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June 2006 

Conserving our Heritage

The character of Horsham depends to a very large extent on the built environment, that is the buildings, street layout and open spaces that have evolved over many centuries.  The last twenty five years have seen huge changes to our street scene with many much loved landmarks disappearing in the wake of bedevilment.  Yet there is still much left to be treasured, and hopefully conserved, particularly in the town centre.

The important word is “conserved” rather than “preserved”. If towns such as Horsham are to thrive they have to adapt to changing economic and social needs.  The way in which families work and live today is very different to that experienced a couple of generations ago.  The pace of change is increasingly fast and is likely to grow ever faster as the digital age advances. The jobs people do, and their patterns of work, leisure and retirement will change. And the buildings we use to live, work, shop and be entertained in will need to change too. So, realistically, we cannot preserve Horsham as it is now. Instead we need to try to control changes in ways which conserve the best elements of our street scene whilst where necessary allowing buildings to find new roles to meet new requirements.

The current debate over the future of the Town Hall is a good example. There is no doubt that this is an important building which over the years has played a significant role in the civic life of the town and needs to be conserved.  But currently it is under-used, in need of internal redecoration and updating, and only partly available to the public.  It needs to be given a new lease of life and a role which captures the imagination of a new generation. Only then can we be sure it will still be in good heart fifty years from now.

So what protection does our town heritage enjoy at present? There are three important planning tools which seek to control development. The first are the conservation areas. These are areas of “special architectural or historic interest, the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance”. The key aspect here is the character of an area as a whole rather than just specific buildings of importance.  So it also includes, for example, trees, walls and open spaces. By defining a conservation area it is possible to exercise additional planning controls to ensure future changes preserve or enhance the special features of the area. We have three conservation areas in the town. The largest covers the medieval town centre, including the Carfax, Causeway, and parts of East Street, West Street and Denne Road.  The other two Areas are much smaller, covering London Road, and Gordon Road including parts of Richmond Road and Wimblehurst Road.

The second planning tool is to identify a group of buildings and their surroundings as an “area of special character”. This designation does not provide the same protection as a conservation area but is nevertheless taken into account when considering planning applications.  Within Horsham we have a number of such Areas, mainly on the key approach roads such as Guildford Road, Worthing Road, Brighton Road and Warnham Road.

Then there are Listed Buildings. This is a national scheme and the listing process is now the responsibility of English Heritage. To be included in the List a building must be of special architectural or historic interest and the criteria for listing are fairly strict. Generally, the older the building the more likely it is to be listed. Almost all buildings built before 1700 which remain in their original condition will be listed, and a large number of those built between 1700 and 1840, but the more modern the building the tighter the criteria. Listed buildings are protected and owners have to have consent before they can demolish or alter them. In Horsham we are fortunate to have around 200 listed buildings, many of them, as one would expect, in the conservation areas.

Many local authorities also sponsor local listing schemes which recognise the importance of key buildings which, while not justifying full national Listing, have important civic, social or historical significance, or contribute in an important way to the street scene.  Although locally listed buildings do not enjoy legal protection the planning authorities take account of their importance when considering planning applications.  Horsham District Council has not so far accepted the Society’s proposal for a local listing scheme so we are keen to identify buildings, or groups of buildings – particularly outside the conservation areas - which the public value and would like to see conserved for future generations.  Depending on the response we will raise the issue again with the Council.

With this panoply of protection one might think all is well and we can sit back in the knowledge that the street scene that we know today will still be there in ten or twenty years from now, and that changes that have to be made are properly controlled.  But the Horsham Society believes this attitude might prove dangerously complacent.  For example, the pressure for redevelopment of “brown field sites” and Government policy supporting higher density is encouraging developers to cram buildings into backland development taking advantage of properties with large rear gardens. Individual schemes may not in themselves seem too damaging but if the trend accelerates it could change the character of some parts of the town irretrievably.

So, please contact us with your views and suggestions, particularly about buildings you would like to see protected.  It does not matter how old a building is, only that it is an important part of the street scene, or has historical significance in the life of the town, and you would be sorry if it were to disappear.

John Steele

Do local campaigners have too much power?8 
Horsham Society Vice-President Oliver Palmer's letters to Building Design magazine