'Townscape in Focus: Challenges & Opportunities' was the title of this year's Conference, but for many delegates the hidden question was, 'Is townscape still in trouble?' The answer delegates came away with may have depended on whether they were glass half full or half empty people. What they did get was the clear message that the biggest challenges lie in conserving the undesignated heritage, the everyday fabric that is both a delight to the eye and an essential part of local distinctiveness and sense of place.
They will also have left with the message that as the Heritage Protection Bill take its final shape, new PPS15 and PPS16 begin to emerge and further guidance and regulations follow the primary legislation, now is a critical time to both exert influence on government and key agencies at all levels and ensure the conservation house is in order.
There are four key challenges we need to face.
First, intelligence. There may be a belief that townscape is still in trouble, but the evidence is at best fragmented and at worst anecdotal. English Heritage is planning to publish a snapshot survey of 9,000 Conservation Areas in 2009 and this will provide a valuable benchmark. We also need some benchmarking of the widely recognised skills and staffing gap in the conservation profession.
Second, resources. There is a deeply felt perception that heritage protection is under resourced in terms of staff, skills, status and finance. Good work is being done by the IHBC, through the CapacityCheck programme and through English Heritage's Historic Environment Traineeships; and the promotion of project management skills aims to make the best use of resources. But is it enough?
Third, integration. Work done on local distinctiveness in Norwich and in-depth characterisation in Lincoln show the benefits of integrating heritage protection and a broader planning approach, married to inclusive techniques of community involvement. Heritage protection needs a less piecemeal approach than is currently the case.
Fourth, confidence. The unique study of Article 4 directions carried out by RPS showed the value of this conservation tool (though applied to only 15% of Conservation Areas) and dispelled some of the fears about compensation. Dudley MBC showed that local listing can be effective in the protection of otherwise undesignated buildings, if it is given the right support. The point from these examples is that we must be confident in using the available tools.
These issues will not be tackled by the new legislation and guidance. The Heritage Protection Act will help, but we need to get on and do what we can. The Forum will help in that by publishing guidance coming out of the Conference. It will help top up the half empty glasses!
Brian Human, Vice Chair, EHTF