Crumbling heritage loses out to the arts

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S HERITAGE has fallen victim to the Government's obsession with the trendy creative industries, MPs have been warned by the country's leading historical organisations.

Heritage bodies are bitterly disappointed that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is failing to support the nation's important buildings while talking up the significance of film, music and new media.

They also believe the Government is giving "disproportionate" backing to museums, galleries and the arts, which have been the main beneficiaries of a pounds 290m increase in the department's budget.

Organisations invited to a hearing by the culture select committee last week united in making clear their anger at what they perceive as government neglect.

Simon Jervis, the National Trust's director of historic buildings, told the hearing that there was a "great emphasis on the creative cultural industries" at the expense of heritage.

The "built heritage" could contribute to the "rich mix" of British cultural life, Mr Jervis said, yet the conserving of our heritage barely received a mention by the Government.

The lack of profile was matched by a similar lack of funds, the MPs heard. Matthew Saunders, secretary of the Ancient Monuments Society, criticised the amount of grant aid available for historic buildings, calling it "quite pathetic".

"The richness of what this country has got is beyond the comprehension of one person. Buildings are in disrepair because of the lack of money, and some are being demolished," he said. "None of us would begrudge the extra money that went to the arts and museums. But there seems to be a rather remarkable and disproportionate emphasis on one part of the department's remit, to the exclusion of others."

English Heritage, the government body responsible for heritage, has a total budget of pounds 112.9m and makes pounds 40m available for grants.

But a recent English Heritage survey showed that pounds 400m was needed to save nearly 30,000 grade I and grade II* listed buildings in serious disrepair.

Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the chairman of English Heritage, said earlier this month: "The heritage is in peril. We are squandering a major national economic asset which could be deployed in the regeneration of our towns, villages and cities."

Lottery money, which is providing an extra pounds 300m for the heritage, has helped to ease the funding situation. But Mr Saunders told the Independent on Sunday yesterday: "The maintenance of some of the greatest buildings in this country should not be dependent upon a lottery (in all senses)."

In previously unpublished evidence submitted to the select committee, a joint committee of heritage bodies including the Victorian Society and the Civic Trust denounced the department for failing to include the conservation of the historic environment in its departmental objectives.

The joint body said it was "astonishing and untenable" for the department to make no mention of historic buildings and monuments in its spending review. Historic buildings faced "complete obliteration" if they were not maintained, yet "the worst fate for a play or an opera is that it remains unperformed", the submission claimed.

It suggested that a sixth objective be added to the Government's stated aims: "Conserve the nation's historic environment for its own sake and in the interests of sustainability and regeneration."

Evidence from the National Trust was more measured but expressed the same fears. "The trust is concerned that the built heritage is receiving less attention from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The spending review focused on the creative arts; however, we feel it did not give enough emphasis to the built heritage."

The heritage organisations are particularly concerned at the perceived lack of interest from the department because they believe they have made significant efforts to comply with its aims of "excellence, education, access and employment opportunities".

They are also trying to forge links with the Department of the Environment and prove that conserving heritage can contribute to regeneration and the everyday quality of life.

English Heritage, in its evidence to the MPs, said that there was an "urgent need" for a strong statement on the Government's priorities for the built heritage: "This should be acknowledged as a top priority by the department."

The select committee is now taking evidence on the department's quangos, including bodies such as English Heritage.

The Government's main action concerning heritage was the merger of English Heritage with the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England, which was broadly welcomed.

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