The contribution that the historic environment can make to regeneration and its value to sustainability are increasingly being recognised. The recent White Paper Heritage Protection for the 21st Century, and English Heritage's (EH) consultation paper Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance, suggest a more constructive approach to development involving listed buildings or conservation areas.
The EH paper introduces a values-based approach to help decision-makers consider the ways in which people value the historic environment.
Justifiable decisions about change in the historic environment depend upon understanding who values a place and why they do so.
'Every reasonable effort should be made to eliminate or minimise adverse impacts on significant places, ' says EH.
'However, it may be necessary to balance the public benefit of the proposed change against the harm to the place. The weight given to heritage values should be proportionate to the signi-cance of the place and the impact of the change upon it'.
Under the new EH approach, 'changes that would materially harm a significant place's heritage values' should be unacceptable unless the following criteria are met:
the changes are necessary to make the place economically sustainable or to meet another public policy objective;
it is either not practicable to avoid the harm by achieving the conicting objective in a different way, or the harm has been reduced to a minimum; and it has been demonstrated that the public benefit decisively outweighs the unavoidable harm to the values of the place'.
Architect Robert Adam has called for a re-examination of conservation in planning, which, he says, 'has a deadening effect on the historical environment with often bizarre consequences' (Planning in London, April 2006).
The number of listed buildings has risen dramatically in the last 30 years, as has the number of conservation areas.
Adam says this has created a new breed of administrator from an archaeological and historical culture, leading to an overriding concern for historic authenticity. Adam says this is like 'studying wildlife through taxidermy'.
According to Adam, EH's Conservation Principles recognises that changing attitudes to our historic environment 'reect the evolving knowledge, beliefs and traditions of multiple communities' and that 'changes in the historic environment are inevitable'. He adds: 'Judgements about values are specific to the time they are made'.
Adam suggests that this could have far-reaching consequences in a system that relies on a default position of preservation. There may be heated debate about the criteria for the justification for 'irreversible intervention', but the fact that the principle is recognised is important.
In seeking to relate conservation to sustainability, 'Conservation Principles' states that the use of the historic environment should 'not compromise the ability of future generations to do the same'.
But, Adam asks, how can you decide without a return to simple preservation?
The heritage White Paper aims to simplify the regulatory regime, merging planning and conservation area applications, integrating the classification of monuments and listed buildings, and improving listing procedures that are now in the hands of EH.
Brian Waters is principal of the Boisot Waters Cohen Partnership.
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The AJ is holding a conference on Refurbishing Existing Buildings: A Sustainable Approach on 28 June.
Visit www. ajrefurb. co. uk