A major reform of the way in which historic sites and buildings are administered was introduced in the UK Treasury’s summer spending review. English Heritage will be split in two: a charitable foundation will run the properties that it opens to the public, while a separate body will oversee planning controls on properties owned by others. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is expected to begin consultations on the split later this month.
A new chairman, Laurie Magnus—an investment banker and, until now, the deputy chairman of the National Trust—will take over from Kay Andrews, who has been the chair for four years. She was appointed by the previous Labour government. A spokesman for the culture ministry says that Magnus’s appointment is “a reflection of the new structure and direction taking place at English Heritage”.
Behind the scenes
Simon Thurley, English Heritage’s chief executive since 2002, says that splitting the body was his idea, because the two aspects of its work were becoming increasingly difficult to administer. “On the one hand, we are a grant-giver, and on the other, a supplicant. People have found that confusing,” he says.
There have been suggestions that the property-owning side of English Heritage should be run with the charitable National Trust, which also has a large number of historic houses. However, the new plan is to hive off English Heritage’s 420 properties, now dubbed the National Heritage Collection, into a separate charity, which will remain under the authority of English Heritage. This means that it will have greater freedom to generate and spend commercial income, but it will have its grants reduced over time, as happened when Historic Royal Palaces was hived off in 1998.
To help establish the new charity, the department for culture has promised a one-off payment of £80m to tackle the £50m-plus backlog of repairs and to subsidise the running of the properties until more money can be raised commercially and from donors.
The key question is whether the properties will be able to survive on this basis. English Heritage spends £28m a year on its properties, but the plan is to move towards a situation in which the new charity will be “completely self-financing and will no longer need taxpayer support”. Thurley anticipates that this may be achieved in ten years, but he says: “We would never switch the tap off before we were sure that the charity is standing on its feet.”
Will the public notice any difference when historic properties are taken over by the charity? Thurley does not anticipate hikes in ticket prices. The only change, if visitors look more closely, is that the “buildings will be better looked after”.
The other aspect of English Heritage’s work is administering the system of planning. Its own research recently identified dissatisfaction among stakeholders, with a “decrease in the perception of English Heritage’s effectiveness in protecting the historic environment”.
After the reorganisation, the rump of English Heritage will remain as a government-funded body, with the aim of protecting the built environment. It will initially be called the National Heritage Protection Service, but a “friendlier” name will be found. English Heritage has also pledged to speed up the listing of heritage areas that are not properly protected, such as pre-1840 shipwrecks, buildings connected to the First World War, post-war schools and public libraries.
Severe government cuts
English Heritage is facing severe cuts in its government funding, however. In the last major spending review, its grant was cut by 32% over the period from 2011/12 to 2014/15, with an additional cut of 3% later added for 2014/15. Then, in the spending review in June this year, its budget for 2015/16 was slashed by a further 10%.
The implication is that the government is unfavourably disposed towards English Heritage. Politicians, perhaps unfairly, have tended to regard it as an overly bureaucratic organisation. In his recent book, Men from the Ministry, Thurley admits that, over the past few decades, it has become “progressively harder for politicians to understand and appreciate the National Heritage Collection”. Paintings, rather than buildings, are now regarded as “the supremely important expression of cultural achievement”—as demonstrated by the flow of funds to buy great pictures.
English Heritage in brief
• English Heritage was set up in 1984 by a predecessor of the department for culture, which appoints its commissioners and is its main funder
• It covers England only
• Last year, English Heritage received £101m from the government and raised £57m from other sources, such as tickets, retail and catering, membership fees and donations
• The National Heritage Collection comprises 420 sites and buildings. Among the most important are Stonehenge (above), Kenwood House (a north London mansion with important paintings) and Audley End (a Cambridgeshire country house)
• Caring for its own properties cost £74m last year
• They attract 11 million visitors in total (five million at staffed sites)
• English Heritage has 831,000 members
• It oversees heritage protection: listed buildings, scheduled ancient monuments and planning applications
• Heritage protection cost £33m last year
• The organisation also gives grants (£20m last year) to the owners of historic properties to pay for restoration