Heritage row risks debacle at Stonehenge

Quango in crisis: Clash of personalities may undermine the crowning project of dynamic chairman with a taste for grandeur
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The Independent Online
JONATHAN GLANCEY

English Heritage was yesterday thrown into crisis by the sudden resignation of its chief executive, at a time when the organisation's most ambitious project is at a crucial stage.

The departure of high-flyer Chris Green follows a clash with chairman Sir Jocelyn Stevens over alleged administrative irregularities.

The straight-backed and utterly self-confident Sir Jocelyn is currently trying to raise a total of pounds 65m, half of it through private funding, to build the "Stonehenge Experience" visitors' centre, to open in 2000; it is expected to attract up to 1.8m visitors a year, compared to fewer than a million at present.

The smartening up of Stonehenge is meant to be the crowning point of Sir Jocelyn's five dynamic years with English Heritage (EH). The last thing he needs, whilst trying to raise private funds, is any whiff of scandal.

The Stonehenge project is a metaphor for the changes Stevens has rung in at EH, which previously saw its role as primarily defensive, a cautious guardian to the 400 historic sites and properties in its care.Charged with recommending buildings of historic and architectural interest for listing, it tended to speak out against new developments that threatened to change the way the public views existing listed buildings.

After Stevens, EH has become a proactive organisation, seeking to list buildings dating from after 1945 and making plans that will fundamentally change our relationship with such ancient structures as Stonehenge and Hadrian's Wall.

"English Heritage has undergone a sea change with Stevens at the helm", says Paul Finch, editor of the Architect's Journal. "It has refused to attack plans for a giant ferris wheel on London's South Bank or Sir Richard Rogers' scheme to roof over the South Bank Centre - or even Daniel Libeskind's controversial extension proposed for the V & A. Its reactions to dramatic modern schemes like these used to be ... in with the old, out with the new."

Stevens' own passion for the grand statement has also encouraged him to reveal entertaining ideas for restoring the Albert Memorial. At a recent dinner hosted by the Architects' Journal, Stevens confided that the statue of Prince Albert at the heart of the florid Gothic Revival memorial will be regilded. It was, apparently, until the First World War - when German spotter plane pilots used the golden Prince Consort as an aiming point for bombing raids. Like Oscar Wilde's "Happy Prince", Albert was stripped of his gold leaf. By the time Stevens has finished with him, millennial Albert will preside over a glittering monument complete with a visitors' centre in the forgotten vaults on which the memorial stands.

"Jocelyn makes a noise, enjoys publicity and parties," says a colleague at English Heritage. "He has put the organisation on the map ... What he has not been able to do is to prevent the government from cutting EH funding and replacing these with money spent by the Heritage Lottery Fund."

Because many listed buildings in need of repair are owned by hard- pressed families, EH has a duty to them; now that its budget is being cut by about pounds 10m a year it is unable to give effective help to minor buildings. Meanwhile the Heritage Lottery Fund, chaired by Lord Rothschild and commandinglarger sums of money than EH, is forbidden to fund these privately owned properties.

Stevens, who is unlikely to want to stay at English Heritage when his term runs out in 18 months' time, has had a hit-and-miss relationship with the government. He is alleged to have said that one of the great heritage myths is that the Department of National Heritage has no strategy - something EH itself cannot be accused of.

Guardian of history

English Heritage is the Government's official adviser on historic buildings and sites and manages more than 400 properties.

It receives an annual grant of pounds 103m. In 1996, half of this will be spent on grants for restoring private buildings. The grant has been cut by pounds 44.7m in the past four years.

Its five most popular sites with visitors are:

1. Stonehenge, Wiltshire

2. Dover Castle, Kent

3. Osborne House, Isle of Wight

4. Tintagel Castle, Cornwall

5. Battle Abbey, Sussex

Of the 700,000 visitors to Stonehenge each year, the average visitor spends 20 minutes at the monument. Stonehenge is 5,000 years old.

The chairman Jocelyn Stevens has caused controversy with plans to encourage the commercialisation of Stonehenge. He even suggested a McDonald's fast food outlet for the visitor centre.

English Heritage has ambitious plans for the Tower of London, including the filling-in of the moat and diverting an adjacent five-lane road into a tunnel.

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