On Friday 8 September, I attended a fantastic workshop at the University of Leeds, focussed on equipping historians with the skills required for effective engagement with public policy and policy-makers. This was organised by academics from the University of Leeds, in partnership with History & Policy, a national network that promotes the application of historical perspectives within topical policy discussions. With input from a number of respected academics, heritage professionals and local government leaders, a wide variety of past experiences and plans for potential future projects were imparted to the similarly varied attendees (including doctoral researchers, new postdocs, more seasoned lecturers and professors). What was particularly good about this event was the amount of detailed discussion that followed each round of papers, with attendees bringing fresh insights in response to what they had heard. It was also great to see such a variety of researchers (spanning English literature, criminology, modern and medieval history) currently applying or planning to apply their research to elements of public policy.


Citizens and cities

Public Policy discussions. Image by Mike Reeve.

The first set of papers focussed on successful policy engagement projects in cities, outlining the differing ways historians have used historical research methods and data to inform urban planning and development. David Churchill (University of Leeds) talked about applying historical research into Leeds’s Victorian parks to current council policy, underlining the importance of parks as unique spaces, whose role requires regular reassessment according to changing public perceptions and expectations. This reassessment, grounded in historical research, is vitally important in the context of straitened council budgets. Indeed, as David alluded to, the historical reasons for the development of parks – as a different kind of space in polluted, congested cities, associated with good public health – are still very similar today. This point is especially relevant in Leeds, given recent studies into pollution levels in the city.[1] The task of historians engaged in public policy is to devise new ways of highlighting which parks may be under threat, while suggesting techniques to better protect parks in the future.

Kevin Grady, a Leeds historian and former director of Leeds Civic Trust, followed with a personal account of a long career attempting to affect urban change through an historical approach. His view chimed well with the previous paper – with its focus on urban development – though Kevin’s approach is more centred around influencing public opinion. Means of exerting such influence have included the publication of both academic and public histories of Leeds’s civic and industrial past, while affixing Blue Plaques as a very visible marker of shared heritage, situating historical events in place and drawing attention to longstanding or innovative pieces of architecture. Indeed, in some cases, plaques mark what is no longer there, reminding subsequent generations of the significant changes their city has seen. Of course, central to this process of influence was making contacts in the right places. After many years of work, Leeds Civic Trust became integral to urban planning decision-making in the city.

Professor Simon Gunn (Centre for Urban History, University of Leicester) followed with a fascinating discussion of his work on ‘applying’ history in planning, conservation and policy-making in Leicester. Simon outlined the various ways in which urban historians in Leicester are seeking to apply an historical approach to current debates on urban planning. A new MA programme on Urban Conservation is combining urban and architectural history with elements of conservation and heritage practice, though with a strong focus on ideas, as opposed to solely focussing on the minutiae of planning procedures. This approach is expanded in the guise of the Leicester Urban Observatory, a group that regularly meets to discuss questions of urban development in a refreshingly open manner. By forging a dialogue between the city’s universities, council and other interested parties, urban historians are actively engaging in policy-making, putting historical perspectives at the centre of their approach, looking at both the ‘warts and all’ and more celebratory facets of the city’s past. This, again, is because the agenda of the group is ideas-driven and not necessarily searching for an outcome (such as funding for research or kudos for reaching beyond the academy). I think there are important lessons here for all researchers hoping to engage with policy-making bodies and the wider public on history-centred projects, especially given the increasing importance placed on such activities within the Research Excellence Framework (REF).

Professor William Gould (University of Leeds) gave us an insight into the important role historians can play in informing public service delivery, by looking at his recent AHRC-funded work in India. In this work, taking place between 2005 and 2012, the unique skills of the historian were brought to bear to help negotiate the immense paper trails and often opaque records of bureaucratic organisations, such as local governments. A firm grounding in the colonial historical context within which such bodies developed also enabled the project’s researchers to relate continuing issues of corruption and inequality of access to similar problems faced in the past. With the use of these skills, the project was able to help in setting up information centres for citizens, empowering ordinary people to actively engage with local government. Much like in the previous talks, this project involved collaboration with community partners to reach its goals, in this case a Right to Information (RTI) NGO in Lucknow, India.


Families and health

The second portion of the day was centred upon families and health and displayed an even more thorough commitment to collaborative work. Indeed, it would be difficult to imagine any of the projects working effectively without such an approach. Jenny Crane’s (University of Warwick) work on the cultural history of the NHS is attempting to chart changing perceptions of the organisation throughout the twentieth century, eventually contributing to the establishment of an NHS museum. As Jenny shared with us, this initially perturbed some of the project’s participants, with the opening of a museum possibly symbolising the passing of the NHS into history, an especially fraught position given recent political conflicts around working conditions for junior doctors and wider debates about the future of the health service. Jenny is engaging with a local NHS trust and a health-focussed social enterprise in Birmingham, again developing links between potentially disparate organisations, while allowing space for ‘dissonant narratives’ that only people outside of large bureaucratic organisations can provide.

Laura King (University of Leeds), with the ‘Living with Dying’ project, is employing a similar approach; working with local charities and support groups to address the difficult and taboo subject of death and bereavement. This again puts historical perspective centre stage, grounded in the everyday, community experience of death and dying in the first half of the twentieth century. The changes traced within the period 1900-50 are then utilised to address contemporary concerns, using history to ‘shake up the debate’ and provide a sense of both shift and continuity. Implicit in this project, as with the others already outlined, is a concern with underlining the relevance and value of the specifically historical. Antonia Lovelace (Leeds Museums & Galleries) provided an insight into the use of human remains in heritage display and interpretation, using a forthcoming museum exhibition (‘Skeletons: Our Buried Bones’ at Leeds City Museum) as a springboard for debate. Antonia’s talk pointed again to the inherent challenges in addressing the subject of death, linking skeletons to both personal and broader historical narratives. As with the displayed remains of Nesyamun (‘The Leeds Mummy’), such efforts must be carefully grounded in historical context, ensuring that the human remains retain their humanity through the provision of personal and historical narrative. Such narratives, in turn, encourage visitors to reflect upon their own ideas of death and dying.

Finally, Ian Cameron, Director of Public Health for Leeds City Council, situated his own work within the historical lineage of 150 years of public health officers in Leeds. After asking all attendees to imagine they were councillors and community leaders, Ian made the case for using historical debates about water and air quality, disease and nutrition, to inform current public health policies. While sketching a more-or-less upwards trajectory of positive health outcomes for the city, Ian reminded us that such progress can be halted or even reversed, as in the case of air quality. The ensuing discussion focussed on how aspects of cultural and social history can problematize some public health questions, such as the cultural resonance of cigarette smoking, which may help in explaining the ubiquity of smoking culture (even beyond the cigarette) when there is a widespread consensus as to its dangers.


A lively discussion

Policy makers discussion. Image by Mike Reeve

The discussion workshop that ended the day encouraged us to reflect on the relevance of historical methodologies and approaches in engaging with policy. This drew together much of what we had already discussed earlier in the day, mainly the ability of historians to contribute nuance to current debates through both a rigorous method and critical eye, in addition to an openness to working across academic disciplines and societal boundaries. It also underlined the need to provide forums for public debate that bring together partners from across civic life, in ways that actively engage citizens, as well as provide a means for applying research outside of universities. Discussing my own PhD-related ideas for public engagement work in this setting actually brought out clear links between my own work and very current policy concerns, such as public health initiatives related to healthy living and exercise. It also thoroughly underlined the importance of building links with people, not just networks but partnerships built on the basis of mutual respect, debate and collaboration. In this way, historians and heritage researchers can not only add value to policy discussions, but actually frame debates by connecting the past with both the present and the future.


Michael Reeve is an AHRC Heritage Consortium doctoral researcher at the University of Hull, with co-supervision from Leeds Beckett University. His research addresses the multi-level experience of aerial and naval bombardment on the north east coast of England during the First World War, including civilians, local government actors and state policy-makers. The primary focus of this work is the effect of war upon local and regional collective identities. Michael has also published on the cultural and social significance of smoking during 1914-18 and is currently web editor and social media officer for the Society for the Study of Labour History.

[1] Aisha Iqbal, ‘Leeds named hotspot for air pollution deaths as epidemic costs local NHS £480m’, Yorkshire Evening Post, 27 January 2016. Online: http://www.yorkshireeveningpost.co.uk/news/leeds-named-hotspot-for-air-pollution-deaths-as-epidemic-costs-local-nhs-480m-1-7698344.


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