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Welsh Historic, Cultural and Heritage Environment


History, heritage and culture add value to the Welsh economy and pride to the Welsh nation. Can they do more without making Wales a heritage theme park?

In 2009, the Welsh Assembly published a report, The Welsh Historic Environment: A Celebration. It pointed out that the whole of the Welsh environment contained historic elements, whether in towns and cities, land or offshore. However fast modern change moves, the marks of past generations remained in the present.

They’re in buildings great and small, churches, landscapes and commons, fields and ways of doing and seeing things. There is a national perspective and outlook. Literature, music, crafts, arts, beliefs and language are ‘expressions of what it means to be in Wales’, but are also great social assets linking people and giving Wales a distinctive identity.

The size and shape of the historic resource is reflected in the fact that Wales has 3 World Heritage Sites; 34,000 scheduled or listed historical assets; 428 registered historic landscapes, parks and gardens; 127 sites in the care of Cadw, the historic environment service of Welsh government; over 4300 maritime heritage assets and 519 conservation areas.

The Benefits

The report acknowledged the difficulty of quantifying the benefits of social cohesion, well-being and national pride, but they’d done studies that found 90% of international visitors staying in Wales visited a cultural site, there were 2m annual visits to Cadw-staffed and aided sites, 5 million annual visits to National Trust Welsh properties and countryside, 3 million visits to museums and heritage sites, while 91% of Welsh people surveyed thought it important that historic environments should be cared for.

The Great Britain Tourism Survey 2010 found that over 7% of the 120 million trips taken in the UK were in Wales, with a 3% increase in the average stay to 3.78 nights and average expenditure per trip up by 6% in a year, to about £8 million per day. So, £3 billion a year comes into the economy from visitors who help employ around 100,000 people.

The Threats

While visitor numbers to Welsh heritage were high, the report also found a minority who experienced barriers to access, ‘physically, logistically, intellectually or attitudinally’. Clearly, not everybody valued their heritage to the same degree, but that should be expected.

The Minister for Heritage, Alun Ffred Jones, who signed the report, said that both prosperity and decline threatened the historic environment equally, but he was committed to making ‘an evidence-based case for the economic contribution of the historic environment and the value of heritage in regeneration’.

He said Wales had a ‘sound planning regime’ but about 10% of historic buildings were still at risk. Climate change, rising sea levels, general deterioration of fabric were among the worries he identified that were expressed by conservationists.

In April 2001 a conference was held on the effects of tourism on Wales itself. Part of a wider project on The Social History of the Welsh Language, it considered the impact of visitors by asking: ‘what price do we pay for giving visitors such a warm welcome?’ The resulting report found close links between tourism and in-migration and therefore there was Welsh language decline.

It warned that tourism was a ‘catalyst in the Anglicization of many communities throughout the Welsh-speaking heartland’. Since the historical/heritage environment is such a fundamental part of tourism (and more so since 2001), clearly those concerned about loss of Welsh heartland identity, remain so.

It’s a case of being afraid of the hand that feeds. Tourism sustains the Welsh economy; yet it could destroy it, which is the perennial debate about the biggest job creator in the world. Tourism brings jobs and investment, while it erodes linguistic profiles and cultural heritage.

It leads to holiday homes and to retirees attracted by rural peace, natural environments and historical riches moving in with a resulting strain on some social/health services in due course. This creates a snowball effect. Families of incomers want to come too. Of course, they bring money, and it happens everywhere across the globe where people perceive a better lifestyle from the one they left behind.

The Solutions?

That report argued for promoting national identity based on the native tongue with its unique culture, so that tourism would ‘benefit the language’. They wanted more widespread use of Welsh, which to a large extent they have seen in the past decade. But new arrivals from all corners of the world and the gradual multi-culturalisation of Wales is as inevitable as in other areas.

In the meantime, though, the issue of preserving an accessible, proportionate/representative and affordable heritage remains high on the politico-economic agenda. The National Trust is very active, and owns 133 miles of rugged, spectacular Welsh coastline as well as Powis and Penrhyn Castles, Anglesey’s Plas Newydd and the gardens of Bodnant.

Cadw doesn’t own properties it cares for, it advises, maintains at taxpayers’ expense and makes them available to the public. Among sites it oversees are castles at Caernarfon, Beaumaris, Caerphilly, Conwy, Denbigh, Flint, Harlech, Monmouth, Montgomery, Oxwich, Newport, Raglan, Swansea, Tretower and Weobley; Tintern Abbey, Blaenavon Ironworks, Bryntail (lead mine buildings), along with walls, burial chambers, chapels, priories, abbeys, pillars, forts, standing stones and Llanishen Reservoir.

This is but a taster of what Wales has among its historic heirlooms. Put with music and poetry which already earns a great deal, and with investing and diversifying an economy into less obvious niche areas ignored by other places, then Wales is sitting on historic, usable assets worth more than its 3 million population many times over.

As long as Wales doesn’t make itself into a giant heritage theme park, though there is a view that says that would, with proper marketing, make the most of all assets!

First published on Suite 101, 12 September 2011

Image: Natural Environment Is Big Welsh Selling Point – Dave Price


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One Response to "Welsh Historic, Cultural and Heritage Environment"

  1. […] versus the preservation/access debate, of course, continues. Many UK visitors come not to Wales, Scotland or Ulster separately, but to see more. However, if there were an English […]

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