1987: Margaret Thatcher is returned to power; Coventry City wins the FA Cup; and the first IKEA opens at Warrington. The UK was a very different place in the year the English Historic Towns Forum was founded; and the Forum is now a different organisation from what was then. As the Historic Towns Forum it now embraces interests in Ireland, Scotland and Wales; historic 'towns' now include places like Birmingham, Bristol and Newcastle; twitter, the internet and e-publications have replaced modest paper pamphlets; and then the local authority membership subscription was a bargain at £100 (£230 in today's money).
But the fundamentals have remained remarkably consistent.
In 1987 the Forum's aims included to: 'encourage contact between local authorities'; 'organise seminars and conferences'; 'encourage a corporate, interdisciplinary approach to the management of historic towns'; 'compile and circulate a regular practice digest' (the first one was on 'Shopping in Historic Town Centres', plus ca change; and 'express a collective view on proposals which are likely to affect the interests of our historic towns'. These remain the underpinnings of the aims and activities of the Forum, though there is today a more explicit recognition of the interdependencies between prosperity and the conservation of our heritage. A phrase used regularly by the Forum, 'for prosperity and conservation in historic towns' encapsulates this broader perspective. The HTF has also taken on an international perspective, looking beyond the boundaries of the UK with study tours and the dissemination of European good practice.
Over the 25 years the Forum has focused on and developed approaches addressing a core of key issues affecting historic towns, including, townscape, retail development, destination management, traffic and transport, the public realm and practical heritage conservation. In its publications tackling these issues the Forum has been in the forefront of public policy development, for example:
- Townscape in Trouble – The Case for Change(1992)
- Park and Ride Good Practice Guide (1993)
- Getting it Right – A Guide to Visitor Management in Historic Towns (1994)
- Traffic in Historic Town Centres (1994)
- Conservation Area Management (1998)
- Traffic Demand Management(1999)
- The Historic Core Zones Report (1999)
- Manual for Historic Streets (2008)
The Forum continues to promote innovation in these areas and has developed its brief to disseminate good practice in dealing with community engagement, using social media, sustainability and climate change, identity and sense of place, localism and neighbourhood planning, and growth, especially housing, enterprise and prosperity.
The HTF has maintained its importance and relevance by recognising the core, long term concerns for our historic towns as models of sustainable communities, while adapting to and influencing a changing agenda. Like the times, it has changed, but held true to the vision of historic towns as very special places.