Personal Perspectives on Innovative ‘Place-Care’

Seán O’Reilly, Director of IHBC and founding member of BEFS, reflects on the role of BEFS and ‘place-care’.

The origins of BEFS, or Built Environment Forum Scotland, represent an interesting and important moment in the evolution of what might be called ‘place-care’. That is a clumsy phrase, I know, that not many might really want to use, but it carries few of the associations that have only too frequently handcuffed our sector. Terms like ‘historic’, ‘built’ and ‘environment’, or the portmanteau-like combinations that we construct to echo our own more personal predilections, such as ‘historic environment’ and ‘built environment’, too easily may be more about defining the territory we want to occupy than resolving the issues we want to address.

Similarly, awareness of any prospective disjunction between formal title – built environment – and actual locus (everywhere, and when) was hugely important at the founding of an organisation like BEFS precisely because inclusion had to lie at its heart: many of the people helping to shape our places would not even recognise the BEFS agenda, never mind realise their relevance to its objects. The remit of the new link body of BEFS would have to encompass everyone’s place of work, play and rest, as well as the places they had yet to inhabit, or even experience. So, in naming BEFS, it was crucial not to alienate those players that its own members already found so difficult to engage with, crucial because BEFS was to be the most important mechanism its members could access to secure that wider engagement and, for many, the only one.

In summary, the naming of ‘Built Environment Forum Scotland’ was a challenge for all those involved, especially for those officers, such as myself, who were trying to capture the wide scope that the new organisation would need to encompass to deliver on its ambitions. We faced then the same critical question we recognise today: might the titular reference to the ‘Built Environment’ lead to the exclusion of those that did not necessarily see themselves as sitting within its broad tent, and so lead more to exclusion than inclusion.

Significantly, perhaps, at the time of the naming of BEFS, the decision to identify first with that which had been ‘built’ – rather than, for example, that which might be ‘historic’ – was made in part at least with our own historic circumstances in mind. A potential host organisation for our interests – Scottish Environment & Amenity Link or SEAL – existed before BEFS was formally established, though it focused largely on the natural environment. SEAL also then served as a network for some key historic environment interests, though its agenda inevitably was shaped by management strategies that reflected natural environment priorities.

After SEAL re-named itself as LINK, the organisation published a report in 2002 on the historic environment which centred on archaeological issues. That work galvanised an already burgeoning awareness of the need for a more holistic, cross-sector approach to place-related issues centred around cultural, amenity, urban and related considerations, including not least those of enhancement and improvement.  It soon became clear that the member interests of the ‘body to be known as BEFS’ could not be effectively served if operated simply as a kind of cultural thread within an equivalent body for the natural environment, like LINK. So the explicit reference to ‘built’ environment in the new body of BEFS might have indicated – consciously or otherwise – an easy but formal distinction from the ‘natural’ environment link body.

The other thread in this background to the titling of BEFS arose when BEFS’ earliest promoters made the case to secure core-funding from the then national heritage agency, Historic Scotland. We focussed on a simple but challenging approach: that having a title framing the ‘built’ environment would help ensure the most inclusive relevance to ‘place-care’ interests – including development and construction sectors.  These interests could then be more easily encompassed within Historic Scotland’s heritage agenda ‘without prejudice’ to wider objectives, and the heritage agenda discreetly subsumed with the kind of all-embracing remit needed to maximise both value for money, by funders, and success, for the sector.

Fortunately, Historic Scotland soon recognised that its own aims could be best achieved by supporting BEFS as a third party interest that explicitly focussed its operations far beyond any core departmental heritage remit. In adopting this strategy, Historic Scotland also undertook what some have seen as its most innovative conservation strategy to date.  It acted on a core truth that many parts of our sector still struggle with: the historic environment was not a ‘thing’ as such, any more than the built environment was a ‘thing’. Rather ‘historic’ and ‘built’, in these terms and titles, only indicated single, reduced perspectives on the infinitely more complex phenomenon of ‘place’, a phenomenon to which anyone can, and should, bring their own perspectives and visions.

Historic Scotland saw BEFS as a body that could respond to places that exist within a collective experience, not alternatively as cultural or natural, built or historic, perspectives that those who name them naturally take as their default. Those terms captured nothing more than more individual approaches, and any thought that the adoption of such terms conferred superior rights or authority on the ‘namer’ would miss the point: a body like BEFS had to engage directly with everyone involved in places, doing all it could to operate in support of others getting the right outcome for all.

So, through funding BEFS, Historic Scotland demonstrated its understanding that the best way to look after its own sectoral ‘historic environment’ perspective on an entity as complex as ‘place’ was to make sure that all of the perspectives on that place – social, residential, environmental, commercial, financial – would be encompassed, informed, shaped and even on occasion led within a wide, ‘place-care’ agenda. This strategy was shrewd, targeted and cost-effective all in one!

Historic Scotland could see that BEFS would engage most by valuing and understanding the breadth of interests and perspectives involved. It would achieve most by making sure that those same interests and perspectives were fully informed and engaged with all the matters relevant to their roles, including of course any heritage values.  And it would deliver most, for all of its members, by ensuring that those heritage values were properly embedded and proportionately represented across all the processes involved in shaping places.

BEFS’ earliest founders also reflected the full diversity of lead interests required to respond to this broad agenda, across heritage (such as AHSS and SCT); planning (RTPI) and development (RIAS), and the same breadth of interests that shape best practice in ‘place-care’ generally. That cross-disciplinary spectrum of ‘place-care’ interests also came to be represented in the IHBC’s model for conservation skills and processes, our Conservation Cycle (Chart 3), as both BEFS’ members and IHBC conservation embed heritage values as a constructive consideration (evaluation) within process of managing changing places through planning (management) and development (intervention).  This model characterises conservation as an iterative process that can be applied as good practice in any ‘place-care’ operation – conservation-driven or otherwise, though most memorably it aligns with World Bank environmental management processes – while capturing also the headline specialist practice areas represented by the originators of BEFS.

For BEFS today, as members continue to grow and learn from the lessons BEFS offers and the experiences it generates, the object must be to maintain the widest purview relevant to the core interests of BEFS’ members in ‘place-care’: challenging received ideas; batting back the urge to tick the proffered box, and leaping into the many spaces between BEFS’ own members so that it can bridge and span their work most effectively, and for all our benefit.

In those early meetings with Historic Scotland a key message was that investing in heritage care and advocacy through a conduit structured like BEFS would be not only uniquely appropriate but, to Scotland’s great and global credit, nothing less than visionary. BEFS today is no less unique, appropriate or visionary as, with a universality of membership underpinned by its holistic understanding of how, why and when places change, BEFS’ combination of embedded heritage awareness and structurally inclusive representation continues to capture the essence of what is needed for effective ‘place-care’.

I look forward to seeing more of that vision in action, in BEFS, in Scotland and, hopefully, beyond.

No pressure then Euan!

Seán O’Reilly IHBC 23 August 2016