Dave Chetwyn from Urban Vision Enterprise explains the importance of conserving heritage and how to do so in your neighbourhood plan.
Many, if not most, neighbourhood areas include heritage, such as listed buildings, conservation areas and buildings on local lists. These can range from small villages to town and city centres or industrial areas.
Neighbourhood plans provide a good opportunity to develop policies to help conserve heritage, ensure that it remains in productive use, and realise its potential for delivering social and economic benefits and creating and maintaining distinctive and sustainable neighbourhoods.
Neighbourhood plans can be particularly useful in transitional areas, such as former industrial areas where traditional industries are being replaced by small and micro-businesses, knowledge-based enterprises, and creative industries. The Baltic Triangle in Liverpool is one such example.
Evidence and community engagement
The heritage evidence base for neighbourhood plans, and indeed for local plans, should identify heritage assets in the area (the local authority should maintain a record of these). Use trends in historic areas and buildings should be identified, together with levels of vacancy. Assessing these, together with the condition of historic buildings and local property values, will highlight issues around viability. This may be a key issue in areas of poor economic performance and low land values.
The social and economic values of heritage may be identified, such as the role of heritage in supporting enterprise and regeneration, in providing choice and diversity (e.g. accommodating independent businesses), and in underpinning the visitor economy. Research has shown that historic towns have a higher proportion of independent retailers than newer retail centres. So enlightened conservation is a good way of avoiding the creation of ‘clone towns’.
Environmental values may be identified such as quality of place and sustainability. Quality of place is a key issue in making places competitive and attracting investment, jobs and people.
Community participation around heritage can include things like volunteer-led buildings-at-risk surveys, compiling local lists, or engaging with owners and occupiers to assess use and viability issues. Heritage can be a means of addressing a wide range of social, economic and environmental issues and aims identified through community engagement and from analysis of local data.
Achieving sustainable development
Neighbourhood plans have to provide a positive framework for achieving sustainable development and this is tested through the independent examination. Heritage can have a central role in addressing that requirement. It is often best to deal with heritage as an integral part of wider planning and place-making, rather than as a niche subject. The Central Milton Keynes Alliance Plan illustrates this, with heritage placed against a wider context of social, economic and environmental aims.
Neighbourhood plans provide a good opportunity to link heritage to growth. Careful consideration should be given to strategies for growth and policies for enhancing character. For example, in rural areas, concentrating growth in existing settlements will help to make them more sustainable (especially in making community facilities viable). On the other hand, dispersed growth may help to avoid excessive urbanisation. Making housing site allocations around existing historic towns may be an effective way of making them more viable and competitive by increasing the catchment. A balanced approach must be taken. Conservation objectives will only be realised if a place is allowed to grow and adapt to meet the needs of the local community and economy. At the same time, acceptance of poor quality and harmful development can undermine confidence and lock an area into a cycle of poor performance.
Design and setting
Neighbourhood plans may contain design policies, and these could include policies and guidance on developing in sensitive locations, such as conservation areas or within the setting of listed buildings. Being sensitive to context or setting is often about good townscape principles. It is not about the copying of styles. Indeed, most historic areas have a diverse character, based on changes over time in buildings types. However, whilst buildings have changed, the layout of roads and spaces often dates back centuries. It is therefore useful to focus policies on urban design and townscape matters, such as the way in which streets and spaces are defined and enclosed by buildings. Design policies may also look at how an area functions, for example by making sure new development creates a safe and convenient environment for pedestrians.
When dealing with heritage, it is essential to understand the ongoing process of change that created our cherished historic places and will ensure their survival in the longer term. Conservation is not about preventing change, but about reconciling the conservation of the special architectural or historic interest of historic buildings and areas with their continuing use and with other planning objectives. Neighbourhood plans provide an ideal means of addressing this in specific localities.
Image: Gibsons Mill in West Yorkshire – a historic building that went through a restoration process to provide visitor and education facilities.
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