Sustainable Community Heritage

BEFS Director, Euan Leitch, reflects on linkages between recent built environment events and academic analysis, in light of the forthcoming changes in the funding landscape.

The two-day Community Heritage Conference in Glasgow in early November was a real celebration of the breadth of activity taking place across Scotland, with some inspirational projects from further afield showcased. Catherine Gillies’ rallying talk on Saturday morning was a call for the creation of a Community Heritage Network to establish just quite how extensive the activity is and then to offer mutual support.

I then sat in on a fascinating session on Communities and Asset Transfers, chaired by Linda Gillespie of COSS where we heard details from the experiences of the Gairloch Heritage Museum, Govanhill Baths and Braemar Castle. Each reflected their varying locations and communities and are all successful projects – Govanhill Baths subsequently having gone on to raise £267,000 through community shares. All talked of the challenges of fundraising and of volunteer burn out. In the panel discussion Fatima Uygun made some interesting comments on the danger of communities ultimately delivering services that should be delivered by the state.

Community empowerment and asset transfer are not just buzzwords, they are legislative acts of the Scottish Parliament intended to enable communities to have more control of the places in which they live and the services delivered there. The three examples mentioned illustrate different forms this can take and the Conference only showcases the heritage portion of activity and the extent of volunteering in this area alone is large.

Two days before the Community Heritage Conference the International Journal of Heritage Studies published a paper titled Endangerment-driven heritage volunteering: democratisation or ‘Changeless Change’ by Harald Friedman of the University of York that makes thought provoking reading. Friedman posits that the attempt to democratise heritage through increased public participation may actually reinforce existing power structures (through neoliberal approaches) and result in “exploiting volunteers, devaluing professionals and marginalising traditionally underrepresented demographics”. He writes from a position that not everything can, or should, be saved and is critical of some of the claims made about the instrumental role of heritage as championed by some heritage bodies. Is greater public participation in heritage unwittingly enabling the austerity agenda? Or is community empowerment the necessary response to gaps arising to due to public sector cuts?

It was a delight to see one community lead project, Hastings Pier, win the RIBA Stirling Prize in October. It is a £14million pound project that resurrected the burnt-out pier with fundraising under community ownership achieved through community shares that raised £258,000. It’s then sad news that the Hastings Pier Charity has already gone into administration as funders rejected its 3 year business plan. Understandably, funders are seeking evidence that a project is financially sustainable but how easy is sustainability in a period of reduced public spending and economic instability?

The Heritage Lottery Fund was one of the main funders of Hastings Pier but even its generous grants are now challenged as a result of a drop in people buying lottery tickets. The recent Tailored Review has published its recommendations and the HLF has already responded with some significant interim changes to its grant making programme for 2019. There will be no major grants (over £5m) and there will be further open consultation on the best use of Heritage Lottery Funds: are the big projects the best use of funds, or is it a smaller but wider spread that benefits communities most?

Entrepreneurship and pragmatism are necessary in securing the assets we want future generations to benefit. However, the question remains whether or not community ownership is going to result in sustainable uses in the long term.  This may require prioritisation – of assets? Of communities? – But just who is willing and able to rise to the challenge of prioritisation?