The History & Future of the Civic Movement

This appeared to be a rather boring topic to entice members and visitors to our January meeting. However, with our speaker Ian Harvey in charge, the meeting was nothing but boring. Ian is co-founder and Director of Civic Voice, which many of you will know is the national voice of the Civic Society Movement. Ian's wide ranging talk touched on the history of Civic action and brought us right up to date with a look at the challenges we face today.

The Civic Movement dates back to the mid-nineteenth century. The first "Civic Society" to be formed was Sid Vale, Sidmouth, in 1846. The movement pre-dates the founding of the National Trust in 1875. However, the real impetus for growth arose in the 1960s, culminating in the passing of the Civic Amenties Act 1967. One of its key components was the power for local authorities to establish Conservation Areas. The 1960s were a time of change; the 'sweeping away of the old and building for a bright new future'. The older, often historic, parts of our towns and cities were seen as obstacles to progress and as reflections of a troubled past. Many buildings, both commercial and residential, were swept away in the name of progress, often to be replaced by what we now call brutalist architecture. New roads cut swathes through our urban and rural fabric to accommodate the transport of the future - the car. A growing wave of concern at this wholesale, insensitive, destruction prompted the passing of the Civic Amenties Act. Our own Civic Society was formed in 1961, in the face of just such issues, and our own City Centre Conservation Area was created in 1970. There are now over 1,000 Conservation Areas in the UK and six million people live in them.

Although there had been a national voice for Civic Societies through the Civic Trust, this unfortunately closed in the early part of this century, to be replaced in 2010 by Civic Voice. Over 300 Civic Societies are now affiliated to Civic Voice, including ours in Lichfield. This organisation now represents the interests of over 150,000 members in Parliament and, through national and regional events, acts as adviser to local Societies in disseminating good practice. It is good that we have a single voice to express our views nationally, especially in Parliament. With Civic Voice's efforts, there is now a parliamentary inter-party members' group which meets regularly to be briefed and lobbied by Societies on conservation and planning issues. Civic Voice has also been active nationally in partnership with the War Memorials Trust, where Government funding coupled with much volunteer assistance has given positive support to our memorials. You may also recall that Civic Voice has raised the profile of Conservation Areas through last year's national competition to find the nation's favourite Conservation Area; a competition in which Lichfield managed to gain third place for our City Centre Conservation Area.

Yet the challenges facing us because of budgetary pressures are immense. Over 500 Conservation Areas are designated as "at risk". Since 2006, there has been a 37% decline in the number of local authority Conservation Officers and many local authorities now have none. (Thankfully, there are two part-time officers at Lichfield). The government has recently launched its Future High Streets Fund, with over 600m set aside to support our High Streets, of which 55m is allocated for initiatives in historic High Streets. Let's hope the District Council will consider making a bid. At the same time nationally, the number of planning officers is being reduced. This means that the quality of decisions on planning applications is being undermined. There is also a growing wave of public discontent over the quality and character of new development, especially housing. In the light of this, the Government has created a Building Better Commission to promote good design and has recently even started to dismiss appeals for new housing developments because of their mediocre, characterless design. Drive around Lichfield and some examples may come to mind.

How do these challenges impact on individual Societies including our own? They are under pressure to respond to inappropriate proposals and to fight to preserve, protect and improve their local environments. They seek to engage the general public and make them aware of pressing issues in their towns and cities through publicity and debate. These issues they tackle with ageing memberships and limited, often sometimes contracting, voluntary support. Your own Committee (and hence our Society) is not immune from these challenges.

In closing, Ian threw down a challenge: June 22nd, 2019, is National Civic Day; what are YOU going to do in Lichfield to mark it?

Roger Hockney
January 2019