At the heart of heritage

Prince's Regeneration Trust chief executive Ros Kerslake tells Katie Daubney how she builds on local enthusiasm for heritage assets and urges planners to stick to their long-term goals.

Ros Kerslake
Ros Kerslake

While working for Network Rail's commercial property arm, Ros Kerslake was struck by the fact that railway stations are often at the heart of regeneration schemes.

"Either they needed seriously upgrading or they needed joining back into the town. In some cases, the railway line and station severed one side of the town from the other," she found.

These observations sparked Kerslake's interest in how places work and physical barriers to regeneration. After a stint heading Sandwell's urban regeneration company RegenCo in the West Midlands, she was drawn back to working at a national level as chief executive of the Prince's Regeneration Trust.

Now in her fourth year in the post, Kerslake stresses that the trust is not a conservation organisation. "We take a building that may have been built in 1850 and find a way to create a viable use for it in the 21st century. It's about heritage playing its role in the present and future. It's not about preserving in aspic."

She emphasises the importance of understanding why a structure is listed. The grade II listed Dreamland Scenic Railway rollercoaster in Margate illustrates her point: "Bits of it are replaced each year to ensure that it is structurally sound, so arguably none of it is very old. It is the design and the way it works that are important."

Engaging and supporting community groups in rescuing heritage assets is the trust's core work. "We can provide the expertise but the passion and the ownership have got to be local," Kerslake explains. She recognises that community engagement can be a box-ticking exercise, but she is very proud of the techniques used by the trust and wishes she had known about them in previous jobs.

She has learnt that people dealing with smaller heritage projects often fall into the trap of standing outside a building feeling daunted. "I encourage people to stand inside the building, look out at the context in which it sits and ask how it can contribute to the area," she says.

Preparation is key to the trust's involvement, maintains Kerslake. "Whether it's for a one-day workshop or a full week, research is done into transport issues, property values, historical significance and other planning issues and may take many months.

"It needs to be done before sitting down with the community, looking at the plans and working through the options and issues."

She adds: "It's amazing how this method can get you from a situation of absolute loggerheads on what should happen because of different points of view, a lack of trust or a complete misunderstanding about what we are trying to achieve.

"Most people understand the issues if you give them time. This process lets them work out for themselves what can and can't be achieved. The difference is that they will believe it, whereas if you sat them down at the beginning and gave them the answer they wouldn't."

Kerslake insists the trust does not go into situations with a preconceived solution. "Free-ranging imagination can lead to disappointment. It's a case of balancing people having ownership and imagination with understanding that all of this happens within an economic reality."

She realises that heritage is often one of the first victims of the axe in hard times. "The danger is that local authorities lose sight of the vision embodied in a local plan about where they are trying to take an area and think that any development is better than none," she warns.

Her message to planners is to work with a long-term view. Short-term savings are often negated by longer-term financial impacts, she argues. "As always with planning, you are making decisions which aren't about the here and now but about the future of a place. It's important to preserve the long-term vision of what you are trying to achieve."

Kerslake believes that the organisations that succeed in making real change are those that have a clear vision of their goal and stick to it. She urges planners to work with government programmes to ensure that they deliver their vision, rather than letting individual programmes drive them in a different direction.

"Planners are the people who have the expertise and capability for creating that vision and must use the process to help them achieve their goals. The planning process should be an enabler of change. I do not want an environment where people can't do anything. We should make it managed and informed change."

Age: 53
Family: Married with four children
Education: Degree in law and psychology, Keele University; MBA
Interests: Gardening, reading and travel
2006: Chief executive, Prince's Regeneration Trust
2003: Chief executive, RegenCo, Sandwell
2000: Director for new business and director of property, Network Rail
1997: Company secretary and head of group services, Booker plc
1988: Legal counsel, company secretary and director of business
services, Gulf Oil
1986: Legal adviser, Conoco Ltd
1983: Solicitor rising to partner, Chamberlins

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