What can data reveal about
Britain’s heritage?

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You may be aware of the castle in your town or the lake down the road or the old works in your city centre - but do you know how the past shapes the identity of where you live today?

Do you realise that by taking a walk in a National Park, or going to a fete, or even eating a pork pie you are also engaging with history?

For the first time, we reveal how these ‘assets’ and activities both separately and together improve life for the people living there and which places are making the best use of this local heritage.

Local communities and cultural leaders may express heart-felt enthusiasm for a region’s history and identity but may not always see the potential that this heritage has in developing an area economically, culturally or socially.

Rather than follow a generic formula, we believe that heritage can provide the USP in shaping a place. Local and civic leaders need to look deeper and wider in using heritage to strengthen the local identity that our research proves is linked to well-being.

The Heritage Index, launched by the RSA in collaboration with the Heritage Lottery Fund, ranks for the first time which areas are making best use of their heritage assets through activities such as volunteering, the number of people visiting museums and the number of nights people spend on holiday in a local area.

The Heritage Index is designed to stimulate debate about what is valued from the past and how that influences the identity of current residents in a place. It brings together over 100 indicators and these include:

Listed buildings, historic battlefields and conservation areas

Land designated for protection of wildlife such as nature reserves

Parks, National Parks and Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty

Local food and drink products which have received special protected status from the European Commission, such as Melton Mowbray pork pies and Kentish Ale

Blue Plaques on buildings which mark a famous or important individual associated with the building (The Blue Plaque scheme was first proposed in 1863 by William Ewart MP and by 1866 the RSA had founded what we would recognise as the Blue Plaques scheme today.)

Heritage Open Days

Number of young people who are active in heritage, e.g. with archaeological clubs, at wildlife reserves, in school participation outside of the classroom

Heritage is about people and activities,
not just physical assets

Often we associate heritage with historic structures which have stood the test of time: castles and palaces, museums and country houses, the legacy of industrial Britain. But where history comes alive is where people are part of their local history.

In the Heritage Index we’ve reflected this by looking at both the fixed assets such as the buildings, the nature reserves and so on but also the activities that people are doing.  Bringing these two together reveals new insights about which areas in England, Scotland and Wales are making best use of their heritage.

In England it’s probably predictable that the City of London, the London borough of Kensington & Chelsea and the university towns of Oxford and Cambridge all appear among the top six districts on the Assets Index. But, when heritage activity is included the top performers then include Scarborough, Cumbria’s Lake District and Norwich.

Key insights from the Heritage Index…


Heritage Star Performers

In England: 1. City of London. 2. Kensington & Chelsea. 3. Scarborough. 4. Cambridge.  5. Hastings. 6. Oxford. 

The well understood assets of world-class museums, University archives, Royal Parks and dense collections of historic buildings put the City of London, Kensington & Chelsea, Oxford and Cambridge amongst the highest rankings – along with high levels of participation in local heritage by local residents and tourists.

Scarborough’s natural heritage helps move it up the
rankings: local residents’ keen interest in nature and wildlife volunteering, the care of Blue Flag beaches and protected sites for nature, its location on the edge of the North York Moors National Park - all of which attract high numbers of visitors.

Hastings is particularly strong in social history and industrial heritage, as well as parks and green space. The town has some of the country’s largest number of Heritage Open Days and Blue Plaques.

Portsmouth (12th), Southend (18th) and Blackpool (28th) score among the top 10% of England’s 325 local authorities on the Heritage Index, despite having areas of high deprivation. 

Many other coastal areas score particularly highly: including Dorset’s Jurassic Coast, Torbay in Devon, and the Cumbria coast.

In Scotland: 1. Dundee. 2. Orkney Islands. 3. Edinburgh. 4. Eiliean Siar (Outer Hebrides – Western Isles) 5. Glasgow. 6. Stirling.

In Dundee, volunteering and events are high and there has been heavy investment in the city’s heritage by the local authority.

The Orkney Islands are home to a globally-recognised World Heritage Site which includes Skara Brae, a well-preserved Neolithic village older than Stonehenge or Egypt’s Pyramids. 

In Wales: 1. Gwynedd. 2. Isle of Anglesey, 3. Ceridigion. 4. Pembrokeshire, 5. Torfaen. 6. Denbighshire.

Unlike England and Scotland, the top spot in Wales is taken by a rural area. Gwynedd is home to Snowdonia National Park and is a hugely popular area for tourism. But this is also the local authority with the second largest number of listed buildings in Wales, and more museums and archives than any other except Powys.


Myth Busting


Myth 1: Heritage is richer in prosperous places

When we compared the heritage scores of all 325 English districts with their scores in the Index of Multiple Deprivation we found no correlation between the two.

Several places score highly in the Heritage Index despite being relatively poor communities, including Burnley (33rd in England), Newport (10th in Wales) and Dundee (1st in Scotland), and rural areas such as Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria (15th in England) and Ceredigion (3rd in Wales). 

On the other hand, many affluent areas do not register strong results for local heritage. In England particularly notable are Wokingham (278th), Aylesbury (307th), Basingstoke (319th) and parts of Surrey such as Reigate & Banstead (290th) and Spelthorne (314th).


Myth 2: Heritage is biased towards big cities, or heritage is strongest in the countryside

We compared the heritage scores on the Heritage Index for all 325 English districts with statistics which measure how much built-up land they contain, relative to countryside. We found that neither urban nor rural areas are more likely to score better or worse. Rural areas do tend to see higher scores on activities – once they are adjusted on a per person basis.

The graph below plots the scores for the most urban districts in England (where over 90% of the population live in towns and cities) against the most rural districts (where less than 10% of population in towns and cities). The distribution of scores is very similar, reflecting a diversity of heritage in both the city and in the countryside.


Myth 3: The North-South divide extends to England’s heritage

The North, South and the Midlands of England all feature districts with particularly strong performances. Parts of Yorkshire and Cumbria are among the highest scoring places in England. In Wales, South Wales, North Wales, Mid-Wales and West Wales each have high scoring districts.

Overall, the 87 Northern districts of England outperform the South in industrial history - and in landscape and natural heritage. The South scores higher in the historic built environment domain and in museums, archives and artefacts. The South scores higher on the Heritage Assets Index and the North scores higher in the Heritage Activities Index.


Local Focus

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Liverpool is our city of heritage, as well as city of culture

Outside of London, Liverpool is amongst the top large cities in England - and at 59th in the top 20% overall. Liverpool ranks particularly highly for museums and objects and for cultures and memories. The city has 23 businesses in the culture sector which have their own long history, having existed for over 75 years. This includes football clubs, music venues, cinemas and theatres. Liverpool also has significant natural heritage assets including the Mersey estuary.

Liverpool is closely followed by Bristol. Bristol – 72nd overall – has strong levels of activity around its historic built environment as well as extensive coverage through conservation areas. The city is surrounded by a Green Belt with many landscape assets, and in heritage activity has pioneered innovations such as mapping all of its public sculptures as part of the Know Your Place initiative.

Leeds and Birmingham, however, score in the bottom 30% of English local authorities in the Heritage Index, despite Leeds having more listed buildings than any city outside London, and Birmingham having more Blue Plaques. Leeds scores in the top half of the heritage activities table but much lower on heritage assets.  This could be because the councils are the two most populous in the country and cover a large amount of suburban development which is considered to have low heritage value.

Cardiff comes 9th among 22 council areas in Wales with Swansea coming 8th. Cardiff has particular strengths in parks and open space, while Swansea has strengths in industrial heritage and the natural heritage of Swansea Bay. 

Dundee comes 1st among Scotland’s 32 council areas whilst Edinburgh at 3rd pips Glasgow (5th). Dundee was a Victorian centre of industry with extensive shipbuilding and in 1911 had over 40% of the workforce in jute production at more than 100 mills. Recently it has seen high levels of investment in advance of the arrival of the Victoria and Albert Museum on the waterfront.

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The coast: from seaside holidays to seaside heritage

Over the last 50 years many seaside towns and coastal communities have struggled, perhaps due to the decline of domestic tourism along with the challenges of serving an ageing resident population.

Some coastal areas, however, have seen the potential in their
heritage to help adapt to these pressures. Successes include Cornwall, North Devon, Scarborough and the Lincolnshire coast, where heritage assets have been capitalised upon to generate high levels of activity.

In Cornwall, a strong sense of pride and identity has underpinned efforts to help mainstays of the local diet: oysters, sardines, pasties and clotted cream have achieved European Union protected status. 

On the Lincolnshire coast, the Mablethorpe Marathon was initiated in 2006 in an effort to extend the end of the tourist season and build a distinct identity for the town.

Scarborough has pioneered the use of data analysis since the 1990s, allowing the town to understand trends in the economic impact generated by tourism. In Whitby (part of the Scarborough district) heritage events extend beyond the summer tourist season, building on the asset of the Gothic Abbey to host a horror film festival, for example.

The Heritage Index suggests future growth areas for heritage
activity, as well as tourism, could include Hastings and West Somerset. The Index points to significant opportunities to
capitalise upon different forms of local heritage, in particular landscape and natural heritage attractions - including wildlife reserves in north Kent (Gravesend, Medway and Isle of Sheppey) and south Essex (Southend and neighbouring Rochford and Castle Point).

In Southend, as well as its unique pier the town is part of the story of the Thames ecological renaissance: it has natural assets as important as those present in National Parks yet low levels of participation. It is also part of the Thames Gateway – one of the fastest developing parts of the country with new housing and a
growing population. So there is potential for growth.

To capitalise on the opportunity for Southend, councils and
communities should work together across district boundaries and promote and support access to heritage – including targeting new residents and visitors arriving through the growing airport at Southend.


The benefits of heritage: higher well-being

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The UK government has recently started surveying the population to understand how levels of well-being vary between places. We compared this data to scores from our Heritage Index. We found that in areas which scored highly on the Heritage Index, residents also tended to report higher levels of well-being. 

Most interestingly, it is heritage activities rather than heritage assets which make the difference. This holds true in Scotland, Wales and England.

Several factors might explain this link. Having extensive and accessible heritage activities available locally allow people more opportunities to have experiences which drive satisfaction with life.

Alternatively, it could also be relevant that people with high well-being are more pro-active in choosing to (or being more able to) live in districts with high levels of local amenities including heritage. Also, people with high levels of well-being are more commonly active participants and volunteers in their community.

Taken together, this finding suggests that heritage assets alone do not contribute to well-being, but higher levels of heritage activity could be a driver of well-being. This is promising for the heritage sector since activities are more open to influence than assets.


The Opportunity Index: places with potential

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The Index suggests that many of the UK’s heritage assets remain untapped by local authorities and could play a much greater role in helping their area thrive.

There are a number of ‘opportunity areas’ - where levels of heritage activity could be higher given the assets that the areas enjoy. These include many inner city districts such as Newham and Islington in London, Bury in Lancashire, and Dudley in the Black Country.

In these places there are a rich set of assets but levels of activity are low. For example:

Tower Hamlets has six accredited museums locally and has yielded more archaeological finds than any other London borough (except the City of London). However, just 43% of residents regularly go to a museum – less than the national average of 52%.

Dudley is home to a high concentration of industrial history assets including canals, railways and the Black Country Living Museum but overall heritage activity levels are in the bottom half of local authorities when compared across England.

In Wales, Cardiff, Flintshire and Newport have the largest gap when comparing heritage activities to assets. In Scotland, Moray, Fife and East Lothian have the largest gap. In both cases, these are potential growth areas for heritage activity.

At the other end of the spectrum, analysis of the Index reveals that Cornwall, Lincolnshire, Stirling and Ayrshire in Scotland, and the West Wales coast, are doing particularly well already in making the most of their heritage assets. Some of England’s most renowned historic towns, such as Harrogate, Stratford-upon-Avon, Chester, Winchester, York and Bath are all assessed to be performing well, using assets to drive high levels of heritage activity.

However, there are many surprises too. Among less famous places, Arun district (containing Littlehampton and Bognor Regis), Milton Keynes and Bedford are all home to relatively high levels of heritage activity, despite being in the bottom half of local authorities in density of heritage assets.

In Arun, this has included making greater progress on ‘Neighbourhood Plans’ than anywhere else in England – these plans give local people the chance to set policies on how the historic environment is protected in law. In Milton Keynes, although the majority of buildings were built in the last 50 years as the new town was expanded by the government, the number of Heritage Open Days locally is well above average.


Shaping places: taking action to boost local heritage and identity

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The Heritage Index is designed to be a resource which helps to forge a stronger link between local heritage and the identity of residents in a place. This can help a place achieve its aspirations to grow and prosper, socially and economically.

It allows anyone interested in heritage to understand and interpret a range of data from dozens of different sources through a single access point. Those with a passion for numbers are able to customise results for themselves by changing the calculations within the Index. Engaging with the data can, itself, stimulate a richer conversation which relates heritage assets to heritage activities across a broad spectrum of what we consider as heritage.

In Bristol, Oldham and Dundee, the RSA will organise a public debate in autumn 2015 to understand better the aspects of heritage which matter most to local people, how they relate to other priorities (like housing, parks or education) and what a range of organisations should do with this collective intelligence.

Strategies which shape the development of local areas are more successful when people can identify with what makes where they live special. Heritage provides a USP, differentiating one place from another and is fundamental to the global brand and local identity associated with that place.

We recommend that:

Local leaders – including leaders of government, public services, major institutions and major corporations – should use the Heritage Index as evidence to inform local strategies. The Index shows relative strengths and weaknesses across a broad definition of heritage and brings attention to where strengths could be consolidated and capitalised upon, or areas where under-performance might be addressed. This will be particularly important for areas adopting new powers as part of Devolution and Decentralisation.

People designing projects and preparing funding applications will be able to better understand how their work would measure against the scale of existing heritage assets and activities locally. This could inspire better designed projects. The indicators themselves point to different ways in which projects could understand that they have been successful.

Those looking to develop local heritage to boost tourism, employment or leisure and learning opportunities for local citizens can capture, through a simplified measure, the ways in which a local area is special or unique, thereby helping to identify and set priorities.

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How do I get involved?

Visit a local museum or an archive

Volunteer with a local organisations

Connect with one of our heritage ambassadors

For more ideas take a look at our how to get involved in your local heritage page

Use social media to upload photos, text or video about the history of a place, using Historypin, and ensure that all information on historic plaques is up to date

Help shape a neighbourhood plan to guide the policies you want to shape development in your area in the future

Consider the heritage assets in your area that could be listed as an Asset of Community Value. The Department of Communities and Local Government is currently running a campaign to get more heritage assets listed as ACV’s. This offers protection to local assets and means that communities could bid to own them in the future, should they come up for sale; see mycommunity.org.uk

Helping farmers and food businesses designate local food and cuisine to get protection for its local status from the European Commission