Merton Heritage Strategy review risks being a paper exercise

Merton Council has published a draft Heritage Strategy to 2025. It should provide a basis to protect, manage and celebrate our diverse heritage and for Merton Council to demonstrate a strong commitment to its future.

We’ve welcomed the intent of a Strategy while asking for more evidence that the lessons have been learned from the weak delivery of the current Strategy agreed in 2015.

Regrettably in our experience the existing Heritage Strategy is all but invisible in discussions with Merton’s planners and those responsible for the local authority’s land and buildings.

Merton Council has delivered on only two of the ten commitments in the current action plan where responsibility lies outside the heritage team. The former Mitcham fire station has been sold off, the Borough Character Study remains unfinished and delivery of The Canons project is already a year behind schedule. There is little value in a Heritage Strategy which is all but ignored by its authors.

The Heritage Strategy places a welcome emphasis on the opportunities for collaboration with voluntary organisations and community groups with an interest in heritage. This sits awkwardly with Merton Council disbanding Merton Heritage Forum in January leaving no other means to collaborate available. The Merton Heritage Forum shambles is perpetuated by officers now claiming it has “not been disbanded” and confirming that doing so results in “no direct costs savings”. The truth is the Council meeting in January decided to “dissolve” the Forum and deleted it from Merton’s constitution.

Delivery of the Heritage Strategy at a time of tight public spending requires ever more attention to the ability of Merton Council to partner with other organisations. With the shining exception of the Heritage and Local Studies Centre, our general experience is one of a top down, uncommunicative organisation which offers little respect for local knowledge and is often absent from the heritage scene.

One example is that it is harder to secure participation of Merton Council owned buildings in Mitcham Heritage Day every year than working with any of our volunteer-run partners. The experience of trying to partner on The Canons project funded by the National Lottery has been head-bangingly frustrating over nearly 10 years, to the point of turning volunteers away.

As a result we have asked Merton Council to progress with the Strategy only when it can provide a clear corporate commitment to heritage, practical mechanisms for collaboration, and an ability to be a good partner. Without these in place the renewed Strategy will be a paper exercise.

We’ve also suggested a more robust approach with a much briefer document supported by principles, a delivery plan and success measures which can be used to judge progress. This should be supported by clear mechanisms for delivery and review and a visibly enhanced corporate commitment from all parts of Merton Council to our heritage.

You can read our full response to Merton’s draft Heritage Strategy here.