British Archaeology, no 21, February 1997: Essay

Buildings remain, character changes

Character, a vital concept in conservation, is misunderstood, argues John Leach

For anyone concerned about the fate of listed buildings and conservation areas, the meaning of the word `character' should be a matter of fundamental importance. Character holds the key to the future of conservation because it lies at the heart of the relevant legislation. However, I believe the conservation movement does not fully understand the concept of character and too often confuses it with appearance.

In the legislation governing listed buildings - the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 - character is the crucial element in any application for consent to demolish, alter or extend a building of special architectural or historical interest. Section 7 of the Act states that

` . . . no person shall execute or cause to be executed any works for the demolition of a listed building, or for its alteration or extension, in any manner which would affect its character as a building of special architectural or historic interest . . . '
Not only is it clear that character is the crucial element, but that work can be done to a listed building without consent provided that it does not affect its character. Unfortunately, however, the Govern ment's guidance on listed buildings (PPG15) offers no interpretation of how character should be defined.

As regards conservation areas, local authorities have the power under Section 69(i) of the 1990 Act to designate `areas of special architectural or historic interest the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance'. Thus the law seeks to preserve or enhance both character and appearance and not necessarily the architectural or historic interest, although these may provide much of the character or appearance. It is important to note that character and appearance are considered in law to be two quite separate things. PPG15 is unhelpful on this subject as well.

So what, then, is character? In my own experience as a conservation officer I was involved in a number of planning matters where character was an issue. A few instances can be briefly cited.

(i) Barns listed by being in the curtilage of a Grade II listed farmhouse were proposed for conversion to residential accommodation. This was a very sympathetic conversion and the external appearance was little altered. However, a year later with the addition of aerials, washing lines and lawns, the character of these barns was ruined.

(ii) A Grade II listed church with a dwindling congregation proposed to fit cheap, unattractive electrical heaters. Whilst there would have been an adverse effect on the appearance of the interior, was this more important than retaining the dwindling congregation and its character as a place of worship?

(iii) In a manicured conservation area in a dormitory village a proposal to erect swings on the village green was met with a howl of protest because `children might play on the green'. Whilst the appearance of the green might have been adversely affected, would not its character have been enhanced by the presence of children?

In London, Leicester Square lies at the heart of `theatreland' and has a distinct character. If all the theatres closed, its appearance would not change but its character radically would.

Dictionaries emphasise the human aspect of character; and I would suggest that it is people and human activity that give character to an area. People living in blocks of flats also give character, but here the special architectural and historic interest is lacking (though perhaps not for long, recognising recent listing proposals!). It is the combination of topography, buildings and spaces of architectural and historic interest and traditional human activity that give listed buildings and conservation areas their character. Barns in agricultural use, churches used for worship, harbours used to unload cargo boats, and textile mills producing cloth are a few examples.

Indeed, government guidance recommends that the best use for a listed building is its original use. This, however, is not always practical. If many listed buildings and conservation areas are to survive, recognition has to be given to economic change, and compromises made over use and design. Central to all of this is character. Buildings may remain but people and their activities change. So does character.

English Heritage is currently recommending that `character assessments' should be carried out in conservation areas. This is good provided that the assessors recognise the human influence on character, and that reassessments are undertaken regularly to reflect any character changes that may take place.

John Leach, formerly Conservation Officer with Staffordshire Moorlands District Council, is now Curator of Tiverton Museum, Devon

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