Working with the highway engineers: The Suffolk experience
Ruth Harris explains how co-operation between the two disciplines has blossomed and led to increasingly fruitful collaboration.
Conservation Officers know only too well that conservation areas comprise a mix of buildings and spaces which gives them their individual character and charm. While care for buildings largely rests with private owners, many of the spaces between buildings are in public ownership and much is public highway.
The stories of battles fought on highway land between Conservation Officers and Engineers are legendary
and in the past, usually the Highway Engineer has won largely because of his remit for ‘highway safety’ overriding all other considerations.
However, it does not necessarily have to be so. In Suffolk we have set up a dialogue between Conservation Officers and Highway Engineers which has led to better relationships, multidisciplinary working parties and inter authority communication. The advantages are clear to all: fewer inappropriate schemes in conservation areas attracting criticism; sharing of expertise; innovation and new ideas; funding packages to achieve good schemes.
The situation has been helped by the recent merging of the County Highways and Planning Departments to become the Environment and Transport Department, but things had been improving a long time before this happened.
In 1989 the County’s conservation officers formed the Suffolk Conservation Officers Forum, attended by the District Conservation & Design Officers, County Historic Buildings & Conservation Officers and representatives from English Heritage and the Suffolk Preservation Society. There was much discussion about highway works in conservation areas and the County Conservation Officer acted as a link between the Highways Authority and the Districts. There was still general confusion however, about who did what. Work could be initiated by the District Council as enhancement work, or by the County for maintenance, traffic management or road safety. Schemes sometimes appeared on the ground before a District Council knew of them, many materials were inappropriate to Suffolk conservation areas. Recriminations abounded.
In 1994 a small working party of Conservation Officers from two Districts, the County Conservation Officer and one Highway Engineer drafted a manual: The maintenance and improvement of roads and foot- ways in Suffolk’s Conservation Areas. The document was approved by the County Transport Committee and was adopted in various ways by the District Councils. The manual is now being rewritten, being brought up to date and expanded to include new sections on highway signs and street lighting.
As an approved document it can be referred to for guidance and used as a brief to consultants.

Joint forum
Following on from this in 1994 it was proposed to create a Conservation Forum attended by the District Conservation Officers, and the County Conservation Officer, and representa
tives from all Highway Authority sections: area highway management, traffic management, street lighting, maintenance, and by representatives from the three Agency areas of the county.
Initially, the agenda mainly comprised of items from the District officers, bemoaning lack of consultation, or criticising work carried out in their areas. After nine meetings, however, the Forum has become more constructive and the Engineers equally contribute to the agenda. It has now been agreed that the District Conservation Officers are consulted at an early stage on schemes in their conservation areas.
In addition, at the beginning of the new financial year, meetings are held between the Conservation Officers and the Area Highways Managers, to discuss the year’s programme. The District Conservation Officers inform the Area Highways Managers of any proposed enhancement schemes to be carried out by their Authority and specify which schemes on the County’s programme are sensitive and need careful consultation.
More recently, after large cuts in the Highway’s budget there has been a move to a partnership approach : by pooling skills and funds, joint enhancement and maintenance schemes are being carried out. Such partnerships have only been achieved by communications improving over a period of years and building on previous initiatives. The County’s Engineers are now confident to use products suitable for our village conservation areas and have spent considerable time researching the use of certain materials such as pea shingle surface dressing and the re-creation of exposed aggregate concrete (indigenous in many of our East Suffolk towns). We still have to win the battle over pink pimples at controlled crossings but in most other cases, the improved communications have led to better schemes, both aesthetically and technically.
Ruth Harris is with the Environment Section, Suffolk County Council.
Context 55 September 1997