April 1st 2015 might just represent a watershed moment for England’s heritage, as today the body we knew as English Heritage (EH) completes its split into two new organisations.
Following a very public announcement of intention and a subsequent consultation in 2013-14 (1), the decision to transfer the management and conservation of the portfolio of state-owned English historic and archaeological sites (the ‘National Heritage Collection’) to a new charitable body has been enacted. Conveniently retaining the name and branding ‘English Heritage’, the charity will aim to maximise the opportunities offered by an ‘innovative new business model’ to ‘enable the Government’s responsibilities for England’s Historic Environment to be discharged more efficiently and effectively’. Launching the new body on the 26th February in the historic venue of Westminster Abbey’s Chapter House, Culture Secretary Sajid Javid MP proclaimed a revolutionary new way for ‘us’ (the Government presumably?) to serve the public by releasing the management of our heritage properties from the ‘restrictive hand of Whitehall control’ (2). An £80 million golden handshake for essential emergency repairs has been allocated to send it on its way. The Government estimates that it will take seven to eight years for this new body to become entirely self-supporting through membership, admissions fees and philanthropic giving. A declining annual grant provided between now and 2022 (3) will cover any shortfall.
At first glance, £80 million seems like a major contribution – and indeed it is not insignificant – but a 2013 Freedom of Information request by RESCUE revealed that the cost of outstanding urgent repairs stood at a hefty £52m alone (3). Note the phrase ‘urgent’ here; the same enquiry revealed an additional annual requirement for routine maintenance alone of £16 million. One quarter of this is needed to address emergency backlog repairs. Suddenly that £80 million doesn’t look quite so generous.
Added to this consideration is the fact that both this Government and the last (all three major parties are culpable) have systematically stripped English Heritage’s core budget of a massive £130 million prior to this announcement. Given this, the £80 million grant looks anything but generous.
The business case supporting charitable status for English Heritage highlighted the fact that ‘doing nothing’ was not an acceptable option due to ‘the size of the conservation deficit in the National Heritage Collection’ (4) – yet this conservation deficit is one that Government itself has created. Should one thank the school bully for stealing your dinner money for ten years, letting you starve and then handing half of it back just before you keel over for want of food? It would seem ridiculous to do so.
Barely a single respondent to the Government’s consultation (5) agreed that the proposed figures were to be believed. Even English Heritage’s own board of directors concluded it posed an “unacceptable financial risk” (6). In spite of this we have arrived at April 1st 2015 with a virtually unchanged proposal being put into place.
The seed of the idea for this devolved charitable organisation came from English Heritage itself - it’s tempting to imagine the rationale behind the proposal as being one of moving schools to escape the thieving bully – but Whitehall has also welcomed the idea. Presumably being faced with the prospect of a huge repair bill and having emptied the cuts pot already, the coalition Government, with its emphasis on bean-counting rather than the pursuit of excellence, clearly recognised that it was time to look elsewhere for its pickings.
Further concern in these measures can be voiced for the future of the non-property side of the split organisation. Largely forgotten during the original consultation and continually playing second fiddle to the new charity amidst the publicity fanfare, ‘Historic England’ is today formally reconstituted with an uninspiring bland new logo and a worrying-sounding remit to provide ‘constructive’ advice. Remaining firmly within the restrictive hand of Whitehall control, the protection, policy and research functions of the old English Heritage are to continue as before, now within a body acting as a ‘champion’ for historic places and ‘helping people understand, value and care for them’ (7).
At present there is little detailed information available on the embryo website as to how these goals will be achieved, but critically there’s no announcement of new money to accompany this part of the organisation on its journey. This means that the swingeing cuts of recent years, which have resulted in the markedly less effective management of our heritage resources on the ground (and below it) than ought to be considered acceptable, are enshrined within the new system as part of the organisation. This new heritage protection body for England will require monitoring closely to see how far its influence and ability to defend the historic environment will stretch in the face of its reduced capacity and the current developer-friendly legislation and guidance from central government. A strong English Heritage would surely never have supported the damaging development proposals for Smithfield Market recently for example (thankfully thrown out due to the efforts of SAVE), or failed to put a coherent argument forward for refusing proposals for housing too close to Old Oswestry Hillfort, or allowed the damage to the skyline of London and the World Heritage Site status of two flagship complexes in our capital to be threatened.
It remains to be seen whether Historic England will be equally acquiescent, or whether the new organisation will now emerge (as we all hope) with a reinvigorated and powerful new vocal militancy, one which is fundamentally devoted to advocating the very best for our historic environment. Unfortunately, scepticism must dominate any prior assessment as the rump body appears to be small and lacking in influence. It will be located within a Government department (DCMS) which itself lacks in any real clout at Whitehall. We must all remain hopeful and vigilant and we must try to ensure that the new organisation continues to receive the support from both the Government and ultimately of ourselves that its expert and skilled but constantly overworked staff deserve.
Despite a number of misgivings, virtually all commentators have concluded that these proposals are both necessary and should be welcomed. At the disappointing heart of this conclusion is the appalling realisation that our Government cannot reasonably be trusted any longer to properly care for our historic environment. The National Heritage Collection, and the other heritage resources of the country, belong to all of us, and we, through the long historic process of creating the institutions of Government, have entrusted our elected representatives and organisations of state to care for them. It is their job. This is not a dubious theological position that should be subject to high-level debate or a situation that requires the examination of new ways of working or some kind of discursive ‘national conversation’ about 21st century heritage management. Whatever the composition of the next government, it will inherit an obligation to ensure that the incalculably important resource of historic buildings and archaeological sites bequeathed to us from past generations for the enjoyment, edification and education of the nation and its people are cared for, protected, enhanced and made accessible. Welcoming this proposal represents a tacit and shared admission by us all that successive Governments have dismally failed in this obligation.
- Our national historic buildings are crumbling away for want of repairs.
- Our archaeological sites are not properly researched, protected or cared for.
- Our heritage is not fulfilling its true educational potential.
- Our heritage-protection legislation is weak and confusing and full of both holes and loopholes.
Thankfully, the Government has stopped short of full privatisation and we, the people, still retain ownership of the assets now in the care of the reconstituted English Heritage. Today’s measures might indeed herald a new dawn for our historic environment. RESCUE sincerely hopes this is the case and is looking forward to the future with some anticipation. However, far from being proud to announce this new era of heritage management and trumpet it as a forward-thinking innovative achievement, the Government should be ashamed that both it and its predecessors have mismanaged our irreplaceable national heritage with such an abject lack of enthusiasm, care and pride that they have collectively brought us to this point at all.
1st April 2015
RESCUE – The British Archaeological Trust 15A Bull Plain Hertford SG14 1DX
Chairman: Reuben Thorpe : firstname.lastname@example.org Tel. (01433) 631573
Vicechair: Chris Cumberpatch : email@example.com Tel. (0114) 2310051
Notes and references
1 DCMS English Heritage New Model – Consultation
https://www.gov.uk/government/consultations/englishheritagenewmodelconsultation (December 2013)
2 Sajid Javid’s speech : https://www.gov.uk/government/speeches/sajidjavidsspeechatthelaunchofhistoricenglandandnewenglishheritagetrust (accessed 31.3.2015)
3 Letter from Jessica Trevitt, Information Rights Manager (29.7.2013)
4 English Heritage ‘New Model Proposal – Summary Business Case’ paragraph 1.3 (January 2014) https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/3635 89/EH_New_Model_Summary_Business_Case.pdf
5 DCMS ‘English Heritage New Model – Consultation Response’ (October 2014)
6 DCMS Consultation on the English Heritage New Model: Response from the English Heritage Commission http://www.englishheritage.org.uk/content/importeddocs/ae/dcmsconsultationonehnewmodelresponsefromehcommission.pdf
7 Historic England website http://www.historicengland.org.uk