Elizabeth Allison, Former Chair of Sutton Coldfield Civic Society and Civic Voice Representative on our National Regional Forum shares her thoughts on piloting the Civic Voice Conservation Audit

Why Sutton Coldfield Civic Society are involved

In Sutton Coldfield, we have three conservation areas, including Sutton Coldfield High Street Conservation Area, which last had a management plan published in 2015. The area is not at risk, but as a society we do feel as though the increase in advertising and signage is gradually changing the character of the area. Sutton Coldfield Civic Society has long championed our local heritage and in 2010, we developed a Community Led Conservation Area appraisal, so we are always keen for the society to do its bit to protect local heritage.

As the West Midlands Representative on the Civic Voice Regional Forum I attend meetings at the Coffin Works, Birmingham to help contribute and advise Civic Voice on matters of concern across the country.  This group really does help shape what Civic Voice is doing and although we don’t agree on every issue, I do feel that we are shaping what Civic Voice is doing on a national level. The group also works well as a forum to hear from others across the country and to network.

It was during the December meeting of the Regional Forum other members of the group presented the latest findings from the Civic Voice Big Conservation Conversation campaign. This is a campaign to raise awareness of the loss of conservation staff in local government. It was through this research that societies had been feeding back to research team that the situation is much worse than the national picture painted. We were told than 20% of authorities do not have a conservation officer and nearly 1000 conservation areas are in these authorities. It really does make you worry about the future of conservation areas. Incidentally, it was disappointing to find that one of our local conservation areas, the Four Oaks estate, was listed with Birmingham instead of ourselves as the relevant Civic Society. If Birmingham Council provided this information, one has to wonder how much they do know about conservation areas in their area.

It was through the research of that societies have been feeding back that they wanted to get involved in the national campaign and highlight issues of concern. Nantwich Civic Society (read here) was highlighted as an example of a group who had been assessing the issues in the local area, without any training. It was clear from this that civic societies do want to get involved in assessing the local conservation area and play their part in taking action, but they don’t know where to start.

Alongside this, local authorities have also been saying to Karen that they want extra support, but they need to be given certainty that the information being provided from a community group on the condition of a conservation area is accurate, up to date and not biased. Helen and Karen suggested to us that using a “national audit” would give an authority the confidence that the community group are using the national tool and have been trained to a consistent national standard.

Based on this, Helen and Karen had recommended that some sort of “tool/audit” be developed that allows a group to “take action”, collects evidence of impact and provides useful information that an authority can use.

The idea of a Civic Voice Conservation Area Audit was born.

What is it?

The Conversation Area Audit is a way for a community to assess the condition of a conservation area. It is your “first steps” to managing the change in your conservation area.

The audit provides a simple framework to gain a snapshot of the key issues impacting on your conservation area at a point in time, which can then be used to support you in developing an action plan to address those issues.

The tool provides prompts for discussions, allowing you to consider all the issues impacting the area in a methodical manner. The tool will help you identify where the conservation area needs to change or improve its condition.

The tool is simple and consists of a series of questions which cover the common issues in a conservation area, as identified by Civic Voice and Historic England in a survey in 2016. When you answer the questions, you are then required to fill in a simple online form to help interpret the results.

Does it work?

Having had members who participated in the national Civic Voice campaign on war memorials, we volunteered our society to be one that road tests the next version of the tool.

I had arranged for Sarah James to visit Sutton Coldfield, but unfortunately, I had to cancel. I had thought this would hinder me from knowing how to present to colleagues, but after communicating with the CV office, they sent me the latest draft of the guidance to support the tool. Sarah James was on hand to answer all the questions we had so I could present the idea to our committee. We haven’t gone through any training yet to be able to use the tool fully, I think this might be required to ensure a certain standard of assessment.

In general the civic society committee thought the Civic Audit was a good idea and the idea of using the form as the basis for a National Civic Day project went down well.
 
The point was made that a few of the criteria might not be suitable in all circumstances, e.g. deciding whether or not UPVC windows had been installed could be difficult in Sutton Coldfield’s Four Oaks Conservation Area, where several of the Arts & Crafts style homes sit on very large plots, often behind hedges but we know that these are the issues that Civic Voice are looking for in the pilot. I think the plan is to ensure different versions exist and could be adjusted to suit the character of the area.

We agreed that by giving us a consistent methodology to follow, we know that we will have a stronger case to make to the local conservation officers.

Should others use it?

Would we recommend the tool to other groups? Yes, we would.

We recognise that we are part of the wider civic movement and know that we are stronger working together.

That is why I attend these national meetings. The more groups we can get using the tool, the more examples we will have of it working. If Civic Voice can then collate this evidence, we will get real examples of the issues impacting conservation areas. Civic Voice can then use this to lobby and campaign with Historic England and Government. 

My advice would be that if you need evidence to show your local authority what the key issues are in your town or you are a conservation officer looking to make the case for further funding? Why not join the Civic Voice Conservation Community & make the case for conservation areas? 

NOTES FOR EDITOR

Civic Voice is encouraging people to look more closely at their local conservation area and to take action to ensure they are fit for purpose 50 years after the Civic Amenities Act came into force. This tool kit is aimed at helping anyone who wants to assess and record the condition of a conservation area. 

Get in touch with Civic Voice via info@civicvoice.org.uk and we will provide further information.

So why use it?

Your survey will help to

  • Identify whether the conservation area is in good condition or whether it needs any repairs/conservation
  • Understand what key issues need addressing locally?
  • Create a national database of the nation’s conservation areas.
  • Kickstart any action that’s needed to ensure the future of your local conservation area.
  • Civic Voice plan to hold monthly workshops in Birmingham where you can register to attend and meet other community groups, local authorities and policy makers who are also using the tool. 

So, by using the tool you can save yourself a lot of time and frustration in trying to get the local authority to support your work by using the Civic Voice Audit. By using the conservation audit tool, you are showing that you are committed to “doing the right thing” and having the appropriate training and will be supported by the Civic Voice name.

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Elizabeth Allison, Former Chair of Sutton Coldfield Civic Society and Civic Voice Representative on our National Regional Forum shares her thoughts on piloting the Civic Voice Conservation Audit

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