It all comes down to cake!

Spab mcp conference november 2015 surgery with lpw roof repair fund (2) detail

As usual the 2015 SPAB MCP National Conference entitled Working Co-operatively: Maintenance and More was timed to kick off the start of the National Maintenance Week and Gutter Day which runs from 20th -29th November.

Despite the freezing cold, it was wonderful, on Friday 20th November, to emerge from the new gleaming, mirror-polished stainless steel Birmingham New Street station – which replaces the previous much maligned 60s concrete monolith – and which, very conveniently, had been opened by the Queen only the day before.

The conference was introduced by Matthew Slocombe, Director of SPAB, who reminded those assembled of the importance of places of worship. He also praised the Maintenance Co-operative model which he said should be copyrighted and made available to all interested bodies from denominations to parish councils. And to make us all feel even better he quoted from the Heritage Counts 2013 survey which found

that people who had engaged with heritage activities in the previous 12 months reported significantly higher happiness scores than those who had not.

He concluded by stressing how vital maintenance is to the survival of our places of worship and that we have to keep on spreading the word. It may not be sexy, but as Philip Webb (1835-1915), a colleague of William Morris, who described himself modestly as 'simply a drains man', said, maintenance is really just a series of practical jobs whose value is crucial.

As our venue was the Quaker Meeting House, Priory Rooms, it was appropriate that we then heard from Ingrid Greenhow who explained the Quaker Meeting Houses Survey project. There are 475 local meetings (congregations) and slightly fewer Meeting Houses as some meetings are held in private homes. The oldest meeting house dates from 1670 and is in Hertford while the most recent was built in 2015 in Stockport and is an example of sustainable architecture with solar panels on the roof. They range from 17thC traditional stone buildings to a brutalist ‘gem’ in Blackheath.

Overall, Meeting Houses tend to be plain, functional buildings, stained glass is rare and there are no pulpits or fonts. Quakers sit for worship facing each other in a circle or a square. Quakers do not see their Meeting Houses as sacred spaces so they are happy to hire out the space to community groups. Our venue, the Priory Rooms, provided a good case in point with the three floors including the meeting area itself hired out as a professional conference centre. Ingrid highlighted Mosedale, a 17thC building with simple wooden fittings which is still used as a Meeting House, but is also now used as a café by the local community.

The Survey is run along the lines of the Roman Catholic Taking Stock programme and was initiated by Historic England who recognised the need to review all Quaker buildings to see if they are correctly listed. It also includes a condition report on their state of repair which has never been attempted before.

This was followed by the opportunity to attend a range of workshops on successful grant applications, the use of unmanned aerial vehicles as a means of inspecting a building without needing scaffolding, managing a major re-ordering scheme and looking after metalwork.

Throughout the day there were plenty of earnest conversations going on in the ‘surgery room’ in the basement where those from individual places of worship got advice from the West Midlands HLF Regional Office, the Listed Places of Worship: Roof Repair Fund and SPAB’s own technical officers, James Innerdale and David John.

 But of course it is at lunchtime when the most knowledge, information, good tips and advice are shared. That’s where I learned that the MCP project now has 24 Maintenance Co-operatives set up across the five project regions. And appropriately, in the afternoon session, we heard from five of those Co-operatives that are up and running – the Melbury Gutter Gang, the Heart of Eden Maintenance Co-operative, the St George’s Kidderminster Co-operative, the Bartestree Cross Co-operative and the Lincoln City Co-operative.

We learnt how the groups were set up and how they work in practice. Hearing from those who are now ‘doing it for themselves’ was inspiring and the most useful part of the day in terms of the overall MCP project. It was also good to hear that the Lincoln City Centre Co-operative working in partnership are now able to offer training opportunities to local unemployed people, which can help them add skills to their CVs.

There was praise from the groups for the support, and for the simplicity and practicality of the advice given by the regional project officers and for the fact that it was so cheap to set up a co-operative. 

The two overall lessons were first, that once you start doing regular maintenance and get on top of it, it becomes a lot easier and takes less time. It is obvious, but it was heartening to hear it proved.

Secondly, the importance of making it enjoyable and sociable was emphasised, which basically came down to cake on every possible occasion and visits to the local hostelry.

The day ended with a choice of tours around the Jewellery Quarter, 20thC Birmingham City Centre, the Cathedral and the most popular, a walk round the Coffin Works.