First humans in Britain
Editor Simon Denison
A National Heritage Act fit for the 21st century
Numerous areas of heritage law are now under review. Let us seize this golden opportunity, writes George Lambrick.
Imagine - if you will - a family somewhere in rural England. The parents, now in their 70s, live in a relatively modest Grade II* Georgian house with its registered park. Their eldest daughter runs what was the home farm, which has a wealth of ancient monuments and cropmarks (some of which are scheduled), and some fine traditional farm buildings.
The eldest son is the rector of four conjoined parishes nearby. An antiquary by inclination, he chairs the county archaeological society which has an active field group and he acts as archaeological advisor for the diocese.
The other son was a bit of a wastrel at university, but has since made good as a property developer, with a diverse property portfolio that includes ex-industrial land, small plots in green belt villages and some run-down properties in the conservation area of the local town. He is a keen metal detectorist and has an extensive collection.
Complexity of rules
The youngest member of the family works for the Environment Agency as an adviser on contaminated ground. In her spare time, she is a keen sports diver and underwater archaeologist.
Now imagine how our fictional family's activities are affected by heritage legislation. The UK is unusual in having such a cat's cradle of cross-cutting strands of regulation through which heritage policy is implemented. Different parliamentary acts cover planning, listed buildings, ancient monuments, burials, portable antiquities and ecclesiastical heritage. Several more deal with the underwater cultural heritage. In addition there are laws concerning wildlife, hedgerows, landscape, agriculture, building standards and contaminated ground, all with significant implications for archaeological conservation.
On top of all this complexity, some provisions cover the whole of Britain, others differ across the country. Faced with such a plethora of regulations, our family might be delighted to know that virtually all the ways that heritage law affects them are now under review.
Following a series of high-level policy statements (Power of Place, A Force for our Future, and most recently the All Party Parliamentary Archaeology Group's report - see News), we are at the beginning of the biggest potential shake-up of the legal framework for heritage conservation that there has ever been. And although focused on England, much of it inevitably affects other parts of the UK.
The Treasure Act was reviewed last year and the Scottish Treasure regime is now under scrutiny, while legislation on illicit trade is in progress. There is a general review of designations - including maritime heritage - and another on consent procedures. In addition to a major planning bill, key areas of planning policy guidance (not just PPGs 15 and 16 on historic buildings and archaeology) are being rewritten. There is also a major review of agri-environment provisions, and another of environmental management for the sea. Last, but not least, there are various reviews of policy on cemeteries and the treatment of human remains.
So what do we want out of all this? Having rather fortuitously arrived at this unprecedented breadth of legislative navel-gazing, there is a real opportunity for sensible rationalisation and updating.
Look to the future
All these initiatives need to be pursued according to accepted principles for managing the historic environment - many of which are encapsulated in international obligations which the UK has either ratified or is committed to. Designation remains an essential means of giving special recognition to heritage assets that are especially sensitive to change, while planning and other consents provide more general-purpose controls.
But we also need a much broader framework of legislation if we are to protect the historic environment for the benefit of posterity. The responsibilities that all Government departments, agencies and local authorities have towards our cultural heritage should be put on a statutory basis, while greater use of fiscal and other incentives for positive management would encourage more proactive conservation.
Numerous anomalies in existing legislation, unnecessary duplications and out-dated exemptions, ranging from Crown immunity to the infamous 'class consent' for ploughing scheduled monuments, need to be rectified.
Our key heritage legislation was built up piecemeal, and it is now 25 years since most of it was updated. It reflects a far more fragmented notion of the historic environment than we have now, and has become such a rabbit warren of complexity that it is doubtful whether anyone fully understands all of it. Other countries have integrated heritage legislation. Now is the time for us to grasp this golden opportunity to create a National Heritage Act worthy of the 21st century.
CBA web:Jan/Feb 2005