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

I had not realised that it was almost £15 to go and see Stonehenge. That is well out of the reach of many family visitors, although I assume the pricing policies are used to encourage membership. Perhaps that has something to do with it. The hon. Gentleman’s point about the volatility of visitor numbers is worth considering.

The Heritage Alliance and the National Trust both point out how volatile visitor numbers are. They suggest that a sudden emergency such as foot and mouth, or even a couple of wet summers, which happen fairly frequently, can completely change the revenues and the cost of welcoming visitors to the sites. They both expressed the view that unless and until new English Heritage is able to build up reserves, the model must be considered financially precarious. That is not a situation in which we want to leave our historic monuments. Perhaps the Minister will explain how he decided that a charity would be the best structure. What governance arrangements will be considered for the charity? We need a lot of safeguards before we can feel confident about that.

The National Trust recommends that the building of reserves should in itself be included as a measure of success—I would make it a requirement of the new charity—so that we can have confidence that the charity will be able to survive unforeseen events such as extreme weather, flood damage and fire damage. More generally, the whole sector is concerned about the need for a contingency plan if the new model does not live up to the expected targets.

The Minister should hope for success, as we all do, but it would be reckless not to plan for failure. We have not seen what the Government have in mind. If the costs do not work out, the sites are too expensive and visitor targets are not hit, what happens? There is particular concern about what happens if the charity ends up with a shortfall: where does the money to plug that gap come from? It could be pulled from the budget of Historic England, which would have a consequence. It is intended that Historic England will protect a much greater array of heritage sites than just the national heritage collection. Will the Minister update Members on his departmental plans to ensure the model is sustainable? What contingency and risk management plans are being put in place in case self-sufficiency is not reached in the 8-year time frame?

Another concern that I want to touch on, which many of the respondents to the consultation brought up, is English Heritage’s duty has as the owner of last resort. The consultation makes welcome reference to the fact that that will continue to be the responsibility of English Heritage, but there is an obvious question: will extra funding be made available should an urgent acquisition be necessary?

I have set out some of the general concerns that have been expressed. I genuinely look forward to hearing from colleagues about their concerns, and to hearing what the Minister has in mind. My constituents, and I think citizens all over this country, care a huge amount about our shared national heritage. They also care about the quality of curation, conservation and preservation. They care about the open access that they currently enjoy to many sites, and they are concerned that buildings should not be lost and that as yet undiscovered archaeological sites should not be tampered with lightly. I genuinely look forward to the Minister’s response.