How should heritage decisions be made?

What has heritage ever done for us?: Democratic heritage decision making and heritage for enlivening democracy

What has heritage ever done for us?
20th June 2015, 1-4pm
Part of the Arts and Humanities Research Council’s Connected Communities Festival

Report by Helen Graham, University of Leeds

How might generate public participation in York's heritage help it do even more for the city - including enliven its democratic culture? Credit Jason Parrish via Flickr

How might generate public participation in York’s heritage help it do even more for the city – including enliven its democratic culture?

The Monty Python Life of Brian reference in the title was not lost on any of the speakers at the event – which included local councilors, heritage practitioners, community activists and entrepreneurs. The Monty Python joke is that there are a group of radicals who want to overthrow the Roman occupation of Judea. The leader of the group rhetorically asks the question ‘what have the Romans ever done for us’– expecting the argument to be NOTHING. LET’S GET RID OF THEM. And instead – there is pause for a moment or two – then one member of the group puts up their hand and says ‘the aqueduct’. Then the rest of the group keep coming up with ideas. Like Sanitation. Medicines. Irrigation. Wine. And the roads. At which point the leader, played by John Cleese says, ‘obviously the roads, the roads go without saying’.

As York’s Romans – and Vikings – remain an active presence through heritage in York today – ‘what has heritage ever done for us?’ seemed like a good, if not at all rhetorical, question to trigger our discussions.

Council Leader Chris Steward opened the event by drawing attention to York’s 1000 years of development and, with the Local Plan in mind, ‘we’ve got this massive opportunity to influence things because things in York do change, they should change and we’ve got to think about what we want to preserve and enhance’. Cllr Steward recognised that while there was a lot of cross-party agreement on aspects of York’s heritage there were real areas of contention, for example around levels of housing development and specifically whether this should happen in the green belt. At the time of the event decisions about local buildings – Reynard’s Garage and the Maltings in Clementhorpe – were about to be taken, decisions which, Cllr Steward suggested, reveal both questions about how there can be a more timely response to buildings falling out of use and earlier public involvement:

In both cases they are clear examples of where nothing has happened for years and years and years and that almost is the greatest wrong of all that they have just been left. So I know that it is absolutely key to get more people contributing and – I would say this wouldn’t I? – but I don’t think the previous administration was the most receptive to contributions.

Cllr Steward also addressed an issue that recently hit the headlines, that of the city’s drinking culture: ‘Tourism is a key thing because we want the right sort of tourists, if we can say that. So we are increasingly getting stag and hen parties but there’s a better way forward that we can actually – not sort of have tourists just as a commodity and that sort of thing but really share with them the brilliance of York’.

Cllr Dave Taylor opened by saying it was heritage – in the form the Castle Area Campaign against Coppergate II – that first got him politically engaged in York. Cllr Taylor was keen to see heritage as an ‘agent of change’ and of ‘regeneration, ‘I think too often in our city […] heritage has been seen as an obstacle, a millstone. And yet it can be the opposite of that – it is a great attractor.’ An example given was the plans for the Guildhall site, ‘There needs to be a sound business case, of course there does, but the idea of a twenty-first century Guild to take over the Guildhall is very appealing’. An issue that came up repeatedly during the event was Reynard’s Garage, once the Airspeed Factory associated with Amy Johnson, the famous aviator, who invested in the factory. Cllr Taylor – describing it as ‘one of York’s few Art Deco buildings of note’ – recounted his experiences of trying to intervene in the initial decision made to sell the land for development in 2014:

The Director had refused to give me, over the course of about a month information about the process, which delivered to cabinet four choices of what to do with the building. Knock it down and build a hotel. Knock it down and build a hotel. Knock it down and build a hotel. Or knock it down and build a hotel. It’s just scandalous really that a secret process took place with no opportunity for members of the public and no opportunity for opposition councillors at that time to engage with it.

This was a common theme – how to substantially increase transparency and public participation in the city’s decision making. Cllr Taylor concluded, ‘So I’ll leave you with a phrase, turning Helen’s question on its head perhaps, ask not what York’s heritage can do for you, but what you can do for York’s heritage?’

Peter Addyman, founding Director of York Archaeology Trust and current chair of York Civic Trust (a partner in the Heritage Decisions project) began by saying in answer to the event’s question that he became an archeologist because of the chance to come over as a teenager to get involved in digs in York. Then, having become a professional archeologist, Addyman was called back to York to review a scheme in 1969/1970 which suggested that ‘that five multi-storey car parks within the city walls were needed, proposed by the Esher Scheme’. Out of that work he ‘recommended the setting up of what turned out to be the York Archaeological Trust and in the report that we presented we promised the city in return, and I quote, “a vastly enriched history, a vastly enhanced museum collection and massive educational, touristic and recreational benefits,” and that has all happened.’ Citing the educational benefits, Addyman added:

I am told that upwards of 30 million people have now visited the Jorvik Viking Centre, about 40,000 school children every year for 30 years have had an intensive education in archaeology at Dig, the Archaeological Resource Centre in St. Saviour Gate, which itself uses a heritage building, St. Saviour’s Church. Now if you work it out 30 years, 40,000 schoolchildren, 1,200,000 school kids have been educated about heritage in York.

Addyman concluded by arguing: ‘So what has heritage ever done for us? The short answer is it’s made us a lot more prosperous than we otherwise might have been.’

Our next speakers were Lianne Brigham and Richard Brigham from York Past and Present, who have been involved in the Living with History project and the wider Heritage Decisions research project. They opened by explaining that ‘heritage has given us a sense of worth, a feeling of pride for the city we live in and I can honestly say it is something we never had before’. Lianne and Richard shared how York Past and Present has developed:

From our humble beginnings as a small Facebook group, over the past year we have increased membership to just under 8,000, a lot of whom actively participate in many of the things we do. We are a living, breathing, online community and we have achieved much more than anybody, including – we thought we could achieve a little bit.

Lianne and Richard then talked about their experiences of getting involved in documenting Mansion House: ‘this is involving over thirty members of the public to document the building, help pack the items and record’. Overall, they reflected that they found ways of making ‘our voices heard, even if it does mean shouting at the top of them or being slightly annoying at the same time!’

Michael Hayes, from new enterprise Plastic Fortune which ‘aims to build a network of creative young people in the city of York’, spoke next. Michael began by arguing that ‘York caters very well to the tourist and not so much to the resident’. This because, he suggested, ‘York is a city that did; it is not a city that does, which to be honest is a bit of a waste because there’s so much goes on in the city but it’s not put out there’. When Michael and his collaborators were setting up Plastic Fortune they did some research speaking to visitors and why were they visiting the city: the two most common answers were ‘drinking and old buildings!’. Michael wanted to draw attention to all of the contemporary culture that is going on in the city – something they’ve been capturing with the People of York series. He gave one example of being at Inkwell where there was a gig in the shop for Record Store Day, there started off being around 30 people but as the gig went on the crowd started to block ‘the street because loads of tourists want to see what is happening because something is happening. It is not something that has happened here, something is happening!’ In structural terms Michael drew attention to how hard it was to live in the city as a young person and to find space to rent to start a business.

Victoria Hoyle
, York City Archivist and a PhD student at the University of York, began by challenging our definitions of ‘archive’, ‘I think that the Archive of York should be all the documents, ephemera, memories and captured moments that allow us to understand our past and relate to our present and enable us to make those justified decisions about how we can live well together’. Crucially Victoria argued that this wasn’t just about the city’s past:

I would like to see it used more as a resource by Council officers and also by residents, to access information about how the city governs itself. […] I would like to think that there is a future where ‘look it up in the archive’, ‘visit the archive’, ‘have you thought about the archive?’, is the first step in designing solutions to problems and celebrating our past achievements.

A more driven and engaged approach to archiving as part of the city’s democratic life, Victoria argued, requires a different approach to ‘cataloguing’ and ‘digitising’:

Rather than prioritising our decisions about how we make the archive accessible based on what was important in the past, we think perhaps about new priorities, about what is important now, and being more responsive. So, for example, if there is a debate in York at present over housing and sustainability and the green belt, perhaps the archive relating to that material should be prioritised for accessibility?

Next to speak was York’s City Archaeologist John Oxley. He began with a thought for those who might be less enthused by tourism to the city: ‘If you want to know what York might be like without the economic benefits that come along with the heritage industry, I always say to people, come and have a look at York on Wednesday in January because I think that is probably base level activity within the city’. John drew some connections between ideas of what heritage is – ‘it is the micro- and macro-, the small level and the big level decisions that have been made in the past that give us the city that we live in today’ – and how we might imagine ‘conservation’ as ‘a dynamic process. It is the way that we make decisions today about what we take with us into the future.’ John shared ideas he is developing at the moment for York’s Historic Environment Record and, like Victoria, he is keen to see this as playing an active role in democratic engagement in the city today:

Information, knowledge is power and if you have the right information available, if you have access to the information, then that can assist you in making decisions. It empowers you as an individual, as a body and you can then take part effectively in that decision-making process. How do you get your hands on that information?

Our final speaker was Helen Weinstein, Director, Historyworks who spoke about recent work on Clifford’s Tower and the Eye of York. Helen opened by speaking about one of the first things she got involved in on taking up her post of Director, Institute for Public Understanding of the Past:

When I arrived in York the reason the problem was that that Clifford’s Tower was on all the covers of the tourist guides but if you opened the tourist guides there was particular bits of traumatic history that were always missing. When questions were asked there was just, well we don’t know how to navigate this. This is too difficult for us. Could you work with us as an expert who thinks about public engagement?

Helen is now working with English Heritage who ‘are now on a journey to think of Clifford’s Tower in a much more layered way’. Helen described the importance of a collaborative ethos in decision making: ‘We need to try and keep these conversations open and collaborative so that we don’t have ridiculous decisions made that people then have to campaign about’. A key issue of the broader Castle and Eye of Yorkshire area is the car park – that raises over £1m a year for the council. Helen cited Graham Bell – who ran an event exploring ideas for the area as part of the Living with History project – who said that ‘the situation at Clifford’s Tower seems to be one of a space left over after parking rather than the usual problem of space left over after planning’. Helen – through events ran earlier this year – has been keen, because of ‘the problems of interpretation around Clifford’s Tower’ to bring stakeholders together, York Museums Trust, York Civic Trust, English Heritage and also the City Archaeologist ‘to rethink the site’. Helen, with her background in television, film making and digital content was emphasizing also the value of ‘digital’ in telling more complex stories about York ‘so that multiple voices, multiple layers of resources and multiple materials can be lodged there’.

The event then used Open Space techniques to generate group discussions for the rest of the event. Out of this some actions were developed that are currently being developed:

What’s next?

1) Proactive not reactive: Build on Local List to ensure very early engagement with what is significant to try and reduce crisis moment around specific buildings at threat.
2) Develop more playful ways of people being involved in decisions at the city level: Can history and heritage help here and act as a point of connection for contributing towards decisions affecting the future of the city?
3) Historic Environment Record: to link up different people’s knowledge about York and become a resource for engaging in decision making.
4) Bridging arts and heritage divide: To arrange a hack day to bring lots of people interested in Guildhall and Digital Media Arts to explore ways of interpreting the Guildhall.
5) Public documentation: Linking up private owners with fascinating interiors with people interested in documenting them.
6) Understand better how ‘heritage’ affects York: Heritage has a range of complex effects – how can we more self-conscious use it to live well together.
7) Understand better York today: Idea of mass observation or other forms to ‘make tomorrow’s history’.
8) Set up York Heritage Network (mailing list plus facebook page). Not to replace the forums but a loose network for information flow and initiating proactive responses to issues (e.g. Guildhall / Maltings)

If you’d like to get involved in any of these ideas – or to keep in touch with developments – email Helen Graham on

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