Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Good Opportunities

If it hadn't been for the County Gardens Trusts' SE Regional Forum, November would have been a tricky month for blogging.  I represented the AGT at a few meetings which, although forward looking were pretty sombre in tone.  Most organisations are struggling to cope with enormous changes - good news was thin on the ground.

The CGT Forum was organised by Verena McCaig, our Historic Landscape Project Officer.  Verena, as you know, is half-way through a three year project designed to unlock the potential of the Gardens Trusts.  As training is a crucial part of the Project, Verena gave us an update on the workshops she has held so far.  I'd been along to observe the second in the series ('Researching Historic Designed Landscapes for Local Listing') and so was interested to hear feedback from other Trust members about the training they had received.  It wasn't a surprise to hear that they couldn't recommend it highly enough.

The workshop I attended was run jointly by Verena and Virginia Hinze (formerly of English Heritage). Both Verena and Virginia hope to see the excellent research that is being carried out by the Gardens Trusts put to good use.  Rather than sitting in archives gathering dust, it has an important part to play in the ongoing development of local lists of parks and gardens - something with which around 50% of local planning authorities are now working. (For more information see  http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/caring/listing/local/local-designations/local-list/   also the members area on the AGT website - access via the Historic Landscape Project page.)

Virginia is introducing Gardens Trust members to the approach used by English Heritage (EH) to register sites of national importance. Gardens Trusts can then use the same system to describe sites important at a local level. The EH format provides a structured way of recording a site and producing a final report.  It's a method that is both recognised and respected by local authorities and conservationists.  Using the same format for Gardens Trusts' research will ensure that the end product will be both respected and accessible and will give Gardens Trusts researchers the satisfaction of having made a real contribution.

Some of the researchers at the workshop I attended were experienced, others were not - but everyone found the day useful.  What a shame that a lack of funding prevents Verena's project being repeated throughout the country.  The long term benefits to our heritage would surely outweigh the short term costs?  If you  live in the south-east do make the most of the opportunity that Verena's project has given us.  We must be one of the few organisations in the country whose members are being offered training packages rather than having them cut!

If you can't attend a workshop then, as a close second-best, you can download the training packages that Verena and Virginia have produced from the AGT website. Signing up for the Members Area via the Historic Landscape Project page will give you access to the material and will also allow you to join the forum and share your experiences with other CGTs.

Providing us with training is just one part of Verena's work.  If our research, contacts and local knowledge are to be put to good use then people need to know where to find us.  So, Verena has also been working with Natural England's Land Management teams, ensuring that they know and understand what we do and how best to work with us.

The capabilities of the Gardens Trusts were also mentioned by Jonathan Lovie of The Garden History Society (GHS).  Jonathan, together with Linden Groves (the GHS Casework Manager) gave the Regional Forum an update on the internal changes that are going on in their organisation.  Uncertainties about funding mean that they need to put in place a system that will continue to protect the historic environment despite economic uncertainty and changing circumstances.

Even before the economic difficulties began, the GHS was receiving an enormous number of planning consultations every year.  In the eight hours a week that Linden's post allows, it was only able to respond to a fraction of these.  They hope that we in the Gardens Trusts, with our local knowledge and expertise, will be able to help stabilise or perhaps even increase the number of consultations that are being given attention.

Jonathan underlined the fact that this is an invitation. Each Gardens Trust will be able to decide on the level of involvement with which they feel comfortable.  Comprehensive training will be available for any Trust that would like it.  These are early days. A way of working that suits us all will evolve slowly. Jonathan and Linden would like our input and feedback.  Once a good system of communication is in place, this sharing of responsibility can only be of benefit to the threatened designed landscapes about which we all care.

How does anyone interested in Garden History improve their knowledge now that the majority of courses in the subject have been axed?  Verena gave Kate Harwood (Herts GT) and Janice Bennetts (Hampshire GT) the opportunity to tell the Forum about their solution to the problem.  As Kate told us, conservation depends on people understanding the importance of the sites on their patch.  Without some sense of historical context this understanding is difficult to achieve.

Both Trusts recently set up a series of Garden History Lectures to rectify the situation.  Herts GT opened their course to members and to the general public.  It proved to be so popular that it had to be repeated.  By the time both courses had run, all the non-members had become members and many are now researchers.  Organising a course would seem to be an innovative way to both educate and to recruit.    

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