Context 144 - May 2015

C O N T E X T 1 4 4 : M A Y 2 0 1 6 31 RICHARD BATE Conservation officers in historic towns A report for Historic England shows that not all local authorities realise how important conservation officers are to the job of protecting the integrity of historic towns. There are statutory obligations on local planning authori- ties to determine applications for planning consent, listed building consent and scheduled monument consent, among others, but no formal requirement to address the heritage interest in whole historic towns and cities. Conservation officers must inevitably prioritise legal requirements, while staff cutbacks limit the chance for engagement in big-picture conservation at the local level. Some of the impacts of this have been identified in a report for English Heritage on The Sustainable Growth of Cathedral Cities and Historic Towns 1. The report focused first on the scale of urban growth within and around a sample of 50 historic towns, where development was both taking place and planned. This showed that there was little relationship between the size of town and the amount of different types of development expected there. Although some historic towns did seem to be overwhelmed, this was not a function of whether or not they were ‘historic’. Second, the report identified the attention paid to heritage at the whole-town scale in the preparation and implementation of local plans affecting 20 historic towns. In the 18 authorities covering these towns, conservation officers were usually consulted by planning policy colleagues on emerging plan policies. In most cases conservation advice was usually followed by planning policy staff, but in four authorities conservation officers’ views were not taken particularly seriously. Much the same applied to individual development management proposals. In a few cases the conservation officer was the only person in the department who understood heritage issues and was marginalised. Shortage of conservation staff in an authority could result in the conservation officer being insufficiently engaged in the wider planning process, even not being reliably aware how their com- ments were treated in subsequent decisions. The research found that councillors generally followed officers’ recommendations on heritage issues, although interviewees suggested occasionally that planning officers did not seem to put forward recommendations to protect heritage buildings if the councillors would be likely to refuse these. Senior staff were unsympathetic to heritage in a few authorities, but the driving force was the attitude of councillors.The economic wellbeing of towns was councillors’ primary concern everywhere, and this was interpreted differently from place to place. Councillors might see heritage either as fostering a town’s distinctiveness, attracting visitors and raising the quality of life (as was the view inWinchester andWoodbridge), or as a cost burden and a drag on investment (the view inTaunton andWigan). The observed differences in heritage outcomes were primarily a function of the prevailing local authority cultural attitudes at member level. Broadly speaking, the process reinforced itself, with the relative priority given to heritage by councils reflected in the numbers of conservation staff employed; whether conservation staff were actively engaged in planning major develop- ment sites; the amount of proactive work on heritage undertaken; the policies adopted; and the practical decisions taken. The third strand of the research investigated method- ologies which had been used to protect the character and setting of cities at the urban scale, while accommodating growth.This focused on what had been achieved in case studies in eight cities: historic characterisation methods in Lichfield; view cones to protect skylines and the setting of Oxford; height limits and land allocations to protect the setting of Salisbury Cathedral; high-quality design to enable urban intensification in Chester; an urban extension to Winchester; urban intensification outside the historic core in Cambridge; new settlements around Cambridge; urban containment by green belt around Durham; and world heritage site status for the whole city of Bath. The research found that methodologies alone would not resolve the growth pressures which historic places faced.There were vitally important underlying matters that must be resolved at the same time.There were two Mill-style development in Chester: integrating new development into the historic city Reference 1 Green Balance with David Burton-Pye, The Sustainable Growth of Cathedral Cities and Historic Towns , English Heritage, 2014, downloadable from heritage Urban intensification in Cambridge: the Accordia housing development at 40 dwellings per hectare