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Local authorities drop heritage specialists

EH warns that loss of heritage officers could affect regeneration schemes

Local planning authorities are cutting back on conservation officers and heritage professionals, including architects and archaeologists – a move that may threaten regeneration and renewal schemes, a group led by English Heritage (EH) has warned.

According to research by EH, the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) and the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers, the number of specialists in local authorities has dropped by 5 per cent and continues to ‘fall sharply’.

IHBC chair David Chetwyn said the loss of specialists came at ‘the worst possible time to lose the skills that will be so vital to securing growth’.

Conservation has been less affected by the recession than other sectors. Data compiled for this year’s AJ100 list of Britain’s biggest practices (to be published in AJ 28.05.09) reveals that firms focusing on the restoration and heritage sectors have fared better than most.

Andrew Clark, senior partner at historic specialist Purcell Miller Tritton, said: ‘It would appear to be an easy cost saving for local authorities to reduce the number of officers. However, it would be a mistake, in our view. Our work…would be much more difficult without the assistance of local authority officers.’

In a bid to avert a ‘future crisis’, EH is now calling on the government to issue a statement to planning departments discouraging cuts in heritage staffing.

Steven Bee, director of planning and development at EH, said: ‘A future lack of such staff… could block the regeneration and renewal projects vital for economic recovery.

‘Skilled judgements on cases such as heritage at risk, historic parks and gardens and World Heritage Sites cannot be doneby someone with insufficient experience,’ added Bee.

There are fears among the industry that staff cuts will result in longer waits for planning approval. Elaine Blackett-Ord, chair of the Register of Architects Accredited in Building Conservation, said: ‘Any loss of funding for training or a reduction in the numbers of staff would be a retrograde step, and it would be at great expense to the accredited architects submitting schemes on behalf their clients.’

Rosemarie MacQueen, Westminster City Council’s strategic director for the built environment, said that 84 per
cent of applications received by the borough had an urban design/conservation element, and added: ‘The last thing [to do] in an economic recovery would be to slowdown and depress any people or opportunities coming forward.’

The Local Government Association was unavailable for comment.

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