Counting the Cost of Heritage Assets

Richard Stocking
The heritage sector has faced difficult times during recession, including public expenditure cuts, uncertainty about future levels of funding, and reductions in resource at national heritage bodies such as English Heritage and Natural England.

However there are also some positives. Domestic tourism, including the prospect of the 2012 Olympics, remains relatively strong and is still the UK’s third largest export earner.

The British Museum was the most popular attraction in the UK in 2010, welcoming 5.8 million people. Outside of London, Edinburgh Castle is the most popular tourist destination for overseas visitors, attracting more than 1.2 million each year.

Traditional buildings require sensitive and timely conservation, repair and maintenance, whether or not heritage is the core business of the building. Not every heritage asset is the typically imagined historic building. English Heritage refers to “palaces and piers, statues and shipwrecks, archaeology and archives, moats and mills, stately homes and shopping centres, maisonettes and megaliths.”

Just the word “heritage” itself can ring alarm bells as clients often assume that costs will soar if there is any element of historic fabric. This is not always the case.

Heritage has not traditionally been part of the building design process. We are now seeing some changes in perception, with larger projects recognising the benefits of a more integrated approach. Just the word “heritage” itself can ring alarm bells as clients often assume that costs will soar if there is any element of historic fabric. This is not always the case. Informed and sensitive cost management will ensure that costs are transparent and that there are no unexpected scenarios.

Defining significance is at the heart of heritage projects.

  • What exactly denotes the asset’s important status? 
  • What is the inherent special interest? 
  • Particularly if heritage is not the core business area, a clear understanding of significance is important.
  • This provides a robust basis for decision making and allocation of resources.
  • There are clear benefits from incorporating this information into the design, planning and asset management processes from the outset.

Listed buildings add to the challenge, although not every heritage asset is statutorily designated.

  • Listed buildings typically have very brief descriptions on register that don’t always satisfactorily define their significance. 
  • There is also often a lack of awareness in the built environment professions about the nuances. 
  • A common misconception is that only the façade is listed, whereas in fact the whole building is affected.

Investment in heritage buildings, estates and infrastructure typically lags behind operational funding allocation.

  • Capital works usually form part of multiple stakeholder projects with competing interests and specialisms. 
  • Maintenance is often reactive instead of proactive. 
  • In the current economic climate the focus may be on patching up the building while waiting for more extensive repairs to be funded.

Managing change is vital. Often there is the misperception that there should never be any changes to the fabric of our historic building stock. On the contrary, today’s approach is more proactive than ever and the focus is on managing change rather than avoiding change.

  • Effective cost control should encompass risk mitigation, which includes the avoidance of harm and reputational risk, due to decay of historic fabric or inappropriate repairs. 
  • The emphasis is on cost management and asset management strategies that offer value for money as well as securing the heritage asset for future generations.

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