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Take VAT! English Heritage rules as the champion of history

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The knives are out for English Heritage.Variously accused of being an enemy of tall buildings, a hindrance to tall buildings and general all-round menace, it is in danger of losing much of its remit to the rather more fashionable newcomer CABE.

Criticisms are accompanied by a universal acknowledgement of the value of English Heritage's historic buildings expertise. Even the recent damning letter from the Corporation of London tempers its attack on English Heritage with a suggestion that greater resources should be allocated to this aspect of its work.

Architectural history - a discipline which attracts more than its fair share of enthusiastic amateurs and cranks - needs to be institutionalised and coordinated if it is to be of any practical use. Local authorities are illequipped to make historic judgements - and, in any case, there is no sense in devolving this type of work to regional level. The academic institutions lack the resources and clout to channel academic research into real-life decisions, and CABE does not presume - or aspire - to be an expert in this field.English Heritage's role in this respect is valued and respected, and it would doubtless find life much easier if it were to concentrate solely on an area in which its supremacy is unthreatened.

But it is easy to see why English Heritage feels the need to retain a more general involvement in matters relating to development.Whether driven by reasons relating to sustainability or sentimentality, all but the most audacious megalomaniacs agree that adaptation and repair of existing buildings should form an important part of architectural evolution. Yet the government charges 17.5 per cent VAT on maintenance and repairs to existing buildings, while new-build projects are VAT free. It is not surprising that English Heritage feels that our architectural heritage is in need of a champion, when economic policy actively mitigates against its preservation.Perhaps it would be more willing to relinquish some of its powers if the government was to respond to the call to set VAT on building work at five per cent across the board.

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