The public body tasked with caring for and promoting the nation’s built heritage is to see its budget scythed from £61 million in 2022/23 to just £48m by 2026/27.
Public bodies like HES are seldom a political priority, especially during straitened times, but they perform an invaluable function. Its conservation work extends beyond mere bricks and mortar. It informs the places where we live, and helps us better understand our past.
It may be best known as the custodian of Edinburgh Castle, but many of the less well known sites under the care of HES, such as Caerlaverock Castle or Crossraguel Abbey, have their own rich heritage, and serve as a source of pride, inspiration and intrigue.
Sadly, they are among more than 50 of its properties currently off limits while survey work is carried out to assess their safety and the impacts of climate change. This is precisely the kind of onerous, but important work that costs, and there must now be real doubts over how such projects can continue in the face of the new fiscal reality.
The cuts also pose a risk to the crucial process of listing and scheduling buildings and monuments, and ensuring those already recognised are kept in good repair. Some might argue such work could be picked up by local authorities, but it is a troubled compromise that underplays the regulatory role played by HES and misunderstands the importance of its position as a statutory consultee in listed building planning applications. The concerns of councils for their built heritage do not always outweigh their appetite for economic development.
The £13m hit is even more discomfiting given the spending review also specifies a £6m uplift on “culture and major events”. Such an emphasis, coupled with a £7m increase in external affairs spending, has given critics of the SNP cause to suggest its priorities lie with grand political showcasing in service of its constitutional ambitions.
Even if that is not the case, it must seize future opportunities to attract international investors and donors for the treasures close to home, otherwise we risk realising too late how much we need them.