How are councils coping with heritage staff cuts?

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National Trust property Tyntesfield estate, near Wraxall, North Somerset.

In the scramble to slash the budget deficit after the recent financial crash, the conservation and heritage sectors proved to be sitting targets for savage government funding cuts. So, what exactly are the implications for conservation across the UK, and how are councils coping with heritage staff cuts?

Since their peak in 2006, the number of staff employed in specialist heritage and building conservation roles has shrunk by a third, according to an English Heritage and Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) report, as cited by John Geoghegan in his brilliant recent article, ‘A Little Less Conservation’. There is the suggestion that these cuts will have real implications for the future of conservation in this country.

Here are a few ways that councils are attempting to cope with heritage staff cuts, and what these methods could mean for the conservation and heritage sector in the future:

Training: educating general planners in conservation

Reacting to the skills shortage presented by the redundancy of conservation specialists, many councils have been training general planners in conservation skills in an attempt to plug the skills gap. Whilst this may work in the short term, this approach does not address the long-term problem of the lack of necessary specialist skills, many of which take years to perfect- such as stone-masonry and traditional carpentry, in the conservation industry that the cuts create.

These traditional skills are an integral part of conservation, as well as British social culture itself, and with more conservation specialists laid off and the training for such roles being stopped, there is a real danger of their ancient skills, knowledge and experience being completely lost.

Pooling resources: Sharing conservation services

One way that councils have attempted to respond to cuts is by pooling resources with other councils and sharing conservation services. These services can include anything from contracting out services to other councils, to merging teams and working together on particular projects. That said however, the lack of a centralised conservation service for each council means that conservation work is often haphazard and conducted without a specialist understanding of the particular building that is being restored, creating problems in the conservation process.

Investing: Funding new heritage attractions

Perhaps one of the most unexpected ways in which councils are trying to cope with heritage cuts, is by directly in heritage attractions and conservation itself! A recent English Heritage report has found that more and more councils are directly investing in conservation to boost tourism. This is perhaps one of the most successful ways in which councils are responding to cuts: by directly trying to increase the sustainability of existing conservation projects and attractions. That said however, the response has been patchy, with some local councils attempting to promote profit in heritage attractions above conservation itself.