Concern as Government looks to 'privatise' English Heritage

Quango to be turned into charity amid fears North East assets could be seen as less important

Warkworth Castle in Northumberland
Warkworth Castle in Northumberland

Parts of the North East’s cultural heritage could be put at risk as the Government seeks to end its responsibility for historic sites.

Ministers are part-way through plans to reform English Heritage and create a charitable arm responsible for the National Heritage Collection.

The Government hopes that an £80m cash injection will mean the quango no longer needs taxpayer support.

But concerns have now emerged that the moves will see properties put at risk as the reformed English Heritage struggles to pay for all its assets.

In the North East, English Heritage is responsible for key tourism attractions such as Belsay Hall, Lindisfarne Priory, Warkworth Castle and Dunstanburgh Castle.

As well as those flagship sites there are many others which, while contributing to the overall worth of region’s heritage, do not individually draw in large numbers of visitors.

Culture ministers have been warned of the potential downside of their reforms in a joint response by the region’s 12 local authorities.

Belsay Hall in Northumberland
Belsay Hall in Northumberland
 

The Association of North East Councils has said it wants to ensure the changes do not create a situation in which only the sites which generate the most revenue are protected, instead of the entire collection.

And former regional minister Nick Brown has added to the warnings. He said: “The Government’s proposal has two obvious flaws. The loss of expertise will be damaging in the long run because the advice from a well informed independent authority will no longer be there.

“Secondly, our country’s heritage should not be reduced to a historically themed version of Disneyland. It should be preserved, treasured and valued for present and future generations.”

Urging caution of the unknown costs involved, the Association said: “This is an ambitious plan, with yet another organisation competing for the same sources of commercial and philanthropic funding as similar organisations.”

The councils said: “In the North East there is concern over the protection of historic buildings that may not necessarily generate large amounts of income and instead rely on a subsidy, yet are nonetheless key to the collection and bring in wider economic and social benefits to the local community in terms of tourism.”

The Association added: “Similarly, it is of concern that some sites may require such a level of investment to make them more popular and revenue generating, that the charity may seek to divest itself of responsibility for them. We would not wish to see detriment to any part of the collection solely on the grounds of financial viability and fully expect the new charity to demonstrate that it is the sector lead in conserving the Heritage Collection.”

Hadrian's Wall
Hadrian's Wall
 

Already across the North East there are nearly 300 properties on English Heritages At Risk register, properties which for decades have struggled to attract sufficient funding.

Grant Davey, leader of Northumberland County Council said: “There’s a worrying lack of detail in this consultation which compounds the feeling that this is just another attempt by the coalition to scale back the state, this time in the area of heritage.

“Northumberland has a rich and varied tapestry which tell the story of this county over the ages and it is a worry that the Government simply wants to open up English Heritage to the market. The Government needs to make the case for their proposed changes and I’m afraid I’m not convinced.”

Former Newcastle Council leader Lord Beecham, a one-time regional member of English Heritage, said there were concerns that the changes were akin to “privatising out heritage.”

A DCMS spokesman: “The Government’s plans to create a new charity, to be called English Heritage, to manage the National Heritage Collection will not involve disposing of or downgrading any buildings or sites. Quite the opposite, in fact.

“The £80m investment will be used to enhance and improve the Collection, helping to secure its future for generations to come.”

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