Securing the future of England's past

A new Heritage at Risk register will help to monitor and address the threats to designed landscapes, writes Gavin McEwan.

England's horticultural and landscape heritage faces many threats, but until recently the nature and extent of these had gone unrecorded.

To address this, English Heritage has, this week, launched Heritage at Risk, a project that will catalogue all of the country's designed heritage in peril.

The government agency already maintains a Buildings at Risk Register, which was started 10 years ago and flags up Grade I- and Grade II*-listed buildings in danger of being lost. As a result, 43 per cent of these buildings have been reclassified as no longer at risk.

English Heritage now plans to extend this during the next two years to cover other protected heritage, including designed landscapes, parks, gardens and monuments, even battlefields and shipwrecks.

According to English Heritage chief executive Dr Simon Thurley: "Even in its first year, our Heritage at Risk project will constitute the most detailed picture ever gathered of the true state of the nation's heritage. This very ambitious systematic survey will enable us to prioritise the most urgent cases and save more of them, more quickly."

This ties in with wider moves to harmonise the protection given to England's listed heritage. A Bill, currently at draft stage, will take what English Heritage representative Beth McHattie describes as "a holistic view of the environment", bringing together listed buildings, registered landscapes and scheduled monuments. "It will look at places as a whole, rather than separate bits, and these will be all together on one information source," she says.

The register will draw on English Heritage's index of 1,595 registered historic parks, gardens and landscapes. The index was compiled in the 1980s and expanded in the 1990s to include other categories of open space such as cemeteries and public parks. It is still being added to, although remains few in number compared with more than 30,000 Grade I- and Grade II-listed buildings and nearly 20,000 scheduled monuments in England. "New additions can come from our own research, or people who write to us about a place local to them that is at risk," says English Heritage senior landscape adviser Jenifer White.

Among the criteria for inclusion are the age of the site, "intactness", the designer and what the design represents in historical terms, how representative it is and whether it is associated with any historical figures or events.

English Heritage is consulted on developments affecting one- and two-star registered landscapes. Its role is to provide the local planning authority with "sensitive, pragmatic advice", says White, which it does not do on a case-by-case basis, but by publishing guidance on topics such as golf course development.

Developers turning a historic house into a country hotel and golf course will sign up to a single "heritage asset agreement", covering the building, landscape and archaeology. "It's a much more practical way to deal with things - to start out with what does or does not require consent," says White. "It makes it much clearer for the landowner."

She says the new Heritage at Risk register is "not a name-and-shame exercise", adding: "The aim is to help, not criticise."

It will offer a number of benefits, says White. "The register will help us use our resources better - to target grants where they are most needed and use our limited staff resources in the best way. And if we have something to show the Government, it can help develop policy. For example, it strengthens the case for addressing the skills shortage in the sector."

A site may be considered at risk based on the number of planning applications over the past five years, what protection measures there are, evidence from maps and aerial photographs, and the presence of a building listed Grade II or above also classed as at risk. "You score each, add them up and that gives you an ordered list, which we divide into high, medium and low risk," says White.

As well as revealing which categories of site are most vulnerable (see box), it has also shown that particular areas such as the West Midlands are "risk hotspots".

Nationally, seven per cent of gardens, parks and landscapes have already been identified as being at high risk, either from encroaching development or neglect. But the consequences of inclusion on the register may be less drastic for designed landscapes, says White - particularly where neglect is the cause, which is believed to affect nearly two-thirds of all registered parks and gardens.

"If you don't look after an old building, it falls down, but if you don't look after a park or a garden, it goes to sleep," she says. "Because you can restore them later, it may be better to wait. You could do something with it in the meantime that could be reversible in future."

Development, however, can be a mixed blessing. Sixty per cent of the 1,595 registered landscape sites in England have been the subject of planning applications in the past five years, and of these, 35 per cent threaten a major change to the site. Some of these may aid the site's longer-term viability, for example by building a teashop or extending a car park. But according to the register, several such changes "will result in the historic designed landscapes being irreversibly changed".

MOST AT RISK

"Part of the work has been to see what types of sites are most vulnerable," says English Heritage senior landscape adviser Jenifer White.

"Grade I landscapes look fairly stable. They're often visitor attractions and have a long continuity of ownership. It's the non-Grade I sites that are less likely to change in terms of use."

Education centres Many old landscaped estates were "rescued" after World War Two by being turned into schools or colleges. However, White says: "Education is their main aim and the grounds, however beautiful and inspiring, may be more of a liability than an asset."

"Picturesque" landscapes Many of the 18th- and early- 19th-century landscapes, which reflected painterly Arcadias, are struggling against the twin modern pressures of development and neglect. "A lot of people don't read them as designed landscapes, with the result that they get lost or overgrown," says White.

Arts & Crafts gardens The later vogue for highly designed private gardens has left a legacy of sites, which cannot readily be adapted for other uses. "They tend to be intricate with a lot of little features and take a lot of skill to maintain, which is often in short supply," says White.

Country parks In contrast to historic municipal parks, many of which have had lottery-funded restoration, local-authority-owned country estates look less secure, according to the register. "Many were carved out of former historical estates, which were often split," says White. "Although they are still managed, this is mainly for recreation and many are struggling for resources."

Grounds adjoining buildings that are at risk There are over 200 buildings at risk in registered gardens, parks and landscapes. Often, these may be structures such as towers or chapels, which were part of the original landscape design and cannot readily be put to alternative uses.

Cemeteries English Heritage and Natural England produced guidance on the conservation of cemeteries last year, but many remain threatened by neglect and development.

SITE SAVER

Given "Fragile" status by the English Heritage register, the Grade-I designed woodland of Hackfall near Ripon, North Yorkshire (main image) has been saved thanks to timely intervention.

"The Woodland Trust took it on at a vulnerable stage and has helped us turn it around," says English Heritage senior landscape adviser Jenifer White.

Both Turner and Wordsworth were once inspired by the area, designed to exploit the wild grandeur of its natural gorge with cascades and waterfalls, and ancient woodland. This aspect has given the area a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designation, while four listed buildings in the grounds add to its significance and to its upkeep.

One of these, the Grade II-listed Banqueting House, is a key landscape feature of the estate. It has been restored with the help of an English Heritage grant. English Heritage also funded a conservation-management plan, which led to a Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) project planning grant and a further HLF grant of £1m last year. This will help restore and consolidate the original landscape, conserve the site's ecology and make it more accessible to the public through an improved path network, interpretation, website, an education programme and audience development work. A project officer will also be employed.


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