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Q&A: Tony Barton

Words:
Jan-Carlos Kucharek

Donald Insall’s 1968 Chester Report for the Ministry of Housing and Local Government set the tone for conservation practice that’s still in play now. Donald Insall Associates’ chairman Tony Barton looks back at one of UK planning’s watershed moments and how it points to the future.

What prompted the Chester report?

We forget the condition our historic urban fabric was in back then. Buildings we revere now were empty, leaking and neglected. The government instigated four pilot studies in Chester, York, Bath and Winchester. The Chester Report recognised that historic building was part of a larger urban organism; that without an economic life  the old city had no future. 

What were its key recommendations?

The big thing was the creation of the Conservation Officer role to promote conservation to the wider world in the way an economic development officer might do now. It also created a mechanism to fund repairs to historic buildings. A penny tax on all city residents was introduced and a grant scheme to help historic building owners repair properties. Townscape Heritage Initiatives and Heritage Action Areas were born.

What was here before this?

There was the Ministry of Works with its Schedule of Ancient Monuments but these four city reports looked at how whole centres could be regenerated. The City of Chester was losing value, population and jobs. Repairing and repurposing turned it into an attractive place to live, work and shop. This conservation and management strategy for historic cities is still referred to 50 year later.

Have conservation and planning policy for urban centres gone too far now –preserving things in aspic?

Yes and no. The conservation officer’s role has changed; they are more part of the development control process, blocking change rather than supporting conservation and new growth in historic areas. The National Planning Policy framework is too strong on protecting historic fabric. But Historic England understands that buildings must change to survive;  take the implications of disabled access provision on historic buildings...

Talking of imaginative approaches to heritage- what about Heatherwick’s Coal Drops Yard?

It’s great; it adds a 21st century layer to a 19th century building, which accords with history. Very few buildings remain unchanged throughout their lives. Society is too precious about historic buildings – we seem afraid of adding another layer of grain.

There have been lots of planning policy changes. What’s the next big thing?

Pushing the localism agenda to create a civic movement. Engage with developers and planners, get something out of it and demand better architecture. People don’t usually get animated about their area until a developer wants to erect a 7-storey block of flats on their common. People need to take ownership!

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