Thursday 26 February 2015

The Death of Heritage: playing in the ashes of the past...

Today saw the launch of the new look English Heritage and Historic England, born from the forced severance of the old English Heritage organisation. Until now the historic environment in England has been largely the legal responsibility of one organisation; English Heritage. Established in 1983, it was the natural successor to the old Department of Works, responsible for the care of over 420 historic properties in public hands. However, it has been an uneven and, in the view of many, a restrictive role that saw the one organisation have two very distinct and separate hydra like heads. On the one hand English Heritage were responsible for the maintenance and care of the many hundreds of historic buildings that litter our towns and countryside like so much historic confetti; everything from medieval monasteries and castles to iconic World Heritage Sites such as Stonehenge and large parts of Hadrian's Wall. They were responsible for the visitor experience, the retail outlets and the overflow car park on busy bank holiday weekends. However, on the other hand the same organisation was also responsible for implementing and enforcing current planning legislation in respect of the historic environment; offering advice and comment on everything from Scheduled Ancient Monuments to how the erection of an illuminated shop sign might impact upon the setting of a Listed Building. The two heads of the hydra were not seen by many as entirely obvious, or comfortable, bedfellows.
Well, the uneven marriage has finally ended in divorce. From the 1st of April (no irony apparently intended) English Heritage is to be split into two. The care of the historic properties will now be run by a charitable trust, still to be known as English Heritage, into which the government will invest about £80 million  for immediate repairs and consolidation. This is the new body that will be responsible for the historic houses and castles we visit, the interpretation of our heritage on the frontline and, of course, the gift-shops full of pencils, rubbers and shiny branded notebooks so beloved of visiting school parties. The rest of the responsibilities held by the old organisation, including most aspects of planning, advice and heritage protection are to be vested in a new body to be known as Historic England. This new body, according to Culture Secretary Sajid Javid speaking at the official launch of the organisation, will remain part of the government's responsibility and they intend to keep  "its functions close at hand."
So it appears that all is glowing and rosy in the world of heritage protection. However, looks can be deceiving. Is this, as Sajid Javid insists, simply the adapting of an old organisation "to suit the age in which we now live", or is it one of the final stages in something more fundamental; the systematic dismantling of all forms of environmental and heritage protection that has taken place over the last five years? Given the evidence it is difficult to conclude that it is anything other than the latter.
When the Tory party came to power five years ago one of their key ambitions, much promoted within business communities and elsewhere, was the doing away with 'red tape'. They were going to be a friend to business, remove the perceived 'brakes on development' and allow us to build our way out of recession. However, it soon became clear that their perception of what constituted red tape was anything that might slow down or hamper development. Anything that caused delay or expense to developers was their enemy and it had to go - and go it did.
The first to go was planning legislation. Seen as complex and restrictive, over 1500 pages of planning law was reduced to a single document of a little over 50 pages in length. The National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) was to give a clean slate to the planning process and a green light to developers. Guidelines and well crafted legislation, that often left little or no room for ambiguity, and had been developed over a period of more than half a century, was thrown out of the window in favour of a document that contained more gray areas, ambiguities and contradictions in its fifty odd pages than the average Dr Who script.
The next 'brake on development' targeted by the government were those bodies who actually had their legal responsibilities for ensuring the protection of our heritage and environment. These included the Environment Agency, Natural England and English Heritage, all of whom suffered swingeing cuts to their funding and resulted in job losses. In the case of the Environment Agency the government went even further, appointing Sir Phillip Dilley, a noted planning and development specialist, as the new chairman. The cuts had the intended effect, leaving the agencies stretched and able to undertake only the barest minimum of their legal duties. There were reported cases of agency officers being unable to undertake site visits for even major developments due to budget constraints, preferring to rely upon viewing the site on Google Earth.
In the case of protection for the historic environment cuts within English Heritage caused a pervasive culture of fear. Individual officers relate stories of being told by their superiors not to intervene in planning issues that had already become 'live' (plans that had essentially already been approved by local authorities) for fear that they would be seen as further stifling development and bringing further cuts in their direction. This change in attitudes was soon picked up upon by planning officers within local authorities. When dealing with applications that might be considered controversial, it became a matter of policy rather than oversight within certain 'rogue' councils not to consult with English Heritage until after the application had been initially passed by their own development committees; thereby effectively ruling out possible interference from English Heritage until such point as their hands were already tied.
The final levels of heritage protection beneath English Heritage, the county based 'Historic Environment Services' (HES) who are directly responsible for offering archaeological advice upon planning applications, was actually even easier for the government to undermine. General cuts to local authority budgets has led to the need for cost savings on a massive scale, and sadly it has been the county Historic Environment Services that have found themselves in the front line. Services have been reduced, posts have been lost and workloads increased. In recent weeks one county council (West Sussex) has stated that it is actually completely ceasing to offer archaeological planning advice to most of the local authority planning departments in their area, leaving them to make their own arrangements with external contractors, whilst another (Northamptonshire) has stated that it aims to outsource 95% of all of its services - with no indication whatsoever of who, if anyone, will be offering archaeological advice to planners.
Having dismantled the mechanisms and agencies whose role was to protect the historic environment the government continues to attack all forms of heritage protection. More local governments cuts are being put forward, the Portable Antiquities scheme is once again under threat and Judicial Review, the last line of defence against bad and ill informed planning decisions, is to be made much harder and more expensive to undertake. Whilst each exercise in 'cutting red tape' seen in isolation may be regarded as simply removing the occasional brick from the wall of heritage and environmental protection, the cumulative result has been that the wall now has more holes than bricks.
The question must be whether, putting aside the destruction of heritage and environmental protection, the government has actually succeeded in what they set out to achieve? Have they managed to do away with what they regarded as the greatest enemy of development, developers and big business? Have they actually reduced the dreaded 'red tape'? Today the term 'red tape' is seen in almost wholly negative light, with connotations of overly heavy handed bureaucracy and top-down policy implementation for the sake of implementation; a political and media short-hand for restrictive practices and over regulation. However, it's worth remembering that every piece of this red tape legislation has been put in place by a former government, many of them Tory, for what was considered the protection of heritage and the environment. The development of the Green Belt, over a thousand pages of planning legislation and the Scheduling of Ancient Monuments were not simply pieces of political whimsy pulled from the air on after a brief discussion in the House of Commons bar. They were the result of a perceived and recognised need, extended periods of practical engagement with the subject and a wish to preserve irreplaceable heritage and environment assets for generations, rather than just the term of the next parliament. As any planning officer of whatever political persuasion will now tell you, the reduction of planning legislation to a little over fifty pages of the NPPF has not simplified the planning process. It has simply done away with areas of certainty that did exist in the old legislation, created a mass of grey areas and directly resulted in the publishing of multiple 'guidelines', designed to run alongside the NPPF, that are now almost as long as the original legislation it sought to replace. Planning by legislation and consent is largely being replaced by planning by litigation; where those who can afford the bigger barristers carry the day. There is, it would appear, sometimes a need for red tape.
There are those who believe that we are fiddling whilst Rome burns; watching generations of heritage protection being dismantled around us with no coordinated opposition, or potential for the future reversal of some of the most damaging measures. However, the view from the frontline of heritage and archaeology in England is that, when we look back on this period in a decade or two, we will realise that we weren't watching Rome burn at all - we were already simply playing in the ashes. Heritage protection has been, and continues to be, dismantled at every turn and with each week and month that passes. Today, however, the great and the good gathered together in the Chapter House of Westminster Abbey to celebrate the launch of two new organisations that, in the words of Sajid Javid, "will be free to explore new ways of engaging with communities. New ways of protecting and promoting our heritage." Let us all hope that there is some real truth in Javid's words, and that today's celebration doesn't turn out to be an expensive wake for a long lost past.

NOTE: Since originally writing this post it has caused some controversy. It has been stated that it is a purely political piece of propaganda. That was never the intention. Whatever my personal political views I do not believe that there is an major party that, at the present time, takes heritage and environmental matters seriously. I would also add that every statement made in the blog above can be backed up with facts and figures. For instance, the Natural England case referred to was that for the development of a 7 acre lorry park (classed as a 'major development' by the planning authority) on designated environmentally sensitive land in the Wensum valley, Norfolk. Natural England did not make a site visit, citing budget constraints, and are on record in the minutes of the Development Committee meeting as saying they relied instead on viewing the site from Google Earth. Local opposition groups offered to pay for either their bus fare or a taxi to visit the site. The offer was not taken up.
In addition, since the publication of this piece the government has issued its formal response to the Commons Select Committees investigation into the first two years running of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF). The Commons Select Committee was tasked with examining how the NPPF had been operating in practice and what could be done to improve it. The Committee, after much study and deliberation, put forward a list of recommendations, most of which were aimed at clarifying areas of the NPPF that were considered ambiguous and addressing "the growing number of concerns about unsustainable development". The Committee considered that many of these concerns were "significant and need to be tackled". 
On the 27th February 2015 the government issued its response to the Committees recommendations - the vast majority of which were completely rejected. The Chair of the Communities and Local Government Committee, Clive Betts M.P., responded by stating that he was "very disappointed by the Government’s response to my Committee’s recent report... Sadly, the Government’s response shows it is burying its head in the sand about these important public concerns."