Heritage at a crossroads

Ours is not a crumbling heritage system, as CLA president William Worsley suggests (Country Life, July 13). Those of us who board flights to hotter climes over the next few weeks will be reminded in at least one respect of how lucky we are to live in England. The achievements of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, which led to the presumption against development on greenbelt land, has preserved our countryside from the urban sprawl and suburbanisation that has blighted so many of our neighbours.

Last week, we saw the publication of the new draft National Planning Policy Framework, the Coalition’s reforming planning guidance. It turns many long-held planning assumptions on their head. Especially important is the new principle of a presumption in favour of so-called sustainable development. This is all very well, but what does sustainable mean? Well, that’s the debate that English Heritage (EH), the CLA, the Historic Houses Association, the CPRE, the National Trust and other interested heritage and countryside bodies will now have with the Government.

This debate is fundamental to the future of this country, and, in particular, the countryside, but so are local-authority planning departments. After all, it’s not national bodies that decide planning issues; it’s elected council members on the advice of their officers. EH has been monitoring the capacity of local authorities to deal with these decisions for some years. We will soon publish a report revealing that, over the past year, conservation staff in local authorities have been reduced by 11.9%. We should be very concerned about this, and about the levels of expertise and competence in planning departments.

The quality of our heritage is, of course, affected by the planning system, and by the ability of local authorities to operate it effectively, but we can’t forget that it’s underpinned by people power. Heritage is not a State-owned industry. This is, of course, its strength, but also a weakness. It’s much easier for the Government to have a policy for a few large cultural institutions in London than for millions of historic places owned by individuals up and down the land. That is why the task of arguing for heritage will never be done.

It’s also why EH, with Andrew Lloyd Webber, is running the Angel Awards. This competition will find the most remarkable groups of local people who have managed to save heritage at risk. They are the real heritage heroes. There are many things that we might regret in terms of planning decisions, but our forebears have generally done a good job in protecting our heritage. We are living through a time of big and unsettling change. We need to reinvent the systems and methods for protecting the best of our past so that the generations that succeed us can look back with gratitude
on what we’ve done.

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To enter the competition for an Angel Award, visit www.english-heritage.org.uk/heritageangelawards