Context 154 - May 2018

6 C O N T E X T 1 5 4 : M A Y 2 0 1 8 Periodically aschb transactions volume 40: 2018 ASSOCIATION FOR STUDIES IN THE CONSERVATION OF HISTORIC BUILDINGS The latest ASCHB (Association for Studies in the Conservation of Historic Buildings) Transactions (Vol 40, 2018), running to 60 pages, concentrates on specific historic building and area projects in depth, all of which provides valuable insights and often instructive pointers to wider professional practice. Much was made last year of the 50th anniversary of the legislation that enabled the designation of conservation areas. Although an estimated 10,000 have been declared, remarkably few have been the subjects of area appraisals and management plans, and fewer still are to a good practice standard. It is therefore timely and instructive to read Sir Donald Insall’s paper about the Chester Historic Town Study. Along with three other pioneering studies inYork, Bath and Chichester dating from 1968, the detailed analysis of the problems and opportunities, and of the need for active and continuous management, demonstrates not only that long-term husbandry of heritage assets is essential, but also that some very intractable problems (such as the vacant upper floors in historic town centres) remain to be solved. Unlike the mechanical exercise repeated as rote that seems to characterise many conservation area appraisals, Sir Donald states that from the very start, the study method and approach adopted for Chester needed to be very clear about its aims by answering the question: ‘What do we decide to save… and how do we set about it?’ It was essential both in the survey and subsequent report to address everything in a logical sequence, always working from the whole to the part, and from the past through the present to the future. In looking beyond the problems and opportunities of how these might be dealt with in a realistic but affordable way, the analysis extended more widely to encompass broader geographical, social, economic, financial and transport issues, something largely ignored in present day appraisals. This approach enabled the Chester Study to focus its attention on areas of specific character, each with its own special assets and problems, and then to examine in detail individual buildings, both listed and otherwise, within the walled central area. This demonstrates the importance of undertaking area appraisal in conjunction with heritage-at-risk surveys. In most instances these now seem to be conducted as separate exercises rather than as properly integrated heritage-resource management. Sir Donald writes that the study team needed constantly to remind itself of the dynamism of urban change. Chester was a regional, shopping and tourist centre: not just a monument but also a city, with a fast-changing and living energy. For example, traffic circulation, pedestrian access and vehicle parking arrangements were all in flux, so the Chester proposals needed to take into account both current and likely future trends of land use, aiming for flexible outcomes and ensuring periodic review. At a time of public-spending austerity, the article usefully emphasises the benefits of financing area management in terms of the care and improvement of property, and of overcoming inertia and neglect by releasing hidden, unrealised value. One aspect now more difficult to replicate in an era of straightened public finances is the environmental enhancement of the public realm that helps engender confidence in private owners, encouraging them to make their own positive investment decisions. Reading this article may well encourage readers to re-examine the approach adopted for all four historic towns studies, and reflect on the direction, comprehensiveness, approach and adequacy of current area appraisal work. In a parallel and complementary article, Duncan McCallum, policy director at Historic England, briefly summarises the current state of knowledge relating to conservation areas in England, based on research commissioned and collected by Historic England (and, before that, English Heritage) in the past decade and, in particular, in the lead-up to the celebration of 50 years of conservation areas in England in 2017. McCallum writes that a much clearer picture of conservation areas has now been constructed in terms of who lives in them and the benefits this brings to society. The article points to the numbers of conservation areas considered to be at risk and the reasons (principally uncontrolled permitted development). While McCallum states that more Article 4 directions and the better management of the public realm are required, much of this may remain wishful thinking if there are not enough qualified and experienced staff in local planning authorities. In future much may depend on the enlightened self-interest of owners concerned about maintaining property values. The four other well-illustrated articles in the ASCHB Transactions deal with detailed examinations of