Truth Decay in Conserving and Enhancing the Historic Environment: Southend-on-Sea

Why does one historic part of a town become designated as a conservation area yet it takes decades for another, similar, equal or even more significant area to achieve the same status? Furthermore, when only part of the second area is finally recommended for designation, is this limitation an extension of the same problem? Do these instances of what might be called unaligned designation and consequential designation denial, show that the framework for designation – the Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 and the National Planning Policy Framework – is not working or has become corrupted in only doing part of the job in protecting our most significant areas?

In such a situation environmental conservation protecting our special places and the community that live, work and visit these places, are the losers.

But the conservation area designation framework is clear. The NPPF at paragraph 186 stating:

‘When considering the designation of conservation areas, local planning authorities should ensure that an area justifies such status because of its special architectural or historic interest, and that the concept of conservation is not devalued through the designation of areas that lack special interest.’

This sits alongside both the legal background and conservation theory. The Planning (Listed Building and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 at s.69 calls for local authorities to determine and review ‘special architectural or historic special interest’, from time to time. Conservation theory calls for an assessment of historic values.

The problem becomes comes into focus when all of the local conservation areas are periodically re-assessed, as the 1990 Act requires. This is the case now in Southend-on-Sea where the Local Plan is under review. Here the borough’s 14 existing conservation areas are being reviewed and a possible 15th, Hamlet Court Conservation Area, in Westcliff-on-Sea, is under consideration.

The interesting thing about Hamlet Court is that it is an area of considerable architectural merit where Edwardian Freestyle is widespread and Arts & Crafts and later Art Deco influences are strong local characteristics. Yet until now it has remained undesignated. In comparison nearby Leigh-on-Sea, widely publicised in the national media as a desirable place to live and with a similar and contemporaneous commercial high street, was designated in two parts no less than 40 and 50 years ago (with odd extensions to the areas over time). The Broadway part of Leigh Conservation Area was designated in 1971, just 5 years after the Civic Amenities Act 1967, which gave rise to the first conservation areas. Adjacent Leigh Cliff Conservation Area followed 10 years later in 1981. Yet now in 2021, half a century later, we are yet to see designation of a generally comparable area in Westcliff-on-Sea. There is an obvious disparity.

The current conservation area reviews in Southend have all been carried out by the respected company Purcell Architects. Similarly, they have assessed the potential Hamlet Court area. This allows for interesting but, moreover, meaningful comparison, which is clearly evident in the NPPF which calls for conservation not to be devalued through lack ‘special interest’. Indeed, Purcell use comparison throughout their report on Hamlet Court, comparing the top and the lower part of Hamlet Court Road and comparing the Edwardian residential architecture to other parts of the town.

The review conclusion, now out for public consultation, is that the northern part of Hamlet Court Road only (the most visually striking part) is now, at long last, recommended for designation. Clearly, this is good if many years overdue. However, the half century delay is still not long enough to see the recommended designation of the wider Edwardian, Arts & Crafts and Art Deco area, an area that compares favourably to the much earlier designated Leigh-on-Sea.

Are areas like Hamlet Court and the people that live there being short changed and is this a bigger problem across England? Why the big difference with Westcliff and doesn’t this just risk further erosion of local significance.

One possible but most evident clue to the difference emerges when the social standing of each area is understood. Hamlet Court falls within the 2nd decile on the ONS Indices of Deprivation and the high street has suffered heavily in the recent decades with trading difficulty, many shop closures and a high number of charity shops. By contrast Leigh-on-Sea falls within the 7-8th deciles and thrives as a desirable place to live. This suggests that something else is going on and the longstanding legislation and policy framework is not all that is being considered. Is Westcliff an example where social challenge and middle class prejudice holds back our approach to environmental protection?

The property evidence base for this brief paper, considers examples from both Hamlet Court Road (Westcliff) and Leigh Broadway, the two high streets, comparing the special interest. It also looks at the residential properties in both areas. These can be seen in the Appendix.

Not considered here (or considered in any detail) but most relevant to the possible designation of the wider area are various important historically significant assessment factors. This includes:

  • The overriding significance of the railway station at the southern end of the road to the whole area
  • The significance of the early Milton Estate landowners Lord Brassey and his family, and their connections to Thomas Brassey (London Tilbury & Southend Railway), Raymond Unwin and Henrietta Barnett (Garden City/Suburb Movement)
  • The significance of Ditton Court Road as a very early (1904-5) model of Garden Suburb layout
  • The significance of the key historic residence ‘Hamlet Court’ (lost early in the C20) where large grounds were maintained until the 1930’s and resulted in later buildings completing the local street blocks
  • The significance of the transposition of residences in the bottom half of Hamlet Court Road to shops as retail rapidly expanded in the road, giving rise to the additional road width
  • The significance of the surviving Holly trees (from earlier formation planting) in Ditton Court Road and London plane avenue in Preston Road

The review of properties in the comparable Leigh and Leigh Cliff conservation areas show some alarming problems. There are large sections that are clearly eroded or of low/no architectural or historical significance whatsoever. Yet both past designation and reviews, topped by the current review, reaffirm continuing designation. Indeed, a further extension to the Leigh Cliff conservation area is recommended with the inclusion of a block of hugely eroded significance. Purcell actually say ‘Designation could assist with reversing inappropriate changes…’ a sentiment held high by the local community action group in Westcliff.  

Meanwhile, Hamlet Court area, whilst also eroded in places (most often with repairable or replaceable timber elements), stands well in comparison but beyond the northern section is not recommended for designation. In not acknowledging the wider area of Hamlet Court for designation but upon close examination of the comparable local significance, a conclusion of selection bias can be drawn.

Of course, politics are at play everywhere in a local authority and this is particularly the case with local planning. In a town like Southend where the political vicissitudes swing control from one party to a coalition of the others and back, progress can be held back. But when there is half a century of difference in arriving at a designation of a comparable area, or a continuing resistance against designation of equals, the suggestion is that something is seriously wrong. Perhaps the town’s geographical prejudices just live on.

Political control conquers all and perhaps the embedded council practice of the ‘preferred approach’ or the status quo line of least resistance are at play – if time is an indicator this is certainly the case. But examination shows that the requirements of the1990 Act and the NPPF are not working and could be subject to legal challenge.

Whilst conservation designation may not be about pure comparison and lawful assessment is made on merit, it is apparent that designation of the wider Hamlet Court area would meet the legal and national framework tests.

APPENDIX

LEIGH Three relatively low significance 1930’s ranges in Leigh and Leigh Cliff Conservation Areas – reviewed for continuing designation
WESTCLIFF Reviewed as not suitable for designation – a typically 1930’s reduced Art Deco range and an elegant stepped Edwardian range with dominant Bank Baroque corner building
LEIGH Reviewed for continued designation – discordant Victorian & Edwardian properties in Leigh Broadway, all with considerable erosion (note the truncated gable above ‘Natural Edge’)
LEIGH Reviewed as a new inclusion in Leigh Cliff conservation area, a street block of very intermittent and much eroded significance
WESTCLIFF Reviewed as not suitable for designation – Edwardian properties in HCR Westcliff, all with historical significance (they were once residences and gave way to retail expansion) intact above first floor level
LEIGH Heavy erosion of historical buildings in Leigh Park Road where no less than 4 large 1960-70’s blocks of flats are included in the area reviewed for continued designation