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Fears over heritage expertise as talent drain widens

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The drop in the number of historic environment specialists has accelerated, prompting fears of a development logjam according to a new report

The statistics compiled by English Heritage, the Association of Local Government Officers (ALGAO) and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC), show a 11.9 per cent drop in the number of historic environment staff in the past year in England - with a 13.5 per cent fall in conservation officers and an 8.9 per cent dip in archaeological officers.

During that time planning application decisions rose by 5.2 per cent, with listed building consent decisions up 7.1 per cent.

Loss of expertise could lead to loss of elements of England’s heritage which cannot be recovered

English Heritage chair Baroness Andrews said the imbalance between the numbers of staff and the volume of planning applications shown in this report are of extreme concern at a time of change in the planning system.

She said: ‘The historic environment is not a soft target, loss of expertise could lead to loss of elements of England’s heritage, which once gone, cannot be recovered.’

IHBC president Eddie Booth said: ‘The most efficient way to support the evident concern for heritage in local communities is through having a conservation officer who understands the issues at first hand. 

‘Just like the traditional local bank manager, the conservation officer knows what’s needed and valued locally. Without them we lose continuity of knowledge, access to specialist advice and consistency in decision-making.’

In early 2011 there were 957.5 historic environment members of staff in local authorities in England. This included 606.5 people working on building and area conservation and 351 archaeological staff.

Henry Bird, a director at Shepheard Epstein Hunter, said: ‘This will just make things even harder for anyone negotiating the planning system.’     

The Country and Land Business Association (CLA) said the continued cuts should trigger a fundamental reform of the heritage system.

CLA deputy president Harry Cotterell said: ‘Local authorities control what can be done to heritage. If they don’t have skilled staff, it makes it difficult and often impossible to get consent for the changes needed if heritage is to be viable. 

‘This is disastrous for owners and for the long-term future of heritage itself.’

The report can be viewed here


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