This afternoon (26th June 2013) we are expecting the announcement of the Government’s most recent spending review.
It is not going to be good news for English Heritage.
Across the board a cut of 8% will really bite an organisation that has already cut one third off it’s budget in the last 3 years.
Add to this the fact that Arts and Museums are set to have their funding ring-fenced beyond a 4% cut and it is doubly bad news for EH, who could end up shouldering the brunt of a massive 12% cut. The bizarre thing about this decision is that rumours suggest that it was a Treasury dictat which has been foisted upon Maria Miller’s DCMS – the reasons for which can only be guessed at and I will leave to individual imaginations.
If we fear the worst and this is all true then there will be some tough decisions to make in EH. For one, it seems unlikely that the majority part of the business which operates the historic property arm of the organisation will be hugely cut. Anything likely to impact revenue generating capacity is off the table, thus the cut will fall disproportionatly on the body’s advice services.
Advice and oversight are crucial parts of English Heritage’s service to the historic environment. They support the network of local authorities in understanding and implementing policy; they are a line of defence against innappropriate development proposals and a direct line in to government; they are a public service that helps people to understand and research the historic environment; and they produce evidence that supports the importance of heritage to society, the environment and the economy.
English Heritage is also a key grant providing agency that substantially props up the independent and voluntary organisations in the wider sector. Any cuts passed on to third sector bodies will be painful to bear. The other area which may be cut is the direct care of historic properties and heritage at risk.
The options in the short term are not too rosy for the body set up to be the guardian of the heritage in 1983. General belt tightening only gets you so far, and EH have already cut several extra new notches. Some kind of cut in project funding for conservation is very likely, possibly an extreme cut, pushing out all repair and maintenance funding to the HLF or other philanthropic organisations. Another route may be to institute charges for public advice functions where previously they had been free. Professional functions may be more difficult to charge for in the current climate, as the market may not hold up under any extra financial pressures.
What is sure, however, is that this is not a sustainable road to be walking. It seems likely that cutting the services offered will be the only way that this will progress, with the future of services like the National Monuments Record in serious doubt.
In the longer term, will English Heritage survive in it’s current form? An optimist might be able to see opportunity in the midst of depression and idealise a vision of a reborn heritage organisation.
In government, it’s possible that the ever unimportant DCMS will be scrapped following a general elelction. If its functions were moved, heritage could find a new home with Communities and Local Government (DCLG) to align it with planning and the built environment, or potentially with Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to align it with tourism and leisure.
Either or a mix of these proposals could signal an opportunity to redesign the model English Heritage has had for 30 years – a mighty old age for a Majorite Quango!
Personally, I think that seeing EH merged in some for with the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE) would be a good thing, perhaps with the property owning, tourism focussed side separating and going its own way (under the BIS portfolio along with art, museums, and sport?). This new grouping would see heritage politically acknowledged as being part of the environment, it would push sense of place to the fore, and the everyday interactions of people with place and the historic character of town and country.
It would fit with the NPPF’s coherent vision for the planning sector and it would potentially mean that heritage was less likely to be omitted from important discussion and the experts would be found in the same department.
As for tourism and museums, they have an economic mandate to fulfil under the current government and they will be better placed to pursue it under BIS – a split responsibility for research in archaeology and the potential for the impulses driving knowledge and understanding of the past would have the potential to be damaging, but compared the the current situation, where heritage is dying a death inside a backwater department consigned to the bottom tier in governmental affairs it would be a complete revitalisation.
George Osborne begins speaking in 10 minutes….