Planning and the Historic Environment 2002

An Agenda for the 21st century – 17 May 2002

Shared outlooks and common ground

Sir Neil Cossons

Chairman, English Heritage


‘Archaeology’ and ‘Conservation’ are terms that can divide and exclude. In practice,

everyone involved in field archaeology and historic buildings conservation is engaged in the

same pursuit, and wants to achieve similar outcomes. This is demonstrated by the crossdisciplinary

achievements of post-medieval archaeology. But it is not only good scholarship

that requires the disciplines to work together, so too does effective advocacy. Too few people

yet realise that securing the future of the historic environment is an essential part of

sustainable development. To get our message across, we have to speak with one voice, and,

at least as important, it has to be in a language which the unconverted understand and

backed up by arguments that are coherent and persuasive. We still have a long way to go.


This is a very important gathering of two arms of what is in essence one area of common

interest and one of professional interest. I would like to give some idea of where English

Heritage as an organisation is going in what is a fairly tough situation for the historic

environment and, I hope, to elicit your support. Some points are directly relevant to what

the Institutes do, but most are contextual, in terms of the broader areas of interest, anxieties

and capacity that affect and influence our ability to nurture the historic environment.

The common glue that brings us all together around a common agenda is our belief in the

importance of the historic environment, whether as a scientific source of evidence and

information, or as part of the quality of life for people living in towns and countryside

redolent of history that can be expressed through place and read as a narrative. It is

something that touches us all. The research associated with Power of Place showed that the

historic environment strikes a chord in the hearts and minds of the large proportion of people

in this country; most do not understand what the word ‘heritage’ means and are not cardcarrying

members of any archaeological or heritage organisation but they still attach a strong

value to their historic surroundings. I believe that as a sector we, and English Heritage, are

letting them down. We are being out-manoeuvred by other economic, political and social

forces for whom that issue of place, historical place in particular, does not register.

As an activist in the late 60s and early 70s, I look around and see people of my generation

who were part of those same battles and wars. My biggest shock when I became Chairman

of English Heritage just over two years ago was to realise that those battles I had thought we

had won then have to be re-fought over and over again, from scratch with new people and in

new circumstances of change. The generations have changed, and those who now control

the political strings of society have changed too; all at a much more rapid rate than we have

as the champions of the historic environment. As someone whose interests have tended to be

in the above-ground built environment of the last two hundred years, I feel that the

traditional archaeological battles have in one sense been all but won, because they are

encapsulated in the enormous success of PPG16. They are in the bag, uncontentious,

buttoned up as a nice discrete package. Many archaeologists might not agree with that, but

by the standards of the battles that still have to be fought for the landscapes of the 17th, 18th,

19th and even 20th centuries, that is the case. At face value that sounds perhaps like

divisiveness, but it seems to me there is, in fact, a professional indivisibility in terms of

knowledge and expertise and that those of us whose interests might be in 18th century

industrial landscapes have more to learn than most from what archaeology over 150 years

has achieved in terms of developing its professionalism, its knowledge, its understanding

and its science. So, we have in traditional archaeology an extraordinary intellectual

resource, incomparable, widely respected and developed over many years, with a strong and

powerful academic base. All of that represents good, but it also has some aspects of bad; in

terms of complacency, inertia, introversion, self-interest, and all the other things that too

easily define professions.


So here we are in new and perhaps more hostile circumstances for making the case about the

historic environment. The conditions out there are harsh for the sorts of things in which we

believe. We have a government rightly and inevitably focused upon modernisation and in

renewing the infrastructure of the nation; it is not prepared to brook blockages to those

initiatives. More importantly, this is not an old-style command-and-control publicly-funded

modernisation initiative; it is a plurally-funded programme dependent upon the private

sector. That means it has to encompass flexibility and compromise if it is going to bring on

board the people who are going to pay. So people like us will be seen as getting in the way

of those kinds of initiatives. If government wants business and private money to build new

roads and railways, support the health service and do all sorts of other things, nobody is

going to be listened to who stands up and says "there are three Victorian buildings listed

Grade II* which we think you should take into account before you sweep through". That is

the critical point. In the old days we talked to government and government did the business.

We were very good at battling with government and getting victories. Government now is in

a trading position; it is mediating change with a wider financial sector and we must not

forget that.


There is an economic dynamism from which we all benefit, and, if you remember, it was

economic dynamism and the rate of change in the post-War period of modernisation in the

50s and 60s which led to the battling, activism and anxiety about what was happening to the

landscape. Today, keeping alight the flame of prosperity is sacrosanct. It is the thing

governments crave for, it is the symbol of their success and they will protect it at all costs.

And, most people will back them. We are all more prosperous than we were in the 60s, we

have a higher disposable income, and we have the capacity personally to dispose that income

in a wide variety of ways.


The Green Paper could become a Developers’ Charter because it has to deliver to that

modernisation programme. We would all support the idea of a streamlined and more

efficient planning service, but an organisation like English Heritage is seen as a blockage in

the system, whereas we can demonstrate that in 81% of the cases we handle we have

imposed no impediment in terms of processing issues. In fact, one of the biggest

impediments is the lack of ability on the part of applicants and their agents to get the right

quality of information into their applications, despite guidance in PPG15, with the

consequence that they have to be sent back again.


We also have a property-owning democracy of a kind quite unique in Europe. If you believe

property is the new universal currency, all the indications are that Britain’s ability to survive

the economic vicissitudes of the last few years is due to what we spend as shoppers and to

our financial status as property owners. That is the engine of the economy, and no

government is going to turn the tap off on it. This puts place, buildings and landscape in a

new context when we talk about who decides on their future. People who have their houses

listed love it, and we have complaints to English Heritage from people whose houses are not

listed; they would like them listed because on average it adds about 8% to the value. Equally

there is plenty of evidence that listed office buildings perform economically no worse than

modern ones and in many cases better. But, it is more difficult to persuade the world of

developers that listing has any relevance to them. Developers tell me they see English

Heritage as a serious impediment blocking the wealth of the nation. And, house builders,

who own much of the Green Belt, watch its value rise, bolstering their share prices and

enabling them to bank on a future when government eventually capitulates, restrictions are

relaxed and they can make a second killing by building houses on it.


So we have all the pawns in place for a battle royal coming along in the next few years, and

the historic environment might be the loser. You can see the signs of it; I had two of them

yesterday. One was a leaflet through my door from CPRE – ‘Urban Sprawl Affects us All’

was the headline; 658,000 houses to be built in the next ten years, 300,000 of them in the

Green Belt. The second half of the document said urban regeneration is the answer with a

picture of run down Liverpool. So the debate about brown field and green field is hotting

up. The second sign was an advertisement in yesterday’s ‘Times’. ‘If half a million people

send a message to Tony Blair, farmers, consumers and the countryside will all get a better

deal.’ The supporting organisations included the CBA, the Friends of the Earth, and many

others; three million members all banded together under one headline about a common



When we were gathering data for Power of Place, time and time again people were saying

that the historic environment sector is fragmented; it is 10 or 15 years behind compared with

the way the activitists in the natural environment fought their battles, to a great extent

successfully. The nation is signed up to the natural environment, to biodiversity, village

ponds, habitats and hedgerows. They too might say that the battle is won but, interestingly,

they believe that it has to be fought continuously, despite the fact that by our standards they

are streets ahead of us. And here we are; we stratify ourselves by date – people are

interested in old things, not so old things, slightly less old things, Georgian things, Victorian

things, and so on, most of whom do not quite talk to each other much of the time. I know

something is being done about that now through Heritage Link, but it is still a major issue

for us. And, it is still fashionable for archaeologists to snipe at each other. For heavens’ sake

let’s grow up; there is a bigger issue at stake here. Knocking English Heritage has become a

sort of blood sport: we are not perfect, but it is in all our interests to have a strong English

Heritage. Just as it is in English Heritage’s interest to have a strong voluntary sector. If we

go down, the whole shooting match goes down too. But, of course, we’re not going to and

nor is the sector. But, we do have to become much more aware of each other, mutually

supportive and more unified in order to be stronger.


No government is going to prejudice prosperity for single-issue groups whose language is

obscure. We are talking in language that most people out there do not understand, partly

because in the last round of battles in the 1970s and ‘80s, we professionalised ourselves.

That was good because it raised standards, promoted training and codes of ethics, and

invested in developing our expertise. But, professionalisation almost always results in

internalisation and that is how we can so easily lose the plot. If a profession exists to

dispense expertise it should, of course, invest in the development of that expertise, because

there will always be a market for it, but it must always remember to talk to the wider world.

We are finished if, as happens with many professional organisations, we turn inward upon

ourselves, find it comfortable to talk to each other and forget about talking to the outside

world. So we are all dependent upon your professionalism and knowledge, but equally upon

your ability to persuade people by using language that a wider audience can understand.

After all that, there is also some good news too. Power of Place revealed huge latent support

for the historic environment. We see history and archaeology as being hugely popular, a

central part of television broadcasting, the new gardening, the new tomorrow. And, look at

the £20m campaign the British Tourist Authority and others are launching. After financial

services our largest external currency earner is culture and heritage. People come to this

country not for beaches and bikinis but for landscape, the richest, most enchanting and

engaging landscape in the world, which has a quality and depth to it because it has a history

second to none. We squander that at our peril.


But that, I believe, is only part of the argument. We in English Heritage must fight for the

historic environment because it is a good in its own right. We have spent too long over the

last decade finding second-order justifications for why it is important. I believe we can

advance a credible argument that the historic environment is an asset in its own right, a good

that benefits every man woman and child in the country. Now we have to get message and

language right. We know that many people out there who will believe the message if it is put

to them properly; it has to be put to them in a manner that is clear, consistent and unified, by

people like those in this room and the organisations they represent.


What is impressive about the natural environment organisations is how, when the chips are

down, they get their wagons into a circle. We have not done that yet. We are still wandering

uselessly over the prairie looking for the last buffalo. If the amenity societies are

marginalized as one of the outcomes of the Green Paper, we will have lost one of the great

strengths that has enabled us to feed huge knowledge and expertise into the debate, and in

many cases winning the day. Issues that we play with, like characterisation (which I believe

in, but nobody else understands the meaning of) are fine but it is the archetypical example of

a group of expert people shuffling ideas around amongst themselves but of being unable to

explain them clearly and simply to anyone else. Too easily characterisation gets

characterised itself as creeping conservation, a sort of plague, and laid at the door of a

demonised English Heritage by those who misunderstand or misrepresent its mission as one

of stifling everything. We then get stick and so do you, because we are all seen as singleissue

pressure groups. Yesterday in the City, Ken Livingstone said English Heritage must

be comprehensively defeated [on tall buildings] because it is an obscure monastic order.

Last time he had a go at me I was the worst thing to have hit London since Adolf Hitler, and

the time before that, the Taliban of the planning process. Now we may laugh, but he has

some support for that view – but not much – from amongst those who believe that English

Heritage is getting in the way of the future.


My final point is that today English Heritage has launched a report, a rapid study of

resources in English local authorities: you can find it on the English Heritage web-site as

Heritage Resources under Pressure. This has brought out some crucial issues. At the same

time as we have more interest than ever before in the historic environment, we have a

diminishing capacity in local authority planning departments to handle it. There are less

Conservation Officers now than there were a decade ago and, broadly speaking, at a lower

level within the local authority. They are therefore younger, tend to be less experienced;

their clout in terms of exerting influence is proportionately less. The ability of local

authorities to deliver has been severely prejudiced over the last decade. That has impacted

upon English Heritage’s ability to deliver because of the need to pick up problems local

authorities cannot handle for lack of staff or expertise. That is not what we should be doing.


We must change our own stance and help build capacity in local authorities so that they can

do their job on the ground capably and competently while we do ours.


Let me turn now to the modernisation of English Heritage. Our objective is to make EH fit

for purpose, efficient and able to punch its weight much more effectively. We started the

process of modernisation last summer. We now have a professional head in Simon Thurley;

there will be a modernisation programme agreed by Commission in June. Let me give you

an example. There is no policy unit in English Heritage; there are bits of policy bubbling

away in corners of Swindon and Savile Row, but we have to bring it all together at a senior

level and be capable of hitting hard. The post of Director of Policy and Communications

was advertised recently in The Times. That policy has got to be something to which you all

contribute, as archaeologists, as historic buildings people. We are going to have to be one



We have just had a Quinquennial Review, about to be published. It was a tough and

searching process but we are totally signed up to implementing its findings, not least because

the key ones were on our own agenda already and lie at the heart of the modernisation

programme begun last year.


Let me conclude. The historic environment is, I believe, subject to more threat than at any

time for a generation. The threat comes in massive development pressure, the willingness of

government – national and local – to put renewal and the economy before everything, while

failing to understand that the historic environment is a key component of and contributor to

that programme. The job of the historic environment sector – for all of us here today – is to

demonstrate that there is a win win opportunity, that a modern nation will not be achieved by

sweeping away the past. On the contrary, a thoughtful, pluralistic (dare I say, joined up)

view of tomorrow’s landscape – urban and rural – will not only value the past, but see it as a

resource worth investing in as a vital component of the future; important in its own right, a

major contributor to the quality of life for most people, and a unique asset which if lost will

be lost for ever.