Historical and cultural heritage formed the central thread to my recent visit to the East of England RTPI. Focusing on Suffolk, the visit began in Bury St Edmunds and Lavenham, stunning examples of Britain’s historic settlements, which also reveal the power of planning to deliver much-needed development whilst conserving the very best of the buildings and places in which we develop.
Bury St Edmunds
The scale of history and of the historic fabric at Bury St Edmunds has to be seen to be believed. An Anglo-Saxon abbey dedicated to the Anglo-Saxon King and Saint Edmund lies at the heart of the town, which continues to thrive, sustained and supported by the cultural value of the place as a visitor attraction.
It is not without challenges, however, and a strong Partnership has developed, including representatives of the Bury Society, Cathedral, West Suffolk Council and Suffolk County Council, to address the competing pressures on the astounding Abbey ruins.
At once an internationally significant heritage asset, a place of worship, a town park, a key walking route into the town centre and an important visitor attraction, work is underway to manage the likely growth in visitor numbers whilst maintaining the quality of the historic buildings and remains.
Ian Tant (middle) with representatives of the Heritage Partnership including West Suffolk Council in front of a model of the Abbey of St Edmund
The town also serves as a service centre for a wide rural area and is one of the most sustainable locations for much-needed new housing and business space. Young planners raised the desperate need for affordable, sustainable transport links into the town from the surrounding rural settlements, and the challenges to historic fabric from the need to accommodate new technology, including electric vehicles and their charging points.
Lavenham is a glowing mediaeval town, continuing to adapt to 21st century circumstances. An astounding array of listed buildings carpets the town, where active community groups – including the Parish Council and a Community Land Trust – play their full part in planning and delivery.
I was shown a number of new and forthcoming developments that will contribute to meeting needs. A well-designed scheme of wholly affordable houses is approaching completion on a former highways depot. Built to high sustainability standards (close to passivhaus levels), the units are being delivered by Hastoe housing association on land secured by the Lavenham Community Land Trust. Representatives of the Parish Council, the Trust and the construction company are rightly proud of what they are achieving.
The importance of finance was a key theme in discussions, not just raising the capital sums but sufficient revenue downstream to be self-maintaining.
This was a theme that re-emerged on the second day of the visit in East Suffolk. Lowestoft is in urgent need of regeneration but is equally strong in its heritage and historic value. The town’s Heritage Action Zone has an impressive high street and a unique network of local alleyways – or “scores” – leading down to the sea, evidence of its roots as a mediaeval fishing settlement.
Fresh investment is needed to give new uses to important local buildings and the Council is working hard to secure funding and to find lasting uses for the buildings, including the historic Town Hall.
A new third crossing of the inner harbour (Lake Lothing) is well advanced through the planning process and should generate fresh confidence in the town and serve as a catalyst for the regeneration work.
Being the largest local authority area in England, according to Philip Ridley, Head of Planning and Coastal Management, East Suffolk has a daunting array of development proposals in prospect, including the Sizewell C nuclear power station, major housing growth (such as Brightwell Lakes, which I was shown) and further off-shore wind projects.
All of this lies within a district encompassing an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Special Protection Areas, Special Areas of Conservation and multiple historic villages and subject to large-scale pressures from coastal erosion and rising sea levels. The planning teams are approaching these challenges with evident and contagious enthusiasm.
The key theme of conservation in the re-use of historic assets came vividly to the fore again in Snape Maltings, Benjamin Britten’s far-sighted introduction of a major concert hall into a disused malting building.
Now wholly owned by the company that operates the annual music festival, the site is a focus for important musical out-reach into communities and a fascinating visitor attraction – with much work yet to do. It’s a fitting tribute to Suffolk that the historic fabric, heritage and culture are being embraced so strongly as assets in planning and delivery.
The work of the planning authorities and its communities truly does Speak Up for Planning!
Ian Tant is President of the RTPI.