Heritage agenda setter

Baroness Andrews intends to seal the importance of the historic environment in the eyes of local authorities and the public in her term as English Heritage chairwoman.

Baroness Andrews
Baroness Andrews

Baroness Andrews first became aware of the historic environment when growing up in Tredegar, south Wales. The landscape of this heartland of the Industrial Revolution was etched with viaducts, canals and the Clydach Gorge.

Later on, history would form part of Andrews's doctorate and she lived in the historic town of Lewes during her time at the University of Sussex. The past came calling again in June when she took the chair at English Heritage. "I could not have wished for a more interesting and enjoyable job and it is one I care passionately about," she declares.

The new role follows four years spent as a junior minister, during which planning formed the chief part of her brief. Her time at the ODPM and the DCLG coincided with the upheavals of major reform and culture change under the Planning Act 2008. Although the sector is still coming to terms with their impact, Andrews looks back on those years with pride.

"I was privileged to be involved in making the planning system more central to what local authorities perceive as important," she says. "Planning should be at the heart of a local authority rather than on the periphery. The system should be more responsive, humane and transparent so more people can get involved. So often I was confronted with the challenge of change in what local authorities wanted to achieve with the developments put forward."

She got to know English Heritage as a "body you can trust with your life to give a proper judgement of the significance of proposals for the historic environment". Heritage must find and express a role for the future, she contends. She is optimistic about this, pointing to the efforts of the National Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund among others. "There has never been a time when people have been more confident about how heritage feeds into the future. There is a lot to cheer about, but we are not complacent," she maintains.

Threats to the historic environment are many and varied. English Heritage warned in July that four out of five conservation areas are facing a plague of plastic windows and doors, while hoardings, street clutter and satellite dishes jeopardise their character. One in five scheduled monuments and one in 30 listed buildings are at risk, as are one in 15 historic parks and gardens.

Over the past four years, English Heritage has given £60 million in grants to listed buildings but only 15 per cent have shown any improvement. Now, with a struggling economy and politicians pledging deep public spending cuts, surely the historic environment will feel the swish of the axe? But Andrews argues that heritage brings a lot to the table.

"The economic benefits that the historic environment brings to the country are fundamental. The better the condition of our historic environment, the more we will attract tourists and people staying at home for their holidays. Let's not forget the social benefits. When you live in a time of change, people look for certainty and security. They are prepared to go along with change but they want some handle on it."

This summer's draft PPS15 received a mixed reception. While archaeologists generally liked its message, many built environment professionals doubt that it will lead to clearer decision-making. They fear that it downplays the economic benefits of heritage and may even undo recent regeneration advances. In short, critics believe that PPS15 needs to put heritage protection in a wider place-making context.

Andrews responds that English Heritage is talking to the DCLG about "issues of vocabulary and clarity" and urges the planning profession to wait for the final version next year. "This is a work in progress and we are having debates about what we want to see in the final version. We are not quite finished," she insists.

"PPS15 separates out policy and guidance, which was long overdue. It makes the strongest case for an integrated approach to the historic environment and for the notion of historical assets and that is something we wanted. For the first time, it puts a focus on what is significant about a building or landscape, so we are able to understand the impact of what is being proposed."

Some conservation experts feel that the government's decision to drop the heritage bill last year undermines much of the draft. Andrews admits that prospects for the bill's re-emergence are slim. "Being realistic, it is very unlikely. I would hope that whatever government is in power in the next session would see the general merits of having the bill, particularly after all the work of the past five years."

Andrews has four years in the heritage hot seat, so what does she aim to achieve in that time? First, she wants English Heritage to have an even stronger relationship with local authorities. She intends to offer more help and advice on heritage to communities and the public. Another aim is to see fewer buildings or monuments at risk. But she also foresees a more lasting legacy.

"I want to see our sites and properties full of young people, children and learners of all ages enthused by the drama of history," she adds. "We are about ensuring that in 50 or 100 years' time the things we have will be the things our grandchildren will enjoy, learn from and see how they fit into their future."

CV

Age: 66

Status: Divorced

Education: Degree in international politics, University College of Wales, Aberystwyth; MA in political sociology and PhD in history and social studies of science, University of Sussex

Interests: Music, opera, museums, reading biographies

2009: Chairwoman, English Heritage

2005: Junior planning minister, ODPM

1992: Founder and director, Education Extra

1985: Policy adviser to opposition leader Neil Kinnock

1970: Parliamentary clerk

1968: Fellow, science policy and research unit, University of Sussex


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