Averting Crisis in Heritage

CLA Report on reforming a
crumbling system

Averting Crisis in Heritage: CLA Report on reforming a crumbling system


Our heritage – houses, barns, mills, commercial buildings, hillforts and other archaeology, stone walls, parks and gardens – is important to all of us. It defines much of the world in which we live, shapes our identities, has huge public support, and is a surprisingly important part of our economy.

Heritage, however, is not like the paintings in the National Gallery. It is under constant attack, mainly from the weather and, if it is not looked after, it quickly decays. Looking after it is very expensive. This means that its long-term survival depends on it being used and appreciated, and, in most cases, generating an income. All this requires careful management, an understanding of what makes it important and an acceptance of the need for sympathetic change so that it remains relevant to the future we all want for it.

This approach to heritage, "Constructive Conservation", is the key to its long-term survival. This is the heritage policy of the CLA, and of English Heritage, and is widely accepted as good practice. Indeed, government policy defines conservation as the intelligent management of change.

The problems

Unfortunately, this is often not what happens in practice. This is not through ill will or incompetence, but because the big teams of skilled and experienced people who are supposed to be present in local authorities to apply these policies are not being funded by government, and are not there.

The system requires local authorities to get fully involved in each case, but they cannot. This makes it difficult for Constructive Conservation to work. Frequently, this mismatch between the current system and its resources means that desirable proposals run into the ground, creating a growing perception that managing and changing heritage is "too difficult". Equally seriously, the resources are not there to stop heritage from being damaged. This makes desirable change too hard and undesirable change too easy – the exact opposite of what should be happening. It threatens the future of heritage and, as resourcing is further cut, the situation is becoming even worse.

"When there are cuts to be made by national or local government, heritage is always the soft option, as we can see in the cut in support for English Heritage, and the savage cuts currently being made in the number of conservation officers employed in local government. Loss of expertise on this scale will be devastating" Professor Sir Barry Cunliffe, former Interim Chairman, English Heritage, Heritage for the taking?, British Academy, 2011

There are other problems too (see page 8), such as the huge disincentive of 20 percent VAT. There are also several destructive heritage myths: heritage is neglected by governments because it is wrongly assumed to swallow public money and to sway no voters; and that there is an irreconcilable clash between heritage and development. These myths lead to misunderstanding and conflict where there could and should be agreement.

What we did

Before the CLA thought about the solutions to these problems, we went back to first principles and looked in detail at what is wrong, and why. We also looked at best practice in other areas, for example environmental consents and building regulations, on which the ongoing Penfold Review of non-planning consents proved extremely helpful.

Next, we set six "key tests" (see page 14) which our solutions had to pass, to avoid recommendations which would change little, cause harm or prove impossible to implement. Finally, we also discussed many of our ideas informally with others in the heritage sector. While, naturally, we did not find agreement on every detail, there seemed to be a clear feeling not only that change is needed but also that many of the "official" answers proposed in the longstanding Heritage Protection Review, such as merging the listed building and scheduled monument regimes, are either not going to happen or would not solve the problems. New thinking is needed.

The solutions

There is no single solution. Different and detailed actions are needed, which explains the length of this Report's Recommendations section (see Part Two). These are not crude "deregulation": it is vital we do not dismantle heritage protection. In essence, as can be seen in the summary on page 15, the CLA is suggesting intelligent and carefully targeted reform to establish a system which can be operated with the available resources, making desirable change much easier and undesirable change much harder, setting out effective policy and systems to allow people to get on with looking after heritage. Much of this is simply implementing the principles of better – not just less – regulation set out recently in the Penfold Review. It also involves debunking some of the heritage myths mentioned above, developing skills, and revisiting other policies – for example on climate change – which have unintended impacts on heritage.

Implementing the solutions

The Government has no new money to spend, but that is not a hurdle because one of our "six tests" is that our recommendations must (with one exception) require no substantial extra spending. The Government is also busy, but that is not a hurdle here either because our recommendations require it to do very little, beyond agreeing that reform is needed, adding some clauses into a non-heritage Bill, and making some amendments to actions it would be taking anyway. Most of the required action is for English Heritage and the rest of the heritage sector to implement. English Heritage already has additional resources allocated to improving heritage protection, and the CLA and others in the heritage sector are very willing to get involved in the detailed implementation.

Our recommendations are not vague talk of "partnership working" or "efficiency savings": they are concrete, detailed and implementable. And they are not about cutting heritage protection, but about boosting it, by changing the system so it works. Implementing them, or an agreed development of them, would give us something different from what happens now: a system which would fit the resources we can realistically provide and would protect our heritage effectively. Now is the time to act to avert the crisis in heritage.

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