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Historic Towns and Suburbs NHPP 4A1

Research carried out 2011-2015, concerned with increasing our understanding of the significance of the heritage of England's historic towns. This work formed part of the National Heritage Protection Plan.

Austin village, Longbridge
A First World War Suburb. The Austin Village at Longbridge, West Midlands, was erected in 1917, with prefabricated bungalows shipped from the USA, despite the threat of U-boat attack.

Scope of the activity

England has a rich legacy of historic towns and cities. These range from the 'proto-towns' of the Late Iron Age to the New Towns of the 20th century. The majority of England's historic urban places are still major centres of population and economic activity today. As a result, they combine a rich historic environment with continuing pressures for development and change. This was therefore a major Activity, which responded to the need for increased understanding and appropriate protection for England's important urban heritage.

The Activity included a mixture of commissioned projects undertaken by people from wider historic environment organisations (many by local authorities) and ones conducted by our staff.

Work carried out by colleagues from the wider heritage sector included the Urban Archaeological Database (UAD), Extensive Urban Survey (EUS) and urban Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) programmes. We (at that time part of English Heritage) have supported these programmes since the early 1990s.

The projects run by our staff continue a long tradition of our projects to survey and record particular towns, cities or aspects of the urban heritage.

Expected protection results

This wide-ranging Activity worked towards a number of protection results. Most of these will related to the operation of the planning system:

  • Thematic projects (such as that on suburban housing) helped to define national designation criteria and help local authorities to create and assess conservation areas.
  • Area-based studies aimed to raise awareness of the value of the historic environment in the places studied, as well as more generally.
  • Urban survey projects provided a greatly improved basis of information and understanding. This supports local authority decision-making, in relation to both Local Plans and individual planning applications.

The projects

Public houses

Public houses are among the most prominent, well-loved and commonplace buildings in the country. They are, however, increasingly under threat of closure, often leading to demolition or to conversion to other uses, involving loss of historic features and plan forms. This is especially the case in towns and suburbs. Because of this threat and the comparatively poor understanding and appreciation of twentieth-century pubs as historic buildings, under this activity we began a series of projects about pubs.

One of the projects was commissioned to help increase knowledge and appreciation of the urban and suburban public house in Bristol and highlight the current threat to the city's pubs. The report of the Bristol pubs project looks at architectural development, building plan forms, external and internal features of the pubs and the legislative or planning policy and social history trends that shaped them.

Early fabric in English towns

Fragments of buildings erected before 1700 often survive behind later façades, undetected by historians and archaeologists. Many of these are remnants of medieval timber-framed vernacular buildings. Even piecemeal survivals can offer valuable evidence of the history of English towns.

We have published a book on such early buildings in Bristol: The Town House in Medieval and Early Modern Bristol.

Informing growth and regeneration

Many towns in England are changing through 'urban regeneration', which often responds to periods of neglect or decay. New developments can affect buildings and places of historic significance, either positively or negatively. We identified specific localities where regeneration is currently an issue, and where the value of the historic environment needs to be better understood. Recent studies available in our Informed Conservation series include Plymouth, Berwick-on-Tweed and Manningham (in Bradford). 

As part of this strand we also funded a booklet about the built heritage of Hull, by David and Susan Neave, entitled The Building of a Port City. Published in 2012 by Hull City Council and Historic England, it was available in local outlets around the City.

Urban parks, designed landscapes and open spaces

This was a relatively neglected aspect of urban history, despite the importance of parks as badges of civic pride, and the critical contribution they make to the welfare of communities. In the past, the significance of many parks was not understood, and they were allowed to fall into a state of chronic disrepair.

Since the 1990s, the crucial role of parks has been recognised more widely. We commissioned a review of research priorities for urban parks, designed landscapes and open spaces. This will provide an essential benchmark for the development of new policies for the understanding, care, presentation and protection of this important component of our towns and cities. See the research report on this review.

We also commissioned work looking at inherited landscapes and the use of green spaces in suburbs (see below).

Chester urban archaeological database (UAD)

Chester was a Roman legionary fortress, and an important regional centre from Saxon times onwards. The city has an extremely important heritage, and a long and very rich history of archaeological exploration. The Chester UAD project, carried out by Cheshire West and Chester Council with our support, created a detailed database of archaeological investigations and discoveries in the historic city.

The Council's Historic Environment Record (HER) holds this database. It links to a Geographic Information System (GIS), allowing the display of a wide variety of mapped information. The UAD enables the Council to give better quality archaeological advice more quickly: for example in response to development proposals. It also has potential as a research tool and for outreach.

Hereford archaeological research framework

An Archaeological Research Framework for the City of Hereford was completed in 2013. It built on an existing UAD by giving an overview of the current understanding of the archaeological heritage of the City and identified priorities for further research in the immediate future.

Buckinghamshire extensive urban survey (EUS) project

This is one of a national programme of projects, which characterise and assess the historic environment of England's smaller towns on a county-by-county basis. Buckinghamshire County Council carried out the project. It included places such as Aylesbury, Buckingham and Beaconsfield. The reports help to inform development, planning and conservation decisions in these places. See the reports on the Buckinghamshire County Council website.

Staffordshire extensive urban survey (EUS) project

A project for Extensive Urban Survey in Staffordshire, similar to that noted above for Buckinghamshire was completed. See the Staffordshire County Council Website for more information.

South Gloucestershire extensive urban survey (EUS) project

This followed the same principle as the EUS projects noted above. You can see the EUS archive for South Gloucestershire at the Archaeology Data Service website.

Merseyside urban historic characterisation

Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC) is an approach which maps and analyses the whole of the present-day landscape in terms of its historic origins and character. The HLC project mapped every part of the local authority's area, and defined a series of character areas, drawing out what is distinctive about different parts of the city. The results can be used to inform a wide range of planning and conservation decisions and other initiatives such as Green Infrastructure planning. We applied this method to a small number of selected major urban areas.

The project in Merseyside was carried out by National Museums Liverpool, with our support. See the project archive of the completed project at the Archaeology Data Service. 

Greater Manchester urban historic landscape characterisation

Greater Manchester Archaeological Unit carried out this urban historic landscape characterisation project. It was principally funded by English Heritage. It was completed in 2012. See the project archive at the Archaeology Data Service.

Coventry historic landscape characterisation (HLC) project

Coventry was an important medieval city. During the 20th century, it was a centre of manufacturing, especially for the motor industry. The city centre saw an ambitious re-planning after heavy bombing during the Second World War. Find out more about this completed characterisation project from the Coventry City Council website.

Gosport Historic Urban Characterisation

We commissioned Oxford Archaeology to undertake a broad characterisation study of Gosport's urban historic environment. The study also looked at specific research questions, particularly examining to what extent Gosport's relationship with military and naval events and installations affected the town's growth. You can find out more by downloading the Gosport Urban Characterisation project report.

Oxford archaeological plan

As part of this Activity, we funded work by Oxford City Council's experts to created a plan aimed at improving access to information about the town's rich archaeological and built heritage. Find out more from the Oxford City Council website.

Urban archaeological assessments 

We supported recent monographs on the archaeology of historic towns that have developed out of Urban Archaeological Database projects. These are  Colchester, Fortress of the War God and Newcastle-upon-Tyne, the Eye of the North, published through Oxbow Books. They add to previous volumes on St. Albans and Shrewsbury. Further volumes on Bristol, Bath and Winchester are in preparation.


As part of a national suburbs project, we commissioned a report which looks at aspects of suburban design and development. This report examines how integrating existing landscapes and using green spaces in suburbs has been approached over the years 1850 to 2015.

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