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Planning and the Historic Environment 2002

An Agenda for the 21st century Ė 17 May 2002

The role of the Amenity Societies

Matthew Saunders

Secretary of the Ancient Monuments Society and of the Joint Amenity Societies

 

Very few historical facts remain immune from subsequent revisionism. But one truism

does I think still stand. It is this - that the conservation movement in the United Kingdom

was the product of the voluntary sector. The Government has always followed the lead

of the private campaigner not pre-empted it. The Society for the Protection of Ancient

Buildings, the SPAB, founded in 1877 remains the oldest conservation body in Europe

pre-dated only by one in Norway of 1840. It was the lobbying of the SPAB articulated

through Lubbock that led to the introduction of scheduling in 1883 and that of its children

the Georgian Group and the Victorian Society which spawned listing in 1947. The

conservation area of 1968 is well known as the brainchild of the Civic Trust. I would

however dearly like to know more about the 1932 Town and Country Planning Act,

which gave local authorities the right to serve Preservation Orders even if these were

rarely activated because of the attendant rights to compensation. The rather more

powerful Bath Corporation Act of 1937 scheduled the front and in some cases side

elevation of 1,251 buildings in that city erected before 1820 for protection on the grounds

of "historic interest" or "architectural interest or beauty". The infant Georgian Group set

up in exactly that year may have had a hand but Iíd love to know more.

 

As the Grand Old Man of Conservation the SPAB, albeit from a modest membership

base standing now at 6,000, has exerted considerable authority particularly through its

Technical Panel and its sheltering of the guttering flame of truth in its Manifesto which

inveighs against shamming as well as destruction. In the 1924 it spawned, as much by

reaction as by direct insemination, the Ancient Monuments Society (now combined with

the Friends of Friendless Churches) which retained its base in Manchester until 1953 and

regarded itself as the informal equivalent in the North of William Morrisís creation.

Incontestable offspring included the Georgian Group with a diverse band of founders

including Robert Lutyens and the architect Duke of Wellington which moved into its own

freehold headquarters in a Robert Adam house in Fitzroy Square in Londonís west end in

1995 and the Victorian Society first established 1958. The latterís founders were an

illustrious if occasionally ill-digested group including John Betjeman, James Richards

and Nikolaus Pevsner, all of them later knighted. It has always been an indication of the

eclectic nature of the conservation movement in this country that its leaders have

included men like Richards and Pevsner who have made their reputation as apostles of

the Modern Movement. The crude division in the public mind between those who

espouse old architecture and therefore must hate the new has never been true of its

intellectual leaders.

 

In the years after the Victorian Society the organisations tumbled forth. The last of those

dealing with a set chronological period, the Thirties Society, emerged in 1980. Despite

its name, later changed to the Twentieth Century Society, it has always dealt with the

period after 1914 (the decade and a half at the beginning of the twentieth century being

then and now regarded as the preserve of the Victorian Society). There have on

occasions been tensions within that organisation between the various strands of

architectural thought although there is a refreshing freedom from ideological intolerance.

There were the traditionalists particularly Roger Gradidge for whom Lutyens is beyond

criticism, the flat-roofers who respond to the white walls and rectilinearity of the Modern

and the New Brutalists whose chief delight is the bush-hammered concrete of more

recent years. DoCoMoMo UK founded in 1990 has the narrower brief of defending only

the pure products of the Modern Movement.

 

The Garden History Society emerged in 1965 and has like nearly all the societies seen its

brief as dual: to research and to educate, and to campaign and to conserve. Its younger

and more obviously Epicurean sister the Folly Fellowship came together in 1988 but it

too marries the pursuit of pleasure with a journal which is essential for anybody

interested in the field.

 

SAVE (full title SAVE Britainís Heritage) burst upon the scene in 1975, its principal

mover and shaker being then, as now, Marcus Binney, who is also behind the freshly

announced Heritage Link. It saw its role initially as one of blowing the occasional

raspberry after what it saw as the element of self-congratulation in European

Architectural Heritage Year. It has combined press releases and reports with heroic

action stepping in where others have feared to tread as in the iconic cases of the Lyceum

club in Liverpool, All Saintís Church Haley Hill in Halifax and Barlaston Hall in

Staffordshire. Its ultimate stand against a Goliath was the contesting through the courts,

mostly in 1990, of the consent Lord Palumbo received to demolish nine listed buildings

on the "Mansion House Square" or "No. 1 Poultry" site in the City of London. It won the

first stages but lost the last and at one point faced a legal bill of £90,000.

 

The late 1970ís and 1980ís saw the Tiles and Architectural Ceramics Society and the

Historic Farm Buildings Group launched in 1985, both of them an unrivalled focus of

their particular discipline. The Fortress Study Group took under its protective and

scholarly wing military establishments both medieval and modern whilst even relatively

limited building types such as piers acquired their own stalwart band of defenders. 1995

saw "Save Our Parsonages" (SOP) with the aim of stemming the now well advanced

programme of disposal of historic rectories and parsonages by the church authorities. It

seems extraordinary that the Association of Conservation Officers founded in 1981 has

only just emerged from its second decade, so authoritative has been its voice as the ACO

and as the successor body the IHBC.

 

This coming together of the like-minded is unparalleled in the world. Other countries

have seen the formation of conservation organisations, but nearly all are generalists and

without the specialist brief. Absolutely unique apart from the Netherlands, and in a

slightly different way Norway, has been the way that Her Majestyís Government draws

upon this reservoir of commitment and knowledge. From the late 1980ís the national

conservation organisations, christened for these purposes the National Amenity Societies,

have been formally drawn into the planning process under the requirement that every

application to demolish a listed building in whole or part in England and in Wales has to

be notified to the Ancient Monuments Society, the SPAB, the Georgian Group, the

Victorian Society, the Council for British Archaeology and indirectly the Twentieth

Century Society in order to allow them to comment. Under the aegis of the Joint

Committee of the National Amenity Societies they are also able to make nominations to

each of the 42 Anglican Diocesan Advisory Committees and the Non-Anglican

equivalents set up in 1994. There is a similar arrangement north of the border that

involves the Scottish Civic Trust and the Scottish Architectural Heritage Society. In

Northern Ireland the highly respected Ulster Architectural Heritage Society is not

involved by law in the planning process but has had a very considerable say in the

identification of buildings for listing, a number of its draft lists being adopted without

alteration. The Garden History Society has enjoyed statutory status as the consultee in

England since 1995 and is likely to enjoy that role in Wales from this year.

 

The final full member of the Joint Committee, the Civic Trust, co-ordinates the many

local civic societies which have provided the bedrock for the communal pride and

appreciation without which conservation policies would be blowing in the wind. In 1939

there were 101 local amenity societies. By 1964 the Trust had registered 300, by 1972

760 and the figure is now 950. A handful of these have over 2,000 members apiece.

So much for this rather hurried historical tableau. What now is and what should be the

agenda for the voluntary movement for the century that has just started ?

 

Firstly, this hurried picture must also appear a hideously distorted one as there has been

no mention of the National Trust. The National Amenity Societies have an aggregate

membership without consideration of overlapping membership of some 18,000. And yet

the membership of the NT is closing on 3 million. It is the largest civil organisation in

Western Europe with a membership greater than that of all political parties in this country

put together. As an expression of grass roots support for conservation it is without

parallel. And as we face the twenty-first century it is rediscovering its own campaigning

roots. To some in recent years it has seemed a sleeping giant but now under the new

leadership of Fiona Reynolds it has placed itself with consent and with diplomacy once

again at the head of the conservation movement. This is done most dramatically by

funding for the first year the post of administrator of the newly founded Heritage Link on

which I expand later. The NT already has a policy unit larger than that of any equivalent

voluntary movement and is in key areas leading the debate particularly on the

countryside, sustainability and fiscal issues. My own belief is that the leadership role of

the NT has the potential to make more difference to the effectiveness of the voluntary

movement than any other single change in the twenty-first century. It is worth reflecting

on the change in the organisations membership. In 1939 this was a modest 7,100. Even

in 1948 the membership in Wales was 500. In 1970 the figure was 226,000, by 1981 it

was one million, by 1990 2 million. Although some of its own membership may have

misgivings, it is discovering some of its radicalisms. In the twenty-first century watch

out for the NT.

 

The other organisation with which the societies interact is much more of a newcomer.

This is English Heritage, which has only been around since 1983. There is a synergy

between EH and the Societies that is actually very strong. No less than five EH

inspectors began their life working for the societies, on, I have to say, much more modest

salaries. And full circles are being turned in at least one case with Frank Kelsall and the

AMS, a semi-retired EH Inspector coming to work for one of the National Amenity

Societies. EH sees its role and that of the societies as essentially complementary; in the

consultation process this is directly so, in that we will see most applications affecting

Grade II buildings, still 94% of the total number of listed buildings, whereas EH reserves

its guns to Grade II* and Grade I and only on Grade IIís where the threat is total or

substantial demolition. For EH to serve as policeman and advisor where we do would

require an increase in its own staff which its finances would preclude. And that is a

principal argument on our part against the single most depressing start to the new

millennium which is the Governmentís threat to the National Amenity Societies in the

Planning Green Paper. Since 1972 the Societies have been told by law of applications for

listed building consent in England and Wales where there is any element of demolition.

The vast majority of these of course are partial demolition, although 200 is still a

threatening total. Government accuses us of slowing down the process which we

absolutely refute as local authorities can go to determination once the 14, 21 or 28 day

consultation period has expired. This is normally co-terminus with the statutory

consultation period with neighbours and the onus is on us to reply rather than them to

chase us or wait for a response. We genuinely believe that we improve the decisionmaking

process and believe that for the health of civil society cutting out the voluntary

sector is a thoroughly bad thing. As you might expect we are lobbying hard to retain a

consultee role but it will affect dramatically our ability to change matters in the twentyfirst

century if that power is dropped or trimmed. If the Government wins I suspect one

reaction will be an even closer relationship between EH and the Societies even though we

reserve the right to criticise EH and adopt the role of purist defender of buildings where

EH may for reasons political or financial have to be a trimmer. So the National Trust has

already emerged as a key partner and EH may be even more of a one than it has been

hitherto.

 

One of the reasons why there is a threat to demote our status is I think the belief that the

heroic days of conservation are over. In 1979 nearly 700 listed buildings were the subject

of applications to demolish in their entirety in England and Wales. Now that figure

regularly hovers around 200 at a time when the number of listed buildings has doubled in

the interim. For residential properties in good condition listing can now be regarded as an

accolade rather than a curse. Just as the threat from the sudden death of demolition has

decreased, it is our belief that death by a thousand cuts may be as damaging in aggregate.

The plastic window has only been around since 1977 but has done more damage than any

other single phenomenon to the character of every street in the country. We recognise

that in order to defeat it we need to advance arguments not just visual but others linked to

the demands of sustainability. The decline in the availability and competence of the

craftsman, the contractor and to some extent the professional supervisor is also becoming

increasingly marked, I have to say pointedly so, especially in Wales. The educational

functions of all the Societies especially those of the SPAB will be needed even more in

the twenty-first century. We can help not only by offering bursaries but by increasingly

pushing the virtue of architectural history in the curriculum of architecture schools and

perhaps even, wonder of wonders, in theological colleges. The Societies as vehicles of

education face challenges as acute as that for casework in this century.

 

Broadly speaking the membership profile of the Societies is of the educated middleclasses.

Spreading a message beyond these social confines is difficult but we are learning

the language of inclusiveness and showing through local campaigning whether it be for

the threatened cinema, urban park or aircraft hangar how we can engage with those who

have never been engaged with formal conservation before. With names like the Ancient

Monuments Society I doubt we will ever be mass in membership but we are very

conscious of the Power of Place agenda which calls quite rightly for the cause that so

inspires us to reflect the polyglot society in which we now live - not by underselling or

mis-selling but by tapping the local frustration at seeing the spread of the plastic window,

the much-loved building left derelict and wrecked and the crassness of some modern

design particularly that purporting to be "historic" in spirit. We have a battle there but

we are aware of the need.

 

In the twenty-first century the professionalism of the pressure group will no doubt deepen

as will the need for more formal camaraderie. To that extent we have always tried to

work together with the Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies set up in 1972

but now we are expanding beyond that through the Heritage Link. This was formally set

up in 2002 and now has a new Secretary, Christopher Catling appointed on 7th May. The

Link will bring together forty or more voluntary organisations although these will

strenuously maintain their independence. Initial co-ordination will be over the Planning

Green Paper but the ultimate goal is to make the heritage organisations as effective a

lobbying group as those within the natural environment. We are I think unashamedly

jealous of the high profile and clout of the CPRE and seek to follow suit.

 

One of the overarching presences of the twenty-first century will be that of the superbloc

like the European Union combined with its opposite, subsidiarity, delegating more power

to local level. Europe remains one of the key centres that we have to lobby on VAT but

understanding the machinery of Brussels is an art within itself. The Chairman of the

Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies John Sell is peculiarly adept at it but

it can be taxing and frustrating. The most novel innovation under subsidiarity is

increasing regionalisation. This is peculiarly difficult for us to address. The Societies do

have branches at present but only in a few areas and certainly not in all nine Government

regions. We tend not to relate to the north west or south east as such but much more

beyond district councils to those operating at county level. And yet the Planning Green

Paper also implies increased threat to county councils. The loss of the outstanding teams

of experts at this level whether it be in Essex, Hampshire, Derbyshire would be a

hammer-blow and although we have to adapt to a structure which has all the force of

New Labour behind it we have equally to arrange that conservation remains a key player.

To give them their due some of the new regional structures do that but again the lobbying

of Societies has helped. It is worth singling out the North West in particular praise in that

regard.

 

Finally, some of us in the Societies have been crystal ball gazing with a view to

predicting future threats to given building types and conservation practices. In the first

category comes the agricultural building where the trend to larger farms with less

buildings will no doubt continue. The traditional public house is becoming increasingly

marginalized by the new vogue for theme pubs, in itself quite a benign use of redundant

banks, chapels or even opera houses. The bank itself until the recent change of heart

over greater reliance on the internet rather than face-to-face meetings looked set to

disappear completely in twenty years. With the non-conformist chapel retrenchment is

likely to continue particularly if the presently tentative moves towards a union of the

Anglican and Methodist churches takes place. The rate of redundancy among Anglican

churches is now down to 30 a year in England but a quite terrifying number are

dependent on five or six loyal people mostly over seventy. Care in the Community has

been rolled back but the days of the large institutional hospital are numbered whilst the

great nineteenth century barracks, prisons and dock buildings have already been through

their particular conservation crises. All of these are areas where the Societies are looking

to greater or lesser extent to inform the debate. Some of us too can see the scope for

further long-term studies alongside the excellent ones of English Heritage and Historic

Scotland on the availability of traditional materials such as stone and thatch, whether

their production needs subsidy in much the same way as agricultural production and

whether and how they could be made more competitive in relation to synthetic

substitutes. Systematic research is also essential in tackling sub-themes such as the

conservation of church monuments where the problem of concealed cramps is becoming

increasingly manifest and stained glass where the internal dynamic towards decay

particularly through the so-called "Borax effect" is building up an enormous conservation

bill for the future. And it is now some thirty years since the Civic Trust carried out its

pioneering examination of the effect of road traffic on historic buildings. Scope here

perhaps for further investigation?

 

Apart from the privileged few like myself within the voluntary movement who are

actually paid, conservation is critically dependent upon those who believe with passion in

the cause but donít seek to make a living from it. Those who accept the role of trustee of

conservation charities know that by law they cannot be paid. The countryís 20,000 parish

churches depend upon the commitment of church wardens to raise money to clear out the

gutters, to protect against the vandal all of whom again by law and by definition cannot

be paid.

 

The voluntary movement, of which the conservation sector is but a small part, is critical

to the future of protection of the historic environment and we trust that the twenty-first

century will see its further flowering and further recognition of this key role.