England's historic environment under threat, report says

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The Independent Online

England's historical landscape needs billions of pounds and a massive effort by homeowners, developers and local councils to save it from ruin, English Heritage said yesterday. The body's second report, Heritage Counts 2003, on the state of England's listed buildings is a catalogue of problems and needs.

Two months after the conclusion of the BBC series Restoration, which galvanised the enthusiasm of millions of people for the nation's historic buildings, the audit found a third of British buried archaeological sites at risk. They are threatened by factors as diverse as scrub growth, agriculture or soil erosion and vehicles.

A total of 1,373 grade I and II listed buildings were at risk, almost 4 per cent of the stock in Britain. Yet local authorities had, on average, just 1.7 conservation officers each to deal with 1,200 listed buildings and 28 conservation areas apiece. English Heritage found 85 per cent of local authority conservation officers admitted being incapable, because of overwork, of properly protecting local historic character.

More than 80 per cent of local authorities also did not enforce repairs or prosecute illegal alterations. The chief executive of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, said the report showed that local authorities needed more funds and more people with heritage skills. Developers needed to be more responsible and to have the staff with the right conservation skills. And homeowners needed to be educated about the importance of preserving heritage values.

The report found 18 per cent of Yorkshire's historic parks and gardens, with some of the country's finest landscapes, had suffered from "significant land use change". Nearly half of all grade I parks in Yorkshire had planning applications issued on them in 2003. And 15 per cent of registered historic parks and gardens designed by or associated with the 18th-century landscape gardener Lancelot "Capability" Brown now had golf courses on them.

English Heritage estimated the cost to repair and replace features in need of attention in England's parks at £3.5bn. The report said the amount spent on maintaining parks and gardens in 2001 by councils was £126m less, in real terms, than in 1979.

Neil Sinden, policy director of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural England, said it was the Government's responsibility to make sure local authorities had enough money to deal with the heritage challenges. "It's clear the level of resources available to many local authorities to promote and protect the historic environment is pitiful," Mr Sinden said.

The report found one in five homeowners had a pre-1919 home worth 20 per cent more than an equivalent house from a more recent era. This figure rose to 34 per cent more for a 17th-century period house. A survey of London residents found the most popular choice of home was a "pre-war semi-detached with a garden".

Mr Thurley added: "Conservation areas are also being eroded by thousands of small changes [by homeowners], such as a new porchway, a garden concreted over, or the replacement of sash windows with PVC double glazing ... They have an enormous impact."

But the report did show the public enthusiasm for heritage. Research found 52 per cent of people had visited a historic park or garden in the past year and 46 per cent visited a historic building. Ninety-two per cent of people thought it important to keep historic features when regenerating towns and cities.