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A conversation about conservation areas

2 June 2017

By Gaby Laing, Heritage Officer

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Kirklee Road at sunset, Glasgow West conservation area

For many people, heritage is a day out. Heritage is a carpark and a gift shop and maybe an ice-cream - but no sticky fingers please! Heritage is stately homes and castles and maybe a steam railway but no one actually lives beyond the red velvet ropes.

Except, people do. Across Scotland, 600 areas have been designated 'conservation areas' since the notion was conceived in 1967 (same as the foundation of the Scottish Civic Trust - what a year that was!) but these pockets of land seem to cause as much consternation as they do celebration.

I've watched enough Kirsty and Phil to fawn over original features and period properties as much as the next person; I know that living in a well-maintained conservation area can add value to a property. But conservation areas can also slow down or entirely put the brakes on home improvement projects in the effort to ensure that sanctioned alterations remain in-keeping with the local character. This can dictate everything from the colour a house is painted to the material used for window frames.

Ah, yes. A conversation about conservation areas wouldn't be complete without mentioning uPVC windows. It can be prohibitively expensive to maintain a property in a conservation area to proper regulations - replacement windows for an average 3-bedroomed house could cost as much as £20,000 if not more. Therefore there is little wonder that many homeowners are not able to comply with regulations, if they are aware of them.

Awareness, education and enforcement all go hand in hand. I lived for eighteen years in St Albans, a small city just north of London. It's famous for its Roman ruins, Norman abbey and medieval market. Historic enough - but only this week did I learn that in fact the entire city is designated as a conservation area. It was originally designated in 1969 and was last extended in 1996, largely in response to developmental pressure. I wonder if designating the whole city as a conservation area dilutes its effectiveness, or if it serves for having greater control over the city's development? I must add that from my regular visits home I see that developers have not shied away - see the prominent Gabriel Square project.

It must be remembered that not all new development is intrinsically bad. Conservation areas may tend to make us sceptical about change, often rightly, but projects like the Scottish Civic Trust My Place Awards show the inherent value of good new design. These could be the listed buildings of tomorrow.  

It's getting rather uncomfortable sitting on the fence. Last year I was involved in the preparation of two conservation area appraisals, one for Inverclyde Council and one for West Dunbartonshire Council. The reaction at the two public drop in meetings to discuss the reports couldn't have been more different: residents in one place were delighted to be a part of the conservation area; the opposite was true for residents in the other. So should conservation areas be a source of pride, or do they remain a headache? Perhaps it is necessary for them to be both: without the headache of following regulations, conservation areas wouldn't give us many places to be proud of in the first place. But these regulations shouldn't necessarily become a hindrance to good, new, sensitive development.

I should end this perhaps where I should have started: I am not a planner. I am a heritage-minded person who has been lucky enough to live in a number of beautiful, historic places. I am constantly learning about planning regulations through my work and my own interests; the above thoughts are merely thoughts aloud. Heritage can and must be a way of life. With the right level of education and support, conservation areas will continue to do much good for the built environment of Scotland and beyond.

What do you think?

Join the Conservation vs. Evolution debate on Wednesday 14 June, 7pm, at Glasgow City Heritage Trust:

Do conservation areas hold back or encourage positive development?

We all agree that the protection and enhancement of Scotland's conservation areas are important although some of us may be concerned that this statutory requirement of local authorities is not being met in many cases. However, as pressure increases to build in urban areas, might there by a case for a loosening of some of the restrictions that planning law places on new developments in and around conservation areas? Is heritage management compatible with innovative and bold modern architecture? Are we stifling creativity and radical design by holding onto long-cherished heritage principles? How do we best deal with new design in historic settings?

These are just some of the issues our panel of experts will be discussing and debating with the audience. It promises to be a lively event.

Panellists:

  • Peter Drummond, Peter Drummond Architects
  • Gerry Hogan, Collective Architecture
  • Alasdair Tooze, Hoskins Architects
  • Jocelyn Cunliffe, Gray, Marshall & Associates