Bloomsbury has outgrown the status of Conservation Area, and requires something new to properly protect its heritage.
‘A conservation area is an area of special historic or architectural interest, the appearance or character of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.’The statute defining a conservation area, Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.
The Bloomsbury Conservation Area is described by Camden as being its ‘most prestigious conservation area’, and indeed it is of international importance. For this reason it was one of the very first conservation areas to be designated in this country in 1968, and over decades it has steadily grown to encompass a vast proportion of Central London, stretching from Euston Square in the north to Chancery Lane in the south. The Bloomsbury Conservation Area is perhaps the first-most conservation area in terms of the sheer amount and diversity of heritage that it contains, certainly in Camden if not in London, or the whole country. Yet for this very reason, it has outgrown the protection afforded by the designation of ‘conservation area’, and stands at significant risk.
How can this be? To understand this one must first understand the details of how heritage is protected.
In determining planning applications, planning officers must weigh up many different positives and negatives to an application in a ‘balancing process’. It is clear that no planning application, at least a significant one, can be entirely positive. A large building for example may take up some light from a window or spoil a view, yet if that large building is a new state-of-the-art hospital, then evidently the positives brought by the hospital outweigh the negatives. To oversimplify things greatly, the role of a planning officer is to decide whether an application is on the whole positive or negative. If positive, it is approved, and if negative, it is rejected.
To aid planning officials are mountains of policy documents or ‘plans’ which set out various circumstances in which applications should or should not be viewed favourably, or circumstances in which applications should be outright rejected. These documents are shaped from the top down, so that central government has its planning policy (the NPPF) which then shapes the planning policy of the GLA (The London Plan), which in turn shapes the planning policy of our local authority, Camden. Camden has a Camden-wide plan (the Camden Plan 2017) and also has some plans for specific areas (like the Euston Area Plan).
The role of these documents is to help planning officials decide whether an application should be rejected or not, and to help justify an application being rejected if necessary. Rather than simply weighing up positives and benefits from scratch, their task reduces to deciding whether an application largely conforms to the policies contained within the most relevant plan. In accepting or rejecting an application, planners must make reference to exactly which policies are relevant – they cannot simply reject applications without reason.
To give an example of a policy statement, here is Camden’s Policy A2:
‘The Council will protect, enhance and improve access to Camden’s parks, open spaces and other green infrastructure.’
This means that if an application helps to do the above, it will be viewed favourably, while if it does something to damage open space, it will be viewed negatively. An application to build on top of a park for example could be rejected for ‘being contrary to Policy A2.’
Local authorities can choose to tailor their plans to suit their area so long as they agree in general with the regional and national plan. Strangely however neither the GLA nor Camden have any particular ‘tailored’ policies to heritage, which means that their heritage policies largely reflect the national heritage policies. This means that in considering applications there are a few policies in the NPPF (national policy) which are relevant.
The policy most relevant to this discussion is a single paragraph in the NPPF, Paragraph 195:
‘Where a proposed development will lead to substantial harm to (or total loss of significance of) a designated heritage asset, local planning authorities should refuse consent, unless it can be demonstrated that the substantial harm or total loss is necessary to achieve substantial public benefits that outweigh that harm or loss…’
This strongly worded statement means that if a certain amount of damage is done to the Bloomsbury Conservation Area by some application, then Camden should reject the application outright, regardless of any positives which the application may bring. It does state some circumstances under which such damage could be caused, but these rarely occur in practice. The unusually absolute nature of this statement means that if Camden were to accept an application causing substantial harm to the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, they would be open to a court challenge and probable overturning of the decision. All in all, this threshold of ‘substantial harm’ is the most harm that can be caused to the Bloomsbury Conservation Area in the balancing process before it outweighs any other public benefit.
But how exactly do we decide whether harm caused by a development is substantial harm? In practice Historic England do an expert assessment of such applications and their decision is taken as final, yet even in applications which are strongly contested by us and even Historic England themselves, harm is never judged to be substantial, and so Paragraph 195 never applies.
How can this be?
‘Heritage to Spare’
The Bloomsbury Conservation Area is large and extraordinarily rich in heritage. This should be an asset and indeed it is in real terms, but not in technical terms. The very fact that it is so large and contains so much heritage means that no single development could ever cause substantial harm to it all, because the technical nature of heritage policy means that harm is only considered relative to the whole conservation area. Put very crudely, there is plenty of heritage to spare in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, and so damaging a large amount of heritage within it does not necessarily mean that a large proportion of heritage has been damaged.
Perhaps to make the point clearer: even if an application were to erase the heritage of a whole street and therefore cause substantial harm to that one street, as Bloomsbury is large and contains many streets of high historic importance, even that could not cause substantial harm to the whole conservation area. Planners simply cannot reject applications on the grounds of causing substantial harm to a single street – they must only consider the whole conservation area.
This strange paradox inherent in the planning system means that those conservation areas which are both large and rich in heritage are less well-protected than those small conservation areas with only a small amount of heritage. To demolish an historic building in a conservation area with perhaps only ten historic buildings would most likely be considered substantial harm, and yet to demolish twenty buildings in the Bloomsbury Conservation Area is nothing compared to the thousands which it contains. In this way, Bloomsbury’s richness and size means that it can tolerate more damage before the threshold of ‘substantial’ is reached.
This perhaps goes some way to explaining the paradox which we all observe directly: that Bloomsbury is of international importance, and yet seemingly suffers the greatest amount of damage to its heritage.
The problems with this are clear, but the solutions are not so. Evidently even if every individual application causes ‘only a little’ harm to the conservation area, over time they will accumulate to cause devastation. Indeed if we consider the damage which the Bloomsbury Conservation Area has suffered since its designation in 1968, it would certainly be judged as ‘substantial’, although evidently each application was judged in its own right to be acceptable.
In this way Bloomsbury has simply outgrown the designation of conservation area and cannot be adequately protected within the current planning framework. Something new is required to counterbalance this presumption in favour of long term harm, but what could it be?
One approach could be to use the planning framework to form a planning document for Bloomsbury in its own right with greater protection for heritage. This however would have to be initiated and executed by Camden.
Another common sense approach would be to split Bloomsbury up into a multitude of smaller conservation areas. This would be the simplest way to protect its heritage but would cause massive inconvenience, and would be somewhat artificial.
The BCAAC will be discussing this problem and possible solutions with Camden.