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Conservation specialist

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technical & practice

With a consultation review on the merits of conservation, we examine whether councils have the resources to comply

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has announced a comprehensive review of heritage protection, which is to yield a consultation paper by the summer. The review will look at all types of designation, including conservation areas, listed building consent, ancient monuments and historic parks; the relationship between the different safeguarding regimes will also be scrutinised. The exercise is timely in that it provides an opportunity to integrate heritage controls into the planning system as it goes through its legislative rebirth.

Arts minister Baroness Blackstone introduced the review, commenting that it would look at how the legislative framework can remain robust in protecting historic features, while at the same time enabling change to take place. She noted: 'Heritage protection has been part of our legal framework for more than 50 years. Although highly regarded and widely emulated around the globe, perceptions and priorities have evolved from an initial focus on individual buildings and monuments towards a wider interest in the urban and rural landscape as a whole, in historic parks and gardens and in our more recent past. We now need a new approach to the management of our heritage.'

Dynamic system

CABE chairman Sir Stuart Lipton commented: 'The purpose of the review should be to create a dynamic and flexible system, which recognises that the historic environment is an integral part of our towns and cities rather than a world set apart.'

The opportunities for integration of heritage-protection policies into the planning mainstream are administrative as well as philosophical. For example, the Arup-led review of fees (AJ 30.1.03) is likely to recommend a single form of planning application, which incorporates listed building and conservation area aspects. Policies and plans are beginning to mature to the point where good urban analysis and design need no longer make a special distinction for older buildings, historic settings and areas of quality. In parallel, professional skills have evolved in such a way that, having created various specialisms, their boundaries are now beginning to break down.

Thus, landscape and urban design, architecture and engineering - even traffic management, in best practice - merge into one at policy and creative levels.

One of the anomalies of the legislation behind conservation areas is that there is no legal mechanism for their re-evaluation and de-designation. Apart from devaluing the currency, this has the tendency of encouraging policies of preservation rather than conservation. The key distinguishing characteristic of conservation area development is the obligation to 'preserve or enhance'.

One way of resisting this tendency would be to make this a criterion for all development. It is hard to reason against this, though it would have the effect of rendering conservation area status largely irrelevant.

The great lack of skills available, especially in planning departments, will be seen as a major obstacle to the wider demand for understanding conservation and heritage, which the review is bound to generate. 'All too often conservation of the historic environment is seen as a fringe activity staffed by specialists, ' says Phillip Grover, director of historic conservation studies at Oxford Brookes University. By a timely coincidence, a study commissioned by English Heritage and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation has just carried out a survey of 400 specialists, which reveals that planning departments face 'impossible workloads and inadequate resources'. Nationally, the average number of full-time conservation specialists is 1.7 per council; this rises to 2.8 in London; while 15 per cent of authorities have no one at all.

The new 'planning delivery grant', which has been introduced to provide extra funding for council planning departments 'is there for conservation as well as development planning if so needed', said a spokesman for the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister.

However, the prospective integration of heritage and conservation planning into the system suggests more dramatic changes.

Impact assessments

The first is the need for better training and skills for development control and policy planning officers in general, rather than a reliance on specialists, and (in common with the underlying shift implicit in the bigger changes already under way) a handing-over of many of the obligations to carry out the necessary work to the developer and his team. Impact assessments and studies will broaden out to embrace urban design, conservation, landscape and historic building issues, and become another component required for the making of a proper planning application.

The pressure will remain on councils to meet their processing deadlines, but even more time will be needed by developers for this work before a valid application can even be made.

Meanwhile, the difficulty planning authorities already have in matching the best of private-sector skills in assessing developers' proposals is not going to fade away.

Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership. Tel 020 7828 6555, email brian@bwcp. co. uk, web www. bwcp. co. uk

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