Historic England under strain due to 'legacy of underfunding'

Report warns of "careful balancing act" amid strain on technology systems and staffing resources
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By Tevye Markson

04 Jan 2023

A “legacy of underfunding” has put a strain on Historic England's IT systems and left the public body needing to perform a “careful balancing act” to achieve its objectives, the public body has warned.

Historic England’s annual report for 2021-22 highlights “strains” on technology systems as one of the key risks the body is facing, along with “limited” resources.

The report also picks out rising energy costs and the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic as challenges for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport arms-length body, whose work protecting England's historic environment includes preserving and listing historic buildings, registering historic parks and advising government.

“A legacy of under-funding means some of our core IT systems need replacing," Historic England's chief executive, Duncan Wilson, said.

“The strains on our IT systems have been compounded by a significant increase in stakeholder expectations and demand, and a greater reliance on digital technology as a result of the pandemic," he wrote in the report.

“It will be a careful balancing act to manage our digital transformation ambitions with our limited financial and staff resources, while ensuring we continue to deliver our statutory functions and comply with government legislation and guidance around digital accessibility, cyber security and data standards.”

Historic England’s 2021 Future Strategy highlighted the importance of digital technology to achieving the ALB's aims.

“We’ll use digital technologies to enable innovation in how we engage with the sector, other organisations, and our audiences,” it said.

Historic England’s corporate plan for 2021-22 also picks out improving digital capability as one of the organisation’s key strategic aim, saying it will “open our collections, assets, knowledge and expertise to all”.

Global events hit programme deliverability

The annual report also warns of the impact of the pandemic and rising energy costs – fuelled by Russia's invasion of Ukraine in February – on key programmes.

“The pandemic and other national and global events have affected the deliverability of some key work programmes to original plans and budgets," it said.

“In particular, we have been monitoring risks associated with delivery partner capacity, energy and construction costs, and supply chains across our key programmes.”

Historic England's key programmes include High Streets Heritage Action Zones – which aim to make high streets more attractive places for people to live, work and spend time – and the Heritage Stimulus Fund, a Covid recovery package.

Staff 'passion' praised

The report also includes an introduction from Historic England chair Laurie Magnus, who was recently who was recently appointed as the prime minister's independent standards adviser.

In the introduction, Magnus thanked Historic England staff "for their continuing professionalism, dedication and passion throughout an exceptionally busy and challenging year".

Looking ahead, he also highlighted the importance of working in partnership.

"We will seek to work with the cultural and heritage sectors, the government and others to champion the historic environment and to help the country address the major challenges of our times," he said.

"Partnership working will be key, whether it is through collaborating with other government ALBs on Levelling Up Fund projects and UK Shared Prosperity Fund investment plans, or taking forward the main priorities and actions identified in the Heritage Sector Resilience Plan 2022–24 to ensure we have a robust and resilient heritage sector."

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