It’s been quite a week for heritage announcements.
Monday saw the launch of the English Heritage corporate plan, the National Heritage Protection Plan and the National Heritage List. The latter is a searchable database of all designated heritage assets – the map is extremely easy to use and should be a great asset in its own right.
The NHPP meanwhile is English Heritage’s ambitious framework for protecting the whole of the nation’s heritage, setting out priorities for research and action. At present it reads too much like an EH-only document, but the idea is that this is something the whole sector will unite behind.
The English Heritage corporate plan comes at a time when the organisation is facing cuts of 32%. Such drastic cuts have meant a refocusing on priority areas, which EH have interpreted as, principally, the act of physical conservation. As a consequence, the NHPP is driving much of their business, while the word ‘outreach’ no longer appears.
There was some unfortunate confusion in the reporting of the launch of these plans. Baroness Andrews, EH’s Chair, stated quite honestly that “As public funding diminishes, it is imperative that we concentrate on what only we can do”. However, this was reported by one commentator as “it is imperative that we concentrate only on what we can do” - a rather less inspiring form of words.
The next day saw a rival collection of views on the state of the nation’s heritage in the form of a new collection of essays from the British Academy Policy Centre. The accompanying press release stated that “Government spending cuts and rushed legislation within the cultural heritage sector are leading to a “devastating” loss of vital expertise, and to human activity that has the potential to “destroy” heritage irreparably.” This was a far gloomier message – whether or not it rings true remains to be seen.
The truth is that ‘heritage’, per se, is not something that enjoys automatic and unbridled public support, and is therefore often the thing that gets cut first by politicians. A retrenchment back into the practical business of researching and protecting assets may not be the best way of guaranteeing longer term political support.
Conversely, when it comes to the national forest estate, it would seem the weight of public opinion is able to completely reverse government policy. A debate at the Hay festival this weekend explores the provocative idea that “When It Comes To Heritage, Britons Care More About Trees Than Buildings”.