Last edited 05 Jun 2022

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Heritage practice in England for balanced growth

Liverpool city centre.jpg
Liverpool city centre: levelling up could be defined as measures to address geographical economic inequalities. (Photo: Dave Chetwyn):



Levelling up is currently a much-used, but rather vague term, described by a BBC Today programme presenter as a phrase that means everything and nothing at the same time. Discussion of levelling up has included diverse subjects like transport and infrastructure, planning, housing, jobs, education and skills. The term has been used with regard to geographical disparities, whether between regions or between different parts of the same local area. There has been some suggestion that levelling up involves shifting the focus from cities to smaller towns. Levelling up appears to be wide in scope. But what are the implications of levelling up for heritage?

Defining levelling up

To help in answering this question, it may be useful to attempt a definition of levelling up as measures to tackle geographical economic inequalities.

In London and other high growth areas, pressure for investment and growth has resulted in land and property price inflation, in addition to congestion, pressure on infrastructure and adverse environmental impacts, such as poor air quality. This is highlighted in the emerging Reddington and Frognal Neighbourhood Plan in Camden, which relates to a largely historic and residential area (a garden suburb) and highlights challenges in affordability, congestion, air quality and loss of greenery. Interestingly, there is a high correlation in such areas in addressing climate change and conservation of the historic environment.

In other areas, lack of demand and suppressed land and property prices create viability challenges for development, including historic building conversions. Viability challenges become acute when there is a perception that investing in property might not deliver a profit.

Conversely, there are also many parts of the UK with a more balanced economy where the market works without any need for intervention.

Economic factors and heritage

From my own experience these geographical economic variations are often reflected in the attitude of communities, businesses and plan-making bodies to heritage. In high growth areas, there is often a more protectionist perspective and sometimes a perception that heritage is a barrier to growth. In under-performing areas, heritage is often viewed as a means to achieving economic development and regeneration.

Of course, there is also a relationship between economic factors, viability and the condition of buildings. High concentrations of ‘buildings at risk’ are often to be found in under-performing areas. This can make historic buildings vulnerable to deterioration or demolition. So consideration of use trends and viability challenges for historic buildings and areas are a crucial part of the heritage evidence base for plan-making. Inexplicably, these issues are largely absent from much guidance on heritage in plan-making.

Some have argued that levelling up means supporting certain areas to the detriment of others. This may miss the point. Supporting under-performing areas and incentivising development not only creates economic activity and opportunity, but is also likely to take pressure off areas that are overheating, so helping to tackle problems of congestion and environmental degradation. So there could be win/win solutions.

Government proposals

The government’s current focus is now on city and town centres and city regions, in contrast to the more regionalised approach of the past. There were initiatives already underway prior to the Covid-19 crisis, such as Future High Streets Fund and the High Street Task Force in England. There is perhaps something of a rethink on infrastructure, as reflected in the recent cancellation of the Oxford-Cambridge expressway. The government’s Levelling Up fund, which covers the whole of the UK, will focus on infrastructure, regeneration, town centre investment, community spaces, visitor attractions, and heritage assets.

While heritage assets are referred to explicitly in the government’s levelling up proposals, the other priorities may also have implications for heritage, especially those targeting town centres or regeneration. There are potentially substantial benefits for historic areas, although also risks if intervention and investment is poorly conceived.

Also, as is often the case with government policy, there are contradictions. These programmes are accompanied by planning reforms in England which could lessen protection of heritage assets. These include expansion of permitted development rights for extensions and changes of use and the creation of Use Class E for town centre uses (which includes former B1 light industrial and office uses). Many local plan and neighbourhood plan policies are rendered ineffective by such reforms. The Planning Bill continues the centralising tendency, reducing opportunities for communities to influence development proposals. There is a clear tension between planning reform and levelling up. Indeed, the centralisation of powers sits uncomfortably with the concept of levelling up, which could be expected to involve a greater emphasis on local solutions.

Other barriers to levelling up are not addressed by current proposals. In particular, there has been a long-embedded assumption in planning policy that housing supply and affordability challenges apply everywhere. In England, the National Planning Policy Framework 2019 (NPPF) is very much focused on these issues, but with relatively little emphasis on the need to create economic opportunity or to tackle viability challenges. So the focus of the NPPF is clearly more on high-growth areas than on under-performing areas. It is perhaps relevant that many policy makers in government and national bodies are based in and around the Westminster bubble.

Similarly, many government programmes channel money to high growth areas, especially to tackle affordability. Perhaps predictably, this has failed to tackle property price inflation, and may have actually made it worse.

Heritage track record

It is refreshing to see heritage explicitly recognised as part of the levelling up agenda. There is clearly a very strong track record of heritage helping to achieve regeneration and economic development, sometimes involving dramatic physical and economic transformations.

Perhaps the most dramatic of these is in Liverpool. The listing and refurbishment of the Albert Dock in the 1980s was not only a large regeneration project, but an essential part of challenging perceptions and creating investor and business confidence. This was a pivotal moment in the regeneration process. Heritage and culture have continued to play a key role, for example in the current regeneration of the Fabric District and Ten Streets. There are numerous other examples of transformational heritage-led schemes in former historic commercial or industrial areas across the north of England and elsewhere. Most towns and cities have also benefited from smaller scale interventions based on heritage assets, for example the creative conversions of libraries and town halls to create enterprise space and community facilities in places like Belfast and Stoke-on-Trent.

Heritage can be seen as a tool to achieve growth and also a potential beneficiary of improved economic performance. There is now a very recognisable cycle where historic industrial and commercial areas have gone into economic decline and physical deterioration, but then formed a basis for recovery and transformation. However, there are other areas, including some smaller towns, where there has been decline but without recovery.

Heritage is identified as a key factor in high street regeneration by England’s High Street Task Force. Many town and city centres have historic buildings and environments and these can be helpful in promoting those centres, for shopping, business, recreation and as a place to visit.

While issues of decline in the high street were identified well before the pandemic, Covid has accelerated the rate of change in historic towns and city centres. The repeated lockdowns have resulted in high-level casualties, including in retail, hospitality and culture/entertainment. Hospitality is a dynamic sector, so may recover quickly. But some changes may be more permanent, including some contraction in retail, changes in live-work patterns and perhaps reduced demand for offices in urban centres, although possibly increased demand for flexible office space near to residential areas. This latter issue is difficult to predict, being based to a large degree on anecdotal evidence.

One of the other key principles promoted by the High Street Task Force is the need for high street strategies and plans to be stakeholder-led and to be shared by the different organisations involved. This has to be the way forward. However, it does have implications for heritage area- based initiatives if they are to contribute to wider objectives in the most effective way.

Heritage practice

In considering the levelling up agenda and how it translates into local strategy and action plans, there are clear implications for the heritage sector.

The Gloucester Heritage Strategy 2019-29 precedes the Covid crisis, but nonetheless has a strong emphasis on the role of heritage in supporting sustainable economic development. This includes addressing viability challenges.

A narrow focus on significance will not provide effective protection and conservation for heritage, especially where there are market failures. This has been recognised by the IHBC and was one of the driving factors behind the ‘Conservation Professional Practice Principlesdocument, which was badged jointly with the Historic Towns and Villages Forum and Civic Voice. This document attempts to describe the full scope of heritage protection, conservation, and management practice. So it emphasises the need to focus not just on significance, but on understanding the economic, social and environmental values of heritage in the present, as part of the infrastructure of modern cities, towns, villages and rural areas.

Planning for heritage depends very much on understanding the type of area and local economy. In high growth areas, there may be an emphasis on protection and regulation. In under-performing areas, intervention and action may be necessary where the market cannot deliver. It is interesting to note that community organisations have been part of the solution in such areas, sometimes taking on multiple heritage assets. Community organisations can access grants, donations, crowd-funding and voluntary time, which can help to overcome viability challenges both at the capital project and revenue/ operational stages. Such organisations often demonstrate substantial creative and entrepreneurial skills, essential to finding solutions to conserving heritage assets. Sometimes, the heritage factor can release specific funding or gain public or business support and interest.

Going forward

It is necessary to understand the dynamics of how heritage has delivered public and economic benefit over the past few decades in order to plan for the next decade and beyond. Heritage has not only helped to achieve growth, but arguably delivered more inclusive and sustainable forms of growth. This includes creating economic opportunity in areas most in need, retaining embodied energy, supporting mixed use and conserving more pedestrian-oriented environments.

For heritage bodies, the challenge is to ensure political understanding of the benefits of heritage and therefore support for conservation. This applies at UK, national and local levels of government and is essential both to ensure allocation of sufficient resources and also to avoid ill-conceived relaxation of heritage protection.

This article originally appeared as ‘Levelling up’ in the Institute of Historic Building Conservation’s (IHBC) Yearbook 2021, published by Cathedral Communications Limited in 2021. It was written by Dave Chetwyn, Managing Director of Urban Vision Enterprise CIC, Chair of the Board of the National Planning Forum and IHBC Communications and Outreach Secretary.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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