The number of conservation specialists at local authorities in England fell by 37% between 2006 and 2017 according to The Ninth Report on Local Authority Staff Resources, produced by Historic England, the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC). Civic Voice's 2018 report What is the future for our conservation areas? elaborates on this figure, finding that 21% of local authorities in England have no dedicated conservation officer. Every local authority, however, has at least one conservation area.
Understandably, concern is growing among conservation professionals and enthusiasts that our historic environment is suffering: more than 70% of people surveyed as part of the Civic Voice report did not consider that conservation areas are afforded the necessary protection.
One obvious reason for this is the government's austerity policy, introduced as a response to the 2007/08 financial crisis. Marc Timlin, director of heritage at Turley, explains: 'It's been years of very tight budgets. Because conservation officers are sometimes not seen as a necessary requirement in the same way that planning officers are, they're not protected in the same way. So you often see a shrinking of conservation advice in local authorities as a means of making ends meet.'
The government's guidance on conservation professionals (see box, below) is thus more frequently being interpreted in different ways as local authorities struggle to manage their diminishing budgets. While some authorities are cutting positions, others are offering less attractive packages, or choosing to hire conservation advice on a contract basis. Each of these approaches, of course, comes with its own risks.
Research by Prospects, a UK graduate careers website, found that the range of typical starting salaries for a conservation officer in England is £22,000–£27,000, and £26,000–£36,000 for those with experience. According to Clive Sayer, RICS representative on the Chichester Conservation Area Advisory Committee, 'If you've got a postgrad diploma, a master's degree and a professional qualification, and you're expected to work for only a little more than someone without such qualifications, it's tough. Having a job that's enjoyable is important, but so is earning enough money to have a house, look after your family and do whatever is important to you.'
IHBC director Seán O'Reilly comments: 'If you think that the person giving you advice not only has to understand their own geographical area fully and be skilled in their primary discipline, but also has to be able to engage professionally with all the different disciplines that went into making the building they're advising on, then you get a sense of the complexity.
'You're dealing with the building fabric itself, then adding in the diverse legislation that comes into play in these processes: anything from health and safety to environmental concerns. Any local authority conservation officer is only going to be able to do so much of that, and if they aren't offered the right salary then the client is just not going to get the people with the skill sets applying for those roles.'
The governments guidance on conservation professionals is more frequently being interpreted in different ways as local authorities struggle to manage their diminishing
Paragraph 189 of the National Planning Policy Framework states that: 'As a minimum the relevant historic environment record should have been consulted and the heritage assets assessed using appropriate expertise where necessary'; while paragraph 190 states: 'Local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any heritage asset that may be affected by a proposal ... taking account of the available evidence and any necessary expertise.' Paragraph 10 of government guidance about enhancing and conserving the historic environment states that: 'Advice may be sought from appropriately qualified staff and experienced in-house experts or professional consultants complemented as appropriate by consultation with National Amenity Societies and other statutory consultees.'
Those hiring conservation officers are also increasingly looking for an added element: namely, an understanding of commercialisation. One local planning authority focusing on such a skill set is Coventry City Council, which is gearing up for its year as UK City of Culture in 2021. The growth of the city has accelerated in response to its successful bid, and the council's head of planning and regulation Tracy Miller says: 'It has been quite a difficult balance for us to enable growth while also looking to protect the historic aspects. It has meant at times we've been at odds with Historic England.'
The council's dealings with the agency over city centre redevelopment were picked up by the press last year, but both parties are now working towards resolution. Miller says: 'We've obviously got to try to balance the historic aspects with the commercialisation, and it is difficult. From a planning point of view, you can see it from both sides. I think we're now getting to grips with the relationship with Historic England and seeking a balance.
'Over the next two years, developers are going to continue knocking on the door because we're City of Culture, so some things have to change. I think for a city such as Coventry, where the costs of development are quite marginal, there needs to be more understanding from a conservation point of view that you can't always do what conservation would want you to do.'
Following the departure in 2018 of Chris Patrick, Coventry's conservation officer of 14 years, the council reworked the structure of its conservation staff. Instead of having a joint conservation and archaeologist role and a historic environment records officer, it is now choosing to employ one conservation officer and one archaeologist, which it believes will support conservation.
Miller remains concerned about recruitment, however. She says: 'Our previous conservation officer took a very common-sense approach. While he was highly principled when it came to historical assets, he also understood the bigger picture, and where we were trying to grow the city. It would be great if we could get officers like that, but I'm not sure they are out there, particularly in terms of salary. Our local government salaries don't generally compare with the private sector.'
Chichester District Council planning policy manager Mike Allgrove also recognises the attraction of the private sector: 'A lot of people coming out of education, whether planning or conservation, seem to want to go into the private sector these days. I think that's probably a function of pay and conditions, and the general status and respect that staff will receive.'
Concerns about the status and perception of conservation roles and functions are echoed by Chichester Conservation Area Advisory Committee chair Alan Green: 'Conservation is seen as something that is nice to have but can be bought in.'
Allgrove says the council has had to buy in conservation advice recently: 'We've had vacant posts on and off since 2017 ... We have appointed a member of staff from an agency on a contract basis who is giving us three days a week of listed building casework advice. So we're not covering the full range of work that we want to, but we are dealing with the highest priorities – listed building and enforcement casework.'
Seán O'Reilly, however, advises caution: 'It's a really important way to work, but the external advice of bought-in professionals is not necessarily the same as that of an internal professional. Effective negotiation can take place when a local authority officer is empowered to carry out work on behalf of the public under conservation legislation. There's no comparison; you run the risk of getting partial or incorrect answers and can also cause major problems for the community, who then feel disenfranchised about the whole process.'
Allgrove on the other hand feels that combining specialist advice with the work of other council staff can be effective: 'Development management staff take the historic environment extremely seriously, certainly in Chichester. It may well be the most important consideration in their determination of applications, and they will rely on the advice – specialist advice in certain circumstances – to help them come to those judgements.'
There are clearly opportunities for collaboration, communication and, perhaps most importantly, mutual education. Chris Patrick, who is now principal conservation officer at Birmingham City Council, remarks: 'While planners and surveyors could do with learning more about the historic environment, it is equally true that historic environment professionals could probably do with a greater understanding of the world of property and development. There is definitely a need for reciprocal training opportunities.'
Ken Watson, also a member of the Chichester Conservation Area Advisory Committee and director of HNW Architects, says: 'We need to educate local authorities that, as external advisers, we are on their side and they should listen to what we tell them.'
Indeed, much of the frustration of conservation professionals seems to lie in the fact when they are in a position to offer advice, they feel it is often not heeded. Chichester's committee is a lasting example of the bodies that were encouraged – but not mandated – by the Civic Amenities Act 1967, to offer advice to councils on conservation matters. Watson adds: 'Having us as a resource, the council still often chooses to ignore any advice we give, or fails to ask for advice when it should.'
There are instances across the country of local guidance notes and rules being totally ignored in conservation areas, and it's often difficult to know who's responsible. Sayer comments: 'You look at many important conservation areas around the country where poor decisions were made years ago, and question where the accountability for those decisions lies. Who will be accountable for the poor decisions being made now?'
In some cases it is the conservation professionals themselves who are contributing to this damaging practice, limited by their heavy workload or by their insufficient skills or experience. Whatever the reasons, the result is inconsistency from one conservation area to the next, and sometimes even in the same conservation area. This serves to compound frustrations and further devalue the importance of conservation work.
Scotland, although so far not affected by government cuts to the same extent as England has been, faces its own conservation challenges. Principal planner at East Lothian Council Paul Zochowski is also responsible for conservation work in the area, and believes that renewed concentration on this could limit the opportunity for inconsistent advice: 'In Scotland, I think the government is trying to work out how to address the matter,' he says. 'For example, it is currently preparing a built heritage investment plan. I think focused teams within councils would probably be the best way to deal with heritage matters effectively.'
Whether advice is unavailable, inadequate, inconsistent, or not properly considered, the short- and long-term risks to our historic environment are vast. There is, however, cause for some optimism. While the private sector is draining some talent from the public, it does show that the necessary skills at least still exist.
O'Reilly says that 'private-sector practitioners are producing good-quality, high-end conservation work, sometimes almost regardless of the infrastructure of the local authority. Around 60% of conservation-accredited practitioners now work in the private sector.' He adds: 'The decline has also eased off, in the sense that we believe we will still have conservation officers in the future – which was a bit of a fear about ten years ago.'
Part of O'Reilly's work with the IHBC is assessing what he calls 'credible conservation', that is, what a reasonable level of capacity is and how we achieve it. This is an approach that Chris Patrick supports: 'There have been a lot of people saying there are problems with the system, whether it be conservation or archaeology. I don't think it is; I think the rules, guidance and policy that we've got at the moment do actually work quite well. From a national perspective, the problems come down to the staffing issues.'
Civic Voice also continues to be very active in raising awareness of conservation concerns, providing valuable perspectives from those often most affected by the issues, namely local communities. Initiatives such as the National Lottery Heritage Fund are also important in terms of encouraging interest.
So the situation doesn't feel hopeless – it's more a case of the right parts being in the wrong place. To position them correctly, perhaps we need to focus on how we harness skills to ensure they are both properly directed and adequately respected; how we change the image of conservation among decision-makers; and how we ensure that professionals are adequately rewarded for their qualifications and contributions.
Maybe the fundamental importance of conservation and the historic environment is where we start. O'Reilly says that, 'for the younger generation, a clear, ethical framework is very high up the list of what they want in a job and for their lives'. Conservation can offer just that. As Patrick says: 'My job is intense and it isn't always easy. But it is often immensely satisfying. I feel that I'm making a positive difference and adding value where it's needed.'
Having a suitably experienced and qualified conservation officer in place at a local authority is a vital way of protecting our built heritage. Conservation issues are rarely black and white, and having insufficient conservation experience available in a planning office can result in poor decision-making, extended application timescales and unnecessarily frustrating negotiations for clients and their conservation advisers. Coupled with a decline in master's-level courses in conservation, this makes for a risky situation that must be addressed quickly. If budgets are not made available to attract experienced in-house conservation officers, then other options – including external consultancy or listed building consent review models – must be explored, while bearing in mind impartiality and conflicts of interest. RICS supports quality built heritage conservation through its accreditation scheme, and is working on a number of new conservation training courses including collaborations with its specialist conservation forum, with the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, and with Historic England. Craig Ross is associate director of the built environment at RICS firstname.lastname@example.org