Wednesday, 9 March 2016

This is the hyperlinked text of a talk I gave at the annual Built Environment Forum for Scotland Conference in Edinburgh on 9 March. 

And the excellent Graham Ogilvie drew this as I was speaking: 

In the first draft of this talk I aimed to be provocative but conciliatory. However, in the end this version is just provocative; in fact I would go as far to say it is combative and it’s a good job I have to run off and catch the train to Stirling as soon as I finished otherwise I’d probably need bullet-proof armour to get out the room. What I am going to suggest is that the main trouble with heritage protection is that it is an example of middle class self-interest. People do not protect heritage for some transcendent, higher reason, but because it is in their own class interest.

In my research with Professor Hastings at the University of Glasgow we demonstrated that the middle classes are particularly good at getting resources from public services because they take advantage of four different mechanisms. Firstly, they join groups that policy-makers listen to, often because they have statutory duties; the classic example being the Community Council. Secondly, they are just much more likely to engage in policy-making on an individual and group basis. What is more, when they do engage they are more likely to get what they want which is a further incentive to engage. Thirdly, they have greater access to people with the necessary expertise, and also the ability to understand complex technical language, to have influence in policy-making. Finally, policy-makers just make policy to suit the middle classes; because they vote more, but also because they know the middle classes are likely to complain if policy is not made to suit them and their demands.

You are now probably bristling and thinking “I’m not middle class!” or the more sociological question of “what does he mean by middle class?” There is a lot of evidence behind this talk that is available free to access; but also the greatest revelation of this research for me is quite how middle class I am, and then using these mechanisms to get what I want.

Let’s apply this model of middle class influence to heritage. On the first mechanism, heritage groups are archetypal of this type of activity. Many started off as small groups of the great-and-the-good who used their influence to protect heritage – such as civic amenity associations – and then have gradually become a formal part of development processes and people who expect to be listened to.

We just need to look at the most controversial development decisions recently to see evidence of the second mechanism. I could reel off a list of controversial planning applications in well-to-do neighbourhoods in Edinburgh, but this would be unfair to my fellow citizens of this city. But it’s rather telling that the controversy over the proposed demolition of the Red Road flats in 2014 was largely one of the lack of taste in demolishing people’s homes during the Commonwealth Games ceremony, not uproar that we have housed people so poorly that the only sensible thing to do is to demolish their homes after 40 years.

In terms of the third mechanism – I lived in a listed building. It is listed because it is a unique collection of early nineteenth century industrial buildings, with a restrained classical façade, with dressed stone and proportional fenestration to the road elevation. Do I need to say any more? Most people don’t even know what fenestration means – it sounds more like something you’d see your doctor about rather than windows. Further, far fewer people who know someone to contact to tell them what fenestration is so they can get listed building consent and planning permission to do something about their windows. As the story of the Tinker’s Heart movingly showed, you are in a system that actively excludes people who can’t “talk heritage”.

Now the fourth mechanism. “Ah” you’re probably thinking, “look at the Royal High School! The St James Centre! Caltongate! There is no way he can say development policies are suited the interests of middle-class people!” Yes I am. Because the evidence is fairly obvious. As Dr Madgin suggested, we value places based on judgements of taste that come from a specific cultural background. When we afford an untouched neighbourhood of working class council housing the same level of protection because of its social value as we afford Edinburgh’s New Town, then I’ll accept that policy is not made in the interests of the middle classes. But it seems we struggle to even have a reasoned discussion on this. The only suggestion is that we merely continue to expand existing protection systems, slowly allowing different kinds of heritage – industrial, working class, associated with a specific minority group – because we expand the definitional envelope of what should be protected very marginally. We need a discussion about whether we have the right envelope at all.

Why is this all class interested? At its most basic, itprotects house prices which are the largest asset for most people. But all this social capital – the links to people of influence; and cultural capital – the valorisation of certain aesthetics and the language used to describe them, puts middle class people in positions of power and influence. And they, you, we, are not going to give up that lightly.

So now I’ve revealed myself as the, self-described “envy-driven author trying to pass off as an intellectual” I’ll don my flak jacket and tin helmet and beat a hasty retreat. 

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