Well, the credit-crunch has taken its toll and the Queen’s Speech (December 3rd) was full of socio-economic matters. As rumours in the previous two weeks had suggested, the Heritage Protection Bill paid the price.

The Heritage Protection Bill (HPB) is intended to set out “the legislative framework for a unified and simpler heritage protection system that will be more open, accountable and transparent” . Basically this means using heritage as the centre for the planning process, rather than an add-on, as well as unifying all the disperate protection practices that have built up over the last hundred years, and making sure it’s all ‘inclusive’ and ‘engaging’ and ‘community-centred’ etc.

At the moment scheduled monuments and listed buildings are dealt with by different people, despite the fact the boundary between the two can be blurry. Both of those are legal designations, so streamlining them into one processes requires legislation – this was one of the jobs of the HPB.

In addition, it would have broadened the type of maritime sites that could be protected, hopefully increasing the currently rather patchy and uncertain coverage of wrecks, etc. And of most immediate interest to me, it made Heritage Environment Records (HERs)a statutory requirement for National Parks and councils/local authorities/unitary bodies (ie anyone who acts as the planning authority for the area).

The full draft paper is available here, but I have to admit that at 208 pages, I haven’t read the whole thing.

A few things did strike me though, particularly the reference to HERs being the direct descendants of the SMRs (Sites and Monuments Records) of the 1970s. I mean, let’s be frank here, despite IFP2 and MIDAS standards there are still a number of records out there that are essentially still SMRs. That is to say, they don’t conform to the current standards. The HPB does seem to be pretending that all the HERs (70-80 of them?) are up to date.

The possibility that HERs would have statutary status is an exciting one though, if you work in the business. No more arguing about what HERs are allowed to record! To quote (in a shortened manner) my favourite sections:

210. Historic environment record: duty to create and keep up to date

(2) A historic environment record is a record which contains –

a) details of any registered heritage assets [that’s listed buildings and scheduled monuments, open spaces, marine and world heritage sites]
b) details of each registrable structure or registrable open space in the local planning authority’s area that the authority considers to be special, local –

(i) historic interest;
(ii) archaeological interest;
(iii) architectural interest; or
(iv) artistic interest

c) details of any other sites in the area that the authority considers to be of archaeological interest
d) information about the way in which the archaeological, architectural or historic development of the area or any part of it has contributed to the present character of that area or part, and about that character may be preserved, and
e) details of relevant investigation carried out in the area and of the findings of such investigation

(4) For the purposes of subsection (2)(e) each of the following is a relevant investigation –

b) any other investigation [not done by the authority, English Heritage, the Welsh Ministers or Royal Commission] carried out for that purpose [ie archaeological, architectural, artistic of historic interest] which the authority considers appropriate to include

(7) For the purpose of this section a site or other thing is to be regarded as being in a local planning authority’s area if any part of it is in that area

(2)(a) is amusing as I believe a number of HERs don’t have designation data on listed buildings/scheduled monuments, and a good number have only added it in the last year or two.
(2)(b) is my favourite at the moment, because it really makes it clear that HERs have a remit to record as much of the heritage environment as they physically can. This is important as some buildings people really can’t understand why a HER should have any business looking at standing structures. I still remember the look of absolute horror on one man’s face after I said (perhaps a little naively considering the context) that pretty much all heritage was archaeology. I have to admit to being a bit of a fan of World War and Cold War sites, and that includes the Royal Observer Corps bunkers, most of which only closed in the 1990s. But any structure, or physical evidence of structure or site use, is archaeology as far as I can see. It all deserves preserving equally. Who are we to say that Cold War structures aren’t of interest? What will our descendants say if we let them all disappear?

Anyway, I will try and avoid getting on my soap-box! (2)(b) is also interesting as it mentions sites of ‘artistic’ interest. I’m not sure what these are (and the notes don’t seem to be explicit), but I’m guessing that they would cover things like statuary (though the old stuff often appears to be listed), murals, wallpaintings, etc.

The bill does leave a few things out – not least Conservation Areas, and ‘local designations’ as well as ‘archaeological priority areas’, the formation and application of most of which vary distinctly between areas and could do with formalising and confirming. Of course, the bill also chickens out of saying HERs have to make their data available online, though it does require that they make it available upon request. It does reinforce the recording of ‘relevant investigations’, which means HERs can continue recording information on current activities and how they have effected the sites.

Of course, including things in the HER doesn’t automatically give them protection. If your HER officer is rushed off their feet and is also responsible for planning applications etc, then the local heritage isn’t going to get that good a deal compared to those authorities with a dedicated HER officer or even a team. But making the HER a statutory requirement would have hopefully gone some way to making local authorities take them seriously. It seems HER officers often feel rather undervalued, and the fact that most authorities don’t understand what HERs are for, or even what department to put them in, doesn’t reassure officers.

Unfortunately, we can kiss goodbye to statutory status for the moment. That of course is the one big thing that suffers from the ‘delay’ of the HPB. Whilst English Heritage have clearly stated that “more than two-thirds of the changes set out in the Heritage White Paper can go ahead” HERs really are on the loosing side.

For those working in the industry, a big question mark is now starting to hang over their jobs. In the last twelve months there have been a lot of short-term HER Assistant jobs turning up as HER officers have managed to scare a little money out of their authorities with the threat of non-compliance with soon-to-be statutory requirement. Now that isn’t happening, those jobs are going to finish, and there won’t be anything new coming up, particularly as the newest round of “pay-scale reviews” starts up across local authorities.

Consider the current economic climate, and it’s not a surprise that ALGAO’s Stewart Bryant believes that without statutory status the current HER structure won’t survive the next five years (and bear in mind this was published before the ‘delay’). Considering that it has been said that a third of all planning applications have an impact on our heritage, and the picture Stuart paints of authorties axing or neglecting HERs is scary. HERs are the one place where archaeology is recorded, is made known to those giving the go ahead to construction. Do we really want a repeat of the 1960s, where so little knowledge was available that housing estates were built over Roman forts (as at Caister-on-Sea)?

And with archaeological jobs nose-diving (have you seen the poor offerings on BAJR recently?) the job-market’s going to be pretty saturated. The HPB could have been a chance to secure jobs in the heritage management sector and safeguard the nations heritage in advance of the wave of develompent that will be needed to deal with our expanding population. It could even have enabled a small expansion in resources that could have taken up some of the newly unemployed from the declining pre-construction sector. Instead the HPB has been ‘delayed’, with no schedule for progression, leaving HERs and the heritage protection sector in a rather uncomfortable, and possibly devastating, limbo.

Interesting links:
Governmental statement and English Heritage’s response following the ‘delay’
Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s page listing all the downloadable documents of the HPB
HER Forum’s discussion of the implication of the HPB for HERs

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