Heritage Conservation Defined

Our heritage is all that has been passed to us by previous generations. It is all around us. It is in the houses we live in, our places of work, the transport we use, our places of worship, our parks and gardens, the places we go to for our sport and social life, in the ground beneath our feet, in the shape of our landscape and in the placing and arrangement of our fields, villages, towns and cities.

Heritage is also found in our moveable possessions, from our national treasures in our museums, to our own family heirlooms, and in the intangible such as our history, traditions, legends and language.

Whilst everything we inherit is strictly our heritage, the term has become synonymous with the places, objects, knowledge and skills we inherit that are valued for reasons beyond their mere utility. In other words, they have a value to us that is over and above their functional use.

This guide is concerned however, only with the law, policies and guidance relating to the protection of heritage in the land, buildings and other structures of England and all that is fixed to them. It does not deal with the heritage in moveable possessions such as pictures, antiques, old trains etc.

Heritage defined

In this relatively small country everywhere bears the marks of our predecessors' efforts to sustain life and satisfy their needs. That part of our surroundings that displays the interaction between people and places through time is called the historic environment.

Some parts of the historic environment are important to society as a whole or to a group within it and merit some level of protection or consideration. These are called our heritage assets. They are the elements of the historic environment that we value for more than their money’s worth. The generations that follow us are most likely to value them too, for the same or similar reasons. It has therefore long been accepted that we have a responsibility to look after them.

It is this responsibility that justifies a protection system for the historic environment and the consequent interference with the private rights of property owners.

Historic England publication, Conservation Principles (Ref. 1) looks at the significance of places. This term is also used in the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) , which sets out the Government’s objectives and policies for the historic environment. There it is used in the same sense to mean the value of a heritage asset to this and future generations because of its heritage interest. That interest may be archaeological, architectural, artistic or historic.

Legislation that offers protection for heritage assets has developed in a piecemeal fashion. It uses a variety of terms to identify the essence of what makes a heritage asset valued and worthy of protection. The law refers variously to the architectural, historic, artistic, traditional and archaeological interest of heritage assets and the character that derives from those attributes. The term ‘significance’, as defined in the NPPF, encompasses all of the different interests that might be grounds for designating a heritage asset.

Conservation defined

Conservation is the process of maintaining and managing change to a heritage asset in a way that sustains and where appropriate enhances its significance.

Some legislative requirements refer to ‘preservation’. The courts consider that this is to be interpreted as ‘preserve from harm’ – that is harm to its significance, not simply its fabric.

Conservation (or preservation, when given its proper meaning) of the most sensitive and important buildings or sites may come close to absolute physical preservation, but those instances will be very rare. The vast majority of our heritage assets are capable of being adapted or worked around to some extent without a loss of their significance. Indeed change is often vital to facilitate the optimum viable use of an asset so that it continues to receive investment.  

It is the Government’s overarching aim that the historic environment and its heritage assets should be conserved for the quality of life they bring to this and future generations.

Conservation as a part of sustainability

Sustainability is a core strategic aim of the planning system. In 1983 the United Nations’ Brundtland Commission defined sustainable development as: “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs”.

One of the needs of this and future generations is to enjoy its heritage. In general terms, conservation of our heritage will therefore be delivered by any truly sustainable development that meets that definition. Sometimes sustainability objectives will unavoidably conflict with each other and compromise will need to be considered.  

The Government says that sustainable development will contribute to the protection and enhancement of the historic environment (Ref. 2). Pursuing sustainable development involves seeking positive improvements in the historic environment (Ref. 3).

Heritage conservation and other objectives

Whilst the objective of the legislation and policies protecting our heritage is directed primarily to sustaining its heritage value, doing so can achieve or substantially contribute towards other important spatial planning goals, through:

  • Its influence on the character of the environment and an area’s sense of place
  • Its potential to be a catalyst for regeneration in an area, in particular through leisure, tourism and economic development
  • The stimulus it can provide to inspire new development of imaginative and high quality design
  • Its influence on the character of the environment and an area’s sense of place
  • Its potential to be a catalyst for regeneration in an area, in particular through leisure, tourism and economic development
  • The stimulus it can provide to inspire new development of imaginative and high quality design
  • The re-use of existing fabric, minimising waste
  • Its mixed and flexible patterns of land use that are likely to be, and remain, sustainable


(1) Conservation Principles, Policies and Guidance for the Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment, Historic England , 2008 

(2) Paragraph 8, National Planning Policy Framework, Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, June 2019