Conservation Areas

and why they're important

Michael Hammerson and Laura Sangster


Figure 1: Re-paving with Yorkstone in Derby city centre with the help of funding under the Townscape Heritage Initiative (Photo: Derby City Council)

If there was any doubt that there is immense public support for our historic environment, the BBC’s Restoration series on television demonstrated conclusively that complaints about ‘too much preservation’ or ‘an obsession with conservation’ were very definitely a misreading of the national mood. Everyone welcomes, admires and indeed wants to see good new architecture; but there is no doubt that they love their historic buildings too, and feel a sense of outrage if these are destroyed for no good reason.


Imagine what our towns and cities would look like if conservation areas had not been introduced. Magnificent Victorian industrial buildings and fine Georgian terraces torn down; open spaces lost or obscured by unsympathetic development; streetscapes cluttered with signs and barriers, or demolished. With no control on changes and development in our historic towns and cities, or older suburbs (where many conservation areas are located), the character and heritage of the places we live would have been lost.

Why does that matter? It matters because our heritage is not just about the ‘iconic’ buildings, the castles and palaces, cathedrals and large municipal buildings; or indeed not just about the single buildings which are deemed important enough to be listed. Our heritage and our sense of place – indeed our identity – is closely linked to the places and communities in which we live and work.

Conservation areas were introduced to protect that sense of place. A conservation area is ‘an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.’ They are sometimes centred on listed buildings, but not always; they can be urban or rural, include open spaces, be just a few buildings, or complete town centres – they vary enormously. There are more than 9,000 conservation areas in England alone; some say there are too many, but it is unlikely that the people who live in them would agree. They protect a neighbourhood or area, which may or may not be the setting for listed buildings. They form the basis for policies to preserve or enhance the area, and also provide a basic control over demolition of unlisted buildings, many of which can themselves be crucial to the character of the area.

The 1967 Civic Amenities Act, which first introduced the principle of conservation areas (brought in by Duncan Sandys, the founder and first president of the Civic Trust), was a key moment in the fight to champion the country’s rich heritage of historic buildings and places.


In recent years, the particular value and importance of older and historic buildings to communities has been recognised for their contribution to regeneration. Countless practical projects across the country, from major cities like Manchester to small towns such as Saltaire, have shown incontrovertibly that conservationled regeneration, often starting with the restoration of small, decaying and apparently unrescuable buildings, has been a major factor in setting in train the regeneration of seemingly terminally-depressed areas. The focus and local identity which much-loved historic buildings provide for local communities is a powerful factor in restoring civic pride and initiative. At the time of writing, the ODPM Select Committee has just published its report recognising the value of Historic Buildings in Regeneration, and there is much literature on this ever-growing aspect of regeneration - see, for example, The Heritage Dividend; Measuring the Results of English Heritage Regeneration (London,1999).


Despite what some people think, conservation area designation is not a bureaucratic way of preventing property owners from exercising their rights to alter their buildings as they wish. Conservation areas don’t preclude development, but demand a recognition of the area’s historical value in planning that development. They certainly do not ‘fossilise’ buildings or prevent any change at all. On the contrary, it is simply a way of flagging up, both to owners and to potential buyers, that they are in, or coming to, a special area which needs care and thought if works carried out are not to diminish the appearance of the area in general, and possibly even the value of property. The estate agent and solicitor who handle the purchase of a property should ascertain, at an early stage of negotiations, whether the property is in a conservation area, so that the prospective purchaser can consider carefully whether to take on the obligations – or, to look at it more positively, the privileges – associated with being in a conservation area.


The responsibility for designating conservation areas rests with the local authority, and usually acts as a basis for the development of further conservation policies.

Within conservation areas there is normally a presumption in favour of retaining existing buildings which make a positive contribution to the character of the area. Planning controls are more extensive than normal, permitted development rights are limited, and demolition and works to trees are controlled. New development or alteration should preserve or enhance the character or appearance of the area.

Planning permission under the various Town and Country Planning Acts is needed for a range of works to buildings in conservation areas (the primary legislation is the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. The key government policy reference is Planning Policy Guidance Note 15 ‘Planning and the Historic Environment’ ). ‘Conservation Area Consent’ is needed in addition to any other town planning or listed building consents necessary - a procedure which has grown out of successive pieces of bolt-on legislation and which most people agree is cumbersome. The Government is currently considering proposals which may, by the time this directory is published, consolidate all these requirements into one overall consent regime.

In reality however, these obligations are not often onerous and are usually sensible. When considering works to a building, the first thing to find out from the local authority planning department is whether the work needs planning permission, or whether it comes under the category of minor works known as ‘permitted development,’ for which permission is not needed. The categories of permitted development are currently given in the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) Order 1995 (GPDO). Local planning authorities can provide details.

However, if permitted development is considered to have a potentially adverse effect on a particularly sensitive or unspoilt conservation area, the right to carry it out can be withdrawn. This is effected through the issuing, by the local planning authority, of an ‘Article 4 Direction’ specifying those types of permitted development which will require planning permission in that particular conservation area. The procedures for issuing Article 4 Directions are, however, timeconsuming and complicated, and relatively few are made. A recent review of permitted development rights in the planning and development process identified Article 4 directions as of limited effectiveness and use for local authorities.

Figure 2 Shopfront and façade restoration at Friar Gate, Derby (Photo: Derby City Council)


Even so-called ‘minor’ works allowed under permitted development – for example, works to non-listed buildings such as small extensions, double-glazed window frames, or dormer windows; walls or fences below a certain height; or converting part of a garden into car parking – can have a devastating impact on a property and the integrity of an area if done without careful design or good-quality materials.

Therefore, even if permission is not necessary, it is sensible – not to say responsible – to ensure that the works are of a nature which will not harm the area. At the very least, carrying out works of poor quality or bad design will damage the appearance of what may be a relatively unspoilt building or area. At the worst, it could set a precedent for poor-quality work by other owners, setting in a progressive downgrading in the appearance of the area which could even lead to loss of its conservation area status (local planning authorities are required to review designation from time to time). Trees, too, are an important element of conservation areas. Their value can be both visual and historic, as well as in their contribution to the character of the local environment. Permission is needed to cut down or even lop branches from a tree.


It is important to remember that conservation area status is designed to preserve something special. It is also important to focus not on the controls and restrictions, but on the beauty, character and local distinctiveness that they protect.

Local planning authorities are encouraged to set up conservation area advisory committees, which are made up of people who are not members of the authority, to advise on applications in the conservation area. These committees reflect a cross-section of local opinion, which often includes expert representatives, from for example the Royal Institute of British Architects, or the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, but community groups, civic societies, and residents associations should also be represented.

The Civic Amenities Act, which established conservation areas, was introduced at a time of great public outcry over the loss of built heritage, and numerous civic societies grew up around this time in response to the destruction. The societies are local groups, registered with the Civic Trust, of people who care about where they live, and what it looks like, and their quality of life, and community. Today this movement has grown to some 250,000 people who are members of over 800 civic societies across the country – people who are engaged locally, not only in preserving and protecting what is important in the historic environment, but in ensuring that change and new development is for the best. Getting involved in a local civic society is a good way of accessing and gaining expertise in the planning process, as well as understanding the heritage of an area. These societies see the buildings as not just valuable in their own right, but valuable because of their meaning to the communities that are built around them.

Those with an interest in preserving historic buildings may also be interested in practical projects to restore other historic buildings through either their civic societies or buildings preservation trusts. National amenity societies such as the Georgian Group and Victorian Society, and the 20th Century Society, also work to protect specific types of buildings.

All homeowners, particularly those in conservation areas, should pause to think of the wider streetscape and character of where they live. They should consider the impact that unco-ordinated alterations and developments have on the surrounding area over time. The places from the past that we have protected today have much to offer future generations; it is important that in the drive for new communities and housing, we do not lose sight of the value of the priceless heritage – both the exceptional and the ordinary – which has been passed down to us, not as owners to do with it what we will, but as guardians of it for future generations who will undoubtedly condemn us if we sacrifice it for short-term expediency or ignorance.


Recommended Reading

  • Charles Mynors, Listed Buildings, Conservation Areas and Monuments, 3rd Edition, Sweet and Maxwell, London, 1999
  • The Heritage Dividend: Measuring the Results of English Heritage Regeneration, English Heritage, London, 1999

    Government Guidance
  • England: Planning Policy Guidance Note 15: Planning and the Historic Environment and Planning Policy Guidance Note 16: Archaeology and Planning
  • Wales: 61/96 Planning and the Historic Environment: Historic Buildings and Conservation Areas; 1/98 Planning and the Historic Environment: Directions by the Secretary of State for Wales
  • Scotland: Memorandum of Guidance on Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas

USEFUL WEBSITES – for details on planning policy and guidance – to download policy documents – for details of civic societies in your area – for articles on planning legislation.

This article is reproduced from The Building Conservation Directory, 2004


MICHAEL HAMMERSON is Policy Consultant at the Civic Trust, focusing on government policy and consultations. He is an active member of Highgate Society.
LAURA SANGSTER is Civic Trust Communications Manager, promoting the role of programmes like Heritage Open Days, the Civic Trust Awards and BizFizz in improving quality of life

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