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11/10/2017

Conservation areas – the good, the bad and the ugly

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Conservation area

2017 marks the 50th anniversary of England's first conservation area. Many more have been designated since - but are conservation areas all they're cracked up to be? Iain Rhind argues for a nuanced view of an important heritage tool

The 1967 Civic Amenities Act which introduced conservation areas, among other measures of environmental protection, was in part a response to the growing conservation movement concerned about the destruction of the historic environment.

In the 1960s this was often driven by traffic engineering schemes which sought to grapple with the rise of car ownership in towns and cities designed for the horse and cart.

These schemes included London’s ‘Ringway’ urban motorway and York’s inner ring road, which would have wreaked havoc on the medieval city.  The settled view now is that they have, broadly, been a good thing. We now have over 10,000 in England and they have contributed to the protection and enhancement of roughly 1 per cent of the country they cover.

While there are concerns about the lack of up to date assessments and guidance, it seems that people generally like conservation areas and are supportive of their designation. The area-based approach has undoubtedly contributed to the protection of the character and appearance of the best parts of our cities, towns and villages.

So much for the good, is there anything bad about conservation areas? Recent research by Historic England does give us pause for thought. Property values in conservation areas are higher, quite significantly so, and the overwhelming majority of people who live in them are white and relatively well off.

In short, the charge is that their designation and subsequent greater focus of precious resources into them, with no direct and compensating revenue, contributes to inequality and that their designation is self-serving for those who live in them.

"In different ways these reflect the role of heritage as a cultural construct and commodity, rather than a universal value which is objectively definable"

This brings me to the ugly side of conservation areas and the question is whether the value of the concept is being diminished by over-designation?

This seems to take more than one form, including residents looking to protect or increase value through achieving conservation areas status and urban hipsters who find areas in urban decay, colonise them and then seek to protect a moment in the cycle of development and decline.

In different ways these symptoms both reflect the role of heritage as a cultural construct and commodity, rather than a universal value which is objectively definable.

Looking ahead, it is important that we recognise that there are problems with conservation areas and that the choices we make about their management and designation involve decisions about the allocation of scarce resources, potentially at the expense of much larger urban areas in need of investment and regeneration.

It means perhaps the designation of fewer new conservation areas, de-designation in some cases and better and more positive management elsewhere.

The latter can be helped by ensuring that the added values created by designation are captured and redistributed, through enhanced planning application fees and the introduction of reasonable fees for other heritage consent submissions, which remain free of charge.

It may also mean the introduction of statutory checks and balances into the existing system. Is it right, for example, that conservation areas can be designated unilaterally without consultation or external review, given the weighty protection then invoked by the legislation?

So yes, there is much good in the idea of conservation areas. Dealing with the bad and the ugly requires amended legislation and improved practice so that subsequent generations can look back in another 50 years’ time with pride at what the conservation movement has achieved. 

Iain Rhind is senior director and head of heritage for Lichfields     

Photo | iStock

 

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