Most of the research we carry out and commission at HLF is highly applied. It’s about understanding what is working in the programmes and projects we fund, and about what we might do differently in the future. But every now and then a policy agenda emerges where we feel it’s important for a heritage voice to be heard.
Devo-Met, the widespread interest in decentralisation which is now broadly supported across the political spectrum is one such. How far or how fast decentralisation goes is no real business of ours. But we can play a role in making connections, drawing out the relevance of heritage to the debate, and considering the implications of the policy shift for the heritage sector. Certainly if ‘Devo-Met’ does go ahead, the fortunes of the heritage sector are going to be far more bound up with how well it is able to demonstrate its relevance to decisions about planning and investment that are made on a city-region and local scale. But it’s also easy to see the potential gains for heritage in a more devolved political structure. Is a more locally-responsive system of government more likely to be alert to the opportunities for the social purpose of local heritage? Is it more likely to be responsive to the constraints that people want to self-impose to protect heritage?
Hence our support for the RSA’s ‘Heritage, Identity and Place’ research. Our basic premise for the research, shared with the RSA, is that as city-regions and new combined authorities look to develop place-based strategies, these will need to be distinctive. And distinctive place strategies can only emerge from an understanding, and a conversation about, the heritage of place. Places should seek to grow – in social as well as economic terms – from the inside-out, on the basis of their existing strengths and assets, and by harnessing the capabilities of their people, rather than simply by trying to import footloose capital and skilled labour.
We gained more understanding of this importance of local heritage in another recent research project, where we sought out the public’s perceptions of HLF investment over last 20 years. This research showed that people do believe that heritage makes an important contribution to their local area and to their own quality of life. Eight in ten (80%) of those we spoke to think local heritage makes their area a better place to live – rising to nine in ten (89%) amongst those who are most involved with local heritage. Furthermore, 81% say heritage is important to them personally, and when asked to rate the impact that local heritage sites have on their personal quality of life, half (50%) give a score of 7 or more out of 10.
This wasn’t particularly new – other surveys have established similar results. But we did also establish a correlation between being happy with the heritage on offer in a local place, and agreeing that place is a good area to live, in general. This statistical correlation isn’t strong but, when set alongside the findings of qualitative research that we also carried out, it does support the idea of a link between heritage and positive perceptions of local areas.
Heritage is the connecting cord that links people and place: the geographic component to the need for belonging. Giving people the opportunity to creatively contribute to the continuously developing fabric of place - contributing to change - is a vital component of an inclusive society. Heritage, in this fullest sense, is about the process and negotiation of change: what is kept, what endures, what is lost, what is left behind. Change and ‘development’ which disconnects from important questions about ‘who decides’ are likely to fail.
Decisions about funding heritage projects are best made on multiple criteria – including plans for conservation and management, for how people would be involved, and relating to the multiple social and economic benefits they were planned to secure.
We look forward to the RSA’s index of heritage assets and activities, launching in September, which compiles a broad and inclusive set of indicators. In short, our research programme will continue to evidence what happens when we put a broad notion of well-being at the centre of decision-making.
Gareth Maeer is Head of Research at the Heritage Lottery Fund. You can follow the HLF @HeritageLottery
Do you have experience – either struggling or succeeding – to use local heritage assets to encourage people to get involved, take action and make positive change? If you have insights you think others could benefit from, get in touch with Jonathan Schifferes, who is leading the Heritage, Identity and Place project.