The Work of a Conservation Officer

Our speaker in February was Ed. Higgins who is the Principal Conservation Oficer for Lichfield District Council. He is one of two conservation officers working for the Council, the other being Helen Livingston, and they are responsible for all major design issues in the District. Edward is a Lichfieldian; he grew up at Muckley Corner and trained as an archaeologist and in heritage management. In addition to his work in Lichfield, he spends one day a week working for Staffordshire County Council. His post provides plenty of variety as, like a GP, he is a generalist; not specialising in any particular period of history. He also works for the Lichfield Dioscesan Board on a voluntary basis, which often involves visits to distant sites. The Lichfield diocese is very large, stetching out to the Welsh border.

Heritage assets are a consideration for English Heritage. These include Listed Buildings, registered Parks and Gardens, Ancient Monuments and World Heritage sites. All designated and protected. Non-designated structures can include 'Buildings of Local Interest'. All heritage assets are assssed where necessary during the planning process.

Ed told us that there are 765 listed buildings in the Lichfield District, including twelve in the Grade I category and 690 Grade II. The Grade I list includes the Cathedral, Darwin House, the Johnson Birthplace Museum and St John's Hospital.

Local sites of archaeological significance include fifteen Scheduled Monuments; for example the moat at the rear of The Close. Infilled windows and other hidden elements of a building discovered on a site visit can reveal past building developments and can also relate to planning issues.

Understanding their significance will involve history, architecture and aesthetic considerations; including the colours that may be used. A conservation officer needs the ability to make decisions on re-building; and whole buildings may be awkward to change. (see Historic England Guidance, 2006). An example of this is the designation of Dr Johnson's Birthplace as Grade I. Here it is the association with Dr Johnson that gives the building its high status. Only 2.5% of the buildings in England are Grade I listed. Grafitti that were carved in the Council House during its years as a school are important to retain (including '1714' near to the headmaster's office). The gate piers at Fisherwick, near Whittington, also have some interesting examples. They suggest a feeling of connection with the past.

Specialist advice was needed from a Ph.D. in the 18th century wallpaper trade when traces of some old wallpaper were discovered at the Angel Croft. Nearby, a visit to Westgate House revealed a three-seater toilet! A derelict tennis pavillion in South Staffordshire also involved a site visit. The Bishop needed advice when he wanted two monuments moved. Another visit was to Weston Hall, home of the Earls of Bradford. It is sometimes necessary to have a good head for heights as Weston has three storeys and climbing the scaffolding was involved! A visit to view the Crooked House at Himley, Staffordshire, was related to some possible structural problems as the grandfather clock stands at 45 deg.!

Aesthetic significance has to be objective. Personal perception of appearance must be ignored. For example, Ed highlighted the Judge Business School in Cambridge, designed by the archtect John Outram, which was listed Grade II* in 1993, despite being a very garish building, because of its very significant design. Ed said that the role of a conservation officer is to 'manage' change; not to impose 'do not change'. They advise the planners, the Councillors, Civic Societies and amenity groups, always taking note of the National Planning Policy Framework.

Harm might be caused by inappropriate inovations, contrary to the heritage values of a plan; one obviously couldn't have a wind turbine on the Cathedral! (see "Conservation Principles", English Heritage, 2008, p71). Energy Efficiency should enhance the historic environment in addition to preserving it; but balancing the issues sometimes incorporates some harm as there are 'degrees of harm'.

The importance of the historic environment is that it is as fragile as the natural environment. Once historic fabric is lost it cannot be replaced. An example is the preservation of 'taper marks'. These are where an oil lamp was held against timber to create a burn mark - a custom which was intended to discourage evil spirits. Some of these were found at Alrewas and now form part of that particular building's history.

There are also locally listed buildings of note - includng the Lichfield Garrick - and the planning officers can intervene where neglect of a building causes potential danger. Ed said that both Davidson House and 'La Feria' (the former Prince of Wales PH) are 'on the radar'.

Buildings may be re-used, especially the upper areas of shops, where the shopkeeper's family would historically reside; but which are now often empty. The requirement for car parking often raises questions. Why do we need two places in a town or city centre when transport, shopping and other services are close to hand? Replacement plastic doors, windows and gutters are sought by owners wishing to 'modernise'. Ed mentioned the example of some millworker's cottages in Coleshill Road where small changes had lost the character of the original design. The public often have strong feelings about certain periods; Georgian - Yes, Brutalism - No; but taste changes over time.

The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (SPAB) and the 20th Century Society are, respectively, involved in the promotion and protection of Victorian and earlier architecture, and of 'Modern' building (Ed is a member of both). An example is the Church at Whitmore Reans, Wolverhampton, designed by Richard Twentyman, which now features a window by John Piper showing the Sea of Galilee. The original was lost in a fire. Money and conservation are 'polar opposites'; when there is little of value cheap materials are often substituted. But in prosperous Little Aston, the residents often want change which is likely to erode the character of a building. Fortunately, there is an "Old House ECO handbook" to assist those who want to retrofit old houses sympathetically.

Ed said that the challenges facing heritage are the progress of development, the pressure to modernise, public perception and, of course, funding.

Climate change is a significant challenge, particuarly with the 2050 net zero carbon target. The Church of England think that 2030 is possible. Carbon capture is an option. Plastic windows can be replaced and there is often less waste using traditional materials. At Himley Hall, which is listed Grade II*, solar panels have been put on the flat roof without causing an aesthetic problem.

Ed followed with images of some notable examples of conservation issues in Lichfield: a brick folly in a garden in Nether Beacon is in poor condition - this was built by French PoWs from the war with Napolean; the Victorian interior of No. 20 St John Street has a panelled room - painted 'trompe l'oeil'; and a 15th century interior in Quonians Lane.

Other issues in the planning process can involve inapropriate delevopment, excessive 'massing' and the type of materials intended to be used. Ed mentioned the Premier Inn, Franciscan House and Scott Place. While the planners do consult officers, their final decision may be different. Empty shops need new owners, rather than being left empty, so Council planners may prefer a viable use.

At the end of a very informative presentation, this talk was followed by many questions from the audience. We are very fortunate to have two conservation officers in Lichfield when many cities and towns have no such protection to oversee their local Conservation Areas and general building development.

Lorna Bushell
February 2023