Conservation issues that need addressing

The recent news that two local businesses are to close has caused a great deal of concern in Bridport. Both cited the rising costs of energy as the reason behind their decision, but one, a bakery, also cited the rising costs of ingredients and the fact they were refused permission to install solar panels on their roof. Solar panels would not have supplied all the energy that the bakery needed, but they could have made a vital difference to its viability.

Unfortunately this refusal was far from an isolated incident. Time and again the local planning authority have refused applications for solar panels on local listed buildings, or buildings lying within local conservation areas. To be fair to the current planning authority, Dorset Council, the bakery’s application was turned down by the previous authority, West Dorset District Council, but this doesn’t let Dorset off the hook. I, together with a sizable number of fellow local councillors, have been getting increasingly frustrated by the conservative (small ‘c’) attitude of Dorset Council’s planning department towards such applications.

And it’s not just councillors who recognise the problem. At last night’s meeting of Dorset Council, for example, a member of the public cited Dorset Climate Action Network’s call for the Council’s policies to take a more flexible approach on renewables and energy conservation on historic buildings and in conservation areas. During public questions the Council was specifically asked whether it will adopt a more flexible approach. The answer, from the Leader of the Council, was, I’m afraid, typically vague and unhelpful. He simply stated the obvious by saying that the Council had a duty to give consideration to conservation issues and that we need to find sensitive solutions to these issues.

The reason usually given for the refusal of applications to install solar panels on these particular buildings is that their installation would cause what planning officers term ‘less than substantial harm to the significance’ of the building or area: harm that is not outweighed by the public benefit. This argument needs challenging on two counts.

First there is the question of whether the harm caused by simply being able to see the panels is outweighed by the public benefit. It terms of solar panels the growing imperative to generate as much renewable energy as possible surely tips the scales in favour of the panels. Solar panels can be removed, businesses forced to close rarely reopen and often the buildings they once inhabited fall into disrepair.

Second, in my experience planning officers never give a statement as to the nature of the significance that is supposedly harmed. National planning guidance defines significance as “The value of a heritage asset to this and future generation because of its heritage interest”. But who determines the value the current generation of West Dorset residents attach to their heritage assets? When was the last time the residents of West Dorset were consulted? For all our planning officers know it may be that most of us will not value our conservation areas any less simply because a few solar panels can be seen.

My point here is that planning officers, and particularly the conservation officers who advise them, need to start consulting residents regarding what they value. This is not just my view. It is also the view Kate Clark, an industrial archaeologist who has had a career in heritage management. It her book Playing With The Past she writes: “Traditionally, heritage specialists have used their expertise to define the significance of heritage sites, but increasingly practitioners will need to behave less like dictators and more like facilitators – listening to people, engaging with communities and helping groups to explore what matters, rather than telling them.”

I very much suspect that many, if not most, local residents would value the presence of viable local shops and businesses over the sight of roof mounted solar panels that happen to lie with in a conservation area. But we won’t know this until we ask them. Preserving the past at the expense of our future wellbeing is not a price worth paying. Allowing town centre buildings to lie empty and neglected is not protecting them for future generations.

Investment Zones are not the answer

I’m sure that no one doubts that we desperately need investment in our local communities, in particular to insulate our homes and workplaces, to provide local jobs for local people, to provide clean and cheap renewable energy and to recover our depleted nature and weakening food systems. Our communities have crumbling services, from social care to local public transport. Locally agreed investment priorities, with the right incentives, could begin a green transformation of our country and support the local economy, without allowing the rich to get even richer and wealth to flow into corporations based in tax havens.

Instead the government has brought forward plans that could see predatory developers and landowners riding rough-shod over agreed local priorities, further damaging our already degraded environments, and reducing commitments to affordable homes and to community facilities. These plans, rather than boosting local economies, could be a threat to existing sustainable businesses. ‘Investment Zones’ are a core element in the Tory ‘Growth Plan’, heralded by the now unravelling mini-budget. According to the Government “Investment Zones will accelerate the housing and infrastructure the UK needs to drive economic growth.”

Government guidance states that their aim is to “remove burdensome EU requirements”. These include Habitats Regulations and the requirement to provide an Environmental Impact Assessment, key tools in protecting nature during the planning process. Even worse, the guidance seems to allow for Investment Zones in National Parks, Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty and other protected environments. The stated expectation to ‘mitigate environmental impacts’ fails to meet the government’s own – already weak – ‘biodiversity net gain’ requirement outside investment zones. No wonder the major environmental protection organisations have called into question the Government’s commitment to its own legal target to halt the decline of wildlife by 2030.

The legal requirement to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050 through a series of carbon targets has been completely ignored. The guidance states that “Key planning policies to ensure developments are well designed, maintain national policy on the Green Belt, protect our heritage, and address flood risk, highway and other public safety matters” will apply, but it is silent on climate change commitments. The stated intention is to “accelerate” development. To do so without explicit carbon commitments is reckless in the extreme! “The planning system”, the guidance goes on to say, “will not stand in the way of investment and development”, and that Investment Zones “will benefit from a liberalised planning process”. This clearly means that local communities will lose their rights to resist unsustainable development. Instead, developers will get to by-pass local objections entirely. These objections are often on environmental grounds.

In my opinion the planning system is already unfit for purpose. Local Plans should be pro-active in stating not just were the Local Planning Authority wants development to take place, but the type and design of this development. Instead it is reactive, in as much as once sites for development have been identified it is totally in the hands of the developer what is built. The creation of Investment Zones will further reduce the power that Councils have, and have a chilling effect on planning everywhere. Developers will insist they can’t compete against IZs without looser regulation outside the zones too. House builders will avoid locally agreed requirements for affordable housing, meaning many local families, key workers and those facing homelessness will continue to be left behind.

The driving force behind the current government’s strategy is a simplistic and all-encompassing belief in growth as the universal panacea for all our problems. Yes, there are sections of our economy that it makes good sense to grow – renewable energy and the retrofitting of energy saving improvements to our existing housing stock for example. But blanket growth for the simple purpose of increasing Gross Domestic Product in the belief that the wealth accumulated by the already well-off will trickle down to the rest of us is at best naïve. Moreover, infinite growth on a planet with finite resources is impossible.

But it will also be disastrous for our attempts to limit the effects of global warming. Releasing new land for development is wrong on so many levels. Green-field sites, land that is currently undeveloped, must, as far as possible, stay undeveloped. We need to do a thorough assessment of not just the number of new houses we need (note need, not want) but the type of housing we need. We should then aim to build any new housing on brown-field sites, and be prepared to create higher density housing rather than build on currently undeveloped land.