The historic environment is a vital part of the cultural identity of Wales. It is made up of many individual historic features which are known as historic assets. Historic assets include individual historic buildings and archaeological remains, historic parks and gardens, conservation areas and townscapes, historic landscapes and World Heritage Sites. All these historic assets contribute to the distinctive character of all our places and to the quality of Welsh life. It is also a finite, non-renewable resource that we should sustain for the benefit of our own and future generations.
Conservation means managing change carefully so that we protect what is important and special about our historic assets. When we make decisions about change, we need to understand what is significant about them, and what the likely impact of any change will be.
To help us do this, we have set out six guiding principles for the conservation of the historic environment:
Conservation is about making sure that the special qualities of our historic assets are protected, enhanced, enjoyed and understood by everyone now and in the future. Any change to a historic asset and its special qualities should bring benefits that outweigh any loss or harm. Those benefits should protect and sustain the historic asset.
Historic assets have many values that contribute to their significance. These include:
- their physical remains and surviving fabric
- pictorial and documentary records that help us understand them,
- their capacity to illuminate aspects of the past and connect us to it
- their aesthetic qualities
- the value they have to the people who relate to them.
The historic environment gives distinctiveness, meaning and quality to the places where we live. It is a social and economic asset and a resource for learning and enjoyment. This means that we all share a responsibility for making sure that everyone can use, enjoy and benefit from it, both now and in the future.
Caring for our historic environment depends on informed and active participation. We need access to specialist knowledge and expertise to tease out what’s important about our historic assets and guide their management. We also need to share what we learn so that we raise awareness and understanding of heritage more widely. And we need to make sure that we develop, maintain and pass on the skills and knowledge that we need to care for the historic environment.
We encourage owners and managers to get advice when preparing proposals for change and we expect public authorities to make decisions by applying their expertise, experience and judgement in a consistent and transparent way. Decisions about what to do and how to do it, and whether or not to give consent must always be well informed and carefully justified.
During any conservation project, a lot of useful information will be gathered as the significance of the historic asset is assessed and understood. Recording any information that comes to light during the process of change is also important. Making sure that this information is deposited in a public archive means that it can contribute to shared learning in the future.
The records of decision-making should also be retained. Owners and managers of historic assets should monitor and evaluate the effect of any changes, and use their findings to inform future decisions. Where changes involve the loss of all or part of a historic asset, it is important to make sure that proper investigation and recording is carried out, and that the results are archived and made accessible.
Applying the Conservation Principles
Managing change to historic assets successfully means taking decisions based on both a sound understanding of what is important and special about them and the impact of the proposed change. When thinking about any change, we need to begin by gaining a good understanding of the significance of our historic assets, and the meaning and value that they hold for us.
Understanding heritage values and assessing significance
To help reach a shared understanding of the special qualities of our historic assets, we can consider significance as a family of four heritage values.
- Evidential value: every historic asset has a unique story to tell. The surviving historic fabric and detail — whether above or below ground — helps us to understand when and how each historic asset was made, how it was used and how it has changed over time. Pictorial and documentary sources may also increase our understanding.
- Historical value: historic assets may illuminate particular aspects of the past. They can help us to understand how people lived and worked, and the beliefs and values they cherished. They may be associated with notable people or events. Through evocation and association, historic assets can connect past people, aspects of life and events with the present.
- Aesthetic value: we may value historic assets for their visual qualities, whether they result from conscious design and craftsmanship, or from the fortuitous effect of change over time. Tastes alter and so do historic assets: earlier records and careful analysis of what survives may help in appreciating aesthetic value.
- Communal value: historic assets may be cherished by the people and communities who relate to them, and they may play an important part in collective experience or memory. Historic assets can have economic as well as social value with the capacity to provide a valuable source of income or employment.
You can find out more about conservation principles in Conservation Principles for the Sustainable Management of the Historic Environment in Wales.