How You Rate Local Authority Heritage Services
An independent study has produced important new information about how people feel about local authority heritage services in the South West. It shows users are broadly satisfied with the quality of services provided, but that many also experience challenges in accessing quality services as a result of austerity cuts.
Historic England and our partners in the South West commissioned this first-of-its-kind study to find out what it is like to use local authority historic environment services when those services are changing rapidly, largely in response to cuts in local government funding. Our research asked people who had used a local government historic environment service since January 2014 what they felt about the service they received, and how it helped them with their heritage projects.
What did we find out?
On the whole, service users have positive views of historic environment services, and value skills and expertise, timely delivery, and value for money:
- 60% rated overall quality of service as ‘good’ or ‘very good’
- Two thirds of users agreed or strongly agreed that local authority historic environment staff were suitably equipped
- Two thirds received an adequate response within a suitable timescale
- 75% agreed or strongly agreed that the services represented good value for money
- Over a third of respondents indicated that in the absence of the service, it would have been impossible to progress their project, with a further 37% stating a negative impact would have resulted
- 41% of users reported positive impacts on their project
However, at the same time some users experienced the following negative aspects in the services they used:
- Delays to projects
- Poor access to experienced and specialist staff
- A lack of staff time available to service users
- Poor online information and guidance on the historic environment
A small number of repeat service users with a longer-term perspective felt that service levels had deteriorated over recent years.
Why are these findings important?
Local authority heritage services are the bedrock of conservation protection in England. But in recent years there has been a marked decline in the number of heritage experts advising local government, a major concern for everyone involved in caring for the historic environment.
In the South West the issue is particularly acute. There has been a 42% drop in the number of historic environment specialists advising local government since 2006 (32% in England), alongside new ways of delivering heritage services, such as sharing staff between one or more local authorities.
What are the implications for the South West?
The concern is what could happen if the number of historic environment specialist staff in the South West continues to fall and services continue to be stretched.
While the report indicates that user satisfaction is good at the moment, it also reveals where cracks are beginning to show. Historic England is concerned that further reductions will mean local heritage experts are unable do anything more pro-active than respond to listed building and planning consent applications. Initiatives such as Heritage at Risk, local listing, conservation area appraisals, preparing funding bids and engaging with the public could all suffer.
What does Historic England plan to do?
At both the local and national level, we will:
- Continue to work closely with local authority heritage teams as a consultee in the planning system
- Monitor changes to the number of specialist staff annually, nationally and regionally
- Support a network of Heritage Champions to stand up for good service delivery in local government
We will also continue to support training and skills in local authorities locally and nationally, through:
- Extensive guidance to support knowledge, skills and consistency
- Our HELM and Heritage Practice training programmes
- Our HELM Essentials training programme, designed to support the increasing number of non-specialist planners involved in heritage planning matters, and to help train new entrants to local authority heritage management roles
We will also work with our partners across the heritage sector to develop responses and support local authorities to deliver heritage services which we know their customers will value. The South West Historic Environment Forum, a partnership of leading heritage organisations who commissioned this study, will be instrumental in shaping local responses to the research findings.