It has been described by some as a 'great new wheeze', by others as a wicked witch on the yellow brick road to heritage lottery funding. It is Conservation Plans for Historic Places, the Heritage Lottery Fund's latest guidelines launched at a conference at St John's College, Oxford last weekend, which dictates that any application for funding to reach stage two must be supported by a conservation plan, if the project is worth more than £500,000.
So what's it all about, then? Maybe the answer lies in the old Holland and Rawles' definition: 'Conservation is about negotiating the transition from past to future in such a way as to secure the transfer of maximum significance.' The conservation plan focuses on the ideas set out in the Burra Charter of 1979 (the Aussies had the initiative then, and continue to lead the way, as James Semple Kerr, author of many such plans for Australian historic sites, opened the conference). The buzzword then, as now, is 'significance', or as James Simpson called it, tongue firmly in cheek, 'the linguistic doctrine of the cult of the significant place'.
Of course, there is a certain arrogance in the belief that any person is able to define conclusively the cultural significance of a place. A conservation plan is not designed as a once-and-forever definition. It is a review of what we know so far and an intellectual attempt to rationalise that information in the management of change. Just as importantly, it is a way of focusing on what we don't know and highlighting areas for further research. It was defined by one speaker as 'our understanding of what we understand'. A well-conceived conservation plan should serve as a continuing reference document. To developers it will act as a tool in the intellectual process of managing change, a means of allowing the building to speak for itself and reveal to us an appropriate solution. It should be designed to provide decision-makers with a balanced framework, containing policies to steer us from the temptation of convenience at the expense of historical integrity.
As the implications of the all-new conservation plan dawned, delegates insisted that this was just the kind of background information that they had been compiling for many years, but under a different label. One architect announced: 'If one believes in a scholarly approach to architecture as we do, it will be wonderful to get paid to do the job properly.' But architects who see conservation as the next growth market may well be disappointed. Many of the speakers at the conference insisted that there was no single profession ideally suited to drafting or co-ordinating the plan. As a general rule, the plan should be a team effort, co-ordinating the minimum number of persons with the necessary skills. We were repeatedly urged to exercise limpidity and succinctness when drafting a conservation plan: 'simplicity and relevance rather than bulk and esoteric jargon'. In fact, Semple Kerr confessed that his ultimate ambition was to present a conservation plan in comic-strip format, speech bubbles and all.
Kate Clark, author of Conservation Plans for Historic Places, stressed the need for a plan to be written early on, to avoid the influence of any future scheme. But is this realistic? Is it not more likely that a conservation plan will only be commissioned when a development scheme is already on the cards or even 'in the bag', especially if it isn't produced until stage two of an HLF application?
This seems to be where the problem lies. How do we prevent the conservation plan from becoming an advocacy document to support a proposed scheme? Does it even matter if the plan is an advocacy document, a reasoned justification of one scheme in preference to another? Maybe the stage at which the plan is written is irrelevant, providing there is a mechanism for review and the process is regarded as cyclical rather than linear.
Of course, cynicism rules. Desperate attempts to secure funding may encourage authors to hype up cultural significance, while developers seeking consent for a controversial scheme may choose to edit selectively. The conservation plan could, in extreme cases, be exploited to endanger the very vulnerability which they seek to address, or, in the wrong hands, could stifle creative thought and become an obstacle to designing architecture of cultural significance today.
On a more positive note, a conservation plan could be proposed as a long-term commitment to a site. Enthusiastically embraced, it should encourage a holistic approach to conservation that statutory designation has for so long oppressed by failing to recognise context. But to do all of this it must grasp the spirit of the place in its totality, including the people within it, past, present and future. One speaker favoured the conservation plan as being 'the best way of avoiding decisions based on arrogance, ignorance, over-confidence or default'. Only time will tell.
Marianne Suhr, Ferguson Mann Architects