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AJ exclusive: interview with Historic England chief Duncan Wilson

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Duncan Wilson, the first chief executive of Historic England, tells Colin Marrs about the challenges facing the new heritage body in an age of austerity

In June, Historic England admitted it had got its initial advice wrong on an application to redevelop King’s College London’s Strand campus. What lessons have been learnt from this episode?
It was a very rare occurrence for our review processes to fail us but, once we realised they had, our most important job was to explain our mistake quickly and openly. We just had to get over any discomfort with admitting our mistake. We were criticised, but a number of people got in touch to say we did the right thing and there is no doubt in my mind that we did.

Hall McKnight's Kings College scheme on the Strand [resolution to approve April 2015]

Hall McKnight’s Kings College scheme on the Strand

I want Historic England to be a well-understood and well-respected organisation, willing to explain and argue the case, but also to take difficult and occasionally unpopular decisions.

Recent times have seen a number of schemes stumble due to high-profile social media campaigns by conservation groups. What challenges and opportunities do social media campaigns pose to Historic England in giving advice?
Opening up discussion about the historic environment is a good thing. Historic England is embracing social media and our networks are growing fast. This is an important part of our drive to improve public engagement in our work, which is a critical part of our strategy. Looking after the historic environment is a mammoth task, and involves millions of people right across the country. Social media can engage large numbers of people in an issue almost immediately.

We have to prioritise where our influence will have the most impact

We won’t always agree with what people say but it matters that they say it. And it makes it even more important that, in return, we listen, we explain and we share our views, expertise and judgement.

In August, Historic England recommended to extend further immunity from listing for the Robin Hood Gardens estate in east London – a decision widely criticised within the architectural community. Did Historic England come under pressure from development interests and politicians to come to this decision?
There is, rightly, a growing enthusiasm for post-war buildings right now. We are delighted by the surge of activity this has sparked but, when it comes to listing, our job is to consider the architectural and historic special interest of a building and we are not swayed by outside pressure.

Robin Hood Gardens by the Smithsons

Source: Janet Hall / RIBA Library Photographs Collection

Robin Hood Gardens by the Smithsons

We respect the view of the campaigners and I can assure you we carefully reviewed all the points received by the consultees before once again recommending that Robin Hood Gardens doesn’t meet the architectural achievements of other 20th Century estates that we have listed.

What advantages and challenges come with the splitting of the former English Heritage into two separate organisations?
The new structure allows us to be more single-minded about our core role of protecting what’s most precious in the historic environment. We can be more clearly focused on those challenges now that the English Heritage Trust is looking after the national collection of historic properties. And, critically, the new structure allows us to speak out with greater clarity and engage the wider public with a simpler message about the whole of the historic environment.

What challenges does austerity provide to Historic England, in terms of both its own resources and the pressure to squeeze value from land assets held by the public sector?
In terms of the country’s economic recovery, it has been proven again and again that heritage is fundamental to economic success and quality of life. The two are, of course, strongly linked.

We are very concerned about cuts to conservation and archaeology posts in local authorities. The latest figures show further cuts in the past year in conservation specialists, with staff down by 35 per cent since 2006. For archaeological specialists, the fall has been 23 per cent since 2006. Efficient and balanced decisions can only be made on the best advice, and that requires the right expertise.

What advantages and challenges come with the splitting of the former English Heritage into two separate organisations?
For Historic England, we can now focus on our core role of protecting what’s most precious in the historic environment.  The new structure allows us to be more single-minded about that mission. It is our job working within the National Planning Policy Framework to argue the case for heritage. Inevitably we have to prioritise where our influence will have the most impact, and where it is most needed.

I want Historic England to be a well-respected organisation, but also to take difficult and unpopular decisions

We can be more clearly focussed on those challenges now that the English Heritage Trust is looking after the national collection of historic properties. And critically, the new structure allows us to speak out with greater clarity and engage the wider public with a simpler message about the whole of the historic environment. Our colleagues at the English Heritage Trust can also focus on their core business – looking after the wonderful buildings in their care, and also their members and visitors who support them.

Despite years of lobbying, VAT regime still encourages demolition rather than restoration of buildings. Is this something you will want to look at and campaign on?
We are exploring with Government and the heritage sector a whole range of fiscal means by which historic buildings can be fairly treated. Possible changes to VAT are part of that discussion.

You have a background in running historic buildings and in your previous roles oversaw refurbishment projects aimed at increasing visitor numbers. Is there a danger that these roles have by necessity involved financial considerations and compromises, whereas your role at Historic England will require you to put these aside? Can we expect Historic England to take a more pragmatic approach to protection under your watch?
All jobs involve a degree of pragmatism or they simply don’t engage with the real world. But what the major places and projects I have worked on have taught me is that solutions can be found in situations which may seem pretty desperate at the time, with clarity of vision and determination. The “constructive conservation” approach, long-practised by Historic England’s Planning experts, is a good one. At Somerset House, Greenwich and most recently at Alexandra Palace, I was on the other end of it and it works! We’re all hands-on in the real world, working closely with architects and developers to find solutions that suit both sides of the brain.

The Enterprise and Regulatory Reform Act (ERRA) enables Historic England to give clarity on which parts of a building are of special interest and which are not. Have you monitored the impact of this change?
Being as clear as we can about what matters in the historic environment is in everyone’s interests. It’s one of the things we exist to provide, as a respected expert body which is impartial and takes a long–term view. ERRA changed the planning legislation in a subtle way, and we can now be sharper at excluding the negative or indifferent aspects of buildings from the listing, thus saving everyone’s time on minor issues. This is really suitable for many commercial premises, for instance, like recently listed 1970s office buildings such as Foster’s seminal high-tech IBM Cosham building. Almost half of our recent listings take this approach.

What’s next for Historic England with you as chief executive?
It’s a really exciting time for us, despite facing the challenges of the public spending round at the same time as finding our new voice as champion of our national heritage. This moment presents a real opportunity for Historic England to redefine our role, building on our reputation for depth of expertise and authoritative advice. We’re keen to contribute to the discussion Ed Vaizey is inviting as DCMS prepares a cultural White Paper. I’d love to know what AJ readers think the government should do for heritage and we’ll be providing opportunities for you to tell us.

I’d love to know what AJ readers think the government should do for heritage

In the meantime, we are always looking at new and undervalued aspects of our heritage, including our scrutiny of post-Second World War buildings, and LGBTQ heritage – the latter resulting in our recent listing of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern.

We’re keen to involve people in this process and next year we’ll be inviting people to share their knowledge and photographs of listed buildings under our Enriching the List initiative. Our Heritage Schools programme is also something we hope to develop, allowing children to learn about and value their area and its past. That early engagement is what creates future heritage champions. If we don’t capture the hearts and minds of new generations, all our efforts to hand on to future generations the best of the past will be wasted.

AJ exclusive: interview with Historic England chief Duncan Wilson

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