Before you read this, you probably ought to read this*. I was vaguely aware of this taking place, but not really all that well informed. My fault? Maybe. Or perhaps sometimes, professionals working in a field become so well versed in a subject that they forget that those outside the inner circle don’t share their knowledge and expertise, and miss an opportunity to reach out to people.
*If you can’t be bothered to read the whole of that post, in essence, English Heritage is being split into two bodies: English Heritage, which will cover the whole ‘heritage theme park day out experience’ that most of us involve ourselves with now and then; and Historic England, which will cover what I suppose could be termed the ‘professional’ side of things: planning, advice, protection of sites & buildings etc. It has... implications.
The changes have been known about for some time, but were officially launched yesterday, and they might seem distant to most people’s lives, if you’re just an average person (or even a twatty blogger). They probably won’t impact on a lot of people’s lives in an obvious or immediate way. As long as we get to visit the sites, have a cup of tea & slice of cake, then depart home feeling proud of ourselves for doing something Very Grown Up And Educational For The Kids, nothing is really changing. So why then am I blogging about it?
Because this move, this splitting of English Heritage, will change things. Across the UK, there has been a shift in attitudes, from the top of government downwards. Under the guise of making things simpler and more business friendly, huge amounts of planning regulations have been removed, and the old protections and guidance have gone. This, combined with cuts to local councils, has ensured that the very people who know the importance of historic sites such as Oswestry Hill Fort are redundant, often in terms of the powers they have to prevent irrecoverable damage, but increasingly, because their jobs no longer exist. Professional advice is being downgraded, rendered insignificant, changes are being made that reverse years of legislation that was considered important enough to be created in the first place. Purely to balance the books.
The changes that are coming into force are short-sightedness at its most pernicious and damaging. To save a few pennies here, a pound or two there, vast swathes of our historic environment, our heritage, our history, is being put at risk. Thousands of years of history, to be ploughed by bulldozers, razed down, and some temporary modern convenience installed, purely for this government to twist a few more figures, invent some statistics, and ignore the appalling lack of foresight they demonstrate.
This stuff matters. And because people like you and I, dear reader, don’t get to hear about it, we don’t know it’s going on. We might see a one off story in the local paper about a petition to save one small cottage, but we don’t see the larger picture of what’s happening across the UK, because it’s assumed that it’s not really a story that would interest the wider public. It’s one for the academics, the historians, the archaeologists to tear their hair out over, because they’re the ones who Know This Stuff, and they’re in charge of All That Kind Of Thing.
Here’s the thing, people. It’s not their history. It’s not my history. It’s our history, all of it, everyone’s. And from what I see, it’s under threat, and people like us are in danger of letting it happen, because we don’t appreciate what’s going on. We see a brief clip of Sajid Javid spouting a brief soundbite about communities and engagement blah blah blah, our eyes glaze over, and then we perk up when the weather forecast comes on. Yes, I know I’m a history obsessed moo, but this stuff is important - the fact that we have such an embarrassment of heritage in this country doesn’t mean that losing the odd corner of it here and there should be ignored, disregarded, or even tacitly encouraged by some.
‘Our heritage does not belong to the government. It belongs to all of us.’ Another soundbite from Javid again. You would think I should be cheering him on, as he’s saying exactly the same thing that I am. But I can’t. It’s the old story. If someone tells you trust them, that should be the very last thing you do. If he truly believes that our heritage is ours, not theirs, then why is the government so set on a course that seems to me to weaken our heritage, not strengthen it? If it belongs to all of us, then why are the government taking such drastic and potentially irreversible action? And one has to ask why is the government seemingly so set on removing the protections and professionalism that is fundamental to the preservation of our history, our heritage, and our ability to engage with and learn from it? Once these things are lost, they can’t be replaced or restored. Skills and experience gained over many years for the love of the subject will be gone, just like the material heritage will be. The politicians will tell us they cannot afford the funding. I know we cannot afford the loss we will incur when the full effect of this is felt.
So what do I suggest we do about it? Good question. At the moment, I don’t know. Watch this space…