Heritage chief condemned in Commons: Plans drawn up in secrecy to shed 200 historic sites and 480 jobs brought a sharp response yesterday. John Arlidge and Stephen Goodwin report

THE CHAIRMAN of English Heritage, Jocelyn Stevens, was condemned in the Commons yesterday as 'an unsuitable ideological ignoramus' as Labour reacted sharply to the government agency's plan to shed 200 sites and 480 jobs.

Amid the confusion caused by English Heritage's refusal to name any of the sites on its hit-list for disposal, Robin Corbett, Labour's heritage spokesman who was raising the issue on an emergency Commons question, criticised the 'total secrecy' in which the plans had been drawn up.

Some historic sites were 'doomed to neglect . . . They are visited by increasing numbers of people from home and abroad who have a better love of our history than the unsuitable ideological ignoramus who presently chairs English Heritage.'

Peter Brooke, Secretary of State for National Heritage, who approved the proposals last week, took 'particular exception' to the attack on Mr Stevens and praised his work as rector of the Royal College of Arts. Management of sites would not be transferred to local authorities, voluntary bodies or trusts unless English Heritage was satisfied they could be looked after effectively. He told MPs: 'We are not envisaging commercial exploitation or the sale of sites.'

Speaking at the agency's London headquarters yesterday, Mr Stevens, who took over as chairman in April, said shedding responsibility for 'Category C' sites and cutting 480 jobs would allow English Heritage to target its resources more effectively.

He refused to name the sites earmarked for disposal saying it was an 'internal' matter. But these are known to include the white horse at Uffington, Oxfordshire; Europe's largest Stone Age earthwork, Silbury Hill, Wiltshire; and important forts along Hadrian's Wall.

Mr Stevens said he was 'passionate' about heritage but the 'hard facts of recession and the restriction of government funding in the next years' meant that changes 'however unpleasant' were necessary. 'We are stepping back from tasks that we believe would be better done by others so that we can then concentrate where the need is greatest.' Local managers could 'focus on one or two sites more wholeheartedly than a central body can'.

Negotiations with local authorities and trusts might not succeed in all cases. 'We might just dispose of 150.' But, he added, there was 'absolutely no question' of abandoning properties for which new managers could not be found.

There were no plans to dispose of the 160 Category A and B sites - those of outstanding national importance - but he did not rule our further disposals 'if they made sense'.

The proposals, drawn up by senior staff after six months of 'agonising', were approved last week by the Commission, the organisation's ruling committee. Mr Stevens denied the Commission had 'jumped the gun' by approving the plans before referring them to English Heritage's own Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings and Areas advisory committees. The two bodies will consider the proposals next month and refer them back to the Commission for a final decision in the new year. Mr Stevens denied suggestions from John Gorst, Conservative MP for Hendon North, that English Heritage would let sites 'be ignored, forgotten and allowed perhaps to crumble'.

He said: 'If we step back from a property which then falls into disrepair that will reflect on us. We will see that doesn't happen.'

Free entry for English Heritage's 300,000 members would be negotiated if the new managers decided to charge entrance fees. The changes would not affect ownership of the sites, most of which belong to the government or local freeholders under complex 'guardianship' arrangements. Over a quarter of staff will be lost over the next three years.

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