A group of former service personnel seated outside the casemates  of a fort.
Veterans at the Respite Centre, Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth. © Forgotten Veterans UK
Veterans at the Respite Centre, Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth. © Forgotten Veterans UK

Heritage and Social Prescribing

Unleashing the wellbeing potential of heritage.

Public Health is now one of the biggest priorities of many governments and societies. The COVID-19 pandemic has deepened the wellbeing crisis and highlighted the need to address the issue. It has also demonstrated that local voluntary and social enterprise groups play a vital role in supporting communities to recover. Now it is more important than ever to encourage the heritage sector to play their part and maximise its potential to deliver wellbeing to both individuals and society.

There is growing evidence for the wellbeing benefits of connecting with the historic environment. The evidence is contained in a number of Heritage and Society publications:

All this evidence has demonstrated that connecting with heritage increases self-awareness, a sense of meaning and belonging, and helps people overcome loneliness and social isolation. And it doesn’t stop there. The healing power of heritage spreads from the individual to society more generally and has the potential to address health inequalities and improve wellbeing on a national scale.

Social prescribing

One mechanism to help us link heritage with health and wellbeing needs is through social prescribing. Social prescribing (as per the NHS definition)'is a way for local agencies to refer people to a link worker, who, led by an individual’s specific needs and values, takes a holistic approach to the person’s health and wellbeing. The link workers connect people to community groups and statutory services for practical and emotional support….''Social prescribing works for a wide range of people, including those:

  • with one or more long-term conditions
  • who need support with their mental health
  • who are lonely or isolated
  • who have complex social needs which affect their wellbeing.'

The NHS uses the model below to demonstrate how social prescribing works – and what key elements need to be in place for effective social prescribing.

Historic England and social prescribing

There are existing examples of how heritage projects and activities can successfully be used for social prescribing. Museums on Prescription was one of the first pilots in the area, but now many more heritage organisations and programmes confidently invest in developing social prescribing pathways within their projects.

Blenheim Palace’s Natural Health Service and Wessex Archaeology’s Well-City Salisbury, to name but two recent initiatives, demonstrate that our sector has found innovative ways to explore partnerships which allow the historic environment to maximise its wellbeing benefits and contribute effectively to improving public health.

In 2020 Historic England’s Wellbeing team commissioned SQW, an independent research and consultancy organisation, to explore in depth the potential of Historic England to deliver social prescribing. The SQW report was published in 2021 and made several important recommendations, including embedding wellbeing in strategy and policy to ensure the organisation is well-placed to support effective delivery of social prescribing and developing models for implementation through pilots, collaboration and research in the area. 

The report identified some examples of ongoing Historic England programmes with good potential for delivering social prescribing. These included:

  • Heritage Action Zones, which focus on regeneration and revitalisation of local heritage areas with active community engagement and co-production 
  • Enriching the List, which invites the public to share their knowledge and pictures of listed places, thus enriching the existing records for these significant heritage assets with their personal contributions.

Our team is already working on developing pilot wellbeing projects within those programmes - and some of them will also include social prescribing models. In Lancashire, the Kirkham High Street Heritage Action Zone’s team is investing in a Heritage, Health and Wellbeing programme, which will see a heritage link worker (funded by the programme) working alongside the existing local social prescriber, employed by the NHS or the voluntary and community sector, and assisting in specialised  referrals to heritage activities and initiatives in Kirkham.

In this way, Kirkham will not only widen the spectrum of its social prescribing activities and meet more of its population’s needs, but will also contribute into showcasing the wellbeing potential of engaging with heritage and unleashing it for the benefit of its community and the historic environment in the area.

In Cornwall, our South West Heritage at Risk colleagues are supporting the Cornwall Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty team, aiming to deliver the amazing Monumental Improvement project which will be implementing social prescribing in HaR renovation work. The project, which is currently in its development stage, will be referring local people to a range of educational and wellbeing activities focused around the protection and improvement of 40 Scheduled Monuments listed on Historic England’s Heritage at Risk register or classified as vulnerable.

At Historic England’s site at Fort Cumberland, the local section of the charity Forgotten Veterans utilised some of this fabulous location to build a respite centre for veterans and their families, a unique facility that has helped hundreds of veterans since its establishment in 2018. The Centre now also has its own social prescriber and receives referrals from veterans and other local communities in need.

Partnership with NASP

Following the SQW report’s recommendation that Historic England should develop the ability to strategically influence developments in social prescribing, in 2020 we formed a partnership with the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP).

This allowed us to establish the post of National Historic Environment Lead within the Academy, to become a strategic and funding partner of the Thriving Communities Fund (which supported 37 cross-sector innovative social prescribing projects across the country), and to organise the first national Heritage & Social Prescribing webinar in June 2020.

Historic England and NASP are now setting up the joint priorities for the next 3 years. These include continuing to make the case and gathering robust evidence for the wellbeing benefits of heritage, which can be achieved through research and innovation, developing and scaling up the existing provision of social prescribing within the sector and through preparing a set of social prescribing guidance for heritage organisations and link workers. We are also aiming to develop further the regional social prescribing cross-sector networks, which will help linking the existing heritage social prescribing offer with the NHS regional infrastructure.

Route to social prescribing

Social prescribing is becoming embedded in the arts, culture and heritage sector. In 2019 the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance (a national network of organisations working for the promotion of wellbeing through culture) found that 40% of organisations surveyed were working with social prescribing and 90% would like to learn more about it. Some guidance on how to do this is provided in the diagram accompanying this article.

The key messages here are about local connectivity, creating partnerships with those in the health and voluntary community sectors and understanding local needs. However, social prescribing is but one of many ways that people can derive benefit through heritage and a key first step is to assess what works for each local community and organisation and what resources exist to support initiatives.

A healthy dose of heritage a day…

In times when health and wellbeing are everyone’s priorities, we as heritage professionals need to ensure that all we do results in public benefit – including through wellbeing delivery.

Although it is not a panacea, learning from our own history has the potential to be a timeless remedy to conflict, trauma and isolation.

If we can prescribe a dose of heritage connection to our divided society today, we have the chance to become stronger and wiser people, living in healthy places enriched by the diverse legacies of all communities that shaped the history of these places through time.

Targeted social prescribing and wellbeing heritage-based projects can address critical social and health issues in today’s society. They can give vulnerable people a sense of belonging and an awareness of their own value, and they can lead them through difficult times, opening up richer, more fulfilled lives. Benefits are both personal and societal, leading to greater community cohesion and healthier people.

About the author

Dr Desi Gradinarova

Senior Policy Adviser (Wellbeing) at Historic England and Historic Environment Lead at the National Academy for Social Prescribing (NASP)

Desi has been working in heritage, research, education and policy for many years and is a passionate believer in the potential of heritage to bring people together and its crucial role in maintaining a vibrant and healthy society.

Further information

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Editor's note: Information correct at time of original publication. 'Enriching the List' has since become the Missing Pieces Project. Find out more.