21 March 2016

Historic Environment (Wales) Act 2016

Today is an historic moment in the history of UK heritage legislation. After years of consultation, debate and political manoeuvering, the Historic Environment (Wales) Bill today received Royal assent and so has become law.

This picture - taken from the Twitter feed of Deputy Culture Minister Ken Skates - shows some of the people whose hard work has resulted in this important piece of legislation.

Photograph from @WG_CultureMin on Twitter. Copyright probably Welsh Government.

As a relative newcomer to the historic environment scene in Wales, I have found the process of preparing the bill and consulting on it to be refreshingly open and honest. Many of us have had more than one opportunity to comment in detail about the provisions in the legislation. I would have preferred stronger mechanisms to deal with damage to Scheduled Monuments, but - given the complex political circumstances, and the fact that the Act seeks to modify existing legislation - the Act is to be welcomed.

The full text of the Act can be found on the 'legislation.gov.uk' website; and more detail about the process of the creation of the Bill, some of the background and key changes are available on the Welsh Government website.

For me the Act brings about two main improvements.

Firstly - for the first time in the UK, and almost certainly the world - it is a statutory duty for Welsh Ministers to maintain an Historic Environment Record (HER). Placing the duty on Welsh Ministers rather than local authorities (as was originally intended) gives greater solidity to the present system in Wales, and is certainly a much better position than the rest of the UK

Secondly the powers of Welsh Ministers - exercised through Cadw and to some extent sometimes discharged through the Welsh Archaeological Trusts - to stop unauthorised works to Scheduled Monuments, and to compel owners to rectify the damage (as well as enabling access without permission) have been increased. Whilst the full 'defence of ignorance' which was a feature of the 1979 Act has not been eliminated entirely, the new Welsh Act certainly makes it more difficult.

It will be interesting to see how the divergence between English and Welsh systems which this Act represents will actually manifest itself on the ground on monuments that are both in England and Wales - such as Offa's Dyke, for example.

It is of course early days. Some provisions of the Act won't come into force for a while, and much of the underlying regulations and guidance are still in preparation. Nevertheless this is a positive piece of legislation which reinforces the role of the Welsh Archaeological Trusts, and places the historic environment in an important position in Welsh cultural life.

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