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November 3, 2011

The Localism Bill's Dangerous Disregard for Local Feeling

By Spear's

Reform the Reforms Britain’s heritage needs to be protected, not harmed for quick bucks. The draft Localism Bill and National Planning Policy Framework threaten to harm not only our heritage, but our economy too.

Reform the Reforms
when we launched our Save Britain’s Historic Landscape campaign, we have been at the forefront of this critical national debate. We began our campaign by highlighting the tiny village of Winwick in Northamptonshire — population 50 — which is threatened with an invasion of vast wind turbines that will ruin the historic setting around the 15th-century manor, which was once owned by Sir Thomas Malory. A month later, the BBC’s Newsnight cameras descended on the village and highlighted the problem that while 100 per cent of the village community are opposed to the planning development, the new Localism Bill and draft National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) appear able to disregard local feeling.

Spear’s is deeply worried about this contradiction, not least in terms of the watered-down protection given to what are now known as our country’s ‘heritage assets’. During the Woodstock Literary Festival in September, Spear’s editor-in-chief William Cash gave a talk entitled ‘Saving Arcadia’ in the Oxfordshire Museum in the pretty Cotswold village of Woodstock — the HQ of David Cameron’s very own Tory constituency, where he has a home, close to the rolling parks of Blenheim Palace.

At least there is no danger of menacing wind turbines or unwanted social housing pushing up against the stone walls of Blenheim Place: the home of the Duke of Marlborough — one of the seven stately ‘Treasure Houses’ of Britain — is a designated Unesco World Heritage Site. But many other historic houses and lesser stately homes are not lucky enough to have such protection, and there is deep concern in the heritage sector that the current ‘protection’ has been greatly watered down in the draft NPPF.

What is urgently required is a revision to the draft NPPF — once the consultation ends on 17 October — that would restore previous standards, including a reference to the sturdy protection of Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning and the Historic Environment. (Whereas PPS5 had ‘the presumption in favour of conservation’, the NPPF says that ‘considerable importance and weight should be given to [heritage assets’] conservation’, a lesser protection.)

There needs to be closer regard paid to the significance of those protected heritage assets — listed buildings or scheduled monuments, sites of special scientific interest, archaeological sites, protected wreck sites, registered parks and gardens, battlefields — that directly bring in tourism, benefit the local economy and promote growth and local employment. This includes removing the de facto ‘yes’ presumption in favour of development for historic properties, affecting not just the National Trust and English Heritage but also 1,500 members of the Historic Houses Association.

In other words, there should be extra consideration given to heritage assets that help to stimulate the local economy, whether they are open to the public or offering accommodation, conference facilities or other services. There should be special designation for the historic setting of buildings of national importance that are part of the heritage tourism of the UK, one of the few sectors that is currently experiencing growth (and will do so even more next year thanks to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee celebrations).

For some years English Heritage, under Simon Thurley, have pushed for heritage protection reform. This is urgently needed as the existing national list is largely based on an out-of-date system with much of the information from photographs and site visits from the Fifties and Sixties. Unfortunately, the Heritage Protection Bill that was put forward to offer better protection has been postponed as it was thought a hindrance to economic growth. Yet this misses an even more important point: the existing draft National Planning Policy Framework is actually a threat to economic growth as it will damage heritage tourism, which currently brings in £24.1 billion a year to British economy.

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This is why our heritage needs to be protected and made more sustainable, not harmed for quick bucks. Cameron has been busy promoting heritage as a crucial plank of his ‘Britain Is Great’ campaign, to highlight what makes Britain so special for foreign investment and tourists. Let’s keep Britain great by safeguarding our unique heritage.
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