In 2010 the Government released a statement on the Historic Environment for England, with its vision being: “that the value of the historic environment is recognised by all who have the power to shape it; that Government gives it proper recognition and that it is managed intelligently and in a way that fully realises its contribution to the economic, social and cultural life of the nation”.
The Government therefore recognises the enormous and valuable contribution that our historic environment makes to our cultural, social, economic and environmental wellbeing.
The historic environment can encourage growth through tourism and by attracting investment in heritage-led regeneration. It is part of the complex network of factors that make places distinctive and characterful, and which help to create community identities and a ‘sense of place’.
So what actually is our historic environment? In simple terms, it is the physical expression of human activity and the effects we have had on our landscapes. Most obvious, perhaps, is our built environment, and none of us has any difficulty in identifying the contribution that grand buildings, bridges, churches or historic monuments make to our surroundings. But our historic environment is so much more that. It is embedded in vernacular architecture, patterns of landuse and nature habitats, agricultural practice, the marine environment, our homes and workplaces. It is also shaped by elements far less tangible, such as our memories, traditions, skills and language (see HM Government 2010).
Amongst all these diverse factors, how can we establish what is significant about our environment, and what we need to protect? Since the early 1990s, the built heritage and archaeological remains have been a material consideration in the planning process and in April 2010 revised planning guidance (PPS5 – Planning for the Historic Environment) came into play. This guidance remains one of the most important mechanisms for the protection of our historic environment from development, and provides a framework for establishing the ‘significance’ of our heritage assets and guiding our response to proposed changes to them.
But here it is important that we realise heritage protection is not merely about preserving in aspic our current surroundings. Rather, it is about managing change sensitively and appropriately.
Neither should the delivery of protection be simply seen as the preservation of physical attributes; protection also comes about through learning and participation; the more that people know and understand about their heritage, and by contributing to dialogues about it, the better and more appropriate our protection measures will be. Indeed, engagement of the public in matters of the designation of heritage assets, or their investigation and recording, is written explicitly into the planning guidance, and this is to be welcomed.
However, with increasing integration of ‘localism’ into public policy is there a risk that the national context of our heritage assets could become marginalised in favour of the local view? It is critical, therefore, to have the skills and resources to be able to assess significance local, regional and national scales, and to find ways to integrate them into the wider public arena.
So what does this means for developers? It means planning ahead and getting advice early. It means using the expertise and skills of local authority archaeological and conservation officers and other heritage professionals to gain a full understanding about the potential impact on historic assets, and how that should be managed. It means consulting with the local community about their views. It also means being creative; rather than being a construction ‘risk’, a site with an archaeological resource could be just what is needed to capture the imagination of local people, to provide some exciting skills training opportunities or simply to give some high-impact positive PR, and a chance for everybody to find out just a little bit more about where we all come from.
Examine that Government vision (above) more closely. The value of the historic environment should be ‘recognised by all who have the power to shape it…’.
That power doesn’t just lie with heritage professionals; it means that every one of us has a right (and a perhaps duty?) to engage with our historic environment, to say what makes it meaningful to us, and to ensure that our wonderfully rich and diverse heritage can be enjoyed by future generations.