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50 Years of Conservation Areas

11 August 2017

John Pelan, Director of Scottish Civic Trust, discusses the history of, and future for, Scotland's Conservation Areas

Fifty years ago, in 1967, the first trustees of the Scottish Civic Trust held their inaugural meeting at the University of Glasgow.  Their objectives, as set out in a Deed of Trust, drawn up in the year before, included encouraging: 'high standards of architecture; preservation of buildings of artistic merit or historical interest; a sense of civic pride; and the elimination and prevention of ugliness whether arising from bad design, neglect or any other cause.'  In the same year, the Civic Amenities Act, with encouragement from the evolving civic movement across the UK, was introduced to "to make further provision for the protection and improvement of buildings of architectural or historic interest and of the character of areas of such interest; for the preservation and planting of trees; and for the orderly disposal of disused vehicles and equipment and other rubbish.'  Its greatest achievement was the creation of conservation areas which exist to this day and are now defined in Scotland, according to the subsequent legislation of 1997, the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) (Scotland) Act as"areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance."

Both the original act and the establishment of the Scottish Civic Trust happened against a background of neglect and, increasingly, destruction of the historic environment, driven at times with modernist fervour.  The pace of new developments, in particular housing, was seen by the nascent conservation movement as a juggernaut that needed to be decelerated.  

The success and popularity of conservation areas as a way of protecting historic places and buildings is evidenced by the fact there are currently over, 660 in Scotland.   Conservation area status can provide opportunities for funding through the Conservation Area Regeneration Scheme and Townscape Heritage Initiative.  Local authorities have a statutory role in controlling and regulating development in conservation areas but they also have an obligation to preserve and enhance them. 

However, development management can only be effective if there are adequate skills in planning departments and planning committees.  In Scotland, heritage management capacity within local authorities appears to be decreasing which, along with a drive to build more houses and speed up planning processes, is putting heritage under serious threat.   Some local authorities have no conservation officer in post, others are accused of approving too many piecemeal inappropriate developments which erode the character of conservation areas, while others seem to be gung-ho in their approach. We have seen the controversy around the proposal to demolish the Category B Perth City Hall, which sits within Perth Central Conservation Area. Another issue for building conservationists is the proliferation of uPVC window and door frames in conservation areas.

Contrary to perception, conservation areas are not a mechanism just for stifling development but are also meant to encourage the highest quality of architectural design.  Unfortunately, too often, criticism of new design can become a very charged issue leading to unsatisfactory compromises.  Conservation areas should not be seen as a problem, however.  Rather, they present successful models of placemaking, quality design and construction and can generate a sense of civic pride and wellbeing.  These are the qualities we should be seeking to emulate.  In 2000, the then Scottish Planning Minister, Sam Galbraith, asked famously "Where are the conservation areas of the future?"

If we want to ensure that conservation areas will be around for the next fifty years then consensus-building needs to begin locally on their importance and vulnerability.  A good start would be an audit of conservation area appraisals and boundary reviews carried out by Scotland's 32 local authorities over the last ten years. 

The Scottish Civic Annual Conference, 50 Years of Conservation Areas in Scotland, organised in partnership with the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, takes place on 27th November, in the Trades Halls, Glasgow.  Click here for details.


John Pelan


Scottish Civic Trust