AT CLEVELAND BRIDGE, which spans the River Avon in Bath, a tailback of traffic is building up. The Georgian structure, bookended by stone lodges with Doric porticos, was praised for its handsome Greek Revival style by Nikolaus Pevsner, an architectural sage. But it was built for horses, not lorries. Repairs will close the bridge for several months, causing bigger jams and more pollution in a city where air quality already breaches European limits.
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Bath is an extreme example of a trade-off faced by much of the country. Britain has the oldest housing stock in Europe, with one in five homes more than 100 years old. Period features are prized and often protected by law. Yet as efforts to cut carbon emissions intensify, they are clashing with attempts to preserve heritage. It is a “delicate balance”, says Wera Hobhouse, Bath’s MP and the Liberal Democrats’ climate spokeswoman. “What is the public benefit of tackling the climate emergency, versus protecting a heritage asset?”
Two years ago Bath was among the first British cities to declare a “climate emergency”, when it also vowed to go carbon-neutral by 2030. The Green Party won a quarter of the vote in the latest European elections, thanks to a coalition of students and Tesla-driving liberals. A local Extinction Rebellion chapter leads marches up the city’s cobbled streets; a couple of years ago its members made headlines by taking an illegal plunge in the Roman baths.
Yet Bath also wants—and is legally required—to preserve its heritage. With immaculate Roman remains and Georgian crescents that spread across the Avon Valley in shades of honey and butter, the city is designated a world heritage site by UNESCO. About 60% of it is further protected by the government as a conservation area. More than 5,000 of Bath’s buildings—nearly 10% of the total—are listed as being of special architectural or historical interest, making it a criminal offence to alter them without permission.
Many of the features that make Bath’s Georgian buildings so exquisite also render them leaky. Airy hallways are hard to heat; big sash windows let in draughts; fireplaces suck away warm air. Buildings of traditional construction make up 30% of Bath’s housing stock but account for 40% of domestic carbon emissions, according to the Centre for Sustainable Energy, a charity. British homes are rated for energy efficiency on a scale from A to G; most traditional buildings in the city are an F or G.
The council wants to retrofit them, but planning laws are an obstacle. People in listed buildings should seek permission even before adding a letterbox draught-excluder, advises the Bath Preservation Trust, a doughty 87-year-old charity that reviews planning applications from its office on the Royal Crescent, Bath’s smartest address. Double-glazing is sometimes allowed in listed buildings, but only if it is of the narrowest (and priciest) variety. Wall insulation is hard to get approved. Landlords, who don’t pay heating bills, have little incentive to wade through the planning process, says Dominic Tristram of the local Green Party, and many tenants in historic digs can afford to “just put the heating up”.
Transport is another area where climate and heritage clash. Bath’s 17th-century streets lack room for bike lanes. Joanna Wright, a local councillor, was recently booted out of her role as Bath’s climate chief after proposing that North Road, which leads to the university, should be closed to traffic. In two years she was unable to install any on-street electric-vehicle charging points, partly because of the “nightmare” of getting permission to dig up old pavements (ropy electrical infrastructure is another brake). Tourists struggle to find Bath’s unmarked bus station; planning rules forbade the council from putting a sign on it, Ms Wright says.
Solar panels are permitted, but must generally be kept out of sight in shaded roof valleys. Nor can the council allow wind turbines to be erected on the breezy hills around Bath, because UNESCO guards not just the city but its setting. Twenty-three protected viewpoints leave little space to hide a turbine.
All this means going carbon neutral by 2030 looks hard. But the city is at least beginning to make compromises. In March it launched the first “clean-air zone” outside London, charging drivers to enter central Bath (although privately owned cars are exempt). A trial has made 160 electric scooters available to hire. And local opinion seems to be shifting in favour of sustainability. “The discussion has moved dramatically towards considering the climate emergency,” says Ms Hobhouse, the local MP. Even the Bath Preservation Trust has made its peace with solar panels, so long as they are discreet.
Indeed, the most restrictive rules, including on listed buildings, are set nationally. Since Parliament has declared a climate emergency, it is time for a debate “around what we as a country are prepared to consider”, says Sarah Warren, Bath’s new climate chief. Requirements that original materials must be used for repairs should be replaced by ones to use sustainable materials, argues Mr Tristram of the Green Party. “Instead of regulations that make things look the same, we need regulations to improve efficiency,” he says.
Once in a while, climate and heritage chime. In March, Bath Abbey, the gothic church in the middle of the city, switched on a swanky new underfloor heating system. The technology is state of the art. But the source of the heat is as traditional as it gets: the hot spring water that gushes, at a steady 40°C, through a Roman drain built nearly 2,000 years ago. ■
This article appeared in the Britain section of the print edition under the headline "Dirty pretty things"