Culture: Yesterday's Landmarks Preserved for Tomorrow; Coming Soon to a Street Corner near You: The National Heritage. Terry Grimley Looks at English Heritage's New Attempt to Take Stock of Everything We Have That's Worth Keeping
Byline: Terry Grimley
Probably not a lot of people know this, but in August this year there were 39 ships lying on, or in, the sea bed off England which were designated under the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973.
On dry land there were 376,094 entries on the Government's list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest. Oddly enough, no one is exactly sure how many actual buildings this represents, but it's probably about a million.
The number of Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) maintained by local government is now more than 100, up by 20 over the last four years, but in some categories there are fewer sites to record. Six per cent of recorded monuments had been completely destroyed by 1995, half of these in the preceding 50 years, at a rate of one a day. The traditional ridge-and-furrow agricultural landscape of the south Midlands is vanishing fast. On the other hand, public support for preserving the historic environment is probably at an all-time high, with visits to historic sites of all kinds now running at around 60 million a year.
These facts and figures are assembled, more or less randomly, from English Heritage's newly published State of the Historic Environment Report 2002. Commissioned by the Government, it is the first in what will become an annual series of reports (SHERs) assessing the state of England's environmental heritage.
In launching the document in London, English Heritage chief executive Dr Simon Thurley said that while 'mind-boggling' visitor figures demonstrated the importance of the historic environment, it was threatened by intensive agriculture, a lack of local government resources, declining traditional conservation skills and an absence of political will.
He also pointed the finger at outdated legislation, including an inappropriate tax regime which penalises old buildings, and insensitive regulations which are 'wrecking our streets through horrible traffic schemes'.
While the more alarming aspects inevitably grab attention, the SHER sets out to provide an objective audit on all aspects of the heritage, drawing on the work of many agencies working in the field to paint a picture of how effectively, or otherwise, we are caring for it.
Notions of what heritage is are getting more up-to-date: a recent survey found that 75 per cent of people think the best post-war buildings should be preserved - and that goes up to 95 per cent in the 16-24 age group.
The report also, perhaps more fundamentally, raises the question of how heritage is defined.
Over the last 30 years or so we have seen a democratisation of the term, which not so long ago was strongly identified with the legacy of rich people - their palaces, country houses and art collections.
The increasing interest in industrial and working class history since the 1970s has fed into a general broadening of what is valued, reflected in such individual cases as the National Trust's acquisition of Paul McCartney's childhood home and, for its first Birmingham project, a court of humble back-to-back houses.
English Heritage has recently been interesting itself in Birmingham's Jewellery Quarter, spot-listing many individual buildings and publishing a substantial book documenting its history and present condition. …