Partnership and statutory listing
|The partnership between local and central government in listing is not always a case of the centre leading. It was Bath City Council which first achieved protection for the exterior of the Royal Crescent in 1937, a decade and more before the advent of statutory listing.|
In 2018 Historic England commissioned Matthew Saunders, former secretary of the Ancient Monuments Society, to consult with the national amenity societies and the broader voluntary movement prior to advising on a future strategy for statutory listing. The recommendations are available at https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/about-the-list/saunders-report/. The report itself is available at https://tinyurl.com/p5effram.
Partnership is definitely in the motherhood-and-apple-pie category. In times of lockdown we have been starved of it, both formal and informal, so now is an easy time to extol its virtues. Partnerships need not last forever. It would be rather coy not to recognise the cessation, at the end of this year, of that between the Ancient Monuments Society and the Friends of Friendless Churches; I had a hand in putting it together from 1993 when I was director of both. In that case the logic that had driven the two charities together has weakened. Where financial interdependence, a common office, joint newsletter and single membership regime saved each organisation thousands in the round, those calculations make less sense when both are in a much more robust financial state. Covid-19 has questioned the necessity of a central office, and when I retired in 2018, I was succeeded, with my strong personal endorsement, by two separate directors.
This is no standard divorce – the separation is amicable and considered, and free of animus. The net result will be two strong bodies set fair to establish an emboldened independence with a clear-sighted sense of direction. I for one am exhilarated by the prospect of the joint newsletter that I edit (last edition, that for Summer 2021) being succeeded by two new publications, each with its own editor. The opportunity for many more voices to speak through them will be more than doubled. And I need to move on – with books to write before I get too decrepit . But to come back to the subject in hand. The sort of partnership that I entered into with Historic England in 2018 was markedly different. For partnership in effect read commission, for Debbie Mays, Historic England’s head of listing, came to me to seek an outsider’s overview of listing. There is a tradition to such scrutiny. In 2010 a similar task had been given to the then newly-retired earlier holder of the post, Martin Cherry (and Gill Chitty). What Mays sought in particular were the views of the National Amenity Societies. As AMS covered all listed buildings, regardless of age, and I had been secretary of the joint committee that coordinated its work between 1983 and 2005, my experience suited the brief.
The first stirrings of conservation in this country have been relentlessly bottom-up rather than top-down. There have been occasions when politicians have run with the baton big-time, none bigger and bolder than Michael Heseltine, who added just short of 200,000 to the lists in the 1980s. His speeded-up resurvey, when some 110 people were employed to bring the survey much closer to completion in five years not 50, was a classic prototype for the public/private partnership that the principal recommendations of my own report depend on. Heseltine, very much in the interventionist Tory school, valued bringing in the skills and, dare one say, vocational commitment, of the private sector to stand alongside his own civil service. He stands out by exception in the history of listing since its introduction in 1947.
Generally, national government has followed not led the voluntary movement, and indeed has lagged behind local government. The first effective introduction of a form of listing, that to protect the exterior of 1,253 Georgian properties in Bath in 1937, was in an act promoted by that city’s corporation. There were similar private municipal Acts of Parliament to protect the physical Shakespearean legacy in 1891, and very selective preservation in London (1897), Manchester (1904), Surrey (1913), Lewes (1933) and Winchester (1937). But it is those who come together through a shared passion for a cause, not political resolve, that have spurred government into action with national remit and national effect; not least the granddaddy of us all, SPAB, founded in 1877 (and the Cockburn Association in Edinburgh set up two years before that).
Listing remains a partnership in so many ways – between Historic England, which makes the recommendations, and the secretary of state, who accepts those or not (a refusal to accept is rare, even if occasionally high-profile, as at Dunelm House, Durham) – but also in the identification of candidates. It is one of my principal recommendations that the existing lists need to be systematically revisited. This is to achieve two principal purposes. The first is to address the ‘minimalist’ list descriptions, which may number as many as 366,000 entries, and which lack the comprehensiveness and authority of those compiled since 2005. The second is to increase the pace of additions. The present rather stately pace, excluding war memorials and residual thematic surveys, is some 350 a year.
The resurvey will have to be top-down, and led by Historic England, but input from owners, architects and national and local amenity societies will be critical. At present, where there is little thematic and systematic geographical reworking of existing lists in play, Historic England’s role is largely reactive – coming to a view on submissions made by private individuals and the voluntary movement. Much of the casework of the Twentieth Century Society involves getting buildings on to the lists in the first place. In 2018 the Victorian Society put in 97 applications for ‘spot’ (or ‘reactive’) listing and secured 45 successes. Historic England has already enjoyed partnerships in securing greater refinement in the lists in the commissions with CAMRA on the assessment of historic pubs, and with the Theatres Trust in providing an introduction to inter-war theatres. All the national amenity societies are consultees on applications for de-listing.
One of the most recent partnerships has proved the most successful. Historic England worked with the Gardens Trust (still known by oldtimers like me as ‘formerly the Garden History Society’) to crowd-source post-war landscapes which should be considered for registration. The candidates that emerged in August 2020 not only came with scholarly bottom that comes from going to the most authoritative voices, but also with real popular traction. The resultant Historic England press release triggered 2,500 media mentions.
And there is nothing quite like resentment at a negative outcome to trigger a positive response. The Kidderminster Civic Society was kickstarted into life in 1993 by the loss of one of the town’s more memorable public buildings, the Victorian Library, first listed, and then de-listed and demolished before the authorities were allowed to change their mind again.
Continued improvement of existing entrants is a partnership now following the introduction of Enriching the Lists (ETL) in 2016. This is open to all, hence the variability, usefulness and authority of the text and illustrations that have been added, but it is also, to some limited extent, chaperoned. The more assured ETL additions tend to be those of accredited contributors like the Church Buildings Council and Transport for London.
The greatest societal change since Heseltine has been the IT revolution. Some 71 per cent of UK citizens possess a smartphone. That has vastly increased the powers of government and citizen alike. It is now possible to assess the initial listability of thousands of structures, through Google Street and Google Earth, at the click of a mouse. It has transformed the collection of data, and it has made it so much easier for the active citizen to be better informed and to work with the authorities.
The partnership between the governors and the governed remains starkly asymmetric in some ways, but the capacity of the latter to gather and marshal information for the greater good is now unprecedented. The 12 million annual hits on the National Heritage Lists Online confirm both a zest for facts and the ease with which they can be accessed. Such a partnership, enabled by IT, allows the myriad informed communities, whether they be enthusiasts for a given architect, period or building type, to feed into a revision and expansion of the statutory lists in ways that Heseltine could not even have contemplated. And in the 40 years that have elapsed since the resurvey that he initiated, the ‘committed communities’ have grown even more. National Trust membership now stands at 5.6 million, and English Heritage has some 969,000 members.
Government has consciously sought a partnership with that groundswell of active citizenry through the recently launched initiative on (non-statutory) local listing, finding some £1.5 million for that cause. Many of the present local lists have already been compiled by the relevant civic society and/or ad hoc committees. The secretary of state is building on that in the present campaign to increase the coverage, especially among the 55 per cent of local authorities which have never taken up the concept.
The essential message of my report is that the same commitment needs to be shown towards statutory listing, and to do so by building on the same spirit of partnership between the government and the citizen which has underpinned the story of listing since its introduction.
This article originally appeared as ‘The joys of partnership’ in Context 169, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in September 2021. It was written by Matthew Saunders.
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