The Farrell Review launches – and there’s a lot to talk about.

The Farrell review of Architecture & the Built Environment launched yesterday. At 200 pages long it’s not punchy, and it’s packed with 60 recommendations for the built environment sector.

In my early opinion, I am very pleased by the content. It’s something I’ve thought for a long time, but far too seldom articulated, that the historic environment and the built environment are very close corollaries. While we’re at it, you can add in the natural environment as well. We all live in constant interaction with our environments; with our homes, our workplaces, our streets and towns, our cities.

We inhabit multiple ‘nested’ landscapes and have myriad intimate interactions with them and reactions to them. We all want to inhabit places that we can enjoy – that have high amenity. That means understanding what makes them good and working to enhance them. In this way good design, conservation, community facilities, etc. are all facets of the same die. It is only sensible that we approach them in a joined-up manner.

One might forgive an architect for thinking that great architecture is the key to place. It is true. If we build beautiful homes then people will be much more likely to want to live in them. However, we also have to make sure we build them in the right places, and that we give the right protections to the historic and natural environment.

The historic landscape is of course made up of important individual assets and we, rightly, have systems to designate and protect them, but conservationists and heritage professionals also know that the historic assets that we seek to protect are also crucially embedded in the wider built and natural environments – that we can’t treat one well without acknowledging the other.

Sir Terry Farrell is an architect who understands all of this. In fact I believe that most architects do understand this. I think most conservation professionals do, and most planners. I think that in reality our principles are currently outpacing our practice, our institutions are lagging behind. In my research I have surveyed built environment professionals from various backgrounds and roles, and have found that there are few who think that all heritage is a brake on growth or that all modern architecture should be banned from historic townscapes, or that heritage assets should be sacrosanct – Ruskin-style. The survey shows (I’ll publish some findings here soon) that we actually all think rather more similarly. And this should give those who subscribe to the public value principles of the Faro Convention or English Heritage’s Conservation Principles great hope.

The Farrell report is loud and clear about the importance of the historic environment and the wider integration of design, planning and conservation. Conservation is one of the 4 main elements of the review and it has a host of highly astute recommendations to make. These include:

  • A review of the way English Heritage approaches listing – Farrell recommends that it should be a more open and democratic process and that it should allow great modern buildings to be listed more easily – i.e. that if people love a building for it’s great design, then it should be listable.

My reaction: I’ve said in the past (and I’m not alone) that designation is not a fit way to ascribe value to heritage. It is very sad that the NPPF regresses from PPS5 in allowing a broader value based approach to heritage values, but I do think that listing serves a purpose. At base it does something valuable by preserving the unique examples – the earliest, biggest, and best. We need that as a physical representation of the past, of embodied value.

However, beyond this there is a whole realm of social value which is unrecognised by listing. This value is swayed by opinion. Opinions change over time, and rightly. Local listing is perhaps a better way to access this, but beyond that there is maybe scope for a broader ‘place’ based register for elements of the built environment which are well valued and which contribute positively to amenity, sense of place or local distinctiveness.

  • Reduce VAT to 5% on repairs and renovation to existing buildings.

Reaction: Amen! Terry won’t be popular with the government for saying it, but fair play for him doing so. Enough of the heritage sector is already full behind this!

  • Stronger relationships between CABE in the Design Council and English Heritage, and inclusion of EH specialists on Farrell’s proposed expert local ‘PLACE review panels’ which he develops as an idea of how to get his principles into the planning system.

Reaction: Not to try to put too fine a point on it, but I said this on this blog last year. Will be less of a climax when I say it in my thesis now, though. That said, a bloody important idea that could vastly improve the culture within English Heritage, make it more socially relevant now and in the future.

With the shake-down and the departure of the Collections to the new charity, this is an opportunity to Historic England to carve its own future from the beginning and should definitely be capitalised upon.

Essentially the overall theme is that we don’t have to have either great (modern) architecture or heritage. The two are not mutually exclusive.

As I say, in heritage we’ve been saying this at the highest level for 17 years. Sir Terry Farrell has been practicing it since the 1970s. It’s time to make some changes to the planning system and the cross-sectoral partnerships and coordination across heritage, planning, and architecture. Heritage is a core component of the built environment – we already broadly share an ideology and it is time to make changes to the planning system and institutions of government in order to make it happen.

There are issues. Not least being the fragmentation of the sectors and of the government responsibilities for the built environment, (summed up by this telling graphic below) and the relationships between the professional and voluntary bodies which work with them.

Then there is the consequential problem that this is a review commissioned by Ed Vaizey in the DCMS and not the DCLG, DfT, or DEFRA.

Fragmentation of the government responsibility for the built environment

Fragmentation of the government responsibility for the built environment

Nonetheless, the report is, in my opinion, a highly worthwhile assessment of the state of the built environment, with some perceptive recommendations.

We hope that Ed Vaizey takes these recommendations very seriously and has the clout to influence the necessary partners across Whitehall. He won’t be able to repair the institutional failings to run a joined-up government, but he may be able to take some positive measures.

Anyway, if you haven’t already, go read the Farrell review here.

About Rob Lennox

Currently studying at the University of York, investigating the transition in planning-led cultural heritage policy in the last two decades. I am using this blog to share the findings I make during my research with the hope of stimulating debate and increasing understanding of the implications of government policy on the historic environment in England. In particular, my research focuses on the ways in which the public engage with archaeology and the ways in which we as archaeologists or heritage professionals construct the processes of knowledge gathering, and to what ends. I hope that through this blog other interested parties will be able to influence and be influenced by my observations and findings as they occur in real-time, and that ultimately it will contribute to the overall understanding of the heritage sector.
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2 Responses to The Farrell Review launches – and there’s a lot to talk about.

  1. rehedge says:

    Really good piece, thanks. One point my colleagues and I are always at pains to point out is that it doesn’t really make sense to talk about the ‘natural environment’ as being distinct from the historic environment. As you say, ‘historic assets… are also crucially embedded in the wider built and natural environments'; I’d go further, and say that the term ‘natural environment’ is at best misleading, because there’s virtually no habitat or landscape in Britain that hasn’t been extensively moulded by human influence. I may be stating the obvious, but still an alarming proportion of ‘natural environment’ policy documents neglect to mention the historic environment significance of the landscapes they look at, as if hedgerows, commons, meadows and osier beds sprung into existence of their own accord.
    Natural, built and historic, the environment only makes sense considered as a whole, which, encouragingly, seems to be the message of the review!

  2. Rob Lennox says:

    Thanks Rob.

    When someone says this I always recall watching a programme about celebrities walking through the countryside (I forget what it was called), a shot of which saw Sue Perkins, Steven Mangan and someone less memorable sitting at the head of a beautiful valley in front of a lake talking about how amazing the ‘untouched’ nature was.

    …They were sitting in an old quarry, the lake was man-made and they were further surrounded by cultivated land with modern field systems.

    It’s a good point though. The use of the natural environment in planning cases and picked up in the media (with often greater gusto that heritage) is often perplexing. Perhaps the natural environment lobby are keen not to disrupt the incorrect assumptions which are useful to them. Planning worries about developers are building on the open ‘countryside’ could perhaps be more suitable described with a holistic (built/historic/natural) environmental view, considering that most of the land is agricultural and of less ecological value that the average allotment.

    Of course that land isn’t valuable for any number of other economic, aesthetic or cultural reasons, but we should be honest about approaching the issues in a joined-up way.

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