Localism - Communities and Local Government Committee Contents

Written evidence submitted by English Heritage (LOCO 31)


¾  English Heritage (EH), as the statutory adviser on the historic environment to both national and local government, has a key interest in how localism is implemented, in particular with reference to the planning system.

¾  Whilst the full details of how localism will be encouraged in practice have not yet emerged, EH has always acknowledged that local communities play an important role in ensuring heritage and local distinctiveness is preserved and have structured our services to help.

¾  Protecting England's unique heritage and tackling heritage at risk is dependent on local support, both from local government and from local people.

¾  For these reasons, English Heritage welcomes the localism initiative. This does not, however, obviate the need for a national approach to the recognition and protection of the Country's heritage. Consistent and fair decisions relating to the historic environment must take into account all communities of interest, and not just the local.

¾  Alongside this national recognition and protection, we must ensure that communities can identify and protect what is locally significant. This complements, rather than competes with national designation.

¾  Places like Arnos Vale cemetery show that the historic environment can be a source of civic pride, and can provide a focus for local civic action. Where they have become neglected, the regeneration of local landmarks, with which communities have grown up, can act as a catalyst for the revitalisation of a whole community and increase social action.

¾  Changes in ownership can revitalise heritage assets and provide opportunities for local communities. English Heritage, with other representatives of the heritage sector, has prepared guidance on how to do this.

¾  There are over 400,000 people who regularly volunteer on heritage-related projects, equating to around £335 million of unpaid work (at the level of the minimum wage). This demonstrates the importance that people attach to their local historic environment.

¾  Encouraging local people to take responsibility for heritage-related projects increases local pride and sense of belonging, contributing to community cohesion and offering a purpose and a voice to groups and individuals. Heritage Counts 2009 reported the result of research proving a direct link between heritage and how people identify with their local area.

1.  The extent to which decentralisation leads to more effective public service delivery; and what the limits are, or should be, of localism

Whilst there were benefits to the previous structure of regional bodies and policies (Government Offices, Regional Development Agencies and Regional Strategies), which supported an integrated, co-ordinated approach to decision making, there are also clear advantages to the more bottom-up approach which is likely to result from a policy of "localism" and the establishment of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs). Communities and neighbourhoods, by being placed at the centre of decision making, will be better placed to support local heritage and distinctiveness.

Protecting heritage assets

There does remain a need for national consistency in deciding which heritage assets are and are not protected, to ensure those elements of the historic environment which are of national and international importance are identified and can receive proportionate protection. This is a role currently undertaken, within England, by English Heritage, in partnership with local and national government. EH has the expertise and national overview necessary for an objective justification for what parts of our built heritage or archaeology should be conserved for future generations.

However, the existence of a national designation regime does not preclude local input. The ability of local communities to protect our heritage through local listing and the designation of conservation areas is vital to the protection of locally valued heritage. Planning Policy Statement 5: Planning for the Historic Environment states that heritage assets which appear on the local lists will be a material consideration when assessing planning applications. The compilation of these local registers affords local communities a direct say in what is protected locally and how this helps to protect and shape the future character of their neighbourhood. Two examples of where communities have taken an active role in developing local lists can be found in the work of Colchester Historic Buildings Forum and North Tyneside Council.

There is no conflict between these two levels of protecting our past, in fact they are complementary. Together they ensure that buildings, places, monuments and areas which we value as evidence of our past are not lost. They may be valued as buildings of national or international importance, or they can be local monuments that have a particular significance to a community. Both may justify protection.

EH's role as national adviser for the historic environment goes beyond that of managing the system of designation. We are well-placed to provide information and to promulgate best practice in the heritage sector (a role that may increase in importance with the abolition of regional bodies and pressures on local authority resources). For example, the West Midlands Farmsteads & Landscape Project has worked with all upper tier local authorities and partners across the West Midlands, to provide evidence on the character, condition and use of historic farmsteads—informing the policies and actions that guide local development.


There are some practical problems associated with devolving all plan making to a local level. It is important that there remains a layer of strategic oversight to ensure that developments in adjoining areas do not compromise the character of adjacent buildings and areas, or their value to other communities. Local Enterprise Partnerships clearly have a role to play in this regard, which must be taken into account as their role within the planning system is defined. There remains the possibility of tensions between the agenda of local people and the wider community of interest outside the local area. How these tensions are resolved will be key to ensuring that planning functions effectively.

There is a risk that as local authorities are forced to make difficult choices, such as making cuts to conservation services, they will not be as well placed to respond to greater community involvement. It is important that localism is not used as an excuse to make cuts. Establishing a system whereby communities are able to make a full contribution to local services, including planning, is likely to incur costs and will need to be adequately resourced.

Asset Transfer

As local authorities continue to explore ways in which they can cut costs, more are looking closely at disposing of high maintenance properties. In response English Heritage, along with partners in the heritage sector and the Asset Transfer Unit have recently published guidance on how to make transfers of heritage assets a success. Accompanying that guidance are a number of case studies which highlight the benefits of such transfers. For example:

¾  Hebden Bridge Town Hall is a good example of a neglected historic building being brought back into use by a range of local individuals and organisations. The building was transferred into community ownership by Calderdale Council last year, and planning and fundraising for its future community use is now well advanced. The intention is for the building to become a base for the delivery of public services, delivered by public and voluntary organisations; contain office accommodation for the local councils; and be used for meetings and functions.

We would urge authorities to look carefully at the option of transferring assets to community groups and not just seek to realise the highest price for any asset. Such transfers can, if properly undertaken, provide a community group with much needed stability (who then might also be able to become alternative suppliers of local services).

2.  The lessons for decentralisation from Total Place, and the potential to build on the work done under that initiative, particularly through place-based budgeting

The use of an integrated approach, such as that demonstrated by Total Place, focuses resources where they are most needed and can be deployed most efficiently.

An example of the contribution the historic environment can make to this agenda can be found in Worcester where a recent local authority-led project, part funded by English Heritage, has made positive difference to a local community, where funding for improvements to historic buildings has had wide ranging impacts. As part of an area partnership scheme the Foregate Street and Tything project had a three-year budget of £150,000 (50% Worcester City Council, 50% EH). Local small businesses were able to apply for small grants to make overdue repairs to the fabric of their premises in historic buildings in a prominent conservation area on a major route into the city. The scheme has resulted in the significant improvement, raising the profile of local historic buildings within a conservation area, and has attracted new customers for the refurbished shops leading to a resurgent local economy. In addition, shop-keepers have been able to convert unused first and/or second floor space into flats—which has attracted to new residents to an area that was slowly declining for lack of local population. These benefits all resulted from improving the condition of local heritage.

3.  The role of local government in a decentralised model of local public service delivery, and the extent to which localism can and should extend to other local agents

The need for a national overview in heritage protection, providing a consistent approach, as well as benefitting from economies of scale, was made above. In addition, as local authorities, like all public bodies, are placed under tighter financial constraints, they are likely to begin to struggle to provide expert advice to local people. In such circumstances, the role of supra-regional expert bodies, such as English Heritage, will become more important. Such bodies are able to benefit from economies of scale develop best practice, and support local authorities as they seek to engage with communities.

4.  The action which will be necessary on the part of Whitehall departments to achieve effective decentralised public service delivery

Place-based budgeting is designed to reduce duplication of effort and resources between different public bodies which operate within the same locality and to recognise that one funding stream can contribute to a number of different outcomes. We would urge Whitehall departments to follow this example. For example, as a result of Heritage Lottery Fund investment in the Sheffield Cultural Industries Quarter conservation area the proportion of respondents feeling safe or very safe rose from 73% to 98%. It will be important that such opportunities can be identified by the relevant government departments to that these type of initiatives can be replicated at a national level.

5.  The impact of decentralisation on the achievement of savings in the cost of local public services and the effective targeting of cuts to those services

It is important to establish that developing a localist, decentralised agenda is not, in itself, a way of cutting costs or increasing efficiency. Adequate support for improved community engagement, not only through improved delivery of information, but also through involving communities within the decision making process, may require significant investment. Using the historic environment as an example, if communities are to have a greater say in planning decisions - decisions on how neighbourhoods and areas will be developed or preserved—there will need to be adequate levels of staffing in the relevant local government departments. This does not mean that such departments should be protected from cuts, but there needs to be a realistic assessment of what the costs are of delivering the localism agenda. We are seeing a number of authorities exploring the option of shared services. Whilst this makes economic sense, it will potentially put decision makers further away from the local communities affected by their decisions. Any aspirations to increase community involvement must take account of this.

There is also the risk that localism will discourage the sharing of pilot projects from which best practice can be developed. This is of course an area where national bodies, such as English Heritage may have a more significant role—either supporting pilots ourselves or co-ordinating dissemination. Examples of this type of work include the West Midlands Farmsteads projects (see above).

6.  What, if any, arrangements for the oversight of local authority performance will be necessary to ensure effective local public service delivery

With the removal of centrally directed evaluation of the type undertaken by the Audit Commission, it is vital that local communities have sufficient information to make informed decisions regarding the performance of local public services. For our part English Heritage will continue to collect data on Heritage at Risk and make that data publicly available.

7.  How effective and appropriate accountability can be achieved for expenditure on the delivery of local services, especially for that voted by Parliament rather than raised locally

No comment.

October 2010

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Prepared 9 June 2011