RESCUE Members will no doubt be unsurprised to learn that there are zero provisions made for heritage, archaeology or the historic environment in general, within the terms of the UK’s EU Withdrawal Agreement. This may not be as unsurprising as you might think however, as few, if any, of the major international structures that underpin the UK’s heritage legislative infrastructure stem from our membership (or otherwise) of the European Union. Most – such as the 1992 European Convention on the Protection of the Archaeological Heritage (“Valletta Convention”) or the 2001 European Landscape Convention (“Florence Convention”) – originate from our membership of the Council of Europe, and others such as the 1972 World Heritage Convention or the 2001 Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Heritage from membership of the United Nations / UNESCO: two organisations that (so far) the UK appears to have no plans to withdraw from. This should mean that in the short-medium term at least, the UK’s heritage protection regime remains unchanged.
Two things will be important for RESCUE Members to bear in mind in the coming period.
The distinction between the European Union and the Council of Europe is very poorly understood in the UK: there will undoubtedly be occasions where it is assumed by developers or individuals, perhaps even councillors, politicians and officials, that the provisions of many of these agreements automatically no longer apply once the UK exits the EU. It will be important to ensure that this possible misconception is watched for and countered if and when it appears, particularly at a local level where planning committee members are often not fully briefed on the framework behind the decision-making processes.
Going forward, it will also be important to note that the current European Union Withdrawal Agreement is simply that – an agreement to pull out covered by a transition period which expires (unless extended at the request of the UK) at the end of December 2020. The subsequent “post-brexit” period will mark the start of the freedom for the Government to commence a potential complete reappraisal of the UK’s environmental protection rules and regulations should it so wish, unfettered by the agreement’s provisions that tie the UK to the EU for the transition period. This is the point when attempts to deregulate environmental protections – which certain members of the current government have already indicted are a possibility – may start to appear. Heritage protection may well be caught up in this. All members of the heritage sector should consider these points, be vigilant, and be ready to defend our resource should attempts be made to roll back hard-won protections for our natural heritage and historic environment assets.