Historic Environment & Conservation Areas
- What do we mean by the historic built environment?
The South Downs National Park has a wonderful inheritance of buildings and standing structures from the past thousand years of human habitation.
From the Saxon tower of Sompting Church to the hurried invasion defences of 1940, a rich pattern of settlement and development is apparent in almost every corner of the landscape. There are Norman castles, a rich legacy of churches of every date and famous country houses, set in designed landscapes of the highest quality.
Still more remarkably, the National Park displays an intricate pattern of everyday historic settlement, of scattered farmsteads and agricultural cottages, villages clustered on the spring line of the South Downs or along river valleys and small market towns that have thrived on trade for hundreds of years.
It is possible to read the history of almost all of these places in the incremental layers of change and development that each generation has left.
But this gradual deposition of history only remains as legible as it does because the change it records has been relatively gradual. Although the Weald was once the national hub for metal-working, the explosive development of industrial processes and organised labour we recognise as the Industrial Revolution took place in the North and the Midlands.
While London has always exerted a certain gravitational pull, the South Downs were just sufficiently distant to retain a continuity with the rural past well into the railway age.
Only with the growth of car ownership did the South Downs become fully accessible from the capital and by that time, fortuitously, unrestricted suburban growth was on the point of containment by the concept of Town and Country Planning and the introduction of the ‘Green Belt’.
Early attempts to consciously preserve features surviving from the past had usually been predicated on ownership of the asset; for example, the first building purchase of the National Trust was Alfriston Clergy House, in 1896.
The first attempt by Parliament to interfere with traditional property rights for heritage reasons came with the Ancient Monuments Protection Act, as long ago as 1882. This had enshrined a list of sixty eight archaeological monuments across Britain and Ireland which for the first time might be voluntarily passed from the care of their owners and thence protected from harm by a Commissioner appointed by the State.
Today’s sophisticated legal protections for the historic environment can be traced back to this very tentative beginning almost a century and a half ago.
The current National Heritage List contains a range of Heritage Asset types and can be explored here.
- What is a conservation area?
Since 1968, Planning Authorities have had the statutory duty to identify the special architectural or historic interest of settlements or groups of buildings within their boundaries, together with the local power to designate Conservation Areas, with the aim of preserving or enhancing their character and appearance.
Today, there are 166 Conservation Areas within or straddling the boundaries of the National Park, ranging from the historic market towns of Lewes, Petworth, Midhurst and Petersfield, through many villages and smaller settlements, to individual sites of grouped buildings such as a Victorian water pumping station in the Meon Valley.
The rules for selecting Conservation Areas have been kept deliberately loose to allow discretion to include the infinite variety of building groups that collectively make up the historic built environment across the country.
However, each area must possess architectural and historic interest and they are overwhelmingly characterised by built form, rather than open space.
The exception to this norm is where open space has been consciously designed with a cultural purpose, such as parkland, or a churchyard, gardens or a cemetery.
- What must I do if my property is included?
Conservation Areas should not be regarded as ‘preservation’ areas.
They are not intended to prevent all change, just ensure that change is carefully considered in planning decisions and does not spoil the overall character of the settlement.
There is a general expectation that older buildings making a positive contribution within them will be retained and the features that make them special will be conserved.
If you own property within a Conservation Area you cannot demolish it without planning permission – and you would normally be required to give full details of any development proposed to replace it.
Where consent is granted conditions or legal agreements should also be expected, to ensure that these proposals are actually followed through in a manner that protects the setting of neighbouring property and the wider street scene.
Permitted Development Rights normally enjoyed by householders are modestly constrained by Conservation Area status.
The exception to this is if your property is covered by an Article 4 Direction. This is likely to have a more restrictive impact on the external works you can undertake without an application for planning permission.
If you own a tree in a conservation area you are obliged to offer six weeks written notice of your intention to fell, lop or otherwise destroy it. This allows the Authority time to raise a Tree Preservation Order in cases where local amenity and public interest demands it.
Conservation areas are defined by law as areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.