THE FUTURE of conservation areas has been thrown into doubt by changes to the planning process for building in them.
The Architectes des Bâtiments de France (ABF) has lost its power to direct and veto planning authorities over building work in conservation areas known as zones de protection du patrimoine architectural, urbain et paysager - ZPPAUP.
The ABF are specialist civil servants in each prefecture and local planning authorities were obliged to consult them on any planning application made in a conservation area.
They had a veto on proposals that did not meet their requirements and could decide to either offer advice which the planning authority was obliged to accept or merely a recommendation to them - the former being called un avis conforme, the other un avis simple.
The obligatory version was by far the more common. Local authorities had to accept such rulings, with an application to the regional prefect the only possible way of contesting them.
As a result of a change in the law the ABF have been stripped of this power. In future, they will only be able to offer advice that the planning authority can take or leave.
The change has caused uproar among conservationist lobbies in France, who consider it will place historical buildings and areas at risk.
The ABF themselves had strongly opposed the change. The national president, Frédéric Auclair, referred to the idea as “selling off an essential safeguard against abuses” and “putting an end to policies to protect and make the most of the scenery which have proved their worth over more than 25 years.”
There are around 600 ZPPAUPs, with around a further 400 in the pipeline. They are applicable to both urban and rural areas.
It seems the main reason why parliament decided to remove the powers of the ABF was the concern that they were often too prescriptive in their advice.
There has been concern, in particular, that they have stopped the development of solar panels on roofs in conservation areas, as well as the installation of wind turbines in the countryside.
One of the other frequent complaints of French MPs and mayors is the time it takes the ABF to consider a planning application. The law grants them up to four months, which they often use to the maximum.
When the two months granted to the planning authority to come to their decision is then added on, it can mean that a planning application in a conservation area can take six months to determine.
While the abolition of the power of veto of the ABF may well grant greater discretion to local planning authorities, critics of the change suggest that only in a minority of cases will the whole process be quicker.
The application will need to be submitted to the ABF, and the timescales available to them to consider it remain unaltered.