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”.
Since our historic environment is so important to our cultural, social, economic, and environmental well-being the government has taken notice.
Tourism and investment in heritage-led redevelopment are two ways that a historic setting might drive economic growth. It is part of the intricate network of variables that make places distinctive and characterful, and which contribute to build community identities and a ‘sense of place’.
So what exactly is our historic environment? In simple terms, it is the physical expression of human activity and the effects humans have had on our environments. Most evident, perhaps, is our built environment, and none of us has any trouble in detecting the contribution that big buildings, bridges, churches or historic monuments contribute to our surroundings. But our historic context is so much more that. It permeates every aspect of our daily lives, from the way we build our houses to the way we use the land and the natural surroundings around us. Even more intangible influences include our memories, customs, abilities, and even the language we speak (see HM Government 2010).
How do we tell what is important about our environment and what we need to protect it in the face of so many competing interests? Planning for the historic environment (PPS5 – Planning for the Historic Environment) has been a part of the process since the early 1990s. In April 2010, the guidance was updated to reflect these changes. This advice remains one of the most essential instruments for the protection of our historic environment from development, and provides a framework for defining the ‘significance’ of our cultural assets and guiding our response to proposed alterations to them.
But here it is crucial that we know heritage protection is not only about preserving in aspic our contemporary surroundings. Rather, it is about handling change carefully 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. Public participation in heritage asset designation, inquiry, and recording is explicitly encouraged by the planning advice, which is a positive development.
However, with increased integration of ‘localism’ into public policy is there a risk that the national context of our heritage assets could get ignored in favour of the local view? It is vital, then, to have the skills and resources to be able to assess significance local, regional and national scales, and to develop ways to incorporate them into the wider public arena.
So what does this means for developers? It requires preparing ahead and seeking counsel early. It means relying on the knowledge and experience of heritage specialists, such as archaeologists and conservationists from local authorities, to fully assess the potential impact on historic assets and how that impact should be handled. It means consulting with the local community about their perspectives. Instead of being a construction ‘risk,’ an archaeological resource site could be just the thing needed to capture the imagination of local people, to provide some exciting skills training opportunities or simply give some high-impact positive PR and a chance for everyone to find out a little more about where we all came from..
Examine the Government vision (above) more attentively. The worth of the historic environment should be ‘recognised by all who have the authority to shape it…’.
That power doesn’t simply reside with heritage specialists; 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 gloriously rich and diverse legacy can be enjoyed by future generations.