Conservation Areas

Richard MacCullagh

 

  Exterior of Winchester Cathedral Visitors’ Centre  
  Winchester Cathedral Visitors’ Centre (Architecture PLB, 1993): successful contemporary design in a historic setting
 
 

The concept of conservation areas was introduced in England, Wales and Scotland by the Civic Amenities Act 1967. When the legislation was introduced there was widespread public concern over the pace of redevelopment in our historic towns and cities. Today there are over 10,000 conservation areas in the UK (approximately 9,300 in England, 500 in Wales, 650 in Scotland and 60 in Northern Ireland) reflecting the popularity of this legislative tool in identifying and protecting our most valued historic places. While the original legislation has been superseded, conservation area designation essentially controls the demolition of unlisted buildings and works to trees, restricts permitted development rights on dwelling houses and tightens regulations on advertising. It also places a statutory duty on local planning authorities to preserve and enhance conservation areas while undertaking their planning duties.

Section 69 of the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 defines conservation areas as ‘areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance’ and local planning authorities have the statutory duty to identify and designate such areas. They may vary in character, form and size, from small groups of historic buildings to major parts of a town or city. While they may contain listed buildings, this is not always the case and often it is the sense of place created by different components such as unlisted traditional buildings, historic street patterns, open spaces, trees, boundary walls, views or even sites of human activity such as market places, which combine to provide special character.

The law on conservation areas is essentially the same throughout the different parts of the United Kingdom, although the national planning policies differ, as do administrative arrangements.(1) For brevity’s sake, reference is made here to the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, the current legislation in England and Wales. The relevant legislation in Scotland is the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act 1997 as amended by the Historic Environment (Amendment) Scotland Act 2011 and in Northern Ireland, the Planning Act (Northern Ireland) 2011. The National Planning Policy Framework (March 2012) contains the Government’s historic environment policy in England and this places strong emphasis on the desirability of sustaining and enhancing the significance of heritage assets. At the time of writing PPS5 Historic Environment Practice Guide (2010) was still current. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have their own planning policy and guidance.

LOCAL AUTHORITY DUTIES

The legislation places a number of duties on local planning authorities (LPAs), which include:

Designation
Section 69 of the act requires LPAs to determine which parts of their areas possess special architectural or historic interest and to designate them as conservation areas. Over the past 40 years, the criteria have varied from one planning authority to another as well as, historically, within individual authorities and while there is ample guidance today, this was not always the case. The first stage in any designation process should be a survey to determine whether an area is of sufficient quality and to define what constitutes its special architectural and historic interest. While there is no legal requirement to consult the public before designation, LPAs are encouraged by central government to do so in addition to consulting any other statutory authorities and local amenity groups. Upon designation, the council must place a notice in the London Gazette and at least one local newspaper and must inform the Secretary of State and (in England) English Heritage of the designation. In England and Wales they must also register the designation as a land charge (essentially, a restriction or prohibition placed on an area of land). However, there is no formal duty to notify current owners or occupiers individually.

  Shoppers on Quay Street, Lymington  
  Lymington Conservation Area, Hampshire: Quay Street is a popular shopping street with Purbeck stone setts and intriguing townscape leading to the quayside.  
  Lymington's busy high street  
   Lymington Conservation Area also includes a vibrant high street doubling as a bustling weekly street market.  

Review of conservation areas
Section 69(2) and 70(1) place a continuing duty on LPAs to consider whether they should designate new conservation areas or extend existing ones. The procedures for amending or cancelling a conservation area after such a review are the same as for designation.

Policies for conservation areas
Section 71 of the act requires LPAs to formulate and publish proposals for the preservation and enhancement of conservation areas. There is also a duty to consult the public on the proposals. Clearly the production of a conservation area character appraisal at the time of designation or review is essential to provide an understanding of what the council is seeking to conserve. This or a separate management strategy can set out the proposals for the conservation area and detailed guidance on developing effective management tools is provided by English Heritage.

Planning powers in conservation areas
Section 72 of the act requires that LPAs pay special attention in the exercise of planning functions to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of a conservation area. This means that they must take account of this in the adoption of planning and council policies, development control decisions, enforcement, controls relating to trees, advertisements, properties in need of maintenance and in exercising their highway powers. With such powers in place, there is all the more reason for LPAs to take a holistic and strategic approach to the management of their conservation areas and to ensure that they have the proper resources and skills to do so.

Grants for repair and maintenance
These can take the form of discretionary grants from local planning authorities under sections 57 and 58 of the act, and public funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund through a Townscape Heritage Initiative Scheme or, in England, from English Heritage through Partnership Schemes in Conservation Areas. Such schemes and their precursors have taken a comprehensive approach, not only repairing historic buildings but funding improvements to the public realm including the reinstatement of railings, historic paving, new street lighting and furniture. In the past ten years English Heritage has contributed some £60 million.

Powers to protect conservation areas from neglect and decay
There is a range of measures that LPAs can use when historic buildings or land in conservation areas have fallen into a poor state of repair or are being deliberately neglected. Urgent Works Notices (S54) can secure emergency or immediate repairs to those buildings or parts of buildings which are unoccupied. If the building is unlisted then agreement of the Secretary of State is required. A Repairs Notice (S48) can only be served on a listed building and can secure much more extensive repairs, but the LPA must be prepared to exercise powers of compulsory purchase should the owner not co-operate. Under its general planning powers an LPA can serve a Section 215 notice (Town and Country Planning Act 1990) on the owner or occupier where the building or land is adversely affecting the amenity of the area and can require them to clean up the building or site.

Public realm
How LPAs manage their streets and public realm can have a significant impact on the appearance of a conservation area and this is particularly pertinent in an urban context. Much can be done to reduce the impact of traffic and clutter in road signage, improve street furniture and make use of traditional paving. However, such improvements require financial commitment and a proper maintenance and management strategy. English Heritage has published useful regional guidance in its Streets for All manuals.

Article 4 directions
While permitted development is more restricted on unlisted dwelling houses in conservation areas than elsewhere, over time unsympathetic alterations such as uPVC doors and windows or modern porches can erode the character and appearance of the conservation area. The introduction of an Article 4 direction means that planning permission is required for such works where they are publicly visible from a highway, waterway or open space. Changes to planning legislation in 2010 meant that many works could be controlled with immediate effect of introducing an Article 4 direction, however restrictions on the installation of solar or photovoltaic panels on roof slopes can only be introduced after the LPA has undertaken a public consultation exercise.(2)

Conservation area controls
These can be summarised as follows:

  • Conservation Area Consent is required for the demolition of any unlisted building where the total volume is more than 115m3 (exceptions include walls, gates and fences less than 1m high next to a highway or less than 2m elsewhere; post 1914 agricultural or forestry buildings; and pre-1925 tombstones unless they are in the grounds of an exempt place of worship).

  • Notice must be given to the LPA before undertaking any works to a tree with a trunk diameter greater than 75mm at 1.5 metres above ground level and the council has up to six weeks to decide whether to serve a Tree Preservation Order.
  • Permitted development rights on dwelling houses in conservation areas are restricted: roof extensions; cladding with render, stone, timber, tiles or plastic, etc; side extensions; and rear extensions of more than one storey are not permitted. In addition, planning permission is required for satellite dishes, radio antennae which are visible from a highway

 

Row of terraced houses some with uPVC windows   Disused and deteriorating cinema facade in Ringwood, Hampshire
Unlisted buildings are vulnerable to unsympathetic changes, not least the replacement of timber windows and doors with the ubiquitous uPVC.
  Ringwood Conservation Area, Hampshire: a recently approved development scheme will retain and repair this designated building at risk, a former cinema.

Control over demolition
In determining an application for Conservation Area Consent (CAC) the LPA is obliged to pay special attention to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of the conservation area. The NPPF and case law places a general presumption in favour of retaining buildings and other elements which make a positive contribution to the character or appearance of a conservation area. LPAs need to establish whether the loss of an unlisted building amounts to substantial harm or insubstantial harm to the significance of the conservation area. In the case of the former, the NPPF advises that LPAs should refuse consent unless the substantial harm is necessary to achieve substantial public benefits that outweigh the harm or loss. Where a development proposal will result in less than substantial harm, then this harm should be weighed against the public benefits of the proposal, including securing its optimum viable use. So if a building makes little or no contribution to the significance of the conservation area and the LPA is convinced that the new development will make a positive contribution to local character and distinctiveness, then CAC should be granted. Granting of CAC is normally conditional on the new development proceeding and the LPA may ask for the building to be recorded before it is demolished.

Following the House of Lords ruling on Shimizu Ltd vs. Westminster City Council (1997), demolition is now interpreted as meaning the total or substantial destruction of the building concerned. The removal of a roof or chimney will not require CAC as this is an alteration but the destruction of an entire building except the facade will probably require CAC.(3)

Unauthorised Works
The demolition of an unlisted building in a conservation area without CAC is a criminal offence. It is also an offence to undertake demolition for which CAC has been granted without complying with a condition attached to the consent. While magistrates can hear such prosecutions, the more serious offences can be referred to a Crown Court. A Crown Court case in 2011, London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames v. Johnson, shows that the judiciary will take such matters extremely seriously fining the owner £80,000 plus £42,000 costs for demolishing his semi-detached 19th century villa without CAC. It would have been even higher if the defendant had not pleaded guilty.

It is also an offence to carry out works to a tree in a conservation area without giving notice to the LPA or to carry out such works where consent has been refused. The offence can be tried by magistrates or in a Crown Court and as with the demolition of an unlisted building the court will take into account any financial gain that has accrued or is likely to accrue as a result of the offence.

In principle, it may be possible to prosecute the building owner, contractor, sub-contractor and any professions involved in committing the offence but in practice an LPA will try to single out those actually responsible and most likely to re-offend.

New development
Often there are development opportunities within conservation areas and here it is essential that new buildings respect the local context in terms of scale, mass or volume, footprint and site layout. The existing urban grain in relation to street pattern, plot size, rhythm, silhouette, materials and local details needs to be fully understood. By taking an informed and creative approach, the quality of a new building should aim to complement its neighbours whether it is of contemporary or more traditional design.

Managing change
Designating a conservation area should not be seen as an end in itself: we live in a changing world and for the historic environment to survive and continue to be cherished it needs to be positively managed. National planning policy and advice from Historic Scotland and English Heritage is placing greater emphasis on the need to take a holistic and proactive approach to managing conservation areas and making full use of planning powers. Clearly an understanding of a conservation area’s qualities and issues is key to developing the most suitable management tools and policies, along with the need to foster public and political support and to secure a resource commitment. The introduction of Article 4 directions should be considered in those areas which are vulnerable to insensitive incremental damage and a greater adoption of public realm strategies is needed in urban areas. Where development opportunities arise, imaginative and creative design solutions can, where appropriate, help reinvigorate the qualities of a conservation area.

 

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Notes

(1) Charles Mynors, Listed Buildings, Conservation Areas and Monuments, 4th edition, Sweet & Maxwell, London 2006

(2) See The Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (Amendment) (England) Order 2010

(3) See Appendix D Circular 01/01, and C Mynors, 2006 (as above)


 

 

This article originally appeared in The Building Conservation Directory 2009. It was revised and updated by the author in March 2012.

Author

RICHARD MACCULLAGH MSc DipTP BA(Hons) MRTPI IHBC is Principal of RMA Heritage, an historic environment consultancy based in Hampshire.

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