The Historic Towns and Villages Forum – a vital resource as Local Authority belts are tightened

  • | Helen Ensor
Blanchland, Northumberland
Cottages in Thaxtead, Essex
Attractive cottages on Thaxted, Essex

Do you care about the historic environment?  Are you interested in knowing more about the burning issues of the day, such as how do we support our historic high streets, what are the best ways of re-using redundant buildings, and how do you get funding for a conservation project?  There is an organisation which may be able to help you. The Historic Towns and Villages Forum (originally the Historic Towns Forum) is a membership organisation which has been supporting professionals working in the historic environment since 1987.  Providing advice, training and acting as a ‘sounding board’ for the industry, it increasingly provides vital support for beleaguered Conservation Officers, as well as those involved at a grass-roots level including our town and parish councils.

I first came across the HTVF in 1998 as one such beleaguered and inexperienced conservation officer in Lancashire. I quickly discovered the treasure-trove of information that the HTVF has produced over the years, such as information on shopfronts and advertisements and how to manage parking in historic towns, and I attended a number of their workshops and day-long events.  In those days, the organisation felt like something of a lifeline.

Some 20 years later in April 2019, I was delighted to be asked to become a Director of the HTVF and play a part in shaping the future of the organisation. No longer a Conservation Officer, and instead working in conservation for Donald Insall Associates, I was equally delighted to discover that the principles of both Donald’s early and pioneering work and those of the practice he founded followed a similar course as those of the HTVF. Donald explained to me recently that in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he was concerned in studying not just the fabric of individual buildings, but historic areas and places more widely, and the people and uses which made them special. His seminal work in Chester, and his less-well-known but equally ground-breaking work in studies of villages like Blanchland (County Durham), and towns like Lavenham (West Suffolk) and Thaxted (Essex), were devoted to  issues such as these, as well as other impacts on the historic environment –  traffic and pedestrian circulation, parking, shopping, and above all what type places were people happy to live in?  This included social considerations, such as does this house have a bathroom?  Is it too small for a family,  or should two cottages be converted into one larger one?  Will a local school survive? In many ways, this kind of thinking about the interaction between people and their places is familiar territory for the HTVF, but it was breaking new ground when Donald and his team were pioneering their early work.  For me it seems as though, in many ways, we have come full circle.


Blanchland, Northumberland

In the last decade, and as local authority budgets have come under increasing strain, it is well known that the number of conservation officers working in local authorities has decreased.  The support, training and advice available from the HTVF has taken on an increasing significance in this context  and recent training days on writing supplementary planning guidance, supporting historic high streets and managing contemporary design in historic settings have demonstrated the huge appetite there is for such events – mainly from the public and third sectors, but also from practitioners in the private sector.

Many of the issues under discussion today are not dissimilar from those which troubled me when at Wyre Borough Council in the late 1990s; some however were unknown to me then.  HTVF are a signatory to Heritage Declares, and recognise the enormous work which needs to be done in terms of conservation and climate change.   A forthcoming event in Oxford (on 31st March) will focus on Climate Change and Historic Places.    The impact of climate change on the historic environment must rank amongst the most pressing issues of our generation.

If you are interested in the work of the HTVF, or would like to attend any of the forthcoming events, or to become a member, please visit thei website at  Please visit the Contact section of our website to make an enquiry about our work.