The Historic Environment Bill: what does it do?

05 May 2015

Article by Robin Wilkinson, National Assembly for Wales Research Service

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Image from Flickr by James Russell. Licensed under Creative Commons

On 5 May 2015 the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism, Ken Skates AM, will introduce the Welsh Government’s Historic Environment Bill in plenary. This Bill amends current legislation that governs the management of scheduled monuments and listed buildings in Wales, places the existing Heritage Environment Records on a statutory basis and creates a new Advisory Panel for the Welsh Historic Environment.  What difference will this make for heritage in Wales?

Background

Back in 2011 the Welsh Government stated, in its Programme for Government, that a Heritage Bill, supported by new policy and public engagement, was a key means to ‘enrich the lives of individuals and communities through culture and heritage’. In 2013 the Welsh Government consulted  on its proposals for legislation and policy relating to the historic environment.

Subsequently, the then Minister for Culture and Sport (John Griffiths AM) stated that Bill’s proposals would have three main aims:

  • More effective protection for listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments;
  • Improved mechanisms for the sustainable management of the historic environment; and
  • Greater transparency and accountability in decisions taken on the historic environment.

So, what does the Bill actually do?

Ancient Monuments

The main law governing the protection of ancient monuments in Wales is the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979.  Under the 1979 Act the Welsh Ministers are required to compile and maintain a schedule of monuments (“the Schedule”) that meet certain criteria and that they deem to be of national importance. These monuments are then subject to a consent regime under which owners must get permission for specified works.

Part 2 of the Bill seeks to amend the 1979 Act in the following key ways:

  • To make Welsh Ministers consult before changing the Schedule in certain ways;
  • To give a monument statutory protection whilst the Welsh Ministers decide whether to include it on the Schedule, or amend its entry on the Schedule;
  • To establish a review process for decisions the Welsh Ministers make to include a monument in the Schedule, or to amend an entry to the Schedule;
  • To establish “heritage partnership agreements”, whereby Welsh Ministers can agree in advance a series of changes to a scheduled monument with the owner;
  • To provide Welsh Ministers with more powers to take action where unauthorised works are carried out on a scheduled monument;
  • To limit the availability of the defence of ignorance for those who damage or carry out unauthorised works to a monument;
  • To extend the definition of a “monument” to enable Welsh Ministers to schedule “any thing, or group of things, that evidences previous human activity”. The Bill’s Explanatory Memorandum estimates that fewer than 30 new sites will be eligible for scheduling under this extended definition; and

Listed buildings

The main law governing the protection of listed buildings in Wales is the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. Under this Act, Welsh Ministers must compile a list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest. A building must be listed if it meets the published criteria. Once designated, listed buildings are subject to a consent regime under which owners must get permission for specified works.

Part 3 of the Bill seeks to amend the 1990 Act in the following key ways:

  • To make Welsh Ministers consult when deciding whether to list a building;
  • To give a building statutory protection whilst the Welsh Ministers make a listing decision;
  • To establish a review process for decisions made by Welsh Ministers to amend the list of buildings;
  • To enable an owner or developer to apply to Welsh Ministers for a “certificate of immunity from listing” (COI) at any time. A COI prevents Welsh Ministers from listing a building for 5 years, and a local planning authority from serving a building preservation notice on a building for the same period. Currently, a COI application may only be made when an application has been made for planning permission, or when permission has been given;
  • To establish “heritage partnership agreements”, whereby Welsh Ministers or local planning authorities may agree in advance a series of changes to a listed building with its owner. This is intended to reduce the need for individual consent applications; and
  • To give Welsh Ministers more powers to stop unauthorised work on a listed building and make urgent repairs to preserve a listed building.

Historic environment records

There are currently four Historic Environment Records in Wales. HERs store and enable access to information about the historic environment and historic assets in a given area, which is used by those making decisions about the historic environment. The Bill places them on a statutory footing, as recommended by the Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee in 2013. This means that local planning authorities will have to ensure that these Historic Environment Records continue to be maintained.

Register of historic parks and gardens

The Bill places a duty on the Welsh Ministers to compile, maintain and publish a register of historic parks and gardens of special historic interest. This was recommended by the Assembly’s Communities, Equalities and Local Government Committee Inquiry into the Welsh Government’s Historic Environment Policy in 2013. A non-statutory register was published in a series of volumes between 1994 and 2007.

Advisory Panel for the Welsh Historic Environment

The Bill establishes an Advisory Panel for the Welsh Historic Environment, to advise Welsh Ministers on heritage policy in Wales. There has never been a body with appointed members to advise the Welsh Ministers on historic environment policy, although the Welsh Government currently has a Historic Environment Group. This Group does not have appointed members, but is a forum of organisations with an interest in the historic environment.

Scrutiny by the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee

The next stage on the Bill’s passage to becoming an Act is Stage One scrutiny by the Assembly’s Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee. The Committee will hear from the Deputy Minister for Culture, Sport and Tourism (Ken Skates AM) and other people interested in the heritage sector before deciding whether it agrees with the principles behind the Bill.

In their responses to the Welsh Government’s consultation, stakeholders including the National Trust and Welsh Local Government Association noted that a number of problems with the current management of Welsh heritage were down to a shortage of funding rather than necessarily problems with the law. The National trust suggested that if the sector was “properly resourced”,

The existing system would deliver greater real benefits if this resource was in place alongside good management, supplemented with good technical advice on the ground.

Is a Bill what the sector needs, or does it just need more funding, good management and further technical advice from the Welsh Government? Alternatively, might the changes envisaged by the Bill help the sector deliver more with the resources it already has? It’s questions like these that the Committee will consider during its scrutiny of the Bill.

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