Your news: The importance of conserving our heritage for the future

Bourne Conservation Area. St Peter's Road. Photo by Anthony Jennings
Bourne Conservation Area. St Peter's Road. Photo by Anthony Jennings

Last month I discussed what Bourne Preservation Society is trying to do, and I mentioned the Bourne Conservation Area, and how important it is to the town, in helping to make it attractive to us and our neighbours, and of course to people who might just come here to spend their money if they find Bourne a pleasant place to visit.

In future articles we’ll look at the buildings in the Bourne Conservation Area in more detail. Meanwhile I’d like to touch on the general history of conservation of the built environment and the principles that make conservation areas work.

The first concerns about historic buildings arose back in the 18th century, if only in a very rudimentary way. In 1721, oak posts were put up to protect Waltham Cross, so that stage coaches couldn’t erode the stone plinth. People had recognised that an Eleanor cross was something ancient and mysterious which they would rather preserve than lose.

The first sign of active conservationism was perhaps James Wyatt’s so-called ‘restoration’ of Durham Cathedral in 1780. It caused an outcry from the Society of Antiquaries. Later, John Ruskin’s pleas for preservation of historic buildings were an inspiration for William Morris, who founded The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877.

Morris was concerned about the damage being done to ancient buildings by Victorian alterations. One specific trigger that drove him to action was his fury at the over-restoration work done by GE Street at the church of St John the Baptist in Burford, that delightful town in Oxfordshire.

The next significant step was government recognition that conservation was important enough to require legislation, with the Ancient Monuments Protection Act of 1882. Then came the Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act of 1913, partly because Tattersall Castle here in Lincolnshire was about to be destroyed, and was only saved by the vision and determination of Lord Curzon. Major advances were made under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 -listing of individual properties began, and owners were obliged to get permission for demolition or alterations.

The Civic Trust was formed in 1957, enabling towns and boroughs to set up civic societies, and another significant step was the Civic Amenities Act of 1967, which empowered local authorities to designate conservation areas.

Towns, not just individual buildings, were surveyed for the first time, in order to decide which areas should qualify for protection.

Since then, broad general rules relating to the principles of building conservation have grown up, with the help of research and experience, and these form an important body of precedent. They have been shown to work. Under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, there is a general duty on local authorities to designate conservation areas where it is desirable to ‘preserve and enhance’ them.

The principles are basically just common sense. But they tend not to sit happily with the commercial pressures of the modern world, which, alas, urge us to indulge in constant alterations to our buildings, under the guise of ‘improvements’. Sadly, most of these so-called improvements are anything but. In fact, it is not a bad rule to do precisely the opposite of what we are advised to do in the media and the glossy magazines, and by the design and fashion industries.

The first rule of conservation is that, if any historic fabric remains in a building, this is very valuable and must be conserved. If a house has a Georgian sash window, for example, the last thing to do is to follow the advice of the replacement window industry, tear it out, and replace it with badly made plastic double glazing, as, sadly, too many have already done. There are at least four things wrong with that. First, an original feature of historic value has gone for ever, and can never be replaced. Secondly, sashes are often replaced by casements, which are quite wrong for such a house. Thirdly, materials are important, and uPVC or aluminium are inappropriate for any pre-1939 house. They are also of course environmentally unfriendly, using huge amounts of energy to manufacture. Yet that is what we are constantly being pressurised to do. We will be told that the windows are rotten and that there is no alternative. Very rarely true. Georgian, Victorian and Edwardian windows are incredibly robust, and can all be repaired by cutting out rotten areas, much cheaper than putting in fake substitutes that will probably last no more than 20 years anyway.

Exactly the same principles apply to front doors and all the other important features of a house. There is only one right front door for a Georgian or Victorian house, the original one, and it is far more robust than any modern replacement in a different style or in different materials, despite any sales patter. Anything different is bound to be wrong. All it does need is a little routine maintenance.

That’s where we come back to the Conservation Area. Its very existence gives us the encouragement to take pride in what we’ve got, and not be fooled by all that pressure to ‘update’.