Valuing What You’ve Got: Managing Heritage Assets for Added Value

It is 18 years since the EHTF published Townscape in Trouble, yet some Conservation Areas are still under threat. English Heritage’s Conservation Areas At Risk (CAAR) survey in 2009 put the spotlight on this – one in seven were at risk. In order to get a good response to the survey in 2010, English Heritage commissioned the HTF to run a series of regional seminars to promote proactive Conservation Area management. 

Four seminars were held, in Exeter, Manchester, Birmingham and London. They followed a common, five-part format: scene setting by English Heritage regional staff; the work of Heritage Champions; strategic, corporate issues; making effective use of conservation tools; and a local case study and site visit. 

Regional Directors and Historic Areas Advisors set the national policy context, stressed the importance of the Conservation Areas at Risk survey and highlighted examples of good practice within the regions. This was followed by a ‘political’ perspective from local Heritage Champions, who emphasised the importance of personal knowledge and experience and argued that having a Champion shows that the local authority cares. I looked at the strategic importance of heritage assets, focusing on the relationships with the broader environment, the community, the economy and overall local authority performance. Dawn Morse and Lisa Jackson from Turley Associates showed how to make the best use of the available tools through a case study of Falmouth. Local authority and EH staff rounded off each seminar with a case study and conducted guided tours of: Exeter - Conservation in the Fore Street and Quay area; Manchester - City Centre Conservation Area; Birmingham - Warwick Bar Conservation Area; and London – St James’ Conservation Area. 

A total of 162 delegates attended the seminars, including 41 elected members, 44 strategic directors or budget holders and 58 heritage and conservation officers. Of the 87 local authorities represented 49 had completed the 2009 CAAR survey, 38 had not. 

The seminars promoted the importance of Conservation Area work and the CAAR survey to a large audience. Everyone was enthusiastic and the mix of officers and elected members was successful in generating discussion and reinforcing shared objectives. Delegates expressed a passionate commitment to conservation and there was a clear understanding of how the responsibilities should be exercised. At the same time the discussions exposed many individual concerns – inevitably, these varied from area to area. A number of key issues emerged from the seminars.

 Conservation Context 
  • Effective conservation needs strong leadership and effective Champions
  • Effective conservation is under threat from a lack of resources, so it is important to identify and focus on high priorities
  • Conservation Area Appraisals and Management Plans are vital in prioritising the use of scarce resources.
  • Invaluable benefits can be reaped without large resource implications by working with community groups and other interested parties
  • People outside Conservation Areas can feel neglected and there is a risk of widening the gap between communities
  • How can greater protection be given to non-designated areas?
  • There is a need for a heritage and culture performance indicator to be included in the national indicator set for local authorities.
Conservation Practice
  • Concerns over the CAAR Survey included:
    • the resources needed to complete it;
    • the quality of the questionnaire; and
    • uncertainty about the impact of the outcomes.
  • Conservation officers need to address both strategic and detailed issues, eg the contribution to the economy as well as specifying the right tiles
  • Effective conservation demands an integrated, multi-agency approach
  • The impacts of traffic and highway management are among the greatest threats to the quality of Conservation Areas
  • Conservation must be built into planning processes, especially Regional Spatial Strategies, Local Development Frameworks and master planning, and have a robust evidence base
  • The adoption of Conservation Area Appraisals and Management Plans as Supplementary Planning Documents is crucial for strategic planning and development
  • Local authorities need to ensure that conservation issues are fully taken account of in development management (control) processes – development management (control) officers need to understand and report rigorously on conservation issues
  • Advice and information need to be spread more widely and effectively, eg to people living in Conservation Areas, and the role of ICT in this must be expanded.
The seminars confirmed that Conservation Areas face huge challenges, challenges that will not be made any easier in a future of reduced public spending. The seminars also confirmed that there is the passion and commitment to rise to the challenge. After all, as speakers in Manchester said, with credits to Joni Mitchell:
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you got till it's gone
They paved paradise and put up a parkin' lot.
Brian Human
21 February 2010