English Heritage has defended its commitment to the North East amid Labour claims of “privatisation”.
The history quango is to be turned into a standalone charity managing the UK’s most impressive sites, castles and stately halls.
Labour and the Association of North East Councils had warned in The Journal this week that the changes could mean the charity has less money to ensure all assets are protected rather than just the most popular locations.
While English Heritage initially declined to comment, sending press enquires to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the quango’s chairman has now hit out at claims the Government plan will put the region’s history at risk.
In a letter to today’s Journal Views of the North, Sir Laurie Magnus said he wanted to “make clear that English Heritage considers its sites in the North East to be among the most important, interesting and beautiful in England. The advantage of the proposed change is that we will be able to invest more in them not less.”
The chairman was speaking out amid fears from former Newcastle leader Lord Beecham and former regional minister Nick Brown that the moves were akin to privatising the service.
Sir Laurie said: “I should like to assure Lord Beecham and your readers that it is not. The new charity will only manage the properties; there will be no transfer of ownership. The National Heritage Collection will remain just that – a magnificent collection of more than 400 historic sites and monuments that belongs to the nation and always will.
“It is also not the case that there will be any loss of expertise as your article suggests.
“Proven excellence in interpretation and curatorship will be a hallmark of the charity’s success. The properties will be cared for by the same experts and custodians as now.
“Meanwhile, Historic England will continue to be a strong voice, championing England’s remarkable heritage and providing national expertise and support on the ground in the North East on wider planning and conservation issues including Heritage at Risk.”
Concerns at the proposed changes were first raised by the Association of North East Councils, which responded to a Government consultation with a warning that the changes must not see the region lose out.
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.”
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.