English Heritage set to privatise 200 major sites

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The Independent Online
MOST OF England's major, accessible archaeological sites are to be removed from government control, according to a plan drawn up by English Heritage.

What amounts to a privatisation programme - put together by the government agency without consultation with its own advisory committees - is more far-reaching than leaks last week suggested.

According to the plan, drawn up in almost total secrecy, English Heritage intends to 'denationalise' 200 of the organisation's 350 major sites.

These include the white horse at Uffington, Oxfordshire; Europe's largest Stone Age earthwork, Silbury Hill, Wiltshire; the Roman city walls at St Albans, Hertfordshire; prehistoric stone circles at Arbor Low, Derbyshire, Little Rollright, Oxfordshire, and Stanton Drew, Avon; and important forts along Hadrian's Wall.

It is believed that English Heritage proposes to hand these and other sites over to private charities, trusts, local councils and private commercial companies.

Other monuments it proposes to hive off include two Roman amphitheatres - at Cirencester, Gloucestershire, and Chester; a 6,000-year-old tomb at Wayland's Smithy, Oxfordshire; the Roman fortress at Reculver, Kent; and Britain's largest hill fort, Stanwick Camp in Yorkshire.

Several monuments - including those listed - are believed to have been categorised as either of low archaeological quality or commercial importance, or both. Sites of international importance are not being given top categorisation, often because most of their remains still lie below ground.

The plan was completed last week. It reverses more than 100 years of government policy in which the great majority of major sites have been managed by government agencies. Up until the early Eighties they were the responsibility of the ancient monuments directorate of the Ministry of Works and its successors, and more recenty of English Heritage, which comes under the Department of National Heritage.

It is understood that English Heritage's senior archaeologists and architectural historians were not consulted. Neither were its ancient monuments advisory committee or its historic buildings advisory committee.

The outline of the programme will be made public at a press conference at English Heritage in London today. English Heritage yesterday refused to confirm any details: the paper being unveiled today by its new chairman, Jocelyn Stevens, was a 'secret document', a spokeswoman said. 'Very few people know its details.' Officials describe the plan as 'Jocelyn Stevens's strategy'.

Mr Stevens was managing director of the Daily Express from 1972-74, managing director of Beaverbrook Newspapers 1974- 77, managing director Express Newspapers 1977-81, and Rector of the Royal College of Arts 1984- 92. He was appointed chairman of English Heritage last year by the then Secretary of State for the Environment, Michael Heseltine, despite his lack of experience in heritage matters. He took up the post last April.

There will be difficulties in continuing to make all sites available free of charge to the agency's 280,000 members, and to implement the programme may require alterations to existing legislation.

Richard Morris, director of the Council for British Archaeology, which represents 360 organisations and societies, called the plan 'outrageous'. He said yesterday: 'The proposals as a whole are not acceptable and the strategy behind them is not in the interests of England's heritage. We will be taking the matter up with the Government immediately.'

(Photograph omitted)

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