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Dave Johnson: Protect heritage assets to ensure a sustainable future for all

Dave Johnson previously worked as a town planning lecturer and for English Heritage as the Regional Policy Officer for the South West, and for sustainable development charity Future West, amongst many other roles.

Achieving a sustainable future for us all is the underlying aim that runs through the latest annual report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPPC) published in March, 2022.

The summary document (37 pages long!) is well worth the read and reminds us of what we have known for many years now, that climate change is a threat to human wellbeing and planetary health, and that any further delay in taking concerted global action risks us missing a rapidly closing window of opportunity to achieve meaningful results in the future.

The report sees sustainable land use and planning as one of a number of responses that can help to enable more climate resilient development, which is one of the report’s themes.

As town planners, we have been engaged in promoting sustainable development for many years. The recognition that we are now facing a climate emergency has brought the issue of climate change to the top of the policy agenda, along with the pressing need for action. 

It is encouraging to see that so many people and organisations, across a wide variety of sectors, are now committed to helping to reduce net carbon emissions to zero by 2050 for the UK. The historic environment sector is no exception. In 2020, a range of heritage organisations agreed a joint statement on climate change where each organisation pledged to reach carbon net zero by 2050.  

Superficially, it might appear that protecting and conserving the historic environment can only have a limited impact on tackling climate change. Installing solar panels, double glazing or insulation might not be appropriate on many of England’s 380,000 listed buildings, for example.

Yet, closer examination shows that the goals of protecting our heritage and addressing the causes of climate change can be highly compatible. It is also the case that the effects of climate change that we are increasingly experiencing are having an adverse impact on the fabric of many of our historic buildings, making the need for action even more urgent.

The 2019 edition of Heritage Counts focussed on carbon in the built environment and demonstrated that there is considerable scope for carbon reduction in the historic environment. The report points out that 38% of the UK’s homes were built before 1946, and 21% are over a hundred years old.

Recycling, reusing and improving existing buildings should be a priority over their possible demolition, which would release the embodied CO2 in the building, as well as losing local character. Retrofitting old buildings should be considered first, though it is vital that this is carried out in a sympathetic and proper manner. Inappropriate use of external cladding for improved insulation, for example, can have many unintended consequences and a “whole building approach” should be considered. There is plenty of guidance available on how to do this

The Yorkshire Region of the RTPI recently held a well attended webinar on the subject of the historic environment and climate change. A number of the above points were addressed in the excellent presentations, one of which was a particularly inspiring case study of how York Minster is working towards a more sustainable future, including the use of a neighbourhood plan as a means of achieving this. This highly innovative approach is not just a very good example of a neighbourhood plan, it also engaged the local community and other interested parties in its development and put sustainability at its heart. 

The Plan shows that there is not just hope for a sustainable future for us all, it gives us belief that we can achieve it.

The York Minster Precinct Neighbourhood Plan has just been approved by the City of York Council and will be put to a referendum some time in early May, 2022. The plan area covers six hectares and contains many attractive features, open spaces and buildings, 60 of which are listed, which all contribute to the unique character of the area and the setting of the Minster itself. The Minster is committed to helping achieve the Church of England’s target for all parts of the church to work to become carbon net zero by 2030.

The Neighbourhood Plan’s vision and objectives include ensuring that financial, social and environmental sustainability sit at the heart of caring for the Minster, along with a celebration of its historic environment.

Policies and future projects include improved visitor facilities, new homes, improved pedestrian and cycle routes, a new civic square, community and educational facilities, a new centre of excellence for heritage skills and workshop for the Minster’s stonemasons. Sustainable construction methods and materials will be used where new building is needed. The Plan is very well thought through, imaginative and is driven by a desire to create high quality buildings and spaces for residents and the many thousands of visitors to enjoy.

The York Minster Precinct Neighbourhood Plan is an inspiring example of planning. It demonstrates that promoting sustainability and tackling climate change can sit comfortably alongside heritage protection. The Plan shows that there is not just hope for a sustainable future for us all, it gives us belief that we can achieve it.

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