‘A conservation area is an area of special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance.’ (s69 1990 Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act).
An area is officially designated as a conservation area for many of the same reasons and purposes that an individual building is listed. A conservation area is afforded greater protection against harm through development than is usual. A conservation area often contains many listed buildings, and has a ‘special character’ which is created by the overall effect that the architecture and history within it creates. That special character is something that is deemed so valuable to society that development should only be permitted which preserves that special character, or enhances it.
In practice, this means that planning applications within a conservation area must be made for even minor alterations, and that any applicant should demonstrate that the proposed changes preserve or preferably enhance the special character of the conservation area. It is not enough for proposed changes to simply enhance the conservation area – as preferably any development would enhance any area! In a conservation area, the local special character must be assessed by an applicant, and the changes must at least preserve that special character, if not enhance it.
The special character of an area is a technical term meant to encapsulate the important interest of an area which is important to society, and which should be preserved for future generations. It is almost exclusively historic in nature. The special historic interest of an area manifests itself through its appearance and character – generally through the built environment, and the ways in which that built environment is used by society. There is a more detailed discussion of these terms here. (Page currently being written).
It is ultimately up to the applicant to make an accurate assessment of the local special character, and there are documents such as Camden’s own appraisals which attempt to define in detail the special character of each area, along with an extensive historical record.
The role of a CAAC (Conservation Area Advisory Committee) (unfortunately pronounced ‘cack’) is broadly speaking to ‘look after’ a conservation area. It is formed of local community members with knowledge of the area and its history, who have a good sense of what the special character is, through living and working in the area. The core function of a CAAC is to advise applicants and the local authority on whether alterations to its conservation area pass the test of preserving or enhancing the special character of the conservation area. This means that CAACs engage with potential applicants before an application is made, they respond to consultations on applications once they are made, and take enforcement action where it is believed an application has been wrongly approved.
A secondary function of a CAAC is to promote awareness, appreciation, and understanding of the special character of its conservation area, and why it should be preserved or enhanced.
We are the BCAAC (Bloomsbury Conservation Areas Advisory Committee), which was initially formed as a CAAC for the Bloomsbury Conservation Area, but which over time has amalgamated various other conservation areas so that we now cover all of the conservation areas in Camden south of Euston Road, except Hatton Garden. This means that if a postcode begins with WC1 or WC2, it almost certainly falls within our conservation areas, and we will need to be consulted on any changes.
We still retain the name ‘Bloomsbury’ as the Bloomsbury CA is by far the largest of our CAs, and the most significant. The Bloomsbury CA was designated in 1968, only a year after conservation areas were created in 1967. It is generally regarded as being a conservation area of ‘national significance’, a very large proportion of its buildings being listed.
To help applicants form a good idea of how we consider applications in general, this section of the website sets out principles which we use in considering any application. Of course, the special character of our conservation areas varies from place to place, and sometimes even from road to road, the history of historic London being so varied and diverse. Although our principles guide our judgements, we always ultimately make decisions based on the local special character, and so it is important for applicants to look up their road in the relevant appraisal and get in contact with us before making an application, to avoid rejection.
Advice that we give is totally free and we encourage potential applicants to contact us if they have any questions. We are formed of professional architects, historians, and community members. It is important for us to ensure that applicants are well informed at the earliest possible opportunity. It is time consuming, stressful, and costly for everyone involved when we are forced to oppose applications or even take enforcement action.
Make sure that any change, however small, is carefully considered. Even cutting back a tree can require planning permission, so any alterations to a building almost certainly will require permission. We can and do notice unauthorised alterations and liaise directly with Camden’s officers to pursue enforcement where necessary. You can find our principles here for different types of applications, along with the appraisals for different conservation areas.