Saving British heritage

Christopher Catling, Contributing Editor for Current Archaeology, delves into the eccentricities of the heritage world. This latest 'Sherds' column explores the attacks on archaeology and heritage in professional and academic spheres, as well as recent successful efforts to rescue and restore important historic structures.

Archaeologists in the UK are currently in campaigning mode. When are they not, you might ask; it is a sad fact of life that archaeologists can never relax and must continually repeat the message that our heritage is a rich resource for understanding past and present, is irreplaceable once destroyed, belongs to us all, and should not be sacrificed to short-term interests. But the message is now more urgent, because universities throughout the UK are closing their archaeology department or reducing their capacity – sadly, the current generation of university administrators seem only to care about the income from student fees, and faculties deemed not to be generating enough profit are being chopped, regardless of the excellence of their teaching and research.

The threat to university teaching is only one of the issues currently facing archaeologists. In an email to members, the Chartered Institute for Archaeologists (CIfA) also pointed to the English Planning Bill, the Environment Bill, and the Agriculture (Wales) Act as serious matters for concern because all three propose to remove or weaken existing environmental protections (in the case of Welsh agricultural subsidies, by removing the funding that farmers currently get for positive stewardship of the historic environment).

A combined total in excess of 45,000 people have now signed petitions to save the departments of archaeology at Sheffield and Chester. CIfA and the Council for British Archaeology (CBA) are asking members to write to their constituency MP (MS in Wales) to explain the value of archaeology to the economy, the environment, and to society, and to ask them to consider supporting archaeology in relevant parliamentary/ Senedd debates. Together, the two organisations are seeking to increase media coverage of these issues by putting out as many positive news stories as possible about the discipline.

Numbers count

But does it work? How effective is this kind of activity in changing policy and reversing decisions that have the potential to rob society of its heritage? CIfA and the CBA say that the members who wrote to their MPs to support their briefings on the English Planning White Paper helped in securing access to ministers and civil servants to discuss the detail of the policy proposals. There is no doubt, too, that size does count in such matters: the National Trust, representing 5.5m members, can claim to speak for a goodly proportion of the population of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland (the National Trust for Scotland is a separate and independent conservation charity) when it challenges policies that are potentially harmful to natural and cultural heritage.

But it also helps to be forthright and vigorous. SAVE Britain’s Heritage, founded on 6 June 1975, has scored a series of victories over the decades. SAVE’s most recent newsletter proudly reports that the organisation has halted the Westminster Parliament’s expensive and environmentally damaging plan to demolish Richmond House, listed at Grade II* as a rare example of a fine and uplifting building from the 1980s, to make way for a temporary chamber while the Palace of Westminster is being restored.

SAVE is celebrating, too, the withdrawal of plans to redevelop South Kensington tube station, putting its attractive Victorian shopping arcade at risk, and the plan to demolish Liverpool’s art deco Abbey Cinema, now granted Grade II-listed status by Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden. SAVE also won notable changes of heart in the last decade when it prevented the demolition of Ringo Starr’s birthplace in Liverpool and the other terraced houses of the city’s ‘Welsh Streets’, and when it secured the future of the Smithfield general market, currently under conversion to create a new home for the Museum of London.

SAVE isn’t always successful, however: Boris Johnson, when Mayor of London, refused to climb down to prevent the destruction of the London Fruit and Wool Exchange in Spitalfields, and SAVE lost the battle to preserve key historic interiors and fine Edwardian woodcarving when the Middlesex Guildhall was converted to house the Supreme Court in 2010. And it is still fighting the Westminster government over its continuing failure to give reasons for intervening in planning decisions: the so-called ‘calling-in’ process, whereby Government Ministers choose to overrule planning authorities and make their own decisions about a proposed development.

SAVE Britain’s Heritage was successful in campaigning to prevent the demolition of Richmond House in Whitehall, but they were not able to stop the London Fruit and Wool Exchange in Spitalfields from being destroyed.

Fighting talk

What tactics does SAVE use, and can archaeologists learn anything from them? First, SAVE’s statements are often couched in very robust language. Marcus Binney, SAVE’s Executive President, never seems to be lost for a forthright phrase. He described the decision not to give reasons for a calling-in decision as a policy ‘to dodge the public scrutiny that they [controversial planning decisions] richly deserve’, and as ‘a slap in the face for openness in planning decisions in favour of arbitrary government… based on civil service sloppiness and laziness in ignoring (and forgetting) policies announced in Parliament’.

Second, SAVE focuses on specific threats as much as it does on general policy. People can relate to the pending destruction of a much-loved building much more easily than they do to philosophical arguments about heritage as a public good, or a non-renewable resource, or a community asset.

Third, SAVE tries to present alternatives to destructive development. When Ringo Starr’s house was threatened with demolition, SAVE commissioned an alternative scheme for the Welsh Streets, bought one of the houses, and paid to have it converted to create a comfortable, low-carbon, environmentally sound, and much-needed low-cost home.

Finally, SAVE uses legal processes, much to the annoyance of Government, whose latest planning reforms include a measure to curtail the use of judicial review as a means of intervening in planning decisions – this seems to be so directly targeted against SAVE’s successful use of court procedures in the past that it should perhaps be called the ‘let’s get SAVE’ clause.

It all costs money, of course: SAVE’s published accounts show income of around £275,000 a year from donations, legacies, sales, and subscriptions. The CBA’s income in the year to 31 March 2020 is double that of SAVE, at £554k a year, but £350k of that came from one-off grants from the National Lottery, the Cultural Recovery Fund, and Historic England. SAVE is single-mindedly focused on campaigning, whereas the CBA has a much broader range of activities. It has, though, recognised that money is an issue, and has recently recruited staff to strengthen its fundraising capacity.

In the final analysis, it comes down to a question of whether you believe that robust campaigning is more likely to succeed than polite advocacy and good news. Perhaps what is needed is both: an outspoken group brave enough ‘call out’ controversial and destructive decision-making and mobilise public opinion – not least among the young – and the more careful and corporate approach of bodies like the CBA and CIfA.

Concrete fountains

Long-standing readers of CA will know that Sherds has many idiosyncratic passions, not least the desire to see Victorian drinking fountains brought back to use. Sherds’ heart initially leapt for joy when reading that a Grade II-listed fountain that stood in the path of HS2 construction work has been relocated from St James’s Gardens, north of London’s Euston station, to the garden alongside St Pancras Church, on the opposite side of Euston Road. The fountain was originally installed by the Metropolitan Drinking Fountain and Cattle Trough Association in 1897 and was Grade II-listed in 1987. Camden Borough Council issued a press release declaring that the fountain had been ‘lovingly restored’ using traditional metalwork fabrication methods in accordance with Historic England requirements.

Joy was soon followed by disillusionment when Dalya Alberge (in The Observer newspaper on 6 June 2021) reported an interview with Nicola Stacey, Director of the Heritage of London Trust (HoLT), who said that the St Pancras fountain was without taps or function: ‘When a drinking fountain is dry, that’s not lovingly restored,’ she said.

Nicola went on to speak of an ‘alarming trend’ for local authorities to claim that they were restoring London’s drinking fountains but actually destroying them by filling the bowls with cement. She said that HoLT would help with grants provided that the water supply is reinstated, and countered claims that this would cost £50,000 per fountain by saying that local authorities were exaggerating the cost: ‘the standard reinstallation cost is just £2,000’, she said. Asking why London couldn’t be like Rome, with fountains on every street, she said: ‘The younger generation see the point totally. Why pay for a little plastic bottle when you can come and refill your bottle? Why clog up the Thames with nasty discarded bottles?’

That’s what heritage needs – more people like Nicola to call a spade a spade!