What is Heritage?

Ian Baxter


  Royal Crescent's curved facade, punctuated by Ionic columns
  Royal Crescent, Bath: ‘heritage’ or ‘the historic environment’?  

Asking an academic to answer the question ‘What is heritage?’ is risky, not least because of the likely academic interests or prejudices of the writer. There is also the danger that the response renders heritage in the abstract rather than in terms of the everyday objects, buildings and places which make up the experience of heritage for most people in modern society. An effort will therefore be made here to focus on heritage in the real world, and to explore the many facets of what might be termed a ‘problematic’ concept.

We cannot ignore the fact that most of our inherited associations with the past, which we may collectively term heritage, arise from very personal connections, actions, ideas and empathy with a spirit of place. The intangible psychologies of heritage and our tangible management of the built environment are therefore inextricably linked.

Although in common parlance ‘heritage’ is often used when referring to particular examples of the built historic environment or culturally-influenced landscapes, the term ‘historic environment’ has failed to gain traction in the media or with the man on the Clapham omnibus. Essentially, this is because the term fails to express the fundamental link to the human and personal histories bound up in our physical fabric of places. ‘Heritage’, on the other hand, resonates with people both as a label and as a concept. Indeed, even buildings which are now considered architecturally dull or unfashionable can often be recognised for their role in a location’s fabric as heritage and for having had historical resonance within the community in the past. Thus the concept encompasses far more than just those physical features which might be identified, accorded significance, and ‘managed’ as the historic environment in any professional sense.

The physical fabric of heritage is very much the hard-wiring which links a location with the people who have lived there, be they individuals, families, or groups of people who hail from or who have congregated there, and who have thereby influenced the form and features that the built environment now includes. A typical example of this is the iconic British country house, as celebrated in historical fiction and period dramas such as Downton Abbey. A particular family line may have a very distinct effect not only on a society’s cultural and historical development but also very directly in a physical sense through the construction of houses, farms and churches, and through the management of landscapes. Such influential families can also exercise a wider influence by promoting a favoured architectural style or approach to urban form and planning, or through expressions of philanthropy.

  The Edwardian free-style facade of Crofton Park Library, with imposing Dutch gable and domed octagonal tower
  Crofton Park Library in London is one of around 2,500 Carnegie Libraries worldwide. Earmarked for closure in May 2011 by Lewisham Council, the library was saved by the local community with private sector
assistance. (Photo: William Badenhorst)

Beyond the core of the immediate environs at the ‘family house’, the styles and designs representing unique heritage-scapes can be found up and down the country providing distinct community identities. For example, one of the most widespread legacies to have affected the physical and cultural heritage of the UK and elsewhere was the building of libraries endowed by Andrew Carnegie. Between 1883 and 1929 a total of 2,509 libraries were built with the aid of the Scottish-American businessman’s donations to towns mainly in the UK, the United States, Ireland, Canada and Australia. While individual building styles were chosen by the communities in which they were built, a number of styles and forms dominated through the influence of Carnegie’s staff.

At the other end of the scale, immigration and cultural changes have transformed the character of whole neighbourhoods. In many industrial towns and cities terraces constructed to house local workers are often found to have been reconfigured socially and culturally as their new communities dynamically manage the physical environment, making their own mark on it and contributing to the heritage story of a place.

Heritage and the dynamics of change within the physical environment are at the heart of what we can call ‘place identity’. Such identities are often described with reference to preconceived notions of what the type of settlement should look like, be it in rural England or the Scottish highlands, a farmstead or a mill complex. However, effective heritage management requires a more thorough understanding of the structure, form and landscape of the place. Heritage management goes hand in hand with the study and understanding of urban and rural historic development, form and landscape and the development of research methodologies to explore, understand and explain the character, significance and value of heritage assets and landscapes has grown in sophistication over the last two decades in particular. A place identity will, and should never, be static as a successful ‘living’ community and built environment is one which can adapt and change – heritage can therefore be thought of in terms of resilience: a glue which gives historical sense to the fabric of a place.

Individual elements and actions create the wider public landscape. It is therefore not surprising that the notion of ‘tapestry’ is often used when looking at the range of elements from different time periods, of different style and design, which make up the neighbourhood in which we live, and which are key to the concept of ‘character’ that people desire of the place they live.

The linkages of people to places, and the forms of expression which surround us in the built and natural environment influence our behaviour consciously and subconsciously, and the psychologies of heritage bring about an intrinsic need and desire to understand, look after and enjoy it.


  Stanley Mills overlooking the River Tay
  Stanley Mills, Perthshire: part of the listed mill complex was converted into residential units in 1997–2001 (Photo: The Prince’s Regeneration Trust)

The breadth of heritage has motivated many individuals and groups, in both amateur and professional fields, to engage with the aesthetic, artistic, and creative elements of our buildings and monuments. The histories of societies such as the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, the UK’s two national trusts (with over four million members), and numerous local antiquarian and heritage groups, paint a picture of value for heritage in all its forms, and reflect a desire to maintain or enhance understanding of its distinctive features into the future.

Conservation initiatives often arise out of potential threat, whether it is access to a location, imminent destruction of a building, gradual neglect of something which might otherwise be deemed to be an asset, or the building being deemed no longer fit for purpose. They may also arise as society re-evaluates the value of a place or style of building, perhaps as a result of a change in fashion. Redundant buildings are often the most challenging, but they can also be the lynchpin of a successful regeneration project, taking only a spark of inspiration to find a new life which has heritage value at its core, providing the unique selling point. Recent examples of this are seen in Urban Splash’s re-configuration of listed (but unloved) blocks of flats in Sheffield at Park Hill, creating a design-led regeneration of degraded housing stock. Other examples include the many projects undertaken by organisations like the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, such as the conversion of a large cotton-mill complex at Stanley Mills on the banks of the River Tay into residential units.

The close relationship between heritage ‘assets’ (objects, buildings, places or landscapes) and their guardians (pressure groups, movements and causes) is founded on a recognition that this asset can do something wonderful within society. That might sound somewhat rose-tinted or idealistic, but time and time again it rings true when interrogated closely. Of particular note in the last couple of years has been the advocacy undertaken by the National Trust in response to the English government’s draft National Planning Policy Framework, billed as the ‘Planning for People’ campaign. This focused on the involvement of local communities, encouraging them to engage more fully with the planning process. In particular, its child- and family-based advocacy encouraged greater engagement with outdoor recreation via its ‘50 things to do before you’re 11¾’ programme. But we must move beyond heritage as catalyst to better articulate its value in society today.


Although clear value can be seen in the examples already mentioned, when heritage is considered on a formal level in local planning decisions, council funding directions, and government policy and regulation, it has inevitably to be de-personalised. On this formal level it must be evaluated in a context of competing concerns and assessed in terms of what it can deliver for society.

Debates around value in recent years have gathered momentum, and are seen in heritage agencies’ policies and publications as an underpinning for discussions around significance. While necessary for a maturing in heritage as both a discipline and profession, the tenor of this discussion has diverged slightly from a more instrumental understanding in civil society decisionmaking contexts (PPG15’s appendices for example), and has drifted towards reestablishing our fundamental conservation philosophies and principles at a professional level. An argument is not being made on reductionist lines for a pure profit-and-loss approach for heritage in the modern world but, in England at least, the swinging weathervane of political attention must be heeded. Furthermore, if a minister for culture suggests that a case has not been made, then a renewed effort or change in language is required to demonstrate what heritage does in society now, and what it has the potential to do in future. Conservationists must adopt a more business-like approach to communicating its message on value.

  Wilton Windmill with bunting strung between the sails
  A Heritage Open Day at Wilton Windmill, Wiltshire (Photo: Susie Brew)

The evidence clearly exists: heritage protection works and delivers outputs and outcomes across a range of societal areas. Practical education and work-based skills, specialised heritage crafts experience, and conservation-related skills are all in demand, not only in the conservation and refurbishment/renewal trades, but also in the complex regeneration field and throughout the wider building industry itself. From conservation schemes within individual historic properties, to wider-scale conservation and maintenance of historic estates (such as the maintenance of the historic waterways in the care of the Canal & River Trust), training pathways and skills development are a feature of organisational planning. Equally, training and skills form a key agenda item for the professional institutes within this sector, such as the Institute of Historic Building Conservation, the Institute for Archaeologists and Icon. Allied to this, the Heritage Lottery Fund has invested significant funds in individual craft and heritage skills projects, as well as larger strategic bursary schemes to support careers within the heritage sector.

There is already a well-developed private market in skills and competencies (as amply illustrated by leafing through the pages of this directory), and when heritage assets are fully recognised for the role they can play within the sustainable development agenda we can expect to see an increasing need for education, skills and services from the heritage sector. Heritage businesses are already identified within national business surveys and reported as a specialised sector within national statistics. Although growth in the sector has been low due to the global economic climate, the fact that an industrial sector can be clearly identified means that we can begin to assess the scale of value to the economy. This has been considered by Scotland in its assessment of the economic value of heritage (HEACS report 2009, see further information) and more recently by English Heritage as part of its annual Heritage Counts survey, which focused in 2012 on resilience. However, perhaps the most detailed figures relating to the value of heritage within the building and construction industry have been collated by the National Heritage Training Group: this suggests that over 100,000 people are already employed within the sector to work on maintaining and regenerating heritage buildings.

Within the wider education sector, heritage sites and contexts provide rich opportunities for learning, both inside and outside the classroom, on a daily basis. There is not a subject in the curriculum which cannot use aspects of heritage in demonstrating ideas or practical applications, and schools benefit from diverse educational resources provided by large and small organisations on different types of site (from understanding the structures of buildings using physics to using the settings of historic properties to generate creative artistic responses or creative writing). Formal education sees heritage at the heart of history, art, archaeology, architecture and many other subjects in secondary and tertiary education environments, and subjects allied to heritage remain popular with students. Academic outputs (journal articles, reports, books, etc) associated with heritage subjects continue to grow year on year. The opportunities that heritage provides as a glue which binds us to locations in the world around us have farreaching value for aspiration, inspiration and creativity as part of the wider cultural sphere.

  A conservator in hard hat and high-visibility vest repairs stonework from a scaffolding platform
  A conservator carries out masonry repairs at Berkeley Castle, Gloucestershire

One of the major values which is accorded to the built heritage is through the generation of tourism revenues from visits to individual historic visitor attractions and larger entities, characterised by their historic buildings and streetscapes. Again, there is a wealth of statistics and evaluation of impacts from tourism, and yet there continues to be a surprising amount of distrust in the relationship between the sectors. The heritage sector often considers that tourism is exploitative and fails to invest in the asset base, and that the tourism experience and engagement with the visitor is often undemanding, with visitors unable to fully appreciate the cultural value of the resource. Conversely, the tourism sector considers the heritage sector to be far too precious and purist about the management and interpretation of its resource, and un-businesslike in its operation.

This is perhaps taking some stereotypical views to an extreme, but the tenor of these views persists, despite heritage tourism being one of the most successful growth markets in the global economy, and Britain being consistently in the top destination brands for its cultural heritage offer. The heritage tourism experience in Britain is generally excellent, and soundly based on the important work of the craftspeople and conservation professionals who maintain the heritage fabric of our buildings and places.

However, the industry cannot be complacent: the visitor offer must compete in a crowded and competitive market for leisure time and spend from both global and domestic consumers. The experience and service must therefore be constantly enhanced, and therein lies the tension between the areas. Regardless, heritage, often through tourism-led initiatives such as festivals or events, has clearly moved into the realm of ‘lifestyle experience’, a fact borne out by continued heritage society and organisational membership, and the extension of heritage as a theme into the branding of consumer goods, foods and other products: the appetite appears unabated.

This brings us back full circle to heritage being very much a mainstream theme within society and the way it behaves, socially, politically and economically. Wherever people are looking after and engaging with the fabric of our heritage, longer term outcomes and spin-off benefits are emerging that the sector has really only just begun to quantify, including improvements in health and quality of life.

More could be said about developments in technological approaches to heritage preservation, maintenance and interpretation, and the changing frameworks for managing heritage as new models of management and enterprise embed themselves in a fastchanging economy, and as civil society takes on more responsibility from what was once expected as a public service function. More too could be said of the divergent approaches in policy between England and Scotland towards heritage which are quickly emerging. However, from the perspective of an academic sitting in a university business school, surveying the industry as a whole, the overriding impression is that the heritage industry has already emerged as a clearly defined sector with business complexity and a varied set of value propositions that start with the fabric and reach far beyond.



Further Information

Ecorys/Heritage Lottery Fund, The Economic Impact of Maintaining and Repairing Historic Buildings in England, HLF, London, 2012

Heritage Counts

Heritage Lottery Fund, New Ideas Need Old Buildings, HLF, London, 2013

Historic Environment Advisory Council for Scotland, Report and Recommendations on the Economic Impact of the Historic Environment in Scotland, HEACS, Edinburgh, 2009

National Heritage Training Group

Scotland’s Historic Environment Audit

UK Heritage Research Group



The Building Conservation Directory, 2014


IAN BAXTER PhD FRSA FSA FSAScot PIfA is the head of division of Tourism, Heritage & Events at University Campus Suffolk Business School. He has worked in heritage management for 25 years, and has contributed to the development of the Heritage Counts and Scottish Heritage Audit programmes as well as other policy development initiatives in Scotland and England. He is currently developing heritage management as a strategic subject area for UCS (see www.ucs.ac.uk/heritage).

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