Canterbury is one of the most important historic settlements in Britain, with a rich heritage of buildings and townscapes. The urban fabric of the city, clustered around the Cathedral, is the physical embodiment of a 2000 year history of occupation and is a rich and complex mixture of both ancient and modern structures, with an arrangement of streets dating back to at least the 11th century.
Because of this heritage the city enjoys an international reputation, out of proportion to its relatively small size, and thus it is known throughout the world. There are around 1,600 listed buildings in the old city, one of the highest concentrations in the country. Buildings in the city are extremely varied, with around 580 made of timber frames dating from the 14th and 15th century.
The Cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church are a UNESCO-designated World Heritage Site. The Cathedral is one of the most visited historic sites in the UK, and indeed the wider world. The city centre was designated a Conservation Area in 1968 and most buildings within the historic core were listed in 1973. Recent surveys have shown that a significant proportion of local shoppers, visitors and students choose Canterbury precisely because of its historic character and ambience.
Like many other towns in the southeast, Canterbury is growing rapidly, spurred by the new high-speed rail connection to London. The Canterbury Society recognizes the inevitability of such development, and does not oppose an expansion of the city. Our concern is to ensure that such expansion is of high quality and commensurate with the existing character of the city, and that the historic centre retains its integrity and charm.
Following a disastrous few decades of wartime and post-war devastation to the fabric of the city, development in the last few decades has been broadly positive for the city. Past funding schemes have resulted in major improvements to the condition of city buildings, securing some spectacular restorations of buildings in serious disrepair. Development from the 1970s until the 1990s was of a generally high quality, paying heed to the principles good design and sympathy with the existing character of the city.
In the last decade, however, this positive trend has slowed and, in some instances, the mistakes of the post-war years are being repeated. Modern design is again in the ascendant and the City Council has given clearance to grandes projets such as the Marlowe Theatre and the extension to the Beany centrethat disregard the historic character of the city and necessitated the destruction of historic property. Meanwhile, developments such as the Tannery and Whitefriars Shopping Centre, while better than the postwar structures, are disappointingly designed pastiche developments.
At the same time, the character of the Conservation Area is being eroded by inappropriate shop fronts and signage, a proliferation of A-boards, poor quality street furniture and inattention to maintenance and repair. A number of historic but empty buildings in the city centre are being allowed to decay. Worst of all, the interiors of some historic buildings have been illegally gutted or modified, causing irreversible damage.
In large part, this is due to the failings by the City Council. A series of re-organizations, budget cuts and a shift in policy in favour of economic development at the expense of conservation have seriously undermined the ability of the conservation department to enforce its own policy on conservation. The Council is failing in its statutory duty to preserve and enhance the character of the Conservation Area and there is little ability to offer detailed specialist advice on proposals to alter or extend historic buildings. Shopping areas such as St Peter’s Street are becoming increasingly scruffy and down at heel.
The Work of the Canterbury Society
The Canterbury Society works hard to persuade all those concerned to recognise the importance of the historic character of the city, and to understand that the conservation of the city is of great value, not only to the appearance of the city, but to the education and tourist sectors that power the local economy.
We work with the City Council, the Canterbury Conservation Advisory Committee, the Canterbury Archaeological Trust, English Heritage and other relevant bodies in this field. We also value our links with residents’ associations, and draw on their local knowledge in commenting on planning applications in their areas.
The Canterbury Society committee reviews all major planning applications, especially those which affect a conservation area, often working with the CCAC or with the local residents’ association. We then send a formal response to the City Council Planning Department for each proposal about which we are concerned. We deplore the reduction in the time allowed for commenting on planning applications and the insistence that comments be made on-line. We are also concerned about the replacement of stone paving with tarmac. The text of our comments on these issues can be found on this website.
Staffing cuts at the City Council have led to a drastic reduction in the conservation expertise available. The Canterbury District has around 2500 listed buildings, 97 Conservation Areas and three World Heritage sites. It used to have a very active Conservation Department with 14 staff at its peak. This has now been reduced to 1.5 staff, rising to 2.5 in August 2014. The importance attached to the conservation of the historic city has been greatly reduced, an issue which is of great concern to local residents.
Recently the City Council invited the Canterbury Society and the CCAC to work together to pick up some of the work which can no longer be done in house. We are currently discussing this work, which is likely to include:
- Carrying out the annual Heritage at Risk survey
- Producing Guidance on shop fronts and signage
- Reviewing the Local List
- Producing Guidance on the replacement of windows in listed buildings
- Archiving historic maps and photographs
- Carrying out appraisals of specific conservation areas
We have been encouraged to hear that English Heritage is making funds available for local civic societies under the Strategic Condition Monitoring stream of the National Heritage Protection Plan. These funds are for the National Heritage at Risk Grade II project. We will be applying for these funds. The Canterbury Society is very concerned about the protection of this historic city and about the reduction in the staff available to conserve our magnificent heritage.