Incorporating Social Value

Euan Leitch, Director of BEFS, reflects on how social value is understood and how it can be incorporated within built environment policy.

Last week Historic Environment Scotland launched their survey What’s Your Heritage? asking the public about places that make them feel proud or have special meaning for them. This is the initial step of a two stage review of Scottish historic environment policy which will look at the criteria for designation and management of the historic environment.

Elizabeth McCrone, Head of Designations at Historic Environment Scotland, recently attended BEFS Historic Environment Working Group to share the thinking behind the review and what the next steps will be. She made clear that this first stage is targeted at the public, particularly seldom heard groups, rather than the professional or specialist communities already engaged in the historic environment. These will be consulted in the Spring of 2017 before a formal 12-week consultation on any proposals arising from the research.  The ‘people first’ approach aligns with the 5 principles of Networked Heritage as recently published by the RSA:

  1. Start with People: Embed your work where people live daily life
  2. Heritage is what you choose to make it: Use assets in new ways and identify new assets
  3. Go beyond yesterday’s battles: Make the offer, rather than the ask
  4. Open up and lead the change: Think critically about power and leadership
  5. Help make heritage your local USP: And don’t rely on a strategy…

Sites such as the Tinkers’ Heart have challenged the current designation criteria and the Networked Heritage principles, like What’s Your Heritage?, may open up the criteria to include social value. It’s not by chance that last week BEFS had meetings with academics from the Universities of Glasgow and Stirling who are also exploring how social value is understood and how it can be incorporated within policy.

Some heritage professionals are disconcerted by this shift in approach. Is it a challenge to the role of the professional and dumbing down heritage? It certainly shouldn’t be the latter but it may be the former if it requires changing the language we use and incorporating values that may not have been part of our training. While the public tend automatically to place intrinsic value on pre-20th century places more recent heritage can be more contentious. A current listing proposal for post-war social housing has attracted some rather negative, and troubling, online comment. Is this where professionals could help people think about the transformational impact of social housing in twentieth century history as well as its contribution to the architectural record? Then again, when asked by the RIAS to choose their favourite building of the past century as part of Scotstyle, the popular vote went to Princes Square in Glasgow, vexing some architects. Public tastes and professional tastes do not always marry and, for professionals, understanding the reason why should be important.

But if “heritage is what you choose it to be” does that automatically mean it should be scheduled or listed? How can decision makers accommodate values the public attribute to assets and places that are undesignated by a national heritage organisation? Is designation the only way to protect a place? The HES research combined with the planning system reforms have the potential to result in policy proposals that better acknowledge values at a local level and will require all of us to engage constructively in the discussion.