Building a partnership to support heritage in Weston-super-Mare: a case study

An article by High Street Heritage Action Zone Officer, Cara MacMahon.

Six years ago, the relationship between North Somerset Council and Weston-super-Mare Civic Society could be described as adversarial. The Civic Society battled to make sure planning decisions were in keeping with ensuring the town had excellent design, particularly with heritage work.

It felt like a one-way street, with Civic Society excluded from an understanding of the inner workings of the unitary authority, and the wider issues the council was working with. The council was also not fully aware of the expertise that could be drawn on from the Civic Society.

In 2018, following Historic England awarding the town with Heritage Action Zone status, the council and the Civic Society agreed that having regular briefing meetings could be a way of developing a productive and informative way forward. These meetings, held with a core group of council officers (the Regeneration team), were planned as a way in which the council could share upcoming issues and the Civic Society could raise any concerns.

The meetings enabled healthy debate and allowed a joint understanding to emerge. While there are differing opinions at times, there is an underlying positive culture of mutual respect. Officers from different departments are invited to attend these meetings to talk about specific issues as they arise. An important aspect of these meetings is that each one ends with commitments from both the council and the Civic Society to action.

Outcomes from this way of working include:

  • Civic Society provide a ‘checks and balances’ touch stone for any refurbishment and shopfront restoration work the Heritage Action Zone carries out. This has led to the Civic Society actively supporting planning applications.
  • Council officers speaking on areas of work as part of the monthly Civic Society lecture series, and the Heritage Action Zone sponsoring these.
  • Proactive work by the Civic Society to help ensure the highest design standards.
  • The Civic Society actively being involved in the adoption of Weston-super-Mare as a Conservation Area, and the development of a Shopfront Design Guide.
  • The Civic Society fronting the collection of images to support an Article 4 Direction to prevent the loss of Victorian stone walls in the town. 
  • The Civic Society supporting exhibitions of the Heritage Action Zone work through volunteering to staff the exhibition and host a display to encourage new recruits to the Civic Society.

In part due to the proactive nature of the relationship, the council now places far more emphasis on heritage and design throughout its work. This has led to the original council’s Regeneration team expanding to include its Conservation Officer, Urban Planning Officers and its Archaeologist. It has also now been re-named the Heritage and Design team and has a remit that covers the whole of North Somerset.

North Somerset Council website link:

Weston-super-Mare Civic Society website link: