Adding a New Layer
20th-century Heritage and the Worcestershire Historic Environment Record
It is widely acknowledged that 20th-century heritage forms a significant layer of our history. Many people, through their own experiences, or the experiences of their parents and grandparents, feel a deep connection to this period of our recent history.
There remains, however, a growing need to better understand, appreciate and assess this heritage as part of the historic environment, because many 20th-century buildings, structures and places of local or greater significance are at risk of neglect or lack of management, insensitive change or demolition. Many locally-interesting buildings are demolished without the attachment of any condition for building recording, which would have ensured at minimum, some preservation by record.
In recent years, the Twentieth Century Society, Historic England and the Gardens Trust have supported national campaigns, publications and projects which have secured high-profile listings and studies of nationally significant post-war architecture. Despite this attention, however, recognition of the wider contribution of ‘everyday’, as distinct from nationally significant, 20th-century heritage is regularly overlooked and undervalued.
Only a very small percentage of these assets meet the criteria for national designation. However, this everyday heritage illustrates wider social, cultural, economic, political and technological changes which were facilitated, amongst other things, by a transformation in England’s planning philosophy and culture, accompanied by the emergence of new building types, construction techniques and materials.
The Twentieth Century Society has pointed out that buildings of this period are regularly described as making a ‘detrimental, or at best, neutral contribution’ to an area, and that even when a structure is recognised as making a positive contribution, ‘it doesn’t always benefit from the same level of research and analysis afforded to older areas’. Of course there are examples of poor and even shocking buildings that have blighted our high streets and communities, but there are many others whose architectural character is being increasingly valued by the communities that use and experience them.
For example, Stourport's Civic Centre was commissioned by the former Stourport Urban District Council and designed by Andrews and Hazzard of Birmingham in 1963. As well as hosting offices for Local Government, the centre incorporated facilities for music, dancing and leisure. Towards the late eighties and into the nineties the venue began to see less usage and in 2011 the hall was threatened with demolition. Public protest led to the formation of a public campaign to save the centre. In 2013 it was announced that the future of the hall had indeed been secured and as of 2021 the hall is one of the primary cultural facilities in Wyre Forest district.
Managing the everyday heritage of the 20th century, and in particular assessing and considering how to retain and safeguard its value, pose new challenges and opportunities for Local Authority Archaeologists and Conservation Officers, as well as for all those involved (including through Neighbourhood Development Plans) in considering and planning for change.
Two important questions are raised in connection with the everyday heritage of the 20th -century. How can we better identify and understand our common and most distinctive recent heritage so that it can continue to play a role in our everyday lives? And how should it be managed? New ways of looking at how people experience, value and can engage with this heritage are needed and Historic Characterisation and archaeologists have played a key role in the development of ways of capturing a range of values, (See Penrose, S (ed) 2007 and May, S, Orange, H and Penrose S (eds) 2012)
20th-century heritage in Worcestershire
20th-century heritage continues to be largely under-represented on Local Lists and Historic Environment Records (HERs). It has historically been poorly represented on the Worcestershire HER, with the creation of new records reactive rather than proactive and managed on a case-by-case basis. Where more proactive recording has taken place, it has, until recently, been driven by national and thematic projects such as the ‘Worcestershire Farmsteads and Landscapes’ project and the Council for British Archaeology’s ‘Defence of Britain’ and ‘Home Front Legacy’ projects. 20th-century records have historically been much better represented on the Worcester City HER – which shares a joint software platform with the County –likely driven by its shared conservation services, a history of heritage projects, including the HER21 Project which digitised archived building applications before 1947, and accelerated rates of re-development.
Developing new approaches to modern heritage: the Worcestershire project
To address the issues surrounding the care of our recent heritage, Historic England commissioned Worcestershire Archive & Archaeology Service to develop a project to enhance understanding of 20th-century buildings and landscapes – specifically non-domestic buildings and public places – in the county, and to develop a strategy for its identification and assessment.
The 20th-century non-domestic buildings and public places in Worcestershire’ project, using a combination of research, targeted field survey and consultation with both professional and public stakeholders, identified 20th century heritage throughout Worcestershire. It also reviewed our current understanding and existing levels of protection for 20th -century heritage assets.
The project had a number of important outcomes. It has enhanced the local evidence base by adding a new layer to the Worcestershire Historic Environment Record and by nominating candidates for inclusion on the Worcester City Historic Environment Record.
The project also informed some additions to the National Heritage List for England, including Kidderminster’s Retaining Wall with Sculptural Relief by William Mitchell, built between 1972 and 1973 and listed at Grade II in December 2020 and Hunnington’s inter-war ‘Blue Bird' Toffee Factory, of which the administration building, welfare building, boundary walls, railings and gates, were listed at Grade II in October 2019.
To help raise awareness of 20th-century heritage in the county, a half-day workshop was organised for local heritage professionals and development management and strategic planners.
Consultation questionnaires for planning and heritage professionals, which among other things considered the perceived value of 20th -century heritage and the current selection criteria for buildings of later than 1850 date, was met with limited response – perhaps a reflection of current resource pressures. There was, however, consensus among the limited respondents that 20th-century buildings and public spaces can ‘add value’ to the character of a place and that we should safeguard the best examples into the future. Several respondents also expressed frustration with the current selection criteria for designating buildings of later than 1850 date, which was described as ‘sometimes deemed to weigh rather harshly against 20th-century heritage in a national context’.
Consultation and research also raised significant questions over how uncompromising emphasis on a well preserved, high quality and substantially unaltered interior (as well as exterior) could undermine cases for the protection of 20th-century heritage assets with high historic and community value.
The fate of a recently-demolished Morgan garage raises questions over how 20th-century heritage should be better valued and conserved. Although surviving as a well-preserved example of an inter-war filling station, with its vernacular revival form and detail, changes to its overall footprint were considered to undermine the case for protection. There needs to be more emphasis placed on understanding how buildings such as this illustrate their historic value, and are valued by communities: this could have been secured through retention of the main range facing the road, whilst accepting the need for internal adaptation and further changes to the footprint of the remaining structure.
Perhaps the most important outcome of the project has been the publication of guidance on the identification and assessment of 20th-century heritage for professionals, interested individuals and communities.
Identified gaps in knowledge and potential avenues for further research have also been set out in 20th-century ‘Non-Domestic Buildings and Public Places in Worcestershire: Future Work and Research Priorities‘, which sets out a strategy for local research within a national context. Four project case studies – ‘Redditch New Town’, ‘Kidderminster’, ‘Village Halls and their derivatives and Worcestershire’s County Farms and Small Holdings’ – were undertaken to research aspects of Worcestershire’s 20th-century heritage in more detail.
Enhanced identification of 20th-century buildings, structures and places in the county and city HERs will support Conservation Officers, Neighbourhood Plan making bodies and Local Planning authorities to identify and protect 20th-century heritage assets of local importance as part of development management, new and enhanced Local Heritage Lists and new and updated Conservation Area appraisals.
In October 2019, the government announced a campaign to encourage communities to nominate buildings and other heritage assets of local value for inclusion on Local Heritage Lists. In support of the campaign government funding has been awarded to 22 areas to facilitate county areas to develop and/or update Local Heritage Lists. Although not one of the successful bid counties, Worcestershire’s Local Authorities are committed to their development and/or enhancement and consequently it is anticipated that the county’s Local Heritage Lists will continue to develop and mature to inform ‘Planning for the Future’.
Enhanced identification in the HER could also provide evidence to support prospective new additions to the National Heritage list for England.
20th-century heritage forms a significant layer of our history. Although easy to assume that there are countless more examples of a particular type of 20th-century building than, say, a 17th-century timber-framed barn, this supposition does not necessarily reflect reality, given the speed of re-development and examples of locally interesting 20th-century buildings recently demolished, or at risk of re-development, highlighted throughout the course of the Worcestershire project.
There is a need to better understand the range and survival of 20th-century heritage, its significance and how it is valued by local communities. This will better to inform local decision making and future listing priorities as well as any future discussions concerning the selection criteria for buildings of later than 1850 date.
As a sector we can support the proactive identification and recording of 20th -century heritage assets on County Historic Environment Records, Local Lists and Neighbourhood Development Plans. We can also provide forward thinking and structured opportunities for Local Authority Archaeologists, Conservation Officers and Communities to proactively engage in dialogue and discussion as well as share information and knowledge, so that the most important physical remains of our 20th-century past can be protected and conserved into the 21st-century.
About the author
Historic Environment Advisor
Initially a field archaeologist, Emily now has over 15 years' experience working as an archaeological advisor. She leads case and project work supporting better understanding and management of the historic environment. Specific interests include the character and development of Worcestershire's traditional farmsteads and the links between landscape, the historic environment and habitat.
Historic Environment Consultant
Jeremy previously held a number of roles at English Heritage and Historic England. Since leaving Historic England at the end of 2016 he has worked on a range of projects including neighbourhood plans, conservation management plans, ecosystem service assessment, settings analysis and statements of significance for heritage assets. He has recently completed Farmstead and Landscape Statements for all of England’s National Character Areas and a project for Natural England looking at alternative approaches to future landscapes.
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