Updated: Feb 19, 2022
If you have ever worked with a heritage professional to achieve listed building consent or planning permission for a proposed development, you may have come across what is known as the Historic Environment Record. But what exactly is an HER and what data does it hold?
What is the Historic Environment Record?
According to Historic England, there are over 85 active HER databases in England maintained and managed by local authorities comprising a mix of county councils, unitary authorities, district councils, and national parks. These databases contain comprehensive information relating to local archaeological sites and finds, designated sites, historic landscapes and buildings and other landscape features within the historic environment.
Each HER covers its own respective geographical area, generally within local authority or wider county boundaries. The data itself is regularly updated as and when additional information becomes available, such as following archaeological excavations, metal-detecting finds, or archival research. The information is stored in a combined database with georeferenced digital mapping system (Geographic Information System) data attached to each record, allowing users to undergo spatial analysis.
Who can access the HER?
HER data is available for anyone and everyone to reference, from members of the public to heritage professionals like myself. Generally speaking, research or educational enquiries are available free of charge, whereas fees apply for commercial-based enquiries. The fees differ depending on which local authority holds the data, but is usually no more than £250.
While most of the data is available online and can be accessed remotely via email, each local authority usually also holds a repository of hard-copy records including maps, photographs, reports, journals, and other files pertaining to the data. As such, some HERs also offer the option of in-person appointments to come and browse the records that may not have yet been digitised or, for copyright reasons, cannot be sent to individuals in their entirety. Most HERs have a dedicated HER Officer who manages the data and deals with search orders or appointment bookings.
What is included in the HER?
As recently as a few years ago, each HER had different policies about what information they sent out, with some only sending out information on non-designated heritage assets and others including everything, from listed buildings to conservation areas. These days, I am delighted to say there has been a shift towards uniformity across the local authorities and what is supplied. Most HER searched include three categories of information including:
Designated heritage assets (scheduled monuments, conservation areas, registered parks and gardens, listed buildings)
Non-designated heritage assets (historic buildings, monuments, archaeological sites, find spots)
Previous archaeological events (details of excavations, watching briefs, historic building recordings, etc.)
The data arrives as a mix of PDF documents with detailed information, tabulated spreadsheets, and shape files, the latter of which can be opened using a Geographic Information System (GIS) application, such as QGIS or ArcGIS. Within Heritage Statements/Impact Assessments, this information is then collated in relation to the proposed development site both as a tabulated gazetteer and illustrations.
How is the HER used in the planning process?
Not all heritage statements are created equal and frankly, many professionals will try to cut corners by not referencing HER data due to the cost for commercial searches. Paragraph 194 of the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) states that when it comes to proposals affecting heritage assets, ‘as a minimum the relevant historic environment record should have been consulted and the heritage assets assessed using appropriate expertise where necessary’. This means that, in order for a Heritage Statement accompanying a planning application or application for listed building consent to be compliant with national policy, it is a requirement for the HER to be consulted.
By understanding the character and significance of the existing heritage resource in and around your proposed development site, the impact of proposals upon that resource can better be assessed. Furthermore, it demonstrates to the local authority that due diligence has been undertaken, which can go a long way with local planning authorities.
In order to ensure compliance with national planning policy and to give your proposed scheme the best chance of approval, we at Blue Willow Heritage will always consult the Historic Environment Record on your behalf. For more information and to find details of your local HER, visit Heritage Gateway, which is managed by Historic England in partnership with the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers (ALGAO) and the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC).