Landscapes At Risk

Soft Words but Cumulative Cuts DO Damage

Governments are as bad as their deeds rather than as good as their words, says CHRIS SUMNER.

Gothic boathouse at Gunnersbury Park
The gothic boathouse at Gunnersbury Park - boarded up and derelict
Photo: Chris Sumner

Headless statue at Crystal Palace
Headless statue at Crystal Palace Park. Most of the formerly extensive statuary was removed by the LCC.
Photo: Chris Sumner

Governments and rulers are as bad as their deeds rather than as good as their words, but the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee: Funding of the arts and heritage. Third Report of Session 2010-11 published 28th March 2011 (see website: www.parliament.uk/business/committees) makes enlightened and encouraging reading. Here is an extract from the summary:

‘Arts and heritage in Britain are among our greatest assets. They bring cultural and economic benefits and everybody should have access to them.
‘Since the Second World War, most arts and heritage organisations have operated on a mixed-funding model, whereby their income is made up partly of public subsidy and partly of private investment and earned revenue. This model has worked well for them, and we support mixed funding.’

Heritage Recognised...

The report goes on to include the following observations:

‘We note the importance of safeguarding the UK's heritage, as once lost it is gone forever. We comment that the heritage sector relies on expertise and skilled professionals and note, with concern, the continuing decline in local authority conservation officers and the impact this will have on the local planning decisions that affect heritage.
‘As with the arts and other cultural activities, heritage also contributes to growth, regeneration, education and tourism. A report published by the HLF and Visit Britain in March 2010 revealed:

... But Poorly Funded

However the Parliamentary Report confirms that

‘Unlike other DCMS-funded bodies, English Heritage has received grant settlements below inflation since 1997, resulting in a real-term reduction of 130m. It has undertaken economies and efficiency savings... It is nevertheless struggling to undertake all the key aspects of its wide remit...
‘We are concerned that the Government does not realise that effective management of the historic environment at local level cannot be adequately undertaken without sufficient numbers of local authority conservation officers...’

Comments from Lloyd Grossman, Chair of Heritage Alliance, on the potential damage inflicted by inadequate finance are included in the Report. In his comments Grossman draws particular attention to the difficulty of reversing the effect of spending cuts:

‘I think there is a danger that a skills base and a knowledge base which has been built up carefully over many decades is going to be eroded very quickly. Rebuilding that base will be extraordinarily difficult...’

Importance of Volunteers

Lloyd Grossman continues:

‘Volunteering is hugely important to the heritage sector and I think we estimate there are about 500,000 regular volunteers... volunteering is a complement to professional staff; it is not a substitute for professional staff... if we expect volunteers to do more - and I think they should because our heritage volunteers find the experience tremendously enriching - we have to provide them with the right level of mentoring... we have to provide a supportive culture for them, not just look at them as cannon fodder that can be thrown into the breach because we have cut down the number of professional staff...
‘It is important that the network of volunteers is not damaged by the spending cuts. The Government is promoting the idea of a ‘Big Society’, and nowhere more can this be seen than in heritage volunteering. We recommend that the Government does more to promote heritage volunteering through schemes such as volunteering at work.’

I would echo Grossman's comments. In view of the importance of public parks and of the Royal Parks to the (immeasurable) physical and mental well-being of Londoners and to the (multi-billion pound) tourist industry, the grudging and decreasing sums spent on parks by central and local government are disproportionately damaging in their cumulative effects. The proposed transfer of responsibility for the Royal Parks from DCMS to the Greater London Authority has been dropped in its originally proposed form following strong representations from friends' groups, concern expressed by the Mayor's office about the inadequacy and lack of guarantees about funding, and lack of parliamentary time properly to consider the legal implications. But the cuts in funding and staffing are already being implemented and cannot help but be damaging and undo the good work undertaken over the recent years with the help of Lottery funding.

Professional Posts Lost

As a post-script to the House of Commons report cited above, I should add a brief summary of a paper prepared by Edmund Bird, Heritage Advisor, Design for London, and presented to the Institute of Historic Building Conservation in May this year. He found that there has been a loss of more than 20 conservation and design officers across London in the last year, with six boroughs now having no dedicated conservation team and eight with only one member of staff to give both urban design and conservation advice. To their credit, pro tem. at least, the boroughs of Enfield, Greenwich, Tower Hamlets, Southwark, and Wandsworth have managed to retain their conservation teams intact.