New Year Message from BEFS Chair

BEFS Chair, Graeme Purves, reflects on the challenges and opportunities for the built environment sector in 2017.

We are clearly in a period of significant uncertainty. The full ramifications of the Brexit vote remain unclear but while political debate continues, the built environment sector must seize the opportunity to make our case for the contributions we make, not only to the economy but also to social and cultural wellbeing. Built Environment Forum Scotland (BEFS), like our counterpart Heritage Alliance, fulfils an advocacy role for the historic environment and with its Members takes this message to all levels of government.

The built environment is a physical record of historical change across the centuries. Amongst other things it tells of migrations, the changing relationships between the peoples of Britain and Ireland, influences on what was built and how it was built from the Continent of Europe, the impacts of changing patterns of land use, industrialisation, deindustrialisation and social change. More than that, often the local, idiosyncratic built environment makes people feel ‘at home’, rooted and connected to places they care about passionately.

Over the next few years it will be crucial for the sector to make sure that the legislative environmental protections that we currently enjoy are not diminished. In times of economic uncertainty there can be a push towards relaxing these protections as a means to stimulate economic activity in the short term while overlooking the economic benefits of building maintenance and the value of the embodied carbon and social value contained within existing buildings. There are also opportunities we must take within the changing legislative landscape, possibly none greater than to equalise the rate of VAT between maintenance of existing buildings and the construction of new ones. A group of BEFS Members has formed a taskforce to keep the wider membership and decision-makers briefed on the consequences and opportunities that will arise for the sector in our changing relationship with the European Union.

Across the United Kingdom, changes in the planning system have potential to impact substantially on the built environment. The Scottish Government is currently consulting on changes to the planning system and its commitment to “making better places” is welcome. However, informed by our members who work across the UK we are alert to the dangers implicit in simplification of the planning process and we have established a taskforce to scrutinise proposed changes.

BEFS takes a people-focused approach to our built heritage, recognising its value in terms of social engagement and wellbeing. Empowering communities can achieve positive results at a time of public sector retrenchment.  If communities are to assume greater responsibility in relation to the conservation of historic buildings, we must ensure that they are able to access the resources and professional support they need.

2017 is the Year of History, Heritage and Archaeology, arguably that’s every year for BEFS, and also the year of local authority elections. Local councillors play a major role in determining the allocation of local resources and how local heritage is championed. They respond to the communities that talk to them, the communities that have solutions that just need help in realising them. It is important that advocates for the historic environment engage with candidates before the elections on May 4th and continue dialogue afterwards to ensure local heritage is valued and cared for.

In changing times, it is vital that the built environment sector makes its voice heard in the political arena and BEFS and its Members will be working hard in 2017 to ensure that it is.

Graeme Purves


Built Environment Forum Scotland