Last edited 09 Jul 2021

Main author

Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

What data should be incorporated into Historic Environment Records

This article presents the executive summary of ‘Information and partnerships’ a research paper published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation.

The full research paper can be seen here.


Executive summary

Historic Environment Records (HERs) are sources of information relating to the historic environment of a defined geographical area. Typically they consist of databases, indexes and reference collections linked to a Geographical Information System (GIS).

In order for Historic Environment Records to respond to the current planning needs placed upon them under Planning Policy Statement 5, and to be responsive to Heritage Protection Reform, they need to be properly integrated within the planning system and in order to do this expand their collection of building related records.

This project was developed within English Heritage’s HER 21 programme to consider what data should be incorporated into the HER to widen coverage across the whole historic environment by the addition of new building and built environment records and data. The project aimed to identify, examine and evaluate the options, resources and benefits for including additional data sources, often digital, into HERs. It set out to identify those areas of data with potential of contributing towards rapid but valid expansion of HERs looking at national sources of data covering all of the country, large parts of it or multiple regions.

Initially a primary list was developed of priority data types. This developed from the expansion of data identified in an earlier IHBC project with London Conservation Officers and the Greater London sites and Monuments Record along with information gathered from a selection of other HERs which have already carried out buildings information user needs survey with Conservation Officers in their area. The list was developed out of the priorities Conservation Officers had identified in consultation with the HER. The priorities identified by each authority were incorporated to form a prioritized list. This creates the first nationally-supported listing of building-related information for consideration by HERs in prioritising the creation of HPR-consistent HERs. As these lists originate in a review that integrates equally both building conservation priorities (using the GLSMR study) and HER specialist interests (using current research), it has a unique authority for application in the development of built environment information for HPR-consistent HERs.

Having established a base list of priority areas, those which have a wider national and regional relevance were drawn out. The scoping and trialing aspect of the project then focused on the four national areas of data that have been most commonly requested as a priority for inclusion in HERs:

HER officers were asked to evaluate issues attached to the inclusion of a selection of building related information types, through an internet-based survey facility and additionally in writing. For each of the four classes of information, samples of types of data were identified. As well as representing priorities in HER development, these were selected to allow for analysis of the range of practical issues that can arise with their inclusion in a HER. They were intended as illustrative samples of data types to develop recommendations and procedure rather than to concentrate specifically on the detail of the example.

The internet survey comment form allowed HER officers to comment on each sample in terms of its value, resource implications and benefits.

The survey information gathered was used to help assess each of the sample sources themselves for value to the HER, feasibility of inclusion and resources required along with specific issues for the source. The transferability of each sample to other similar types of source was then assessed and general issues identified regarding the acquisition, monitoring and maintenance of a series of data types:

The project team developed a simple matrix for assessing the primary implications for HER inclusion. The matrix provides an accessible and user-friendly framework for adoption by HER stakeholders to guide in giving priority to the different classes of information for consideration for inclusion in a HER. Model options for the incorporation of each data source were then identified.

The project considered approaches to built environment information in distinct, but related, planning traditions. Colleagues in Scotland and Ireland were asked to provide their own perspectives and thoughts on the challenges of incorporating historic information on buildings and the relative systems of the Irish Architectural Archive (DIA), Canmore, the Dictionary of Scottish Architects (DSA) a GIS-based system still under development, HAGGIS, the Historic Asset Group GIS were all considered to draw out parallels and lessons. It is clear there is currently no English parallel to the DSA and the DIA. The absence of such a resource in HERs systems compromises the viability of HPR consistent HERs. The research shows that HERs are not able to encompass that information within the records without in turn compromising the data standards, and/or putting undue resource pressures on them locally. A solution identified in this report would be to produce a stand alone digitally accessible version of a key source, linked to HER home pages and via the Heritage Gateway, which would be an ‘add-on resource’ to HERs.


Consistency of Building material in HERs

HERs vary in terms of consistency of structure, content and coverage. Whilst this is inevitable at present, given the way they have developed there are still great inconsistencies in the approach to development of building material. Some HERs and the officers responsible for them embrace the incorporation of all historic environment material and the linkages with the planning system encouraged through Heritage Protection Reform. Others still feel that the HER is neither a planning nor a buildings history resource.

HERs should aim to be consistent in both structure and content, and coverage and thus should be encouraged to see development of building records as an integral part of an HPR consistent HER. Sources examined in this project were often considered little value possibly because they are different from those normally used. HERs should consider the value of new records and data sources such as those examined in this project to planning and building conservation audiences.

Headline recommendation

As part of a national specification for HPR consistent HERs,

  1. Historic plans.
  2. Architects records.
  3. Structural reports on historic buildings.
  4. Condition surveys.
  5. Records of repairs and works.
  6. Building control records.
  7. Estate agents particulars.
  1. Pevsner Buildings of England.
  2. Country Life.
  3. Victoria County History.
  4. Context.
  5. Amenity Society journals (20th Century Society; Victorian Society; Georgian Group; Ancient Monuments Society; Garden History Society; The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings).
  6. Buildings with blue plaques.

Guidance for building related HER development

Given the diverse priorities registered across different HERs, priorities driven by history and locality there is no single answer to the local needs for a HER. In the absence of a substantial investment in development of a HER infrastructure, clearly HERs should clearly decide their own priorities but could do this guided by a ’commission’ in governance to advise on priorities for users. This would be part of a wider decision making process allowing a commission type advisory board to feed in to priority making.

Recognising the diverse needs of each HER according to its locality it is recommended that representative local ‘commissions’ are established to advise HERs on the classes of information that need top be given priority to in the geographical area covered by the HER.

HERs should be encouraged to develop their web site Home Page with links to other useful and locally relevant web sources, an information hub or a sort of local heritage gateway. Again the matrix could be used to guide priorities for inclusion in light of resources, and shape decision making processes.

Headline recommendation

Establish local advisory commissions to consider key priorities for the inclusion of built environment information within the HER.

Use of the Heritage Gateway for national information sources

It is recommended that English Heritage considers expanding the Heritage Gateway with key national sources to allow users to access useful data alongside HER information. Such an expansion of the existing resource would require a further development project on the part of English Heritage and further investment.

Headline recommendation

Establish a programme to develop the Heritage Gateway as an resource with a wider national remit to interface with national built environment records and resources, modeling it as a ‘national HER’, and building on the models developed in Scotland in particular. This resource should be linked to the development of the resource identified in the recommendation below.

Development of a dedicated national resource for architecture

Despite the importance of ‘Colvin’ in establishing the significance of key aspects of the built heritage, this project makes clear that current HER infrastructure is not able to address the huge challenge of incorporating local information to a national standard. Consequently it is recommended that a stand alone digitally accessible version of ‘Colvin’ is developed, perhaps linked to HER home pages and via the Heritage Gateway, to create an ‘add-on resource’ to HERs

The particular advantage of developing access to ‘Colvin’ is that it already serves as an ‘information hub’ – albeit currently non-digital - to the entire range of historic built environment resources crucial to establishing the significance of ‘post-medieval’ buildings. A ‘digital Colvin’ would draw together key resources, digital and otherwise, from the RIBA drawings collection to major local history resources otherwise largely inaccessible to HERs direct. A ‘digital Colvin’ would be a key part of the historic built environment information to being made digitally accessible, albeit though links, on public consultation with a HPR-consistent HER.

The development of this resource should be based not only on the most recent edition of Colvin, but also on the substantial additional information in the archive of the author.

Operationally, the development of the ‘digital Colvin’ as an online resource, could be phased to speed up HER-linked access to what would be a key tool for the built environment sector, and expedite wider interest in and ownership of HERs. This could be done by providing the information accessible digitally first, land then later as dedicated GIS-linked product that might be more easily interfaced with the HER infrastructure.

Headline recommendation

For English Heritage (and partners) to establish a programme to make the information in the Colvin Archive digitally accessible, with key links to the resource through HERs.

Conclusion: Specifying an HPR-consistent HER

There is no single, simple route to the challenge of establishing HERs as a coherent information interface between the built environment and the historic environment.

However if the recommendations here are adopted by HERs nationally then those HERs could be considered to be consistent with HPR aspirations in terms of the inclusion of the built environment information covered by this project.

Click here to read the full paper.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

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