Environmental Capacity in Historic Towns

The government agenda for growth cannot be delivered without relying on the expansion of existing towns and cities. Wherever these might be, there is usually some form of historic core that can be traced back over many hundreds of years. While these towns and cities have grown at varying rates over these years, the historic core often remains intact. It has learnt to adapt to changing demands but has invariably maintained its function as a centre for commerce, trading, government, administration and living.

But how can historic towns and cities plan to accommodate continued growth and what will the impact be on the historic core? While much has been done to assess the environmental capacity of urban areas to expand, these studies tend to concentrate on the natural environment where the development is likely to take place. An example is the recent work of the East of England Regional Assembly to assess the capacity of the Haven Gateway around Ipswich to define environmental capacity as part of the preparation of the regional spatial strategy. However, little work has been done to assess the capacity of historic built environments to accommodate growth in a satisfactory way.

Back in 1995, Chester City Council, Cheshire County Council, the then Department for the Environment and English Heritage published a methodology for assessing the environmental capacity of historic cities. This was the conclusion of work that had commenced in 1993 and was the subject of the Forum's 1993 annual conference in the city. The final study noted that "the fundamental planning problem facing historic cities is the tension between the need to conserve the physical fabric of the city (both its core and its setting), and the demands of the activities currently taking place within it or attracted to it".? The final report continued that

historic cities face more difficult challenges than most because, although there may be more choices as to the role of the city, there are likely to be greater constraints due to its historic form and fabric.

Earlier this decade East Cambridgeshire District Council sought to assess the environmental capacity of the city and its ability to accommodate significant growth as part of the Cambridge Sub-Region. The work, by LDA Associates, was a key theme for the Forums conference in 2005 and subsequent publication 'Focus on Ely'. The work did, however, focus on opportunities for urban extensions rather than assessing in great detail the capacity of the historic core to accommodate further growth.

More recently, St Edmundsbury Borough Council and Forest Heath District Councils have joined forces to commission an Environmental and Infrastructure Capacity Study. The study is examining potential in a number of settlements across the districts, including the historic towns of Bury St Edmunds and Newmarket. The Study is seeking to assess the capacity of the existing historic centres to accommodate the additional demand for services and facilities generated by the potential growth to 2031.

All these studies demonstrate the many complex factors that have to be taken into account in maintaining the identity and distinctiveness of our historic towns and cities at times of continued pressure for growth.

Ian Poole
Planning Policy & Specialist Services Manager
St Edmundsbury Borough Council