Heritage Officer Programme Celebrates 10 Years
In 1999, the Heritage Council, in partnership with Galway City Council, Kerry and Sligo County Councils, established a threeyear pilot Heritage Officer programme which sought to place heritage expertise within local authorities. The Heritage Council recognised that local authorities are strategically placed to encourage, guide and support heritage management at local level and in essence they have opportunities to shape and showcase the heritage strengths and identity of the city or county in which they operate.
The Heritage Officer programme is supported by Government policy through the National Heritage Plan and the National Biodiversity Plan. There has been a dramatic change over the last 10 years in the legislative environment in which local authorities operate. Compliance with international, European and national legislation, as it relates to the conservation and protection of habitats, bird and animal species, archaeology and built heritage, impacts on most work programmes within a local authority. Coupled with new requirements for Strategic Environmental Appraisal, Appropriate Assessment and the forthcoming Environmental Liability Directive, the real benefit of having heritage expertise at local level to address these issues and support the local authority in delivering services to the wider community is paying dividends.
Building on Success
The initial three-year pilot programme was extremely successful and the Heritage Council actively sought further partnerships with local authorities across Ireland, and today there are 28 Heritage Officers in post.
The role of Heritage Officer has developed significantly over the last 10 years, with the service reflecting local issues and priorities and also the professional strengths of the HeritageOfficer. The remit of the post is also influenced by whether there are additional heritage professionals within the Local Authority, such as Conservation Officers, County or City Archaeologists or Biodiversity Officers.
Some local authorities have recognised that with additional legislative requirements specialisations have been required to complement the role of Heritage officer. This has seen the formation of ‘Heritage Units’ within local authorities, staffed by Heritage Officers, Biodiversity officers, Conservation officers and Archaeologists.
There is great variety in the projects supported by Heritage Officers across the country, which reflects how much work is required in knowing, valuing and caring for Ireland’s heritage resource in all its aspects. Over the years Heritage Officers have been involved in a myriad projects including policy formation, survey work, development control and forward planning, capital works, biodiversity enhancement and allocation of heritage grants, awards and bursaries. Sourcing of funding and facilitating partner groups and organisations is a constant underlying theme.
For all the variety, there are a series of common threads that frame the Heritage Officer’s role and work programme. Project work carried out by Heritage Officers is strategically driven by City and County Heritage Plans and, where applicable, Local Biodiversity Action Plans.
While 50-60% of the Heritage Officer’s time can be allocated to the delivery of the Heritage Plan, increasingly significant amounts of time are devoted to assisting and advising the local authority on the heritage implications of current andfuture policies and work programmes. In carrying out this work, Heritage Officers provide professional heritage advice across different departments within local authorities. Common work areas include County Development Plans, Functional Area Plans, Local Area Plans, as well as assisting with devising other land use policies, i.e. wind farm policy, village design statements, landscape character assessments. Data collection is a significant area of work that varies from collecting existing datasets to commissioning new survey work. It is a role that is becoming increasingly important with EU Directives requiring baseline heritage data for EIA, SEA and Appropriate Assessment. Heritage Officers have a key strategic role in advising on local authority plans, policies and programmes; essentially it is a role that seeks to manage change in a sustainable way in the natural and historic environment.
Connecting People and Heritage
Promoting interest, pride in and understanding of our national heritage is a key facet of the Heritage Officer’s role. Education is a constant theme, both within the local authority with regard to new legislation, guidelines and directives and also general heritage awareness – in schools, community groups and individuals. The Heritage Officer provides a key point of contact and information for heritage issues. The appointment of Heritage Officers has allowed improved connectivity and dialogue around heritage issues between local authorities and the heritage services within the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and other government departments.
A Vision for the Future
Over the past 10 years the need for heritage expertise within Local authorities has grown, the legislative framework for theprotection of the environment and heritage has become more complex, the Heritage Officer’s workload has increased exponentially since the first appointment in 1999. The long-term sustainability of the role without the assistance of additional heritage professionals in many counties needs to be assessed. In 2000, 12 heritage projects were run through the local authority heritage offices. In 2009, in excess of 300 projects will be managed through the heritage offices, in addition to policy and advice work.
Challenging times face us all in balancing economic and heritage management. The tenacity of the Heritage Officers over the past 10 years has proven that they are able for the challenge and are an extremely adaptable professional resource within the local authorities. When we look back at the post in 2019 we hope to be reviewing the development of the Heritage Departments within the local authorities and celebrating the first Heritage Officer to make it to County Manager.