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Today’s the day Chancellor George Osborne revealed the latest government spending cuts.
As usual, we were softened up by horror stories, and as it turned out, they were not far wrong. Others will have their say on whether, say, the loss of a further 144,000 public sector jobs is a good way to stimulate economic growth at this juncture. The news that made me sit up concerned English Heritage, the government body which manages the historic built environment of England.
The BBC reports today that “English Heritage has been given £80m in the government’s Spending Review”. Maria Miller, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, said: “The new £80 million investment for English Heritage is fantastic news and recognises the vital importance of the historic environment to our national life.” Who can argue with that? Well, watch me try. This windfall is in fact a part of a process to transfer English Heritage to the charitable sector, and I have some big problems with that.
There’s a bit more detail available, although it’s all pretty new stuff. English Heritage is to become a charity by 2015. The new charity will manage the National Heritage Collection, which includes Osborne House, Stonehenge, and many other monuments and artefacts: as English Heritage does now. Statutory English Heritage responsibilities such as listing buildings will remain government funded – it’s hard to see how they couldn’t be. The new English Heritage charity will have, in the words of the official EH statement: “more freedom to generate greater commercial and philanthropic income”. And the ultimate purpose of all this? The government currently contributes £22m annually towards this work. Government funding for the new “National Heritage Protection Service” will be be reduced after 2015, eventually to nothing.
This change is announced as ‘fantastic news’, but is it? I think not. There are three main reasons.
1. The £80m investment will result in less money for heritage, not more.
It’s an £80m one-off payment, and if the government spends £22m per annum on the work at the moment, it doesn’t take a genius to work out that once the funding has tapered to nothing, it will only take four years before the bottom line of the budget is less than it is now.
But wait – isn’t that money intended to enable English Heritage to become self funding? Indeed it is. The government says that the “investment in historic properties across the entire country will create jobs and boost local economies“. So presumably not all this £80m will be spent directly on heritage, then. Maybe some will go towards setting up business units, making properties more commercially viable, and training staff in things like fundraising and securing legacies. This brings us to the second, and most serious issue.
2. The government will be setting up a new organisation that is designed to take resources and funding away from existing conservation and heritage charities.
This is why the net result is less money for heritage, not more. The new English Heritage charity will either succeed, and become self-financing, or it will fail. If it fails, obviously by definition that’s a bad thing and probably the government will have to step in again. But what if it succeeds? In some ways that could be worse.
The charitable heritage sector is a crowded market, and a lot of effort is expended by the big charities on getting the best return from their members. The Wildlife Trusts, the RSPB and the Woodland Trust are amongst the main players other than the biggest charity in the UK – the National Trust. The National Trust is uniquely close in function to English Heritage, with a membership scheme allowing access to many historic buildings and properties nationwide. It is not an easy life being a charity – there’s only so much charitable resource to go around, and giving has gone down in recent years too. I know from my own time working for the National Trust just how hard it is to get the necessary fundraising done to keep going; so it isn’t too hard to imagine what it will be like if a massive, subsidised, national organisation hungry for charitable donations and legacies suddenly arrives from nowhere. It’s not going to be pretty – and the National Trust will inevitably find this new development particularly challenging.
3. The real losers won’t be the bigger charities – they will be small ones.
Here I’ll take up my crystal ball. See, I think the big charities will probably come through this, because they really are very good indeed at fund raising, and have been for a long time. Even with £80m of investment the new English Heritage charity will have a lot of work on its hands to pose a serious threat to them, at least for the next ten years or so. Heritage work might be compromised, and the organisations might lose opportunities that they might otherwise have taken – but overall, the big players will all survive.
But there will be losers, and a lot of them. Those losers will be the smaller charities, trusts and community groups that are newly springing up all around the country as a part of the ‘Big Society’ initiative to take over parks, museums, art galleries, libraries and other heritage-based public amenities that councils and indeed government departments no longer fund. These are organisations supported only by local volunteers, without legacy advisers, without fundraising departments, without commercial arms, often without charitable status and always without national coverage. These are the bodies with whom the new English Heritage charity will really be competing. The newly-formed heritage body, starved of support from the government, will have little choice but to suck up fundraising and legacy opportunities that are not already staked out by bigger charities. The small bodies who might have otherwise benefited from this will be unable to compete.
So overall, it’s not ‘fantastic news’. Far from it. It shows that the entire heritage function is something the government places no value on – or at least, less than £22m a year on. Which is almost exactly one tenth of the annual cost of running the House of Commons.