Benefit or burden?
There is a new buzz phrase
sweeping through the world of historic building conservation: 'conservation
plans'. Everyone from Heritage Lottery Fund applicants to English
Heritage and the National Trust seem to be writing them. But are
conservation plans the product of just another bit of bureaucracy,
dreamed up to make it even more difficult to care for a historic
place? Or do they simply reflect a return to the good old fashioned
principle of understanding places before you conserve them, which
will benefit owners and buildings alike?
IS A CONSERVATION PLAN?
plans can be used to inform a wide range of projects from the conservation
of a ship to a town and its surroundings.
its simplest, a conservation plan is a document which explains why
a site is significant and how that significance will be retained
in any future use, alteration, development or repair. The same approach
can be used for historic gardens, landscapes, buildings, archaeological
sites, collections or even a ship, and is particularly relevant
when a site has more than one type of heritage.
plans have many different uses. The preparation of a conservation
plan should be the first step in thinking about any new alterations,
repairs or management proposals. It could be useful for prospective
buyers or anyone planning development on an historic site. An owner
will find a conservation plan particularly useful when planning
the use of space and when establishing what might need listed building
consent. Conservation plans also make it possible to work cumulatively
- so often we waste time and money when the understanding or recording
work of previous generations is lost.
plans are not new. There are already several publications on recording
and analysing historic buildings and English Heritage have two useful
leaflets - Development in the Historic Environment and
Management Guidelines for Listed Buildings, which explain how
understanding historic buildings can help developers and managers.
However, the Heritage Lottery Fund found that they needed a standard
approach to assessing different types of heritage, which would help
to ensure that the funds they dispersed were beneficial. So, in
March 1998 they published a new guidance note Conservation Plans
for Historic Places. Based on the work of James Semple Kerr
who developed this approach in Australia, it nevertheless reflects
the fact that most UK sites are older, more complex and encompass
different types of heritage. Speaking at a conference in Oxford
to launch the guidance, Kerr stressed the flexibility of the approach.
However, to produce a conservation plan which is effective can take
time and specialist expertise. As a result the Heritage Lottery
Fund only requires a conservation plan to be submitted for large
applications or where the project is particularly sensitive to change
or particularly complex, such as sites in multiple ownership. Nevertheless,
many other projects could not be effectively managed without one,
just as a business could not be run properly without a business
CONSERVATION PLAN PROCESS
important thing to remember is that a conservation plan is not a
list of headings but a thinking process, and one which anyone who
cares for historic sites probably goes through already. The
first stage involves understanding the site. Most people assume
that they already do this, but the complexities of day-to-day site
management means that there is rarely an opportunity to set
it down systematically. So the first part of a conservation plan
involves background research, drawings and the assessment of the
'physical history' of the site.
Once the development of the place is clear, the next stage is
to explain the significance of the site both in general and in
terms of its different components. Here is an opportunity to explore
the values we place on historic sites - be they community, social,
educational or aesthetic; local, regional or national. Untangling
this mosaic of values makes it much easier to think about what
we are trying to achieve when we conserve a site.
Before writing policies, it is useful to pause in order to think
more about the process of change. If policies are going to help
manage change you need to first understand change. The conservation
plan should identify all the things that are happening to a site
that make it vulnerable - including, for example, any small cumulative
alterations, loss of fabric, problems with mixed ownership, conflicts
between different types of heritage, the pressures of visitors,
and the need for better access.
Yard, Hertford A conservation plan (prepared by Acanthus
Lawrence & Wrightson Architects) secured a difficult planning
application to convert these former maltings at Old Cross
Wharf, Hertford. © Acanthus Lawrence & Wrightson Architects
Writing policies is the last stage. These should provide practical
guidelines which explain how the significance of the site can be retained
in any future uses, alterations, maintenance regimes or development.
They can relate to individual topics - such as disabled access, restoration,
lighting, setting or fabric - or to individual areas of the site.
A policy on restoration might, for example, be appropriate for one
part of the building and not another.
Good policies are hard to write. They can involve real debate
and a good deal of consultation, which should extend to anyone
who has a stake in the site, whether landowners, local authorities,
local people or conservation advisers.
The final production should be a document which is well presented,
easy to read and informative, but not too long (the hard work
nd research can go into appendices) and one which represents as
good a degree of consensus as can be achieved.
Once the plan is in place, it is a relatively simple matter to
draft management proposals, prioritise expenditure or begin to
think about new design opportunities, each of which will benefit
from the information in the plan.
This does not mean that a conservation plan is a straight-jacket
which constrains future development. This is partly because a
plan should be reviewed as often as necessary and also because,
the better the site is understood, the more flexibility there
is. The conservation plan should help to manage change intelligently,
where change is appropriate, and not constrain it forever.
All of this sounds complicated and bureaucratic, and, if badly
handled, it can be. But it is surprising how often a clear understanding
of a site and what it needs can help in the tricky process of
finding acceptable solutions for historic sites.
- Conservation Plans for Historic Places is available from
the Heritage Lottery Fund (020 7591 6000)
- Copies of The Conservation Plan by James Semple Kerr
are available from ICOMOS UK (020 8994 6477)
- Conservation Plans in Action: proceedings of the Oxford Conference (edited by Kate Clark and published by English Heritage in 1999)
is available from English Heritage
- Further advice on commissioning and preparing plans is available
from English Heritage