Last edited 04 Dec 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Civic Amenities Act

See also: The history of conservation areas.

Introduced in 1967, the Civic Amenities Act was ‘An Act to make further provision for the protection and improvement of buildings of architectural or historic interest and of the character of areas of such interest; for the preservation and planting of trees; and for the orderly disposal of disused vehicles and equipment and other rubbish.’

50 years on, heritage and planning consultant Kathryn Davies considers its impact, implementation and future.

The greatest achievement of the Civic Amenities Act 1967 was the creation of the simple concept of conservation areas, which is readily understood by the general public. Like the concept of green belts, people understand what it is, not always perfectly nor entirely comprehensively, but they get the notion. It’s local and it matters.

It becomes more difficult when we try to articulate exactly what matters and why, which is where the experts come in: to articulate the special character, and to develop policies to preserve and enhance it. The cry from the beginning was that there were insufficient resources in local authorities to fulfil these duties properly. As more and more conservation areas were declared, methodologies were developed to help define the special character.

Taking stock 25 years after the Civic Amenities Act, speakers at a conference organised by Malcolm Airs in 1993 highlighted the issues facing conservation areas: the perceived conflict between development and conservation; getting robust policies for preservation and enhancement in development plans; avoiding elitism; involving the public; defining character; and the lack of local authority resources. Does this sound familiar? The biggest shift might be the move away from the perception of professionals being the experts who should undertake this work, to upskilling the community to take on more responsibility.

Timothy Cantell places the Civic Amenities Act in its broader historic context, looking at antecedents in the American South and in Europe. It started in New Orleans but for some reason it took another 40 years to bring similar protection to other parts of USA. Significantly it was the local community who took the initiative in New Orleans in the 1920s.

Sir Donald Insall, looking back at the very beginnings of public intervention in historic areas in England, gives us a new understanding of where we have come from, drawing on his experience in Chester. Things we take for granted now, such as the surveying techniques for historic areas, the impact of traffic, the concept of enhancement and, yes, the creation of conservation officers, were pioneered in the late 1960s. Again local knowledge and opinion was a key factor in formulating proposals. Chester provides a highly-regarded model for managing historic areas, although few local authorities nowadays could muster the resources required for this level of involvement. In fact, few could ever find the resources to emulate this model.

The ever-diminishing resources available for conservation is a battle cry of Civic Voice. In his article Ian Harvey highlights some shocking statistics on the decrease in conservation staff in local authorities. He points to the enormous potential of local communities to contribute to managing conservation areas if only there were sufficient resources to provide the professional input they require.

As the lead body on heritage Historic England, formerly English Heritage, has already done much valuable work to help local people to play a meaningful part in managing their historic environment. Drawing on years of experience of working with local authorities and community groups, Nigel Barker-Mills discusses two of the many successful projects he has led. Crucial to their success was a proper understanding of the issues facing non-professionals: council members and local communities alike.

Picking up on these initiatives, Rob Lloyd-Sweet and Pete Boland explain the detail of how some of these can work to build capacity in communities. The Oxford Character Assessment Toolkit developed by Oxford City Council, following Nigel Barker-Mills’ initiative, has been hugely successful. It is readily accessible to nonprofessionals, and has been used for training workshops by Historic England and also by local community groups. It addresses one of the common problems identified relating to the proper analysis of the character of conservation areas, namely that description is not the same as analysis.

An equally successful project in the west midlands developed and run by Pete Boland, demonstrates the value of keeping it simple. Characterisation can be dauntingly complex for the lay person. More and more local groups are preparing neighbourhood plans and an understanding of the significance of the historic environment is a key starting point. Historic England and local authorities working together have produced a simple and easily accessible tool for communities to use to characterise their local area.

Parks and gardens are an integral part of our historic environment but they rarely get the attention they deserve. David Lambert and Helen Monger look at the impact that conservation area designation has had on parks and gardens. Legislation, national and local policies have lagged behind those for buildings. Whatever the reason, the authors point to ways in which some ground can be made up here. Much of what has been achieved has been the result of volunteers and perhaps it is time to assign greater resources to this much-valued aspect of our historic environment. We will be returning to this theme in a forthcoming issue of Context.

Ian Harvey communicates the extraordinary energy the Civic Voice movement is putting in to this 50th anniversary year. We achieve far more together: understanding issues facing different sectors and accommodating others.

Looking back over 50 years there is much to celebrate. However, we owe it to all those who have contributed to the success of conservation areas to look forward to the next 50 years. There is a tension here.

On the one hand we have the model of a conservation area appraisal and management plan such as that developed in Chester by experts, articulating character, understanding its significance and developing policies which will preserve and enhance this. On the other hand, there have never been adequate resources for local authorities to deliver universally to this level and there never will be. Alternatives have been developed to give us a range of tools more suited to today’s resources and to the focus on local action. We will lose some of the subtleties of our cherished local scene if too superficial an understanding is accepted as a basis for decision-making.

This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 148, March 2017. It was written by Kathryn Davies, guest commissioning editor for this issue of Context, a heritage and planning consultant with over 30 years experience, principally in the public sector. She worked first in local authorities in planning and conservation, and latterly with Historic England, where she worked with historic buildings and areas, and ran the historic places team in south east England.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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