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Balancing Heritage and Growth - Talk by Ian Green

Wells Civic Society Monthly meeting - 8th Febuary 2023


Ian Green gives a talk on Balancing Heritage and Growth to the Wells Civic Society members
Ian Green gives a talk on Balancing Heritage and Growth to the Wells Civic Society members

Wells is to the forefront yet again; this time it’s of a major initiative to look across the country at the impact on historic towns and cities of newly-built and to-be built developments. Surely, nowhere is more appropriate for such a study to be carried out than Wells and this is precisely what has happened, as was outlined by the chair of the Wells Civic Society, Chris Winter, at their open meeting in February. Wells was the pilot study, proving that such an enquiry was desirable and viable, and this was thoroughly expanded on by Ian Green, chair of the Oxford civic society.


The Wells pilot led to seven years of research, frustrated at times inevitably by Covid, in a total, of twelve carefully selected, representative case study cities and towns: Canterbury, Chester, Chichester, Lancaster, Lichfield, Malvern, Oxford, Peterborough, Wakefield, Winchester, Worcester and, of course, Wells, with Chris and Ian being members of the research team.


The original initiative for such a wide ranging study came from a group of civic societies who were concerned about the impact of new development on historic cities and towns – please note, this was not in any way to gainsay the need for new development, the question is about how it is accommodated – and the resultant formation of the alliance of Historic Cathedral Cities and Towns (ACT). This so impressed Historic England that they offered to fund a wide ranging study. To carry out this work, a remarkable coalition was formed consisting of the Historic Towns and Villages Forum (HTVF), ACT, Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners, and civic societies. It has uniquely brought together the views of local authority planning officers, local councillors, and civic societies to enable it now to make recommendations about best practice as communities develop into the future.


Crucially, the study adopted a bottom-up approach; it concerned itself with grassroots, which has not always been the case. Views were obtained through extensive, focussed interviews in this comprehensive investigation into how heritage and growth could be better balanced. With all views collated and analysed, a rather extensive list of key recommendations is now published. They fall into four main categories for: national government; local authorities; Historic England; and civicsocieties themselves. In brief, these last are advised to: develop closer, positive relationships with elected council members and heritage and design officers; support local authorities in encouraging greater involvement of local people in planning consultations; bring local experts to the attention of planning, heritage and design officers and councillors so they can make a positive contribution to planning. There is also now a Toolkit to help civic societies better understand how and when to engage over key issues during the whole planning process – a process which is often not thoroughly understood.


But why was such a research study necessary? A couple of examples, both from Canterbury, given by Ian, surely make the point: new houses largely obscure the view of the fabulous cathedral and, incredibly, a high speed train passes, courtesy of a level crossing, through the centre of the city. Not only must there have been better solutions, but such instances show a basic lack of respect for the history, heritage and ambience of a place. Yet, there is good practice: the attention to the colour palette of new houses in Malvern; the heritage impact assessments carried out on new-build in Lancaster. But these splendid examples provoke questions. Why are they so comparatively rare? Will other places follow suit?


New housing was certainly one topic much focussed on in the study. No one was in denial of the need for new housing but a major question was asked as to whether the off-the-peg algorithm currently used to determine housing allocations can take into account the heritage value and character of historic towns and cities. Despite the fact that within the last few days the fifth housing minister in 12 months has been appointed, this churn being generally seen as not likely to aid consistency, there may, however, be some sign of a breach in the intractable housing allocation barrier. Michael Gove, whose Secretary of State brief now includes Housing and Conservation, seems to be saying that the allocation should be considered as advisory and not mandatory. This makes it even more important that this study is seen at Westminster and there is hope that it will yet influence the National Planning Policy Framework, which sets out the government’s planning policies for England and how these are expected to be applied.


In summing up the evening, and in thanking Ian for his in-depth contribution, Chris pointed out that Wells’ economy depends on tourism to a large extent. The city is a tourist centre because of its heritage. It’s circular: if the city does not look after that heritage, the city’s economy will suffer greatly. Another of her remarks was the profoundest of all: we are not endeavouring to look after the special places and character of Wells just for ourselves; it is for our children and grandchildren that we should strive to conserve the old and harmoniously accommodate the new.


Towards a Better Balance between Heritage and Growth is available on-line and probably for most people the executive summary will provide an easy-read in sufficient depth to give an appreciation of the relevance and quality of this important, and it is to be hoped influential, study.


Each of the next two meetings continues the theme of local developments. On Wednesday, March 8 the speaker will be Jack Moulding, of SNUG Housing, and his topic will be Sustainable Housing, and on Wednesday, April 12 The Future of Wells will be the focus of a discussion with a panel of Wells city councillors.


The meetings start at 7pm, with some refreshments available beforehand, and are held in Wells Museum on Cathedral Green. For further details or general information, please go to wellscivicsociety.org.uk or contact Chris at chris.f.winter@btinternet.com

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