Heritage chief warns against further cuts

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The Independent Online
Sir Jocelyn Stevens, the chairman of English Heritage, yesterday kept the Government guessing over whether he will stay on as the charismatic keeper of the nation's treasures or quit in protest at spending cuts.

With the Budget less than a week away, Sir Jocelyn made no response to a very public invitation by Virginia Bottomley, Secretary of State for Heritage, to serve for a further three years.

English Heritage was peering into "a potential abyss", he said at the launch of the quango's annual report and accounts. This year EH got a Government grant of pounds 108m, but it has been instructed to plan for a pounds 45m reduction in real terms over the next four years.

"We are very near the point where further cuts would put us in an impossible situation," the chairman said. One set of casualties could be England's cathedrals which last year received pounds 4.3m for urgent repair and conservation work.

Sir Jocelyn's worry is that with heritage projects increasingly funded from the lottery, ministers are forgetting EH's on- going commitments, including its work with local authorities, churches, stately home owners and its advisory role.

He even speculated on the "nightmare" of EH going bankrupt. Some 85 per cent of its funding is already committed at the start of each year. If cuts were severe, EH might not be able to honour its promise of money when, for an example, a home owner had completed work on a new roof. "We would be defaulting on our payments. It's horrible to contemplate. The Commissioners and I could not sit there and accept that because the credibility of the organisation would be at stake."

After a lavish breakfast in the redeveloped Oxo Tower overlooking the Thames, Mrs Bottomley asked Sir Jocelyn, aged 64, to stay on in the pounds 44,000 a year post when his five-year term ends in March. The invitation was made "on behalf of the Government and the Prime Minister", she said.

But the former managing director of Express newspapers made no response. "It was a slight surprise. I have never been propositioned in public like that before," he said afterwards. He would like to stay on see his vision of a Stonehenge Millennium Park become reality but he sees "no point" if English Heritage cannot do its job.