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Advocacy for Heritage Sites 

12-09-2015 17:35

Is advocacy for heritage sites needed? In some ways it’s a rhetorical question. We care about what we do, and it’s obvious we should want to persuade others of its importance.

Most of us—indeed all of us in this room—live and breathe heritage and spend most of our time talking about and trying to convert others to our cause. Our organizations were founded by passionate advocates and most of us continue that tradition today.

Yet I don’t think that many of us would describe ourselves as having “won” the heritage battle. Every day we hear about new challenges:

  • unsympathetic governments, even uninterested governments;
  • inadequate resources;
  • lack of media interest, or the wrong kind;
  • official or public apathy, or lack of support.

So I’m not going to say much about whether advocacy matters, but about why it matters, who we are trying to persuade, and what we are trying to say.

Why Heritage Matters

So why does heritage matter?

To our founders, it was quite simple. They looked around them in 1895 and saw much that they valued being swept away in the name of progress. Industrialization, intense development pressures, noise and dirt, pollution —and aesthetic values being overrun by rampant materialism. They believed beauty was as important to people’s lives as food and shelter—and they saw it being destroyed. In their eyes, what was beautiful was very broadly defined—and has continued to be so right up to today.

They established the National Trust for England, Wales and Northern Ireland “for the purpose of promoting the permanent preservation for the benefit of the nation of lands and tenements (including buildings) of beauty or historic interest…”

Note those words: Promote —using advocacy; after all that’s all our founders had! There was no money, no staff. Permanent—the unique strength of our Act was its provision for declaring land and property inalienable, enabling us truly to protect it forever. For the benefit of the nation—for everyone, not just our members. And, places of beauty and historic interest —giving a wide canvas for the Trust’s work.

These words, written nearly 100 years ago, have amazing resonance today. Indeed, many of the pressures that gave rise to the National Trust are still with us today; some would argue more intensively than ever.

But important though heritage is for its own sake, today we have to find new arguments to support our cause. In particular we need to make our case in terms that connect with policy makers’ agendas, such as social and economic benefits. This is even more important now in the light of pressures on the environment and challenges such as climate change. Two years ago at the International National Trusts’ meeting in Edinburgh I shared with you our analysis of the social and economic benefits of what we do, which we have since published in our leaflet Not just a pretty place. This shows how we make an important contribution to:

  • job creation
  • income generation in rural areas
  • benefits to local communities
  • sustainable tourism as a source of benefit to the economy.

This is important, but we need to do more than this. To get across why heritage matters we need to demonstrate that it matters to people, and to encourage them to express their support for it.

Sheer numbers help of course, and we are lucky to have a very large membership. But numbers alone are not enough; and whether you have a small or a large membership we will need to show that these people are engaged in as well as consumers of heritage.

Who Are We Trying to Convince?

For many years, our advocacy has been focused largely on governments—to give more money for heritage, to stop adverse development, and to make the right decisions.

These challenges are important and will always remain so, but there can be a rhetorical element to them of which we should beware. It can look like the heritage movement believes it knows all the answers and is simply telling governments what to do. There is more than a hint of arrogance about this and it does not always work.

Today, it’s clear that it’s more complex than this. Governments —and indeed all those with a stake in the issues, whether they are developers or land managers—need solutions, not rhetoric; and they need to know that the ideas that are being promoted are practical and will work.

So we need an element of humility as well as passion, and we need to be ready to try things out and work ideas through, or base our proposals on practical experience, not just high-minded ideals.

What Are Our Messages?

Our heritage matters to us in a deep, almost visceral way. It’s as much about the way we feel about ourselves as about places, objects, or things.

What we campaign for therefore needs to reflect what society wants to be like in the future as well as what we were like in the past; and we need to find solutions to problems that will engage people, not divide them.

It follows that we mustn’t isolate heritage from the real world, creating a little bubble within which our heritage is protected, but ensure that respect and care for heritage imbues decisions that are made for all sorts of other reasons. In other words, heritage must be a key contributor to the lives we want to lead in the future, not an isolated strand of policy operating in isolation from everything else. It is in this way that we can, as we so often say, draw on the past to help shape the future.

Most of all, to achieve this we need the public behind us— not just as members, though having lots of members certainly helps, but as people participating in and expressing a view about the kind of environment we want to live in the future.

Let me give a few examples of some of the things we are trying to do, to illustrate this approach.

First, the future of the countryside.

In Europe it has long been clear that we need a new Common Agricultural Policy. After years of campaigning we have got one—not a perfect one, but much better than what went before. In the future, farmers will be paid for looking after the countryside, not growing food. This is a good thing.

But as the new policies are being applied in England, the new support system threatens to undermine the viability of farming in some of our most precious hill areas, in the Lake District, Yorkshire, and Northumberland.

The new policies are right but—as ever—the devil is in the detail of implementation, and there are problems with the method of implementation that has been selected. In particular, small farmers in hill areas will be hit hard by the new system. The Trust, with our great knowledge of and responsibility for upland farming, is able to speak from practical knowledge about what is needed to put this right.

But it’s not just about policy and the implementation of policy. The new farming system will only work if consumers start to behave differently —to buy local food, and to seek out food products that have come from sustainable farming systems. In other words, we have to get the public behind us, not just in words but in their actions.

Second, issues facing the coast.

The Trust owns more than 700 miles of coastline, enabling us to protect and manage it for public benefit.

But if ever there was an example of a place that is not susceptible to being kept as it is, it is the coastline. It is mobile, with coastal material being eroded, flooded, and constantly moved by the force of the sea. And as we understand more about climate change, it is clear that those forces are going to become stronger and more unpredictable.

The Trust’s approach is to be very open about the challenges of managing the coastline in these new circumstances, and to be honest that we cannot hold the sea back, or the land in place. And the cost of trying to keep things as they are is often prohibitive. So we need to work with nature, not against it.

But this can be hard for people to understand and accept. Sometimes people’s houses are at risk of falling into the sea, or much-loved landscapes are at risk of flooding. We cannot please these people, but we must work hard to help them understand the challenges. And if possible we must get the public involved in the challenges posed by climate change, and in helping to develop sustainable uses of the coastline such as tourism based on sustainable management of resources.

A third example is Stonehenge.

It is an iconic monument of international importance, heavily compromised by a highway thundering past the stones. For 25 years the Trust and English Heritage have been working together with other conservation and heritage bodies to find a solution to this problem.

A solution was found—a tunnel to take the sight, smell, and sound of traffic out of the landscape. A public inquiry was held and, subject to differences of view about the length of the tunnel, a solution appeared to be in sight.

But in July this year the government announced that the whole project was under review, because the cost of the tunnel had leapt from about £200 million to more than £400 million. “Review” in these circumstances may be a euphemism for cancellation, and few expect the tunnel to be built.

So it may be back to the drawing board for Stonehenge, with the sobering knowledge that the government is not prepared to pay what it takes to find the right heritage solution for the stones and their precious landscape.

We are therefore exploring the potential for a public campaign for our heritage, whose aim will be to find ways of enabling the millions of people who care about our heritage to express their support for it in a positive way.


This is a different sort of advocacy, because it’s not about decision-makers or even the wider public but about reaching out to the next generation, who need to be tomorrow’s heritage supporters.

If we can inspire young people to care about our heritage —win their hearts and minds and engage them—not only will their own lives be enhanced but they will go on to become a generation who cares about our heritage.

More Examples of Advocacy

There are many, many examples of successful advocacy that delivers positive results for heritage. Let me mention a few from other countries:

In Cushenden in Northern Ireland, the National Trust in combination with the Ulster Architectural Heritage Society has developed a scheme, called HEARTH, to rescue 150 historic buildings and create new homes for local people from those buildings.

The Dampier Rock Art Precinct in Western Australia is threatened by industrial development, and a campaign to protect it has won the support of the World Monuments Fund, which has placed it on its Most Endangered Places list.

And finally, Din L’art Helwa, Malta’s National Trust, fights an unceasing battle against inappropriate and insensitive tourist development in that tiny, precious, crowded island.

Common Ingredients of Success

The common ingredients of success are clear—vision, passion, yes. But also the engagement of people to support the cause and show that they care.

To do that, we need to get them involved, in a new and more direct way than we have in the past. The new buzzword is “participative access”—people not only coming to visit but getting involved in the process of conservation, as we are pioneering at Tyntesfield, a Victorian house and estate near Bristol where the public is being given the chance to take part in, not just look at the ongoing conservation work.

Above all, it means bringing heritage into the mainstream, making it integral to all that matters in our lives, not a separate element.

This requires not only the passion and determination that we are all used to demonstrating but also a degree of humility; to listen to what people are telling us about what matters and what is important.

If we achieve this goal, our advocacy and our capacity to deliver will be greatly enhanced.

Publication Date: Spring 2006


Subtitle:Presented at the International Conference of National Trusts held in Washington, D.C., October 15-19, 2005.
Author(s):Fiona Reynolds

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