Local Authority Asset Management Plans: What Don’t They Know?
Historic buildings and landscapes in local authority possession
Selling heritage assets
As part of the 2015 Spending Review, the Chancellor announced that:
‘we’re going to let councils spend 100 per cent of the receipts from the assets they sell to improve their local services.’
At a time when local authority budgets are falling year after year this represents a significant opportunity for councils to raise much-needed funds.
How ready are authorities to take this opportunity and what might it mean for the heritage assets in local government ownership?
Need to understand the assets
In 2012 (then) English Heritage commissioned a report on how the heritage sector could support local authorities as they sought to manage those heritage assets in their ownership.
That report concluded that:
‘very few [local authority] asset managers had any form of data base that identified listed buildings or scheduled monuments, let alone other forms of heritage assets. A large number of asset managers contacted appeared to have a very limited grasp of the numbers of heritage assets owned by their authority’ (Bate, Grove and Lewis 2012, 79).
Given the pressure on local authorities to maximise the return they get from their property portfolios, both through sale and through more effective usage, there is a clear need for them to have a clear understanding of the type and condition of the heritage assets they own.
Such awareness is vital to ensure that sustainable futures are secured, irrelevant of whether these assets are sold or retained within the public sector.
Previous use of Asset Management Plans
With that in mind, in 2013 English Heritage (now Historic England) commissioned NPS Group, a property consultancy, to investigate how the heritage element of local authority property portfolios was reflected in their asset management plans (AMPs).
They were also asked to work more closely with specific authorities as they sought to update their plans and strategies in ways that reflected the requirements of their heritage assets.
AMPs, now often called asset management strategies, are the key documents that ensure an organisation has a good understanding of the assets in its ownership. They are not a mandatory requirement (though they used to be) and whilst they remain best practice, fewer and fewer authorities have up-to-date examples.
It was against this backdrop that NPS Group investigated what would be required to improve authorities’ understanding of their assets through the incorporation of up-to-date AMPs. The first stage of the project involved working with five authorities to get an understanding of the current state of their AMPs, and assess what would be required if these plans were to be adapted to ensure they adequately reflected the management requirements of locally-owned heritage assets.
This first stage confirmed the position suggested in the 2012 report: that heritage was rarely mentioned in AMPs, and that the heritage assets in a local authorities’ ownership were not properly understood. These documents categorised a given authority’s portfolio in terms of capital accounting and valuation rather than in ways that easily captured heritage considerations.
Areas for improvement that were identified included:
- better training for staff
- improved linkages between property and heritage data systems
- the need for an early warning system to alert conservation staff of intended action relating to a heritage asset in local authority ownership
- the need for the development of a heritage asset strategy (the definition of which varied from authority to authority).
Each of these, it was felt, would not be difficult to implement.
Manchester and Lincoln case studies
Having established what the current situation was, and the level of work needed to move things forward, the second stage of the project commenced. Here, Manchester and Lincoln were selected as authorities where NPS Group would carry out further work.
The purpose of this second phase was principally to:
- recommend ways in which the historic environment can be recognised and included in AMPs
- provide a template for an AMP in which the historic environment plays an integral role
- recommend ways in which heritage asset strategies can be developed;
- provide a template for an heritage asset strategy which can be used by local authorities
For both Manchester and Lincoln, the development of AMPs and heritage asset strategies was an iterative process. Such documents have a far broader focus than just the historic environment, which may not even be referenced in them.
The approach advocated for both Manchester and Lincoln was the creation of a heritage asset sub-portfolio, distinct from other properties within the authority’s ownership. This allows for the identification of long-term management objectives.
These might then be identified across the portfolio, given that many AMPs do not specifically identify heritage assets. The requirements (and constraints) such assets generate may also be different from those of other asset types (they may, for example, be less easy to adapt for more intensive usage).
A balance thus needed to be struck between proper identification and understanding of the requirements of an authority’s heritage assets, and not distorting the strategic focus of a document which needed to cover all its other kinds of property as well.
This was done by:
- reflecting the role of heritage assets as part of the portfolio in the foreword of the AMP
- including in the AMP examples of heritage asset management in action
- placing references to heritage in a strategic context within the text
- referencing the authority’s heritage asset strategy
- including a section on heritage policy
- including some heritage-specific performance indicators
- including specific actions related to heritage
Heritage Asset Strategies
There is no set scope for a heritage asset strategy. They can focus on those assets owned by the authority, or they can cover all heritage assets within the local authority area. For the purposes of this project, they were restricted to strategies that just covered local authority-owned assets.
The project concluded that such strategies should include:
- a clear purpose and scope
- the identification, definition and quantification of heritage assets
- an analysis of the operating context (for example, the challenges and opportunities specific to heritage assets)
- an action plan
- case studies
- monitoring arrangements
Towards updated guidance
The intention is to now use the results of this work to form the backbone of an updated Managing Local Authority Heritage Assets, recently commissioned by Historic England and to be published in early 2017.
Owain Lloyd-James MCIfA is Historic Environment Intelligence Analyst (Local Government) for Historic England. After training as an archaeologist, he worked for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for six years. He joined English Heritage in 2007, and was responsible for managing the network of Heritage Champions and supporting the co-ordination and development of the organisation’s work with local government.
Also of interest...
More and more community-based organisations are taking responsibility for managing historic buildings that were formerly owned by local authorities