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2 Jul 2024

Skills from the past are vital for the future

Written by Bryan Dickson, Head of Buildings Conservation Policy
A woman facing a wall paints a stencil on the wall.
Conservators are highly sought after in the heritage sector.
The recently launched Historic Environment Skills Investment Plan (SIP) focuses on more than just the usual skills shortages. It highlights the diverse range of requirements for preserving our historic environment amidst the challenges following the pandemic, climate change, economy and society. Bryan Dickson, our Head of Buildings Conservation and Policy, looks at what this means for the Trust.

A sector under threat — with solutions at a premium

In 2019, I reflected on the launch of the Historic Environment Skills Investment Plan (SIP) and the promise it held for conserving the historic environment. It was a promise interrupted by the global pandemic, and as we continue to emerge from the other side of this, new factors make the plan’s renewal even more important.

Honing skills for the future

The challenge of climate change is undeniably stark, with the predicted trends for Scotland of heavier and sustained periods of rainfall, alongside so-called ‘once in two hundred years’ storms now manifesting every couple of years, becoming a harsh reality. The toll these conditions take on built heritage and nature is deeply concerning, underscoring the urgent need for us to rethink how we can protect and conserve these places.

Linked to this, irrespective of recent debate about targets, is the necessary movement towards Carbon Net Zero to address climate challenges. This means fewer new builds and making better use of what we have, as well as coming up with alternative ways to heat and power our buildings. The task is doubly difficult in a country where 19% of housing stock is of pre-1919 construction and many of our training systems are purposed around new construction. Based on the ambition as signposted in the latest Scottish Government consultation on Heat in Buildings, we require considerable reform and unification of new technology with traditional skills, on a scale not seen since the introduction of electricity to homes over the late 19th century and decades into the 20th.

One clear impact of the pandemic is the evolving nature of our town and city centres and the debate this is stimulating. If the balance is to shift back to these becoming places to live, more than simply places to shop and commute to for work, this will necessitate converting existing buildings to different purposes. Their wholesale demolition and replacement is simply unacceptable, given their embodied carbon value alone, and would miss the opportunity to reshape a workforce – something that we must account for more in our future decision making. We also know from surveys that a majority of people would like to see built heritage saved and reused and regard this as a significant factor in their quality of life.

These matters significantly worsen the problems that the initial SIP aimed to address – and those existing problems still persist. Fundamentally, we do not have enough professionals and craftspeople who are trained and competent to work on older, traditional buildings – be they heritage attractions, tenements and cottages, old warehouses, or civic buildings marooned among cheaply built modernity.

We know from experience that projects can often be affected by a lack of local knowledge, over-committed contractors, or a requirement to use traditional or other materials generally unsupported by conventional supply chains. Training provision in such techniques is also limited against a backdrop of a general construction industry that requires modern systemised building technologies to be taught to continue to maintain cost efficiency.

The outcome is that colleges facing chronic underfunding must operate at levels of commerciality that require large class sizes or cheaper infrastructure, as detailed by an article in The Herald:

’Chronic underfunding’ – Colleges face a budget gap of nearly half a billion pounds

This directly impacts the traditional trades, resulting in the closure of courses such as we are experiencing now within the stonemasonry training provision – and skills shortages even for basic building maintenance and repair tasks.

Additionally, like many others, the heritage sector is having to respond to a changing workforce. People often gravitate to jobs that are less complex in nature and pay higher – not a description used for our sector! In addition, despite some brilliant pockets of best practice, the construction industry generally has far to travel to establish pathways into the sector that are more progressive, diverse and provide opportunities for all.

In the wake of a competitive tourism industry growing post-pandemic, we anticipate our destinations to offer fresh experiences and more business opportunities, along with streamlining operations. Heritage tourism faces the task of catering to both existing visitors and drawing in new crowds for long-term viability. As a nation, we should reflect on the fact that, while there is much debate about agriculture and fisheries in Scotland, together these sectors contribute £3.4 billion to our economy, yet tourism brings in £9.7 billion, of which a very large chunk is due to our cultural, natural and built heritage.

Two stonemasons work on a building beside a boarded-up window. The man kneeling in the foreground wears a mask and holds a large tool.
Stonemasonry is just one example of a skill from the past; roles in this sector are hard to fill.

A complex environment

The historic environment sector is diverse and requires a wide range of skills to support it. Employment types include full-time and part-time workers, freelancers, researchers and volunteers. It’s conservatively estimated that the sector supports 20,000 full-time employees and 17,000 volunteers in Scotland, which has grown at a rate of 20% since 2014.

The 2023 survey of employers, conducted as part of a SIP review, revealed a concerning trend. A staggering 70% of respondents anticipated skills shortages in the next five years, a significant increase from the 20% reported in the 2019 survey. The most challenging roles to fill were stonemasons and joiners, but the list also included painters, stained glass workers, heritage advisors, curators, conservators and technicians. As we have observed, these shortages add time and cost to our work plans, underscoring the urgency of the situation.

The growing demand for people with these skills is clearly due to the growth in tourism, the popularity of heritage venues, and the factors I’ve outlined above. The question is: where will the skilled people need to come from?

A group of people at work in a field, removing weeds and invasive plants.
Outdoor volunteers hard at work. It’s estimated the historic environment sector supports 17,000 volunteers in Scotland.

The renewal of a plan

The Historic Environment SIP is a Scottish Government-supported report produced by a cross-section of specialists as part of the Our Place in Time strategy. As originally drafted back in 2019, it found that a lack of skills presented the sector with a real threat. This had (and still has) a negative impact on our ability to deliver our charitable purpose and effectively manage, protect and conserve our historic environment.

In 2023, in tandem with the development of the new Our Past, Our Future national strategy for the historic environment 2023–2028, the opportunity was taken to conduct a post-pandemic review of the SIP. A considerable amount of expertise was brought to the table through a rigorous consultation process involving many multi-disciplinary staff and a national network of external consultants and advisers. For the first time, collectively, the strengths and weaknesses of practices and related supply chains have been documented, and forward-looking plans have been mapped out.

The overwhelming conclusion was that the SIP was a positive for the sector in many ways but that there were areas requiring improvement and adaptation to changing circumstances. The areas to be addressed included: a lack of resources and dedicated funding actively constraining progress; more effective engagement for delivery through the Scottish Government and Local Authorities being needed; better engagement with Small to Medium-sized Enterprises required; poor data provision across the sector; and better communication, so as to reflect the breadth of the activity captured by the SIP.

The renewed SIP, which has recently been launched, is a significant step forward. It is commendable for its focus on a costed resource plan and improved sector leadership. We are particularly pleased that the Minister for Culture, Kaukab Stewart, shares its ambition. As the government supports all sectors in Scotland to achieve Net Zero, it is crucial that the role of our historic environment in these efforts is acknowledged and valued for the opportunities it provides for future generations.

The SIP has provided a new baseline to evidence the skill shortages we need to address just to maintain and repair our built environment. However, it has not fully quantified the need for the skills required to adapt our existing building stock to a changing climate, or those needed to make its fabric efficient and fit for the 21st century. The scale of the challenge and the degree of reform required should not be underestimated. Without adequate funding and strong leadership, we run the risk of the challenge becoming insurmountable, leading to more abandonment and dereliction. This underscores the urgency of the situation and the need for immediate action.

Yes, at the end of the day, the SIP is just a plan – a piece of paper in the face of those immense hurdles. But based on the thinking and assessment put into its drafting, we have a real opportunity to start tackling the issues. We now have a framework, but we need nationwide effort to use it and collaborate with one another.

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