Conservation Areas: 50 years on, are they still fit for purpose?

Conservation areas were established 50 years ago this year, through the introduction of the Civic Amenities Act in 1967. In many respects the Act was a response to the post war planning decisions that communities felt were made in disregard to the historic character of places. In contrast to some areas of the continent, post war reconstruction in Britain had a tendency to focus on a Festival of Britain inspired utopia rather than restoring historic streets and buildings. Post-war development was founded on a feeling of hope and opportunity to reimagine our environments. The finance to create these utopias was rarely, if ever, available and the large scale comprehensive redevelopment areas and highway dominated places that resulted, in part, led to a conservation movement that attempted to rebalance the rebuilding programme in the 1960s.

This public opposition to unsympathetic planning had already resulted in the Listed Building legislation of 1947. The Civic Amenities Act was a recognition that protecting individual buildings was not sufficient to preserve and enhance historic places. The official definition of conservation, as being Areas of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, the Character & Appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or Enhance’ belies its Civic Trust influence and maybe it needs reappraising fifty years on.

The emphasis was on Special Architectural Or Historic Interest and initially it was thought that there would be about 3,000 such areas nationally. Today the figure is nearly 10,000. Even so, many areas, valued for their qualities by their local communities are unlikely to be designated as conservation areas as they do not pass the test of Special architectural or historic interest.

In Bristol, some of the earliest activities of a conservation movement involved the fight to save Kingsdown and Old Market from road schemes and high rise developments, although Kingsdown was not designated as a conservation area until 1973 and Old Market not until 1979 by which time the Dove Street flats and the Old Market roundabout were well established. Other battles included the arguments to stop the demolition and associated road schemes at Totterdown in the late 60s and early 70s, yet despite the iconic, colourful, hillside terraces this area has never acquired conservation area status. (somewhere here) It is perhaps hard to believe how much of central Bristol was derelict and blighted through bomb damage and impending demolition prior to large scale redevelopment even 25 years after Word War II. Vigorous campaigns were waged over a decade, by committed individuals, small groups and the civic society, to raise awareness of the intrinsic qualities of the character and scale of the areas under threat of clearance, despite their superficial poor condition. Eventually some areas were saved, in the nick of time, in Old Market, Kingsdown, St Paul’s and the City Docks, thanks to the designation of conservation areas.

The first conservation area in Bristol was Henbury, designated in January 1970, followed by Westbury-on-Trym in June 1971. It is interesting that the first two conservation areas cover former villages that pre-date Bristol itself. The designation helps to reinforce the distinctiveness of these places in light of potential unHenbury and unWestbury type housing of the Bristol outer estates at neighbouring Lawrence Weston, Southmead or the Henbury estate itself.

In both examples there have been limited amounts of new development since the 1970s. The biggest change is likely to have been the development of Churchfields and the Westbury Health Centre on Westbury Hill both of which are identified as neutral buildings in the recent Westbury-on-Trym conservation area character appraisal.

As with many character appraisals, the main identified threats to the local character of Westbury-on-Trym are issues related to traffic or the replacement of traditional features like windows with inappropriate materials like uPVC. Threats like these are not necessarily planning matters, replacing your windows in an unlisted single dwelling house or many highway works are permitted development, which begs the question, often asked, ‘what is the point of designating a conservation area?’ The main thing the designation ‘controls’ is the protection of trees and the demolition of buildings, but as mentioned above, single buildings do not a place make.

Generally developers recognise the importance of responding to the local character of a conservation area. The success of this response is varied and will court the same criticism of new developments as you would hear in any neighbourhood. However, it could be said that this recognition of local character within conservation areas has been at the detriment of other neighbourhoods. It is interesting to compare conservation area boundaries with mapped indices of social deprivation. There are 33 conservation areas in Bristol and these tend to be located in the western areas of the city whereas the most deprived areas of the city lie to the north, east and south almost in an arc around the designated areas with the exception of areas like Old Market (fig.1). Where the map does show areas of deprivation within conservation area boundaries in many instances these are areas of significant green space for example the areas of Kings Weston and Blaise around Lawrence Weston in the northwest or the Avon Valley to the southeast.

This leads to arguments about how we value our neighbourhoods and who makes the decisions about these values. I think it is no coincidence that the original designators of these conservation areas lived in Clifton, Redland, Kingsdown and the like. If there had been a wider demographic involved in the designations might different areas have been chosen? Why is it that the inter-war ‘Garden Suburb’ of Sea Mills is a conservation area, while the slightly earlier Hillfields that includes the first council houses and ‘demonstration area’ of 1920 is not?

Bristol conservation areas (red outlines) overlain on Local Super Output Areas indices of deprivation.

Since 2012, the Local Plan includes a specific policy on local character and distinctiveness (Policy DM26, although the 1997 plan included similar policies B1 to B8). This policy effectively encourages developers to have the same response to local character as they would have in a conservation area. Developments are expected to preserve and enhance any area as part of a positive placemaking process. The aim of the Local Plan is to improve the quality of every neighbourhood.

The creation of conservation areas in 1967 was a response to a direct threat to the character of our historic places. Going forward we should be taking the same care of all our places, making planning decisions based on an understanding of local character. Recently City Design Group in partnership with Richard Guise developed a toolkit to help communities identify the character of their neighbourhood to help them and developers make positive proposals for future change. This Our Place toolkit aims to help identify the special distinctiveness of every part of the city to encourage responsible developments in the future. The Bristol Heritage Forum could have a role here in fostering citywide debate on the role and associated measures for either redefined conservation areas, or planning powers which treat heritage and valued urban areas as significant matters.

So, should the definition be changed, or should planning  reorient itself to reflect the value people place on the character of their neighbourhoods, by aiming to have policies which require all development and management proposals to demonstrate their sensitive response to the positive character of each neighbourhood and local area. Bristol City Council is certainly making progress in this latter direction in its policies and the Our Place neighbourhood character assessments. The test will be whether this approach is robust enough to influence development proposals.  Historic England is also committed to widening its criteria regarding people’s engagement in defining heritage and what is of value.

However, we should not lose sight of what conservation areas were aiming to protect and manage. There is always likely to be the need to protect the ‘special’.


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