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In working on heritage, identity and place, I've learned a lot about the role of heritage (living and historic) in developing a shared understanding of where you live. How can we use what we have to shape how Scotland develops?

I think I’ll start this blog with a confession, a work related mea culpa.  When I first became involved in the HLF funded project the RSA was to undertake, I didn’t really understand its significance. I definitely got that it is an area of interest for many of our Fellows – in Scotland we have a Fellow-led thematic network that has heritage as one of its key areas of interest, and many Fellows work in the field or have significant personal connections and passion for various aspects of heritage.  But the project is also an opportunity to connect citizens to their communities.  As Head of RSA Scotland I am involved in a wide variety of projects including the role of cities and towns in economic development; the impact of the circular economy within supply chains; educational reform and leadership; the impact of technology and legislation on medical advances.  All of these are influenced and impacted upon by the heritage of the communities (of place and/or interest) involved within them, heritage resources and pressures which need to be recognised within the work we are doing.

In light of this, the production of the Heritage Index is a significant step forward in allowing us to identify what resources are available within communities, and the ways that these can be harnessed and treasured.  It offers us a snapshot of different parts of the country, and potential spaces for innovation and impact.  It also showed the challenges in mapping these assets – we had to change our original plan for one UK-wide Index as many of the datasets are not consistent across the different countries.  It is an ambitious project, and one guaranteed to provoke discussion and dissent (check out the brief video overview from Jonathan Schifferes, who has led the project, for some insights into the creation of the Index) – this can only be a good thing as we look to broaden the debate taking place around these areas.

Who Needs City of Culture Status Anyway?

Dundee tops the Scottish Index.  At first glance this may seem surprising to many people.  I do a lot of work in Dundee and am struck by how poor the city’s reputation remains across the rest of the country – yet, Dundee’s place in the Index doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.  It is a city in the midst of vibrant change just now, and an exciting place to be.  It has a rich history behind it, demonstrated in its built environment, rich industrial heritage and museum spaces, yet crucially is developing and implementing a community focussed approach to connecting citizens to the resources of the city.  This was demonstrated through the unsuccessful campaign to become the City of Culture (the winner, Hull, comes 152nd in the English Index, so it will be interesting to see if the status helps to improve its standing at all), where citizens were at the heart of the ‘We Dundee’ drive to promote the city; but is continuing through activities across the city.  One interesting area would be to see how Dundee City (1st in Scotland) could better link with Angus (27th) its surrounding hinterland, and indeed how much of Angus’ current activity is actually tied into the city.

People AND Places

It was also fascinating to see Orkney come 2nd in the Index.  I was up in Orkney a fortnight ago, and you can’t help but be struck by the combination of natural heritage and areas of historical significance on the Islands, including Skara Brae, the Brough of Birsay and Scapa Flow.  Yet, Orkney’s place in the Index is influenced by the fact it comes top in scoring for heritage activities – things like participation, volunteering and investment.  It is clear that the presence of heritage resources is not enough for success – the crucial step is what you choose to do with them.  Orkney has harnessed its resources as both powerful stimulus for local activity, helping to cement the strong and vibrant Orcadian character (in itself a resource rooted in the heritage of the Islands); and as an attractive offer to tourists and academics across the world to encourage them to visit communities that could otherwise run the risk of being seen as on the periphery.

Heritage for Everyone

The activity level does seem to be, in my opinion, the best place for authorities to focus their efforts for change.  It is difficult, by their very nature, to quickly create heritage resources – castles can’t spring up, industrial heritage cannot be rewritten (although our heritage of the future is currently being created) and community stories cannot be successfully created from nowhere.  However, activities using whatever resources do currently exist is an area where authorities, statutory bodies and communities can take control. 

A case in point from the Scottish Index is South Ayrshire.  It comes bottom out of all of Scotland’s local authorities for heritage assets, yet is top of the list when it comes to activity relative to the assets it does possess.  A use of the Index for South Ayrshire would be to look at where it does better (for example it is 15th in terms of Parks and Green Spaces) in contrast to where it appears to be weakest (it is last in terms of social history) and look to develop activity which maximises the strengths it does have.  Alternatively, the decision could be made to work on those areas where resources are lower to try and change them – for example, perhaps projects which collate the social history of communities in South Ayrshire could be supported.

Creating the Future on the strength of our Past

Essentially, as our CEO Matthew Taylor states, this is what the Index is - a tool and a call to action.  It is a chance to examine the assets available, and to compare and contrast the levels in different areas.  And it is a chance to motivate communities to take ownership of those assets (in light of the Community Empowerment changes in Scotland this could be either literally or figuratively) and build activity around them.  And crucially, it should be a chance to do things differently, to try new approaches to place based policy.  As my colleague Matthew Parsfield explained in a stirring defence of Luton (which ended up ‘bottom’ of the Heritage Index for England), every community has heritage of some sort to utilise and people to inspire.  We will be exploring some of these ideas in Dundee at the end of October, but the offer is there to support these conversations in your community wherever you might be.  In Scotland we have a chance to use the data of the Heritage Index to help shape our activity and to ensure that we treasure the resources we have at the same time as we create the next part of our history.

Jamie Cooke is Head of RSA Scotland.  You can contact him at jamie.cooke@rsa.org.uk to discuss any of these ideas further, and  follow him on Twitter @JamieACooke

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