Kevin Morris was unable to come to conference but his knowledge within the heritage Sector is 2nd to none!
This brief paper seeks to raise awareness of the threat currently being faced by England’s built heritage through a reduction in local authority conservation services and the resultant deliberate or uninformed removal of historic fabric, fixtures and fittings form the country’s heritage assets.
Whilst the care of many of the country’s treasures are in safe hands through the custodianship of organisations such as the National Trust or Landmark Trust we are reliant upon thousands of individuals or organisations to manage our historic assets in an informed and sensitive manner. Whilst many are responsible owners who have or seek appropriate professional advice, knowledge and guidance about their historic buildings and alterations to their properties, others are very dependent upon the services offered by England’s local authorities. It is these services and individual officers who are charged with safeguarding heritage assets against willful neglect, unauthorised demolition or alteration. However, these resources are being reduced in many authorities as budgets reduce and both officers and elected members are charged with identifying those services most needed by its customers. The results, inevitably, are cuts in conservation services and not surprisingly a resultant loss of important historic fabric and a gradual degradation of the country’s heritage assets. Furthermore, many of these losses go unrecorded as often attendance at the “crime scene” of unauthorised works to a statutory listed building results in an officer being faced with a fait accompli and no evidence of the original feature or fabric that has been lost.
I am sure that many of us with an interest in the historic environment are familiar with following the woes of owner’s attempts to renovate buildings or structures at risk against the resistance of local authority planners or conservation officers and the BBC’s revealing of the country’s heritage via Paul Martin and his team’s travels up and down the nation looking for undiscovered treasures and forgotten places that tell us about Britain’s “rich and astonishing history”. No matter what we think of the outcomes of these programmes be it a converted water tower or a tour of Cragside in Northumberland (not quite so hidden I would argue), what is not so evident is the wealth of heritage that is visible and not so visible in the more humble buildings that surround us on a daily basis. Some of these hidden assets are I would suggest as important as those forming the focus of the nation’s viewing public.
During the daily life of a local authority’s conservation officer, fabric is being revealed which has remained hidden for decades if not centuries. How these features or fabric is revealed can be by accident, through planned opening up, uniformed but well-intentioned alteration or a deliberate decision to remove historic fabric without appropriate permissions or consent. In Gillingham for example in North Dorset, a recent fire at an unlisted, humble vernacular house revealed an early open hall with a later deep chamfered ceiling frame evidently imported from elsewhere supported on small rough timber blocks to enable an appropriate fit! Other examples include revelation of long hidden Tudor fireplaces, graffiti covered doors, local hand-made tiles with written scripts and early wall papers, hidden behind early 19th century hessian linings and numerous layers of 19th and 20th century wall papers. It is often down to the conservation officer in the absence of an appropriately qualified architect or surveyor to identify these features and assign significance to them and to make clear to owners why their plans need to change or adapt to make provision for these previously hidden assets. It is also often their role to defend the retention of that revealed feature in the face of strong opposition to remove it.
However, recent research (Historic England 2016) is suggesting that reduced funding from Central Government has meant that authorities have, and continue to review what services they can or need to provide and how those selected services are provided. These constant reviews of service provision coupled with greater freedoms provided for them through the Localism Act 2012 (General Power of Competence) have resulted in local authorities exploring a wide range of service options, some very different from the traditional local council approach. High profile examples of local authorities acting as a commissioner of services are becoming evident with Historic England identifying Barnet (easyCouncil[i]) and Lambeth (the co-operative council[ii]) as examples, all being designed to reduce the strain on the public purse and competing services.
However, despite innovation an annual collection of data within the south west for example by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) clearly demonstrates cuts in conservation service provision (IHBC Historic Environment Cuts in Local Authorities 2015). Historic England recognise that most areas of local government are facing cuts to budgets however there is concern that information collected by the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers (ALGAO) and the IHBC shows the provision of expert advice dropping since 2006 with archaeological provision by being reduced by 23%; and built conservation provision by 35% (Historic England 2016).
Yet the brief comment above makes clear in my view that historic environment expertise is vital in ensuring that heritage assets are retained for appreciation by this and future generations, reinforcing local identify and character (even where they are not visible to the general public). What collected evidence demonstrates is that some local authorities are now delivering services or fulfilling their statutory obligations without access to expert professional advice and therefore are making decisions or being blissfully unaware of works taking place without a full understand of their impact on the historic environment.
So what does this mean? It is clear that changes to local government funding and an ever changing political context are resulting in local authorities exploring creative and often ground breaking ways to deliver valued services. Shared services, cooperatives, and trusts are but a few of the options being considered. Furthermore greater community involvement via heritage groups, neighbourhood plans or other interested non-professional organisations are helping plug the gap although often the latter often turn to the local planning authority conservation officer for advice or guidance. What is important is the retention of well qualified, informed and knowledgeable individuals based at the “coal face” of conservation or historic environment services or activities who can identify, safeguard and define the significance of heritage assets. England’s heritage assets many of which are hidden or misunderstood are vital to our understanding and appreciation of our built heritage. As Historic England state: “Our environment contains a unique and dynamic record of human activity. It has been shaped by people responding to the surroundings they inherit, and embodies the aspirations, skills and investment of successive generations.” (Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance 2008). Whilst those individuals without an appreciation or awareness of the value and role heritage assets play in our everyday lives could be said to be blissfully unaware of the value of their surroundings, raising awareness, appreciation and protecting what are often finite assets is often dependent upon local authority conservation staff. Their role is to adopt a reactive and proactive role in safeguarding heritage assets and without them our environment will surely be of significantly lesser value.