‘Conservation and Adaptation’

The City of Edinburgh Council consultation on ‘Conservation and Adaptation consultation’: Our response

The City of Edinburgh Council launched a ‘Conservation and Adaptation’ consultation on 31 March 2023 for 10 weeks. It covers actions designed to reduce carbon emissions in historic buildings to enable the city’s transition to net-zero by 2030. It also covers adaptation actions which will protect our historic environment from negative impacts of a changing, more adverse climate.

Edinburgh World Heritage strongly welcomes this consultation that seeks to collect valuable information to understand and address current challenges experienced by residents in relation to climate change in the context of Edinburgh’s historic environment. 

The response of Edinburgh World Heritage is primarily focused on the challenges, risks and solutions associated with energy retrofit and climate change adaptation in the context of the Old and New Towns of Edinburgh World Heritage Site, Listed Buildings, and Conservation Areas.

The historic environment is arguably what makes Edinburgh a special place to live, work, study or visit. It contributes to the city’s quality of life, and provides economic, social and environmental benefits. 

Its careful conservation and sensitive management by residents and local stakeholders preserved its integrity and authenticity over the years. The planning process has played an important role in this success and remains critical. 

Indeed, preserving the city’s heritage is an ongoing process which relies on the sensitive management of change. Any decisions made should conserve and can also enhance the significance of the World Heritage Site and associated heritage assets.

The consultation’s introductory section clearly articulates the main challenge that we are currently facing in Edinburgh: finding an adequate balance between the Council’s statutory duties to protect the city’s historic environment – which includes the World Heritage Site – and to achieve net-zero targets as set by the Scottish Government. 

Edinburgh World Heritage has acknowledged this challenge for a long time, pro-actively working on climate change projects since 2008 and having adopted its Climate Emergency strategy in 2020. The strategy aims to address the challenges posed by climate change to the World Heritage Site while sustaining its Outstanding Universal Value and enhancing the quality of life of residents.

Our work includes comprehensive engagement with residents and local stakeholders as well as pilot projects aiming to test and disseminate replicable solutions for energy retrofit or climate change adaption interventions in historic buildings located in the World Heritage Site or beyond.

Below is a brief summary of our key points for considerations in response to this consultation. 

  1. Challenges for residents. There are many barriers preventing residents from implementing energy retrofit and adaptation interventions. Whilst the planning system is perceived as one, there are multiple other barriers that are potentially more problematic such as high costs or lack of technical solutions available.  
  2. What can be done presently. The wider dissemination of existing guidance published by the Council, Edinburgh World Heritage and Historic Environment Scotland is a quick solution. We would not recommend changing the Council’s existing planning guidance. Instead, we would recommend the creation of targeted supporting documents to this guidance – promoting solutions that have been proved to be acceptable in the historic environment, based on sufficient, robust evidence and research. However, the principle by which each application will be considered on its own merits should remain the default position. Highlighting the need to understand the cultural significance of our historic environment, the role of maintenance in relation to climate change and the role of the planning process in safeguarding the city’s cultural heritage will remain critical. 
  3. What needs to change to address those challenges. We believe that there is a pressing need to define best practice relevant to Edinburgh’s historic environment that could be disseminated across the city. To do so, the implementation of pilot projects that would help test sensitive solutions is fundamental, urgent and requires resources such as funding. A better understanding of current issues/barriers and help needed through targeted engagement with local communities would help refine proposed solutions. Changes of legislation on maintenance in tenements and VAT rates would also be required to accelerate climate action.
  4. The cost to our built heritage of any changes. There are two categories of negative impacts that could result from inappropriate interventions (or maladaptation): damage to the cultural significance of the historic environment and the creation of new problems (or unintended consequences) such as damage to the integrity of historic buildings, mould, ventilation or condensation issues that could negatively affect occupants’ health. These can impact on the historic environment and residents at an unprecedented scale in history. However, they can be addressed by the planning system if it is set up to manage them appropriately – which  would include adequate processes and resources – and through a potential update of building warrant and listed building consent processes.

Urgent action to address the Climate Emergency is essential, in Edinburgh and across Scotland, and the historic environment is part of the solution. 

However, this should be guided by evidence and research, through an iterative process, and should not lead to rushed/unconsidered decisions that could seriously harm the historic built environment or negatively affect occupants. 

We also believe we will only deliver these challenging goals through collaboration and partnership. Edinburgh World Heritage stands ready, as heritage experts, to support the City of Edinburgh Council and local stakeholders to deliver the urgent work needed to tackle climate change, for the benefit of Edinburgh’s communities and our historic environment. 

If you would like to know more about the topic above, please contact us directly.