PAC in warning over Northern Ireland's listed buildings
Some of Northern Ireland's listed buildings are in danger of being lost forever unless they are given greater protection, a watchdog has warned.
Stormont's Public Accounts Committee (PAC) has said the body responsible for safeguarding the buildings is not doing enough to protect the most vulnerable.
The chair of the PAC, Michaela Boyle, said the Northern Ireland Environment Agency (NIEA) must "act earlier" with "greater use of enforcement powers".
NI has about 8,500 listed buildings.
Speaking at the launch of a new PAC report, Safeguarding Northern Ireland Listed Buildings, Ms Boyle said there was "a lot at stake".
"If NIEA does not get to grips with enforcement and take early action where needed, we risk losing a part of our history and part of our culture which simply cannot be replaced."
The Sinn Fein MLA cited a listed building in her own constituency as an example.
"For instance, failure by the NIEA to act in the case of the Stable Block at Sion Mills resulted in the deterioration of the signature building to a point where part of it had actually collapsed before NIEA finally stepped in to rescue it," Ms Boyle said.
The PAC report has identified that there is "no statutory requirement for owners of listed buildings to maintain them in good condition".
It has therefore recommended that NIEA makes better use of its powers, including carrying out repairs to neglected buildings and then recouping the costs from the owner, or, "if necessary, vesting the building in order to rescue it".
The spending watchdog has found that the NIEA "cannot measure the overall impact" of the £20m it has spent awarding grants for listed buildings since 2005-06.
The committee said it wanted to see better targeting of grants on the most vulnerable and valuable buildings.
Ms Boyle added: "NIEA also needs a proper performance management system for the listed buildings grant scheme."
Just under 10% of Northern Ireland's listed buildings are owned by the public sector and the PAC has welcomed new measures for improving their care.
However, Ms Boyle said the committee was "aware of some listed buildings originally owned by public bodies that were in poor condition when they were sold".
Of the 830 listed buildings currently in public ownership in Northern Ireland, 30 are on the Built Heritage at Risk register.
Ms Boyle said structures of historical and cultural importance cannot be allowed to go from being "at risk" to "beyond rescue".
In January, Stormont's Environment Minister, Alex Attwood, raised the cap on grant-aid for listed buildings in Northern Ireland from £50,000 to £150,000.