‘Norfolk’s past deserves a bright future - not cuts’
PUBLISHED: 17:00 20 January 2016
Archant Norfolk 2016
Within the next few weeks Norfolk County Council will be forced to make draconian cuts in its budget. Norfolk historian VICTOR MORGAN argues why protecting the county’s investment in heritage should be a priority.
Currently the county council funds a number of what might be described as ‘heritage’ departments: museums, heritage library services, the Norfolk Record Office and the Norfolk Historic Environment Service.
At first glance these may appear to be soft targets when compared to heart-plucking areas such as children’s and adult services and education or immediate and all-too-obvious necessities such as repairing the many potholes in our roads.
Let me try and persuade readers of the importance of the heritage area, and explain why continuing to invest in it will pay big dividends for the county and its population both in terms of the local economy and the well-being of its people.
In the desperate scramble to make cuts there is a danger that the larger picture will be lost to view. One of the things that historians are meant to do is to provide a sense of perspective.
But I’m also doing so because of the ill-informed opinions that I have heard expressed that the ‘heritage services’ are fripperies when compared with other, larger, services.
These heritage services provide essential support to what has become the major economic activity in this region: tourism and leisure.
In ball-park terms this is now the most important component of the county’s economy.
Today, tourism alone accounts for around 60,000 local jobs and contributes annually in the order of £3 billion to the county. Also it is growing fast at around 2.6pc every year - far more than other sectors.
This is where the action is, and Norfolk is in the lead.
Think in terms of a comparison: The City of London is massively dependent on the financial sector which dominates its variant of the service economy. Could you imagine it cutting the support services that help sustain its main type of economic activity?
Second, in dealing with present problems, as a county we need to revise the story that we tell ourselves, that we tell our schoolchildren, and that we tell the wider world about who we are. In part at least this involves understanding what we have been. Today, we have a substantial heritage to sustain. For example, there is a greater density of historic churches in the county than anywhere else in Europe north of the Alps. We have more than 11,000 buildings formally listed by Historic England as of historic or architectural importance.
The reason why we have this remarkable heritage is because over long stretches of the past individuals and communities could afford to invest in the things that mattered to them, as in the case of the churches. We need to recognise that, historically, Norfolk was an economic powerhouse within England and part of one of two major industrial zones in Europe, in our case extending across the North Sea. For more than 600 years Norwich was England’s second city, second only to London.
Its medieval walls encompass a greater area than do those of London. For our future prosperity we need to work vigorously to dispel the deplorable image of Norfolk that is pedalled in the national media. Norfolk is not, and never was, some agricultural backwater.
In the medieval and early modern periods it pioneered what we call ‘industries in the countryside’, largely in textile manufacture.
What today we think of as market towns, such as Aylsham, were the centres of local industrial hubs. Through the great merchants of Norwich - like Robert Toppes who in the 15th century built Dragon Hall on King Street as a display hall for his wares - Norfolk’s local industries were plugged into international markets.
Today, Norwich itself retains much evidence of its past because it was a wealthy industrial city and fully-fledged regional administrative capital. From the mid-18th to mid-20th centuries, the city’s entrepreneurs and highly-skilled craftspeople responded with ingenuity and innovation to the changes in manufacture in the wider world of which they were a part and into which they sold their wares.
Only by understanding our past will we be able to have the confidence and insight to map out a successful future. You do not do that by eviscerating crucial parts of the infrastructure - the heritage services - that supports an understanding of that past. Our heritage is not an expensive burden, it is a resource and an opportunity.
Moreover, frantically scrabbling around to save a few pennies here and there in these small departments will only demonstrate a lack of strategic foresight with regard to the future. Norfolk’s past has a crucial role to play in Norfolk’s future, and that for two main reasons.
First, because the heritage that we have inherited has a crucial economic role in the world of leisure and tourism which is now such a major component of the modern, service-sector economy.
Also, as I’ve just suggested, a major issue confronting the county today is the way in which it is perceived. This affects things such as inward investment, the skills base and aspiration within its population.
Central to the very necessary transformation in that perception is the dissemination of a markedly different story about our past to that which is too commonly accepted at present.
The county’s heritage services are the foundation on which, even now, a better understanding is being built. In a complex and sophisticated world we need to recognise that what at first glance may appear to be expendable luxuries are in fact essentials.
What I have written this far may also provide another perspective on the undoubted problems faced by the county council. As we all know only too well, not only does it have to make ‘austerity cuts’, it has to do so while at the same time trying to turn around major departments which have been severely criticised and in which Norfolk has performed very badly: I am thinking of children’s and adult services and of education. Has no one at County Hall paused to notice the discrepancy between these areas of failure and the outstanding national and international status enjoyed by its heritage services?
The Norfolk Record Office regularly receives the highest ratings in the statutory evaluations carried out by the National Archives.
It has been highly successful over the last few years in attracting outside funding.
It has been ingenious at generating income.
It receives off-the-scale approval ratings from its diverse range of users. It is actively involved in helping to set national standards and in maintaining the international visibility of the county. For example, its Conservation Studio attracts students from across the world.
Much the same could be said of the Norfolk Historic Environment Service. Its present and past staff have built a resource that is hardly equalled in other counties.
It has been creative and innovatory. For example, it set the pattern for creating a fruitful and co-operative relationship between metal-detectorists and professional archaeologists. This provided the model for the national ‘Portable Antiquities Scheme’ run by the British Museum, and now partly funded locally by the British Museum.
It is one of the things that will be destroyed and the external part-funding will be lost if the proposed cuts go ahead. The on-line access to the Norfolk Historic Environment Record database makes it more efficient not only for those interested in the heritage as such but also for planners and developers. Making cuts here will introduce avoidable costs and inefficiencies at a time when so many new developments are afoot.
In short, these departments punch above their weight and help to give the lie to the perception of the county that its failings in other areas have created in Whitehall and elsewhere. And surely the county council’s highly successful heritage departments could offer useful lessons in helping it deal with its acknowledged areas of failure or underperformance.
These, then, are some of the broader perspectives that those making the final decisions about cuts need to bear in mind when looking at the heritage area. But there are a number of other considerations that are rather more technical and which are specific to the heritage area that also need to be weighed.
First, for historic reasons Norfolk has developed integrated, county-wide, services in the heritage area. Anyone who has tried to use comparable services in other counties will be aware of a number of things. Elsewhere the service available is of much lower quality. It is less comprehensive. It is less immediately accessible.
There is not the same level of specialist expertise. By comparison, in Norfolk there are efficiencies of scale and, one presumes, cost savings. This is the case, for example, with the Museums Service and their integrated catalogue. Any move to ‘hive off’ parts of services in the end will increase costs in addition to degrading the service. Also, in areas such as museums, libraries and archives there are irreducible backroom costs that are met most efficiently by centralised provision.
Second, there are distortions that will arise because of the need to meet statutory obligations. These are things that the Record Office or the Historic Environment Service must do by law.
The threat is to cut back to this bare minimum, which will impose severe distortions on the activities of these small departments. In any case, it is highly likely that in the end these obligations will not be met because, in practice, other posts not directly attached to those obligations are in fact necessary to meet them.
Those people left to meet these statutory obligations will be loaded with additional work in order to sustain any sort of service. In turn, and over time this may result in a failure to meet the obligations or meet them at the required level. Does the county council really wish to place these services in jeopardy and face the prospect adding to its already embarrassing portfolio of underperforming services?
Finally, size does matter.
Recently the council distributed to residents a newsletter in which there was a diagram show where their money is spent. None of the heritage services individually are large enough to figure in the diagram! This is exemplified in the case of the Historic Environment Service.
A 25pc cut in this area will save only 0.15pc of the cuts that the county needs to make - or to put it another way, just 15p for every £100 that needs to be saved.
Making crude across-the-board 25pc cuts across all county departments will have very different effects depending on their current size. In the case of small heritage departments this cut will completely destroy certain activities. Expert individuals who have accumulated expertise and have national reputations in their fields will be made redundant and all their knowledge will be lost.
I hope that when those responsible on the council come to make the difficult decisions about cuts they will do so with a sense of historical perspective. This includes an awareness of where the county stands today in a never-ending trajectory of change and where we need to head in the future.
Norfolk’s past has a large part to play in Norfolk’s future: in its economic development and the well-being of its people. Let’s not destroy the outstanding council services that underpin that future.
•Victor Morgan, a former Director of the Centre for East Anglian Studies at UEA, is a professional historian and lecturer who has been a member of many local archaeological, historical and archival committees. He is an expert adviser to the Norfolk Records Committee, a joint committee of the County and District Councils.
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