Country Life, the celebrated weekly on heritage and things social and rural, has reported cornflake confusion for columnist Athena, as heritage adviser and IHBC research consultant Bob Kindred explained the background to her realisation that ‘the number of conservation officers in England has fallen by more than a third’ in recent years, and ‘Scandalously, more than 30 councils don’t employ one at all’, as she calls on the Government ‘to make it clear to councils that conservation officers provide a statutory service.’
Athena writes in her Country Life column:
There is much for Athena to celebrate in the statistics published by Historic England in its annual compilation of ‘heritage indicators… Our heritage could always work harder, but it’s not doing badly.
However, one statistic made Athena splutter over her cornflakes. Since 2010, the number of conservation officers in England has fallen by more than a third. Scandalously, more than 30 councils don’t employ one at all. Conservation officers are responsible for representing heritage interests in the planning decisions affecting listed buildings and more than 10,000 conservation areas. It’s in everyone’s interest that, we have enough of them. Also, that the officers themselves arc pragmatic, experienced, trained to understand why heritage matters and are knowledgeable about the history of their locality. Without their input, the heritage that touches our lives on a day-to-day basis is without informed protection.
The heritage consultant Bob Kindred has compiled further statistics that paint a more nuanced picture of what’s going on. At the start of the century, he recorded advertisements for about 120 conservation-officer posts every year. In 2008, however, that number collapsed, reaching a nadir of just 26 advertised posts in 2010. Since that time, there has been a slow increase in the numbers appointed, rising to 72 in 2016. Perhaps there’s a slight recovery under way.
Whatever the case, Athena has heard good anecdotal evidence that some councils have cut costs by replacing experienced conservation officers with inexperienced staff or planning officers. In instances, an apparent continuity of staffing masks a massive loss of expertise and, what’s worse, a potential change of emphasis in the planning advice they receive from heritage to the public and economic benefits of development. By any therefore, we remain desperately short of conservation officers and we do so at a moment when central government unparalleled pressure on the planning system. What can be done about this problem?
For one thing, the Government needs to make it clear to councils that conservation officers provide a statutory service. Local authorities also need to create a career structure for these officials, with appropriate remuneration. Unless we draw new blood into the system and train it up properly, we will end up with functionary conservation officers who merely follow due process. Our built heritage deserves—and desperately needs—something much better.’
For the most recent IHBC data on Conservation Capacity in England see the IHBC NewsBlog and read the IHBC’s ‘early notice’ on the Next Civic Voice Parliamentary reception on ‘Impact of Funding cuts on Conservation Areas’, on 31 January 2018.