|ISSN 1357-4442||Editor: Simon Denison|
How can Ministers remain so blind to the ruin of our conservation services? Richard Morris wonders
Last month the Poetry Society held a reading in protest at the decision by the Oxford University Press to close its poetry list. One who attended was the Arts Minister, Alan Howarth. `I wanted to come' he told the meeting `because I share your dismay and distress.'
Mr Howarth argued that the OUP is not simply a business, but part of a great university which the Government supports financially, `and which exists to develop and transmit our intellectual culture . . . The custodian is abandoning its task if it abandons our poets.'
Well said. Now substitute local public-interest historical conservation services for poetry, local government for the OUP, and the Government for Oxford University. These services likewise exist `to develop and transmit our intellectual culture'. Some are now under threat of closure or severe cuts (see News), others have been fragmented over recent years, and Mr Howarth himself is one of the custodians. Unlike publishing, however, where the abandonment of a poetry list may deserve obloquy but does not actually unwrite poems, these cuts will translate into the actual destruction of intellectual culture. Maybe not today, probably not tomorrow, but eventually.
The services I am talking about span conservation, community involvement and communication. Cutting the resources which underpin them has become an annual phenomenon. Each loss shrinks the definition of the sort of service which ought to exist, making it harder to defend those that are left. Individual closures of local museums, archives, archaeology and heritage education functions are seldom national news. Collectively and cumulatively, however, the losses amount to a crisis in slow motion.
Ministers reacted to last year's cuts, which resulted from the 1997/98 budget, by saying that local authority archaeological provision in England had actually increased. They did this by citing figures from a survey that preceded the cuts. They also talked past the point, ignoring the issues of continuity and critical mass in local services, and concentrating instead upon the provision of archaeological guidance on planning applications.
Even on that basis their claim was dubious. Two graduates on six-month contracts do not in my book amount to an `increase' over an experienced county archaeologist who has been shunted into early retirement. In any case, English Heritage have since reminded us that an area of archaeologically sensitive land equivalent to several football pitches is being destroyed each week by processes, like agriculture, which are not governed by the planning system.
Countering such threats requires capacity for advocacy and explanation, practical support for volunteers and local societies, continuity of knowledge and the enlistment of public interest. It is exactly the capacity to do this, in the areas where we had it, which is now being lost.
Ministers can no longer ignore the disparity between the consensus that wise stewardship of the cultural heritage is a mark of a civilised society, and what is actually happening. As Francis Pryor, the CBA's President, wrote recently:
The well-documented pressures on those who plan for conservation leave no time for explaining what and why; their still-incomplete information systems are geared to management, and generally prohibit interpretation.
You can't communicate and promote properly what you haven't been able to conserve and understand; if it comes to a straight choice, the primary duty to the future is clear.
To which might be added, you can't indefinitely expect to conserve what has not been communicated.
The underlying problem is a structural gap in Government thinking. While Chris Smith and DCMS rightly promote access to the cultural heritage, John Prescott and DETR squeeze local authority budgets to the point at which they have difficulty in fulfilling even the basic environmental planning role. The Government's Comprehensive Spending Review, although flagged as an exercise in `joined-up government', showed no recognition that archaeology and historic buildings comprise both culture and environment, and must be managed and communicated accordingly.
Is the picture so utterly bleak? Maybe not entirely. Inter-departmental solutions to other problems are being found. The Departments of Education and Culture, for instance, have mounted a joint rescue for the almost fatally cut and privatised local authority music services. This shows how a positive partnership could restore local historical conservation, if the will exists.
Does the will exist? That is for Ministers to show. They will surely see the extent to which public-interest historical conservation nourishes the nation's educational, cultural and economic life, and that `built heritage' is more than buildings. If not, then a tragic book awaits an author. It will be the counterpart of Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, about a land where birdsong is returning but history has been forgotten.
Richard Morris is the Director of the CBA
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© Council for British Archaeology, 1999