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Government's VAT 'fudge' angers the heritage lobby

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The National Trust has slated the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's most wide-ranging statement on heritage policy issued last week, claiming it skims over the VAT problem for repairs to historic properties, writes Steven Palmer.

The Historic Environment: A Force for our Future laid out a strategy for the government's heritage policy so that the sector, described as 'a sleeping giant in cultural and economic terms', can be awoken. The strategy is a response to the Power of Place report presented in December 2000 by heritage organisations including English Heritage and the National Trust (AJ 21.12.00).

Among the 18 original recommendations in the Power of Place document was a call for the government to cut VAT from 17.5 per cent to five per cent for all building work on historic buildings.

Although it was confirmed that VAT on repairs to listed places of worship will be reduced to the five per cent level, a move that was originally announced in this year's budget, this was not extended to all historic properties.

Tony Burton, director of policy and strategy with the National Trust, said the body was extremely disappointed at the government's lethargic approach to the problem. 'It was the single most significant issue that was flagged up by the voluntary sector as a whole, ' he said.

'Instead of funds being invested in the historic fabric they'll end up in Treasury coffers.Despite the [DCMS's] claims of a government-wide strategy, this shows there isn't that sense of harmony - certainly where the Treasury is concerned, ' said Burton.

However, he added that the rest of the policy did represent 'a good first step' after 'years of neglect'.

The document also included commitments to:

continue public funding for the care of the historic environment;

maintain an effective framework of statutory protection for all elements of the historic environment;

complete management plans for England's 11 World Heritage sites; and linclude the historic environment in the remit of 'green'ministers in every government department.

It also confirmed that CABE will be included in the selection of buildings for postwar listings, as exclusively revealed in the AJ (29.11.01). EH chairman Sir Neil Cossons welcomed CABE's involvement: 'The absence of CABE was a missing link - it has a lot of design expertise that it will bring to the heritage sector.'

The document also called for a Historic Environment Report to be prepared by EH in 2002. It will be the first audit of England's historic assets and their state of repair. It will also cover their cultural, economic and social impact on the community and become the benchmark for future improvements.

EH's role will be expanded in the areas of education and increased liaison with the community and local authorities over heritage issues. Sir Neil said: 'This document marks a change of emphasis [for EH].We are going to move from being a reactionary regulator towards being a proactive partner.'

Culture secretary Tessa Jowell said:

'This document refers to the whole of our urban and rural landscape - it's about how the historic environment can improve the quality of life by creating greater prosperity, more jobs, the regeneration of towns, cities and countryside.'

The full report can be downloaded from www. english-heritage. org. uk lEnglish Heritage has appointed Museum of London director Dr Simon Thurley as its chief executive. Thurley, 39, will take up his new post in March. Previous chief executive Pam Alexander left EH abruptly last July.

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