An evening with English Heritage

Alan Taylor, a West Midlands-based Inspector with English Heritage, provided members with an insight into the organisation's work at the Society's evening meeting on 27th March.

Alan explained that English Heritage, although not part of central Government, was the Government's adviser on the conservation of the built environment. He warned us that its responsibilities were wide-reaching and could not possibly be encompassed within a short presentation. Having said that, Alan skilfully guided us through its main responsibilities. We looked at what he called the foundation of its work, the listing of buildings and applications for listed building consent for any changes to them.

He stressed that listed buildings were of all ages and types, and not just those of historic interest. Coventry Railway Station for example, was listed. Over 600 listed buildings in the West Midlands in the Grade I and II categories are at risk and Alan took us on a photographic journey through some of his most problematic cases.

Often problems arose when new owners were over optimistic as to the potential of the new burdens they were taking on. The owners may suffer financially but the buildings neglected, suffered structurally.

English Heritage is also responsible for keeping the Register of Parks and Gardens of Historic Interest. Although the Register has no statutory force, it is a material consideration when considering planning applications affecting these areas. There are 15 such listings in Staffordshire, including Beacon Park and Stowe Pool.

English Heritage also maintains a schedule of Ancient Monuments. The legislation bringing this Schedule into being goes back to 1880 and deals mainly with buildings in a ruinous state or archaeological remains. The flagship of the Scheduled Ancient Monuments in the West Midlands, he said, was probably Kenilworth Castle.

Moving on, Alan told us that English Heritage has a major responsibility for managing sites and presenting them to the public. Whilst the National Trust tended to deal with large houses which were furnished, many of the properties managed by English Heritage were either shells or vacant. However, it is also moving into the management of furnished properties and he reminded us of Down House in Kent, furnished and preserved as a property once occupied by Charles Darwin.

English Heritage also provides grant aid, particularly in partnership with local authorities, where over the years a number of schemes supporting the regeneration of listed buildings, have operated. Currently, English Heritage is promoting their Heritage Environment Renewal Schemes in partnership with local authorities, linking conservation with the creation of jobs, particularly in our smaller towns.

A lively question and answer session followed, comparing the role of the National Trust to English Heritage and debating the extent to which the conservation of buildings meant stripping off layers of historic development and 'restoring' the original structure.

Whilst the role of English Heritage is wide-ranging, members came away from the evening feeling they understood more about the complex issues associated with the conservation of our built environment.

Roger Hockney
March, 2003