Towards a Better Balance Between Heritage and Growth

Ian Green, our speaker at the special meeting of the Society on 24th March, was a principal member of the team which undertook this study and produced the report. He is also Chairman of Oxford Civic Society.

Ian began by explaining the background to the study, and the need perceived by civic societies for growth and heritage to be better balanced in historic places. The research was carried out by the Historic Towns and Villages Forum, the Alliance of Historic Cathedral Cities and Towns, and Allies and Morrison Urban Practitioners. The last was paid; the others took part on a voluntary basis. The study and report were funded by Historic England, the Government's main advisor on heritage and conservation.

Lichfield Civic Society contributed to the research and, following a bid, Lichfield was selected as one of the 12 towns studied. Our bid was formulated because it was considered that the issue of imbalance between growth and heritage in the city was critical to safeguarding its special historic character and that there was a need for comprehensive information to justify the case for a better approach to this issue.

The study took evidence from the 12 case studies and makes recommendations for central government, planning authorities, Historic England, and civic societies.

Overall, the resulting report is both comprehensive and authoritative, containing analysis and recommendations that potentially could influence future Government planning policy through inclusion of some elements in the ongoing revision of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

Ian spelt out key findings from the studies, including:

  • two thirds of the societies involved considered growth in their area was at the expense of heritage;
  • collaboration between local authorities and civic societies varied from good to poor, while recognising that the two have different roles and responsibilities;
  • funding cuts faced by local authorities over the last decade have clearly adversely affected staffing levels, particularly among conservation staff;
  • there is a lack of staff with urban design expertise in local authorities;
  • small cities or towns lying within larger planning authority areas sometimes seem to have political leadership that fails to recognise the priority that should be afforded to heritage conservation in their historic settlements;
  • the economic benefits of heritage are too often not recognised or realised through visitor and tourism policies and promotion.

Ian suggested that the current national "standard method" approach to housing numbers allocated to authorities was inappropriate and unrelated to the context and setting of individual areas. Instead, the report proposes that housing numbers should be more closely related to employment opportunities, with co-location being a fundamental requirement to achieve sustainable development. At present, housing numbers and allocations appear to be created mathematically, rather than being based upon local circumstance and character.

The most important conclusion was that, although there is generally adequate policy from central government for protecting heritage at the individual building and small area level (listed buildings and conservation areas respectively), there is nothing devoted to historic towns and cities as a whole; hence housing growth pressures placed upon such locations were not being addressed. A revised emphasis in policy is needed to ensure that the character and setting of a place is fundamental in the preparation of planning strategies for that area.

The research found few examples of positive ways to protect the heritage character of a sensitive area through planning strategy, but creation of new settlements was one approach to meeting development pressures, as proposed for Canterbury. Members may recall that our society has been promoting this approach for the Lichfield District for several years. This important conclusion led to the recommendation that all parties needed to support better consultation with, and involvement of, local citizens at the early stages of the planning process, when strategy is being formulated.

Too often the general public only react to development proposals at planning application stage, long after the big decisions on site allocations have been taken.

During the period of the research the pandemic raised new issues, including the impact on retail and town centres, and this, along with the increasingly recognised need to address climate change and energy saving in building and refurbishment, were also considered in the study.

In conclusion, the study makes valuable recommendations, the most significant being:

  • Ensuring heritage has priority over growth in formulating settlement planning strategy;

  • Increasing funding for local authorities to ensure adequate staffing in conservation and planning teams;

  • Moving from planning by numbers to a more sensitive method of housing allocations related to local context, setting and character;

  • A toolkit to help civic societies know how and when to engage with planning authorities during the planning process;

  • Creation of a central library of good practice.

Ian said that the report's findings and recommendations have been presented to a number of Members of Parliament and influential parties and have been well received. There is therefore some optimism that beneficial changes may be introduced.

Responding to Ian, Society members supported the study's findings and recommendations, and thanked him for his excellent presentation.

The Study is available in 3 parts: Main Report, Issues and Opportunities, and Executive Summary. It is available to download at and heritage-and-growth

Mike Pearson
May 2023