21 November 2012

Ten years of Heritage Counts

Visitor numbers and participation in heritage higher than ever before

The sector is adapting, using networks, partnerships and social media – but is still facing a challenging environment in terms of funding and ongoing changes to the planning system

Visitors at Tyne Theatre Opera House

People see behind the scenes at the Tyne Theatre and Opera House in Newcastle upon Tyne during Heritage Open Days.
© Andrew Heptinstall

As Heritage Counts reaches its 10th year of findings, research shows that in 2011/12, almost three quarters of adults visited the historic environment, the highest level since official statistics on this were first collected in 2005/06. Visits to historic attractions have increased by 28% over the past 10 years, not only reflecting the public’s appetite for heritage, but providing the chance for the sector to capitalise on its popularity.

This increase in historic environment participation has been seen across a range of groups, for example since 2005/06, black and ethnic minority participation has increased by 21% and participation by lower socio-economic groups has increased by 11%.

Social Media and the Challenges Ahead

Social media has had a big effect over the past 10 years. In 2002, when Heritage Counts was first published, social media was almost unheard of. Now, it is allowing organisations to rapidly engage with people on a scale never seen before. The National Trust and English Heritage have 107,187 and 48,758 Twitter followers respectively, while Heritage Open Days has built a strong network of thousands of volunteers and organisers through its blog and social media efforts.

These changes have been in the context of a difficult economic environment in which the effects of the financial crisis are still being felt across the country, affecting both private individuals and groups that care for heritage. There has been a reduction in public funding which has seen the numbers of historic environment staff in local authorities fall by 10% and English Heritage’s grant in aid fall by 15% in real terms over the past 10 years. The planning structures that protect heritage are also changing through the National Planning Policy Framework and localism agendas, creating challenges and opportunities for the sector.

In these changing times, Heritage Counts in 2012 also looks at the resilience in the sector and explores how it can adapt and flourish. The sector is branching into new activities and finding innovative ways to use the historic environment. Organisations that work across the sector are also helping heritage to remain resilient. The Heritage Alliance is doing a lot to encourage philanthropy, benefiting the whole sector, and the Heritage Lottery Fund is doing much to support capacity and build endowments.

Examples of Resilience

Heritage Counts draws on research from the Heritage Lottery Fund in partnership with the Work Foundation, with a new look at how heritage can contribute to the resilience of the UK economy as a whole, and where the sector can best look for new opportunities for income generation in areas such as the low-carbon agenda and the role of urban areas in growth.

It also discusses research from BOP Consulting, examining the concept of organisational resilience and how those involved with heritage are able to better deal with changing conditions. Examples of projects where heritage organisations have been resilient and adapted to the challenges include:

  • Beamish Open Air Museum in County Durham which following reduced local authority funding, and a transfer to charitable status, has greatly increased its visitor numbers by 70% over the past four years, to more than 0.5 million. This has been mainly due to a focus on its strengths as an open air museum, investment in new attractions, community engagement and adding value to the admission ticket through developing major events and seasonal festivals all year round.
  • Hodsock Priory in Nottinghamshire, an independently owned historic house, has been in the hands of the Buchanan family since the mid-eighteenth century. To bring in extra revenue the family hires out the Priory as a wedding venue and an extension has been built for wedding guests’ use. As a result the Priory averages 35-40 weddings a year, accounting for around 45% of the house’s income, the same as farming.
  • The Apsley Paper Trail Trust near Hemel Hempstead owns the oldest mechanised paper mill in the world. As the recession took hold, all staff were made redundant but a core of people decided to stay on as volunteers and three machine workers set up their own company to produce paper at the mill. The Trust worked with a consultancy which helped them develop an alternative plan to survive and then thrive.
  • The Battersea Arts Centre in London (BAC) has been staging theatre productions in the 19th-century former town hall since 1980. In the past BAC worked within the traditional theatre spaces in the building, but this has given way to a new approach exploiting the possibilities of the building’s historic features and 72 rooms, with the building becoming an important part of the audience experience.  

Baroness Andrews, Chair of English Heritage, said: “A time of change is a time for new solutions, and Heritage Counts looks to the future with research on the theme of ‘resilience’.  When Heritage Counts was first published in 2002 the economy had been growing for over 10 years and only half the population went online. The world in 2012 is very different. As such, the 10th edition of Heritage Counts provides an opportunity to take stock of how heritage has fared in these changing times and where it might be going in future.”