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A HERITAGE FACING HARD TIMES

AGENDA

The Treasury's latest statement on the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) is the sort of government document which requires a strong coffee and a large handful of Pro Plus to get to the end of.

Stuffed with management speak and phrases like 'a more strategic approach to asset management and investment decisions', the statement is, nevertheless, extremely important in the long term.

After all the CSR, which will take place in the first half of next year, will dictate spending priorities across every aspect of government for years to come.

The good, hard-working staffers of English Heritage (EH) are in no doubt as to its importance. Senior bods are, according to reports, locked in a series of talks with

Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) bosses to attempt to protect their everendangered financial resources.

And it appears that things aren't going as well as they might. At least one senior member of staff has been overheard on the London party circuit referring to Culture Secretary Tessa Jowell as 'Tosser Jowell'.

Highbrow stuff eh? But if rumours that the DCMS has asked EH to carry out a comprehensive study on itself, to discover where yet more costs may be saved, do turn out to be true, then it would seem an understandable response.

The sensitive souls of EH will also have been frustrated by additional rumours that any budget cuts that may come into effect would be the consequence of a need to direct funding towards the London 2012 Olympics.

Quite how these rumoured cuts will eventually manifest themselves is yet to be seen, but the simple fact is that this is not the first time EH has had to deal with streamlining itself as the government's enthusiasm for its activities wanes.

Some three years ago EH was forced to go through a swingeing round of redundancies followed by a complete restructuring, especially of its London operation. Since then, as if to punish rather than reward this painful process, its funding has been consistently increased below the rate of ination.

To say that the conservation quango has had a very tough time of it lately would be no exaggeration.

Despite this painful process and the lack of rewards, the organisation's chief executive, Simon Thurley, has apparently remained willing to roll over whenever his bosses in government have clicked their fingers.

He has even invented a new catchphrase - 'constructive conservation' - in a bid to spin his way into the government's good books. This New Labourstyle approach has also seen Thurley turning up at such un-EH places as MIPIM, the development industry's annual bunfight in Cannes, in order to meet, greet and schmooze any fat-cat developer itting around.

The business of EH, he regularly argues, is not to object to all proposals but instead to highlight to the property business how 'historic built environment' can be used 'constructively' in new schemes.

This has undoubtedly impressed some of the big cheeses in the development world. EH is no longer an organisation they unquestioningly hate. It's just a shame the same can't be said for its government masters.

And at the centre of the looming financial crisis at EH is a quite bizarre predicament.

The DCMS - the very same department that is holding the purse-strings tight - also looks increasingly likely to hand more statutory power to EH in the forthcoming Heritage White Paper (if it is ever published).

If these reforms actually do make it onto the statute books, EH will have the power to grant or refuse listing status.

In addition, its officers will also hold more authority over the buildings once they are listed.

One would have thought that these extra responsibilities would be accompanied by more government cash. But this looks increasingly unlikely.

As one veteran EHwatcher put it, 'if these new jobs and tasks are handed over without any extra money - or even a cut - then there will be problems elsewhere.'

Obviously it does not take a vast leap of imagination to agree that EH's business will have to be trimmed in other areas. Another round of redundancies, anyone?

Another long-term observer said it was impossible not to feel sorry for EH in its current situation. 'The fact is that EH is very concerned about the Treasury's forthcoming CSR, ' he said.

'They've had a hard time recently, and they have to face the fact that they don't have as much cash as they'd want.

'It can hardly be surprising that people in EH are getting pissed off with the way this is all being handled'.

The irony of this situation, for the very many architects who have regular dealings with EH staffers, is that just as the watchdog has finally evolved into an organisation that it is possible for the profession to have civil relations with, the government appears to be losing yet more interest in it.

What a shame.

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