Public policy journeys: what’s the next step for heritage?

This weekend Georgie Holmes-Skelton, our Head of Government Affairs, spoke at the AHRC Heritage Priority Area and Rescue: The British Archaeological Trust conference on engaging with policy in the UK. On the theme of “Planning for People: the changing role of culture, museums and the arts for wider society”, Georgie talked about the sector’s challenge in engaging people with heritage. 

Here’s Georgie’s speech in full.

I joined the National Trust in February this year, and as such I’m a relatively new entrant into its work. The Trust is an organisation with an extremely broad interest in public policy – we obviously care for a wide range of historic buildings and heritage assets – from huge Georgian Mansions and Estates to Paul McCartney’s small suburban childhood home. But we also manage and care for a lot of countryside and key habitat, coastline, farms, villages, businesses – you name it. I’m still finding new things every day! My Government Affairs team is one of those that sees a little bit of everything going on in the Trust, and we try (not always successfully!) to keep on top of everything that’s happening. We work with colleagues and stakeholders from all over the organisation, and across a number of sectors.

What has been really interesting to see over the last few months is that different areas of policy are at quite different places in terms of political engagement and awareness, and in terms of public understanding, and how people relate to them.  I think there are some interesting comparisons to make, and lessons that can shared between sectors – and that’s what I’d like to spend some time doing today, looking particularly at the environment and heritage sectors.

A National Trust Ranger on the Lizard, collecting plastic bottles on Poldhu beach in West Cornwall

Awareness and connection – recent successes for the natural environment

In relation to the natural environment there has been a real sea-change over the last few years. What was a bit of a niche concern 15 years ago, politically, has become mainstream. We’ve seen the coming together of the green sector with a real clarity of voice and the Government (and the public) has responded.

Earlier this year we saw the publication of the 25 Year Environment Plan, and more recently the Government’s proposals for an environment-centred replacement to the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy and even a commitment to an Environment Bill. Together these Government policy proposals (if implemented effectively – I acknowledge there’s still some distance to bridge between promise and reality) have the potential to deliver much of what the environment sector has been calling for for years.

We’ve also seen the public engage in issues like plastic waste, and it feels like there is real collective energy and desire to see a change in this area. I haven’t been able to find any statistics as yet about general plastics use or recycling levels this year so far – but I did find that searches on google for terms such as “ways to reduce plastic use” had increased by 1000% between December 2017 and April this year. And again Government policy is having an impact – the 5p charge on plastic bags, introduced last year led to an 86% fall in the number of new plastic bag sales.


The environment needs us!

That hasn’t happened by accident, and I think there are a few factors involved. Certainly the urgency of need has become clearer and better understood – both in terms of the evidence that we have about the speed of the deterioration state of nature, and as a result of Brexit – which has driven a need for political engagement with these issues and an opportunity for significant policy change. The extremely hard work of a lot of committed people in the sector has helped create the structures and momentum to help bring the sector together to speak with a common voice on some of the most pressing issues, and deliver real shared and positive vision for change on some of the hardest issues that Government faces, like replacing the Common Agricultural Policy.

The likes of Sir David Attenborough must also be given some of the credit for helping to create an emotional connection – showing people the consequences of their use of plastic, for example, has not only helped people understand what is being lost, but has related it to their everyday lives. People watching the Blue Planet II took great pleasure in seeing nature in action, and then saw the relevance of their behaviour for nature in return. I think we all felt a bit of guilt seeing those pictures, and knowing that we could be doing something about it.

The very real impact of climate change becoming so visible in the weather perhaps also helps. But altogether as a result what we have is a mature and well understood narrative around the state of the natural environment and what needs to change to make a difference for future generations. And the degree of public engagement in particular has helped create the political space and momentum to introduce policy that makes a difference. It has moved the discussion around the state of the natural environment from the political fringe, to a situation where the current Conservative Secretary of State is bringing forward significant policy proposals and talking about UK becoming a world leader in this space.

For the Trust, the development of clarity of message around environmental policy was a process that the whole sector was been part of, but we had our own journey too. As an organisation we went through a process of reflecting on our cause in relation to the natural environment, thinking about what we want to see change to help preserve nature, and the animals and plant life that our founders valued, and what the nation needs from us.  We have much greater clarity now that we did a few years ago about the part that we want to play in terms of restoring and protecting nature to create a healthier, more beautiful natural environment. And that means that we have been able to communicate our vision more confidently and play a more active role in the sector-wide movement.

We’re committed to restoring a healthy, beautiful natural environment ©National Trust Images/John Miller

So what about heritage?

I think it is fair to say that the public policy conversation doesn’t feel in quite the same place as that for the natural environment. There are plenty of challenges and policy asks that we have, and there are certainly things to be alarmed about in relation to the long term state of the historic environment. But I would suggest that we haven’t yet seen the same coalescing of people, evidence and public engagement about the heritage cause – that collective understanding of impact for people, clarity of message and political urgency that necessitates response.  There isn’t quite the same sense of shared vision for change, to drive a popular movement behind the historic environment at this moment in time.

Of course that hasn’t always been the case, and the roots of the Trust are very much embedded in the desire to protect our historic environment as much as the natural. The Trust was founded in the belief that our heritage, and the historic buildings and assets that are around us are important to people, and have a positive impact on their lives, and so should be preserved for future generations.  This preservation movement led to the National Trust as it is now, with the number of special places that we now look after on behalf of the nation.

The historic environment is as fundamental to our work as the natural environment, and we want to see it regain some of that prominence in terms of public policy discussion and political interest.

How can we excite people about heritage? ©National Trust Images/Arnhel de Serra

So how do we go about rekindling that conversation, and sparking the passion that can drive a movement? Thinking about our organisational journey too – for us the question is what should be the National Trust’s role going forward – both in terms of how we conserve, and get the most out of what we have and the places we look after for the nation, but also how we can support the country more broadly to protect its heritage? And what are we trying to achieve for the public through the cultural offer that our places deliver? How do we maximise the benefit for people from our heritage, and what does that look like? What should we be asking for in terms of public policy to support this?

What heritage has to offer… and it’s a lot

There’s been a lot of work and research over recent years to understand the value that heritage can offer to society. As a result, I would suggest that we actually have quite a lot of evidence already of the good that heritage can do beyond being a “good thing” in and of itself.

In terms of economic benefit, Historic England estimates that heritage tourism generated £16.4 billion in spending by domestic and international visitors in 2016. It’s thought that for every £1 spent as part of a heritage visit, 32p is spent on site and the remaining 68p is spent in local businesses: restaurants, cafés, hotels and shops.

The impact also goes much wider in terms of the benefit of historic buildings and urban quarters for hosting businesses, offering community or creative spaces, and places that people want to live. Heritage drives tourism, creates jobs, and supports other sectors such as the construction, film and wiser creative industries.

Heritage Counts ©Historic England

Even more importantly though, is what heritage can do for people. Last year we published a piece of research that we undertook with the University of Surrey called Places that Make Us. This found evidence of the physiological impact of place on people and the ability of place to positively impact on our wellbeing. Visiting somewhere that is special to you can actually create measurable changes in your brain, and generate a positive emotional response, boosting feelings like calmness or joy.

And that’s not just something that you get from revisiting, say, somewhere you visited and enjoyed as a child, but about the places here and now that give you something of value. A space to reflect, somewhere of particular beauty, or somewhere you can go to be with your friends and family.

Work being done by others in the sector is also contributing to the growing evidence of the wider health and wellbeing benefits associated with the historic environment. For example we know that people who regularly visit heritage sites are statistically more likely to have higher measures of happiness and life satisfaction, and lower levels of anxiety. The historic environment provides opportunities for direct interventions – and the move towards social prescribing, helping people with issues of loneliness or mental health through getting involved in archaeology or gardening, or other forms of group activity that can be facilitated by our heritage assets is an example of that.

There is also some evidence (though this is perhaps an area that might benefit from more work) around social cohesion. Volunteering and opportunities to get involved in community projects around heritage can help bring people from different backgrounds together. Historic buildings and heritage sites help create distinctiveness and identity of place, which can help create a sense of shared identity and community for the people who live there. And heritage sites can offer effective spaces to host community activities – I live in Reading, and the restoration of the Abbey this year has provided a place for all kinds of activities from theatre and music, pop up bars and events, to library sessions for kids. So I’ve seen that potential community value of heritage first-hand. In a nation of increasing inequality and political division, the need to find common ground and shared experience becomes ever greater. Our shared stories and heritage can be one of the things that brings us closer together.

The power of heritage

If heritage can deliver these sorts of benefits then it surely has real potential to help address some of the biggest issues facing society at the moment? According to YouGov polling a few weeks ago the public think health is the most important issue facing the country (apart from Brexit), followed by immigration and the economy. If heritage can be part of the solution to dealing with some of these big issues, then surely it must be a no brainer to support?

And yet, we’ve not really seen this potential bear fruit for the sector. People seem to like heritage – millions of people visit heritage sites every year and watch historical dramas and TV programmes like Downtown Abbey and Poldark. If asked, people say that they value it – with a recent survey found 71% of people are interested in their local history, and a huge 94.2% of people agree that it is important to look after heritage buildings and places.  But still, there isn’t yet that same sense of energy and drive behind heritage as a public good that we see for the natural environment. We’re not seeing a clamouring for a people’s march for heritage like the one we saw one a few weeks ago for nature, and we’re not really seeing Government policy shift substantially to take advantage of these potential benefits.

Whose heritage are we talking about?

I think that the key to this lies in how the public perceives “heritage”, and the political space that it occupies. If you clear your mind and think about the word “heritage”, what pops up? Is it by any chance a castle or manor house? From an unscientific sample of people I know, I bet for many it is. For us at the Trust the perennial challenge is to not just be about huge Georgian country estates – which are still what a lot of people think of when they think of the National Trust. Certainly these are important to us, and to the nation. But it’s important to understand that this image of “heritage” doesn’t fully represent everyone.

This image is by nature exclusionary – it feels in the realm of the aristocratic white landowner. Lots of people simply don’t see themselves in that kind of heritage asset, and the conventional view of history that it invokes isn’t truly shared – it’s too dominated by narratives that don’t speak from the perspectives of contemporary audiences. For some it may be fun to visit occasionally to get a glimpse into how others lived, but it doesn’t necessarily feel relevant to their lives and personal histories. And in 2018 it’s not surprising that politicians might back away from policy that may be perceived as propping up what is perceived to be a narrow, wealthy, largely white, older landowning interest?

Now obviously the places and collections that that we care for have much more diverse histories than that, and we work really hard through our public programming, interpretation and wider cultural offer to try to tell stories from a range of perspectives and experiences – embracing stories from all classes, races, and identities of modern Britain. But cutting through that instinctive, exclusionary impression isn’t easy. The challenge of “forever, for everyone” is something we know we need to work hard on to live up to.

Find out about how we’re challenging histories here: 

For the historic environment, and the built elements of place I think there are also challenges around ownership and identity. For a younger generation who can’t afford to buy, and who perhaps move regularly as a result of short term rents, I think the built environment can feel rather remote – something that belongs to other people. Aspirational, perhaps, nice to visit or look at from time to time – but not something fundamentally within their control, and preserving it is a luxury, a long way down the priority list. If you don’t think you have a stake in something, why should you stand up for it?

The title of this session – “planning for people” is interesting. It places people at the centre of the discussion, and this is important. Thinking about heritage in particular, it can be easy to fall into the trap of forgetting that heritage isn’t all about bricks and mortar, objects in glass cases, or even getting feet through the door and bums on seats. People are key. Saving a building from demolition or change past the point of recognition is important not because the building itself will thank us. It’s important because of the impact it has on the people who interact with the building and the landscape around it. Whether that be directly by visiting or living or working in it, or by simply by walking past every day. That interaction has value to those people – it affects how they think and how they feel. It helps form identity for individuals and for whole communities. Essentially, people give heritage its value.

So what can we learn from the environment sector?

The lessons to learn from the environmental sector are I suggest twofold. Firstly we need to have greater clarity over our collective message, as a sector. Speak with clearer voice about what we think heritage can give people. But more crucial I think is the second – we need to help the public find that emotional connection with heritage as something important to their lives. Something that they recognise they’re taking enjoyment and benefit from.

To do that I think we need to find more ways to take heritage to the people we think it can help.  If people give heritage its value, they are in turn key to the success of heritage in the public policy realm. The more we can demonstrate value to people of all backgrounds, the more we can help communities feel involved in local heritage and have a sense of ownership of their quality of place and shared history, the more that will help generate positivity for the heritage sector. We need to create the space for policy-makers and politicians to start to see heritage as part of the solution rather than a nice to have item, or even worse a problematic call on public money.

To conclude, I think we’re in the midst of a bit of a transition. We’re not at the start of the journey – we’ve made a significant start as a sector in terms of addressing some of the key issues of diversity and inclusion. We’re learning more and more about the potential that heritage could have to deliver different types of benefits to individuals and to society as a whole.

But there is a lot still to be done, and perhaps what we need to reflect a bit more on is creating that coherence between what we think we can offer, what people actually need, and how we actually reach them. We must give people a reason to reassess their understanding of heritage and buy in to a clear vision for its future role in society.

Find out more about some of the exciting work we’re doing at the National Trust on our website: 

Georgina Holmes Skelton, Head of Government Affairs,  National Trust

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