The Future of the Civic Movement

Recently, five members of the Society joined members of Tamworth & District Civic Society and Atherstone Civic Society for a meeting at St Editha's Church to listen to David Evans, a trustee of Civic Voice and former Chairman of Chester Civic Society, who spoke on the future of the Civic Movement.

By way of introduction, David reminded us that the Civic Movement goes back a long way. The first Civic Society was formed at Sidmouth in 1846. The Sid Vale Association was formed to "protect the landscape and amenities of the Sid Valley". It still exists. Civic Societies are a peculiarly British phenomenon, our continental neighbours have nothing comparable. By 1895, the National Trust was established and in 1926, in response to what was perceived as a threat to our countryside and villages from new development, the Campaign For the Protection of Rural England (CPRE) was launched. However, the real momentum for the creation of Civic Societies came in 1957, when the Civic Trust was formed, with Government support in the shape of cabinet minister Duncan Sandys. Its prime aim was to "promote good architecture". The 1960s saw the emergence of many local Civic Societies like our own, which then affiliated to the Civic Trust as the national "umbrella" body. A major step forward came in 1967 with the passing of the Civic Amenties Act which promoted the creation of Conservation Areas. This year marks their fiftieth anniversary. In 2009, the Civic Trust found itself in financial difficulties and subsequently a smaller organisation, Civic Voice, emerged in England to continue to act as the national voice of what were, by then, over 450 civic societies.

Ranging in size from 6 to 3,000 members, it is estimated that the total membership currently exceeds 200,000. Their distribution throughout England is patchy. Over one third of Local Authorities do not have a local civic society. But, David asked, why do we still need them? They arose in the 1960s in part as a reaction to the wholesale, insensitive redevelopment of many of our towns, particularly their town centres and the introduction of comprehensive highway schemes which bulldozed many buildings. Much dereliction remained from World War II and the logical solution was seen by many in the brave new world of the 1960s as demolition, not sensitive rehabilitation. The Civic Amenties Act, with its introduction of the concept of Conservation Areas saved the day for many buildings, backed by ardent civic societies, which marshalled public opinion and argued that new uses could be found for old buildings and sympathetically integrated into new development schemes.

Essentially, this role continues today; but the Civic Movement now comes in a variety of local guises. Some societies specialise in creating town trails and publishing leaflets; some award plaques for good, sensitive, schemes; others promote local clean-ups involving the community; some major on local listing of buildings. All have a single aim of fostering a pride in the built environment and a desire to make it a better place in which to live. This role is all the more crucial in the present climate. Financial pressures mean that local authorities have been forced to reduce staffing. Conservation and design posts have been very much in the firing line. One in four local authorities now no longer employs a conservation officer. Thus the need for strong and informed civic societies to step into the breach and take up the role of local conservation and design moderators is more important than ever. Civic Voice is our partner in this, for it is our national voice, lobbying legislators and seeking to influence MPs. As a small organisation, it must of necessity work in partnership with other like-minded lobby groups. It is, however, down to societies like our own to continue the work commenced by our predecessors in Lichfield in 1961. Yet we must also adapt to contemporary circumstances by, for example, embracing social media and seeking new ways of recruiting an active membership - especially amongst the younger generation.

David's talk was thorough and thought-provoking. It was a pity that his audience, drawn from four local societies, numbered no more than twenty persons.

Roger Hockney
November 2017