Virtual Heritage, Lockdown and Opportunities: A View From Enfield Council
By Sarah Cary, Executive Director – Place, Enfield Council
In late January, when the Chinese authorities shut down and quarantined Wuhan, a regional capital of 11 million people, I tried to imagine the same happening to London. And at the time, my imagination failed me. But here we are in May, confined in the majority to our homes, with schools and churches shut off and locked, and with concern about how we might travel and live in the near future.
Over the past few months I have been incredibly proud of how my colleagues at Enfield and across local government have stepped up to provide new services for businesses and residents, while maintaining other critical services running during the pandemic.
We have reversed our business rates team to administer £85 million of government grants and tax rebates to local businesses, we have set up a new food delivery service serving thousands of shielded and vulnerable residents isolating in their homes, we have reorganised schools and education – all while continuing to collect the rubbish and recycling, process planning applications and provide care for vulnerable children and the elderly.
It is still too early to know the full impact of Covid-19, but there are two areas where I expect Covid-19 will have a long-term effect on heritage.
The first is in how local authorities – and others working in the built environment – approach consultation and engagement with residents and communities. Social distancing and isolation during this time have driven new ways of working out of necessity. Meeting halls have moved to online webinars and question and answers. Museums and arts organisations have opened collections for free in virtual environments. Discussion forums are not limited to an hour’s meeting, but stretch throughout the week to accommodate different working times.
Enfield has held virtual planning committees, with public representation, and we are working to broadcast them live. There is a danger that some communities without digital skills or access could be left out, but as an industry we can work to accommodate those groups.
A ‘virtual’ visit cannot replace the multi-sensory quality that is so much a part of experiencing a heritage asset. But on the whole, I believe that more virtual and digital communication can only lead to a broader range of communities and individuals engaging and being involved in heritage and design.
The second area of change is in the use of heritage assets, arising from either pandemic measures or the likely severe economic shock we are all facing. At a basic level, many heritage buildings have been vacant and unused for months, locked up and inaccessible.
Locally there has been a forced entry and break in at an 18th century Grade II* listed building normally in use as a vibrant arts centre. Other authorities have also reported heritage crime, thieves taking advantage of lockdown to steal lead from church roofs.
But more excitingly, heritage buildings might now come into alternative uses. In Enfield, the mortuary service enquired about setting up a temporary morgue in Lavender Hill Chapel, a long-vacant 19th century building on the Heritage at Risk Register. Officers took a pragmatic approach to ensure works would not cause irreversible harm to the fabric of this listed building. While this particular building was not in the end utilised, there are opportunities for other disused buildings to get a new lease of life in this emergency, and in the recovery that will come.
In the short term, we are all grappling with the redirection of funding to emergency support and the loss of momentum for new projects. In particular the National Heritage Lottery Fund’s moratorium for six months on new grant applications under the Open Programme is a blow.
Following the adoption of our Heritage Strategy SPD and as a response to Enfield’s five-year Funding Focus Area status in the National Lottery Heritage Fund Strategic Plan, our Call for Projects campaign generated 180 plus project ideas. We are continuing to progress project ideas through digital communications and our existing relationships, but in an uncertain climate.
The short-term challenges facing planning and heritage are not unique. The pandemic has and will continue to be a challenging time for local government. We have taken on new responsibilities while our trading income is decreasing, and while residents and businesses are finding it difficult to pay council tax and business rates.
Funding is likely to be cut, programmes will need to be re-prioritised, and the looming threat of a substantial recession is going to further challenge heritage assets and potential for investment in the built environment.
But I look to the positive side, seeing a reinvigorated trust in government and new purposes for local government in communities. And with likely limits on international travel, there is opportunity in residents getting to know their local, or national, landscapes more intimately.
I am amazed at the level of recent interest in park management; now is the time to celebrate the design and history of those parks. The same goes for our favourite buildings and landscapes when we can visit them.