Conservation Areas and Local Lists: saviours of significant buildings?
The Sudbury Society is concerned, and not a little puzzled about the proposals for a small group of Victorian buildings on the corner of Prince Street and New Street in the Conservation Area. These are the former Conservative Club (total demolition), New Hall former silk factory (partial demolition) and Victoria Hall (demolition but the façade will be retained and restored, but how good will that be?)
In the early 2000s the Sudbury Society and Babergh’s Building Conservation Team worked closely in compiling a Local List of significant buildings in Sudbury, i.e. those buildings which do not merit being nationally Listed buildings but for various reasons are important to Sudbury. David Burnett, then chairman of the Sudbury Society, was the prime mover behind photographing the selected buildings and, with a brief description of each, this resulted in the beautiful book, Sudbury: The Unlisted Heritage – and the establishment of a Local List for Babergh’s use.
At the time, this was quite a radical thing to do; most places did not have such a list. Indeed, Sudbury was regarded as a good example to be followed by all towns so that now Local Lists of significant buildings are no longer rarities in local authorities. (The Lavenham Society are so impressed with Sudbury: Unlisted Heritage and web equivalent that they are now drawing up their own.)
Local Lists (and Conservation Areas) are intended to offer at least a modicum of protection for buildings against inappropriate changes and demolition, particularly small or more ‘humble’ Victorian and Edwardian buildings which are mostly not covered by national Lists. The Sudbury Society and Babergh’s building conservation team collaborated in this joint effort and it worked well and amicably. So what has changed?
Today’s Heritage Department of Babergh District Council recognises the value of Local Lists and Conservation Areas. Its website states: “Local lists play an important role in building and keeping a sense of local character and distinctiveness in the historic environment. Local lists can be used to identify local heritage assets and can be produced by local communities working with the District Council.
They can help manage and understand what is special in a place in addition to what is covered by the national list of historic buildings.”
The Babergh/Mid Suffolk District is also home to 60 Conservation Areas, one of which covers much of the heart of Sudbury. These are areas designated by the local planning authority. They are designated for their special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which is desirable to preserve or enhance.”
So, we were surprised and dismayed to discover that both Sudbury Town Council Planning Committee and Babergh District Council Planning Committee actually voted to demolish these properties.
This went against the recommendation and advice of Babergh’s Heritage Team and its Planning Department, as well as the Sudbury Society and Suffolk Preservation Society who could see that these buildings were integral to the area.
What was the reason for going against the recommendations and advice of bodies who know about heritage buildings and appreciate the role of period buildings in sustaining the character of a place? These organisations were all adamant about retaining these buildings, adapting them to new uses and strongly resisted demolition.
We fear that sanctioning demolition will open the floodgates to developers who can simply follow this precedent. This means, in effect, that no building in a Conservation Area or on the Local List is safe. It rather begs the question: what is the point of these then if they are ignored by the bodies who helped set them up?
What will replace the Conservative Club, Victoria Hall and New Hall? We fear that overpowering, mediocre, insensitive blocks of flats, out-of-keeping in style, materials and colours, would intrude on the streetscape disrupting sight lines, obscuring other existing buildings and adding nothing to the ambience of the area.
An agreement to use special grey ‘gault clay’ bricks in the building that will replace the Conservative Club misses the point. These Local List and Conservation Area buildings form a small complex in a Victorian, low-rise, residential area which will not be enhanced by new buildings.
Suffolk Preservation Society website states: “... the Councillors considered that new buildings would enhance the Conservation Area and this outweighed the case for preservation. The Suffolk Preservation Society finds this creative interpretation of the Planning Acts surprising and awaits the issue of the reason for refusal with interest.”
All this brings back horrible memories of the 1960s when nothing was safe from the wrecker’s ball and had the blessing of local authorities. You don’t need to look far to see what replaced many a fine old building.