English Heritage plays an important role for heritage in England, directly managing hundreds of properties and also providing statutory advice and championing heritage more widely. The Government has just finished consulting on radical plans to change this role by splitting it into two bodies – a charity to manage the properties (to be known as English Heritage) and a public body to take on its wider functions (to be known as Historic England). We’ve just sent in our response to the consultation.
We think that, in principle, there are advantages in the idea of English Heritage’s properties being operated by a charity. The National Trust itself shows how historic assets can be successfully held and managed by a private charity for the benefit of the nation. And at a time of continued pressure on public finances, a new model could help relieve the pressure to cut back further on English Heritage’s current advisory services.
But the National Trust has had 119 years to grow and develop and is supported by a wide asset base of land and financial endowments. The new English Heritage charity will have stretching targets to grow membership by 86% by 2027 (the best decade for the Trust’s membership growth was 20%) and visitor numbers are expected to rise by a third as the new charity becomes financially independent and its grant is phased out. DCMS is to provide a welcome upfront investment but English Heritage’s conservation backlog may be as high as £79m by 2015. There is a danger that, if sufficient reserves aren’t built up, volatile visitor numbers (for instance from too many wet Summers) and the challenge of ongoing conservation and care for all properties may make the financial model unstainable.
Managing these risks will be vital for the new charity in its initial eight year license period and DCMS need to put in place contingency plans if income generation targets are not met. Although the initial eight year license may not help long-term planning, it does give whoever forms the Government in 2023 the opportunity to review how the new model is working.
Historic England should not be forgotten in these plans. The National Trust is very supportive of English Heritage’s current statutory and wider heritage protection activities. Like others, we rely on its research, experience and advice to support our own management of heritage. We want the new Historic England to remain a strong, independent and properly funded body with a broad remit for delivery. As such, Historic England must be shielded from any future deficits incurred by English Heritage as it seeks to meet its ambitious income targets.
We also are concerned that the consultation document is short on the details of how exactly Historic England will be able to strengthen its expert advice and provide an even better service, as promised by DCMS. We also want to see more about the role of partner organisations like local councils and voluntary organisations. This needs to be improved when Historic England’s focus and priorities are set.
Splitting up English Heritage and setting up a new charity to run its properties is an innovative and ambitious move. It will inevitably mean that many in English Heritage will be focused internally over the coming years. Throughout that change and beyond, we need the Government to demonstrate its commitment to safeguarding the public’s present and future interests in our shared heritage. We will play our part in offering our advice to Government as they set up the new structures.
To read the National Trust Consultation Response, please click here.
By Dr Ingrid Samuel, Historic Environment Director