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Do three Rs make a right?

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PPG 15 has provided a safe haven for planners wanting to resist contemporary developments in conservation areas, often forcing the retention of facades of 'ordinary' old buildings.

But will the proposed reforms allow bulldozers into our conservation areas? Michael Hammond talks to Richard Coleman (above) about his campaign for change

Richard Coleman, Richard Rogers and Richard MacCormac, 'The Three Richards', have been campaigning for changes to PPG 15 since 1998. Their efforts are now bearing fruit, with first the English Heritage review and now the wide-ranging Department of Culture, Media and Sport review of Heritage Protection. A formal Consultation Paper was launched on 11 July, with consultation due to end on 3 October.

Planning Policy Guideline 15, Planning in the Historic Environment, was published in 1994 in conjunction with the Planning Act 1990. It sets out policy to conserve or preserve old buildings and to preserve and enhance conservation areas. Since its implementation, a growing number of voices have been questioning whether PPG 15 is delivering its objective. The grouping of buildings into conservation areas inevitably catches some 'ordinary' examples along with the 'fine'. It is the treatment of these buildings that is giving most cause for concern. Under PPG 15 they are given equal status to listed buildings. The net result is that facades of non-listed buildings are often retained at any cost. By 1998 it had become clear that its (mis)interpretation had allowed many poor-quality developments to take place.

More worryingly, due to the conflict in its message, PPG 15 was in fact steering these developments towards facade retention, despite a specific note saying the practice was 'not normally an acceptable approach'.

Of course, facadism is not new, having been with us for centuries in many guises.

During the 17th and 18th centuries facadism was seen as the expression of a wish to beautify the city. In the Neo-Classical era the visual focus was on street level and facades were often treated as theatre props. Most recently, the preservation of ruins after the two world wars sought reconstruction of an identity. However, it was not until the 1970s that national planning policy intervened in the development process to preserve the built environment; the notion of protecting valuable parts of the urban heritage did not suddenly occur. Facade retention generally falls into three loose categories:

new development constructed behind a retained frontage;

old facade demolished and rebuilt in new materials; and lrefronting of an existing building (facelift).

'All three forms run contrary to good conservation practice and central government conservation guidance, if only implied, ' says Coleman. It is the first two categories, however, that are causing particular concern. The debate is not unique to the UK.

The International Commission on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) at its conference on 'Facadism in Europe' stated: 'The practice of facadism represents a real danger to the spatial integrity of our heritage.' It also picked up a few derogatory nicknames; 'ville de taxidermy' and 'facodomy' being just two.

By 1998, having left his post as deputy secretary at the Royal Fine Art Commission the previous year, Coleman, now established as an independent consultant, had the freedom to pursue his ideals. He soon became known as a 'pro-development conservationist' and felt strongly enough about the continuing practice of facadism that he enlisted the support of Rogers and MacCormac and set about lobbying for change. Later that year a presentation was made to the then minister of state for planning, Richard Caborn. 'He was taken aback by the prevalence of facade retention, ' says Coleman, 'but was unhappy that the case studies presented were all London-based.'An extensive national survey and photographic study was subsequently carried out. The end result was a comprehensive proposal document, Revise PPG 15! The sequence of events had been set rolling.

Coleman is clearly passionate about building integrity and this is undoubtedly the driving force behind his crusade. 'This practice frequently leads to vast open-plan offices being visible behind modest facades that normally would have expressed small cellular rooms. These buildings have lost their integrity.' There is, of course, no planning control over the interior spaces of non-listed buildings in conservation areas.

Coleman is particularly alarmed when local authorities agree to the 'stretching' of a facade. This practice is now commonplace in the City, and is used to accommodate modern floor-to-floor heights behind an old facade. The term 'stretched' in this context means that a given architectural composition is totally rebuilt with new stone, incorporating all the detail of the original but with elongated vertical proportions.

Facade retention by definition precludes contemporary architecture. 'It is not good conservation practice and is often used as a device to avoid the prospect of enhancement through high-quality replacement buildings, ' says Coleman.

The crux of the problem is the wording of PPG 15. It has an overriding requirement for the retention of buildings that make a positive contribution. 'This contribution is lost when just the facade is retained, ' says Coleman. 'The criterion for determining the positive contribution is vague, is often misused and assumes attributes akin to listed buildings which often do not exist.'

Coleman accepts that the term 'preserve and enhance' cannot always lead to the optimum of either conservation practice or contemporary architectural excellence for our historic areas. 'Schemes are frequently more complex than can allow for such idealistic solutions. But what is clear is that it is theoretically easier to achieve contemporary architectural excellence than it is to achieve optimum conservation practice, when considering the future of non-listed buildings in conservation areas.'

The pressure of redevelopment in cities is unrelenting and this process clearly provides an easy way out for planners hiding behind the 'facade of PPG 15'. Others have different views. 'I think that the case against facadism is overstated on two principal counts, ' says Matthew Saunders of the Ancient Monuments Society. 'Firstly, it is an age-old practice. ln modern times it is reflected in retaining facades and gutting behind, but given that the name implies a divorce between the body of the building and its frontage it is no different from the Georgian facade added on to an unfashionable timber-framed cottage by the 18th-century squire. To be à la mode people changed their clothes and/or refronted their house.

'Secondly, nearly all buildings do have a dual purpose: to serve their user and occupier and at the same time to grace and articulate the public realm. That can mean a functional divorce between the interior, which serves the owner, and the streetscene, the exterior, which is clearly part of the civic theatre of the common realm. Therefore, to keep the latter but reconstruct the internal spaces to update the accommodation seems logical enough to me.'

Coleman is acutely aware of the natural resistance to change and also of the dangers it presents. Any modification must be carefully controlled and managed within a measurable process. Coleman proposes a range of building blocks to create a suitable framework. Three new objectives are proposed:

to add guidance on new design while strengthening conservation practice;

to encourage an increase in design capability and the skill of local planning authorities;

to encourage CABE's role at a regional level.

Implementation of the objectives will be complex and buildings falling within conservation areas will need to graded against PPG 15's requirement to make a positive contribution. This will include a series of 'indicators' as a method of measurement.

Clearly some planning authorities will not have the specialist capability to manage this process. Coleman insists that a regional CABE presence must be integral to the new framework to reinforce their resources and ensure quality replacements.

Last year Coleman was invited to join a working party set up by the Deputy Prime Minister's Office to draft the amendments to PPG 15. This has now been put on hold and the views of its members will be integrated into the wider heritage review being conducted by the DCMS.

Coleman is looking forward to the implementation of his vision: 'With objective, independent and informed design advice, local authorities will be in a position to take more confident decisions and reduce the tendency for compromise. Buildings that have come to the end of their useful life can thus more regularly and more predictably yield to those which qualitatively express the culture of our time and so build a new heritage for the future.'


The square has recast itself many times in its 220-year history and little of the fabric is of true heritage value.Even the central space has lost its garden to buildings, petrol stations and an underground car park.The two buildings at the north end of the east flank were to be combined to create a large office building but Nos 27-28, a 1920s Neo-Classical building, was locally listed. Earlier attempts to combine the sites by retaining and extending, in like form, the facades of Nos 27-28 had failed, though the conservation officer at this time accepted that retaining the existing facades was inevitable. In showing that Nos 27-28 had no real significance to the history or the future of the square, it was possible to persuade the planning committee to accept a new building designed by Eric Parry Architects, which would enhance the character and appearance of the square.

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