Historic buildings, planning and sustainability

Architects’ Journal for June 2007 [as delivered]

By Brian Waters

The contribution which the historic environment can make to regeneration is increasingly being recognised and its value to sustainability is emerging. Taken together with the recent white paper Heritage Protection For The 21st Century (www.english-heritage.org.uk) and new thinking by English Heritage (EH) suggests that a more constructive approach to development where it involves listed buildings and conservation areas is emerging.

EH’s consultation paper Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance introduces a values-based approach intended to help decision-makers to take account of the diverse ways in which people value the historic environment as part of their cultural and natural heritage. Justifiable decisions about change in the historic environment depend upon understanding who values a place and why they do so, leading to a clear statement of its significance and with it the ability to understand the impact of change on that significance. “Every reasonable effort should be made to eliminate or minimise adverse impacts on significant places”, says EH. “Ultimately, however, it may be necessary to balance the public benefit of the proposed change against the harm to the place. If so, the weight given to heritage values should be proportionate to the significance of the place and the impact of the change upon it”.

The new approach is summed up: “Proposed changes which would materially harm the heritage values of a significant place should be unacceptable unless all the following criteria are met:
• the changes are demonstrably necessary either to make the place economically sustainable, or to meet another public policy objective;
• it is either not reasonably practicable to avoid the harm by achieving the conflicting objective in a different way, or the harm has been reduced to the minimum consistent with achieving that objective;
• it has been demonstrated to the competent authority that the public benefit decisively outweighs the unavoidable harm to the values of the place, considering its comparative significance, the impact on that significance, and the benefits to the place itself and/or the wider community or society as a whole”.

Architect Robert Adam has called for a re-examination of the core principles of the culture of conservation in planning which he says is long overdue. “Conservation has come to have a deadening effect on the historical environment with often bizarre consequences for the continuing life of buildings”, he argues (Planning in London April 2006). The proportion of listed buildings to all buildings has increased in 30 years from 1 in 140 to 1 in 40, a total of 500,000, and conservation areas from 4 to over 8,000. This says Adam has created a new breed of administrators and the dominant culture has changed from architect conservation officers to specialists from an archaeological and historical culture which has led to an overriding concern with historic authenticity. “This” he says “is like the study of wildlife through taxidermy”.

Adam notes that Conservation Principles recognises that our attitudes to our historic environment are in a constant state of change: “the historic environment reflects the evolving knowledge, beliefs and traditions of multiple communities” and “changes in the historic environment as a whole are inevitable”, adding “judgements about values are necessarily specific to the time they are made”. This explicit recognition, he suggests, could have far reaching consequences in a system that relies on a default position of preservation.

There may be heated debate about the criteria for the justification for ‘irreversible intervention’ – which means permanent change or destruction – but the fact that the principle is formally recognised is important, say Adam.

Conservation Principles seeks to relate conservation to sustainability. It states that the use of the historic environment should “not compromise the ability of future generations to do the same”. How you decide that without a return to simple preservation is an interesting and unanswerable question says Adam. “The simple fact is that the effective reuse and avoidance of destruction of good building stock is fundamentally sustainable”.

The refreshing new direction is also seen in the EH and British Property Federation document Heritage Works of 2005. Its headline messages include:
• Critical to the success of regeneration is finding a viable economic use that can support initial refurbishment, provide the owner or developer with a reasonable return on their investment and which generates sufficient income to ensure the long-term maintenance of the building fabric and any associated public open spaces
• In short, the listed buildings consents regime does not prohibit any change, rather it establishes criteria against which ‘acceptable change’ can be assessed
• The re-use and adaptation of heritage assets is at the heart of sustainable development. Re-using historic buildings contributes to the achievement of sustainable development targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions
• The impact of successful schemes is felt beyond the boundaries of the heritage asset itself and can boost the economy of the whole town or city.

The Heritage white paper aims to review and simplify the regulatory regime, merging planning and conservation area applications, integrating the classification of monuments and listed buildings and improving listing procedures now in the hands of EH rather than DCMS.

Brian Waters is a chartered architect and planning consultant: brian@bwcp.co.uk