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Fears over latest fall in building-conservation officers

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The number of historic buildings conservation officers employed by councils has dropped by 35 per cent over the past eight years, prompting fears the nation’s built heritage is being jeopardised

English Heritage’s (EH) latest annual report on local-authority staff resources shows the number of built-heritage conservation officers dropped by 2 per cent over the past 12 months, and has fallen 35 per cent since 2008.

The organisation said the figures came against a backdrop of a 2 per cent increase in planning application decisions and a 4 per cent rise in listed-building consent decisions over the past 12 months.

EH’s national advice and information director Deborah Lamb said the decline in historic environment expertise available to planning officers and councillors was ‘of great concern, particularly as their workload is getting heavier’.

‘Conservation and archaeology specialists are crucial people on the frontline protecting and enhancing the historic environment which if lost, cannot be recovered,’ she said.

Mike Brown, chair of the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, said the reduction in staffing levels meant local authorities were often no-longer able to carry out their statutory duties.  

‘This must be hard on the professionals who have lost their jobs, and exposes the nation’s heritage to the real risk of harm,’ he said.

‘It is also difficult for listed building owners and developers who, in too many instances, can no longer get the support and advice they need from the local council to help them protect our heritage and to prosper.’

Jane Kennedy, partner at architect Purcell - which specialises in projects involving historic buildings, said the current situation was ‘depressing’ and would damage the nation’s built heritage.

‘Things can take longer to get through the system, and that’s not just a conservation officer shortage but a planning officer shortage, too,’ she said.

‘Increasingly, planning will be a tick-box exercise with consultees asked to produce large quantities of reports that nobody reads.’

Kennedy said that in addition to a decline in numbers of conservation officers, there appeared to be a lower level of expertise in the officers who remained in post.

Hannah Parham, associate director of the historic building consultancy team at Donald Insall Associates, agreed that the level of conservation expertise among remaining officers was also an issue.

‘It’s easy for conservation officers to say ‘no’ to things, but it takes confidence and experience to say ‘yes’,’ she said.

‘It’s really important that people in local authorities have the correct expertise to take bold decisions.

‘If we didn’t have that, we wouldn’t have some significant schemes like St Pancras Station or King’s Cross, both of which impacted on the built fabric of those structures.’

Stephen Anderson, associate at Manchester architects Buttress, accepted that conservation-officer numbers had fallen, but disagreed that a poorer service was being provided.

He said smarter working through shared-services agreements and voluntary work on the part of interested residents was providing input in a different way.

‘It is fair to say that conservation officers have less time generally to commit to more proactive work, such as designating and appraising conservation areas, looking at buildings at risk and dealing with enforcement matters,’ he said.

‘A new generation of highly skilled, passionate and hardworking individuals are coming through - the Heritage Lottery Fund has helped many of these people to gain experience through fixed short- to medium-term posts on heritage based projects.”

The report can be read here.

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Readers' comments (1)

  • chris Dyson

    This is a real concern - too often as a practise workling in conservation areas in central London, we are faced with severe delays on projects, which creates incredible stress to the design process and delivery of a project.

    This would be unneccessary if there were many more well qualified architecurally trained staff within planning and conservation departments. This should be made a priority for councils all over the country, something needs to be doen to make these posts interesting and appealing to young architects as a serious career choice.

    Councils that urgently want to do something about this can turn to local professionals and create design advisory panels to advise on the qulaity of design and speed up the procress by doing so providing case officers with a more rounded and confident response to planning proposals.

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