Context 154 - May 2018

42 C O N T E X T 1 5 4 : M A Y 2 0 1 8 ANDREW VINES The wringing of hands A survey of local authority historic environment services in south west England may help to move on from the issue of recent staffing cuts and show how services can be better used. The SouthWest Historic Environment Forum, formed in 2002, represents a broad spectrum of the sector, from private owners of historic sites and key organisations in the region to local authorities.There is a healthy mix of long-term representatives and more recent members. Much of the business covers information sharing, with occasional collaboration on projects, such as a prospectus for local enterprise partnerships in 2013. Meetings in recent years have been marked by regular updates via the IHBC and the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers (ALGAO) on the state of local authority historic environment provision in the region.That has been a dolefully depressing part of the agenda, as numbers have declined across the south west to a greater extent than the national average (a 46 per cent reduction from 2006-2017, compared to 36 per cent nationally).This is despite the disproportionately large number of assets in the region – broadly one quarter of all the country’s listed buildings, and one third of all scheduled monuments. But statistics do not always tell the full story, and additional commentary provided by the IHBC and ALGAO has helped to reveal a more nuanced picture. There are hidden posts, for example, disguised by other names to avoid the attentions of the budget setter. Generally, however, the picture in the region has been one of services spread ever more thinly, albeit the creation of black holes, where provision has disappeared completely, has generally been avoided. As a sector, we have watched with a degree of impotence. It has been difficult to mount an effective response, although some new models have been viewed with interest, for example the establishment of the SouthWest Heritage Trust from the former Somerset County Council heritage service. In 2016, Historic England published an assessment of the impact on historic environment services of cuts to local authority grants from central government. The paper, entitled Local Authority Budgetary Cuts: the changing shape of local government , highlighted the growth in the number of shared service arrangements across the country, and noted gaps in our knowledge about service delivery, and how they might be addressed. For the most part, however, the regular reports of service cuts have become an exercise in observation. Collectively, there has been a certain amount of wringing of hands. The South West Historic Environment Forum (SWHEF) was anxious to move on from this position, to understand how the cuts and changes to services were affecting users. If, by taking an impartial view with no particular agenda, we could better understand how it was for the user as opposed to the service provider, we wondered if the results might start to show how services could be deployed in future. A study was commissioned from ERS Consultants, funded by Historic England’s commissions programme and the Heritage Lottery Fund SouthWest.The study accorded with the Heritage 2020 theme on capacity, and Historic England’s own corporate priorities. Research took the form of an online survey to gain quantitative and qualitative data, distributed through SWHEF members and their networks, and in-depth interviews to explore themes with illustrative examples. A small number of repeat service users were targeted to flesh out emerging themes. We received over 150 responses, statistically robust at the regional level and in line with the response rate for other surveys, but not enough to make distinctions between individual local authorities.We aimed to survey a wide range of users to gain a balanced picture, from owners, managers and agents to community groups and advisers, but did not quite achieve this. Consultants formed the higher proportion of respondents, with few responses from developers and prospective owners, for example. What the survey could not do was give comparative data over a period of time, but the vast majority were repeat users (and three quarters had