Conserving Europe’s cultural heritage

How is heritage conservation across Europe faring in these difficult economic times? Last week I was at the Europa Nostra meeting in Lisbon, representing the Built Environment Forum Scotland. We heard some inspiring stories but also cause for concern.

Lisbon, where Europa Nostra met last week

Europa Nostra
Europa Nostra is the voice of cultural heritage in Europe. It has 250 member organisations from across Europe who are actively striving to conserve historic buildings and places. Thus, despite some funding from the European Commission, government bodies, local authorities and corporate sponsors, it is essentially a grass-roots organisation. Formed in 1963, it has played a significant role in drawing activists together and lobbying at European level.

Europa Nostra is part of the European Heritage Alliance 3.3, which draws its name from Article 3.3 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. That Article says “The Union shall respect its rich cultural and linguistic diversity, and shall ensure that Europe’s cultural heritage is safeguarded and advanced.” Over 25 organisations are members of the Alliance.

Good news from Greece… and Cornwall

The award of a “Grand Prix” to the conservation work on the Averof Building in Athens was a popular decision. Some saw it as a welcome reminder of the debts owed to Greece for its contribution to European culture. The neo-classical building dates from the 1870s, but a decade ago it was in a state of serious disrepair. It has been painstakingly restored by the School of Architecture of the National Technical University, who use the building once again to deliver education.

A tour de force of industrial heritage conservation was also celebrated with a Grand Prix. Sagunto in Spain was a steel town. Like so many similar places it suffered de-industrialisation. The plant was finally closed in 1984. Dedicated work over a long time by a local foundation has succeeded in conserving Blast Furnace Number 2. It is a geometrical mega-structure with an eerie beauty, and a lasting legacy for the town and for the industry that nurtured the origins of today’s EU.

The third conservation Grand Prix went to an English project – the Poundstock Gildhouse in Bude, Cornwall. It is a testament to what can be achieved by a combination of ardent local residents with a strong pride in place and the specialist skills of conservators. The Gildhouse was built in the 16th century in the grounds of a church. It was a community building, a place for cooking, feasting and dancing, constructed by vernacular craftsmen. Somehow it survived into the 21st century, but timbers were rotten and walls were crumbling. Careful restoration work has ensured that the integrity of the original building has been retained, and once more it is in active use as a Church Hall.

Souls on Fire

A Scandinavian friend of mine would have used the phrase “souls on fire” to describe the people who invested so much time and passion into these projects. Perhaps it was easier for my generation to act this role: in our childhood and early adult years we were suffused on the optimism that rebuilt Europe and extended welfare to ordinary citizens on a scale never known before. The zeitgeist since then has suffocated the public spirit. Will history look back on concern for heritage conservation as an aberration, an indulgence in times when real incomes were still growing?
The Norwegian Heritage Foundation won a Grand Prix for its endeavours to involve a new generation in active conservation work. “Improve a heritage site” is a nationwide action project that has already engaged over 22,500 children and young people, and spread the message to several hundred thousand more. The youngsters get to clean and clear up small scale local landmarks in forests, fields and rural areas near their homes. It is the kind of practical learning that builds a pride in place and a respect for its legacies.

An inspiring figure

The loudest and longest reception for any Grand Prix winner went to Paraschiva Kovacs, a grey-haired school teacher in a small community in Transylvania. Traditional wooden gates with elaborate carvings, masterpieces of folk art, were being stripped away or left to rot, as their owners aged and died. Kovacs dedicated over 40 years to building an inventory of surviving gates across the region and changing attitudes so that their unique value was recognised. She badgered local authorities to allocate money to enable elderly residents to rehabilitate and preserve their wooden gates.

As the Jury said, “She is an extraordinary example of those modest, dedicated people all over Europe who without many resources succeed in raising awareness of the importance of the preservation of the past for the benefit of the future.”

An end to “Green-tape”?

Despite these success stories there was an ominous air hanging over the gathering, which surfaced towards the end of the Annual General Meeting. Across Europe cuts are being made to public services so as to find money to prop up banks. There is a supporting rhetoric that argues, with astounding chutzpah, that over-regulation is blocking growth. So a crisis that has now run for almost 5 years, and counting, and which was caused by inadequate regulation of financial services, needs de-regulation of local development to restore growth! Are banks really throwing money at investors desperate to take risks on development of difficult sites – only to find that deadbeat planners are frustrating their ambitions?

A delegate from Greece explained how a kind of localism is being imposed as part of the conditions for the bail-out. Decisions on development control are being devolved to a level at which there is simply not the expertise to handle them. More power is being put into the hands of local political bosses and their associates. A delegate from Germany reported that a similar downgrading of the role of professional expertise in planning and landscape architecture is evident in his country, again linked to a localist-type agenda. Of course Ireland blazed that trail long ago, to spectacular effect. Meanwhile, an Australian voice lamented the campaigns there against “green-tape” – the range of environmental controls that have been introduced over the past 40 years to protect places and citizens.

Let me be clear, I have nothing against local democracy, and have long argued against excessive centralisation of planning here in the UK. However, I also believe that skilled professionals are an essential resource if localism is to work. Furthermore, there must be decentralisation of powers to raise and spend taxes. What we see now is a financial crisis that has become and economic crisis and a crisis for representative democracy, in which some seek to make planning a scapegoat.

Locked as they are in their different statutory systems, the risk is that planners will fail to see, document and challenge the bigger picture, and thereby default on their professional responsibilities to people and places.