Fyson on ... the need for planners to build the public's heritage affection into green settlement strategy

A new policy statement on planning for heritage is out for consultation and politicians are reportedly bidding for the electorate's favour by offering to spend more on the country's vulnerable historic buildings and areas.

Despite dropping the Heritage Bill, which could have placed management of the historic environment at the heart of the planning system, the government clearly has reason to keep the issue live in the run-up to next year's election.

Conservation and change that develops from, rather than destroys, what has gone before are popular with the public even if people do not always voice this preference. All too often communities simply feel bludgeoned by the discontinuities of modern development, especially when their elected representatives are committed to economic development or job creation.

So it would be timely if the planning world as a whole could reappraise its approach to heritage, especially as it accommodates greater public involvement in planning. The essence of the required change would be a recognition that heritage is not merely another factor such as energy efficiency, transport demand or housing need that has to be wrestled with before a planning application decision is made or a development plan is agreed.

It is in fact the context and starting point for all such planning work, especially in a densely populated country with a long history of human intervention in urban and rural environments. There is nowhere in the UK without a heritage in this sense. The past is not another country - it is the base on which the evolution of town and country must rest.

This is not an anti-development stance, but it does affect the kind of development that might be acceptable. It cannot prevent the urbanisation of a proportion of the rural environment, but it could lead to greener settlements that leave evidence of the rural past as a tangible memory. Formal research on the matter may be scarce, but it seems likely that losing touch with heritage destabilises communities through the loss of familiar surroundings and the speed of change. Development has to be sustainable in social as well as environmental terms.

Obliterating the past threatens our understanding of the human condition. Contrary to what is commonly believed, planning is a vital instrument in resisting such vandalism and it is high time that the profession gained the credit and popularity it deserves for this aspect of its work. No other group is better placed to maintain the heritage significance of places for present and future generations.

Anthony Fyson is a freelance writer on planning issues.


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