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Preservation order

As chief executive, Simon Thurley has the task of supervising the overhaul of English Heritage, but can he really change an organisation so set on protecting the old?

Simon Thurley is young for a chief executive - just 40, dapper, and not particularly impressed at the suggestion that he has failed to make much impact at English Heritage since his appointment a year ago. His PA sits in on the interview taking notes, while Thurley himself operates the tape recorder, emphasising the impression that this historian of 16th- and 17th-century royal palaces is aiming to achieve a level of tight control over his organisation.

By all accounts, EH has been through something of an overhaul since his arrival.

There has been a swathe of redundancies and the entire board has been replaced. It all seems to have happened with a minimum of fuss, and Thurley suggests everyone involved has been happy to see the organisation pulled into line. 'Most people wanted to see a much more focussed approach, ' he says, succinctly. So did the government. Immediately prior to Thurley's appointment, it had carried out its Quinquennial Review of EH's role at national, regional and local levels, and produced a report entitled Force for the Future, setting out its demands of the organisation. Thurley had little choice but to address these issues as a matter of urgency:

'The way we run sites and do research the things we're not going to do any more the way budgets are put together.'

It would appear that the organisation has reached something of a turning point in its history, and Thurley, in collaboration with chairman Sir Neil Cossons, is the person who has been chosen to supervise that transformative moment. EH has frequently been the butt of criticism in recent years, viewed as a body that all too often seems intent on obstructing change in response to contemporary conditions, and which has failed to understand adequately the complexity of modern-day, multi-cultural society in its passion for conserving the historic environment. Its increasing influence in advising on new design has been regarded with suspicion and resentment in some quarters. At the same time, its achievements in 'identifying value', as Thurley puts it, have been undeniable, and it has made great strides in raising awareness of the architectural and historical value of the more recent built heritage. But overall, the organisation is still dogged by an image of pedantic academicism and a lack of understanding of the relationship between local communities and the built habitat.

Thurley may not have made a major impact in the public eye during the past year, but it would seem he has been busy behind the scenes, grappling with these problems - as his background as curator of Historic Royal Palaces at 27 and director of the Museum of London at 33 would suggest.

Inevitably, his new role seems to be about prioritising management and communication, rather than old-fashioned academic research and scholarly excellence, though he insists he has 'not come to manage English Heritage, but to lead it'. Perhaps the key element in 'the new way of working' is 'partnership' - the lynchpin of most public policy during the past two decades.

The new-style EH is going to 'spend a lot more on regional operations', working with new regional bodies to increase 'capacity' (ie expertise and experience) as well as with local government, the construction industry and the architectural profession. According to Thurley, this major shift will address the 'very parlous' state of conservation at local level, 'the frontline of caring', caused by a sheer lack of skills and understanding.

This was one of the key findings of the body's State of the Historic Environment report, published last autumn. As the first thorough audit ever carried out, it might be counted as Thurley's first significant achievement at EH. The aim, in his words, was simply 'to work out what the problems are', before jumping into any major decisions about the future direction of the organisation. The document it now has in its possession will form the foundation stone of its policy during the next few years, and has already contributed to the start of a major review in government, which will be issued as a consultation draft on 11 July. Two further key elements of this, which will have an enormous influence on the future of the historic environment if acted upon, are the proposals for the reform of listing legislation and changes to the rate of VAT on repairs and refurbishment.

The 'once-in-a-decade' opportunity to reform VAT regulations has arisen because the EU Sixth VAT Directive is being reviewed in 2003. EH is campaigning for 'a harmonised rate of VAT for all building work'. This would significantly reduce the tax, which, in its current form, represents a major financial disincentive to looking after old buildings.

The proposed reform of listing legislation is an equally exciting proposition, which could produce a much more flexible system ofpreserving and caring for more modern buildings, by replacing 'grades of importance' with 'suites of controls'. In other words, the highly controversial listing of a building like the Brunswick Centre in London, which was heavily criticised for its potential to obstruct improvements to the building fabric, would be replaced by an agreed system of management. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has greeted this proposal with enthusiasm, and it is expected to be the subject of a White Paper early next year.

If Thurley achieves these reforms in the next few years, he will certainly have made his mark. In the meantime, he has been overseeing the production of a plethora of new publications, aiming to put what he says is EH's reputation for poor communication on a better footing. Among these is the new User's Guide, which presents the body's aims and techniques to a public that, Thurley believes firmly, 'values historic places most'.

And it is his expression of this conviction that makes one realise that, ultimately, EH will never abandon its raison d'être - to assess and 'nurture the feeling of place that buildings give to people' from its own, very English, art-historical, perspective.

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