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13 March 2005
English Heritage at risk?

Tessa Jowell, the culture secretary, is threatening to dismantle English Heritage, which runs 400 of England’s greatest historic sites, ranging from Stonehenge to Dover Castle. The suggestion follows a series of bitter rows between the government and English Heritage. The main winner to emerge from the wreckage may turn out to be the National Trust, the privately run charity which could be handed control of English Heritage’s 400 sites to add to its own 900-property portfolio. English Heritage would be left with little except its role of running the listings system for preserving old buildings and advising the government on the historic environment.
     Under Jowell’s suggestions, to be outlined in a pamphlet to be published by her department just before Easter, the National Trust could become by far the most important custodian of English historic buildings. Although the trust is sympathetic to gaining some of England’s most famous locations, it will be alarmed by criticism in Jowell’s essay that the heritage world is “too middle-class” and puts too much emphasis on grand houses. English Heritage is opposed to any move to divest it of historic sites, pointing out that the National Trust would need massive public funds to take on the extra work. However, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, EH’s former chairman, said he saw some merit in the idea. He agreed with Jowell that the heritage world lacked a strong unified voice.
     A spokeswoman for English Heritage said that the proposal would cost taxpayers “billions” as the National Trust would require government endowments to pay for the future upkeep of buildings and sites. She claimed that the current arrangement worked well: “A measure of competition is a good thing. So is diversity of ownership.” English Heritage was set up in 1984 and receives £122m a year from the government, although for two years from 2006 its grant is not being increased. This means a cut in real terms.
     The National Trust has an annual income of £300m which comes mainly from membership subscriptions and entrance fees at its properties, along with commercial activities. It gets no money from the government. The trust has 3.4m members against English Heritage’s 500,000. The trust cautiously welcomed the idea of change at its rival. Tony Burton, the trust’s director of policy, is cautious about the trust taking on new properties, mainly because of the problem with funding. Although the trust has increased membership in recent years, its financial situation is not strong.
     Jowell believes that the heritage world has too many overlapping organisations competing for grants. She thinks there needs to be more centralisation and focus. Among other options for the break-up of English Heritage will be the creation of a quango to combine its sites with those run by state-owned organisations. Critics of Jowell may suggest that she is seeking to demolish English Heritage because it has repeatedly stood in the way of what the government claims are necessary building schemes.

Source: The Times (13 March 2005)

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