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.
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.