IHBC Yearbook 2015

38 Y E A R B O O K 2 0 1 5 CHARACTERISING AND CAPTURING THE DIVERSITY OF PLACE JAMES WEBB The importance of protecting and responding positively to the established character of an area has long been recognised. In the UK this stems from a real sense of loss in the face of rapid urbanisation and suburbanisation from the end of the 19th century onwards and particularly in the post-war period of the 1950s and early 60s. The development of the planning structure around the protection of areas which are considered ‘special’ started in the post-war austerity of the 1950s when the brave new beginning in Britain included the wholesale redevelopment of many of the historic city centres of England and Wales. Amid the now well-rehearsed cries that post-war planners were inflicting more damage on the medieval cities of England than the Luftwaffe ever had, such bodies as the Civic Trust were founded in the late 1950s. They campaigned to make better places for people to live and, along with others, decried the loss of historic areas unceremoniously cleared to make way for modern civic centres and new town shopping precincts such as Hemel Hempstead and Stevenage, both in Hertfordshire. This was essentially a human response to the removal of diversity from our townscape; away with the jumble of the medieval and later, and in with the clean lines and repeated rhythms of the Festival of Britain style. The Civic Amenities Act 1967 enabled the designation of conservation areas. This, Lord Sandford told parliament in 1973, was a method of protecting the ‘familiar and cherished local scene’. It was a relatively straightforward concept and obvious candidates such as Winchester, York and Salisbury and historic towns such as Stamford were early designations. However, the concept’s apparent simplicity is deceptive, and it is only recently that the familiar and cherished local scene has begun to be assessed objectively using characterisation to quantify these attributes, to provide structure for designation and management and, ultimately, to find answers to the question ‘so what?’. Although the value of characterisation as an evidence base has only recently been recognised, its emergence as a key tool for the development of planning policies has been rapid, led nationally by English Heritage. Increasingly, the character of areas which are not necessarily designated as special have been recorded and analysed using it. But there is still the dilemma of how we respond to the findings and what this means for future policy drafting. The idea of capturing not only the diversity but the patterns in our townscapes and landscapes is a natural human response. This is becoming ever more crucial in the outcomes of minor and major infrastructure projects relating to wind and solar farms for example. Such large-scale infrastructure projects are being tested against the setting of scheduled monuments, listed buildings, conservation areas, greenbelt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and areas of sensitive landscape character (as defined by local policies). In each case, determining whether a proposal is acceptable or harmful requires an objective assessment of the character of the heritage asset as well as an understanding of the scope of its protection. A sensible and robust analysis of its significance by experienced practitioners is Out with the old, in with the new: the diverse and eclectic mix of architectural styles to the Old Town, Hemel Hempstead is superseded by the regimented and uniform repeated rhythms of the new town style to the south of the historic core.