Statements of Significance
What is Significant about Significance?
It’s getting increasingly difficult to avoid discussions on conserving our historic parks and gardens without finding ourselves faced with the question ‘But what is significant about it?’ Much thought has gone into sites on the national Register, of which we have nearly 50. But it is even more important to look at our locally important sites – well over 200 as they need our protection even more.
Cadw and English Heritage (EH) have both produced guidance on why it’s important to understand the significance of a landscape. They argue, perfectly reasonably, that it is difficult to know what it is that we are trying to conserve if we don’t know what it is about a site that is important. Once we know what it is that makes a site special, then we can begin to find ways to conserve this, or manage changes to ensure that they have as little impact as possible on these special qualities. When we research a landscape and visit in order to record what is extant, that is the perfect opportunity to work out what is significant about a site, and what features remain that embody that significance.
This approach to understanding a site has now been enshrined in planning policy too. The requirements of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF), which now underpins all planning decisions in England and Wales, must be taken into account in all planning decisions. Whilst significance is touched on all the way through the NPPF, it starts off laying out core principles, including that planning should “conserve heritage assets in a manner appropriate to their significance, so that they can be enjoyed for their contribution to the quality of life of this and future generations’. So, if we want to conserve our historic designed landscapes, and explain to others what it is about them that needs to be conserved, we need to be able to articulate their specialness!
Cadw and EH offer us some principles to help with managing change to historic landscapes: Conservation Principles. We can usefully describe a landscape in terms of where its importance lies, what values we can give it. So, think about a designed landscape you know well and see if it displays any of the following:
Evidential value: the potential to yield new evidence about past human activity; how it matters for future research – the humps and bumps of garden archaeology are a good example of this. The work of the HGT Research group at Gobions, Benington Park, Standon Lordship, Pope’s and other sites has clarified the existing evidence as well as making new discoveries, as at Gobions, which really take us into new territory.
Historical value: the ways in which a site is connected to past events and people; how it tells our national story – this could be with an artist, designer, writer etc, or be a place that evokes or illustrates past events, such as High Leigh at Hoddesdon, Briggens, Bayfordbury, Aldenham House, Munden House all of which highlight the role plant collectors played in our Hertfordshire gardens. Sites with historical value include Hanstead House (Bricket Wood), Felden Lodge (Hemel Hempstead) and Shenstone Court at Potten End) where research by HGT has revealed that gardens in the Arts and Crafts style were created.
Aesthetic value: the way a place can give us sensory and intellectual stimulation and how people respond emotionally – it doesn’t necessarily have to be beautiful in the traditional sense! Its appeal might be designed or fortuitous. This could be the wonderful forest garden at Tring Park or the rides and vistas at Ashridge, or on a smaller scale, the Rose Garden in Bushey.
Communal value: the meanings we give to a place through our collective experience or memory of it; how it brings people together – currently the meaning of landscape in commemoration of World War I and war memorials. A good example is the restoration of the Canon Glossop Memorial Garden by local residents in St Albans. Another aspect would be the value as a historical resource and valuable public open space as at Panshanger, Hemel Water Gardens or Digswell.
So how can we make sure that our research gets to the bottom of what is significant about the landscape? When you have completed your research and really understand its historic development and current survival, ask yourself what it is that makes this landscape special. You could follow the list of values (not all of them might be relevant) and write some short bullet points – include this with your research report as it will really help your CGT to work out what needs protecting and what can be changed without having a hugely negative effect on the specialness of the place. This crucial step can make all the difference to your CGT when responding to planning applications or talking to owners – and your efforts might just provide the important nuggets of information that prevent a vulnerable landscape from losing what makes it special.
You can also read more about Conservation Principles and significance at http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/professional/advice/conservation-principles/
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