What Are Conservation Areas? (And Why Do They Matter?)

Everything you need to know about conservation areas in the UK.

What are conservation areas? Why do they matter? And is buying a house in a conservation area a good idea? We answer all of that and more below. 

There are over 10,000 conservation areas in the UK, ranging from sprawling parks and estates to historic town centres and entire villages. These areas retain some sort of historical or architectural significance and are often desirable places to live. 

So, what does “conservation area” mean in the UK? Let’s find out.

Conservation area meaning explained

A conservation area in the UK exists to manage and protect a particular place’s historical and architectural features. As a result, there are strict rules in place when it comes to planning permission and demolition. 

According to Historic England, these areas include:

  • The centres of historic villages, towns and cities
  • Fishing and mining villages
  • 18th, 19th and 20th-century suburbs
  • Model housing estates, including late 20th-century housing projects
  • Country houses set in their historic parks
  • Historic transport links and their environs, such as stretches of canal and railway and airfields
  • Industrial heritage sites

What defines a conservation area?

A conservation area is usually defined by its character or appearance, which is considered essential to preserve or enhance. This might be the style of the buildings, the unique town planning, the events that took place in the past, or even the trees (more on that later)

For a place to be designated as a conservation area, it must be identified as having a clear architectural quality or historical interest by the local authority. 

Meanwhile, Historic England can designate conservation areas in London, but it must be done in consultation with the relevant Borough Council, and with the permission of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media, and Sport.

And the Secretary of State can also designate conservation areas anywhere in the UK — usually when a local area has national historical significance.

Why are conservation areas important?

Conservation areas matter because they help maintain an area’s distinct character and unique features. The strict planning regulations take a precautionary approach to development, protecting the local identity of a village, town, or suburb. 

Where was the first conservation area in the UK?

The idea of historic conservation areas was first suggested by York town planner June Hargreaves in 1964. In her book, Historic Buildings: Problems of Their Preservation, she criticised the idea that historic buildings should be replaced with ultra-functional, modern ones, as this would be detrimental to the identity of historic towns. 

The first conservation area was designated three years later under the Civic Amenities Act 1967, covering the “old town” of Stamford, Lincolnshire.

How do I know if I’m in a conservation area?

The easiest way to find out if you live in a conservation area is to contact your local planning authority (LPA). You can do this by finding your local council website and navigating to the planning section. 

The LPA should be able to tell you when and why the conservation area was created, how far it reaches, and how much protection is in place.

And if you’re thinking about buying an older property and you’re wondering if it’s in a conservation area, you should ask the seller or estate agent for more information. They’ll usually be keen to share, as houses in conservation areas are often highly sought after. 

What does it mean if your house is in a conservation area?

If your house is in a conservation area, it means you’ll be subject to extra planning rules and regulations when it comes to making improvements, repairs, and alterations to your home. 

To help preserve and protect the elements that make the conservation area special, you may be limited to what you can do to the exterior of your building or the trees on your property.

Typically, houses in conservation areas are affected by something called “Article 4 Directions.” These are put in place by the local authority to restrict the work you can do without planning permission (for example, replacing an original window or door or altering the guttering).

Planning considerations for homes in conservation areas

Depending on where you live in the UK, you may need permission to do the following in a conservation area: 

  • Building a single-storey extension that extends more than 3 metres beyond the back wall of a semi-detached or terraced house (or more than 4 metres if the house is detached)
  • Building a two-storey extension
  • Building a side extension
  • Making alterations to the roof
  • Replacing original windows or doors
  • Altering pipes or guttering
  • Painting the exterior of your home a different colour
  • Changing the colour of window frames or doors
  • Adding cladding to your property
  • Installing satellite dishes that face the road
  • Fitting solar panels
  • Constructing outbuildings, sheds, or swimming pool

Always check with your local planning authority before starting any work in a conservation area. 

Under Section 74 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, carrying out work in a conservation area without permission is a criminal offence. Doing so could land you a maximum two-year prison sentence! 

A word about trees in conservation areas

It’s not just the buildings that are subject to strict controls in conservation areas. All but the smallest of trees are protected, too. 

If you want to cut down or trim trees measuring 1.5 metres above ground level with a stem diameter of more than 75 mm on your property, you’ll need to notify your local planning authority six weeks in advance of any work starting.

The authority will then consider the tree’s contribution to the character of the local area. If they deem it important, they’ll create a Tree Preservation Order (TPO) to protect it. Otherwise, you’ll get the go-ahead to lop or chop it.

Heads up: If you remove a tree in a conservation area without permission, you could face an unlimited fine and be required to replace the tree.

Is it a good idea to buy a house in a conservation area?

Yes, it can be. Homes in conservation areas are usually older, visually appealing buildings with distinct architectural qualities and/or historical significance. And while this can make them more expensive to buy, they also tend to appreciate in price more than properties in other areas. 

A 2012 study by the London School of Economics and Historic England (the most recent research available) found that homes in conservation areas were estimated to be worth 8.5-9.5% more than those outside designated areas. 

However, the strict planning conditions and the need to maintain the property to exacting local standards might make you think twice. Especially if you’d like to put your own stamp on your new home.

In summary: What is a conservation area in the UK?

To recap, conservation areas in the UK help maintain and enhance a particular place’s local historical and architectural features. This often means strict rules for planning permission and demolition are overseen by the local authority.

Conservation areas come in all shapes and sizes, from historic towns and cities to fishing and mining villages, country houses, and industrial heritage sites.

Buying property in a conservation area can be a wise investment. While they’re often a bit pricier, they’re also highly sought after and tend to appreciate in value. However, maintaining the exterior to meet local standards can be time-consuming and expensive (especially if you need to source original materials for repairs).

Thinking about buying a property in a conservation area? Make sure you have the right home insurance in place from day one. Check out our specialist high-value home insurance.

Also read:
Do I Need Planning Permission? (Your Complete Guide) 
How to boost the value of your home 
Listed Buildings: Here’s what you need to know