Heritage for the Future. Join the Debate. - RSA

Blog: Heritage for the Future. Join the Debate.


  • Picture of Clare Devaney
    Clare Devaney
    RSA Fellow and Associate
  • Cities
  • Communities
  • Community engagement
  • Heritage
  • Localism
  • Social networks

Local heritage is fundamental to place-based identities and associations; to people’s commitment to a place and their relationships with each other. Unless local people work together to comprehend what makes their place distinctive, and how they respond to that, devolved powers are unlikely to produce a difference in the way a place plans, invests and manages the process of change over time.

Our research in partnership with HLF - Heritage, Identity and Place - has seen us work in depth with a broad range of colleagues and stakeholders in Bristol, Oldham (for Greater Manchester) and Dundee, further interrogating the complex relationship between heritage and place, exploring perceptions and experiences of heritage, its role, funding and decision making processes, relationships and connections, and drawing out the links with other key priorities including education, regeneration and health and wellbeing.

Specifically, we have set out to identify ways in which local, regional and national stakeholders might be better connected in championing and shaping heritage, broadening the terms of the devolution and place-shaping debates, and bringing a more diverse range of voices into the conversation. These conversations led to some fascinating perspectives – which have been laid out below.

That research has underpinned development of the Heritage Index, launched on September 23 - a pioneering research tool bringing together over 100 indicators into six weighted domains, scored against assets and activity.

In November 2015, the RSA and HLF will co-host Heritage Question Time, panel debates in each of the focus locations, drawing on early interactions with the Heritage Index and the themes emerging from our fieldwork research across both phases. Building on our working definition of heritage as ‘Anything inherited from the past that helps us, collectively or individually, to understand the present, and create a (better) future’, the panel events will consider new and meaningful ways of connecting people to heritage and place, priorities for investment and conservation, and the role of heritage in building distinctive and sustainable futures. Find further details and sign up -

We warmly invite you to come along to the panel events, to explore the Heritage Index and to get in touch with the research team if you have any insights or experience to share to inform the future phases of research in the Heritage, Identity and Place project.

Join the debate.

Learning from Local Experience and Expertise: Bristol, Oldham and Dundee

‘Stake – a lot; influence – a few; affected – a lot; defines – a few’

‘Where is the mechanism through which places can say to national organisations ‘This is our place’ and they say ‘Great, how can we help you to deliver it?’

‘With increasingly limited resources, how do we decide what’s worth saving?’

Contributors in all three places were asked to consider who has a stake in heritage, who has influence in decision-making, who might be affected by those decisions and who gets to define what counts. An almost universal response was that ‘everybody’ has a stake in heritage, or at least that everybody should have a stake. In practice, it was felt that the majority of people are either disenfranchised or disinterested, or worse that they are unaware of their personal and collective connection with or potential contribution to heritage. There is a tangible disconnect between people and place, with the greater share of influence held by local authorities, funders and national bodies. Community leaders and groups, and indeed local authorities, whilst making largely positive contributions can, it was felt, become ‘gatekeepers’ and in fact act as barriers to more widespread engagement. This can lead to the dominance of one narrative, to the detriment of multiple stories and ‘heritage-s’, often in line with an imposed or stylised ‘brand’ for a place, creating a tension between local culture and identity and outward-facing tourism marketing and inward investment.

A number of common themes emerged from the workshop sessions, summarised briefly below.

Built Assets

'Derelict buildings – I keep hearing they are opportunities, but to me they’re just eyesores.'

Concerns were raised about dereliction of physical assets and poor quality of public realm, particularly in relation to listed buildings and the sometimes disabling criteria attached to securing funding for redevelopment. There were animated discussions around decision-making processes and ‘who gets to decide’ what is protected and preserved, and what is not. It was felt that better communication between places and national bodies, and a better understanding of local priorities, would vastly improve the status-quo.



'I know that x amount of school groups come and visit the Gallery and look at the Oldham Panorama – what I don’t know is how it makes the individual children feel. Do they feel proud? Does it feel like their history? How do they respond and connect to it?'

The groups touched on the experience of heritage, and considered how different individual and cultural identities could be brought together in the expression of place. Discussions considered ownership of heritage and promoting a sense of belonging and contribution. Colleagues expressed concerns around a limited ‘version’ of heritage and its appeal to only a small section of society. How can places balance integration of different ‘heritage-s’ with the need for a strong and cohesive collective identity?


Education and Learning

'Place-based education is important for embedding heritage in the long term. Our young people need a Bristol education; generic textbooks push against this.'

The groups made a number of links between heritage and education, considering heritage not just as an educational tool (such as school visits to museums and green spaces), but also education about heritage – how can heritage be integrated into the curriculum in order to encourage intergenerational understanding, protect and preserve skills and develop the broader understanding of heritage required to support its role in strategic conversations?



'We need to reconnect Dundee with the river, then through the river with the Baltic, India and the world.'

Shared heritage is widely acknowledged as a connector – between individuals as families, between families as communities and between communities as places. Both social and spatial connectivity were recurring themes in group discussions, particularly social interaction, memories and storytelling, cultural understanding, environmental heritage and green space - and their effects on health and wellbeing.


Future-proofing and Sustainability

'It’s far easier to get funding for capital costs rather than running costs – what does this say about the longer term sustainability of projects?'

There was a real sense in discussions of heritage as a contributor to the future, and of the imperative to encourage locally-generated solutions to improve sustainability and secure local support of assets. Concerns were raised about longer-term sustainability, particularly of community-led projects, with the perception that funding for start-up and capital costs is easier to evidence and secure, and that a number of projects are run towards a short-term conclusion. There was support for embracing social media and internet-based platforms, both as communication tools and as portals for new models of funding.


People, Stories and Voice

'Ultimately, successes like Stokes Croft are driven by determined people, for which there is no policy legislation.'

'The story of a place needs to be dynamic in order to keep local inhabitants engaged – how do you adapt and move to new stories? Every place is unique, therefore nothing is unique – how can a place stand out?'

'Teachers would give you a clip around the ear for speaking Dundonian. We were made to feel ashamed of that. I was taught two registers. But within Dundee, the Dundee dialect has prestige, we use it to speak to each other.'

The strongest message emerging from the workshops was the importance of people and stories, and the pressing need to give local people and communities both a stronger voice in heritage, and a more prominent role in articulating the narrative for place. In short, heritage starts with people. The neighbourhood scale better allows for narratives and stories about people and their relationships; getting beyond buildings explained through facts about their history. There was felt to be an important role for the heritage sector in promoting two-way communication and enabling people to pro-actively contribute, not just with stories and memories, but in determining what matters, in mapping and planning, and in decision-making around local assets. Groups felt that these critical conversations would require independent facilitation; an organisation, group or individual to champion a broader definition of heritage, to navigate around the ‘gatekeepers’, and to create a safe-space, not overly-influenced by either local politics or national agendas.


The Challenge

'Change is coming and we need to own that change.'

Devolution presents a huge opportunity for place-making as city-regions seek to determine local priorities, shape locally-driven responses and develop effective and distinctive place-based strategies. Distinctiveness simply cannot be delivered without understanding and articulating the particular heritage, identity and culture of that place. The only way to secure that depth of knowledge is to engage the place and its people as narrators of that articulation, to encourage people to tell their own story in their own accent, to empower their contribution to the place’s past, present and future; to give people the ‘power to create’.

The challenge for the heritage sector is to consider not just how it can contribute to Devo-Met, but how it too might devolve activities, funding and decision-making to the local scale.

Change is coming and heritage needs to own that change.

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