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English Heritage's (EH's) pledge last week to engage with architects and developers in constructive conservation has come as something of a culture shock. Simon Thurley, EH's chief executive, is suddenly promising increased respect, understanding and consent where once there was discord.

It's hard to believe this is the same quango that recently bared its teeth at KPF over Heron Tower in Bishopsgate in the City of London.

The pledge is part and parcel of what Thurley has described as EH's 'cunning plan' - a five-year modernisation programme aimed at shedding the body's reactionary image.

'Over the coming years we will rely much more on partnership and strategic engagement, focus on speed and flexibility, guarantee clarity and consistency of advice and develop better commercial awareness and customer service, ' Thurley says.

The upbeat rhetoric may sound promising, but, behind the scenes, Thurley is treading a fine line between preserving Britain's crumbling heritage and keeping the government paymaster sweet.

It's no secret that New Labour and EH are about as close as Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac. EH's raison d'être does not sit comfortably with a government thought to favour development over conservation.

And it is this that is the key.

Could it be that Thurley's attempt to hold out a friendly hand to the property industry is less a heartfelt volte-face and more a desperate effort to slap on a new, more friendly face to please the government?

It would be timely, as the relationship reached a new low in December when Tessa Jowell, secretary of state for culture, media and sport, announced a 4.6 per cent cut in EH's budget.

The quango says that, in reality, the figure is nearer 7 per cent.

And despite much-publicised one-off cash injections by the DCMS, such as £12 million to rescue projects like Apethorpe Hall, EH's income has been slashed by a tenth since 2000.

EH's answer to its fi nancial struggles has been to cut staff numbers by 11 per cent. But this action has met with fierce opposition from members.

The crisis came to a head last month when 500 employees went on a summer solstice strike (AJPlus 21.06.05) And the government cuts are not EH's only financial woes. Cash flow from the Heritage Lottery Fund looks increasing wobbly. The fund has injected £3 billion over 10 years into EH's coffers, but there is no guarantee that the funds will continue after the current Lottery contract ends in 2009.

So, while Thurley's speech can be greeted as an olive branch to the construction industry, it is being read more as a politically correct tactic designed to resuscitate its financial lifeline. This is certainly the opinion of Matthew Saunders, secretary of the Ancient Monuments Society.

'Any quango has to bear in mind the politics of its context, ' he says. 'There is an element of EH trying to press politically correct buttons. But it would be stupid for it not to echo the policies of government.

'To some extent it makes things easier for developers.

However, EH's change in strategy reflects a change of attitude by developers in favour of conservation, ' Saunders adds.

Ironically, while EH's coffers have shrunk, its remit has expanded. Last week Thurley announced an extension to the Buildings at Risk Register to cover all aspects of the historic environment. The government also transferred listing powers from the DCMS to EH in April.

While Thurley has risen to the challenge, EH is presented with a tricky situation. On the one hand it is striving to justify its existence by meeting the government's increasingly commercial agenda. Perhaps it hopes that, by leaping through New Labour's hoops, it will, one day, claw back sufficient funding. But, in pandering to government whims, it is in danger of overstretching its already weakened resources.

In this situation, it is difficult to imagine how EH could engage efficiently with the construction industry, says Anthea Case, head of Heritage Link and heritage commissioner for CABE.

'Reducing funding has put EH in a difficult position, ' she says. 'It's hindered its ability to take on the government's agenda - that is, to talk more intelligently about heritage.

There is a real concern over whether it is sufficiently wellfunded to do all the things the government expects.' EH's increasingly grim predicament has an unsettling similarity to New Labour's commercial agenda for the museum sector. It may just be a coincidence, but the government previously parachuted Thurley into the Museum of London to drive forward a commercial ethos.

For architectural historian David Hamilton Eddy, Thurley's intentions smack of 'theme park' mentality.

'It's about doing what is going to attract money, ' Eddy says. 'Knowledge and expertise stand for nothing in comparison to this commercial approach. Thurley has come from the museum sector, where there is a commercial agenda.

Now the same thing is happening to EH.' Thurley's grand vision has clearly been greeted with more than a pinch of salt by the conservation lobby. EH's pledge to engage with the construction industry is laudable. But is it emerging as crushing mediocrity rather than a genuine leap forward?

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