The conservation of an exceptional Regency shopping street – Part VIII

  1. A NEW MANAGEMENT APPROACH FOR WOBURN WALK

The previous chapter dealt with the physical threats to the terraces raised in Chapter 5. This chapter addresses the problems with management, also identified in Chapter 5.

This is not the place for a full-scale review of built heritage management, especially if I am to retain the compassion of my reader. The complexities involved between legislation, local authority powers, sources of funding etc are vast and could easily be used to derail any attempt at presenting a plan for an individual site. I intend to present a number of practical suggestions that could be followed irrespective of the current structures of heritage management, or legislative changes to it. The consideration of Woburn Walk at local level is the both the history, and future, of its successful survival.

  1. ENGAGING STAKEHOLDERS IN THE FUTURE OF WOBURN WALK

Dealing with the issues of multi-ownership

There is undoubtedly a necessity of helping freeholders, leaseholders & tenants understand their responsibilities with respect to listed buildings in their care, and how each can put a maintenance programme in place to avoid unnecessary damage and expense. Whilst there will always be a minority of individuals who are prepared to flaunt controls over planning and listed building status in pursuit of commercial or personal gain, many of the small changes that occur over time are at the hands of well-meaning individuals who were not aware of the significance of their actions.

It is essential to establish a dialogue with the stakeholders (owners, leaseholders and tenants) in order to build a more open and accessible system of asset management.

The south terrace, 4 to 18 Woburn Walk, is exceptionally fortunate to have enjoyed residency by each occupant of between 11 and 70 years – surely not many streets in London can boast such an established community? When I spoke with the residents of the street I found an overwhelming interest and pride in their heritage, an interest that does not appear to have been harnessed by the local authority. What is particularly interesting is that despite a wide variety of backgrounds and personal concerns, all residents share an interest in the houses, and have a relatively informed perspective on their conservation, despite not being directly involved in conservation at a professional level.  The street also has an active Residents & Traders Association.

Information for owners of listed buildings is available on the council website, but this is passive and requires the owner to have some degree of knowledge about Listed Building control to seek it out in the first place, and to make judgements based on what is presented there.

The problem of understanding what is right for the street is exacerbated when council departments contradict each other in attempting to implement their differing agendas. The various council departments that are concerned with the street (covering planning, building control, trees, street maintenance, disabled access etc.) are perceived by residents and traders to vary in their interest from exuberance to non-interventionist. The council’s inaction with regard to enforcement against previous alterations is all too clear from looking at the Significance and Condition Table. This appears to be maintaining only the status quo of confusion, leading to inaction.

The nub of the issue appears to be not so much the problem of horses and water, but of mutual derogation of responsibility. It is a negative model of engagement engendering distrust rather than open discussion. The challenge is one of promoting information sharing and openness.

An accessible, tailored Conservation Management Plan that covers the work of all relevant council departments could prevent further confusion, saving time, money and reducing the frustration of the owners, residents and traders.

 

  1. TAKING ACTION AT THE LOCAL LEVEL – PROPOSALS FOR A NEW SYSTEM OF MANAGEMENT AND STEWARDSHIP OF WOBURN WALK

The nature of listed buildings is that they are special, and therefore surely each needs some degree of individual consideration. A Conservation Management Plan tailored to the site-specific needs of Woburn Walk would be an important milestone to ensuring that future decisions, plans and work will minimise damage to historic fabric and preserve the buildings for the future. The Plan should be disseminated to owners, residents, shopkeepers, businesses, relevant departments of the council, English Heritage and the amenity groups such as The Georgian Group.

A Conservation Management Plan for private properties must take into account the different uses of the buildings, together with the varied objectives and financial resources of its users. On Woburn Walk this includes small businesses and elderly council tenants.

To date, Conservation Management Plans are largely associated with large institutions or services, universities, churches, fire stations, underground stations etc, or large sites or sites with a collection of heritage assets.[1] But their relevance could be just as pertinent for the listed street in multi-ownership. In this situation, it is the number of owners and their complexity within a uniform asset, rather than the number of complex assets under one owner, that makes a plan of this sort indispensible.

The local authority’s guidelines on listed buildings provided on their website[2] and the information contained within the government’s Planning Policy Guidance (PPG15)[3] are clear, but are understandably non-specific about what constitutes repair work which requires permission; preferring that owners should turn to the relevant planning department for advice in each case. But local authorities hardly have spare time on their hands to patrol their streets looking for any and all hooky repairs taking place. A Conservation Management Plan tailored to an individual asset or group of assets is partly intended likely to give clarity on what may and may not be done to a specific building. [4]

Problems with Conservation Management Plans

However, even expertly researched and written Conservation Management Plans can stumble and fall when submitted to reality. Some obvious key problems that have been identified include:

 

  • Lack of relevance to the lives and needs of all owners and users
  • Lack of real, clear examples of permitted works and how to undertake them
  • Lack of funding to realise the content of the plan

 

The Conservation Management Plan does have its detractors. As Chris Miele succinctly states: “…it assumes rational actors with shared value systems engaging with a predictable process”.[5]  The key problem is how offer a series of solutions which recognises and addresses the needs of all stakeholders, which draws them into the process even if they do not get everything they want from it. Encouragingly, Miele adds: “…conservation plans can provide a shared basis of understanding amongst parties with otherwise competing aims or interests.”[6] But in order to achieve this admirable goal, an organised programme of information sharing and opinion gathering will be necessary.

Housing departments within local authorities do undertake these sorts of programmes as part of major redevelopments or proposed changes in management of their estates. The Alexandra Road Estate in Camden is a good example of this form of consultation, which was documented and reported in detail on their website. I prepared a brief questionnaire, which a number of residents and shopkeepers on Woburn Walk answered for me.[7] Their engagement and response was encouraging and further consultation of this sort could contribute considerably to a Conservation Management Plan shared by all.

A user-orientated Conservation Management Plan is a great start, but it must be so easily accessible it is unavoidable. It must also offer sufficient advantage to the user that they are drawn to take part for their own benefit.

An interactive, web-based resource for managing Woburn Walk

I would propose an interactive and accessible web-based plan, which is written for the access and benefit of all the local stakeholders, as well as the conservation professionals and council departments.  Whilst the elderly council tenant may not find a web-based system helpful, the general improvement of information available to all residents and council staff will increase awareness, and the council staff should be better placed to assist via the telephone if they too can access a website dedicated to the street. A ‘living’ document such as this can easily be updated with contact names, numbers and information.

 

An interactive web-based information and management tool (linked from the local authority website and English Heritage’s Heritage Gateway website) would give owners and residents easy access to historical and conservation management details regarding the street; the houses; and their individual property.  By way of putting flesh on the bones, it could provide the following information (some of which may already exist but may not be widely known about):

  1. Registration of owners together with the individual record of their property, including a statement of the reasons their building is listed and what this means specifically for their building.
  2. Photographic records of the street stating what should be preserved and what should be removed.
  3. Photographic examples of original internal joinery, plasterwork etc as a source to enable others to re-instate correct features.
  4. Contact names and numbers for those responsible in all various departments relevant to the conservation and repair of the street and buildings.
  5. Contact names and telephone numbers for pre-application advice to avoid submission of unrealistic proposals and encourage alterations to make the proposals more acceptable.
  6. Calendar template for residents to help them undertake basic maintenance tasks and checks.
  7. A ‘traffic light’ system such as that of the Golden Lane Estate Management Plan[8], clearly showing what alterations and repairs do and do not require permission, and which are likely to be refused, tailored to the specifics of the street. The creation of a plan that benefits owners could help break down the current adversarial nature of planning control by providing specifications for self-repair which can be excluded from the remit of planning permission, and thereby overcome the disincentive to undertake repair work to their building.
  8. Guidance on repairs to specific timberwork, glass, render and plaster as found in PPG15. Example specifications for these permitted works including methods and materials to be used to be available to assist owners in preparing for works.
  9. Select and direct links to approved sources such as national amenity groups including SPAB, Georgian Group, English Heritage etc for information on repair, and details of vetted companies who undertake works to listed buildings.
  10. Links to information on fundraising from companies, trusts and the community.
  11. History section with information on the history of the street and area including old photographs. Residents could add contemporary photographs and details of events to the site.

More advanced steps toward a full web-based Conservation Management Plan

A link might also be usefully be made with the other built environment professionals. By bringing together conservation architects, structural engineers, building surveyors, local housing managers etc., it may be possible to develop an integrated multi-disciplinary approach to organise the maintenance and stewardship of the street. The ‘start up’ investment to set up such a scheme might come from an English Heritage or Heritage Lottery Fund grant, and could be run by a conservation architect’s practice. The following proposals would require greater stakeholder buy-in and engagement via consultation. In signing up to the proposals, owners and leaseholders would be acquiring a management plan that will uphold the value of their property and help prevent unauthorised works or potential enforcement actions.

Advanced steps could include:

  1. A consultation period led by a neutral facilitator such as a conservation architect, in conjunction with English Heritage, to examine both the necessary repairs and also factors which affect the owners, residents, shop keepers and offices, and produce a Conservation Management Plan to be available online in an interactive form as above – not just as a fixed PDF document.
  2. Accessing properties to record interiors with description and photographs to update online listing record and password protection for internal images to protect privacy.
  3. Combined quinquennial structural and condition survey for the entire street.
  4. Preparation of specification and tender documentation for specialist repairs identified in survey. Repairs could be more cost effective if done as a group, and as a result of a regular inspection.
  5. Small grants made available by the local authority, matched by English Heritage for specialist repairs.
  6. Additional funding for repairs from a sinking fund for the street supported by in part by a contribution from business rates and residential council tax. This would mirror the ‘service charge’ system administered by freeholders over leaseholders.
  7. This fund could also be supplemented by income generated from production companies who frequently use the street as a period film set.[9]
  8. It could also be supplemented by funding for heritage protection from developers under Section 106 of The Town & Country Planning Act 1990 regarding ‘Planning Gain’.

How realistic are these proposals?

It is rather easy to argue that any attempt to put into practice a more effective system to protect listed buildings would be too onerous and expensive to ever work. Indeed themes of this nature commonly rear up in defence of the current status quo[10].  The current position should not be accepted or defended.  If those responsible for bringing the original system into being had bowed to the pressure of resistance against listing residential buildings, the level of protection we take for granted today over assets such as Woburn Walk would not exist, and probably nor would a great many of the buildings now under its protection.

A successful Conservation Management Plan does not require government legislation and accompanying funding; only the initiative of a proactive local authority. If written in consultation with owners and residents it should help engage those responsible for maintaining Woburn Walk in a far more positive and long-term fashion than the imposition of Enforcement or Repair Notices or blind-eyed non-intervention.

The implementation of a website for the management of Woburn Walk is an affordable and entirely realistic proposal, and I am willing to offer that a system of this sort will certainly come to be in operation one day, as it is little more than an extension of the provision of local authority services already available in this online format. Woburn Walk would be an excellent test case for such an initiative as the owners and inhabitants are engaged with their historic buildings and there is no alternative plan on the table for managing this important, multi-ownership asset.

[1] A current DCMS white paper is proposing a number of amendments to the Listing process and the management of historic assets. The Heritage Partnership Agreement is an extension of the Conservation Management Plan in that is will provide a legal framework for establishing maintenance plans by owners and will allow local authorities to give advance consent for certain works to Listed buildings. These agreed management regimes will have obvious benefits for owners, managers, local authorities and English Heritage in cutting down time and paperwork, together with far greater transparency and accessibility. The management of an individual historical asset is formalised, and provides a more positive environment for owners to work within. Any breaches of consent would result in the penalties that apply to illegal interference with all historic buildings. If this amendment is passed and the HPA comes into force, it could be a useful extension of management, and could still be managed in the ways proposed.

 

[2] “Guide to Listed Buildings in Camden” See Bibliography for website address. Some parts of this are reproduced in Appendix XV

[3] PPG 15 contains government guidance on legislation concerning the Town & Country Planning Act. Full details are available in the Bibliography

[4] See example of traffic light system at Golden Lane Estate below.

[5] Miele, C. (2005) p.26

[6] Ibid. p. 26

[7] Questionnaire in Appendix IV

[8] See Appendix XIII for an excerpt of the Golden Lane traffic light system.

[9] Woburn Walk and Duke’s Road on the small screen:

Mrs Dalloway, 1997

The Hogfather, 2007 Sky One

Fanny Hill, 2007 BBC

Tipping the Velvet, 2002 Sally Head Productions for the BBC

Ruby in the Smoke, 2006 BBC

What the Victorians did For Us, 2001 Dan Cruikshank, BBC

The street has also appeared in episodes of The Return of Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie’s Poirot

 

[10] It is worth considering that of all Listed buildings, Grades I and II* are recognised as having outstanding historical or architectural significance and account for just 6% of all Listed buildings nationally, and 8% in the Borough of Camden. Many of these buildings are public structures such as hospitals, halls, stations and churches and therefore command a different dynamic with regard to their stewardship. This leaves a comparatively small number of privately owned or tenanted groups of GI or GII* listed buildings which could benefit from an alternative joined-up approach to asset management.

Grade II Listed buildings cover around 92-94% of the entire Listed stock in Camden and nationwide. These are of general rather than specific interest and can be argued as being adequately covered by existing measures. It could be further argued that policy governing their control could be reduced to something more like conservation area status in order to direct greater resource to the preservation of Grade I and GII* buildings, but the is a separate issue and one of resource rather than ideals.