English Heritage recently recommended that people visit their Guide to Heritage Protection. It’s certainly worthwhile and it got us thinking about what our primary concern, conservation, actually means. If you look in the dictionary it means “careful preservation and protection of something” which would be fine applied to heritage sites but the trouble is a different version applies to those.
EH quote three definitions and they have clearly changed over time. The earliest one [ICOMOS 1994] was fine, much like the dictionary. It said Conservation comprised efforts to ensure the material safeguard of heritage assets. But by 2008 [Conservation Principles, English Heritage] it was no longer just about safeguarding, it was a process that seemed to presuppose that change might happen to the site and would need managing. It was “the process of managing change to a significant place in its setting in ways that will best sustain its heritage values”. And now in 2012 under the definition in the National Planning Policy Framework, change is no longer to be merely “managed” in a reactive way but is also to be maintained in an almost proactive way. Conservation currently is “the process of maintaining and managing change to a heritage asset”.
It would be naïve to expect conservation of heritage sites to mean no change to them. Not all windfarms and housing developments near heritage sites can be cancelled. On the other hand, bearing in mind all the political breezes currently blowing, a Planning Framework that specifies the act of conservation of a heritage site comprises maintaining and managing change sounds as if it is taking sides – and not with those who value them!