2 The Dorset Historic Environment Record in context

The Dorset HER is part of a nation-wide network. The information held by HERs is used by a wide range of people and organisations for general interest, research, planning, and land management. Historic England has oversight of HERs in England. 

2.1 What is a Historic Environment Record?

Historic Environment Records (HERs) are:

'Information services that provide access to comprehensive and dynamic resources relating to the historic environment for public benefit and use.'

National Planning Policy Framework (Department for Communities and Local Government 2012)

'They are the direct descendants of Sites and Monuments Records (SMRs) which were created in the 1970s in response to the lack of archaeological information available to owners, developers and planners, and the consequent loss of archaeological remains through urban and rural development. Today HERs are unique repositories of - and signposts to - information relating to landscapes, buildings, sites and finds spanning more than 700,000 years of human activity. Their content complements and enriches the collections of museums, archives, local studies libraries and local history centres, and underpins the work of local authority ‘historic environment services’. In particular, HERs can be used to:

  • advance knowledge and understanding of the historic environment;
  • improve its protection;
  • support its conservation, management and enhancement;
  • inform strategic policies and decision-making relating to spatial planning, development control and land management;
  • streamline the planning process;
  • support heritage led regeneration, environmental improvement and cultural tourism initiatives;
  • contribute to education and social inclusion;
  • promote public participation in the exploration, appreciation and enjoyment of local heritage'

Historic Environment Records (HERs): draught guidance for local authorities in England (Department for Culture Media and Sport 2008, 4-5)

2.2 Development of the Dorset HER

Dorset County Council appointed a County Archaeological Officer in 1976, based in the Planning Department, and a Sites and Monuments Record (SMR) for Dorset was established shortly afterwards. At that time the record consisted of record cards supplemented in the early 1980s by a simple database developed in house. This was a flat file with information held largely in code and only 80 characters of text, and served in effect as an index to the record cards. The database was robust and capable of complex statistical analysis, but the form of the SMR remained unchanged for many years; this became a significant constraint to development.

In 2000 with the acquisition of the HBSMR software developed by exegesis SDM Ltd, data was migrated from the old database and combined with historic buildings data to create the Historic Environment Record, and the mammoth task of creating new text content began. A move to SQL Server funded by DCC ICT to improve HBSMR performance and a grant from English Heritage made it possible to make simplified monument records available through the Heritage Gateway website

2.3 Policy framework

The information contained in the Historic Environment Record supports the work of Dorset Council’s Historic Environment Team in a variety of ways. For example, we provide advice to planning colleagues on the archaeological implications of planning applications. This role was emphasised in the National Planning Policy Framework which requires all local planning authorities to have up-to-date evidence about the historic environment in their area and, to this end, they must either maintain or have access to an historic environment record  to assess the significance of heritage assets and the contribution they make to the environment; and predict the likelihood that currently unidentified heritage assets, particularly sites of historic and archaeological interest, will be discovered in the future (NPPF 2012, revised 2018 and updated 2019, para 187).

The NPPF also states that, in determining applications, local planning authorities should require an applicant to describe the significance of any heritage assets affected, including any contribution made by their setting. It states:

189. The level of detail should be proportionate to the assets’ importance and no more than is sufficient to understand the potential impact of the proposal on their significance. As a minimum the relevant historic environment record should have been consulted and the heritage assets assessed using appropriate expertise where necessary. Where a site on which development is proposed includes, or has the potential to include, heritage assets with archaeological interest, local planning authorities should require developers to submit an appropriate desk-based assessment and, where necessary, a field evaluation.

190. Local planning authorities should identify and assess the particular significance of any heritage asset that may be affected by a proposal (including by development affecting the setting of a heritage asset) taking account of the available evidence and any necessary expertise. They should take this into account when considering the impact of a proposal on a heritage asset, to avoid or minimise any conflict between the heritage asset’s conservation and any aspect of the proposal.

(NPPF 2012, revised 2018 and updated 2019, paras 189 and 190).

The planning framework is set out primarily in the Town and Country Planning Act (1990). Any decisions where listed buildings and their settings and conservation areas are a factor must address the statutory considerations of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (see in particular sections 16, 66 and 72) as well as applying the relevant policies in the development plan and the National Planning Policy Framework.

View a more detailed overview of the policy and legislative framework relating to the historic environment.

2.4 Historic England and the HER audit programme

Historic England is the government body responsible for oversight of Historic Environment Records in England.

Audits of HERs are undertaken as part of a national programme managed by Historic England, and to a specification provided by them. The Dorset HER has been audited [1] in 2005-06, 2010-11, 2016 (revision only), and 2019; the last timed to inform arrangements for provision of the HER across the geographic county of Dorset after Local Government Reorganisation on 1 April 2019 when the two-tier local government in the rural county and the two unitary authorities of Bournemouth Council and Poole Council became two new unitary authorities of Dorset Council and Bournemouth, Christchurch and Poole Council.

Read more information about the HER audit programme.

Note: An audit of the HER was also done in 1999. The report was circulated internally within Dorset County Council but not outside it. 

2.5 Public attitudes

Many people are directly involved with the historic environment: professional archaeologists, conservation officers, craftsmen, museum curators, academics and students, amateur researchers, people who live or work in historic buildings and settlements or seek recreation in the historic environment.

Many more take an interest in our heritage, as demonstrated by membership of organisations such as English Heritage (over a million members in 2018/19) and the National Trust (over 5.6 million). The Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society has over 2,000 members and there are numerous other heritage-oriented groups in Dorset. Others have a general interest, and many would like to learn more.

A Dorset Citizens’ Panel Survey in 2007 sought views on the value of protecting the county’s archaeological heritage. Overall, 94% took a positive view of its importance as a record (59% very important, 35% fairly important) and 95% thought it was important to protect it for future generations (64% very important, 31% fairly important.  The Survey asked if people were interested in learning about the historic environment. 84% responded positively (31% were very interested, 53% fairly interested).

The pollster’s analysis described a sophisticated public perception of the historic environment. Even the most cautious extrapolation indicates a keen interest in Dorset’s heritage, and a huge potential audience for information held in the Historic Environment Record.

Read the next part of the HER forward plan

3. The Dorset HER today

Senior Archaeologist, Promotion and Liaison

Name: Claire Pinder
Email: Claire.Pinder@dorsetcouncil.gov.uk
Tel: 01305 224921
Full contact details