City of Winchester Trust
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CONSERVATION REGENERATION
Civic Voice Annual Conference Birmingham 19 – 20 October 2018

The theme of this year’s Conference was set by the question, “How can we balance conservation and regeneration?”, a topic which also commemorates 50 years since the creation of Conservation Areas, designations perhaps even more crucial today in the face of changing attitudes to planning legislation.

Dame Fiona Reynolds, a former Director-General of the National Trust and now Master of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, gave the Sandys Lecture entitled ‘The Fight for Beauty’. This is her cri de coeur emanating from a life’s work that has been admirably and passionately written about in her book, and its subtitle, ‘Our Path to a Better Future’, suggests how we may see our way forward. Rarely does an opening lecture hold in thrall its audience as did hers with a masterly contextual account of how the notion of beauty should be central to any policy for the conservation and regeneration of our landscapes and townscapes. Her sweep of historical references and analyses gave objectivity and substance to what perhaps might be considered in a more subjective interpretation for such an abstract idea. We were reminded of the debt we owe to those who awoke our sensibilities towards aesthetic and moral values, namely Wordsworth, Ruskin, Wm Morris and Octavia Hill (her special heroine) among others, whose missions asserted the essential role beauty has to play in life for everyone. In practical terms their ideas led to the subsequent creation of the National Trust and the Campaign to Protect Rural England by their efforts to prevent the destruction of nature from industrialisation, intensive farming and afforestation, and towns and cities from pollution, urban sprawl and speculative jerry-builders. After the disruption of the two World Wars many post-1945 innovative social and political reforms, leading to Parliamentary legislation, began to build and develop protection and controls for our natural and man-made environments, and has continued with varying degrees of success to this day. However, it is apparent that GDP and ‘economism’ still tend to be the measure of achievement, i.e. in terms of materialism only. Its concomitant dangers and shortcomings are now evident on a global scale. Fiona Reynolds concluded her lecture by stating simply this: “Beauty is a need, not an extra.”

Laura Sandys, Vice-President of Civic Voice, in her welcoming introduction had already exhorted members to appreciate the serious role our Civic Societies play involving people and communities and, importantly, to be a guide and catalyst for Local Authorities. In the morning talks that followed this was further explored and endorsed.

The Deputy CEO for Historic England, Deborah Lamb, stressed the significance of our 10,000 local Conservation Areas and their influence within our cities, towns and villages but acknowledged there are considerable challenges to be met: developmental pressure, increasing density, destruction of abandoned buildings, poor design, unsympathetic additions which are further compromised by the decline in Local Authority resources. HE sees a role for investment in neglected areas and high streets for economic revival but local societies have their part to play to ensure success in the conservation of such areas. Tony Barton, Chair of Donald Insall Associates, went so far as to insist that there is no difference between Conservation and Regeneration in that Conservation is Regeneration – not just preservation, adding an historic environment has to adapt or diminish and without change will ossify. Despite the decline of Local Authority resources he urged members to lobby for the return of Conservation Officers in order to support local Conservation Areas. He gave the cheering example of how Burton Manor, a former Gladstone residence near Chester and in a poor state of repair, had been up for sale to be bought eventually by a developer. Where alarm bells would ring, in this case the developer proved to be sympathetic to the feelings of the villagers for their manor and estate. A working partnership was set up with the planners, councillors and community that ensured a happy and satisfactory outcome for the village of Burton. The Heritage Lottery Fund Manager, Oluwaseun Soyemi, described how grant support is possible for projects through the HLF but suggested schemes should have a wider strategy that led to mixed schemes and involve a broad section of the local society. Heritage could then drive regeneration and economy by building new partnerships that encourages local self-esteem for place and open space. Hull was seen as a paradigm for this approach. In the Q & A session that concluded the morning it was interesting to note how insistent the speakers were about political involvement. Conservation and Regeneration are to be seen as political issues and we need to bang on doors of politicians to relay local concerns, and to learn how to pander to the politicians’ ambitions to secure results! Also the use of local press and social media should not be overlooked these days as a means of influential communication.

Just before we broke for lunch, Joan Humble, Chair of Civic Voice, and Laura Sandys announced the result of the Civic Voice Award for Conservation Areas. The competition to find England’s Favourite CA had generated much engagement galvanising communities to look to their localities. 249 Areas were nominated out of which 18 were shortlisted. The vote was part of the Big Conservation Conversation that raised awareness about areas of historic interest and encouraged communities to celebrate these and protect those at risk. The effectiveness of social media towards this vote was overwhelming. The winner was Swindon Railway Village, 2nd Port Sunlight Village and 3rd Lichfield City Centre.

James Caird, Chair of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, used Ludlow’s Broad Street, designated a CA in 1970 and described as ‘most beautiful’, to show how the passage of time has challenged this epithet. With slides he gave evidence of poor signage, poor street lighting and furniture, redundant fixtures, proliferation of aerials on roofs, non-aligned signage on facades, before and after photos of its general decline, and, of course, the curse of traffic congestion, all of which had marred the beauty and vista of a fine street. Perhaps more alarming was a lack of civic design and civic pride where he warned us of the dangers of ‘permitted development’ within a CA after the withdrawal of Conservation Officers in local councils inevitably results in poor design being allowed. To combat this Civic Societies need to monitor planning in collaboration with the Local Authority, with the sensible caveat not to criticize officers and councillors but to establish positive relationships – play politics and harness influential groups for support, and prepare a local Heritage Asset Inventory. In contrast Ben Derbyshire, President of RIBA, talked about the Stirling Prize just recently awarded but emphasised though such a premium award can advance architecture, the RIBA also holds change is necessary, i.e. a broad outlook is encouraged so that tradition and innovation can co-exist. To justify this he cited the 2017 Prize Winner dRMM Architects for their redevelopment of Hastings Pier, a rescue project that was also community-led. This year’s Winner, the Bloomberg HQ by Fosters, however, was an example of the high end of an architectural spectrum. Though fabulously costly, Ben Derbyshire felt that it still expressed a polite presence as an addition to its urban landscape and despite being high-tech was eminently and commendably sustainable as a building. Victoria Hills, CEO of the Royal Town Planning Institute, reinforced the need for good planning towards successful urban development and this meant a good team under good leadership. With the demise of the Chief Planning Officer (a dying breed) the strategic links in a planning hierarchy were compromised and it has become clear that Local Authority Planning Offices require more funding. Projects need the support of a ‘ringmaster’ to co-ordinate resourcing across all disciplines and recognize also the essential value of appearance that contributes towards economic wealth. She gave the example of Stromness in the Orkneys. Ten years ago this was a moribund fishing village until strong communal involvement together with the local councils began a significant programme of regeneration. Its transformation also included civic amenities that gave the village back pride and purpose and deserving of the prestigious RTPI Silver Jubilee Cup Award in May 2018 for its success. Max Farrell, Partner of Farrell’s, concluded the afternoon talks with an update and reminder of the Farrell Review conducted 5 years ago. Its principles for education, design, cultural heritage, economic benefits for the built environment included in the acronym PLACEPlanning, Landscape, Architecture, Conservation, Engineering are still relevant for effective planning and place-making. Within each town the facility of an Urban Room, being a communal area designated for the debate of projects, should be revived and the idea of Place being Client not ignored. His excellent line, ‘participation not consultation is the way forward’ should form the working basis for our communal and civic developmental projects. A lively Q & A session aired topics and issues such as reinstating Chief Planning Officers over ‘strategic officers of place’ who are usually executive ‘suits’ rather than trained professionals in planning. Permitted Development legislation was seen as being destructive of our CAs and it was suggested that such invidious ‘permission’ should be rescinded. The shortage of town centre accommodation over shops was discussed but it became apparent that much of this was disadvantaged by its facilities being of poor quality and of the prohibitive rents and rates. It was suggested that the problem of funding Local Authorities could be solved by lifting the cap on borrowing – perhaps the new economic climate resulting from the end of austerity could help here?

On Saturday morning, before we dispersed for workshops and visits, Sarah Mcleod, Chair of Heritage Trust Network and CEO of Wentworth Woodhouse Preservation Trust gave a fascinating account of how one goes about saving an historic pile from destruction. This fine Georgian mansion in South Yorkshire, once the largest private house in England, steadily went into decline after the last war until a Preservation Trust was formed in 2014 to take on responsibility for its restoration. In March 2017 Wentworth Woodhouse was sold to the Trust for £7m and later that year Sarah Mcleod was appointed to take on the daunting prospect of managing its restoration that may take 20 years and at an estimated cost of £200m – no mean task! Her priority was to make good the 4 acres of roof which was in a dire state of repair then to establish a Master Plan in 2018 for all the subsequent restoration projects necessary for the house and outbuildings. This community-led venture relies much on volunteer work as well as seeking help from local companies, e.g. the not inconsiderable drive for the house was generously repaired at no cost to WWPT! Since the Trust also relies on donations but cannot entirely, it has set up its Trading Company to generate income and looks to its future success by mixed use development, i.e. visitor attractions, holiday accommodation, business centre, events space, film and TV location (one of its salons was a set for the film Darkest Hour), and the possibility of housing. To enable this enterprise it has undertaken an essential Traffic and Transport Study for the area and is setting up training and apprenticeship schemes that will also help regenerate the local community. Though the entire project may take two decades, it is intended to open up to the public all areas as they are completed. This ambitious project, initiated by local pride for its heritage and to prevent irreparable loss to its community, will restore to the nation a great asset in which we can all share and with gratitude.

Was the topical question answered? In part, yes, if one accepts Tony Barton’s idea Conservation and Regeneration are indivisible but the question must remain open due to the vicissitude of progress and what the future night hold. In the wake of our Conference here’s a timely coda to note that Sir Roger Scruton, philosopher in aesthetics, has just been appointed to head a new public body, The Building Better, Building Beautiful Commission to encourage better design and style for new homes and towns that reflects local wishes, knowledge and tradition.

Arthur Morgan