Watchdog critical of heritage body

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Indy Politics
A SERIOUS backlog in the scheduling, repair and conservation of thousands of ancient monuments and buildings of special architectural or historical interest is revealed today in a report by the National Audit Office, the Whitehall spending watchdog.

There is also uncertainty about the condition of many of the 400 historic properties managed directly by English Heritage, the principal government-financed conservation organisation.

The heritage body, which likewise comes under fire for weak controls on grants to private owners, has abandoned its target of putting all 400 buildings into good repair by 2000 and of scheduling an estimated 60,000 monuments that might need protection.

Only 13,000 ancient monuments are currently scheduled, while English Heritage's research estimates that 2,400 Grade I (5.6 per cent of the total) and Grade II (6.6 per cent) listed buildings are in poor or very bad condition. A further 73,000 buildings and many monuments may also need repair.

In 1991-92 the organisation received pounds 90m from the Department of the Environment, compared to the pounds 29m given to four other heritage bodies. Departmental responsibility now lies with David Mellor's Department of National Heritage.

Blame for lack of information on the condition of properties is put on the Department of the Environment, which decided the exercise would be too costly. But the report by Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, highlights weaknesses in selection, appraisal and targeting of grants by English Heritage.

It says improved procedures are in hand, but criticises the organisation's failure to systematically check that repair grants were repaid if properties were sold within a specified period.

It also spotlights the problems of properly controlling arrangements under which alterations to listed properties may be zero rated for VAT. 'It is difficult to establish how far the benefits of the relief are commensurate with the cost of between pounds 8m and pounds 20m a year,' it says.