Viewed through the prism of heritage protection, Rescue warmly welcomes the publication of the Government’s Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill on Wednesday 11th May. Whilst there are no doubt significant wider issues that will attract debate amongst various bodies, the inclusion within the text of a requirement that named local authorities “must” maintain an Historic Environment Record, appears to represent a final acceptance at Government levels of the importance of HERs to planning and the wider communities they serve, and a commitment to place them on a secure and sustainable statutory foundation at long last. For the heritage sector, and particularly the archaeological profession, if the bill is passed in this form this will represent the successful culmination of many years of lobbying, consultation and commenting, not the least for Rescue itself which demanded Statutory HERs as part of its response to the consultation on the discredited and now-ditched 2020 Planning Bill and has been lobbying on this point for well over a decade.
Whilst the profession may well breathe a collective sigh of relief in having convinced the Government to provide for HERs in this way, the provisions as set out are not without certain potential issues. The suggestion of formal, central, regulation of the fees that HER services charge is new and may ring alarm bells at some authorities which rely on external funds to support their services. Similarly, the indication (in the prescribed list of HER-hosting authorities) that “each London Borough Council” will be included amongst those that “must” maintain an HER will raise eyebrows in considering the future set up of archaeological information provision and advice services in London, which are currently largely centralised at Historic England’s Greater London Archaeological Advice Service. It will be interesting to see how these immediately obvious points of concern play out in the coming weeks and months.
Elsewhere in the text, other heritage-specific measures are apparent, importantly a duty to regard certain heritage assets in granting planning permission, which is an entirely new construct possibly born from discussion with bodies such as Create Streets about placemaking, beauty in planning (a currently popular Government topic) and an extension to their provisions thus far limited to retaining historic statues in the latest revision of the National Planning Policy Framework. The specific inclusion of the Mayor of London as being singled out for mention could also be seen as a possible reaction to the recent misguided and dismal decision to allow the demolition of the Marks and Spencer’s Headquarters building on Oxford Street – a decision subsequently called-in my the same Minister (Michael Gove) as is behind this present Bill. Whatever the reasoning, it seems likely that heritage concerns will be more prominent in the taking of planning decisions in the future, and by placing Registered Parks and Gardens, Battlefields and World Heritage Sites on the same Statutory footing as Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas, they will have some sharpened regulatory teeth behind them which is undoubtedly positive.
Also of importance for the historic environment, is the inclusion of Cultural Heritage as a specific receptor embedded amongst the Environmental Protection provisions. It has long been contested by heritage professionals that the natural and built environment share many common themes and that a joined-up protection regime would be beneficial. Getting traction on this point has proven fruitless however and the recent heritage-exclusionary Environment Act 2021 (legislation.gov.uk) seemed to depressingly reinforce the apparent supposition from Government that they were unrelated. On first reading, this latest Bill appears to recognise heritage as an equal partner within the Environmental Protection regime, and whilst the focus of the newly-termed “specified environmental outcomes” provisions are somewhat unclear (explained as a replacement for EU-drafted Environmental Impact Assessment regulations), it is gratifying to see that heritage is accorded the appropriate significance as a key environmental indicator.
It is early days of course: this Bill has a number of hurdles to overcome before becoming law, and it is true that there are elements that could have been included – archive provisions for example, statutory status for archaeological advice services and/or Conservation Officers, or the introduction of a grading system for archaeology. Nevertheless it has been some time – possibly not since the failed Heritage Bill of 2008 – that any piece of proposed Government legislative material provided any sort of positive cheer for the built heritage and archaeological community. It is clear that there is much to discuss, but for once it seems, we may not be firefighting from the back foot.
Rescue Planner 13/05/2022