Where is the debate in the heritage community about English Heritage being turned into a government development agency?
Observers of the politics of culture and heritage are asking why there has been such a muted response to the publication of the new English Heritage “Improvement Plan for Planning Services” when the consequences of the new relationships and priorities set out in the document could be so far reaching.
The question arises because the document [http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/content/imported-docs/a-e/eh-improvement-plan-planning-services-13-14.pdf], which is specifically stated to have been written in response to, amongst other Government requirements, English Heritage’s Management Agreement with the Department of Culture Media and Sport and the Deregulation Bill, effectively requires English Heritage to become a Government Agency promoting “sustainable development” within the planning process, rather than an objective expert advocate and guardian within Government, promoting research, conservation, best practice and public access to heritage as most heritage professionals and the public would expect it to be.
Critics are particularly concerned that this key change, which was flagged up in the Government’s response to the Penfold Review of Planning Regulations authored by Adrian Penfold of leading developer British Land, represents yet another phase in the invasion and occupation of planning law and practice by the developer lobby. The response to the Penfold Review, authored for Liberal Democrat Vince Cable’s Department of Business and Skills, appeared in November 2011. There, along with other relaxations of planning protections, the Department of Business and Skills promised
“The Government will reform the remits of the key consenting and advisory agencies to ensure they promote sustainable development The Government’s aim is to ensure these agencies contribute to a competitive business environment by considering the impact of their decisions upon sustainable economic growth and the viability of what may be economically significant projects, and swiftly approving consents when it is appropriate to do so.”
By reflecting this desire on the part of Government to harness what have hitherto been advisory bodies to implementing short term Government policy, it is argued the new English Heritage document represents a step change in the relationship between the Government and the Historic Environment.
The key to understanding the tone of the new document is set out in “Action 1”.
“Action 1 – English Heritage will ensure that its advice and decision making is focussed on promoting sustainable development, with indicators to monitor progress in this area included in the EH management agreement with DCMS.”
In other words, according to critics, English Heritage’s primary function is now to assist “sustainable development,” however that is defined, not to advocate and argue the case for the conservation of the many and various monuments, buildings and landscapes which can be seen, used and enjoyed as witnesses to history and the community’s use of the environment over millennia. This new emphasis represents a critical change when the development system is faced with unprecedented planning applications effecting monuments and landscapes as diverse as battlefields, hill forts and Victorian hospitals and massive infrastructure projects such as the proposed HS2 rail link to the Midlands and North, the proposed third runway at Heathrow and of course Fracking. The decisions about all of which require a level playing field and critical informed, evidence based, choices about the value the nation places on its environment.
The document also highlights an administrative innovation which will see the largest 25 property developers given preferential treatment with a specific “relationship manager” being appointed at Director level within English Heritage. Adding to the sense of preferential treatment, Action 16 states that English Heritage will also “develop its relationship” with the British Property Federation, the mission statement of which is “Sustaining and Promoting the Interests of all those who own and invest in Property in the UK”.
Of further concern is the fact that, apart from vague assurances about developing relationships with “relevant professional and umbrella organisations” there is no mention of establishing similar formalised relationships and relationship managers, with equally established groups and organisations in the conservation community; let alone trying to reach out to the many local groups seeking to ameliorate or to prevent developments which might, in the worst cases, cause untold damage to irreplaceable elements of England’s heritage and natural environment for questionable often short term and unsustainable benefits.
Back on 2 December 2011 the campaigning Heritage Group “Mortimer” said this of the Cameron Government’s response to the original Penfold Review
“With the publication of the Government’s response to the Penfold Review Christmas has come early for the Property developers. Mortimer views with concern anything which dilutes the already less than robust protections for Our Historic Buildings, Landscapes and Environment. We also think it is dangerous to task organisations with a conservation remit such as Natural England and English Heritage, with the promotion of development, however sustainable that development is. “
The Mortimer article then went on to detail the links between Adrian Penfold, British Land and the refusal by then Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt, to list the late Peter Foggo’s Broadgate Development at Liverpool Street in the City of London; which the developer wished to demolish in spite of English Heritage recommending listing because the building was of “outstanding quality.”
It now looks as if Mortimer and other critics were right about the long term strategy of the Cameron Government. In a putsch executed by Chancellor George Osborne on behalf of the development lobby and enforced throughout Whitehall, the Government has all but ensured that the concept of powerful, independent Heritage Protection within the Whitehall machine as a public good, is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. Certainly the emasculation of English Heritage by a thousand cuts, which began under New Labour, has accelerated under the Cameron Government, with English Heritage taking an accumulated cut of £130 million by 2011. The figure was given in a Parliamentary Culture Select Committee report into the funding of the Arts and Heritage, which went on to state…
174. However, we are concerned that the heritage sector has already suffered disproportionately and is ill-placed to sustain further reductions in funding. We also note that, unlike much of the arts, once lost the heritage can never be replaced. We urge the Government to take strong account of this in future funding settlements.
Far from taking strong account of the report the running down of English Heritage is set to continue. The Chancellors Spending Review promised a further 10% cut in funding to EH for 2015/2016. A cut which was, once again, disproportionate relative to the cuts imposed on other DCMS clients. Even more significantly for the long term, the Spending Review also saw the proposed splitting of English Heritage with the offloading of the National Heritage Collection historic property portfolio to a charity independent of Government, effectively stating that the conservation of the national heritage was no longer to be seen as a core Government function.
This move was, some argued, more about free market ideology and offloading Government costs than securing the proper care of the nation’s heritage and was, as a result, poorly thought through and unconvincingly costed. Moreover, it could, in a few years, see select few historic sites like Stonehenge and Dover Castle turned into overpriced theme parks while less immediately commercial heritage could come under threat through lack of investment. Meanwhile heritage in the planning system could be reduced to a rubber stamping of development proposals by an emasculated under resourced organisation, tied to delivery targets and timescales set by Government Departments with other priorities than research and conservation.
While having some sympathy for the predicament faced by the senior management at English Heritage in trying to maintain a viable organisation behind what must seem like enemy lines in Whitehall, and sympathy in particular for the front line staff facing the prospect of yet more uncertainty, cuts and probable redundancies; the wider heritage community will be hoping that the fate of the Broadgate Development in the City of London, does not prefigure things to come in Heritage Protection in Planning and Listing. Particularly as the developer of Broadgate which wished Peter Foggo’s landmark building demolished was Adrian Penfold’s employer, British Land and the Government Minister who attended the breaking ground ceremony at the Broadgate development was Chancellor George Osborne.
It is unlikely that the mood among heritage campaigners will be lightened by the news that Adrian Penfold is currently British Land’s “Head of Planning and Corporate Responsibility” and is thus one of the people who is likely to get to meet an English Heritage Relationship Manager. Cynics will hope English Heritage has enough money left for the coffee.