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Charles O'Brien on his new job as Robert Jenrick’s listings heritage advisor

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

The long-time editor of the Pevsner Guides has a new role as listings heritage advisor, a result of Robert Jenrick’s shake-up of the planning system. We ask him about the new position, local ‘lists’ and design codes

What’s the name of this new body?

The design advisory body Nicholas Boys Smith is chairing? I’m not involved – it was announced by the government’s press office on the same day and stories got conflated! Not sure what it’ll be called, but my role is a separate one directly related to local heritage and listing and improving use of local lists in England. I’m advising Robert Jenrick on spending £700,000 across 10 counties to create or improve their local heritage lists. 

 

So there are English counties without any proper lists?

Only about 50% of the country has local lists and some of those are very old. The aim is to galvanise areas where they’re outdated or never even been compiled; for instance, Cornwall doesn’t have a local list. There’s the national lists, but we want uniform adoption of a good standard of local lists to promote input from local societies and the community to get ‘Non Designated Heritage Assets’ nominated. Currently, they may not be considered in planning and we’d like to change that.

 

What about the Twentieth Century Society and Victorian Society – surely they’re on their radar?

True, these organisations will have regional or local branches so they keep a weather eye on buildings that might not be on the national list but are significant in some way. One would hope that they’ll put together their own nominations to add to the new lists but smaller civic groups might want to put forward other buildings that they feel have value in their communities.

 

What building did we lose recently that we shouldn’t have?

Well, as series editor of the Pevsner guides I was working in Surrey recently and there’s the sad case of the Birds Eye HQ, Walton Court, in Walton on Thames – a really distinguished 1960s campus office that got demolished for housing. There was a hope it might have reached the national list as it was the kind of building that was certainly important to the locality.

 

Do you feel the BBBBC’s Local Design Codes will create a simple and better planning system- and we’ll get rid of what Robert Jenrick calls ‘Anywhereville’?

It’s not my remit, that’s Nicholas Boys Smith’s! But design codes have existed before – for instance, the Essex Design Code evolved successfully over time and there has to be this sense of evolution to them – they shouldn’t be seen as fixed things. There has to be flexibility to express shifting attitudes and assumptions by the people living in those areas. But yes, you do want a genuine design variety and not ‘cookie cutter’ communities. Wherever I visit it’s the same developments on the edges of the towns. I don’t think we want to see that repeated any longer.

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