Historic Environment Records

Historic Environment Records (HERs) are sources of, and signposts to, information relating to landscapes, buildings, monuments, sites, places, areas and archaeological finds spanning more than 700,000 years of human endeavour. Based mainly in local authorities, they are used for planning and development control but they also fulfil an educational role.

These records were previously known as Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs), but have been developing into systems representing the wider historic environment.

From early origins as records based on Ordnance Survey Archaeology Branch index cards, SMRs and then HERs have developed into sophisticated digital databases, usually integrated with Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to provide the mapping component.  The data contained has been developed and added to through desk-based research and fieldwork reports as well as through statutory data and thematic enhancements.  

Selected major historic towns and cities are covered by Urban Archaeological Databases (UADs). In many cases, UADs are held as part of, and are accessible via, the local HER.

The NPPF requires local authorities to 'maintain or have access to a historic environment record', which should 'contain up-to-date evidence about the historic environment in the area to;

(a) assess the significance of heritage assets and the contribution they make to their environment; and

(b) predict the likelihood that currently unidentified heritage assets, particularly sites of historic and archaeological interest, will be discovered in the future' (ref. 1)

There are over 80 HERs in England which are maintained and managed by local authorities as the essential core of historic environment services. These are mainly county council based but include joint services (in other words, more than one authority working together), district councils, unitary authorities, national parks and major landowners such as the National Trust. Contact details for all English HERs may be found on the Heritage Gateway website (as well as cross-searchable data for many HERs).

HERs are used internally by local authorities (and authorities in different tiers of government) for planning, development-control work and other areas of land management. They are also consulted by statutory undertakers (for example electricity suppliers and the like) and developers in advance of planning applications. Where a planning proposal affects a heritage asset, the NPPF requires that 'as a minimum the relevant historic environment record should have been consulted' so that an applicant for planning permission can describe the significance of the heritage asset in question (ref. 2)

HERs operate as public services for anyone interested in the archaeology, built heritage and history of an area. As such, HERs have a role to play in education, being consulted by students at all levels from school children working on projects to post-graduate academic researchers. 

Content and structure of HERs

Most HERs maintain three complementary types of record dealing with monuments (these can define any type of heritage feature, including buildings), events (fieldwork such as excavation or buildings survey) and sources and archives. These are then combined in a single database with monuments and events linked to layers in a GIS.

As well as database records, HERs have physical reference collections that can be consulted, such as reports originating from archaeological and building investigations respectively as a result of conditions placed on planning applications. Increasingly these are held digitally for online access (for example via the Heritage Gateway).


(1) Paragraph 192, National Planning Policy Framework, Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government July 2021

(2) Paragraph 193, National Planning Policy Framework, Ministry of Housing Communities and Local Government July 2021

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