Ex Cathedra: From the Chair – Do Cathedrals Matter?

In a recent article, the Association of English Cathedrals has posited that “Cathedrals matter”. Whilst perhaps unsurprising to most, this refers to new evidence which confirms the significance of our cathedrals, and that these unrivalled structures do indeed matter.

Their place in our built and/or historic environment is both critical and self-evident, but equally important, is the wholly positive effect these buildings have upon local economies and communities.

Contributions of cathedrals are wide-ranging

2019 saw England’s forty-two Anglican cathedrals contribute £235m to their host cities’ local economies, providing 6,065 jobs and 15,400 volunteering posts, the latter comprising 906,000 hours. Their doors opened to 14.6m visits, 308,000 of which were by schoolchildren, and 9.5m of which by tourists.

The same year saw cathedrals host a wide and varied mix of arts, music, heritage and culture comprising 9,850 events every two to three days, whilst providing the backdrop to numerous television and film projects.

From a social perspective, they hosted foodbanks, ran support groups for the vulnerable, unemployed and homeless, whilst running outreach programmes to schools, residential homes, hospitals, lunch clubs, parent/toddler groups and community cafes.

Not just for worship

As part of the A programme, more than two thirds of cathedrals are assisting the Church of England achieve carbon reduction targets by 2030. 

Building upon studies from 2004 and 2014, recent research comprising The Economic and Social Impact of Cathedrals in England and produced by research consultancy Ecorys for The Association of English Cathedrals, sought to establish how cathedrals utilise assets to encourage not merely mission, but more general well-being.

This demonstrates the continuing relevance of these deeply historic buildings to their communities, and not merely for the purposes of worship alone.

Cathedrals DO matter

Here, cathedrals and their fabric are shown to be not only well cared for, but to be socially and economically key with respect to their stewardship of history and the country’s associated musical, artistic and spiritual inheritance, whilst serving their communities and other stakeholders in myriad ways.      

During the pandemic, visitor numbers declined by seventy five percent from 2019, with a commensurate decline in visitor income, and over seventy percent of cathedral staff being furloughed. Combined with an 80 percent fall in income due to the decreased use of cathedral facilities, along with limited congregations and therefore collections, the outlook appeared bleak.

But cathedrals matter and this has never been clearer than during the pandemic, which has seen the clear advent of new opportunity. Although 75 percent of social projects foundered, services such as food deliveries and online facetime for pastoral support have emerged. Worship has also gone online with – on average – cathedrals providing two Sunday services and six midweek services. 

Technology has further assisted outreach via initiatives including online prayer walls, candle lighting, tours, pilgrim trails and art exhibitions.  At the close of 2020, one third of cathedrals offered online resources for schools, tours, talks and activity packs.

The value of cathedrals is widely recognised and they have been supported as such

It is not only heartening to find that today’s cathedral remains fit to adapt and respond to rapidly changing and challenging circumstances, but as institutions, continue to remain valued across a wider arena.

Here, cathedrals benefitted from new, corona-virus grant programmes from not only the Church Commissioners, but also the government and other independent bodies. Such grants totalled £27.8m and were largely spent on repairs to enable the safe opening of cathedrals, whilst maintaining key activities.

In short, Ecorys’ research has found that cathedrals continue to contribute significantly toward their local economies, whilst maintaining a positive impact upon local communities. This research further establishes that – whilst challenging – the pandemic has elicited new creative prospects that render the cathedral as relevant as ever.

Their position, prominence and role in our lives is not merely writ large in our townscape, but still more patently, across local communities and the social cohesion and buoyancy of these during trying times. Which is all well and good, but unlikely to be the case without the buildings themselves. Cathedrals do indeed matter.  Long may they last.

Sources and Further Reading:


“More Front than Blackpool”: Liverpool Risks Loss of World Heritage Status

It is reported that a UNESCO committee is to advise the removal of Liverpool’s World Heritage status, first bestowed in 2004. Whilst encompassing wider historic commercial districts, in general terms, this lines the City’s world-renowned waterfront.

Otherwise, its status rests upon the history of the City as a major international trading port in the C18 and C19, where it played a key role in not only the emergence of the British Empire and as a locus of migration, but also the transatlantic slave trade.

The World Heritage Committee has referred to “serious deterioration and irreversible loss of attributes”

Although its potential relegation is not news – where, due to modern redevelopment of the iconic waterfront, said demotion has been considered for over a decade – whether its status will remain intact, will be confirmed in July.

Despite the City Council claiming an investment of 1.5 billion into one hundred and fifty-seven heritage assets (the Albert Dock area hosts more Grade I listed buildings than any other place in the UK), a report from the World Heritage Committee has expressed “deep regret” at what has been termed the “serious deterioration and irreversible loss of attributes”.

Liverpool Waters and the new Everton FC stadium at Bramley Moore Dock were among those developments specifically referred to in the report.

The City has failed to take notice of repeated warnings

Heritage campaigner Wayne Colquhoun said that the City has ignored continual warnings concerning new development, and that “If you’re going to fill [that] dock in – as a mercantile and maritime city on top of already filling the other docks in – you’re displaying that over your universal value. They’ve pushed the boundaries and pushed it and pushed it.”

The Government has stated “We are disappointed in this recommendation and will continue to work with UNESCO, Historic England and Liverpool City Council to ensure the World Heritage Committee can make an informed decision when its meets next month.”

Are decisions being made remotely in light of Covid-19 fair?

Joanne Anderson, Mayor of Liverpool, has requested the deferment of any decision for twelve months, where any such demotion would in her view be “hugely unfair”.

“We need [them] to see Bramley Moore Dock with their own eyes – physically or virtually,” she went on, where the removal of World Heritage status would prove a “missed opportunity in demonstrating to the world that heritage and regeneration are not mutually exclusive.”

Steve Rotherham, mayor of Liverpool City Region, also finds the proposal “deeply disappointing” and has called on the committee to reconsider. He writes “We are proud of our history but our heritage is a vital part of our regeneration. I’d urge them to take up our invitation to visit rather than taking their decision sat around a table on the other side of the world.”

They have a point. Principally due to the pandemic, but also the perpetual claim of under- resourcing, many important decisions – planning or otherwise – are now being made remotely, and by fundamentally detached bodies. As such, decisions will often be insufficiently informed, and therefore deeply flawed.

A balance between heritage and successful new development must always be sought

For obvious reasons, drawings or CGIs rarely reflect reality on the ground. And, for better or worse, Liverpool is not London and must be canny with its economy, for not merely the sake of its heritage, but also its community; for without one, there is not the other.

That being said – as suggested by both Anderson and Rotherham – the correlation between heritage and successful new development is a key factor in not only regeneration, but conservation, and, whilst admittedly fine, a degree of balance must be sought.

Concerning Liverpool Waters, Lindsey Asworth of Peel Developments has stated:

“Its simply not right to expect derelict parts of cities with such a rich history to stand still and be fossilised. This consent will open up opportunities and new prospects to link our UK businesses with other international businesses. Liverpool is now well placed to be alongside the best of the best.” It is not merely desirable that new and old exist cheek by jowl – resulting in environments that are authentic, rich, buoyant, dynamic and full of vigour – but essential.

Sources and further reading:


The Future is Old: a fascinating and thought provoking glimpse of London over the next 100 years

Futurescape - a view of London and how it might change over the next 100 years

Chatham House – of the renowned Chatham House Rule – is an independent policy institute and forum that (in their own words) seeks to assist the understanding of societies, governments and people, in a rapidly changing world.

To mark the thinktank’s 100-year anniversary, last month saw their unveiling of a 3D model that shows how London will look in 100 years and that ‘allows the public to explore a future of positive change.’  Here, the public can explore cities of the future, using Piccadilly Circus as an example.

Intended to ‘stimulate debate about the future of our cities over the next century’ – particularly pertinent given those places suddenly and drastically unpeopled by COVID -the model considers the real need to support increasingly sustainable living in urban centres, whilst urging new conversations about what people actually want there.

Introducing Futurescape

Futurescape emerged following consultation with scientists, architects, designers, sustainability experts and trend analysts concerning the need to create more positive futures for our urban environment; a need that is eternally evolving and in essence, never goes away. We struggle to get it right.

How might the future London look?

With Futurescape, four future dates are envisaged. In 2035, greenery and wildlife have been introduced into the city centre, whilst pedestrians share space with bikes, scooters and drones. CO2 emissions are therefore reduced; storytelling benches relate oral histories; and a solar-panelled food market offers new sources of protein (insects). Commerce and cars have no place.

In 2060, climate change and rising water levels result in new canal systems, whilst buildings, transport and businesses are sustained by renewable energy. Produce is increasingly local – utilising rooftops and waterways – whilst public space offers new, technology-based art forms such as hologram shows. Retail space is given over to leisure, and upcycling, upgrading and exchange have become standard.

By 2090 the clairvoyance perhaps runs out of steam – being fairly difficult to foresee accurately – albeit the environment is by then shaped by vertical farms, giant energy and lighting structures, new religious identities and floating, ‘sky barge’ dwellings. 2121 sees a prevalence of AI, buildings that shapeshift according to need and desire, and low gravity marketing pods that simulate Lunar or Martian living.

A future that remains rooted in the past

Futurescape – as intended – is undoubtedly an interesting basis for discussion concerning a subject in dire need of consideration. It’s also a lot of fun besides. But what is most heartening – despite the unambiguously futuristic cityscape that can be seen to coalesce around the Circus over the hundred years – is that many of its more famous monuments and buildings survive, with the real hub remaining Shaftesbury Memorial Fountain and its statue of Anteros.

As such, the future can be seen to remain explicitly rooted in the past. Here, the ongoing narrative evidenced by retained heritage, shows the central role to be played by conservation in the prospective making of our places. In an increasingly fast world – amidst what Chatham House describes as ‘seismic change’ – the survival ofoldfriends like Anteros nevertheless continue to provide some quantum of stability and security.

See it here: https://futurescape.chathamhouse.org

Rhodes to Ruin: the planning and moral complexities of removing the Cecil Rhodes statue from Oriel College

Rhodes Building, Oriel College. By Robert Cutts - https://www.flickr.com/photos/panr/6697486327/, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=91167023

An independent Commission has reported to Oriel College’s Governing Body concerning the legacy of controversial mining magnate, politician, imperialist and former Oxford student, Cecil Rhodes (1853-1902).

Established due to the Governing Body’s wish to remove a statue of Rhodes from Oriel’s Grade II* High Street building, the Commission was also tasked with reviewing how the ‘College’s twenty-first century commitment to diversity can sit more easily with its past’.

Complex planning challenges resulting in a change of decision

Fundamentally, the Commission supports the Governing Body’s intent to remove the statue. However, the undoubted complexity, challenges and associated expense that would ensue (principally from a planning perspective and with respect to impacts upon a listed building etc.), has led to the further decision not to embark upon its removal.

It will instead seek to contextualise the College’s connection with Rhodes, whilst improving educational equality more generally, which is obviously commendable. As is the fact that proposals to remove the statue of Rhodes were not implemented arbitrarily and without due consideration.

And whilst memorialising Rhodes is perhaps unpalatable in some quarters, the removal of his statue for political reasons would seriously impinge upon (if not entirely override) the fundamentally democratic process of planning, whilst setting a very dangerous precedent otherwise.  

We should not attempt to manipulate history, but learn from mistakes made

Without diving into Orwellian cliches, history – in whatever form it takes and as nebulous as it perhaps is – should never be forgotten, erased or manipulated in any way, shape or form. The resulting dangers are not only clear but present and, whilst perhaps obvious, patently not obvious enough. 

Simplistically, this is because one of history’s  principal functions is to remind us of the mistakes from which we might learn and, in turn, the role of heritage assets to serve as reminders of the good, bad and ugly of our past. History is inquiry – and therefore debate – but necessarily depends upon evidence.

Otherwise, physical heritage performs a high number and variety of key functions in society, not least of which – from a perspective of urban design – includes the role of wayfinding and the means by which we orientate ourselves in our environment.  

Heritage has an important role in the function of our moral compass

Such a role extends to our orientation and consequent wayfinding from an ethical perspective. Here, heritage assets further serve to assist the functioning of our moral compass; principally by means of retelling that which should be celebrated or condemned, so that one may be perpetuated, and the other, appropriately left to history.

And whatever you think of the planning system, one fundamental precept is that of sustainable development; defined by the NPPF as ‘meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of the future generations to meet their own needs.’ Which essentially  means not deciding what is good for future generations, whilst taking away the ability to decide this for themselves.  

Whilst perhaps hackneyed with respect to subjects of this sort, it is worth quoting Orwell’s 1984 after all:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped.

Which is an outcome none of us would wish.