An £80m investment and a new charity to run the National Heritage Collection opens a compelling chapter for English Heritage, chief executive Simon Thurley explains, as he sets out the opportunities and challenges in the spending round 2015/16 announcement
When I stood on stage to introduce the English Heritage Angel Awards in 2011, I told the audience about my recent visit to Castle Acre Priory, one of the largest and best preserved monastic sites in England. Not only is one struck by the immense size and variety of the place but also by the intricate architectural detail of this Cluniac gem.
Castle Acre Priory has survived for more than 900 years but its mostly roofless walls were never intended to be open to the elements. On the day that I visited the ground was still white from an overnight frost and chunks of masonry, forced off from the walls by water freezing in the cracks and crannies, were lying on the ground.
‘Logging back’ to move forwards
Years of below-inflation Government funding for English Heritage had left us with a backlog of repairs that we were unable to fund. Although we have managed to repair Castle Acre, there are other sites in the National Heritage Collection, which still need urgent attention. The ruins of Witley Court in Worcestershire, which just a hundred years ago was one of England’s great country houses, now has parts of its towers closed off because of high level masonry problems. The medieval kitchen area of Lincoln Medieval Bishops’ Palace is also a major concern. The cost of repair, in the last four years has now tripled to an estimated £600,000 because of the rapid rate of decay.
But now, as a result of the £80 million one-off grant and permission to form a charity to run the National Heritage Collection announced by Maria Miller last week, we are going to be able to tackle the backlog and move on. We can put the nation’s outdoor museum on display to the public in proper condition and present it to visitors in the manner it deserves.
As some of you might know, I have spent the last year writing a book charting the history of state protection for heritage over the last 100 years. Its official launch took place last week but the book already needs updating! The recent announcement marks a new chapter for heritage. The sites collected for the nation as a result of the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913 remain firmly in state ownership. However, Charitable status will mean greater commercial freedom and more ability to fundraise and the plan is that the National Heritage Collection will need a smaller part of our Government revenue funding as it works towards becoming self-financing.
The other major new development is that our work to protect England’s wider heritage will be given a new focus, a new name and a new identity. The reduction of 10% in our revenue funding for the year 2015/16 announced July 3 is disappointing. But the good news it that as the National Heritage Collection moves towards financial self-sufficiency, we shall be able to spend more of our revenue funding on the heritage services we offer to the nation.
With renewed vigour, we shall continue to protect those parts of England’s heritage that touch everyone, every day – the streets we all walk down, the buildings we all admire and the views we all enjoy – contributing to that sense of place which is vital to our well-being both as individuals and as a nation.
Charity, commitment and faith
Our designation team will ensure the very best of our built heritage is recognised and celebrated through the listing system whilst our planning and conservation teams will continue to advise local councils on how best to shape their cities, towns and villages. We shall continue to be the Government’s advisor on all policies relating to heritage and to support the heritage sector. Our commitment to research and training is unshaken and we shall carry on the work of previous generations of experts employed by the state to ensure England’s heritage is protected, understood, valued and enjoyed.
These are challenging times but I have every faith that the next chapter of this story will be one of the most compelling yet.
Castle Acre Priory: The largest and best-preserved monastic sites in all England.
Milnrow Carnegie Library:Designation Highlights 2013: Milnrow Carnegie Library, Greater Manchester. Built in 1907 by S Butterworth and WH Duncan of Rochdale. Listed at Grade II.
Kentish Town Baths:Constructive Conservation: Almost demolished and replaced by flats, Kentish Town Baths was saved with a very limited budget. It is now a public sports centre that celebrates its fantastic architectural features.