Thursday, June 23, 2016

Cultural cleansing

Those of us concerned with the conservation of our built heritage are generally motivated by a concern that were substantial elements that represent periods or events from our past to be lost or substantially damaged, so would our ability to recall the substance and significance of parts of our history and identity.  The term cultural cleansing was used to describe the attempts by Isis to destroy the temple and Palmyra in Syria but this is only at the extreme end of a process that will go on purposefully and accidentally around the world.

Clearly the cultural heritage is at greatest risk at times of regime change when through officially sponsored vandalism or simply neglect buildings and monuments can disappear from the landscape, with littel chance of return.

In the UK the former airbase at Upper Heyford in Oxfordshire represents what Historic England consider to be the best preserved remains from the Cold War in the country. Who knew that? Since the United States Air Force flew out  in 1994 there has been an almost constant debate about how the site should be treated.  This debate has been conducted mainly through the planning system; a succession of plans for the area (Oxfordshire and Cherwell District), applications and appeals supported with evidence in the form of studies, surveys and design briefs.  Without going into the detail of these proposals and decisions, the 'facts on the ground' are ample evidence that the authorities at local and central government levels are indifferent to the future of the site. While many of the buildings and structures have legal protection (Listed Buildings and Scheduled Monuments) and the flying field has been designated a Conservation Area,  a visitor to the site will see new housing encroaching into the hardened cold war landscape, cars being parked on runways/taxiways, businesses being run from Hardened Aircraft Shelters across the site (with their commercial traffic),  the local police force training on the runways, and no obvious way to appreciate the heritage site. In fact an internet search might reveal the minibus tours which are run by volunteers during the summer.

While the site was sold by the Ministry of Defence for about £26 million, this represented the value of the existing housing on the site. The rents from these and businesses has probably paid back this outlay and more - even before the number of houses to be built at Upper Heyford was increased threefold.

Enthusiasm for history has not yet caused the necessary of concern and outrage to safeguard the site, possibly because the Cold War is filed under politics in high stree bookshops, a subject with substantially less appeal.  By the time it becomes important to use the site as an instructional monument to assist in understanding the Cold War and subsequent relations with Russia the site will have been 'cleansed' of its power to inform through changes caused by collective carelessness and indifference carelessness. There remains some hostility to its preservation in the District Council which thought that the scar on the landscape could and should have been removed (like the fate of Greenham Common).

The Expert Panel supervising the additions to the list of World Heritage Sites are aware that the Cold War is not yet represented and recommended that research be carried out to see which transnational sites should be considered to be of 'universal value'.  This research remains to be done and, meanwhile,  the cultural cleansing of Upper Heyford continues making it harder to imagine it being used to perpetrate nuclear war resulting in a possible nuclear holocaust.