Unlike the statutory listing of buildings, which is carried out by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, it is the local authorities who have the power to designate conservation areas. The legislation was introduced in 1966 under the Civic Amenities Bill by Duncan Sandys, founder of the Civic Trust. He felt it was not enough merely to preserve isolated buildings but their setting should be improved and protected as well. The law defines conservation areas as 'areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance'. Conservation area protection thus extends beyond buildings, to include streets, trees, paths and views.
The designation of these special areas is a vitally important way of protecting our heritage. There are thousands of buildings that despite being interesting and attractive - and perhaps important on a local scale - are not 'listable' in themselves; That is to say, they are not of sufficient national architectural or historic interest to merit individual protection. And yet the loss of these buildings can really damage the character of the neighbourhood.
Conservation areas can be spread over large chunks of historic towns or just one street. They may encompass whole villages or a small hamlet in which there is just a scattering of modest but pretty cottages and a few barns.
To demolish any building within a conservation area, conservation area consent, like listed building consent, must be sought from the council. In determining the application, the planning committee must consider the contribution made by the building to the character of the area and whether its demolition would alter this. Similarly, any proposed redevelopment or new building must actively enhance or preserve the character or appearance of the conservation area.
Because conservation areas are designated by local authorities, they can be an effective way of protecting a building or group of buildings in danger. A tougher form of protection for an area containing many buildings of historic interest, perhaps with particular features typical of the locality, come when a local authority (with confirmation from the Department for the Environment, Transport and the Regions) makes an Article 4 Direction this means that specifies alterations, from putting in new windows to removing chimney stacks, may not be carried out without consent. Article 4 Directions are particularly appropriate for model housing estates, railway villages, or the fine Georgian terraces of our spa towns. Perhaps their single most important use is to prevent the replacement of original sash windows with disfiguring uPVC frames, the greatest blight of the last two decades.
Some local authorities have designated very few conservation areas. This may not necessarily mean that the area has a scarcity of attractive buildings and open spaces. With a heavy workload and few specialised staff, for some councils conservation has taken second place. However, as with listing applications, anyone can suggest an area for designation.
Try to get the support and interest of the planning officers who will be presenting the case to their committee. Prepare a brief report or booklet about the area - its history and any interesting information about the buildings it contains, some of which may be already listed. English Heritage produces a free publication that outlines the criteria for designation of an area, Guidance on Conservation Area Appraisals, which can be downloaded from their website, or a free copy can be ordered from customer service. Use it to help structure and prepare your report. Take plenty of photographs, not just of individual buildings, but of their settings also - views down streets, through trees and across open spaces such as greens and commons. Be sure to include maps, current and historical ones if you can find them. Use your local library or record office.
Sometimes councils are reluctant to designate conservation areas if they feel the residents will object, but on the whole this is unlikely. Owners will usually see the value of their property increase and it is often a selling point in estate agents' particulars that a house stands in a conservation area. It is helpful to get the support and signatures of some of the residents. The council may want to organise a public meeting to explain what conservation area designation will mean in practice.
Notify the press of your efforts to get a conservation area designated and send them a copy of the booklet you have prepared.