Street clutter threat to conservation areas

English Heritage publish list of historic sites at risk of being wrecked by over-development

The nicest streets in England are gradually being wrecked – sinking under a tide of ­plastic windows, concrete roof tiles, replacement doors, satellite dishes, smashed-out front gardens and streetscapes cluttered with ugly broken paving, bollards, barriers and traffic signs.

This is the verdict of English Heritage, which has for the first time included England's 9,300 conservation areas in its annual register of historic sites at risk, which is published today.

The news is dismal: one in seven of these conservation areas are judged to be at risk, increasing to almost one in five in the 955 in London.

The problem may be exemplified by an Heritage city such as St Albans, Hertfordshire, which has a glorious abbey, medieval buildings, parks and some of the best Roman remains in Britain.

Look closer, English Heritage says, and there are problems of over-development: front gardens lost to parking, lumpen extensions, new shopping complexes punched into warrens of ancient alleys.

"This is heritage where people live," English Heritage's chief executive, Simon Thurley, said.

"Many people might never visit a castle or a stately home, but very few people in this country could spend a whole day without passing through a conservation area."

By far the greatest threat is plastic replacement windows and doors, affecting 83% of the areas at risk, followed by poorly maintained roads and pavements, 60%; street clutter, 45%; lost front gardens, walls, fences and hedges, 43%; and satellite dishes, 38%. Some measures intended to help have made things worse: traffic calming such as pinch points, barriers and speed humps blight a third of areas at risk.

Most of the buildings are not listed, but the conservation area distinction has been conferred since the 1960s on places ranging from urban terraces to rural villages, with strong local character and interesting original features.

Many have never been reappraised since, but this year English Heritage asked every local authority in England to have a fresh look, and the results are depressing.

The list includes conservation areas of former coalmining and industrial areas such as Mansfield, Sheffield and Doncaster, but also tourist magnets in the south such as Boscastle, Cornwall, the outskirts of Bath, with 19 separate areas judged at risk, Winchester, with 24 areas at risk, and the entire centre of St Albans.

Urban areas are twice as likely to be at risk as rural ones, and only 13% of local authorities have imposed the article 4 directions that allow them to ban plastic windows or other alterations.

English Heritage – which has no responsibility for the millions of unlisted buildings in conservation areas – has poured £60m in grants into listed buildings over the last four years but only 15% have shown any improvement. "It is very specifically not our responsibility [to look after unlisted buildings] - and at English Heritage we don't want extra powers, we want residents and local authorities to take on this challenge themselves," said Thurley.

Rescuing blighted conservation areas would not only be noble but practical. English Heritage also commissioned a survey from estate agents which shows that most - 82% - think original features add value to a property, and 75% think a well kept conservation area boosts house prices.All the areas at risk are published today on the English Heritage website, and the quango has also produced a campaign pack showing local residents how to identify problems and improve the streets where they live.

The picture is also grim for the rest of the heritage sector. The at-risk register lists 5,049 sites at risk of neglect, decay or actual destruction, including for the first time all scheduled monuments, including archaeological sites, on agricultural land, parks and gardens, shipwrecks and battlefields.

One in 30 of all Grade I and II* buildings are at risk; one in five of scheduled monuments; one in 15 of parks and gardens; a sixth of battlefields; and one in five shipwreck sites.

"The recession is bittersweet for us," Thurley said. "It undoubtedly lifts the pressure off some endangered sites, but it has also brought proposed developments that might have saved and found new uses for others to a juddering halt.

"There are some really hard cases on the list where we used to do a little dance in the office when we heard of a solution – but we're not doing a lot of that these days."

English Heritage is still seeking a millionaire to buy, live in, and finish the work on Apethorpe Hall, a ravishing Grade I listed Jacobean mansion in Northamptonshire which it bought in despair five years ago after an absentee Libyan owner left it to decay to the point of near collapse. Although the quality of the conservation work on the property is immaculate, the amount of public money poured into the house was pilloried in a recent television documentary. Several offers are currently being considered, but nobody has bought it yet and the glorious house remains on the Heritage at Risk register for yet another year.


Maev Kennedy

The GuardianTramp

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