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‘Conservation areas have had a positive impact on our quality of life’

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As we mark 50 years of conservation areas, let’s acknowledge their success in balancing preservation and progress, writes Donald Insall Associates’ Tony Barton

This year is the 50th anniversary of the conservation area, which is why, when browsing through our archive recently, a stack of old AJs from January 1967 caught my eye. Their headline was Conservation areas: Preserving the architectural and historic scene, a special edition on the Civic Amenities Bill that was about to require all local authorities to designate ’Areas of Special Architectural or Historic Interest’. The AJ succinctly sets the new bill in context; even though listing had protected individual buildings for 20 years, our historic town and city centres were under very real threat from demolition, principally as a result of comprehensive development and the growing needs of the motor car. 

The AJ feature brilliantly expresses the pioneering spirit of conservation in 1967 (no false modesty from me, in extolling the key role of Donald Insall Associates and my marvellous predecessors in this movement, including their invention of conservation officers resulting from the ground-breaking Chester report). The Civic Amenities Bill and the invention of the conservation area was indeed a radical proposal and, I believe, one that has had a profound and positive impact on quality of life in the UK.

The presumption against demolition has resulted in a legacy that can be celebrated

It is surely self-evident, from our perspective today, that conservation areas have been a success. We will never know how much of our familiar and revered surrounds survive through designation but examples of local opposition to loss of heritage, bolstered by this legal protection, can be found all over the country. As recently as 2015, for example, Rawtenstall’s fine town hall was rescued and a bus station is being redesigned to keep a handsome, unlisted, landmark building. When we feel a connection to our shared heritage within a city, town or village, we are almost certain to be in a conservation area. This simple presumption against demolition has resulted in a legacy that can be celebrated and which is testament to the ambitions of the post-war pioneers of the conservation movement.

A key phrase from the 1967 AJ feature is ’progress and preservation’, focusing the debate about the perceived conflict between vital post-war growth and the dangers of the economy being stifled by living in the past. This chimes today and gets to the heart of what we mean by the word conservation. How prescient was the decision not to name the newly designated entities ’preservation areas’ but to give us conservation areas instead?

Historic building conservation is fundamentally the management of change in a precious and unique structure. Just as we enable new lives for buildings through creative and sensitive intervention, so our historic areas have, through careful husbandry backed up by legislation, continued to adapt and react to social change, while, in most cases, maintaining their essential individual stories and characters. I see no conflict between preservation and progress today and it is our role, as creative architects working in the historic environment, to facilitate this change, step by careful step. 

Central to the conservation movement in 1967 and one of its most celebrated successes was the city of Chester, where I live and work. It is always a surprise to see these contemporary photographs of the city and to learn about the blight and threat, even here in one of our most compact historic cities. Conservation area designation has played a key role in arresting decay but it has not stifled progress; rather it has fuelled economic growth, inspired by the quality of the built environment. Chester, for instance, is a city at ease with its heritage and facing up to the challenges ahead. Bennetts Associates’ radical remodelling of the listed Odeon cinema to give us the Storyhouse theatre will be unveiled this year, and ACME has received consent, with a little help from us, for a comprehensive development within the city’s walls. It removes 20th-century ‘carbuncles’, reinstates a lost medieval street pattern and knits exciting modern architecture into the city’s historic core.

Acme Chester 091 055 C SW  townsquare 02

Acme Chester 091 055 C SW townsquare 02

ACME’s scheme for Chester city centre

In future conservation officers might focus more on the engagement of people in conservation areas. The innovative townscape heritage initiative from the Heritage Lottery Fund encourages such engagement and interpretation, in addition to high-quality conservation, new work and public realm. Conservation areas have distinctive identities, express our heritage and give us our sense of place. Building on the sense of ownership could be the legacy for the next 50 years. 

However, the pressures being faced by all settlements today are severe and pressing, and conservation areas are undoubtedly under threat. Real conservation, the sensitive management of change in the historic environment, is as vital now as it was then - the pressures are being felt but the spirit of 1967 can prevail. Let’s celebrate the designation of conservation areas, accept that the demolition of historic buildings is a sin from the past, promote real conservation for the benefit of all, and inspire new design and creative reuse, to continue to build high-quality distinctive places for this and future generations.

Tony Barton is chairman at Donald Insall Associates

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