The Civic Society column with David Winpenny

The landscape of Hackfall is a Conservation Area. (Copyright - David Winpenny)
The landscape of Hackfall is a Conservation Area. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

1967. Perhaps not a year that will ring any particular bells with you. Among the events of 50 years ago were the first broadcast of the Forsyte Saga on BBC2, Foinavon winning the Grand National at 100 to 1, the launch of the Beatles’ ‘Sergeant Pepper’ LP, De Gaulle vetoing Britain’s EEC membership, the start of the BBC panel show ‘Just a Minute’ – and a production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s ‘The Pirates of Penzance’ at Ripon Grammar School.

For conservationists 1967 has a more significance; it was the year in which the Civic Amenities Act came into force. If you are now thinking of refuse collection and what used to be called local tips but are now designated by a number of different euphemisms, you would be right. The Act dealt with such matters and with the disposal of abandoned vehicles and bulky waste.

Houses in Park Street, in the Ripon Conservation Area. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Houses in Park Street, in the Ripon Conservation Area. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

This may be seen as laudable, but nothing to set the pulses of conservationists a-flutter. But among the clauses about rubbish was an important innovation – an innovation almost slipped through.

It was a section that introduced Conservation Areas into our legislation. The act defined a Conservation Area as ‘an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.’

The prime mover of the legislation was the MP Duncan Sandys. He had had a long interest in architectural conservation and the Civic Movement.

At the end of World War II he had served as Minister of Works; in 1954, as Minister of Housing, he introduced the Clean Air Act, and a year later was instrumental in allowing the designation of Green Belts.

Allhallowgate in the Ripon Conservation Area. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

Allhallowgate in the Ripon Conservation Area. (Copyright - David Winpenny)

He founded the Civic Trust in 1956. He remained in the House of Commons until 1974, when he was given a life peerage as Baron Duncan-Sandys.

For all its good intentions, the Civic Amenities Act, which was superseded in 1990 by the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act, provided neither force nor incentive for the designation of Conservation Areas; it was up to local authorities to decide that they wanted them.

As the Act was being prepared the government commissioned studies of five historic cities to see how the policies should be applied; studies for Bath, Chichester and Chester were completed, their local authorities paying half the cost. In York the study was only done because York Civic Trust paid half of the local authority’s share. The King’s Lynn study didn’t happen at all as the council refuse to pay.

Nevertheless, the idea for Conservation Areas caught on; it was a time of burgeoning interest in the preservation of our villages, towns and cities. Many local civic societies were formed around this time – Ripon Civic Society was founded just a year after the Act, in 1968, so next year will be its Golden Jubilee.

The first Conservation Area to be designated was in Stamford in Lincolnshire. There are now more than 9,500 in England and Wales (Scotland has its own scheme), of many different sorts, including the centres of historic cities, model housing estates and mining villages, stretches of canal and historic landscapes such as Hackfall near Ripon.

Ripon’s Conservation Area was designated on 13 March 1969 (it has been extended several times since then) and covers most of the city centre. So, in theory at least, the historic core of Ripon is protected.

Conservation Area protection should ensure that alterations like applying cladding to a brick house, inserting unsuitable new windows, installing satellite dishes and solar panels and building conservatories are regulated and usually need planning permission.

You certainly need permission to demolish a structure. And if you want to do work to trees within the Conservation Area, you need consent for that, too.

Unfortunately, the policing of a Conservation Area requires the local authority to be both vigilant and active in enforcement – and with funding cuts even those that were willing to make an effort are now less able to care effectively for their Conservation Areas.

They have powers to make ‘Article 4 Directions’ that can remove particular development rights – such as putting in new windows or painting properties in an unsuitable manner – to preserve the special character of an area. But such Article 4 Directions are expensive to introduce and to police, and in many places are rarely used by local authorities.

There are three minor ones in Harrogate and none in Ripon.

This is not a happy state of affairs, either in Ripon or elsewhere, as it leaves buildings within Conservation Areas vulnerable to both unsuitable changes and to sometimes-catastrophic neglect.

This is the more unfortunate as recent research has shown that, on average, houses within Conservation Areas sell for 9%more than comparable ones outside; you will often see estate agents’ details noting as a selling point that a property is within a Conservation Area. The research found that designated Conservation Areas help to protect the social cohesion of a neighbourhood and that, despite the decline of local authority involvement, they still provide a better level of protection against harmful intervention than non-designated areas.

Although the current outlook for Conservation Areas is not as rosy as we might wish and will require vigilance to make sure that they decline no further, there can be no doubt that Duncan Sandys’ work 50 years ago was a turning point in conservation. The destruction that had been wrought in the 1950s and early 1960s to the historic heart of some of our cities and the loss of important buildings in smaller settlements could not be undone, but with the Act the tide was changing.

We have come to appreciate what we have, and a revolution in our thinking about conservation has been the result.

Ours must not be the generation that loses that impetus – or our historic assets.