In this article, Mike Crowhurst (Former No10, DCMS and Cabinet Office Special Adviser, now leading Public First’s work on levelling up) introduces the findings of a recent report commissioned by Historic England and produced by Public First, which explores the role of historic buildings, industrial heritage and historic parks in fostering civic pride – and the part they play in the levelling up agenda.
Ask the public how they feel about their area and they’ll often mention buildings.
Historic buildings matter in particular, with a recent poll finding that they rank above almost every other factor as a driver of civic pride.
For many, the condition of these buildings is a reflection of how well the community itself is valued. And in struggling towns and cities around the UK, their decline is seen as a symbol of the way entire places have been left behind.
To dig deeper into this topic, Public First held a series of focus groups for Historic England on the role that heritage should play in ‘levelling up’.
Across six ‘Red Wall’ towns and cities in the Midlands and the North of England, we spoke to working class voters about their area’s heritage, what condition it’s in now and how they want to see it being used.
Our new report – Heritage and Civic Pride: Voices from Levelling Up Country – finds people had a strong desire to reconnect with their local history, and an instinctive understanding of how reviving heritage could help rebuild a sense of pride in place, which has often been lost.
Unsurprisingly, industrial heritage featured prominently in some of these areas: steel in Sheffield, the potteries in Stoke or the railways in Darlington. But it wasn’t just the grandest buildings that mattered. In fact, people tended to talk as much about sports halls and shops as factories or town halls. The places where everyday life took place and where memories were formed – the bustle of a market or the grandeur of a department store – were often what stood out the most, and what they were saddest to see now falling into disrepair.
The affection people felt for these buildings was more than simple nostalgia. Those we spoke to understood that the world had changed and that buildings might need to be changed if they were to now help boost the local economy.
Historic housing stock in particular was seen as something which had once shaped communities but could now be ill suited to modern life. There was, however, a palpable sense of frustration that historic buildings weren’t being better used. Those we spoke to wanted to see them repurposed as a way of bringing people into town and city centres, rather than new development on the outskirts that would drag shoppers away.
What mattered most was finding ways to recapture the buzz and experience that made those buildings special, even if it might now come in a very different guise. And using them as a means of connecting the community to its past – something many feared young people were in danger of forgetting.
What does this mean for the property sector?
Firstly, to win local support, developers should start with what’s already in place. Investing in the buildings the community values – which aren’t always the largest or most prominent – is a way of showing a commitment to the community itself.
Secondly, that the public are open to fresh ideas about how historic buildings can be repurposed. What matters is using them as a positive force for regenerating the area, not a slavish fidelity to keeping them as they were.
And finally, that people want to see buildings used as a tool for education. Even if the role of these buildings changes, the public want to see more initiatives that help younger generations understand what they meant to the area in the past.
In its plans for ‘Levelling Up’, this is something the Government seems to have understood. Funding for initiatives such as Heritage Action Zones suggest that Ministers have grasped the role the public want historic buildings to play. But this investment will only go so far. In truly unlocking the potential for heritage to drive regeneration, private sector investment will have to play the decisive role. And the voices we heard in ‘Levelling Up Country’ give the property sector a great blueprint for how to do this.
About Mike Crowhurst
Mike leads Public First’s Levelling Up practice, working with clients across the public and private sectors on how they interact with the government’s agenda and promote growth across the country.
He joined the firm after four years of working as a Special Adviser in government, most recently at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, where he focused on policy making in culture, heritage, technology and telecoms. This followed spells at the Cabinet Office, where he worked on government reform and delivery, and at Number 10, where he led on all aspects of education policy. Before joining government, Mike was Director of Education at New Schools Network, overseeing support for free schools across the country, and trained as a teacher in Birmingham through the Teach First programme.