Why we’re striking: heritage workers are public servants too

Ben Middleton · 3 March 2023

The dozens of civil service and public sector branches who have voted to take strike action include heritage and natural environment workers who also deserve to be recognised for the public service and benefits that they provide for everyone, writes Prospect national secretary Ben Middleton.

We, perhaps, don’t immediately think of our workers in museums, in libraries and other heritage institutions as being public servants in the same way that we recognise our civil servants, or those working in other public sector bodies.

But, undoubtedly, they are, for their vital work benefits and enriches us all. They also ensure that future generations can enjoy the same.

This isn’t a philosophical or pseudo-intellectual argument.

Research has found that cultural engagement has beneficial health impacts. Those who visit museums or libraries, are around 20% more likely to report good health.

Historic places and assets are linked to a wide range of positive impacts on physical, mental and social wellbeing – of individuals and communities. The effects are even more pronounced in areas of high deprivation and in local regions.

Put simply, heritage makes us feel better about ourselves and our communities and is good for our health.

Moreover, supporting heritage is also good for the economy.

We know from our own research briefing that the economic contributions from the heritage sector are highly significant.

Pre-Covid-19, the heritage sector was contributing £14.7bn in direct gross value added to the UK economy – more than agriculture or pharmaceutical manufacturing and only slightly less than the total film and TV production, or the entire car industry. In 2015, UK heritage attracted 13.2 million international tourists, who spent a total of £7.4bn.

For all these economic contributions and associated wellbeing benefits, we should be cherishing and nourishing our heritage sector.

Instead, salaries for those working in heritage are ‘notoriously low’, which combined with record high inflation and rising energy costs have pushed many heritage workers to the brink.

Our surveys have shown that an increasing number are resorting to using food banks and suffering from higher levels of anxiety and workplace stress, with many reporting they are overworked, under-resourced and with many leaving, or thinking of leaving the sector altogether.

That’s why Prospect branches at the British Museum, the British Library and the National Archives have all voted to go on strike over low pay.

The natural environment

Sadly, it’s a similar story at those branches looking after our natural environment.

Our members at the Environment Agency, where salary levels have lost about 20% of their value relative to inflation, have already taken part in strike action.

Remember, these are the workers we rely on to monitor air quality, provide vital flood protection and to regulate water industry discharges and agricultural run-off to ensure we have a healthy natural environment, clean and healthy waterways, and clean air to breathe.

Prospect members at Royal Botanic Gardens Kew and Natural England have now all followed suit and voted to strike too.

For too long, Prospect has been highlighting the desperate situation many heritage and natural environment workers find themselves in. We have world class professionals who deserve better than second class pay. That’s why members feel they’ve had no other choice but to vote for action.

It’s time that the government properly recognises, values, and rewards the dedicated professionals whose work provides such a positive contribution to our wider society, our economy and environment.

Prospect member on the picket line

Public Servants: Serving Our Society

Our campaign to protect our public services.


From national museums to archaeological trusts, Prospect members are at the heart of our heritage sector.