Planning and the Historic Environment 2002

An Agenda for the 21st century – 17 May 2002

Adjusting Vertical and Horizontal Hold - the Real Joined-Up-Ness

David Baker


Historic Environment Conservation

This paper originated in an over-ambitious desire to test whether the idea of the historic

environment is perceived in distinctively different ways in various parts of the United

Kingdom. Ambition was thwarted by two perceptions, that 25 years of working in

Bedfordshire was not the broadest basis of geographical experience, and that the

question begs other, more fundamental, questions about the definition and meaning of

‘historic environment’. Refocus was encouraged by a comment from another of today’s

speakers: ‘I’m rather going off the historic environment’. Has it indeed become another

managerial hi-jack victim (like vision, mission and passion), over-used and worn into a

smooth mantra ? Might it be unsafe to base ‘Agenda for the 21st century’ on the concept

of an ‘indivisible historic environment’ if it isn’t actually indivisible, or worse still, is

unhelpfully divisible ? So we need some clarity about what is, or should be, ‘joined-up’ –

hence my sub-title. What follows has a three-fold aim: to revisit the idea of the historic

environment through a framework model of ‘content – process – users’; to start

exploring how far this illuminates what appears to unite or divide the interests of our two

sponsoring Institutes; and, finally, to offer some thoughts about matters that should

underlie those Agenda for the 21st century.


The idea of an historic environment

The term ‘historic environment’ has been around for over three decades, even longer than

this series of conferences. It is one of those phrases that combines description with

undertones of advocacy, implying it is really everywhere but somehow stopping at that

implication, subliminally asking everyone to be in favour of it without first offering a

justifying analysis. Some kind of conceptual framework is needed. One I have found

helpful has three interlocking elements, content (what is in it); process (how we manage

it) and users (the interests for whom it is managed). It is the connections that matter;

their presence or absence can usually explain why something goes right or wrong.



The idea of the historic environment emerged as the fusion of two elements, sometime in

the late 60s and early 70s. One was the amplification of historical concerns about

environmental damage caused by development and other destructive human activities,

extending or borrowing from natural environment and ecological interests. It defined the

historic environment simply and broadly as the remains of past material culture, the

evidence for the interactive impact of humankind upon the natural world from the earliest

times up to yesterday. The other element, helping articulate this totality, was current

academic trends including the development of landscape archaeology and the analysis of

settlements as organized places and townscape as well as collections of individual

historic buildings. That perception chimed well with the ability of the natural

environment lobby to portray the threat intelligibly at several scales, from local habitats

and recognizable species, through the survival of the human race and up to the capacity

of the planet itself to support life.


On these beginnings one could base the Russian-doll model of the historic environment,

rising up (or down) from portable artefacts and building details, through sites of former

occupation and occupied buildings, to landscapes and townscapes inhabited and formerly

inhabited, to island and planet. For all its limitations, it was quite a good way of saying

that what individual survivals represented had contexts and inter-relationships, vertically

by scale and horizontally through function, often cutting across traditional professional or

academic divisions; those inter-connections are an important facet of what we now call




Threat stimulates a need to protect, identifies a public interest in private property, gives

choices about appropriate preservation strategies, and makes us ask why we are doing it

all in the first place.


The process model is a linear one of ‘investigate / understand > conserve / record >

explain’. It also embodies a repeating cycle of conservation and / or investigation by

which each episode adds to understanding. Thus each iteration, if carried through

properly, ought to improve the basis for decision-making in the next episode and increase

the interest and support for doing it.


Process raises issues at many scales. A few random examples include how to get the right

lime mix for various tasks, whether single-context field recording bestows objectivity,

how to relate the integrity of an historic building and continuing owners’ needs in the

matter of extensions, and how to meld urban design and historic character in major

redevelopment schemes. An essential lubricant of process is information; there is debate

about how far its role differs in above- and below-ground conservation work.



As recognised content has become more extensive, and process has become increasingly

complex, so the need for justification has grown. The argument that the study of the past

is self-justifying – the proper study of man is mankind – is no longer adequate by itself

for an activity with today’s economic, social and cultural claims. Indeed, the realisation

has dawned that the third element of the framework, the users of the historic

environment, is perhaps the first. In this matter the outside world has shown our worlds

the route to go. Too often, however, the vocabulary has been unhelpfully managerial /

commercial, allowing too many of us to ask what it all has to do with us, instead of

asking why we are doing what we do and for whom.

The range of uses for the historic environment is by now fairly commonplace and well

understood. They can be characterized as continuing use, custodianship, research

(primary and personal), education and enjoyment / entertainment. These categories cause

the historic environment to pop up in various guises, such as culture, environment,

economic regenerator, etc. This is double-edged: on the one hand we are increasingly

celebrate this complex and multiple relevance, while on the other we bemoan its

consequent distribution around the responsibilities of between three and five government

departments, which politically diluting its importance, causing fragmentation and neglect.


A user focus – usefulness and intelligibility

We require some commonality of approach to the needs of users. Criteria of usefulness

and intelligibility can be applied to the three elements of the framework.


Usefulness applied to content distinguishes two broad classes, relatively intact survivals

still with functioning original and / or alternative uses, and those that are incomplete,

relict and have lost their original uses. Some of the latter retain a wider visual or

commemorative interest; others are only reservoirs of information for what has been

destroyed or might be reconstructed. Usefulness applied to process, also distinguishes

two broad classes, traditionally ‘conservation’ allowing change to ensure continuing use,

associated with buildings in use, and ‘preservation as found’ in an attempt to keep the

curve of the decay path as flat as possible, associated with relict monuments and ruins.

The first too easily gets equated with historic buildings conservation and the second with

archaeology, when actually, it is more complicated, and rather more is shared by both

activities. Archaeological process must be part of the investigation that must inform

conservation, and historic building conservation often includes elements that are less

useful or without uses. Usefulness applied to users gets into complex combinations of

values, economic, social, cultural, spiritual, etcetera. Economic factors are a principal

driver, sharpen distinctions between so-called usefulness and uselessness. Through

economic spectacles the historic environment is seen as a cultural injection into economic

regeneration that enhances the social end-product; most rescue archaeology is perceived

not as a contribution to knowledge and local environmental awareness so much as part of

an economic equation for commercial developers and commercial field units. But a key

point is that the wider and more ‘social’ the range of uses (as distinct from economic), the

greater is the potential for the common and shared engagement of traditional

archaeological and historic buildings concerns.


Intelligibility applied to content raises issues about understanding what something was

originally and what changes have happened in the past. This involves imaginative leaps

to deal with what is now missing, associated events and original context. It also raises

issues about understanding significance now, which can involve a range of historical and

non-historical factors, the latter quite easily changing with fashion and circumstances. As

with content and process, there is a good meeting point for the small-‘a’ archaeological

skills needed in logical reconstruction and the architectural or design skills for

appreciating how places and their buildings worked in the past. Also, practitioners of all

archaeological and conservation skills need to approach contemporary significances with

awareness and sensitivity.


The challenges of intelligibility as applied to process are well illustrated by an interesting

recent comment to me by Andy Walters on the workings of the Flemish Monument

Watch scheme. This was in response to the recent publication on the IHBC web-site of

my short report on specialized information systems supporting conservation officers.

Despite having a greater availability of repair and maintenance grants, access to a

subsidized condition survey scheme and a digitized integrated planning system which

exchanges information between the various bodies involved with applications, the whole

structure is struggling against uninformed owners and managers. The system was failing

the ultimate end user, in that it was not educating them. Owners were left feeling baffled

and confused by a plethora of listed building planning legislation, technical architectural

language and abstract theoretical concepts of the broader implications of conservation”.

The message here reinforces that those who operate process must ensure the systems they

devise provide explanation as well as investigation and conservation.


Intelligibility as applied to users helps remind us that some understand or appreciate their

piece of the historic environment more readily than others. Some don’t want to know,

some want to but don’t know how and need help, while a minority of people do know and

hopefully also know what they don’t know. Recent analyses of information needs, work

done with Julian Richards and Gill Chitty, emphasized that good system-building must

start from the user end rather than with hardware and software. Users divide into two

broad classes, those who can access raw system-stored information about elements of the

historic environment directly (researchers and conservers), and those who need to have

the information mediated, by the system managers or third parties in order to be able to

use it (most teachers, owners, local communities, tourists etcetera). The latter group is of

course by far the largest, the democratic justification and currently the least well provided

for. In 1998 educational and general public interest users of SMRs were less than 10% of

their predominantly development and conservation –related customers. In 2001 between

a half and two-thirds of all local authority conservation officers had no specialist

supporting information system of any kind whatsoever; there was nothing that could be

accessed by an interested public beyond what might be in a hard-pressed conservation

officer’s head.


Divisions real and imagined – what unites and divides us

Moving on now to those professions. A framework model of content – process – users is

only a tool, a means to an end, a logical underpinning for promoting policy and pointing

up unforeseen problems in well-intentioned political initiatives. One of the major

difficulties in making headway with many problems, particularly over resources, is the

picture of fragmentation and disunity we present. Is this type of framework equally

acceptable to everyone here and therefore able to reinforce the image and interests of the

sector on the wider stage of life ? So the second main part of this paper discusses some

of the tensions that prompted the organisation of this day school, amazingly probably the

first full-frontal joint-sponsorship of a conference or course by the two principal

professional Institutes in the sector. Why has it taken so long ? Is there a fundamental

divide between archaeology and conservation or are we merely trapped in our own pasts

and using words badly ?


History rather suggests that there is a divide. Evidence of divisibility came at the outset in

the 1970s, with the formation of two distinct pressure groups, RESCUE for archaeology

and SAVE for historic buildings, which ploughed their individually distinctive furrows in

the field of causes celebres, communicating minimally. The emerging professionals

organised, again separately. Local government archaeologists were first in the early

1970s, followed by the managers of archaeological field units, a distinction that was to

become increasingly significant as so-called ‘public’ archaeology became commodified

by the forces that ultimately produced PPG16. Conservation officers in local government

organised themselves in the early 1980s.


But history is one thing, and the future is another. Are the differences are circumstantial

or intrinsic ? Do the two approaches actually share a broad framework of content –

process – users ? If not, we need go no further. If they do, is it as two parallel largely

unconnected versions, or is there some inter-connectedness ? If the latter, is it

occasional, for selected aspects or stages only, or rather more extensive than that ?

Circumstance includes legislation and administrative arrangements. The legislative

pattern is familiar and does not need recounting in any detail. Two sets of codes have

grown up separately, in England the Ancient Monuments Acts and measures for Listed

Buildings and Conservation Areas within the Planning Acts, amplified by separate

planning guidance documents. Interestingly, the archaeological provisions are the older,

but the two codes have developed on a leap-frogging basis. The early Ancient

Monuments Acts reflected political views that their subject is useless and defenceless

while owners could be expected to look after useful property. The post-War Planning

Acts extended a public interest in private property to designated elements in the useful

fabric of everyday life, and introduced much more widespread controls over historic

buildings. The introduction of what planning jargon calls ‘material considerations’,

associated with growing environmental awareness, then led to still more potentially

pervasive controls outside specific designations in the form of the arrangements

facilitated by PPG16 for archaeological conservation. Interestingly, it also opened up a

path for convergence of process with its insistence that planning decisions affecting

important archaeological sites should be fully informed by proper understanding of what

is affected. Significantly, this was expressed less firmly and clearly in what PPG15 says

about historic buildings, and continues to be much less supported legislatively in building

conservation. It is much harder and more labour-intensive to put in place and properly

manage an equivalent level of controls for historic buildings in the form of Article 4



The administrative pattern, naturally enough, has shadowed the legislative one, with

ancient monuments controls exercised at a national level and historic buildings ones by

local government albeit with national involvement through reserve powers and appeal

mechanisms. Again there might have been the scope for convergence with the increasing

involvement of archaeology in the locally administered planning system from the early

1970s onwards. But other factors kept things apart. The two kinds of expertise were

promoted largely separately by DoE and English Heritage in its earlier days, with

archaeological posts in local government perceived as the more difficult to establish, and

more systematically pump-primed. The local government system did not help with its

constant state of piecemeal reorganisation from 1974 onwards: generally, archaeology

pushed for involvement at county level, many being too big for a single post, while

building conservation tended to push at district level, many of whom felt they were too

small to support a post. Comprehensive county teams serving all their districts were held

up as the answer, but these tended to wither under reorganisation-related in-fighting and

many were distinctly un-joined-up as between archaeology and historic buildings.

Moving on to intrinsic differences, there is a need to reconcile the claims of the

particular and of context. Many people are content with their specialisms and do not want

to look much further than them, whether it is pottery or pargetting. We need people who

are expert in the vernacular buildings of an area or Roman marching camps and it is

unreasonable to expect them to take on board a much wider range of knowledge. But we

also need to recognise the inter-connectedness of such elements within the wider historic

environment. There are at least three ways in which this gets expressed. One is

adjacency of interest, the need to be aware that pursuit of one aspect of the historic

environment may affect another – a matter of process. Classic examples include repairs

to the foundations of historic buildings, which can affect archaeological deposits that are

part of the history of the building, and the effects of site management regimes on

ecological interests. Another is nesting of interest, how a concern for the larger elements

of the historic environment, landscape and townscape, cannot be properly followed

without an adequate appreciation of their components, whose understanding may well be

the province of another – a matter of content. Yet another is networking of interest, how

anyone with general responsibilities for an area and all the buildings and / or archaeology

within it must operate on the basis of the formula ‘knowing who to ask is just as

important as knowing the answer oneself’. Surely these are outlooks that we ought to

have in common.


Taking the professions as part of the intrinsic rather than the circumstantial, some

interesting issues emerge. One is competences. IFA and IHBC have to hold a delicate

balance between defining competence in terms of specific subject areas and process

skills, and ensuring that wider professional awareness is not compromised. It is

interesting that IFA, the older Institute, began with a complex set of Areas of

Competence designed to cope with the various different types of archaeologist, and is

now moving towards a more flexible scheme of self-validation and peer review. IHBC,

however, went straight for a broad eight-fold classification of competences, all of which

all members must demonstrate. There is now some convergence towards recognising

individual sets of knowledge and skills within a broad framework.


Another is the relationship of the Institutes to the concept of the historic environment.

The messages here are interestingly mixed. Compare the statements in the current 2002

Year Books of the two organisations. On paper at least, the scope of IHBC’s vision and

requirements is far broader than those of IFA. Yet one of the triggers for this event was a

‘political’ perception that archaeologists were trying to take over the historic

environment. It would interesting for IFA to produce its own mirror version of the IHBC

Year Book statement in order that there could be a proper comparison of how much the

two Institutes have in common at the level of high rhetorical endeavour.

Another aspect is inter-professional relationships. I have a strong impression, not backed

up by any serious research, of different patterns within the two Institutes. There is

relatively little cross-membership of both Institutes. Archaeology seem relatively inturned,

albeit within a fairly large sub-disciplinary circle. Historic Buildings

Conservation in relatively outward-looking, and has significant overlaps with other

cognate main-line professions, mainly represented by the RTPI and RICS. Both Institutes

are young and trying to grow. Both suffer from the inevitable gaps in potential

membership due to the absence of non-joiners not forced to act by membership being an

essential qualification for practice. But IFA probably suffers more from the kind of

fragmentation that allows some segments of the world of archaeology to say that they

cannot or do not want to see what a professional Institute holds for them.

Yet another aspect is professional culture. To put it all in rather an overcrowded nutshell:

there is a view that building conservation is mainly concerned with ensuring good design

and that acceptable development facilitates continuing uses for physically conspicuous

structures and places. Preservation ‘as found’ is part of the process but not the overriding

objective; information as a ‘finder’ has a subservient role. In contrast, archaeology is seen

as mainly concerned with historic elements that have lost economically viable uses and

face threats from decay or development. Systematically stored information is more

important because archaeological elements may be quite difficult to find or recognise; the

lack of options for alternative uses increases the importance of creating and storing an

accessible record when preservation is not possible. What this tends to ignore is what

Kate Clark has put so well in her ‘Informed Conservation’, that understanding

significance includes using archaeological skills and that those skills should be with

others outside the circle of traditional archaeologists.


Conclusion – using the framework

To conclude: all this is as much about contexts for agendas as agendas themselves. The

idea of a framework comprising content, process and users is hardly new, but it is also

bedrock upon which sound structures can be based. Perhaps it is the key instrument for

achieving joined-up-ness. Signing up to it doesn’t involve great declarations – it’s

something the two Institutes could promote as worth discussion and it should certainly be

regarded as an education thing. It is not a Trojan horse of any kind because it is a device

that enables us to identify what we have, and what we do not have, in common, a basis

for celebrating convergence and diversity without worrying excessively about the

territory. There are a few specific suggestions, again largely on underlying matters.

We have got to do something about the misuse of the ‘a’-word - archaeology. It is

causing trouble and confusion. It actually describes an academic discipline, a way of

doing things, the processes involved in recognising, analysing and explaining all the

content of the historic environment, survivals of past material culture, whether now

useless or still useful. There is prehistoric archaeology, landscape archaeology, church

archaeology, industrial archaeology, buildings archaeology, etcetera. If we all do our job

properly by ensuring that as far as possible we understand what we have before we

decide how to preserve, conserve, manage, modify or explain, then we are all doing

something archaeological. So, to put it crudely, there’s no need for historic buildings

people to feel threatened by perceptions of archaeological imperialism over matters such

as buildings analysis – they should be useful colleagues. Anyway, a good conservation

officer has got a lot of archaeologist in him or her.


We must not lose sight of our explanatory role, and of the importance in it of good

information. The interest of the historic environment justifies its conservation and

preservation, and that interest must be conveyed widely. Explaining why should be an

integral part of conserving any useful survival from the past. Making available in one

form or another should be the sine qua non of information collection on any topic.

We should look carefully at the reasons why we do not communicate the interest of our

subject as widely as we might. Some of them are cultural but some are also a matter of

resources and priorities – the lack of resources that keeps people nose-down to reactive

casework until they lose sight of their explanatory role as part of the basic reason for

doing it all in the first place. The minority of incorrigible particularists, who hold to the

heresy that their personal interest in the subject is its own justification need TLC or CPD.

Finally, we must look outside ourselves at the wider world of history within which

aspects of all our activities are set. There is a new level of discussion, connecting

philosophy, practice and audiences and raising both dangers and opportunities in ways

that we neglect at our peril. It is well put by some of the publicity for a debate later this

evening at the National Portrait Gallery, organized by the Institute of Ideas

( ‘History with a capital H is being outflanked by particular

and local histories. National history is rejected as an ideological deception, but credence

is given to stories that help ethic communities and other interest groups understand and

define themselves in the present … what is considered heritage has been widened from

historically significant buildings to places, areas or buildings that create a sense of local

belonging and identity-formation. Both English Heritage’s Power of Place and the

DCMS’document look at how the historic environment can be used as a tool in social

inclusion policies. What explains the growing interest in the past ? Is there such a thing

as a universal history that is relevant to us all ? How can history help us understand the

present ? And how valid is the use of history for the purposes of social cohesion ?’

There are others out there: at our peril we fail to influence and join-up in common cause.