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Celebrating our heritage

By Ruth Slavid
Landscape professionals play a great role in the work of Historic England, the new body that was set up on 1 April this year.

This year's Landscape Institute awards have a new sponsor in the form of Historic England, sponsoring the Heritage and Conservation category. But it is not of course really new, since this category has been sponsored by English Heritage, Historic England’s predecessor, since 2007.

In April this year, the body was split, with English Heritage becoming a charity with responsibility for looking after the properties that the government owns, and the new body, Historic England, retaining all the other responsibilities. This makes it timely to look at just what those responsibilities are and how they impact on the landscape profession. And who better to guide us through it than Jenifer White, a landscape architect and one of Historic England’s two national landscape advisers (as well as a member of Landscape’s editorial advisory panel)?

Jenifer works alongside Alan Cathersides, a landscape manager whose particular strengths are in vegetation management and wildlife, whereas hers, she says, are in policy and research. She has come to this via an indirect route, having studied botany in Manchester and then landscape ecology, design and maintenance at Wye College. A series of public-sector jobs, including at the Forestry Commission and the Countryside Commission, led her towards first English Heritage and now Historic England. ‘I have always been interested in historic landscapes,’ she said. This is good, since her work is all about them in a wide variety of ways.

She and Alan Cathersides have responsibility, Jenifer says, for ‘providing expert advice on the historic parks, gardens and landscapes, including trees, vegetation, wildlife and habitats.’

This work, she says, falls into seven categories:
  • Advice
  • Published guidance
  • Standards and best practice
  • Foresight and analysis
  • Policy and advocacy
  • Research
  • Capacity building (through education, training and outreach).

These are the responsibilities that existed in the English Heritage days, but there has, says Jenifer, been ‘a step change’. Whereas English Heritage had acquired a reputation (in its work as a whole, not just in landscape), for being rather negative and obstructive, now it is repositioning itself. ‘The mantra is constructive conservation – trying to help secure the future of important historic assets and make sure that they are enjoyed,‘ she said. ‘It is about brokering change.’

Probably the best-known work of Historic England is the listing of buildings, and involvement in the planning process where listed buildings are concerned (at least Grade I and Grade II* buildings – Grade II does not fall within its remit). In landscape terms the equivalent is the Register of Parks and Gardens, set up in 1983. This is something of a misnomer, since its remit is broader than this, including all sorts of landscapes associated with private and public buildings. Generally landscapes have to be 30 years old to be considered for a position on the register, meaning that those from the 1980s are now under consideration. This can be problematic, because we have not yet learnt to appreciate the significance of many of them – not least, Jenifer says, because the trees are scarcely mature. But this is an exciting time, in part because ‘we are looking at an important period in the history of the Landscape Institute.’ The great success, in contrast, has been with the Victorian parks, which are roughly 150 years old and yet, having been given some care, are loved and relevant today.

Landscape architects working for Historic England

Kim Auston - South West and West Midlands
Chris Mayes - North East and North West
Erika Diaz-Petersen - Yorkshire
Stuart Taylor -  East Midlands and East of England
Zosia Mellor - London
Kay Richardson - South East

Unlike listing, which has to be approved by the DCMS (Department of Culture Media and Sport), a position on the register is entirely decided by Historic England. But the downside is that there is no statutory protection for landscapes on the register. This is one reason, Jenifer says, why sometimes it is more powerfully protective to list a building and its associated landscape rather than simply to put a landscape on the register. This was the case, for example, with Gateway House in Basingstoke, listed in January (see the summer issue of Landscape).

But there is an understanding that landscapes on the register should be considered, in particular in the National Planning Policy Framework which states, ‘When considering the impact of a proposed development on the significance of a designated heritage asset, great weight should be given to the asset’s conservation. The more important the asset, the greater the weight should be. Significance can be harmed or lost through alteration or destruction of the heritage asset or development within its setting. As heritage assets are irreplaceable, any harm or loss should require clear and convincing justification. Substantial harm to or loss of a grade II listed building, park or garden should be exceptional. Substantial harm to or loss of designated heritage assets of the highest significance, notably scheduled monuments, protected wreck sites, battlefields, grade I and II* listed buildings, grade I and II* registered parks and gardens, and World Heritage Sites, should be wholly exceptional.’

Advising on all kinds of planning issues is the job of the regional offices of Historic England. It employs six landscape architects in total in its nine regions, and they can offer advice outside their specific regions, so covering the entire country. It is important, Jenifer says, that they are consulted early since often there may not be an understanding in a proposed development of the potential problems – for instance by interfering with an important vista. This may need a complete rethink.

She describes the work of these landscape architects as follows: ‘Our Heritage at Risk Programme is designed to help us take an overview of historic parks and gardens and identify those most at risk of being lost as a result of neglect, decay of inappropriate development. The landscape architects are working with owners and other partners to tackle sites through advice and grant-aid. The landscape architects are working in multi-disciplinary teams identifying priorities and the programming the step-by-step repairs or adaptation needed to arrest decline.

Register of Parks and Gardens
Total number of registered sites = 1635
Grade I = 142 (9%)
Grade II* = 456 (28%)
Grade II = 1037 (63%)

The English Register aims to capture the nationally important recreational and ornamental landscapes of special historic interest. The National Heritage Act 1983 provided the statute to establish ‘The Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest in England’. The range of landscape types this covers include;

Sites associated with domestic use.
  • This category sub-divides into:
  • Sites associated with one household or dwelling e.g. palaces, country houses, manor houses, villas, town gardens, terraced houses, cottages.
  • Sites associated with more than one household or dwelling e.g. communal gardens, squares.
  • Sites associated with private amenity but which are not attached to a particular house or housing scheme e.g. private resorts, rented town gardens.

Sites belonging to, or associated with, institutions e.g. asylums, botanical gardens, cemeteries, colleges, factories, hospitals, hotels, museums, pumping stations, reservoirs.

Sites designed or used for public amenity and recreation e.g. public parks, public gardens, public walks, public resorts.

‘The landscape architects also support the inspectors and planners in each local office on proposals affecting historic parks and gardens. The Historic England local teams work with developers, local authorities, and design review panels, and whenever possible at the pre-application stage, to help shape proposals so that the harm is minimised and the benefit maximised. They also advise on Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans and work with local groups to help grow knowledge and skills to champion and protect historic places.’

We underestimate, she says, ‘the skills set that develops from landscape architecture training. They are very good at looking at space, at masterplanning, and at brokering solutions.’ In her own case, she says, working with a team that consists mainly of architectural historians and archaeologists, she brings a different perspective. And landscape architects can also benefit from a view of history. ‘We should be proud of our history as a profession,’ Jenifer said. ‘I would hope that the landscape architects of today are designing with the aspiration that their designs will be on the national register in the future. There is a lot to learn from past design and we have a big part to play in helping to look after it.’

One way of bringing this past importance to the attention of the public as well as the profession is through the Capability Brown Festival that will take place next year to celebrate his tercentenary. Historic England is a partner in the festival, which the Landscape Institute is running. ‘It’s a great opportunity to celebrate an important designer,’ Jenifer says, ‘to get people involved in landscape design. It is a great opportunity to champion historic design and will encourage people to get out there and experience it themselves, to learn how landscapes are created, and how they are looked after now.’

Working for Historic England is evidently an exciting and challenging role yet, Jenifer says, when Historic England wants to recruit landscape architects, it finds that there are few with the requisite skills and enthusiasm. Encouraging awareness of the importance of working with historic landscapes should help to remedy this, and what better way than by sponsoring a category at the LI awards?

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