Please, sir, I want some more

I have written from time to time about the Heritage Council and the budget cuts it has suffered. Here’s a comment from December 2010; here I said that the Council’s vigorous lobbying campaign had succeeded in ensuring its own survival; last month it became clear that, although the Council had survived, its main grants scheme had not.

The dauntless Michael Starrett returns to battle in today’s Irish Times [incidentally, if the Irish Times tries to charge me for linking to their site, I’ll set McGarr Solicitors on them]. He argues that natural and cultural heritage are the core of the tourism product and that they are being damaged by the withdrawal of (inter alia) the Council’s programme of (mostly small) grants to (mostly small) community projects.

This line of argument accords with that used by the Council in its successful campaign to ensure its own survival. It was made explicit in the report Economic Value of Ireland’s Historic Environment [PDF] produced by Ecorys and Fitzpatrick Associates for the Heritage Council and launched in May 2012. However, there are some difficulties with its use in the present context.

The first is that some folk might feel that heritage (natural or built) should be appreciated for itself, not for its economic value. That’s fine as long as people do it on their own time; I lose sympathy when that argument is used to extract money from taxpayers while hiding the economic cost and distracting attention from the beneficiaries of that spending.

The second difficulty is that the Economic Value of Ireland’s Historic Environment concentrates on larger sites and attractions:

Reflecting these various criteria, Ireland’s historic environment has been defined for the purposes of this study as comprising the following sets of built heritage assets – those which are statutorily protected, together with components of the broader built heritage:

– World Heritage Sites
– Recorded Monuments, as defined by the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht
– Protected Structures included in planning authorities’ development plans
– Architectural Conservation Areas included in planning authorities’ development plans
– Designed landscapes surveyed by the Inventory of Architectural Heritage, and
– Other structures erected pre-1919, of which a note says “This is an increasingly accepted definitional component for the broader built heritage, although it is  acknowledged that some Protected Structures may have been built post 1919. Up to 1919 most houses in Ireland and Great Britain were built by skilled craftsmen using traditional indigenous building materials. Although the majority of older buildings are not listed/ statutorily protected, the majority provide flexible domestic and office accommodation. Major investment in money, energy and materials is embodied in these structures.”

The economic impact of the sector is the sum of three things:

  • Direct repair and maintenance output in relation to pre-1919
    building stock
  • Direct tourism expenditure by tourists principally attracted to
    Ireland by the Historic Environment (HE)
  • Direct employment, expenditure and income by the public sector (eg the Office of Public Works), subtracting overlap with the repair and maintenance category and the tourism expenditure category.

Eight of the ten case-studies considered in the report are about large sites, some of them commercial operations and others state-owned. The two exceptions are the Irish Landmark Trust and the Heritage Council’s grant scheme for traditional farm buildings.

Now, as far as I can make out, a lot of the recipients of Heritage Council grants (generally, not just those for farm buildings) would have fallen into the “Other structures erected pre-1919” category. I have not been able to discover, from the report, how much of the Historic Environment’s contribution to Gross Value Added is attributable to that category, or to any other category that might include the Council’s recipients of small grants.

In effect, the report seems to me to made some very broad-brush claims about the annual value of the Historic Environment, and those claims are being used to cast a halo effect over the entire sector. But it is not, it seems to me, proven that spending on any particular sub-sector is a good investment. (If I am wrong on that, I would welcome comments.)

Furthermore, I suspect that most of the contribution of the small projects supported by Heritage Council grants would come from the spending on repair and maintenance (where the total contribution is arrived at after some pretty heroic assumptions) rather than from that by tourists. Approaching it from the bottom up, I suspect that very few tourists are attracted to Ireland by the fact that the Heritage Council has grant-aided the clearing of an individual graveyard or the removal of rhododendron from a woodland.

So the argument that is being presented today, that (to quote the headline) “Tourism will suffer without real support for heritage” where “heritage” means “small local projects”, is not convincing. And it is rendered even less convincing by the fact that Heritage Council grants schemes explicitly gave low priority to tourism projects. But that is not to say that the small schemes are without value: there could and, I would argue, should be an effort to use them as part of the tourism marketing effort.

But there is a real difficulty here. How do you market small-scale tourism attractions? How does a small enterprise, or a small community, sell its heritage? How do the overseers of the national tourism product get tourists out of the well-known areas and off the beaten track, to places where they can meet real people and see real stuff? Maybe that’s what The Ghastly Gathering is about [I’m sorry: I can’t bring myself to read it].

Towards the end of his article, Michael Starrett talks in terms of landscapes, and I think he is right to use a term that is broader than a single site or location for a project. To have an impact, to be marketable, small projects need to be linked. Some of those links could be geographical, within a single area or landscape; some could be temporal, some familial, yet others commercial or otherwise thematic (for instance, the fascinating history of the Irish egg trade). I think that the small projects can help to attract tourists, but they need to be organised.

 

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