Thomas Sutcliffe: Don't let amenity go down the pan

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The Independent Online

I found myself thinking about the word "amenity" the other day - and mildly regretting its recent fall from grace. I may be alone in this but its employment as a lavatorial euphemism ("Would you care to use the amenities?") seems to me to have left it with a faint whiff of disinfectant block and corporation functionalism.

Which is a pity really, since it has an older, more central sense as something charming and agreeable - not merely useful. It derives, if you go far enough back, from the Latin word amoenus - meaning pleasant - and while there are occasions of urgent need when the sight of a municipal toilet could be described as pleasant, the word really should have a more generous scope than it sometimes does.

It came into my head while looking through the Heritage Lottery Fund's consultation paper "Our Heritage, Our Future, Your Say", which aims both to refine the fund's own sense of what it does now and excite a public contribution to the debate about what it does next. This is a more pointed issue now than it has been for several years, since the Government is currently considering whether the lottery pie should be cut up in different ways in the future. Though it has already confirmed that heritage will remain one of the lottery's good causes, it has made no guarantees about the size of the slice it will get. Since the size of the pie is likely to diminish as a result of preparations for the 2012 Olympics (and since no funding body since prehistoric times has ever happily presided over a shrinking of its budget), there is a need to make a good case for heritage spending.

It isn't very difficult to do this - even within the limited scope of a 40-page brochure. If you go out of the house at all, it's very likely that you will, in one way or another, have enjoyed the results of Heritage Lottery Fund grants. You may have walked along the Kennet and Avon Canal or admired a red squirrel or simply used the café in the British Museum's Great Court.

You may even have benefited more directly - as one of the countless groups of enthusiasts and conservationists who have managed to squeeze some vital cash out of the fund to bolster their own voluntary passion. But the very range of the fund's activities also represents one of its difficulties - which is how best to define what heritage is.

The conundrum is neatly summed up by one three-letter word - which is used not only in the title of the fund's consultation document, but several more times in its opening statement.

"Our heritage defines us as a modern country," it reads. "It is a national treasure which provides the foundation for our sense of identity as citizens, communities and nations. Our view of heritage is a progressive and democratic one". In this (selective) quotation, "our" already means two slightly different things. In the last sentence, I take it, it refers to the officers of the fund, since it couldn't be assumed that the entire population even has a view of heritage, let alone what it is. The earlier uses, by contrast, are universal - concertedly excluding no one. And yet even here a strain is apparent. How do you reconcile the multiple "ours" of "communities and nations" with that overarching usage? How do you convert a plural into a singular - and might there not be occasions when the local "our" is directly at odds with the national one?

The practical work of the Heritage Lottery Fund, estimable though most of it is, only enlarges the paradox. The confirmation and consolidation of identity is a goal that recurs again and again - not just in this document but in others they've issued.

But the problem with identity as a value system is that it requires you to differentiate yourself from others who are similar but not identical to you. The search for identity is almost never a process that seeks to enlarge the admission criteria for "we". Instead, it often depends on making it much clearer who "they" are.

The best heritage projects, though, are those that effectively shelve the question of identity altogether. It has, for example, spent some £390m putting right years of neglect of Britain's urban parks - an un-showbizzy project which will probably generate more pleasure per pound than almost anything else it has done.

No one is barred from parks and they have (these days anyway) virtually no designs on you. In other words they are pure amenity in that older sense - a universal pleasure, indifferent to who you are, where you came from or what you believe. I'm not sure that anyone would want the fund to reduce its more parochial activities but if money gets tight, that's surely the kind of "our" that should come first.