A conservation area needs protection against harmful development, and an advisory committee such as ours exists to help ensure that protection.
The essential point of development is to maximise the return on a site. Paying regard to the history and heritage of an area doesn’t give any obvious return in profit, and so there is no a priori reason why new development should pay any regard to the special character of an area, or indeed why old buildings aren’t regularly demolished to make way for skyscrapers.
Making an analogy to demonstrate the point, the public do not generally care about whether a website is altered and extended – so long as the updates enhance the website’s functionality. The owners of a website simply want it to perform as best as possible, attracting as many visitors as possible, and maximising its return. The idea of a website being listed or protected is absurd. What makes the built environment different is that we as a society deeply value its heritage, and in response over many decades legislative frameworks and charitable bodies have been created to ensure their protection.
Part of that protection is us – the BCAAC. We are here to protect the heritage of the Bloomsbury Conservation Areas, seven of the most important conservation areas in the country, and were set up by Camden in 1968 in order to achieve that goal.
What we do
Our core function is to sift through planning applications being made and to object to applications which we believe will harm our conservation areas. We meet once every three weeks to discuss applications of concern, of which there can be dozens. It is not unusual for a total of around 40 applications to be made in a week at peak times, meaning we could have up to 120 applications to consider every meeting.
In actuality, the most concerning applications are referred to us directly by the planning case officer, and we also receive requests for comment from local societies and residents. We prioritise these as being most important, and keep an eye on all other applications using Camden’s planning alerts which are emailed to us.
We also engage with developers, Camden, and the community during the preconsultation stage of development, especially for larger developments. This can mean attending meetings and presentations, and attending site visits. We try to engage with developers at the earliest stage possible, and feed back our expert opinion on development to try and guide it in the right direction.
It is unfortunate that we also have to engage in campaigns where it is clear that the developer wishes to turn a blind eye to heritage concerns. We are associated with multiple active societies throughout our conservation areas which we mobilise for these campaigns, and a respectable following through email subscription and otherwise. Some of our most notable successes have come from campaigning in this way – our finest moment coming in recent years where we had a large application by the British Museum defeated at planning committee stage, despite recommendation for approval by a senior Camden planner.
We also constantly monitor the conservation areas for planning breaches, and keep in touch and meet with Camden’s Planning Enforcement team and Camden’s Environment Services.