They say conservation is about choices. We can’t save everything and we can’t turn the country into a museum. It’s sadly true. So how do we decide?
There are lots of formal methods. EH has criteria for inclusion on The Heritage at Risk Register and for Scheduling and has published guidance such as The Settings of Heritage Assets [October 2011], Seeing the History in the View [May 2011} and Conservation Principles – Policies and Guidance  that Planning Committees, Inspectors and they themselves can follow. There’s even Section 7.2 of the November minutes of the English Heritage Advisory Committee, which covers “settings”, just released. And yet and yet …. some things that just about everyone feels should be protected are sometimes lost. Why?
It doesn’t help that the conservation pendulum has been hijacked lately by those who benefit from building stuff. Nor is it exactly good news that the official definition of conservation has consequently morphed into “the process of maintaining and managing change to a heritage asset”. (See here).
But even so. Some things just shouldn’t have happened. Digging up gravel in the setting of Thornborough? Building an estate of houses close to Avebury’s henge? And currently: allowing someone to target Oswestry Hill Fort’s setting without throttling the plan the moment it was hatched? Come on! It’s hard to see how bad some plans and some consequences are without holding them up against comparable decisions that went the other way and in the case of Oswestry we’ve already done that several times recently – see here for instance.
When decisions ARE held up and compared with others they are sometimes revealed as eccentric – bizarre even. What are the people of Oswestry to make of this for instance, news of a recent case tweeted with justified satisfaction by EH’s Legal Director: “Public benefits of wind turbine does not outweigh harm to setting and significance of hill fort. Appeal dismissed.” http://ow.ly/d/2aDM Would they say “Public benefit of the proposed development does not outweigh the public harm to the monument, eh? Lucky for some!”
Meanwhile, elsewhere, more decisions that look bizarre when one is compared with another – a comment on Rescue’s Facebook page: “They want to (substantially damage) a 1830 railway station in Manchester (the first in the whole world) but in London they want to keep 1960′s Elephant and Castle shopping centre because it was the first American style shopping centre in Europe.” I have no knowledge of the relative merits of those two cases but there is surely an argument for usefully holding one against the other in some way? All the public ever wants is consistency. Is there a way to tweak EH’s database of planning decisions to further promote it? Have they the nerve to set up a classification marked: “awful decisions, please don’t use as evidence” ?