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Mrs Woolf saw it coming - now 'forcible preservation' is here

It may be true that the world has heard enough about Virginia Woolf 's centenary by now, but there are probably still a few products of her creative vision that have been overlooked. Take the conservation of historic buildings and ancient monuments for example. As I learned from Radio 4 readings from her notebooks last week, the author of The Waves viewed this process with the scepticism it richly deserves, so much so that, following a sightseeing visit to the Chelsea home of the 19thcentury historian and prophet Thomas Carlyle she confided to her notebook that the 18th-century dwelling was already showing signs of 'forcible preservation'.

Now 'forcible preservation' is the sort of expressive epithet that not even a supercomputer thesaurus will come up with these days, but it is a perfect descriptor of the deep waters that the new-style 'non-confrontational' English Heritage is trying to get itself into.

It all came about because government bean counters discovered that the Heritage business was not all spot-listing priceless ruins to save them from men with bulldozers, but actually involved spending a lot of money to prop up basket-case buildings and make them accessible to the blue rinse exit-through-giftshop crowd. Worse, latecomer English Heritage's attempts to order people about upset voluntary and involuntary historic building owners and put it into competition with half a dozen big heritage outfits trying to do the same thing. This made for a clumsy array of organisations all slowing each other down and interacting with administrative entities as diverse as government departments, local authorities and private owners. So much so that the process of listing practically ceased.

By the time New Labour seized the reins of power in 1997, this was clearly a situation ripe for 'modernisation' - a terminology as opaque as 'forcible preservation' is lucid. In practice 'modernisation' means consolidation, a confusing public/private interface, and job losses, otherwise known as 'new working practices'. When applied to the heritage industry, a long period of modernising finally brought forth a consultation paper proposing that English Heritage should become in effect the umbrella quango for the whole heritage industry.

It would have sole responsibility for maintaining and increasing the great book of lists (incorporating all the other lists hitherto kept by other agencies and charities), and powers ranging from doing pre-planning application deals with developers, to extending its powers over the setting of historic buildings as well as their fabric. Thus it would become a permanent player in the development control business as surrogate owner of all historic buildings and part owner of their surroundings as far as future development is concerned.

What is this if not 'forcible preservation'?

It is difficult to know where to begin objecting to this pernicious project. The patronising concession whereby the legal owners of buildings under consideration for listing are to be advised of this fact, perhaps - at present they receive notification when the listing has been made - is one of the least offensive. Among the most expensive will be the cost of appealing to a secretary of state against a listing decision if and when English Heritage is authorised to become the sole listing agency for historic buildings.

Looking further ahead, this probable new English Heritage super-agency must sooner or later find itself at cross-purposes with other value systems, notably in the coming clash over energy efficiency where a big battle looms over the higher energy efficiency of buildings required in future versus the reinforcement of their anachronistic art historical pretensions by the heritage industry.

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