Valuing heritage in an age of austerity: A Scottish take on an English crisis

In his recent blog post, Sam Hardy has asked ‘how can we limit austerity cuts to cultural services?’ Check out the piece here.

Recently I’ve been thinking about similar questions, and would like to expand upon the theme and ask:

Why is it that we don’t seem to care about our cultural and heritage services in England?

There are many angles that one could take on this question, such as:

  • How can we remedy the relatively low profile of heritage in public debate and the relative anonymity of heritage organisations?
  • Why is it that people tend to take their heritage for granted until it is threatened?
  • Can we combat the perception that other issues are more politically sensitive? And make government see that the proportionately tiny heritage sector cannot yield significant fiscal savings?

But my question targets England on purpose, and it is to this that I want to look for my answer, because one only has to look to Scotland to see an altogether different approach to dealing with culture and heritage in the harsh economic climate.

What makes Scotland different?

Well, simply, they appear to value their heritage more. From individual member of the public, to public servant, to Cabinet Minister – they seem to be prepared to assign heritage a place at the top table of political affairs in Scotland. The modern Scottish identity is much more powerful than that in England – or at least, there are people who are much more willing to champion it in public.

Partially, good projects that have been undertaken by Historic Scotland and the Royal Commission, such as Scotland’s Rural Past have created a positive policy momentum built on improvement of social issues, connecting sense of place and quality of life with the historic environment, and building a holistic understanding of how heritage links with the wider built and natural environment. Also, it is partly to do with the present nationalist government and the political and media focus on the independence referendum meaning that energy is being directed towards these discussions of identity and culture.  But crucially, part of it is seemingly simply more embedded in the system and, perhaps, even in society and in the Scottish culture.

Here’s the telling thing: Imagine, whoever wins the 2015 general election in Scotland – it’s hard to see them significantly rowing back on broad scale commitments to heritage. Likewise in England it is hard to imagine, whether the next government is formed by Labour, the Conservatives, or another Lib Dem (or UKIP) coalition, that heritage would achieve any greater importance on the agenda.

Why is this?

First let’s just say this: Scotland is going to be forced to deal with cuts in just the same way as England and it is as much a certainty that heritage services will have to be cut north of the border as they will be to the south. However, having a broad political commitment to the issues of culture and identity and a (seemingly) genuine desire to protect heritage (both the ‘special’ and designated, and the ‘ordinary’ and everyday undesignated) gives me more confidence that any necessary cuts are going to be made with full understanding of the consequences, and with all other options exhausted. Whereas in England there seems to be a frightening lack of basic understanding of heritage among politicians beyond designated assets and of landscapes beyond national parks (witness the lack of understanding of sense of place in the NPPF and the lack of any reference to the UK’s commitments to the European Landscape Convention).

As for the reasons why this is possible, I’m mainly guessing. But here are a few possibilities:

  • Having a broader positive social agenda

Scotland’s lean to the left means that social benefits deriving from culture are more easily valued cross-party. Even Labour in England doesn’t seem to offer this at the moment.

  • Scottish identity is a more important factor in society

Regardless of whether people vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ in the referendum this year, it is fairly undeniable that Scots think more about their country and their locality than we do in England. Passionate identity leads to better recognition of the important things in one’s surroundings, and to a better defense of those things in one’s core beliefs.

  • Scottish government is more connected to place

MSPs almost always come from the places that they represent. There is therefore a clear connection between place and political representation. MSPs are therefore more concerned with the best for their constituency that MPs in England who are assigned safe seats by their parties based largely upon who they want in government regardless of where the individuals are from.

  • Scotland is smaller, and the system is less bureaucratic

Maybe I’m clutching at straws now, but the size of the country and the size and levels of accessibility of its government makes it easier to build positive policies based upon widespread consultation with people and with the third sector. Heritage NGOs in England have a much harder time building relationships with politicians and it is much harder to influence. And this is emphasised by the earlier points.

So what can we do?

The heritage sector has, since the early 2000s made great strides in getting the heritage agenda recognised as contributing to various broad governmental wishes – be it through Labour’s social inclusion policy, as a contributor to the value of good design in urban renewal, or as an important part of Localism.

However, there have been barriers to getting heritage to break through to be a real issue in its own right, and reluctance to see it as a crucial contributor to any other policy, such as planning.

Perhaps this is something that will come around in the next decade or so with changing political perspectives of social issues, or with the recovery of the economy. And perhaps this will be catalysed by Scotland’s exit from the UK – forcing a rapid reconsideration of what Englishness is and how to value our unique, vibrant, and diverse culture – enriched over hundreds of years of multicultural interaction.

In the meantime, heritage organisations need to stake their claims to the important issues of identity and cultural significance of place and space and continue to advocate to government, but also, crucially, appeal to the public to solidify a heritage understanding and promote a long-term agenda which can be supported by the vast majority of people in the country.

Even if this means looking to the long-term, we should be thinking about how to rescue the societal importance of heritage.

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About Rob Lennox

Currently studying at the University of York, investigating the transition in planning-led cultural heritage policy in the last two decades. I am using this blog to share the findings I make during my research with the hope of stimulating debate and increasing understanding of the implications of government policy on the historic environment in England. In particular, my research focuses on the ways in which the public engage with archaeology and the ways in which we as archaeologists or heritage professionals construct the processes of knowledge gathering, and to what ends. I hope that through this blog other interested parties will be able to influence and be influenced by my observations and findings as they occur in real-time, and that ultimately it will contribute to the overall understanding of the heritage sector.
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