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Culture 2000

European Union


The new English Heritage Characterisation Team

by Graham Fairclough


At 1 October 2002, EH established a new Characterisation Team as part of its Planning and Development Group to promote ways of using characterisation methods to help EH, government and its partners to manage change to the historic environment.

The Characterisation team comprises: Graham Fairclough Dave Hooley Jeremy Lake John Schofield David Stocker Roger M Thomas Dave Went

We will interact closely alongside both the EH regional offices and the Designation Team, collaborating with EH teams in Research and Standards Group and in Policy Group, and working through and in partnership with local government archaeological and historic environment teams. The team's main focus is on methodological development, testing and promotion.

This new Team has been established as part of the modernisation agenda to respond to policy initiatives outlined in Force for our Future and elsewhere. Our aim will be to increase the profile and momentum of area-based and topic-based characterisation by building on the great amount of work already underway in the field (eg Historic Landscape Characterisation, extensive and intensive (UAD) urban archaeological surveys, neighbourhood projects such as the Birmingham Jewellery Quarter or Hayle), and by establishing new approaches and methods. We aim to establish characterisation as a widely recognised and well-understood approach to the sustainable management of change, as an approach that can broaden decision-making and provide context for more traditional approaches such as designation.

We shall work through local government, universities and commercial heritage organisations to create and test new methods and techniques, to encourage new conservation-based research, to codify best practice and to disseminate and promote characterisation's philosophy and methods in England and beyond. Areas of work needing most urgent attention are likely to be the role of historic architecture in the rural landscape, more systematic and focussed neighbourhood urban characterisation (notably in areas of significant post-industrial character such as "Pathfinder Areas", and perhaps by building on the Conservation Area movement and Conservation Area appraisals), characterisation of the complex and highly important heritage resource of metropolitan areas, and "new" innovative areas of interest and concern, such as late 20t century heritage, and how to respond to growing public interest in valorising ephemeral and intangible heritage.


1. Characterisation is a constructive and effective method of helping communities to manage change in the whole of their environment. It provides frameworks for informed conservation and management that can operate at many levels, from neighbourhood plans to regional or national strategies and prioritisation. It should sit alongside and complement the conventional and well-tested methods of selective designation and protection.

2. EH uses and promotes characterisation from the perspective of archaeologists, architectural historians and cultural historians to create an understanding that is broad anc generalised yet comprehensive. This will seek to be understanding of all aspects of an area or topic of the historic environment, not merely "most important" parts. It mostly does this by synthesising disparate existing knowledge rather than by trying to collect new data, for example by fieldwork.

3. EH has carried out characterisation for many years, and its new team can build on over ten years' of EH experience of characterisation. The new team, however, has been created as part of EH modernisation and in response to A Force for Our Future and other government agenda such as the planning Green Paper, and the aim will therefore be to develop characterisation very much more broadly, rapidly and with wide public and sectoral support. The aim is to increase its acceptance as a central tool of historic environment resource management.

4. The team inherits a strong body of ongoing characterisation work, both in relation to areas (such as the national HLC and the EUS / UAD urban assessment programmes) and topics (through past thematic listing and, particularly, MPP national evaluations). There is also Conservation Area Appraisal, one of the oldest characterisation methods bul one that seems to need re-invi go ration.


5. Characterisation emerged in the 1990s as a result of new ideas on:

- Sustainable development and the historic environment, Quality of Life capital.

- The integration of separate disciplines' approaches to environmental conservation, both within the Historic Sector and between it and other conservation sectors such as landscape, nature conservation, etc.

- Context and landscape, the holistic approach: the desirability, both for conservation management and historic survey, of a) landscape and area perspectives as well as site-bound approaches, and b) the comprehensive treatment of all aspects of the historic environment.

- A focus on more recent heritage as well as older remains (age is not a necessary criterion of heritage or archaeological significance): another expression of the holistic approach.

6. Characterisation can be defined as a method of creating a comprehensive, generalised, largely neutral and descriptive understanding of the cultural and historic character of an area or a topic. It also provides opportunities for many diverse contributions to establish that understanding, not only traditional expert-led specialist approaches. It gives a context for illuminating or assimilating other information and data, and most important provides a framework for decision-making in response to proposals for change.

7. In particular, a characterisation project is one that:

- Creates frameworks and contexts (rather than fully detailed assessments) for understanding and managing change to the things (buildings, monuments, areas) that comprise the historic environment.

- Brings together existing but unconnected research and knowledge.

- Works at scales above that of individual buildings or complexes (for which the Conservation Plan methodology will usually be appropriate); it will very often be founded on GIS-based spatial data systems.

- Is enabling and capacity-building; it will encourage participation at two levels: first, by treating an area comprehensively and holistically it will facilitate community participation in the creation of understanding, and second, by providing neutral understanding it will inform decision-making without usurping the role of the communities (whether of place or of interest) to which those decisions belong.

- Is integrative, connecting historic environment management to other ways of managing different aspects of the environment such as ecology or visual landscape.

- Takes conservation and historic environment resource management as its main focus, although it is also research-based and creates new understanding; its conservation and resource management applications will be explicit from the outset.

- Grounds itself, transparently and explicitly, in the agenda of sustainability, multiple ways of valuing, democratisation and participation, integration, holistic approaches (context and landscape), and concern for recent as well as older heritage.

- Is itself essentially neutral; unlike designation it will not seek or presume relative significance but provides understanding to inform many later decision-making processes during which significance and importance will be judged.

- Has as it aim the informed management of change everywhere rather than the protection of selected highlights; it will therefore seek to be comprehensive rather than selective, and empowering not prescriptive.

- Has multiple uses (eg in the planning process, in agri-environmental and rural development policy, in World Heritage Management Plans, in urban regeneration, in fostering cultural and social inclusion, in conservation).

- Have diverse and multiple outcomes and products: often interactive GIS systems and databases located in, SMRs, but also often including any or all of the following: method statements and templates, management plans and strategies, SPG and Local Plan guidance, leaflets and web-pages for wider public use, conferences and seminars, journal papers, monographs and popular books.

- Attracts a wide range of partners, both within EH (Regional teams, Policy Group, Designation, Social Inclusion Unit) and beyond (notably local authorities, regional and national government, owners, developers and business, and the wider public through quality of life as well as historic environment considerations).

Characterisation Team roles

8. Characterisation has already become a widely used technique, and many parts of EH, local and regional government use it. As a result, there are already many different interpretations of what characterisation is, although most recognise the need for it to be holistic in interest and comprehensive in scope (even if this is expressed simply as the need to deal with complexes not individual buildings or with setting as well as buildings). Within this complex world, the distinctive task of the Characterisation Team will be to facilitate the development of new, effective methodologies and applications through our own projects and through working with others, to codify best practice, and to encourage others to adopt the best methods and use them for the sustainable management of change.

9. The team's tasks can provisionally be defined as identifying and developing new methods of characterisation for 'new' areas and topics of the historic environment, piloting them and then helping others to apply them. We will also work to demonstrate that characterisation fits neither of the two stereotypes often ascribed to it: it is neither a replacement for designation and thus a weakening of conservation, nor is it a universal designation that threatens to forestall all change. Instead, we will argue that characterisation will indeed broaden the canvas on which EH and its partners work but that it will allow us to use this canvas to paint a new and different picture: one of helping to manage change everywhere, wherever it is needed or proposed, rather than trying to insulate a few selected places against change.

10. The team's role is therefore seen as largely strategic not tactical, the overall goal being to raise awareness within and beyond EH and to develop, test and promote new techniques. Our primary role is not to prepare characterisations on request for others to use, but to demonstrate, facilitate and encourage the use of the methods more generally. We will aim to help the sector discover the best ways to do characterisation, to codify and disseminate best practice and to facilitate its widespread adoption (by example, by EH grant aid and by support and encouragement). We will carry out some characterisation ourselves, notably where it serves to further our strategic goals, but we will mainly work through others in partnership with EH expertise, through influence more widely, or by commissioning work from local government and elsewhere.

11. Characterisation Team involvement in the projects will be chosen mainly on om or more of the following criteria: that they must

- be experimental and developmental

- contribute towards methodological development

- contribute to comprehensive national programmes

- trigger adoption of characterisation in new parts of the country (eg regional demonstration projects)

- cover a variety of scales above that of individual buildings or complexes

- foster partnerships with and beyond EH.

12. The issue of partnership is an important aspect of the team's work, being itself a reflection of characterisation's own integrative and holistic concerns. We will always seek to work in partnership, and not always as the lead partner, in order to spread awareness of characterisation, to build capacity, to prepare the ground for national rollout of new techniques, to pool ideas, to synthesise best practice from the emerging diversity of methods. Partners will be internal (Research and Policy groups, Regional Teams, Designation, Social Inclusion) and external (local government SMRs etc, Conservation Officers, universities, the commercial archaeological sector, consultants, RDAs, local community representatives and leaders, etc).

design: Kai M. Wurm
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