|ISSN 1357-4442||Editor: Simon Denison|
Government must change its approach to the historic environment, writes George Lambrick
The current Historic Environment Review has been hailed as a `once in a lifetime' chance to influence Government thinking on the historic environment. The CBA has been closely involved in the Review, and the findings are about to be published.
English Heritage conducted the Review, and are writing the report. They have repeatedly stressed that the findings should not just reflect their own views, but there has been some concern about bias towards areas where they spend most of their money (and have most at stake).
Nevertheless, much of what is emerging has long been championed by the CBA. The Mori poll carried out for the Review showed that virtually everyone thinks that the historic environment is important. The need for more `joined-up' Government and partnership with other bodies in managing change is being highlighted. Other key themes are the value of `characterisation' of the landscape - recognising that everywhere has a history - and the need for more public participation.
The Review has been an unprecedented opportunity to explore several key issues, but `once in a lifetime' is not the way to do this. Many of the problems now being grappled with stem from a failure to carry out regular reviews. This Review must be the beginning of a better approach that will avoid just letting everything pile up again for the next generation to sort out.
I have been concerned that while the consultation process did address what the historic environment is, it never sought to formulate a generally agreed statement of why it is important, and its implications for other areas of policy. For example, welcome as the MORI results are, the historic environment has an awful lot more to contribute to education than just instilling knowledge of the past. The archaeological interests of people living in England, and the environmental responsibilities of global companies based here, extend well beyond England, raising issues of UK policy and ethical relations with other countries that also need exploring.
Recently the CBA has commented on a plethora of policy consultations about how Government and business should approach `strategic environmental assessment' and sustainable development. Again and again these consultations reveal a failure to recognise the historic environment as an issue in safeguarding and promoting environmental, social and economic well-being - the three key objectives of sustainable development.
In effect Government departments and agencies tend to have a `not me guv' attitude to the historic environment. This problem is far more institutionalised at national than at local level. Let me give you an example. Readers of this magazine will know that archaeological sites can get hammered by farming. A few months ago I attended a seminar at the Ministry of Agriculture, where an official was challenged about why MAFF didn't do more to integrate the historic environment into all their environmental research. The response? `We're not the lead body for archaeology'. A huge cultural shift in official thinking is needed to counteract this blinkeredness.
I welcome the proposal to supplement designations with `characterisation' as a means of ensuring a holistic approach to managing the historic environment. By breaking the mould that assumes that society should only value a few places and things that experts have judged important, it offers an inherently more inclusive approach in which the views of local people can make a greater contribution.
But so far characterisation has mostly been too top-down and static, stopping short of real community engagement with a place's historic character and how that shapes what types of change might be acceptable into the future. Where communities have been involved they respond positively. But achieving this more generally will take time, a major shift in attitudes, and investment.
Encouraging more participation and partnership is an important related issue, where again massive institutional and cultural inertias need to be overcome. Government bodies are ill-attuned to voluntary sector participation because they always have their own agendas to deliver and are paranoid about public accountability. Sinking large amounts of capital into high profile building projects is fine because you can measure outcomes. But the idea of sinking capital into endowing organizations that get people involved in doing worthwhile things is anathema because control is lost.
Involving the voluntary sector can achieve much where it has the capacity to respond. But this means true partnership - being flexible enough to respect and assist with the individual needs and aspirations of organizations, rather than imposing general rules and hoops for them to jump through to meet Government targets.
George Lambrick is the Director of the CBA
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