' the Woodlouse: Conservation Conversation.


Friday, 3 September 2010

Conservation Conversation.

Today we finally went to talk to a planning officer, motivated by a couple of possible plots which have come onto the market in roughly the right area for us, but in conservation areas.  More on conversation with the planning officer in a moment.  First a bit of an update...

We seem to have found our first area of compromise within our occasionally conflicting list of aims and criteria for a site.  In some ways it's a big departure, but mostly it makes a lot of sense.  It certainly feels possible, which is definitely progress!  The original ideal scenario was to have have home, workshop, treatment room, kiln and coppice in the same place; not just any old place but a place right on the edge of town, so that clients could easily get to it and we could get into town on foot or electric mobility scooter.  This is a lovely idea, but frankly impossible.  As discussed in previous blogs, this would mean a whole load of building outside the DDB (Defined Development Boundary), which would be highly unlikely to get planning permission even if we could find what we thought was a good site.  The planning officer (PO) confirmed that anything residential outside the DDB would be refused unless directly linked to an agricultural need to be there.  In any case, we have only seen one site that ticked most of the boxes for this plan, and that never reached auction.

Instead, we're now thinking to separate home and treatment room from workshop, kiln and coppice.  That way we can still live in or on the edge of town, which is good (and important) for all sorts of practical reasons and reasons of social-ness and sanity.  A treatment room can easily be fitted into a home, and shouldn't affect planning (so the PO says).  The kiln, workshop, and coppice are much more sensibly placed outside of town so that no-one is upset by smoke from the kiln, noise from wood cutting, sounds of semi-delirious sleep-deprived woodfirers on night-shift etc.  As long as the place I make the pots is next to the means to fire the pots and the source of wood to do so, then the ridiculous extra time and transportation necessary to bring these things together from at least three different locations is still removed.  I would still be able to spend a little time regularly on wood management/preparation, making it significantly less stressful.  And ideally this site would be within easy cycling distance of home.

So, two potential building plots for home and treatment room, that's great then?  Well, no.  The problem is their position within two of the many local conservation areas.  The main test for development in these areas is, according to the PO we spoke to: would the proposal "enhance and protect" the character of the conservation area.  In my mind of course, this is massively a matter of personal interpretation, but he believed it was unlikely that the conservation officers would see a green roof and rendered walls (even traditional lime render) as doing that, as they are not the "traditional construction" that surround the plot.  In effect, it's stone and slate all the way, a little bit of brick if you're lucky.

I understand the reasoning, and the need to restrict development that is ugly and with potential to detract from the feel of the area.  But as with so many parts of the planning system I feel there should be some middle ground, that it is perfectly possible to design and build something that is sensitive to it's surroundings, that fits in but that is honest about being a new building, and crucially is much more sustainable.  This is my main gripe with the current conservation area system: its definition of conservation.  I've always interpreted the word's meaning in line with the first definition given by my Mac's onboard dictionary: "preservation, protection or restoration of the natural environment, natural ecosystems, vegetation and wildlife", and "prevention of excessive or wasteful use of a resource".  Surely this applies to a building constructed with materials having low environmental impact, especially a green roof that replaces any ground and vegetation lost underneath the building?

Conversely, building with stone and slate, even held together with lime mortar (which has many times less embodied energy and associated carbon emissions) has a far greater environmental impact and is much less conservation minded, in a global sense.  The definition of conservation used by the planners though, is more in line with the second option my computer gives: "preservation, repair and prevention of deterioration of archaeological, historical and cultural artefacts".  I'll avoid getting into a philosophical or etymological debate about whether a house is a cultural artefact or a functional living space, or indeed whether one excludes the other and substitute the word "area" for "artefacts" to suit the planners aims in establishing a conservation area.  The debate I'm interested is about what are we conserving, and looking at the bigger picture as well as the local picture.  Why is that that anything that doesn't pretend to be old is seen as bad?  Why is the need to build something that appears to be as old as the building next to it, more important than building something that doesn't detract from or harm the building next to it but that has a massively lower environmental impact both in construction and ongoing heating etc.?

This wouldn't be so much of an issue if there was more space within the DDBs of Bridport and surrounding villages that was outside conservation areas.  But as space is so restricted, it means that most development in this area will be forced to use materials with high embodied energy and high carbon emissions in their production.  Also, building stone used to be readily available and cheap, hence its prevalence in older buildings - it is now neither of these things.  In fairness to the planners, it is a difficult job to balance all these issues.  But I think it is really important to do so, and currently I'm not sure that the system is well balanced.

There was some good news from the meeting with the planning officer though.  If we do manage to find a site within the DDB but outside a Conservation Area, apparently the current planning committee are very supportive of sustainable buildings.  So it's back to scouring the Local Plan map for the few very limited spots where there's some space left within the DDB, with access.   Then try and find who owns those spots and persuade them to sell us some space at a sensible rate...

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