Local history is first for the chop

County archives are seen as a soft target for spending cuts - but their loss would disconnect us fro

A friend of mine, a professional historian, once described himself as an "archive anorak". Having done some research in county archives recently for a number of projects, I'm starting to see his point.

There's nothing like the excitement -- stay with me on this one -- of unearthing a document which only a handful of people have seen in the past 300 years, but which provides the vital missing piece of some puzzle you've been working on.

There are constant surprises to be had: parish records, for example, are far more than a matter of births, marriages and deaths, but record all kinds of transactions -- charitable, business and the plain dubious. You can find letters giving an instant and shocking access into the life of a person long since forgotten.

Alongside all this, the staff are unfailingly helpful, the silence is incredibly soothing and there are often rare and interesting books worth making the trip for alone. As you might have gathered, I have to admit to falling for the strange and specific allure of the archives.

I say "strange" partly because "local history", as a discipline, often seems rather unfashionable. As it remains mostly the preserve of amateurs, it's the direct heir of 18th- and 19th-century antiquarianism -- and has inherited many of the latter's faults, including in some cases that portentous, overwritten style horribly familiar from small-town guidebooks.

Yet as the BBC's 2010 series Story of England eloquently demonstrated, taking a local perspective is the best way of getting people to engage with the past, if it's creatively handled. Its device of getting ordinary residents of Kibworth, Leicestershire to read out the words of their long-dead predecessors was almost as startling and effective, in its way, as Peter Watkins' groundbreaking 1964 documentary, Culloden -- a film that changed my whole perception of "history" when I first saw it.

None of this would be possible without the local archives' rich and detailed resource of material on the lives of ordinary people. Of the 300 or so organisations in England and Wales which keep substantial archives, a large proportion are made up by county archives and record offices: one for each county, and in many cases further city archives and local studies centres, a few integrated with libraries, but many being separate institutions. There are 16 such archives in London alone; this is a huge and valuable body of material.

We shouldn't take these resources for granted. Along with all local-authority run services, the county and local authority archives are now also under threat in the current financial climate.

The retrenchment starts at the very top: back in July 2010, Jeremy Hunt announced that the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council, among other bodies, would be cut. It is already transferring some of its "expertise" to the Arts Council, itself facing cuts in its budget -- a puzzling conflation of history with the arts that places both at a disadvantage. Worryingly, no announcement has yet been made with regard to its support for the less-visible archive services.

Several councils have already drawn up proposals such as reducing the opening hours of their services and making staff redundant. One local authority, Devon, proposed a cut of 30 per cent in funding to its archives -- equivalent to seven full-time staff posts -- only partially relenting, and promising a public consultation on any cuts, after pressure from academics and local history groups.

Buckingham is proposing an £80,000 cut: more possible redundancies. Hammersmith and Fulham is taking the step of suspending access to its reading room, with a fee to be introduced for written requests. The list goes on.

Archive services are, unfortunately, a soft target. By nature they take up a lot of building space, space whose conditions have to be carefully controlled; many functions can only be run highly qualified professional staff, not volunteers; they are constantly expanding. They are too specialist to fit well alongside the coffee shops, internet access and other add-ons that have helped keep my local libraries going.

A fair proportion of their users are students or retired: all these things will place them low down on the priority list of councils struggling to plan for front-loaded cuts. But the high number of older visitors also, in a way, points towards the universality of this sort of history. It seems we all become more interested in it as we get older, probably because as time passes and people and landmarks once familiar to us disappear, it's easier to appreciate that the same process has always occurred: if you haven't yet had that surprising first moment of thinking "I remember when all this was fields", trust me, you soon will.

This is social history in its purest and most intimate form. We should all support keeping it accessible and -- importantly -- free to use, if only in recognition that, in time, all of us will be reduced to a few lines and documents in such an archive.

More than ever, the archive services need someone to speak up for them. David Cameron is fond of deploying the idea of Britain's "heritage": well, it is all here, in deeds, letters and maps, as much as in stately homes and churches, and all free for anyone to study. It would be tragic if any of these resources themselves were to pass into history.

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To preserve the environment we hold in common, everyone has to play their part

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits.

The environmental challenge facing our capital city can seem overwhelming. Our air is poisonous. Our infrastructure built for the fossil fuel era. The need to build a clean, low carbon future can seem incompatible with competing challenges such as protecting energy security, housing and jobs.

The way we tackle this challenge will say a lot about the type of city we are. We inherit the world we live in from the generations that went before us, and only hold it until it is time to hand it over to future generations. The type of environment we leave behind for our children and grandchildren will be affected by the decisions we need to take in the short term. Our shared inheritance must be shaped by all of us in London.

Londoners currently face some crucial decisions about the way we power our city. The majority of us don't want London to be run on dirty fuel, and instead hope to see a transition to a clean energy supply. Many want to see that clean energy sourced from within London itself. This is an appealing vision: there are upsides in terms of costs, security and, crucially, the environment.

Yet the debate about how London could achieve such a future has remained limited in its scope. Air pollution has rightly dominated the environmental debate in this year’s mayoral election, but there is a small and growing call for more renewable deployment in the city.

When it comes to cities, by far the most accessible, useable renewable energy is solar, given you can install it on some part of almost every roof. Rooftop solar gives power to the householder, the business user, the public servant - anyone with a roof over their head.  And London has upwards of one million roofs. Yet it also has the lowest deployment of solar of any UK city. London can do better. 

The new mayor should take this seriously. Their leadership will be vital to achieving the transition to clean energy. The commitments of the mayoral frontrunners should spur other parts of society to act too. Zac Goldsmith has committed to a tenfold increase in the use of solar by 2025, and Sadiq Khan has pledged to implement a solar strategy that will make the most of the city’s roofs, public buildings and land owned by Transport for London.

While the next mayor will already have access to some of the tools necessary to enact these pledges (such as the London Plan, the Greater London Assembly and TfL), Londoner’s must also play their part. We must realise that to tackle this issue at the scale and speed required the only way forward is an approach where everyone is contributing.

A transition to solar energy is in the best interests of citizens, householders, businesses and employees, who can begin to take greater control of their energy.  By working together, Londoners could follow the example of Zurich, and commit to be a 2,000 watt society by 2050. This commitment both maximizes the potential of solar and manages introduces schemes to effectively manage energy demand, ensuring the city can collectively face an uncertain future with confidence.

Unfortunately, national policy is no longer sufficient to incentivise solar deployment at the scale that London requires. There is therefore an important role for the incoming Mayor in facilitating and coordinating activity. Whether it is through TfL, existing community energy schemes, or through individuals, there is much the mayor can do to drive solar which will benefit every other city-dweller and make London a cleaner and healthier place to live.

For example the new mayor should work with residents and landlords of private and social housing to encourage the deployment of solar for those who don’t own their property. He should fill the gap left by national building standards by ensuring that solar deployment is maximized on new build housing and commercial space. He can work with the operator of the electricity grid in the capital to maximize the potential of solar and find innovative ways of integrating it into the city’s power demand.

To bring this all together London should follow the example set by Nottingham and Bristol and create it’s own energy company. As a non-profit company this could supply gas and electricity to Londoners at competitive prices but also start to drive the deployment of clean energy by providing an attractive market for the power that is generated in the city. Community schemes, businesses and householders would be able to sell their power at a price that really stacks up and Londoners would receive clean energy at competitive prices.

The challenge of building a clean future based on the common good of Londoners demands that politicians, business, communities and individuals each take a share of the responsibility and of the benefits. Lets hope the incoming Mayor sees it as their role to convene citizens around this aim, and create incentives to virtue that encourage the take up and deployment of solar, so that we have a healthy, clean and secure city to pass on to the next generation.