This week, the CLA launches a new vision for England’s heritage system. The policy, Averting Crisis in Heritage: CLA Report on Reforming a Crumbling System, gives a gloomy picture of the state of heritage. It argues that local authorities lack the skilled conservation staff needed to run the existing system, so heritage is being either damaged or frozen from change, and that 20% VAT on repairs is hugely off-putting to those wanting to protect heritage. We say the system is too resource-hungry, heritage is too hard to change, and that English Heritage and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) are in denial about the problems.

These problems have been obvious for more than 10 years. The previous Government began a heritage protection review in 1999, and it’s still going on. Yet the real issues with heritage aren’t being addressed because of a fundamental misdiagnosis of what’s wrong. There are inaccurate assumptions within DCMS that heritage is similar to other forms of culture, such as art galleries and theatre companies; that, like the Arts, it consists of a small number of key sites and is dependent on public funding, and that it is worse than other forms of culture at finding non-public funding.

In Averting Crisis in Heritage, we have set out to dispel these myths and to show that reform is urgently needed to protect England’s heritage. Our report finds that ‘most heritage-related enquiries and applications are not handled by skilled conservation staff but by other staff, with little or no heritage training or experience, in overworked planning departments’ and ‘there is a widespread perception that the system is inefficient, inconsistent and unreliable’. Moreover, central Government is portrayed as having a limited grasp of what’s happening in heritage.

Heritage isn’t just about key sites. Millions of pieces of heritage are privately owned and not publicly funded. Perhaps only 2% of heritage funding is from the State. The Government may believe it is paying for heritage and cannot afford the costs any more but, in fact, it’s paying for very little of it. Indeed, the Government makes a profit out of heritage because the tax revenue exceeds public funding!

The Government has been barking up the wrong tree, trying to change the heritage system through a handful of flawed solutions: merging the complex regimes for listed buildings and scheduled monuments; promoting better Historic Environment Records (HERs); creating Heritage Partnership Agreements (HPAs) between local authorities and owners of heritage; more pre-application discussion; and, in English Heritage’s 2011 National Heritage Protection Plan, calling for more research and more designation. All of this either won’t happen or won’t make any fundamental difference. Government has adopted ‘solutions’ doomed to failure. This is because the real problems have not been identified.

We have applied new thinking to the issues facing the heritage system, requiring its solutions to pass six suitability tests: they must address the real problems and make a significant difference in practice; they must increase, not weaken, the effectiveness of heritage protection; they should not require any substantive new public expenditure; they should take little effort from Government, and not require a major Heritage Bill; they should not conflict with deregulation, localism, or other mainstream political agendas; and they must not be mere aspirations, such as ‘we need to promote partnership working’.  

They are substantive, workable and spelt out to be clear and measurable. The answers adopted by English Heritage and DCMS over the past decade have not passed these tests.

The CLA solutions are set out in 30 detailed recommendations to improve the regulations and make the heritage system work better. Working with others in the heritage sector, we are aiming to improve the system with little legislation as well as boosting skills and information, helping the market pay for heritage, and addressing heritage-tax and climate-change issues. We believe that if our path is followed, England’s crumbling heritage system can still be saved.

William Worsley is the president of the CLA

The report at a glance

* It is vital to know and quantify what heritage costs and who is paying for it
* New streamlined system for listed-building consent
* New listing only where proportionate and with rights of consultation and appeal
* Local authorities to not cut conservation staff further
* More-but better targeted-enforcement
* New National Planning Policy Framework and better guidance to accord with English Heritage’s ‘Constructive Conservation’ policy
* More involvement of key heritage stakeholders
* More, but better, farm-building conversions
* Logical policy on climate change, not just based on insulation
* Sector to look at heritage skills
* Reduced-rate VAT on residential-property repairs

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