Conserving the Historic Environment Following Covid-19

Conserving the Historic Environment by John Pendlebury with Jules Brown sets out the values and principles that underpin the current conservation-planning systems, explaining their historic context and evolution and critically examining these systems and possible counter approaches.
It discusses how the conservation of the historic environment has become increasingly linked to other social and economic policy objectives and identifies key lessons and implications for future policy development and planning practice.

Key among the factors influencing these future policy decisions, is the effect of Covid-19 on our High Streets and town centres. Authors John Pendlebury and Jules Brown consider how conservation will look going forward...


~ ~ ~ ~ ~


2020 and COVID19 brought challenges to many aspects of life and the heritage sector was no exception. For those parts of the heritage sector reliant on visitors, whether heritage sites or more general cultural tourism to historic places, the impact has been devastating. More broadly, COVID19 seems to have accelerated longer term-trends affecting many places. One of the principal places we find concentrations of our cultural heritage is historic town centres, and most town centres in the UK are historic, with ancient origins around crossing-points or markets. It is here we usually find a conservation area and very often a clutch, or more, of listed buildings.


The Lanes, Brighton, June 2021. The independent historic high street has the potential to thrive post-Covid. Photo: Jules Brown.



Many high streets and town centres have faced challenges extending back over decades. If we think of just one of their traditional principal functions – retailing – in the 1980s and 1990s the challenges came from inserting large floorplate stores in traditionally fine grain centres, and from out-of-town shopping that began to sap the life from centres, something belatedly acknowledged by national planning policy when the process was already well in motion. To this challenge, the new century brought the additional consumer opportunity of on-line shopping, a force that went into overdrive in 2020. This was the final straw that led to the collapse of household names, already struggling pre-pandemic, such as Debenhams, plus the loss of continuing brands in some locations that act as key anchors, such as John Lewis, has been particularly devastating, often causing a domino effect as the principal shopping draw to that place vanishes. This is both a heritage problem – leaving key repositories of our cultural heritage with an uncertain future – and a much wider societal problem as we ponder the future of the places where we have traditionally come together to shop, work and socialise.

We shouldn’t underestimate the scale of these problems, but they are problems where heritage can also provide part of the solution. In Conserving the Historic Environment, we consider these issues from a variety of perspectives. If the traditional High Street is to change, this change should be managed to sustain what is special about those places. This is both in relation to the cultural heritage objectives linked to the management of the historic environment, but also because ultimately this means bringing a quality to the environment that is integral to a process of successful functional reinvention – a whole place approach. If the right mix of uses can be found, sensitive reuse of a place’s heritage can help reactivate places people want to be for more than just shopping, helping secure the economic future of those places, and also contributing to people’s well-being. As we write this in June 2021, there is a tremendous thirst (no pun intended) from many people to be back in collective social settings. And with other trends, we can see at least the possibility of some potential causes for future optimism in, for example, the way some very local businesses have prospered during lockdown. For example, there has been a surge in new bakeries and other businesses providing fresh and local food. Whilst we must acknowledge this is principally in more affluent districts, the independent historic High Street could begin to thrive again.


170-175 High Street West, Sunderland, before the start of restoration works. Photo: John Pendlebury.

170-175 High Street West, Sunderland, spring 2021, with capital repairs in progress. Photo: Martin Hulse.


In England, the principal vehicle for the heritage sector’s response to these issues has been through Historic England’s Heritage Action Zone programme. Running since 2017, 2020 saw a major expansion of the programme, with a specific focus on high streets. One Heritage Action Zone where we have both had some professional involvement is in Sunderland, in the north east of England. Sunderland City Council, in partnership with Historic England, the Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust (TWBPT) and others has ambitious plans for using disused and derelict buildings as the cornerstone of a revival of the town centre that has endured a long decline. TWBPT have been working on a project to bring three derelict buildings (two of which are listed) on the old High Street back into use. The initial phase of the project is due for completion soon and uses will include a home and venue for a music charity and a food co-operative. As a seed for new home-grown cultural growth, this is a great example of the historic high street reinventing itself from the roots up.




John Pendlebury is Professor of Urban Conservation in the Centre for Heritage, Newcastle University. He has spent 25 years researching on and teaching about the historic environment, prior to which he worked as a local authority conservation officer.

Jules Brown is a historic environment practitioner who has spent 25 years working in the charitable and public sectors, as well as lecturing on sound historic environment management.



CONSERVING THE HISTORIC ENVIRONMENT by John Pendlebury with Jules Brown, part of our Concise Guides to Planning is available now from our website.

Hardback • 160 Pages • Size: 200 × 130 mm
50 B&W illustrations
ISBN: 9781848222991 • Publication: June 28, 2021
Series: Concise Guides to Planning