Public Services Management: Our local national heritage - Stephen Pritchard examines a strategy that would give councils more responsibility for the management of historic monuments

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The Independent Online
WHEN English Heritage announced last autumn that it was seeking to transfer some of the sites under its management to local authorities, the response from several quarters was that this was another example of 'selling off the family silver'.

Such a reaction is easy enough to understand. English Heritage is responsible for the upkeep of some of our most sensitive monuments, among them Hadrian's Wall and Stonehenge. But in practice the conservation body's review, a product of its aim to concentrate resources on the areas in most need, is complex.

English Heritage does not actually own the monuments in its care. Freeholds may lie with public or private bodies, including local authorities and public corporations such as British Coal. The unifying factor is that the sites are under the guardianship of the Secretary of State for National Heritage on behalf of the nation. In England, English Heritage is then responsible for their upkeep.

Local management of monuments is not a new idea for English Heritage. Administration, ground maintenance and visitor services are already run on a contract basis by local authorities and charitable trusts at a small number of sites across England, including Conisbrough Castle near Doncaster and Birdoswald, on Hadrian's Wall. The new strategy will place this involvement on a more consistent footing, which should offer greater security to the sub- contractors involved. English Heritage also feels that in other sites, where the focus is on local visitors rather than national tourism, properties could gain from being managed at a local level.

Dr Christopher Young, northern regional director of English Heritage, explains: 'At Conisbrough Castle we've had a management agreement for five years with the Ivanhoe Trust. They see tourism as a way of creating employment in the Dearne Valley. They came to English Heritage because they had access to resources that English Heritage did not; Doncaster Borough Council provided funding for a new visitors' centre. Such a partnership with a charity and a local authority provides funds that are not otherwise available.'

So far there have been what English Heritage calls 'active expressions of interest' in nine sites within their northern region, and some 48 in England as a whole. At Birdoswald, rationalisation is the driving force behind discussions on management. Birdoswald differs from other sites suggested for local management because it is already well established as an important national tourist attraction.

The ownership of the site is complicated, with all land owned by Cumbria County Council but with Hadrian's Wall under the management of English Heritage. Cumbria County Council already undertakes routine work on the site and operates a visitors' centre.

John Burnet, the council's chief executive, sees advantages to streamlining the way work is carried out at the site. 'With this complex ownership it just doesn't make sense for two organisations to have different people doing different work on the site. Over the last five years we have developed a very good working relationship with English Heritage and their specialists, and we have looked at how best we can develop Birdoswald as a tourist attraction while preserving its integrity as a monument. When English Heritage approached us and stated their interest in passing on responsibility for management, we saw it as a rationalisation of what exists on the ground already.'

However, it was the view that communities can gain from local management of monuments, rather than rationalisation, that prompted Sunderland City Council to include development of Hylton Castle in its City Challenge bid. The property, reported to be the most often vandalised on English Heritage's list, sits almost at the physical centre of the City Challenge area. Possible options for the site include an interpretive centre dealing with local history, or using land adjacent to the castle for leisure. The idea is to encourage local people to feel the castle is a resource for them.

'Once people are actively involved with a site they start to feel a sense of possession and look at it far more positively,' says Martin Orrick, chief executive of Community North, the company formed to carry out the City Challenge programme. 'In the past it has been separate from the community and has suffered from that. The initial bid recognised that if there were a suitable opportunity to do something about Hylton Castle then we should explore ways of taking advantage of it.'

But handing over management to local people is not without problems. Like English Heritage, local authorities are short of funds. Mr Orrick is conscious that City Challenge funding is an opportunity to bridge the gap - temporarily. 'It is a chance to address issues that the local authority would find it hard to deal with under normal circumstances. The difficulty is that we're only here for five years and the question of what will happen to the site after then is quite a thorny one. The activity, whatever it may be, must become selfsufficient by the time we disappear,' he cautions.

His concerns are mirrored in Barnsley, where the town's City Challenge programme includes development of Monk Bretton Priory. Like Hylton Castle, the priory is not an obvious tourist spot, as it is located in a mixed urban area. Most of its visitors at the moment are local school parties, and Barnsley hopes to build on the site's educational potential.

Graham Noble, acting assistant director of cultural services, is acutely aware of the need to use City Challenge funding for capital projects, which will go on to support themselves in the future. 'The money is all about setting up Monk Bretton Priory on a feasible, sustainable basis. It has got to pay its own way - the bottom line has got to be zero,' he stresses. Without that money, Mr Noble would have been less confident about the priory's future.

'Our real concern is what would have happened had it not been for the blessing of City Challenge,' he adds. 'We put together a very strong bid, which includes Monk Bretton Priory, and that will to some extent cushion the blow of English Heritage's strategy. Had it not been for City Challenge, we would have faced a real dilemma.'

At English Heritage, the limitations of City Challenge funding have been noted. As Dr Young points out: 'We can only enter into a management agreement with a partner who is willing to undertake a commitment. In practice where we are likely to find a local partner, it is because they are willing to undertake site development. It may be small, but it will be doing something on a local level, something that we can't do because we're not there.'

But for local government officers, the financial implications of the new strategy remain a source of concern. As Graham Noble says: 'English Heritage can't have their cake and eat it too. If it is costing them money to run the sites now, what makes them think that it's going to cost us less, or nothing? They do need to put their money on the table.'

(Photograph omitted)