, and that’s what we are trying to address.
“Part of the project involves getting accreditation for those who want to teach, so that the skills can be passed on in future.”
Earlier this year, the Construction Industry Training Board warned of a skills shortage in bricklaying and plastering.
Sarah said the situation with regard to more specialised forms of construction was even worse.
“There are a lot of young people being trained in modern construction techniques but not a lot in the old, so in terms of it being a gap in the market, there will certainly be a demand for this in the future.”
A group of trainees is already helping preserve some of the city’s historic buildings. Among them is Chris Bell, 26, originally from Dewsbury whom has lived in Leeds for the last six years.
Chris is already a qualified carpenter and is one of nine to join the new Re-Making Leeds course. He will be with the programme for a year, gaining valuable work experience not just in his chosen field but in all manner of construction techniques.
When he spoke to the Yorkshire Evening Post, he was in the middle or repairing a wooden bridge spanning the lake at Temple Newsam using traditional techniques.
He said: “It’s learning skills you wouldn’t otherwise have. When I heard about it, I was really eager to join the course, it’s working with traditional materials and learning how to repair pre-1919 buildings using traditional methods.”
The nine trainees are the first to complete their Level 2 NVQ Award in heritage construction, learning the traditional arts of stone masonry, lime plastering and specialist joinery.
Leeds City Council received £845,200 from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF). The funding comes following a nationwide call for measures to improve the training and employment prospects for those within the heritage sector, including the Federation of Master Builders.
A further amount of £34,900 ‘development funding’ was also made available under the HLF’s Skills for the Future programme.
Ultimately, it is hoped the scheme will be a fillip for small and medium sized businesses, who will win and complete contracts to restore buildings.
A special event was held at Temple Newsam House on November 6, hosted by Councillor Katherine Mitchell, Leeds City Council’s lead member for digital and creative technologies, culture and skills.
She said: “The people of Leeds are very proud of the city’s heritage and its rich history and a key part of that is the fact our city boasts so many iconic buildings.
“It’s incredibly important, therefore, that those buildings get the proper care and maintenance but to do that, we need people living locally with the specialist training to carry the work out.
“The Re-Making Leeds programme will mean we have enthusiastic, highly-trained young people equipped with the skills needed to ensure our buildings and our heritage are preserved for future generations to enjoy.”
It is also hoped the new Leeds College of Building will take on the mantle of becoming a centre of excellence for restoration work. A similar open air workshop specialising in stone masonry already exists at York College.
Fiona Spiers, head of HLF Yorkshire and the Humber, said: “Congratulations to the first group of young people who have completed the initial stage in their skills training.
“The knowledge they have acquired is fundamental to the future care of our historic buildings and has also set them on a rewarding career path.”
Training for the programme will be provided by experts from Heritage Craft Alliance Ltd.
Managing director Glenn Young said projects like this were crucial in helping counter the effects of a drain on skills due to an ageing workforce.
He said: “It is critical projects like this are supported. The ageing demograph of our traditional craftsmen is worrying for the built heritage sector.
“We must continue to offer these points of access for younger people to enter the sector.
“We need to ensure younger people can develop their craft-based careers, to match the skills we are quite rapidly losing.
“The students on the project will be learning both technical craft skills along with under pinning knowledge, which should set them well to pursue a career in the built heritage sector.”
Leeds has more than 3,000 listed buildings and 72 conservation areas.
The trainees will now begin to get on-the-job experience, helping maintain, repair and refurbish pre-1919 properties around the city.
Each year a new group of trainees, primarily made up of 18-24 year-olds who already have a general construction qualification will receive bursaries to complete a Level 2 Heritage Construction Award. They will also get placements with heritage construction specialists.
The training programme also includes an NVQ Level 3 awards for those already working in the sector, training for people already in the construction industry and school engagement activities to promote the sector.
Another project aimed at preserving the past has also gained a boost this year - the Leeds Young Archaeology Club was launched in the summer and is already doing some great work.
Elvie Thompson, head of engagement at the Council for British Archeology, explained how the youth clubs were formed.
“The organisation has been going for more than 40 years and was set up by a group of enthusiasts in Cambridge in 1975 - they wanted to preserve the skills used in archeology and also get kids interested in it.
“Also, they wanted to ensure people who went on to study archaeology were interested in it. We now have 69 volunteer organisations across the UK, from Inverness to the Isle of White and even some in Northern Ireland and the Isle of Man.
“The Leeds branch - based in Middleton Park - was formed during the summer of this year so is one of our newest.
“We are trying to give young people a variety of ways to find out about their past and what life was like in their area.”
The work undertaken by club members is varied. One week they can be working with Medieval re-enactment groups, the next they could be helping to re-build pre-historic houses.
One of the most recent projects involved looking at war memorials in Leeds.
Elvie added: “It’s a really exciting way of learning about the past and it’s a subject you can’t do at school. It gets you out and about exploring your area. Only by understanding the past can we understand the present - it allows us to look at the systems we have in place today and to evaluate them. The other important point to make about archaeology is when it’s gone, it’s gone. You can’t get it back.”