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Heritage also means the future


As the country experiences a concentrated dose of 'Cool Britannia' publicity, it is disappointing that the Heritage Lottery Fund has revealed at best a tepid attitude to the future. Two of its decisions last week showed in one instance an absurd genuflection to an imagined past, the other a total failure to engage with the spirit of the new millennium. The first concerned the reconstruction of Brighton's West Pier; not a new pier, of course, but a version of the old one. As Matthew Parris commented in The Times, this will do terrible things to a very fine ruin. This pointless exercise in nostalgia is so removed from what the Victorians themselves would have done that it makes you wonder whether history plays any part in the mindset of the HLF. In its second strange decision, it described Kathryn Gustafson's landscape scheme for Crystal Palace Park as 'too modern'. There is money, however, to restore the park's crumbling dinosaurs (analogy intended).

Ironically, conservation is taking a much more sophisticated turn at local level, with properly thought-out strategies being introduced, many at the instigation of EH, across the country. Proactive planning, giving more certainty to design and development, can only be a good idea. And, let's face it, we are all (at some level) conservationists now; our attitudes to re-use of buildings and to the idea of environmental economy of means has reinforced what was once mere aesthetic preference.

One over-riding problem remains: conservationists have yet to properly engage with the new. Policy guidance on conservation areas scarcely mentions how to achieve good new design. The idea of treating unlisted buildings in conservation areas as though they were listed is so weird it could only happen in Britain. The tendency to treat areas next to conservation areas as though they too were protected is simply an extension of this looking-glass approach.

Conservation won the war; winning the peace will require a change of view.

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