BRITISH ARCHAEOLOGY MAGAZINE LOGO


ISSN 1357-4442Editor: Simon Denison

Issue no 37, September 1998

COMMENT

Riding down the road to regional chaos

The Government's new culture proposals overlook the issue of conservation, writes Richard Morris

For the past year the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) has been conducting a review of its activities as part of the Government's Comprehensive Spending Review. The results were announced at the end of July.

Billed as a `new approach to investment in culture', its broad objectives are unexceptionable. Few could be other than `for' the nurturing of educational opportunity, promotion of access, the pursuit of excellence, and fostering creative industries. The devil lies in the detail, or the lack of it: there is no look-in for the historic environment or sustainability, and no awareness that the driving force for environmental conservation lies in the planning system, and thus requires a joint approach with the Department for the Environment, Transport and Regions.

DCMS has three main wishes: to exercise more strategic leadership; to streamline the structure of public organisations; and to put increased emphasis on regional bodies.

Reaction has centred mainly on propos-als for the simplification of quangos. For the `built heritage' (a wretchedly inadequate phrase) this means a larger English Heritage subsuming the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, and taking over some functions from DCMS itself. This arranged marriage has been welcomed by English Heritage and RCHME, as an opportunity to eliminate overlaps.

The real thrust of DCMS's proposals, however, concerns the creation of new regional cultural bodies covering the whole gamut of film, sport, arts, museums, tourism and the rest. These plans form part of the Government's constitutional agenda. Eventually the new bodies will be executive, distributing lottery money and a `considerable proportion' of grant-in-aid, and becoming sources of regional strategy.

Two large questions remain unanswered. What will this mean for the historic environ-ment, and what are the implications for the conservation work of local government? The Government doesn't know the answer to the first question: its paper invites views on `how the new English Heritage regional offices might be associated with any new executive body'.

As for the second, ministers either haven't thought about it or they aren't saying. The DCMS paper says not a word about the need for vitality and quality in conservation's front line (the local planning system), or about how regionalisation will affect it.

Regionalisation's consequences will be profound. Talking shops today, executive tomorrow, how will these new bodies relate to New Labour's proposed regional assemblies ten years hence? For how long will they report to the Secretary of State rather than to regional elected representatives? And what will happen to local government's conservation services in all this? Is DCMS's silence in the face of continuing attenuation of local govern-ment services a cynical symptom of Government regional policy that is decided but undeclared?

As things stand, conservation advice, grants, archaeology, and landscapes are handled and funded in local government and at English Heritage according to hard-won standards, principles and policies which are applied consistently across the country. For archaeology this brings additional benefits, including a capacity to originate strategic projects, according to area or thematic need.

If this is to continue, English Heritage's emerging regional structure must continue to be nationally integrated. While an English Heritage region could be in dialogue with its regional cultural counterpart, it could scarcely belong to it. So, as the regional bodies mature they would be representing culture minus heritage - which would look anomalous.

If, on the other hand, aspects of English Heritage's functions were in time to be reassigned, devolved or franchised to the regional bodies, there would be problems of ownership, split responsibilities in some areas and duplication in others. Account-ability and policy-making in a hybrid system would be messy - the opposite of the consistency and strategic direction which the Government desires.

A more workable system, in theory, would be root-and-branch regionalisation, in which local government is downgraded in favour of regional government, and the majority of English Heritage functions are devolved. This, however, would be a huge step, posing huge risks. Sooner or later resources, and the control of policies and standards would pass into regional hands, and thereafter diverge according to varying preferences and agendas.

Moreover, would heritage have the right bedfellows, if it were devolved to these regional bodies? Landscapes and archaeology have more in common with environmental sciences and nature conservation than with football or film-making.

None of these questions are faced in DCMS's proposals, nor are there signs that the Government has considered what repercussions its English plans may have for Wales or Scotland. DCMS's desire to devolve `minor' decisions and grants, and to create in effect a series of regional heritage lottery funds, does not recognise that proper conservation requires the consistent application of national standards and controls, and adequately resourced sources of local knowledge and expertise. Govern-ment thinking, as we now glimpse it, ignores both.

Places ruined 30 years ago testify to the cost of such indifference. Surely, one supposes, a Government so preoccupied by the bottom line must realise that the billions Britain earns from cultural tourism derive from what we have cherished rather than what we have despoiled? But to judge from DCMS's impoverished thinking, no.

We urgently need an informed debate on these matters before decisions are made. We must remind the Government of all those things it has either omitted or doesn't understand: the nature of the historic environment, the need for inter-departmental thinking, and the laying down of specific markers of quality by which new arrange-ments could be judged. Let the debate begin.

Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA

DCMS's strategy is open to consultation until Friday 2 October. Copies of the proposals may be obtained from the the DCMS Public Enquiry Unit, 2-4 Cockspur Street, London SW1P 5DH, tel 0171 211 6200, fax 0171 211 6322. Comments should be sent to the DCMS Strategy Unit at that address, or email csrconsult@culture.gov.uk


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