Access to heritage still denied

Audit office report identifies weaknesses with policies and targets
Felicity Heywood
A "weak link" between the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's (DCMS) policy objectives to broaden participation, and the targets agreed with English Heritage, has resulted in only small increases in the number of people from underrepresented groups who visited the historic environment (see table below).

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO), entitled Promoting Participation with the Historic Environment, found that although there were increases in visitors from ethnic minorities, lower socio-economic groups and those with a limiting disability - the target (achieving at least a 3 percentage point rise between 2005-06 and 2007-08) was met only in the first group.

Although it manages only 5 per cent of England's historic sites, the report says that as a government-sponsored department, English Heritage has a remit to influence the wider sector by promoting and spreading good practice.

But the NAO concludes that it is unclear to what extent the actions of DCMS or English Heritage made a difference to the rise in the ethnic minority visitor figures. Indeed, English Heritage was unable to confirm whether its Sites of Memory research project for the Bicentenary of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act in 2007, had any bearing on the increase in these figures.

English Heritage says it had not been asked to measure the diversity of visitors to its properties. Instead, it agreed with DCMS to become a partner in the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council's Taking Part Survey, which measures the public's behaviour and attitude towards heritage sites.

The report also notes that English Heritage faced financial pressures that led it to focus on maximising revenue. This consequently compromised its decisions on how to broaden participation with the historic environment.

The DCMS said it was "regrettable" that some targets were missed, but overall, the performance of the heritage sector was good.

As a government-funded body, English Heritage divides visitors into categories. But many heritage and historic environment organisations fail to do so, including the National Trust, National Trust Scotland, Historic Scotland and the Welsh Assembly's historic environment service, Cadw.

Some record figures for visitors with a disability, as they pay a separate entry fee. Although each organisation's website may boast that its properties are broadening access and have facilities for everyone, they then fail to evaluate how well they are doing.

A lack of resources may contribute to these organisations' reluctance to invest in monitoring visitors' use of their sites. Why collect categorised figures when there are limited resources to do anything about the information gained?

Judy Ling Wong, UK director of the Black Environment Network, which consults with heritage organisations to increase inclusivity, says she can understand that viewpoint.

She worked with the National Trust to launch a diversity policy in 2006. When the policy was introduced, those who really wanted change used it to their benefit, says Ling Wong.

The National Trust welcomes 12 million people annually to its 300-plus historic house and gardens and 49 industrial monuments and mills.

Head of access-for-all, Heather Smith, says the organisation is re-evaluating the way in which it monitors visitors by asking whether its on-site questionnaires are effective and using its Midlands-based Whose Story project as a pilot for monitoring particular groups.

Ling Wong says that until organisations start properly monitoring visitors, rather than being purely "gestural", things won't change much. She says the ultimate measure is the Visit Britain model, where visitors are recorded on the same day year on year.

Progress should be made in November, when a parliamentary committee hearing will give English Heritage and the department for culture a chance to present their positions on the issues raised by the NAO report.

NAO recommendations

As a matter of urgency, DCMS and English Heritage to agree clear and relevant measures to assess English Heritage's performance
English Heritage should benchmark the cost and impact of its outreach activities against similar organisations
English Heritage should profile the communities around its properties and produce an action plan for each to raise levels of engagement.

Visitors to historic sites (DCMS Taking Part Survey)

Priority Group: Black and minority ethnic
%%Increase/(decrease): 3.4
Statistically significant increase: Yes
Target met: Yes

Priority Group: Limiting disability
%%Increase/(decrease): 1.5
Statistically significant increase: No
Target met: No

Priority Group: Lower socio-economic group
%%Increase/(decrease): 2.3
Statistically significant increase: Yes
Target met: No

Source: Taking Part December 2008.

Note: the increase/decrease is between the 2005-06 and 2007-08 results

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