Saturday, 11 June 2011

Care and Maintenance of War Memorials in the Current Financial Climate

Word has reached us that Dundee City Council has removed the dilapidated Mains War Memorial from its original location and are currently relocating it, and hopefully renovating it.

Mains War Memorial has been the subject of several news articles after a member of the Scottish War Memorials Project highlighted its disgraceful condition in April 2009.

It had been allowed to lie neglected and forgotten in a corner of Caird Park. At the time the news broke the youths of the area were called all the names under the sun, and were used as a convenient scapegoat by the Council to hide the fact that no care or maintenance had been done on this memorial for months, if not years. Now, finally, over two years later the work is being done and Mains War Memorial is going to be saved as a focus for remembrance for the community.

The good news in Dundee may be a thin silver lining on a looming black cloud.

You just have to catch any national news bulletin and there is bound to be something reported about council budgets being cut, reduced, frozen etc and the knock on effects this has on services they provide. There is no doubt that this will affect our local war memorials.

Heath and education will always take priority, and then after that the rest of the departments have to fight for the remaining scraps. We are also constantly faced with councils taking a short term view on things. They are looking at this year and next year's budget, and the years after that are probably not being considered. The problem is that the memorials in their care were handed over for care in perpetuity and a long term view is needed. If the Mains War memorial farrago shows us anything it surely shows that a little bit of regular care and maintenance would probably have avoided the costly solution, and sometimes acrimonious discussions of the past two years.

I suspect the only reason so much is being done on Mains is because it attracted such a wide amount of interest in the media. If Dundee council had got its own way the memorial would have been demolished and replaced with a small plaque nearby. You can just imagine them saying "Oh dear. How sad. Never mind." as the stones were carted away to the landfill.

So what can be done? More vigilance is needed by members of the public for a start.

Local papers are probably reporting thefts of metal more frequently now. Theft of lead off a church roof, or cables from a railway signals box are common occurrences these days, but how long is it before these inconsiderate thieves start targeting the bronze panels, decoration and even statues on our war memorials? Walkerburn in the Scottish Borderers famously lost its greatcoated mourning bronze soldier a few years ago. Luckily it was recovered but what are the chances of that happening again?

If you happen to see workmen at a local war memorial, especially if they are removing metal parts, can you be sure they are council workers? I'm not suggesting you turn vigilante but a quick phone call to the council would clarify whether they should be there or not. In the summer of 2010 war memorial gates were removed from Tayport and no-one noticed until October because everyone thought that the council had removed them for renovation.

Another thing to look out for is if the war memorial becomes the focal point for youths to gather at in an evening. War memorials are often in prominent places for a reason; but it often makes that spot a prime place for people to meet up. It's easy to labels youths as yobs because of their graffiti and vandalism but these are mostly the results of boredom and a lack of appreciation of what the memorial represents.

The 'Make it Happen' project in Edinburgh has shown that if you focus the attentions of young people in an activity they enjoy then they are a lot less likely to get into trouble. Funding youth clubs and activities to keep teenagers away from spray cans and vandalism has got to be a worthwhile way of spending council money; but if the small amount of cash goes to youth projects who else has to lose out?

Educating young people on the purpose of the war memorial might also help protect it from unwanted attention. Many people today will know of someone who has served, or is serving in Afghanistan. Over the past ten years dozens of Scots have been killed on active service and many of them have had their name added to a local war memorial. These monuments erected after the 'war to end war' still have an important part to play in our communities almost one hundred years later.

Even if the memorials themselves aren't neglected, the parks and gardens they usually sit in are also likely to suffer cuts. We recently highlighted the changes made to the flower beds around Kelso War Memorial. These flower beds and parks have often been part of the original design of the war memorial and are an integral part of the the commemoration and remembrance for that community. The site and surroundings of the memorial were as important to the people who commissioned it as the stone and bronze memorial itself.

It's not all doom and gloom. North Lanarkshire Council instigated a programme of renovations and cleaning last year. Hopefully that programme will not be subject to cuts (but that may just be wishful thinking on my part).

Recently two other renovations were highlighted by us. At Alexandria the Vale of Leven cenotaph is being renovated and at Helensburgh, West Dunbartonshire Council secured some funding from the marine engineering firm Babcock International for much needed repairs.

Perhaps that will need to be the way to go in the next few years. The original memorials were paid for by public donations; it was only after they were erected and unveiled that the council took responsibility for them. Up and down the country it is mainly volunteers in the RBL, local organisations, or just public spirited individuals who are already keeping an eye on their local memorials; maybe we need to take that a bit further and have more private investment in war memorials from individuals and local firms. 

It's not an ideal solution but with local authorities are making cuts, and the spectre of no money for the care and maintenance of war memorials, then what is the alternative?

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