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Wednesday, 26 November 2014

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Are historic sites at risk in English Heritage shake-up?

ONE of England’s most valued institutions is facing the biggest shake-up in its 31-year history.

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English Heritage’s Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens welcomed some 64,000 visitors last year.

Plans to turn English Heritage from a tax-payer funded quango into a stand-alone charity hit the headlines last week.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has denied claims that operating as a charity – funded by an £80m cash injection from the Government – will put English Heritage’s 400-plus sites at risk of private ownership.

However, concerns are rife about how English Heritage – which looks after properties including Housesteads Roman Fort, Prudhoe Castle and Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens – will stand up as a charity.

Last year marked the centenary of the 1913 Ancient Monument Act which gave the Government powers to take historic buildings and sites into public ownership and open them up to the public.

Acquisition of hundreds of sites over the years has led to the creation of the national heritage collection – the outdoor museum of national history.

In England, much of the responsibility for protecting the collection and opening it up to the public lies with English Heritage, the brand name for the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, formed in 1983.

English Heritage is the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment in England.

Its responsibilities are to secure the preservation of ancient monuments and historic buildings; promote the preservation and enhancement of the character and appearance of conservation areas; and promote the public’s enjoyment of and advance their knowledge of ancient monuments and buildings.

English Heritage now has almost 750,000 members, over 400 properties and sites and 500,000 objects in its care, and 12 million photographs in public archives.

Its collection includes Stonehenge, Hadrian’s Wall, Charles Darwin’s diaries and the Duke of Wellington’s boots.

Annually, English Heritage advises on 17,000 planning applications, gives out £24m in grants and welcomes 11m visitors.

Over the last year, English Heritage received around two thirds of its income – £103.9m – from the Department of Culture in the form of grant-in-aid.

The other third of its income came from commercial activities and fund-raising – including membership, site admission fees, retail and catering – with £56.9m generated in 2012/13.

Any donations or bequests to the English Heritage Foundation, which is a registered charity, go directly to support and enhance the national heritage collection of historic sites in English Heritage’s care.

However, this could all change under Government plans to reform English Heritage, which sets out an eight-year model of how its services should develop under its continued management.

A consultation document proposes to split English Heritage in two.

One part will become a charity retaining the name English Heritage, continuing the conservation and public access work to the historic collection until 2022/23.

The second part will become Historic England with “duties and responsibilities for preserving England’s wider historic environment” by working with “property owners, developers and infrastructure providers”.

The Department of Culture argues that its eight year model “will offer a bright future for the national heritage collection and savings to the taxpayer, while keeping the properties themselves in public ownership”.

Plans include English Heritage using the £80m Government investment, plus over £83m to be raised from third parties, to undertake “an ambitious programme to remedy conservation defects, create new exhibitions, renew existing ones and continue to improve the visitor experience through investment in presentation of the properties and visitor facilities.”

The charity will continue to receive grant-in-aid from the Government on a declining basis from 2015/16 to the end of 2022/23 when it will cease and the charity will become self-sufficient, with an ambition for the collection to “benefit from a new level of autonomy”.

Plans also include English Heritage having more freedom to generate “commercial and philanthropic income”.

The consultation, which ended earlier this month, has raised questions over the sustainability of English Heritage if it faces the future as a charity.

There are concerns it will create competition with other charities as they vie for vital benefactors and public support.

However, the National Trust – a charity with 119 years’ experience – has dismissed the prospect of any rivalry.

The two organisations share many sites, such as Housesteads Roman Fort, which is owned by the National Trust and managed by English Heritage.

And the National Trust’s head of marketing and support development for the region Joanna Royle believes the partnership will remain strong.

“English Heritage has run on membership for many years, as has the National Trust,” she said. “It has operated sites as attractions for many years, as has the National Trust.

“There is no conflict. There’s nothing wrong with a bit of healthy competition but we’ve operated as partners where we can for many years and hope to continue to do so.

“Our concerns are more about whether or not the new funding plan is realistic and sustainable for English Heritage to achieve what it wants to achieve.”

In response to the consultation, the National Trust stated its support for the plans, which would relieve English Heritage from the increasing cuts in public funding.

However, the National Trust issued a word of warning over whether the new model could prove financially viable to protect the organisation’s 400-plus sites or retain its expertise and capacity to support and inform work in the wider sector.

Main concerns included the predicted growth in English Heritage membership of 86 per cent over the next eight years and a predicted rise of visitor numbers by a third, which the National Trust labelled an “ambitious target”.

Even in its most successful recent decade, the National Trust only grew its membership by about 20 per cent, leading it to question the predicted leap in visitor numbers.

The National Trust said that, while it had demonstrated how historic assets could be successfully held and managed by a private charity for the benefit of the nation, it had benefited from “119 years to grow and develop”. The National Trust therefore wondered how English Heritage could achieve the same in just eight years.

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