English Heritage Press Release
28th March 2003
CONSERVATION OFFICERS DESERVE BETTER DEAL
Over-worked Conservation Officers Forced to Neglect Nation's Heritage
Local authority conservation officers, whose responsibility is to protect and promote England's historic environment at a local level, are over-stretched, under-resourced and undervalued. The majority have neither the time nor resources to check on works in progress and carry out simple enforcement procedures, rendering conservation legislation an empty threat and contributing to the decline of historic streets, towns and villages across the country.
These are the conclusions of "Local Authority Conservation Provision in England", the first ever survey of all the country's conservation officers, published today (Friday 28 March, 2003). The survey was commissioned jointly by English Heritage and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) and prepared by Philip Grover of Oxford Brookes University.
The country's 700 conservation officers each manage on average more than 700 listed buildings and 16 conservation areas. They play a large role in planning and are involved in regeneration projects which have community, economic and environmental benefits. But with fewer than two conservation officers per local authority, workloads are often impossible. Many struggle to keep up with responding to the effects of new developments on the historic environment. This leaves little or no time for important tasks such as tackling buildings at risk and more than 80% of respondents to the survey admitted that they have no time to enforce repairs or prosecute illegal alterations.
Conservation Officers need to be multi-skilled. More than two-thirds have post-graduate qualifications yet some are paid less than Â£15,000. Nor are they sufficiently valued despite the high profile and often controversial nature of their work. Up to a third of all planning applications involve conservation matters yet only 25% of Conservation Officers attend committees regularly or sit on departmental management boards.
In order to be effective champions of the nation's historic environment at local level, Conservation Officers are asking for more resources, a higher political profile, more of their work to be defined as statutory and nationally agreed templates. English Heritage and the IHBC will now work with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister to bring this about.
Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, said: "Local authorities are at the frontline of planning decisions and recent research reveals that 30% of planning applications involve the historic environment in some way. This is the first time anyone has asked Conservation Officers what their problems are and what they need. Today's report makes particularly alarming reading. It shows that many local authorities do not have the skills or capacity to manage this properly. We need to help them and together with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, we are now working urgently to put in place practical measures to improve the working lives of Conservation Officers throughout the country. Among these measures will be a significant investment in partnership training to raise professional standards that will enable local authorities to deliver a more prompt, fair and consistent service to their clients. "
Malcolm Airs, President of the IHBC, said: "This survey reveals a disturbing picture. Our historic environment is essential to the quality of our lives. It is a precious asset which needs to be managed sensitively through the application of appropriate skills and proper resources. Conservation officers are dedicated professionals who are doing a remarkable job under the most difficult circumstances. There are not enough of them to cope with the workload. Their pay and status does not reflect their responsibilities. They do not have sufficient resources to respond to all the challenges in the creative way that is needed in the 21st century. We now have the facts. If we really value our heritage we must ensure that they are given the proper tools to do the job".
Arts Minister Tessa Blackstone welcomed this research saying: "These findings provide us with a very useful snapshot of the challenges local authorities face every day when managing the historic assets in their care. The complexity of their role as custodian, regulator, grant-giver and rescuer of last resort was clearly recognised by the Government in A Force for Our Future. This is why we have urged local authorities to appoint historic environment champions. The historic environment can be a catalyst for regeneration, learning, community cohesion and economic development. I hope all local authorities will recognise this and give it suitable priority
Tony McNulty, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State within the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, said: "The Sustainable Communities Plan, announced by the Deputy Prime Minister last month, stressed the need to build thriving, dynamic communities. We must remember the importance the historic environment has in this. It's not just about aesthetics. The historic environment can engender a sense of community and help build civic pride.
This research is a useful and timely reminder of the importance of the historic environment, and I'm sure it will be of great help to local authorities when making resourcing decisions."
Philip Grover of Oxford Brookes University, who conducted the research, said: "What makes these survey findings so helpful is that they are based on data from a very large number of authorities - in fact we made contact with all planning authorities in England during the course of our research. Respondents should be commended on their high level of support for the survey - a reflection of the dedication and professionalism of most conservation specialists
For copies of a summary leaflet, the full report and further information see: