Conservation areas at 50: is their time up?

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As conservation areas turn 50, they are coming under increasing pressure in major cities. Ike Ijeh looks at the battle between heritage enthusiasts and developers, and asks experts if they think the areas have reached a tipping point

Liverpool’s Albert Dock was made a conservation area in 1976 and its subsequent redevelopment is one the UK’s foremost heritage success stories

Fifty years ago this year, British Parliament signed into law an act that would have massive repercussions on the planning system and commercial development process in this country. The Civic Amenities Act 1967 enshrined conservation areas into law for the very first time and they have gone on to become a defining factor in the way Britain’s towns and cities are developed.

According to Section 69 of the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (which incorporated and superseded the 1967 act), conservation areas are defined as “areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”.

It is incumbent on local planning authorities to identify these areas and ensure they receive special statutory protection in regard to preservation of character and control of development. The village of Stamford in Lincolnshire was the first conservation area created but there are now more than 10,000 across the UK.

Conservation areas were created because of mounting concern throughout the 1960s that new development was damaging the character and heritage of historic areas across the country. The listed building process had been in place since the hugely influential 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. But as listing only affords statutory protection to individual buildings, a circumstance that still exists today, conservation areas were designed to fill the gap and provide protection over a wider area.

The controversial Paddington Cube development sits in Westminster, which has more conservation areas than any other borough in the UK

The introduction of the 1967 bill essentially heralded the official start of the conservation movement as we know it today. This gathered pace throughout the 1970s and, ironically, was itself galvanised by the proliferation of modernist architecture and the perceived threat this placed on historic buildings. Today conservation areas are still widely recognised as having been hugely successful in preserving the special historic character of thousands of urban areas across the country.

But as conservation areas celebrate their 50th birthday, is the tide turning? The housing crisis and local authority funding cuts have been partially responsible for a new intensity of development pressure in recent years and this has placed the relationship between conservation areas and the development community under considerable strain.

A number of high-profile and controversial projects across the country have forced the issue to the forefront and in places such as Liverpool, Manchester, and of course London, the pursuit of proposals that many have perceived as harmful to the special character of conservation areas has sparked outrage among local communities and heritage groups. And yet developers and planners often insist that the project in question is essential in providing jobs, homes and regeneration.

It is becoming an all too familiar stand-off and nowhere perhaps is this more the case than in Westminster. Westminster has 56 conservation areas, more than any other local authority in the country. However, while the council was once lauded as the model of responsible conservationism, recent appointments have been partially responsible for a change in direction that has seen the borough become home to a number of bitter conservation versus development flashpoints.

Burrell Foley Fischer’s alternative Strand conservation area scheme retained the unlisted buildings controversially earmarked for demolition in King’s College’s abandoned previous proposals

The most well-known of these are current proposals for the so-called Paddington Cube by Renzo Piano and Sellar Property. Itself a successor to the even more controversial 72-storey Paddington Pole, it has been awarded planning permission despite being in direct violation of national and local conservation area policy. Yet its proponents and even the planning authority cite it as being “essential” for local regeneration. Meanwhile, in 2015 King’s College’s now-abandoned plan to demolish unlisted buildings within the Strand conservation area caused uproar and grievously exposed protection loopholes within conservation area legislation.

And just last month Westminster also announced plans for a consultation on whether more tall buildings should be built in the borough. The more cynical-minded have taken this as code for the fact that the council would indeed like to see more tall buildings built in the borough, an undertaking that is presumably at odds with the fact that 75% of Westminster is covered by conservation areas whose guidelines restrict development of this kind.

The response to the proposal highlights the ideological schism that now exists in many UK cities between those who believe in the principle of conservation areas as legislative custodians of urban heritage and those who maintain that they should not be allowed to stand in the way of progress. Former National Trust chair and SAVE Britain’s Heritage co-founder Simon Jenkins labelled Westminster’s move a “disaster”. On the other side of the argument, Mike Hussey, chief executive of developer Almacantar, which is redeveloping Marble Arch Tower within the borough and the Centrepoint Building in the nearby borough of Camden, commented: “It is encouraging that the council is edging away from its conservationist stance.”

So on their 50th anniversary, have conservation areas reached a watershed moment when they are perceived by some to be in direct opposition to development pressures? Or does legislation need to be tightened to ensure that conservation areas can withstand these pressures and are given additional teeth to effectively execute their protective mandate for another next half-century? Opposite, three experts from different parts of the developer and heritage communities give their views.