An investigator recording historic buildings.
Architectural investigation at Ely. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit Patrica Payne, image reference, DP172317.
Architectural investigation at Ely. © Historic England Archive. Photographer credit Patrica Payne, image reference, DP172317.

Historic England Research and Place: the Past and the Future

Informing the understanding, management and enjoyment of England’s historic places.

Historic England and its predecessor organisations have been investigating and researching England’s historic places for many years. This collective research effort has informed decisions about the protection and management of places as varied as Birmingham’s Jewellery Quarter, Boston in Lincolnshire and Berwick-upon-Tweed. The research has helped create effective local partnerships and shaped how communities and local authorities perceive and value their historic places.

Strategic programmes

Our focus on place making and our major national programmes such as Heritage Action Zones (HAZ), High Street Heritage Action Zones (High Street HAZ) and regional priority places all require a targeted research input that responds to the specific needs of the place and local partners.

As stated in our Places Strategy published in 2018 what research reveals ‘about a place’s significance is often catalytic to the establishment of a shared vision and informs its realisation’.

Places come in all shapes and sizes and while we focus much staff resource and research grant funding on particular landscapes and places we also research individual heritage assets at risk, and carry out a small number of strategic thematic studies of threatened and little understood building and place types, e.g. 20th-century public houses, 20th-century new towns, and a national study of the development of suburbs which is nearing completion. These strategic national projects help inform our listing programmes and provide an all-important national context for work in particular places.

In 2017 Historic England published its Research Agenda, which sets out what we see as the main research priorities for the heritage sector. Place-based research permeates many of the nine priority themes identified in the document and the topics and research questions below each, but it is particularly relevant to the #Understand theme.

It was always intended that the Research Agenda would in effect operate as a vehicle for establishing research collaborations with universities and other organisations.

Historic England became an Independent Research Organisation (IRO) in 2017. IROs are recognised by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) as possessing the in-house capacity to carry out research that substantially extends and enhances the national research base, and are able to demonstrate an independent capability to undertake and lead research programmes. They are also able to apply to the Research Councils for funding.

In the light of this, establishing productive partnerships with Higher Education Institutions and Independent Research Organisations is a strategic priority for us and there is great potential to bring together our applied heritage research with that being undertaken by others. We see such research collaborations adding real value alongside our own contributions to place making programmes such as the High Street HAZ.

Our research approaches

Over the last two decades we have developed a range of approaches to assessing and characterising historic places, including broader brush characterisation programmes, such as Historic Landscape Characterisation and more urban focused and finer-grained approaches of the kind explained by Dave Hooley in his article on characterisation in London.

Sitting below these in this suite of approaches to understanding place, and finer-grained still, is that known as Historic Area Assessment (HAA). This is used to assess the historical development and character of a defined area usually a suburb, town or city centre. It combines an analysis of fabric evidence with map regression and documentary research to highlight particular character areas or buildings of interest and also parts of places that are of more limited heritage value. Core elements of the approach are incorporated in advice on undertaking Conservation Area appraisals.

Different combinations of the above approaches can be used depending on the nature and size of the place, research need and the intended application.

The HAA approach, which was deployed in many of the projects described in this issue, was developed in the course of our own internal place-based research projects and has been tested in a variety of urban contexts as well as in rural or mixed landscapes such as Alston Moor in Cumbria and the Hoo Peninsula in Kent.

Guidance on the HAA approach was produced by English Heritage in 2010 and revised by Historic England in 2017. It draws on the approach adopted in its sister document Understanding Historic Buildings: a guide to good recording practice (first published 2006 and revised in 2016) by advocating a series of levels of assessment to help those specifying the HAA and to ensure it is tailored to the research need, the nature of the place and the resources available.

The main outputs of HAAs tend to be research reports published in our online Research Reports Series or small accessible books, collectively published as the Informed Conservation Series by Historic England. 34 titles have been published in the series to date and more will emerge from our research in Heritage Action Zones. A book on the Ramsgate HAZ is the next one to be published.

The available qualitative evidence points to these books having a significant impact in terms of enhancing knowledge, building partnerships and in helping to shape local heritage strategies. A proto-HAA and research project carried out on Swindon’s railway works and estate and published in the mid-1990s has been used by the local authority on a regular basis since that time to underpin the provision of conservation advice. The Swindon Railway Village and associated former GWR buildings are now the focus of a Heritage Action Zone, and the benefit of having the detailed research ‘in the bank’ is clear.

Evaluating value and impact

As part of our drive to ensure that everything we do has clear public benefit we are looking to improve the way we evaluate the impact of research projects. Consequently, we have commissioned LUC consultancy to carry out a review of our urban characterisation programmes, and further work may be required to assess the extent to which characterisation has influenced local planning policies.

We also need to review the effectiveness of our HAA projects and their output.

Very often the true impact of place-based research projects takes a long time to surface so there is a need for a long view in the process and to use this looking back to identify more effective evaluation measures for the future.

Lastly, the research resulting from placed based characterisation and HAA projects provide the new understanding that fosters community engagement, wellbeing and wider social capital, as the research in the Elsecar HAZ demonstrates so clearly with 1300 members taking part in the research and activities associated with it and many more indirectly involved. Evaluation of place-based research needs to capture this wider impact beyond the significance of the bricks and mortar and the influence on local planning policy.

All High Street HAZ projects are required to produce community engagement plans which will be fully integrated with the other part s of the project and will result in a range of sustainable community engagement outcomes.

The HAZ and High Street HAZ programmes offer us an unparalleled opportunity to demonstrate the value of research and investigation to place making, and to develop new approaches. We are incredibly excited about it.

John Cattell

National Head of Research at Historic England

John has worked for Historic England and its predecessors since 1989 in a variety of roles including Chief Buildings Historian and Research Director. He is now responsible ​for developing and leading the organisation's national research work. John is also responsible for Historic England's relationships with the Research Councils and leading on Independent Research Organisation engagement.