The government has been consulting on a possible shake-up for its building conservation watchdog, English Heritage, including the creation of a charitable arm to manage its property portfolio. The Society’s submitted response is below.
English Heritage New Model: Consultation: Comments of the South Downs Society
These are the comments of the South Downs Society, the national park society for the South Downs National Park. The Society has approximately 2,000 members and its focus is fundraising and campaigning for the conservation and enhancement of the landscape of the national park and its quiet enjoyment. The work of English Heritage is extremely important in contributing to those aims and to the achievement of national park purposes. This society welcomes any moves that will strengthen that work and will, accordingly, be very concerned about any action that might serve to weaken it.
We afford a cautious welcome to the proposal to establish a charitable arm to look after the property portfolio if this facilitates enhanced conservation, interpretation and enjoyment of the properties as well as safeguarding the statutory work. It remains to be seen of course whether the new financial model for the charitable arm is financially sustainable and the funding available to the new Historic England is sufficient to guarantee continuing service delivery. The sum of £80 million on offer to the charitable arm is in itself inadequate to do what is necessary to conserve the heritage assets which would be the responsibility of the new charity, and it will not be acceptable to divert national funding away from other essential conservation work to provide this sum.
We welcome the words in para 4.6 of the consultation document about the need for the revamped Historic England to be “confident”, “independent”, “impartial” as well as “expert”, “constructive”, “visionary”, “proactive”. Time will tell whether all of these can be delivered. The new organisation should, like the property owning charity, be adequately endowed to ensure a strong organisation. For example, English Heritage’s recent record on the listing process for buildings of particular historic or architectural merit has been slow and must be improved. This society and others will keep the work of Historic England under review.
We note that the success criteria for the property owning charity (para 3.29) list in first place the need to remove government funding. We would have preferred to see the other two (“added value”, “increased visitor numbers and satisfaction”) come above that. We are apprehensive about any government offering, as its prime aim, the opportunity for a public body to become more self-funding.
We would wish to see an undertaking that the revamped body can still be an owner or funder of last resort for important heritage properties under threat.