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Ecclesistical & Heritage World No.88

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Heritage bodies fear crisis in LA services

Heritage bodies have united to urge Government to use its proposed statement on the historic environment to encourage local authorities not to cut historic environment services. A new report into local authority conservation and archaeology resources in England has revealed a recent drop in staff levels that could, heritage bodies claim, lead to a future crisis.

Research conducted by English Heritage, the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) and the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers (ALGAO) has captured, for the first time, the actual number of staff supporting local authority historic environment services.

Figures show that historic environment services had grown 20% between 2003 and 2006; however, between 2006 and 2008 they dropped 5%. Although staff numbers remain above 2003 levels, and the reduction has not yet caused a failure in local authority services, there are early reports of problems in some areas. Anecdotal evidence suggests that staff numbers are continuing to fall sharply. Future studies will provide a figure for the level at which, if such deterioration continues, conservation services would start to fail nationally.

Steven Bee, English Heritage director of planning and development, said: “We understand that there is financial pressure in all sectors at present, but a lot of conservation duties are not discretionary for local authorities; they are a statutory duty. Specialist archaeology and conservation staff are the front line of heritage protection in this country and local authorities must recognise this. A future lack of such staff would create preassure and expense for householders applying for consent and could block the regeneration and renewal projects vital for economic recovery.

“Skilled judgements on cases such as heritage at risk, historic parks and gardens, world heritage sites and historic places of worship cannot be done by someone with insufficient experience.

“English Heritage is offering extra support and guidance to local authorities to help them implement the reforms to heritage protection in advance of the Heritage Protection Bill. The reforms proposed by the Bill can be delivered with the staffing levels identified in the survey but, if current pressure to reduce staff is not resisted, the country’s heritage – and local authorities’ ability to sustain it – would be vulnerable. This report shows that there is a problem on the horizon that mustn’t get worse.”

Dave Chetwyn, chair of the IHBC, commented: “It is crucial that local authorities maintain their full commitment to delivering sustainable regeneration and economic development during the credit crisis and recession. We are therefore especially concerned over the loss of design and heritage specialists who play such a crucial role in delivering effective services and development for the long term. This is the worst possible time for local authorities to lose the skills that will be so vital to securing future growth”.

Ken Smith, chair of ALGAO UK, added: “This report confirms the vital role of local authority historic environment professionals in conserving England’s cultural heritage through a wide range of activities. It also underlines their vulnerability and the need for positive action from local and national government to achieve comprehensive and continued management of the buildings and monuments that define the country's character.”

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