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Research Theme #Adapt

We need to be able to understand the world that we live and work in today and how this might change in the future. We need foresight to anticipate and prepare for the impact and opportunities this could have for the historic environment so we can manage change more effectively and make our heritage more resilient. We research and analyse current and future trends in social, political and economic change; environmental and climate change science; land use, property and infrastructure development; as well as technological and technical innovations.

Topics include:

People working in an IT office with an elaborate historic ceiling.
The historic environment must adapt to change. Research secures its significance as it is adapted. Tea-room of the former Wallis department store off Oxford Circus, now an IT service office. © Historic England, image reference DP183530.

Local planning

Change to the nation’s heritage is managed most significantly, in terms of numbers, through strategic land-use planning by local authorities, along with the process for obtaining planning permission and agreements on particular developments. Planning policy for local authorities, set by national government, aims to sustain and enhance the significance of heritage assets for future generations while allowing them to be adapted to meet the needs of today’s owners and occupiers. Historic England plays a direct role in maintain the National Heritage List for England, and advising on cases affecting some sites which have statutory protection. Getting this balance right needs informed judgment.

Research will have impact if it helps understand the effect that the tools at planners’ disposal have now or might have in the future. It will provide an evidence base to inform plan making and decision taking in the local planning system. It will highlight the link between development that is sensitive to local character and improves outcomes for places, and ensure that the historic environment is seen as a benefit and not a barrier to economic growth.

 Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • How effective has non-statutory protection, for example through national Registers and Local Lists, been at preserving and enhancing the significance of heritage assets?
  • What is the level and effectiveness of enforcement action under planning law on heritage issues?
  • How can the public benefit of designating a Conservation Area be maximised?
  • Can the ‘value capture strategies’ that have been pioneered in the United States be applied in English circumstances to support Conservation Area enhancement?
  • What factors determine whether or not local councils use their powers to require owners to undertake urgent works to maintain listed buildings?
  • What lessons can be learned from local authority Local Plans and Neighbourhood Plans which have effectively included an understanding of historic environment related issues?
  • Does Neighbourhood Planning increase or decrease the protection of the historic environment?
  • Is there a ‘tipping point’ in the lifespan of heritage assets, beyond which further incremental change arising from development will irrevocably damage their significance or their viability?

See more about our local planning advice service

National planning and infrastructure

Central government set the overall policy direction and framework for the planning system operated by local government, and set regulation for specific issues, such as the redevelopment of former industrial or ‘brownfield’ development, and levels of housing development. Government also support the renewal of national infrastructure beyond the control of individual local authorities. The current National Infrastructure Plan is a substantial programme of construction that will have profound effects on the historic environment. In the 2016 Autumn Statement the Government announced a series of measures designed to further stimulate housing growth and to catalyse the renewal of our national infrastructure. These included £2.6 billion for improvements in transport projects designed to reduce journey times; £740 million to support the roll out of fibre-optic broadband; and an increase in central government investment in infrastructure of 60% between 2016-17 and 2020-21. Together they represent a substantial programme of construction that will have profound effects on the historic environment.

Research will have impact if it provides an evidence base and toolkit to inform our response to planned infrastructure investment, projects and individual schemes.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • What methods will assist the strategic assessment of the likely impact of planned infrastructure on the historic environment?
  •  How can we best make use of the development funding specifically available through major infrastructure projects, to enhance our understanding and management of the historic environment?
  • How do we enable sustainable brownfield development while protecting archaeological interest and retaining local character?
  • How can legal protection of sites through inclusion in the National Heritage List for England be focussed on areas most likely to be affected by new infrastructure?
  • What lessons can be learnt from past and current large infrastructure projects, such as Heathrow expansion, high-speed rail, and recent energy generation and road programmes, to ensure the significance of the historic environment is recognised in a timely manner, and opportunities seized to integrate the investigation of the old with the development of the new?

Find out more about our research on infrastructure

See our advice on planning and infrastructure

An archaeologist holding a find of a pottery vessel above a deep excavation.
Jay Carver, Chief Archaeologist for the Crossrail Project. at the Crossrail site, Liverpool Street, City of London, Greater London. © Historic England Chris Redgrave, DP183428

Land management

Over 84% of England’s scheduled monuments are on agricultural land.  Farmers are the owners and managers of most of the nation’s historic landscapes and archaeological sites. Changes to land use and land management practices, which in most cases do not need planning permission, continue to be the biggest cause of degradation and loss to our irreplaceable rural heritage. Central government agricultural policy also has an impact. For example, the target to increase the extent of woodland cover will have a particular impact on buried archaeological sites, the great majority of which are not protected by scheduling.

Research will provide foresight. It will have impact if it helps us anticipate where land management change is likely to occur in the medium term, develop improved protection and mitigation strategies and prioritise statutory protection for sites that are most at risk or under-represented in the National Heritage List for England. There are also great opportunities for research to provide evidence to influence and change land management practices to the benefit of the historic environment, wider environment, agriculture and the economy.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • What is the impact of traditional and new cultivation techniques on the survival of archaeological sites?
  • Where will significant changes to land use affecting the survival and setting of archaeological and above-ground heritage, such as new energy crops, new woodland, or new mineral extraction sites, occur?
  • How can legal protection of sites through inclusion in the National Heritage List for England be focussed on areas most likely to be affected by land management change?
  • What will be the impact of changes to agricultural policy and subsidy on the historic environment?
  • What are the challenges to historic environment conservation arising from changing rural economies, particularly changes to farming policy in the light of Brexit?
  • How can we assist farmers and land managers to better manage the heritage assets in their ownership as rural development policy changes?

See more about our research on adapting to land mangement issues

Climate change

We know that our environment has always changed. The climate has fluctuated, coastlines have shifted, ocean currents moved, sea levels gone up and down and watercourses flooded. People have adapted to those changes and we see the traces of these adaptations in the archaeological record and in the structures and landscapes that make up our environment today. However, it is clear that current climate change, driven by human activity, is causing environmental changes at a rate that has not been seen for millennia. The speed of climate change is a ‘risk multiplier’ of the natural processes that have always affected heritage assets.

Historic England advise Government on the impacts of climate change upon the historic environment, and adaptation to those through contribution to the UK Climate Change Risk Assessment, National Adaptation Plan and Adaptation Reporting Power. Our commitments for climate change adaptation are set out in more detail in our Climate Change Adaptation Report.

Responses to climate change as people seek to slow or prevent some processes, and adapt to the changing environment can also have unintentional harmful effects. Conversely, finding new uses for historic buildings retains the embodied energy used decades or centuries ago in their construction, avoiding the additional carbon emissions needed to replace them with new buildings.


Research will have impact if it helps us assess and respond to the direct and indirect effects of climate change upon different sorts of heritage site. It will provide evidence of how people are adapting to environmental change and how that might affect heritage, how we can best conserve heritage in light of these effects; and the positive opportunities heritage can present in understanding, reducing, and adapting to environmental change.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • What are the impacts of natural and environmental change on the historic environment?
  • What are the likely impacts of climate change adaptation measures, such as flood prevention or managed coastal retreat, on the historic environment, and how can we mitigate the potential harm or make best use of these opportunities?
  • How do we balance the need to sustain the historic environment and to reduce greenhouse emissions?
  • What can an understanding of past changes to the environment and to human activity contribute to the wider discussion about environmental change, particularly climate change?

See more on our research about the impact of climate change on the historic environment

Heritage crime

The value of England’s heritage is not judged in pounds and pence. The impact of theft or vandalism on our historic sites and buildings has far-reaching consequences over and above the financial cost of what has been stolen or damaged. ‘Heritage crime’ is any offence that harms the value of England’s heritage assets, and their settings, to this and future generations. Examples include lead theft from church roofs, or illegal metal detecting on scheduled monuments. Our focus is heritage crime affecting listed buildings or other designated sites, or objects or material removed from them illegally.

Heritage crime will often have both a direct impact, such as broken windows or stolen artefacts, and an indirect impact such as the sense of loss felt by the community through the damage to a familiar and loved place, or economic impact from loss of its amenity value.

Research will have impact if it helps us to: minimize the effect of heritage crime by providing a better understanding of the scale and extent of the problem; plan effective prevention and enforcement measures; improving crime prevention measures on heritage sites; and enhances the opportunities to investigate and identify offenders.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • Where are the different types of crime that affect the historic environment occurring, and how often?
  • What new and innovative techniques and products are available or under development for use on-site to help owners  prevent crime?
  • What is the particular nature of heritage crime in declining urban, rural or coastal areas?
  • How can we raise awareness of heritage crime in local communities?
  • How can new methodologies for studying crime and anti-social behaviour within the historic urban, rural and marine environments be applied to heritage crime cases?

Read more about our approach to adressing heritage crime

Societal change

We live in a society which is changing with increasing rapidity. Many aspects of societal change will drive change to and adaptation of the historic environment in response. These large-scale drivers include the size and demographic profile of the population, migration into and within the country, broadening diversity of faith and belief, the sense of personal identity, changing technology, governance and the strength of community and civil society.

These are large-scale and wide-reaching influences, so we must be realistic in our expectations to manage their impacts on heritage. However, research to understand and anticipate change will have impact if it can help us to plan for the future, and predict where the greatest and most imminent risks and opportunities might be, and to assess the sector’s  capacity to respond.

Research questions that will help our mission include:

  • What are the challenges and opportunities of a changing demographic profile and an increasingly diverse population on the historic environment?
  • What broad cultural and social trends are evident which will help us set priorities for the future?
  • How might social change driven by technological innovation affect the historic environment, either broadly such as transformation of patterns of consumerism, or information consumption, or more specifically, such as new building materials or the introduction of driverless vehicles?
  • How might changing patterns of work and provision of services affect the design of cities, transport, infrastructure, or particular heritage asset types, such as office space in historic buildings?
  • How do specific changes, such as faith profile, impact on the historic environment?
  • How can the sustainability of reuse solutions for historic buildings and places be best evaluated?

See more on our research about the impact of social change

See more social and economic research

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