Monday, 17 August 2015

Is conservation for the haves?

A tweet from Edwin Heathcote today...

Economist offices in St James protected.  Robin Hood Gardens social housing condemned. Class system enshrined in architectural protection...

As it happens he's quite wrong about this case, in my view, since the Economist offices were worth listing, and Robin Hood Gardens isn't - but the general point is worth exploring.

Many years ago, helping to mark some geography homework, I found that in answer to the question 'what is a conservation area', one child had answered 'a conservation area is where conservatives live'. I had to give this a tick, unsure whether they were mickey-taker or dimwit.

There is a statutory duty to 'preserve' or 'enhance' listed buildings, and conservation areas and their settings, and local authorities pay correspondingly greater attention to these parts of the built environment, with dedicated staff, considerable time devoted to conservation area appraisals, and so on.  We can be fairly sure that it is the haves rather than the have nots who benefit most from this. When conservation areas are 'threatened' by new development, objectors, usually well heeled, will pray in aid the statutory duties - a set of weapons not available to, say, the residents of the average council estate if they think their homes will not be enhanced by a scheme the council has planned for them.  The latter must rely on prescriptions about the importance of 'good design' in policy and guidance - just as vague and open to interpretation as requirements to preserve and enhance, but not framed as a legal duty.

Where this is particularly relevant is in the proliferation of conservation areas to cover areas that do not really meet the required definition of 'special architectural or historic interest'.  The word 'special' is there for a reason.  The NPPF says that 'local planning authorities should ensure that an area justifies such status because of its special architectural or historic interest, and that the concept of conservation is not devalued through the designation of areas that lack special interest' - a recognition, obviously, that the problem of over-designation exists; but a piece of guidance that is widely ignored.

The result is conservation areas - typically those most recently designated - consisting mainly of coherent, stable areas of housing of the middling kind that does not meet the definition of special interest, but whose residents would like to keep them the way they are - you could think of them as 'residents association conservation areas'.

Put simply, a lot of planning effort, required by law, goes into keeping nice places nice, and generally nice environments are the preserve of the better off.  Less effort, and less resource, goes into ensuring that less favoured places are made better and not worse when changes are planned.

In planning committee reports you will sometimes find an 'equalities impact assessment', usually saying little or nothing of interest, largely cut and pasted from a previous report. But such a report is meant to address issues of gender, race and so on, where there are yet more legal duties (in this case favouring the disadvantaged, but only in specific, rather than general, categories).  It is not required to report that 'this recommendation for refusal will work to the benefit of those lucky enough to own homes in this area already, and to the disbenefit of those who would like to find somewhere to live'.

Does conservation regulation as practiced favour the haves over the have nots?  What do you think bears get up to in the woods?

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