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Places’ unique heritage must be used to define strong community identity and be central to local decision-making, if the government’s devolution is to enable places to shape their own destinies, according to new research published today by the RSA and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The report also found that whilst heritage gives places their unique character, it will only create a strong identity if local people understand their heritage and know how to maximise its potential to shape distinct and cherished places for the future.

The new research, Networked Heritage,builds on the RSA Heritage Index published last year, which used over 100 data sets to rank all 379 local authorities in England, Scotland and Wales. The index has since been adopted as an official performance measure by the government, and a new version will be published later this month.

Networked Heritage found that devolution from central government to local government and city-regions has created a new impetus for local distinctiveness. It identifies five principles, which will enable places to better use heritage to differentiate themselves. Heritage can be a valuable tool for community engagement and cohesion, but different approaches are needed to ensure that heritage better reflects and includes those from less affluent and minority backgrounds. The RSA calls on civic and community leaders to

  1. Start with people: bring heritage into people’s daily lives. Adopt the tools and channels people are already using to celebrate and engage with heritage in the everyday places that people live, work and play. Get people in to heritage buildings and spaces through hosting projects, events and exhibits far beyond the usual programme. 
  2. Recognise that heritage is what people choose to make it: use assets in new ways and identify new assets.  New skills and partnerships are needed among heritage organisations to overcome the engagement and participation gap, which follows familiar lines of class and ethnicity. 
  3. Go beyond yesterday’s battles: make an offer, not an ask. Join together in making tough decisions around heritage priorities. Encourage creative industries, civic entrepreneurs and social innovators to see heritage as an asset that can deliver their objectives. 
  4. Open up and lead change: think critically about power and leadership. Open-source ideas, learning and data, and promote public participation and community leadership, through the take-up of existing powers such as the Community Right to Bid and listing heritage sites as Assets of Community Value.
  5. Make heritage your local USP: Go beyond a strategy for heritage; inform the strategy for place. Recognise what makes your place special. Incorporate different perspectives on heritage from citizens to inform branding and marketing. Create a broad tent within which anyone can find their place.

The report’s author, RSA Associate Director Jonathan Schifferes, said:

“Devolution gives heritage a huge opportunity to shape how places define their local identity. Without heritage, differences between places cannot be recognised. But if the heritage world is to capitalise on this moment, it needs to pursue the networked heritage approach set out in our five principles, and learn from the many community activists already leading the charge up and down the country

The RSA’s work has consistently shown that for heritage to meaningfully shape how places develop, we rely on the actions of local people to bring heritage to life and define heritage for themselves. Our new research shows that places with the strongest local networks are most likely to succeed.”

The research is the culmination of two years’ work on heritage, identity and place carried out by the RSA and supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and features research in Bristol, Manchester and Dundee.

The work has already influenced the development of the Heritage Lottery Fund /Arts Council England ‘Great Place’ scheme – a pilot programme of funding, announced in the Culture White Paper, which puts ‘networked heritage’ into action, working across the heritage and arts sectors. Successful projects will be announced in spring 2017.

Commenting on the report, HLF Chief Executive Ros Kerslake, said: 

“The ideas in the report make a compelling case for heritage to have a bigger role in local strategic thinking – but also for the importance of people as the real place-makers.

Great Place applicants will find much in the work the RSA has done in Dundee, Bristol and Manchester to inspire their own ideas. Indeed, we believe that any place seeking to address the challenge of connecting people to place, with each other, and to how a place should develop in the future, will see in the report that heritage is indispensable.” 

Notes to Editors 

Heritage Index

The RSA Heritage Index covers local authority districts in England, Scotland and Wales. The index ranks which areas enjoy the most physical heritage assets – but also measures local ‘heritage activity’ – such as museum attendance, rates of volunteering and investment in local heritage organisations.

The RSA will be publishing the 2016 Heritage Index on 21st November.

Great Place Scheme

The Great Place Scheme will fund projects in areas where there is a commitment to embed arts, culture and heritage in local plans and decision-making.  By strengthening the networks between culture, civic and community organisations, and by involving citizens and local businesses, projects will enhance the role that culture plays in the future of each place participating in the Scheme. In time this will lead to the wide range of social and economic benefits that arts, culture and heritage can achieve.


The RSA aims to enrich society through ideas and action. We believe that all human beings have creative capacities that can be mobilised to deliver a 21st century enlightenment. We work to bring about the conditions for this change, not just amongst our diverse Fellowship, but also in institutions and communities. Our work ranges from the future of our cities and communities, to education, moving towards a more creative economy and the redesign of public services.

Heritage Lottery Fund

Thanks to National Lottery players, we invest money to help people across the UK explore, enjoy and protect the heritage they care about - from the archaeology under our feet to the historic parks and buildings we love, from precious memories and collections to rare wildlife.



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