The proposed tower at the Central Somers Town development within the London Borough of Camden highlights what is arguably a disjointed relationship between the Planning process and the protection of the setting of Listed buildings. The ongoing disagreement between Historic England and Camden — which has followed the Planning process and now has permission to proceed with the scheme((As part of the Planning process the views of Historic England were responded to in the document at this link: http://camdocs.camden.gov.uk/webdrawer/webdrawer.dll/webdrawer/rec/5654665/view/Applicants%20response%20to%20HE%20Apr%202016.PDF
With the scheme gaining permission to proceed from the Mayor of London, Historic England have now asked the Secretary of State to call-in the application.)) — highlights the shortcomings of what is effectively a reactive system.
In this case, the objection concerns the impact that the proposed tower would have on the setting of the Nash terraces in Regent’s Park. Historic England argues that populating the currently tower-free view would cause harm to the Grade I Listed Chester Terrace. Their terrace is low-rise, in common with this part of London, and Historic England argue that the view((The view can be seen via this link on Google Street View.)) should not include the tower.
There are two matters to be considered here: the curation of this particular view, and how the setting of Listed buildings is protected. The former finds its complexity in philosophical arguments, whilst the latter is complex in the administration required to implement protection — both also have to contend with politics.
Arguably it is because of the myriad political considerations that the Regent’s Park example is complex. Social benefit must be weighed up with harm to the historic environment — a finite and irreplaceable corpus. Two equally worthy outcomes become artificially presented as a binary choice. The difficult matter of setting precedents is clearly at play here — hence why Historic England and the Crown Estate must protect the environment of Regent’s park and perform their duties.
Perhaps the difficulty found in the current system is that the boundaries of when settings are affected are not adequately expressed. I would move that the terraces are just that – a boundary and part of the urban grain. In the twentieth century the urban grain goes up and down as well as across. Whilst guidance suggests where substantial harm may occur, it is still a matter of arguing reactively. What we need are proactive curtilages defining the setting of Listed Buildings.
This concept aligns with the process by which we take time to consider levels of significance and thresholds for harm — the Conservation Statement or, more thoroughly in a Conservation Management Plan. Both of these documents are regularly written to help understand and manage our heritage, and it is not inconceivable that what might be called a ‘curtilage of sensitivity’ could be included.
By submitting curtilages for approval and adoption by Historic England, these curtilages could form a useful resource for planning developments — thereby providing an informed basis upon which to argue whether a new building will harm the setting of a Listed building. Furthermore, by incorporating the curtilage into the process of writing statements and management plans, it would significantly reduce the cost to Historic England of setting up a register of such curtilages.
The historic environment remains a limited resource, but it is increasingly challenged by economic and social constraints which demand development. Carefully managing change and halting unsuitable development should not be incompatible. Today, arguments against development arise in reaction to pre-application advice or statutory consultation — thus leaving limited timeframes to react.
Some forward planning is provided in the protection of key views to historic landmarks,((http://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/planning/implementing-london-plan/supplementary-planning-guidance/london-view-management)) however, we should ask: is this is enough, and can the principals be applied more widely? Providing better tools to help all steak-holders plan development is one step towards improving the protection of historic buildings and their settings, and mitigating the impact of new buildings. A ‘curtilage of sensitivity’ is one way forward.