Natural England - Historic environment and cultural landscapes

Historic environment and cultural landscapes

The 'historic environment' makes a particular contribution to the character and value of all of our landscapes.

A ruined church viewed for Wolds Way

It gives us an important understanding of how our landscapes and seascapes have developed, for example we get a feel for how people used and travelled across our land and seas. It also provides us with strong, traditional and locally distinctive 'character'.

What is the historic environment?

The historic environment is all around us. It includes archaeological sites, both designed and historic landscapes, and historic buildings and structures from the earliest human activity through to recent times.

The 'historic environment' is defined by the Government's statutory adviser English Heritage as: "all aspects of the environment resulting from the interaction between people and places through time, including all surviving physical remains of past human activity, whether visible or buried, and deliberately planted or managed flora."

Why is the historic environment important?

Helping us to understand the origins and significance of our urban, rural, coastal and marine lands and seas, the historical environment can provide important information on how these now need to be managed.

It shapes landscape character and, through its physical remains, tells us about the organisation of society and about how humans interacted with and harnessed natural resources in their environment over time. It also reveals how they adapted to ongoing climate, economic and technological change.

The historic environment can be seen everywhere from the use of natural resources for building or industry through to settlement patterns, military defences and sea and land management practices. It provides a wide range of tangible and intangible benefits, including socio-economic benefits. For instance, it contributes to the tourist economy, local distinctiveness, and senses of place and of community.

However, it is a non-renewable resource: once lost, it cannot be re-created.

What are cultural landscapes?

Cultural landscapes are areas that include cultural and natural resources associated with an historic event, activity, person, or group of people. They range from thousands of acres of rural land to homesteads with small front yards.

These landscapes can be man-made expressions of visual and spatial relationships, which include grand estates, farmlands, public gardens and parks, college campuses, cemeteries, scenic highways, and industrial sites.

Cultural landscapes are works of art, texts and narratives of cultures, and expressions of regional identity. They also exist in relationship to their ecological contexts.

What role does Natural England play?

Natural England has a statutory purpose of "nature conservation" and "conserving and enhancing the English landscape". These interests include aesthetic, cultural and historic interests such as field boundaries, monuments, buildings, and below-ground archaeological remains, alongside geological and physiographical features. This also encompasses sites of historic environment interest such as those associated with mining or early hominids and buried palaeo-ecological remains.

Natural England has a Memorandum of Understanding with English Heritage, the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment. This recognises our distinctive yet complementary relationship and identifies areas of collaboration and the outcomes that can be achieved though joint working.

We look for links between the natural and cultural environment and our relevant areas of work include the direct management of the historic environment. For example through:

  • agri-environment scheme delivery, and the management of geological SSSIs and NNRs designated for their geological, mining or early hominid link

  • habitat, soils and landscape management work

  • visioning and planning activities, and our work with people and communities.

What is Historic Landscape Characterisation (HLC)

English Heritage's HLC is a critical tool that helps to understand the inherited qualities, character and interest of areas. It uses a non-judgemental, methodical approach focussed on identifying surviving time-depth (the "legibility and enjoyment of the past in the present landscape"). It explains every landscape's cultural, historic and archaeological attributes and the importance of change through time as a primary characteristic.

Legislation relating to the historic environment

In addition to normal development controls, the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 provides specific protection for buildings and areas of special architectural or historic interest.

The Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 provides for nationally important archaeological sites to be statutorily protected as Scheduled Monuments (SMs).

National Guidance relating to the historic environment and landscape is now contained within the National Planning Policy Frameworkexternal link.