Tourism will suffer without real support for heritage


OPINION:With the Gathering already underway, funding cuts mean an end to heritage grants to local communities

For the first time since 1997 the Heritage Council will not be in a position to provide specific grant support to local communities to look after their heritage across Ireland in 2013.

This is happening at a time when there is a national focus on tourism, and the Gathering is imminent. And yet the very core of the tourism “product”, our natural and cultural heritage, is being starved of vital support funds both nationally and locally. Without steady investment that “product” is degrading before our eyes.

Last year, despite severe cutbacks of 60 per cent of budget, the council managed to invest €1.4 million in more than 270 projects across the State. Local communities, individuals and small enterprises all benefited.

Sadly, the council’s recently allocated budget for the year ahead – of just under €4.5 million, down from €6.4 million last year – means that this will not be possible in 2013.

Through Heritage Week and Ireland Reaching Out, the council will, of course, be doing its utmost to ensure the success of the Gathering, but there is no denying the threat posed to any lasting legacy by the massive cut in grant aid to local community projects all over the country.

While the amount of money provided to each project is relatively small, this funding is vital. Often it is basic maintenance grants supporting the quality of our landscapes, museums, or our towns and villages; elements of our heritage that make the tourist experience unique and, at the same time, improve the quality of life for all of us.

In addition to 70 per cent cuts in the Heritage Council’s budget since 2008, there have been severe cuts to the budgets of the National Parks and Wildlife Service, the National Monuments Service, the Office of Public Works and the wider Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht allocation for heritage.

Ironically, this has happened over a period in which there has been a real and positive shift in people’s attitudes and concern about safeguarding and protecting our heritage, much of this shift fuelled by a realisation of the damage done by the madness of the Celtic Tiger and its legacy of ghost estates, construction on flood plains and so on. For a sector that touches just about everyone, it has to be asked why the heritage sector has taken disproportionate budgetary cuts and why so little has been said about it to date.

Poster child

There appear to be a number of reasons. Although the most visible aspects of our heritage act as the poster child of our tourism industry, there is fragmentation of action between Government departments that deal with our heritage. So while, relatively speaking, vast sums are provided to promote and market our heritage and culture from a tourism point of view, there is little recognition of the need at the same time for specific and complementary investment in the care and conservation of heritage locally.

The specific heritage support programmes run until this year have shown that it is the smaller annual grants that are often the most critical for the protection of heritage, for engaging communities, and driving positive attitudinal change for the longer term. This is where the Heritage Council has played a critical role over the past decade, by engaging with and enabling communities to take on much of the responsibility for the oversight of work, and allocating funding to research, education and conservation works – often over a number of years – to see a project come to fruition. Slow, but sure and sustainable.

This approach also highlights an unseen but important aspect of the sector; namely, that so much of the work is undertaken in a voluntary capacity, albeit often with professional support. The heritage sector that the council has sought to foster is bigger than the individual professions that contribute to it and depends on the mostly voluntary labour of the guardians of local heritage who know and love the places where they live and work, and often want to give something back to their communities.

As a voluntary sector can it compete with the professional lobbying and media savvy of other sectors in society? Evidently not – but it needs to build that capacity. Much of the work undertaken can be technical, slow and tedious. But it is essential work if our monuments and our cultural richness, like our biodiversity, are to survive for future generations and to remain attractive to our visitors. After people, our landscapes are our biggest seller internationally, and much of this landscape, by its nature, is rural. It does not reside in places where the big decisions on funding allocations are made and its constituency too is fragmented.

Our landscape is not a wilderness but the result of 6,000 years of farming that has left its mark everywhere, from the prehistoric monuments to the more recent wrought-iron gates and stone walls. It has to adapt and change, but to manage it well requires good planning, respect and, ultimately, some degree of funding. We have all seen the fall-out from a decade of poor planning and are paying the price for insensitive, speculative investment. With the more recent economic crisis came hope that we could, and would, confront our mistakes and shift to a more sustainable economic model. Years of work on landscape enhancement, and proposals for a community-led Landscape Ireland Act to better plan for future changes by the Heritage Council, are ready and waiting for action.

Instead, the small community grants programme, and critical heritage-support infrastructure, including the National Biodiversity Data Centre, the Irish Landmark Trust, the Irish Walled Towns Network, our Museums Standards Programme, and much more besides, are facing a real threat from the severity of the cuts of the past five years.

We have reached a tipping point, and the fact that there will be no specific heritage grants programme in Ireland in 2013 illustrates just how near the brink we are. Let us hope we can all pull together to get some readjustments in funding for 2014. By 2015 . . . it may well be too late.

Michael Starrett is chief executive of the Heritage Council

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