For a hundred years the British Government has taken active steps to protect historic places of national importance; since 1913 there has been a government body charged with identifying the places that should be given protection and with assembling a great outdoor museum of sites and monuments for public education and enjoyment. In the 1970s Scotland and Wales were given freedom to operate this system locally and in 1983 the government formed English Heritage to do this in England. How this came about has been described in my book Men from the Ministry (if you want all the details).
Historic England, English Heritage’s successor is now responsible for identifying buildings, monuments and sites for designation (protection) and for advising both local and central government when people want to make changes to designated places. Thus it plays a significant role in ensuring that both new development and regeneration strengthens and enhances the nation’s history making better places to live, work and visit. Historic England also has a role in advising government on policy, undertaking certain categories of research and giving grants. And while I was running English Heritage it cared for and opened to the public the National Heritage Collection. In 2014 11 million people enjoyed the 420 sites and monuments in the Collection and over a million people were members of English Heritage.
English Heritage was established under the National Heritage Act 1983, technically speaking was an executive non-departmental public body (basically a QUANGO) answering to a non-executive Commission of 18. There were 2,500 staff who work in 13 offices and 130 monuments across England. In 2004-5 it received around 75% of its funding from the Department of Culture Media and Sport (£125 million) and the remainder (£33.5 million) was self-generated from commercial activity. After a pretty turbulent time with government funding the figures were in 2013-14 £94m from DCMS and £68m self-generated. The proportion of income from government had declined to 58% of the total. Over eleven years we were very successful in making the National Heritage Collection more self-sufficient. Commercial income grew from £29m to £68m and members doubled to just over a million. This insulated us from some of the worst effects of cuts. However in 2012 we started a process of arguing for a demerger of our responsibilities.
We did so much over the 13 years I was in charge that my website can’t possibly do justice to it all. But there are a few things that I would like to highlight: First of all I worked hard with our brilliant teams to improve the way conservation is perceived and practiced. We have called this ‘constructive conservation’ – a more balanced and explicable way to protect the best of our heritage for future generations. A crucial part of this is Conservation Principles which you can read about on this site.
We have also been engaged in thousands of difficult cases where we have had to make often very finely-judged decisions. Some of the cases have hit the headlines; many more have been resolved between our Inspectors and owners in the background. The ones that I’m most often asked about are the buildings that we have, ourselves, intervened to save. A tiny proportion of the total, but their stories are very interesting.
Watching over places of worship has been a particular interest of mine. We worked very closely with the Cathedrals, with the Church of England and with other denominations to try and help secure this incredibly important and defining part of our national heritage and national identity. All the way through I believed that it is vitally important for parish churches to remain independent from government funding, but to have it accessible to them if in real need. I also believe that they must be kept in use and continue the mission that many have had for a thousand years or more. You can read about how we have approached Places of Worship here.
Finally, I was very involved in European issues. I started thinking this was a waste of time, but increasingly global and European measures influenced what happens in our country. So started to believe that it was vital that we were active on the European, and where necessary, on the global stage to help shape how people think about sustainability and heritage. There is a little more on this in the European Heritage section.
‘From 2013 I started to argue that EH should adopt a new governance model. Initially this was because it seemed like the only way to balance the books, but soon we began to realise that there were other significant benefits from doing things a different way. Our proposal was not to change any of the responsibilities put on us since 1983 but to delegate the management and conservation of our sites and monuments to a charity that would care for them and open them to the public. This found favour with Government and we were given £80m capital and a promise of £90m revenue to make this a possibility. The deal was guaranteed funding and capital up front in return for the charity breaking even in 2021. The New Model, as we called it, became live on April 1 2015.
At this point the English Heritage Trust took on the National Heritage Collection under licence for 8 years and the £80m was paid over to them. They continue to get a revenue subsidy for seven years. The parent body which is now called Historic England retains the ownership of the collection but licences the charity to operate it. Thus the commercial operations are freed from the restrictions of government to flourish on their own and the statutory and advisory responsibilities can be focussed on the problems at hand rather than worrying about commercial performance the whole time.
A new charitable board was established to oversee the charity. This is chaired by Sir Tim Laurence, a former Commissioner of the old English Heritage, and the Commission is chaired by Sir Laurie Magnus. Two new chief executives were recruited for the two bodies and at that point I stood down allowing them to get on and establish the new arrangements.