Future of English Heritage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 2nd April 2014.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:30 pm, 2nd April 2014

The hon. Gentleman makes a good point. As a student of mediaeval archaeology, I believe it could be a fabulous opportunity to engage more people in our historic sites and to allow them to take part in or to witness the improvements, and to see the defects being put right. For me, there is nothing better than going into a building that is in a state of disrepair, where façades have been removed and rafters are exposed. That is a great opportunity, and I would like to see visitors welcomed. The revenue they would bring should be in to be included in the process. English Heritage has become quite good at that over the years.

The money that English Heritage will spend on defects will be matched by another £83 million raised by the organisation from third-party donations. It is hoped that that will give a boost to the charity, which will be expected to become self-sufficient. Over the eight years, the Government plan to withdraw the grant in aid, and expects the charity to be self-financing by 2022. The remainder of the commission’s duties will continue to be performed by a non-departmental public body, to be called Historic England. Those duties will include advisory and planning roles, and will continue to be funded by grant in aid.

English Heritage does not mind the reforms in principle, particularly the ability to raise revenue through philanthropic and commercial opportunities. As would be expected, it welcomes the offer of the up-front £80 million to tackle the significant backlog of conservation work needed for the collection. Concerns have been expressed about the practical realities of the new model, and the risks that might arise in future. The most significant concerns, as the Minister will know, centre on the financial model, and whether a charitable English Heritage can realistically achieve self-sufficiency in the time frame allowed and retain it for the long term.

There is a basic concern about the nature of the collection. English Heritage’s collection is not the same as the carefully selected portfolio of the National Trust, which can turn down sites or choose to take on only new properties that come with an endowment to fund their upkeep. English Heritage has sites that have been gathered over decades—or inherited by the nation—because of their historical significance, and rarely because of their commercial potential. Many have been taken on by English Heritage because it is the owner of last resort.

Some 250 English Heritage sites—more than half the collection—are free at the moment, so the public can gain access to them without having to pay. We are talking about ruined abbeys and bits of old Roman wall that families visit as part of a walk through the countryside. The place that springs to my mind is Egglestone abbey, close to where I live in the constituency of my hon. Friend Helen Goodman. It is one of the most beautiful places in the north. It is a ruined abbey set perfectly in the landscape. It benefits from not having commercial activity or gates and tea shops and other buildings around it. The ruins have been there for centuries, and it would be a real shame if visitors were charged to visit the site in future.

The Society of Antiquaries has tried to remind us that it is dangerous to present the collection as a portfolio of visitor attractions. It is a portfolio of national heritage, and less than half the sites are considered capable of generating income. There is some perhaps healthy scepticism over whether the collection has enough revenue-making properties, and will be able to generate enough of a surplus to subsidise the rest.