Handling planning applications while conserving heritage is the trickiest of balancing acts facing many local authorities. Yet help is on its way, courtesy of a £500,000 training programme from heritage watchdog English Heritage.
Historic Environment Local Management (HELM), launched last week (Planning, 8 October, p2), is intended to ensure that heritage plays a key role across local government by providing an education tool to help councils speed up the planning process.
HELM celebrates England's heritage with iconic images of University of Cambridge colleges, Chatsworth House and Stonehenge. More than 33,000 planning applications for listed building consent are received every year in England. English Heritage advises on 7,000 of these and councils deal with the rest.
"Very few people who make decisions on the historic environment have either a background or skills in the area," admits English Heritage planning and regeneration chief Duncan McCallum, who is responsible for HELM.
RTPI conservation panel member Denis McCoy says: "HELM is a heartening turn of events. Anything that English Heritage does to help over-extended local planning authority teams is welcome. If its efforts include publicising how to avoid demanding excessive detail inappropriately early in the consideration of proposals involving historic buildings, the programme will also be welcomed by applicants and agents."
HELM encourages local authorities to become the key managers and protectors of the historic environment. In regeneration and design, it urges development to be sympathetic to historical surroundings. A proper understanding and recording of the historic value of places can lead to faster and more accurate planning decisions, it argues. To save money, the watchdog advocates that good management of historic environments should eliminate unforeseen financial difficulties associated with damage and neglect.
The scheme's on-line training tool and interactive CD training package includes case studies that demonstrate the benefits of effective decisions.
HELM contributor Eddie Booth, former chairman of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, says: "One wants best practice to become everyday practice."
The watchdog is also committed to improving its advice to local authorities.
This includes updating technical advice given to heritage specialists, revising conservation appraisals and introducing schemes such as Streets for All, which deals with clearing rubbish that can degrade conservation areas. These provisions follow calls from local authorities in recent years for training in conservation matters (see panel).
Three government departments - the ODPM, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and DEFRA - are financing HELM. "It's important that the benefits of the historic environment are recognised," comments an ODPM spokesman. "We are keen to help people who work in local authorities develop a better understanding of the historic environment to preserve and make it better."
The ODPM has recently contributed £100,000 to the programme. Heritage researcher Philip Grover, a lecturer at Oxford Brookes University's school of the built environment, welcomes this support. But he adds that £500,000 should be regarded as "an initial amount of money".
Certainly heritage is now a buzzword and attracts a huge level of public support, as seen with the overwhelming success of the BBC2 television programme Restoration. Even the most ardent modernisers cannot ignore the financial gains to be made from heritage. It can attract tourism, shops, restaurants and hotels.
"Heritage is the cornerstone of many regeneration schemes," says English Heritage local government policy officer Tim Brennan. He points to the community and financial gain achieved in the Grainger Town project in Newcastle. The scheme received £40 million of public sector funding, but the quality of the historic environment was such that it levered in a further £160 million in private funding.
The idea for HELM originally came out of research carried out jointly by the DCMS and ODPM in 2001. This advised councils to appoint a heritage champion, although only a few did. "The real impetus came in August this year when both departments wrote to remind local authorities and encourage the appointment of members as champions," says Brennan. One of the first appointees was Lady Doreen Jones, a Liverpool City Council member who attended meetings in the role to support the council's successful bid for world heritage status.
Champions must promote heritage through education and by identifying links between parks, museums, archives, highways and planning. They will also be expected to generate revenue through tourism. There are now 80 champions, half of them council cabinet members. "We hope that historic environment champions can help officers put local heritage to use in pursuit of their authority's corporate objectives," explains Brennan.
Seminars to train champions begin next month in the East of England and will roll out across the regions. English Heritage is holding talks with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment on launching joint training courses for design and historic environment champions, which they hope to start before Christmas.
HOW LOCAL AUTHORITIES HAVE BEEN PERSUADED TO TAKE HERITAGE SERIOUSLY
LOCAL AUTHORITY CONSERVATION PROVISION IN ENGLAND, 2003
Warned that authorities have no register of listed buildings at risk and nearly three-quarters of conservation areas do not have character appraisals. Also found that average number of full-time conservation specialists is 1.7 per council, compared with 38.1 in the planning service overall.
HERITAGE UNDER PRESSURE, 2002
Found that it is more important to train general planners, especially within development control departments, rather than concentrating on conservation officers.
LOCAL AUTHORITY PRACTICE AND PPG15: INFORMATION AND EFFECTIVENESS, 2000
Found that action is needed to ensure that applications are accompanied by adequate conservation information on which to base planning decisions.
PPS PLANNING SURVEY ON RESOURCE IMPLICATIONS OF THE PLANNING REFORMS, 2004
Found that 84 per cent of planning staff surveyed expressed a need for additional training to cope with their workloads.
PLANNING FOR THE PAST: HERITAGE SERVICES IN LOCAL PLANNING AUTHORITIES IN ENGLAND, 2001
Found that the planning system is the most important mechanism available in England for caring for the nation's heritage.
Source: English Heritage.