Arts Council England's sustainability lead, Ian Rimington, explores the environmental challenges facing heritage organisations
If I were to ask you how much you would give to protect a threatened world heritage site of outstanding historical interest and natural beauty, it would probably be a hard question to answer.
When people are asked a difficult question, they often unconsciously find themselves answering an easier one. Psychologists call this process substitution. For my initial question, it might be easier to substitute (and therefore answer) the question: ‘How do I feel about the destruction of historical artefacts (or natural beauty)?’
There are people, however, who are having to grapple with the harder question as it stands.
Last week I attended a lecture by Ewan Hyslop from Historic Scotland (the body that looks after the heritage built environment in Scotland). Since 1961, Scotland’s summers have become 11 per cent dryer but winters are 20 per cent wetter with a significant increase in the frequency and intensity of winter storms and a measurable rise in sea levels. And this is expected to intensify over the coming decades. All this extra water is already causing havoc with the country’s historic buildings. Masonry falling from typical sandstone domestic properties is now a staple of Scottish news; castles and churches – particularly ruins and semi-ruinous ones – have suffered significant water damage.
Historic Scotland has a spectrum of interventions from basic maintenance and repair to more serious removal and, even, managed loss. They are also caught in a pincer movement of public sector cuts, yet needing more resources as the situation worsens.
This is perhaps most starkly illustrated with Skara Brae – a Neolithic village and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s on the Orkneys right next to a beach that has been eroding ever more rapidly as storms intensify and sea levels have started to rise. The cost of protecting the site is increasing each year. Some archaeological sites by beaches have already had to be excavated and abandoned – “managed loss". At what point does the cost of protecting Skara Brae, a threatened world heritage site of outstanding historical and natural beauty, outweigh the available resources?
People like Ewan are already having to think very hard about that very question and at some point will have to make a whole series of difficult decisions, about not just Skara Brae, but about large numbers of iconic and historic sites.
And just in case that feels not close enough to home, we also heard at the lecture from one of the team protecting Westminster Abbey – which is right next to the Arts Council’s office where I work. The team has enhanced the guttering system at the abbey to deal with the increasing number of intense rainfalls in London. But still the guttering isn’t coping.
How much would you give to protect a threatened world heritage site of outstanding historical interest and natural beauty?
Ian Rimington is London Relationship Manager, Theatre, at Arts Council England and leads on Environmental sustainability for the organisation.