A Conservation Area is an area of special architectural or historic interest with a character or appearance that is desirable to preserve or enhance. There are no standard specifications for Conservation Areas; they may include the historic parts of a town or village, have an important industrial past or, for example, cover an historic park. Invariably such areas will have a concentration of historic buildings, many of which may be listed. However, it will be the quality and interest of the area which will be significant. This may include spaces around buildings, views and vistas, historic street patterns, gardens (public and private), trees and field systems. Conservation areas give broader protection than listing individual buildings: all the features, listed or otherwise, within the area, are recognised as part of its character. The first conservation areas were created in 1967, and there are now over 8000 conservation areas in England. There are 145 in Cornwall.
Conservation areas were introduced through the Civic Amenities Act 1967. The primary legislation is the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 and the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. The key reference to government policy on all development affecting conservation areas is Planning Policy Guidance Note (PPG) 15 'Planning and the historic environment' (1994). The definition of a conservation area remains as 'areas of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance' (Section 69(1)(a) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990.
Local authorities have the power to designate as conservation areas in any area of 'special architectural or historic interest' whose character or appearance is worth protecting or enhancing. This 'specialness' is judged against local and regional criteria, rather than national importance as is the case with listing. English Heritage can designate conservation areas in London, where we have to consult the relevant London Borough Council and obtain the consent of the Secretary of State for National Heritage. The Secretary of State can also designate in exceptional circumstances - usually where the area is of more than local interest.
Within a conservation area the local authority has extra controls over:
- minor developments
- the protection of trees
Applications for consent to totally or substantially demolish any building within a conservation area must be made to the local planning authority, or, on appeal or call-in, to the Secretary of State for the Environment. Procedures are basically the same as for listed building consent applications. Generally there is a presumption in favour of retaining buildings which make a positive contribution to the character or appearance of the conservation area. Obtaining permission is necessary before making changes which would normally be permitted elsewhere, to ensure that any alterations do not detract from the area's appearance. These changes include certain types of cladding, inserting dormer windows, and putting up satellite dishes which are visible from the street.
Under legislation introduced in 1995, local authorities can make further restrictions on the kind of alterations allowed, depending on how these might affect the key elements of buildings in the conservation area. Examples might be putting up porches, painting a house a different colour, or changing distinctive doors, windows or other architectural details. The local authority has to have good reason for making these restrictions, and must take account of public views before doing so.
Trees make an important contribution to the character of the local environment. Anyone proposing to cut down, top or lop a tree in a conservation area, whether or not it is covered by a tree preservation order, has to give notice to the local authority. The authority can then consider the contribution the tree makes to the character of the area and if necessary make a tree preservation order to protect it.