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New Buildings in Historic Settings: Recent Conservation Experience in England
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New Buildings in Historic Settings:
Recent Conservation Experience in England

The preservation community in England faces many of the same challenges as its American counterpart, one of which is the growing public debate on the question of the appropriate style for new architecture in historic settings. Designs that harmonize with their traditional contexts have garnered increasing public support amid growing concern about stylistically dissonant new architecture in historic settings, but opposition to unambiguously traditional new work remains strong among architects and preservation professionals, who have frequently criticized it as "imitation" or "pastiche." In this arena, conservation experience in England, with its many similarities in architectural heritage, culture, and language, offers some valuable lessons for American preservationists confronting the same issues.1

The English planning and approvals process for alterations or additions to "scheduled monuments" (structures subject to landmark protection) or new construction in "conservation areas," (historic districts) principally occurs at the local level, where authorities apply broad national policy directives according to the varying circumstances, capacities, and resources of their communities. Non-governmental preservation organizations play an important role in this process through their statutory responsibility to review and comment on proposed interventions affecting designated heritage sites. Among the principal organizations are the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB), the Georgian Group, the Victorian Society, the Twentieth Century Society, and English Heritage. The first four of these are "National Amenity Societies" (i.e., privately-funded charities that advocate for "preserving the art and architecture of past centuries") whose missions are largely defined chronologically by their historical period of interest. The fifth is a "quango" (a quasi-autonomous non-governmental organization incorporated in the private sector but publicly funded) whose consulting role extends over all historical periods. [End Page 13]

The testimony of these groups can play an important role in local decision making and, because they have taken different positions on what they believe appropriate for new construction in historic settings, their participation in the process potentially empowers designers, sponsors, and members of the public favoring or opposing a specific project. This article will cover national government policies and the involvement of three of the advocacy groups regarding the issue of style—that is, the degree to which the relationship between new and historic architecture should be one of continuity or contrast—as this is the subject of increasing debate on both sides of the Atlantic.2

Government Policies Affecting Conservation Decisions

In the last three years the Department of Communities and Local Government has published two successive sets of national policy documents related to heritage conservation: The March 2012 National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) replaced the 2010 Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning for the Historic Environment (PPS 5), reflecting the change from a Labor to a Conservative government. While PPS 5 was limited to conservation policy, the NPPF addresses a range of environmental and conservation issues with a "presumption in favour of sustainable development." It offers the same level of protection for heritage resources as earlier policies, emphasizing that "planning should conserve heritage assets in a manner appropriate to their significance." A different branch of government, the Department of Culture, Media, and Sport, oversees the process of identifying listed buildings and defining conservation areas in consultation with English Heritage and local authorities.3

The NPPF retains most of the definitions used by its predecessor: A "heritage asset" is "a building, monument, site, place, area or landscape identified as having a degree of significance meriting consideration in planning decisions because of its heritage interest." The significance of such an asset is "the value of a heritage asset to this and future generations" due to its archaeological, architectural, artistic, or historic interest. This interest derives "not only from (its) [End Page 14] physical presence, but also from its setting."4 Local planners are encouraged to identify and support "opportunities for new development... within the setting of heritage assets to enhance or better reveal their significance."5

On the issue of style, NPPF is less clear than PPS 5, which was notable for the recognition it (and the Practice Guide developed for it by English Heritage) gave to new work in traditional styles, encouraging architects and...