Past master

Nigel Hewitson found his vocation in life by blending law with historical preservation when he became English Heritage’s legal director. Husnara Begum reports

Nigel Hewitson, the legal director of English Heritage, joined the organisation in summer 2001 after spending almost 20 years at the London Borough of Harrow, where he trained as a solicitor and eventually headed up the planning and property function.

Hewitson is also a member of the Law Society Planning Panel and a legal associate of the Royal Town Planning Institute. “I know it sounds arrogant, but when I saw the vacancy in The Times I thought they were describing me,” he confesses. “They wanted someone who had a specialism in planning and administrative law and who was interested in the historic environment.”

English Heritage looks after more than 400 historic properties and monuments, including Stonehenge, parts of Hadrian’s Wall, Dover Castle, Osborne House, Kenwood House and Whitby House, maintaining them on behalf of the owners and opening them to the public.

Following its merger with the Royal Commission last December, English Heritage took over the running of the National Monuments Record (NMR). The Swindon-based NMR houses 10 million items of England’s architectural and archaeological past, including plans, drawings, surveys and photographs. As a result, Hewitson added Farrer & Co to his legal panel so that the firm could advise the organisation on its extensive intellectual property (IP) portfolio.

English Heritage, a Non-Departmental Government Body sponsored by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, also has a key role in the planning and listing systems. As the Government’s statutory listing adviser, it is consulted in connection with the demolition of any listed buildings and the alteration of Grade I and Grade II* listed buildings. On the planning side, English Heritage is consulted on any planning applications that affect the setting of the most important buildings.

Each year English Heritage advises the Government on around 18,000 planning and listed building applications; and although the organisation aims to use its role to achieve positive improvements to historic buildings and to ensure new buildings are of a high quality, some people perceive its involvement as an extra layer of red tape. “We’re wrongly perceived as an obstruction to the planning system,” says Hewitson. “We’re seen as a group of people who don’t have an eye on the real world and who just slap protection orders on buildings.”

Consequently, English Heritage is implementing a modernisation programme that sees the organisation split into five groups, each of which refocuses on its role. “Each of the groups, which has a main customer, is looking at the nuts and bolts of what they do, how they do it and how to do it better,” says Hewitson.

For example, the planning and development group deals with statutory case work, such as listed buildings’ consents and scheduled monuments’ consents (ie ancient monuments) that get referred to English Heritage. The group’s clients are those people who want to make changes to the historic built environment, for example developers and homeowners. It aims to help those people make changes in an acceptable manner.

“We want to get away from the idea that listing is about saying to clients that they can’t make a change. That’s not a tenable position,” says Hewitson. “All we want is a layer of decision-making that says, ‘Let’s think very carefully before we demolish this building as to whether we’ll be thanked by our children for doing it’. We’re trying to protect the historic environment for the next generation.”

The resources group of which Hewitson is a member is responsible for IT, legal issues, HR and finance. The properties and outreach group deals with the management of visitor attractions and English Heritage’s education programme. Its main client group is tourists. The research and standards group sets standards across the organisation, aimed at preserving properties for future generations. The group also curates collections, such as the paintings displayed in Kenwood House. Finally, the policy and communications group, which incorporates the public affairs department and policy unit, is responsible for influencing the way in which English Heritage is perceived.

Including Hewitson, English Heritage has five lawyers in its legal department. The lawyers advise on a mixture of issues, from planning law to IP law and from personal injury (PI) cases to commercial property deals. Hewitson says that around 50 per cent of the department’s work is outsourced to external lawyers.

The legal panel, which was reviewed last December, comprises Burges Salmon, Farrer & Co, Norton Rose, Ward Hadaway and Wragge & Co. Each of the firms advise English Heritage’s regional offices, except for Norton Rose, which tends to be instructed on more complicated cases, such as the Stonehenge project, and Farrer & Co, which advises on IP, employment and PI matters.

Hewitson’s most exciting project currently relates to Stonehenge. English Heritage, advised by Norton Rose, is working with the National Trust, the Highways Agency and Salisbury District Council on plans to construct a 1.3 mile tunnel under the existing route around Stonehenge to reduce congestion in the area and plans to build a visitor centre. The planning application for the visitor centre is due to be submitted to Salisbury District Council in the spring and will coincide with the publication of the roads order by the Secretary of State for Transport. The visitor centre is scheduled to be completed in 2008.

“The plan is to have a world-class visitor centre, so that instead of being a stop-off on the way to Bath, Stonehenge can be a full or half day out,” explains Hewitson. “What people don’t appreciate about Salisbury Plain and the stones is that there are actually in excess of 100 separate monuments, such as burial mounds, in the area.”

Up until now Hewitson has advised English Heritage on the acquisition of the site on which the visitor centre is to be built. He has also advised on the content of the planning application and will get involved in a public inquiry should one arise. Hewitson has also negotiated an access arrangement between English Heritage and the National Trust, which owns most of the land outside the Stonehenge triangle.

Hewitson is also involved in a judicial review relating to the demolition of one of the wings of the Regent Hotel in Leamington Spa. Local objectors are trying to prevent the demolition of the wing by Warwickshire District Council. English Heritage became a party to the judicial review because it advised the local authority on the matter.

Nigel Hewitson
Director of legal
English Heritage

Organisation English Heritage
Sector Culture and Environment
Annual expenditure £150m (of which £120m comes from the Government)
Annual legal spend Approximately £750,000
Employees Typically 1,800 (subject to seasonal changes)
Legal capability Five lawyers and four procurement specialists
Director of Legal Nigel Hewitson
Reporting to Director of Resources Michael Crich
Main law firms Burges Salmon, Farrer & Co, Norton Rose, Sharpe Pritchard (Parliamentary agents), Ward Hadaway and Wragge & Co