11 February 2014

The future of state heritage agencies in England and Wales

The last few months have seen some interesting proposals and responses to restructuring the national heritage agencies in England and Wales. It is still not clear what the outcome in either case will be, although it is certain that the differences between these two parts of the United Kingdom will become more marked.

On the border: the former racecourse on Hergest Ridge,
Herefordshire (England), looking west into the Walton Basin,
Radnorshire (Wales). Photo copyright Paul Belford.

What has been particularly interesting in following this process has been the very different expectations of, and approaches to, public consultation on either side of the border.

The situation in England and Wales has already diverged since devolution in the late 1990s. Wales has retained the separation of the Royal Commission for Ancient and Historical Monuments (RCAHMW) from the executive heritage agency (Cadw); whereas in England the two bodies (English Heritage and RCHME) were merged nearly 15 years ago. In Scotland it was decided to merge Historic Scotland and the RCAHMS into a single body outside government, with a policy unit within government.

In Wales, the development of a new Heritage Bill has been proceeding through a series of consultation phases. As part of this Bill serious consideration was being given to the merger of Cadw and RCAHMW. This was widely assumed to be a 'done deal', and discussion focussed on whether this would follow the English model (the new body as an executive agency inside government) or the Scottish model. The response to the public consultation was mixed. As a result, the Culture Minister decided that, for the time being, Welsh Government would not proceed with the merger (although the Heritage Bill continues to be developed).

In England, almost the opposite process was proposed last year: English Heritage would be split into two bodies. The first (to be called 'English Heritage') will be a charity which will look after the property portfolio - erroneously called 'the national collection' - which is essentially a rather random assemblage of ruined castles and abbeys. The second (to be called 'Historic England') will retain the core functions of the state heritage agency - including provision of specialist advice and planning. Again this arrangement is largely felt to be a 'done deal', and it remains to be seen how the concerns expressed by many heritage organisations during the recent consultation exercise will be taken on board.

For me, the proposals for 'the new model English Heritage' are a complete disaster. The charitable arm is intended to 'be completely self-financing' within eight years. Only a handful of properties attract enough visitors to make a surplus, very few even cover their own costs; it is difficult to see how the portfolio as a whole could provide enough scope for cross-subsidy. The only way it could become self-financing is by massively increasing its membership and admission prices, and by sucking up money from the Heritage Lottery Fund and other sources - potentially depriving a large chunk of the existing charitable heritage sector of funding.

On the 'Historic England' side, it is hard to see anything other than the ultimate outcome being the abolition of anything other than a small core 'inspectorate' to deal with designation, planning and policy. This may take years, but it will ultimately happen if the 'new model' is adhered to. The specialist facilities at Fort Cumberland, the in-house survey teams (a relic from the old Royal Commission) and even the 'English Heritage Archive' (formerly part of the National Monuments Record) are all at risk.

Many of the consultation responses have pointed this out. However it remains to be seen whether the powers that be in England will be as responsive to public consultation as their counterparts appear to have been in Wales. Interesting times - on both sides of the border.

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