Looking after the past, Heritage Council is fighting for its future

The Heritage Council, which has been based in Kilkenny for the past 15 years, will be fighting for its survival over the next six months, and its chief executive says its existence is vital for its effects on jobs, education and tourism.

The Heritage Council, which has been based in Kilkenny for the past 15 years, will be fighting for its survival over the next six months, and its chief executive says its existence is vital for its effects on jobs, education and tourism.

The Government is considering whether to absorb the Heritage Council into the Department of Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht as part of the public service reform programme announced in November, and the agency is due to receive a “critical review” by the end of June 2012.

“We will respond to that by focusing on the positive contribution that the Heritage Council makes to the creation of employment in the public and private sectors, we will focus on the value of our educational work to society generally, and we will focus on the contribution that we make to the quality of the tourism product,” said CEO Michael Starrett.

He gave as an example the recent opening of Talbot’s Tower, which once formed part of Kilkenny’s medieval city wall. “When the Heritage Council came to Kilkenny 15 years ago, Talbot’s Tower was earmarked for demolition,” he said. “Thankfully the Heritage Council with the support of some visionary politicians locally and the establishment of the Irish Walled Towns Network, of which Kilkenny is a leading light, managed to shift completely the emphasis” towards bringing it back into the life of the city.

Over the past year that project 30 to 40 jobs, he said, “and this is replicated across the country for a very small investment.”

Noting its support to Rothe House and its assistance in the city’s acquisition of St Mary’s Church complex, he said: “It is these little pockets that give Kilkenny its uniqueness.”

In addition to the 14 people employed directly, if the Heritage Council ceased to exist, “there would be 70 other positions that would be under threat in the public and private sector”, including 28 Local Authority heritage officers, Mr Starrett said, plus the 1,000 jobs that come from the small-scale grants it awards.

He also said the agency offered value for money with these grants. “We administer grants at around 8%, so if you give the Heritage Council €1 million in grants, the administration costs about €80,000. The norm within the state sector is about 20%. That means for every million there is an extra €120,000 that goes out into the programme.”

As for why it would not work to merge the Heritage Council’s functions into a government department, Mr Starrett said the two structures had completely different remits. “A government department is not focused on people and their heritage. ... Government departments are focused on legislation and policy,” he said.

The Heritage Council, he said, focuses on local communities, “enabling and empowering them” to preserve and promote their own heritage.

Mr Starrett acknowledged that cuts were unavoidable in the current circumstances, and said the agency would continue to adjust. Its budget was cut by 45% for this year and is being reduced a further 20% for 2012. “But we can and will manage that, because we are small, we are flexible, we are totally focused on how we can use our resources just like any business has to in very difficult times,” he said.

They also won’t go down without a fight

“We are committed to what we are doing. Over the next six months we will be emphasising the value of our work to local communities in terms of employment and the education of our children and the tourism product that we all benefit from,” Mr Starrett said.

“If people don’t value what we are doing then we have no right to survive – but I am confident that they do value what we are doing. If they value that, we will survive, but we need all the support we can get.”