Last edited 25 Dec 2020

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Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Is conservation area policy fit for purpose 50 years on

This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 148, March 2017. It was written by Ian Harvey, joint founder and executive director of Civic Voice.

Planning authorities are working under very difficult conditions at the moment with recent legislation increasing workload, shortage of space and staff, and not being helped by the general effects of cutbacks in spending.’

Nobody would disagree with this as a description of the climate in which planning authorities are operating today, but this was a statement from a 1969 publication setting out the context in which the first 200 conservation areas were designated across England.

During 2017 we are organising the Big Conservation Conversation to make the case for the importance of conservation areas. We have a unique opportunity to celebrate how 50 years of this legislation has helped make this country a more distinctive and attractive place to live in.

The role of conservation areas is well established. Conservation areas include historic town and city centres such as Grainger Town, Newcastle upon Tyne, conserved in 1995 as one of the best examples of classical Victorian architecture in the country. In the north west, Vulcan Village in the Newton-le-Willows area of St Helens was declared a conservation area in 1986 in recognition of the village’s special feature of being a model worker village and representing a housing ideology of the 19th century.

The designation can cover historic transport links and the surrounding environment, such as Regent’s Canal, Hackney, which became a conservation area in 2007 in view of its role in the country’s industrial development. Conservation areas such as Grainger Town and Regent’s Canals have often been in a state of degradation; through conservation efforts and funding from English Heritage, they have been successfully regenerated.

Conservation areas often provide essential functions to the contemporary society they are part of, with Grainger Town being the commercial heart of Newcastle and Regent’s Canal being an all-important escape from London.

The value of conservation areas on the impact of this country is clear. Their future is not. The number of conservation areas at risk rose to 505 in 2015 from 497 in 2014, after surveys of almost 8,300 (84 per cent) conservation areas across the country. This means that 60 per cent of England’s conservation areas are now considered to be at risk. With funding cuts and continued pressure on local authority conservation staff (33 per cent of conservation staff lost since 2007), the problem is likely to get worse.

Local authorities, making difficult decisions about priorities, have been reducing investment in the local historic environment for years. Conservation areas are under threat because they are not being managed, or they are being managed inappropriately because funding is being cut. Funding cuts have fallen heavily on planning authorities throughout the country, and especially on conservation departments. Birmingham City Council, for example, has seen the number of its conservation officers fall from seven to two, who shoulder the responsibility for 2,000 listed buildings and 30 conservation areas across the city. We are fortunate that Birmingham Civic Society is such an active local watchdog.

Research by Historic England shows that local planning authorities need to prepare management plans for their conservation areas. We agree. Nearly half of local authorities do not have updated appraisals or management plans in place. If the current trend of year-on-year budget cuts continues, councils will continue to struggle to develop management plans, carry out appraisals and implement day-to-day operations such as enforcement.

This should be placed in the context of the priorities of the National Planning Policy Framework and the need for the country to build three million homes. There is a huge presumption in favour of development. Conservation interests are not a high priority in the overall planning picture. A planning officer’s role is to weigh up all the considerations in a planning application. With such a drive for new development and housing, are we surprised that undesignated heritage does not have great weight in the planning system?

The importance of conservation must be recognised by national government and the public. We need resources to allow local government to manage areas effectively. At the same time, local authorities need fully to accept the role and responsibilities they have in updating appraisals and managing areas for the long term. Civic Voice joined with Historic England to survey civic volunteers about the importance of conservation areas. We will be publishing the results throughout the year. We will be publishing a manifesto for conservation areas in 2017, asking for amendments to the legislation.

The answer is not always money. Resources are available in communities. Training is needed to enable local communities to be a resource for local authorities. Many civic societies, including Sutton Coldfield Civic Society in Birmingham, have undertaken a conservation area appraisal on behalf of the local authority. For national Civic Day on 17 June, Dronfield Civic Society in Derbyshire is proposing to work with the Dronfield Heritage Trust to update the character statement and make this available to their planning authority. Dronfield will be supported by funding from the IHBC to produce publicity material to raise awareness of the conservation area.

Local councillors also need to be provided with training and to better understand the importance of the role of conservation in economic regeneration. We need communities to make the case at a local level.

We also need to make the case at a national level for the importance of the historic environment in ensuring greater recognition of conservation areas. While we accept that areas of local government responsibility such as social care will always, of necessity, come higher in the pecking order, the benefits associated with conserving the local historic environment should make this a significant priority. Civic Voice will be meeting MPs and peers throughout the year to ask them to pledge that #myconservationareamatters.

While it is great that volunteers are coming forward to demonstrate that people are passionate about where they live, if we are going to rely on volunteers and groups such as civic societies, Historic England and others must provide the training necessary.

We will be calling for a change to legislation or national guidance to place a duty on local authorities to review conservation areas to a definite schedule such as every five years, instead of ‘from time to time’, as is currently required. This will be something that Civic Voice will be calling for in its conservation area manifesto, to be published later in the year. We look forward to ideas coming from conservation enthusiasts as we ask the question: is conservation area policy fit for purpose 50 years on?

Civic Voice wants Britain to use the 50th anniversary of the Civic Amenities Act to take a step back and say: conservation matters. That is why we are running the Big Conservation Conversation. We are not against development; we recognise that homes need to be built across the country. That is why we have introduced a special category in the Civic Voice Design Awards to recognise high-quality development in a conservation area. But the weakening of the historic environment over the past 10 years cannot continue. We want more people to engage with their conservation area. We want people to realise that they live in a conservation area and that that is something positive. We want people to put pressure on local government to say that conservation officers are important. Together we can make the case for increased investment in conservation areas.

We are deeply worried that we may see a situation in 10 years’ time where there are no conservation officers in local government. We do not believe this is scare mongering: it is what communities are telling us. This is a real threat and we have decided to take action.

Our parliamentary debate in March hosted by Baroness Andrews, vice-president of Civic Voice, is due to consider the impact of the loss of conservation officers. Laura Sandys, another vice-president, and daughter of Lord Duncan-Sandys, is due to deliver a talk to conservation experts on 31 March, making the case for conservation areas. In June Simon Thurley, former chief executive of English Heritage, will give a lecture on 50 years of conservation areas. Stamford in Lincolnshire, where the first urban conservation area was declared in 1967, will be holding a two-week conference.

These large-scale events will help to position the debate nationally. It is just as important for communities to be involved on a local level, which they are. From Alnwick to Canterbury, communities are joining the conversation, with dozens of events being planned.

In Alnwick, Northumberland, a unique view of the town’s heritage has been taken by researching the contributions of a local historian (1860), an international urban academic (modern), a local illustrator, and Alnwick Civic Society, up to the present day. The research has been published in an illustrated booklet, including details of the architectural and townscape treasures of Alnwick’s own conservation area. Two thousand free copies of the booklet will be made available for schools, local organisations and tourist venues.

Mitcham Cricket Green Community and Heritage is celebrating its conservation area, and identifying 50 ways of telling the story and describing the significance of Mitcham Cricket Green Conservation Area today. The results will be published online and in a free bulletin issued to 4,000 households in and around the conservation area.

In 1967, communities were telling Duncan Sandys that there was a problem. The country was facing a new planning regime, the historic environment was under threat and local government under pressure. He answered by sponsoring a bill that became the Civic Amenities Act. We should all be thankful to him for this. Fifty years on, 75 per cent of civic societies have told us that they are responding to more heritage-related planning applications than they were 12 months ago. How are we going to answer that call?

Fifty years after the first conservation area was designated in Stamford, we are holding the Big Conservation Conversation to ensure that in 50 years’ time Duncan Sandys’ legacy will still live on. We hope you will join in and say #myconservationareamatters.

This article originally appeared in IHBC's Context 148, March 2017. It was written by Ian Harvey, joint founder and executive director of Civic Voice.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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