Preserve and Enhance v. Piecemeal Erosion of Character

According to Historic England ‘Local planning authorities are obliged to designate as conservation areas any parts of their own area that are of special architectural or historic interest, the character and appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.’1.

But what constitutes the preservation and enhancement of the character and appearance of a conservation area? Let’s examine the main features of any building – the façade, roof, doors and windows would certainly count as the most obvious and important.

Planners talk of ‘piecemeal erosion of character’ of a historic environment. What is piecemeal erosion of character? Imagine a chocolate box Cotswold village; the windows and doors are wood, the roofs are stone, handmade stone tile, or thick Welsh slate. The windows wink at you as you walk by, all their tiny panes pointing a slightly different way. The chimney stacks are real and some issue forth a wisp of smoke. It is a blue-chip authentic, sleepy historic village. Then one day someone replaces their windows with uPVC. It is done in a day, without Planning Permission. A month or two later another person puts up a satellite dish in plain view. Six months later a couple of large rooflights appear on another building. Then another satellite dish appears, then a plastic front door. Does it matter? To most people no, it doesn’t, or it doesn’t seem to. To others the authenticity of the vernacular architecture is being diminished almost unnoticeably. An area or a building’s ‘specialness’ – what makes it of that place and of no other is the materials that it was originally built with. That is what a historic environment is made of. Specialness. Mass-produced components used on historic properties remove that specialness, and when used on many properties they can remove or mitigate a whole area’s character too.

The problem with piecemeal erosion of character is that it happens so gradually that you don’t notice it. It seems that Local Authorities don’t notice it either, or they don’t have the resources to enforce protections against erosion of character. This is not surprising at a time of swingeing L.A. cuts to staff and services.

I was once in a meeting with a senior Conservation Planning Officer in my own Local Authority. I remember the meeting very clearly for one thing. We were discussing details of doors and windows with regard to an application I was making. I was taking the standard architect / homeowner’s approach of pointing out the inappropriate details and materials used in alterations to adjoining houses with the objective of making my own ‘transgressions’ lesser and hopefully more acceptable. But he stopped me short with a question. He said ‘Peter, can I ask you a question?’ ‘Err…yes.’ ‘Where would you rather stay on a honeymoon, Bath, or Milton Keynes?’ The answer doesn’t even have to be given. My ignorance and laziness instantly shone like a beacon. He went on to explain how historic environments are made up of historic buildings, and these both have real economic value. They attract businesses because they attract people – even honeymooners! So apart from the desire to pass on our architectural heritage to future generations, there are sound economic reasons for avoiding piecemeal erosion of character.
The Planning Officer opened my eyes to the fact that historic buildings are a valuable resource and that attention to detailing is vital if one is to avoid slipping into ‘erosion of character’ mode.

That means that you’ll need to carefully assess what’s there, and how your new design measures up against the existing architecture.

Peter King RIAS


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