Treasury studies heritage franchise

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PLANS TO franchise some of Britain's most famous heritage sites to the private sector are being studied by the Treasury.

Historic Scotland, whose top sites include Edinburgh, Stirling and Urquhart castles, has been asked, along with Cadw, the agency for Welsh historic monuments, to find further ways of involving the private sector in running their monuments. The hope is that the leasing of sites to private proprietors would raise more in charges and income than the public agencies manage.

The move was initiated by Michael Portillo when Chief Secretary to the Treasury, according to the Economist this week. But neither Mr Portillo nor his successor as Chief Secretary, Jonathan Aitken, appears to have put the idea to English Heritage, which runs Stonehenge, by far the best-known of the ancient sites and the one whose privatisation in any form would cause the most controversy.

The Department of National Heritage, which acts as English Heritage's sponsor, said the idea was a legitimate one for the Treasury to consider. But it had not been asked to develop it, nor had it passed on any such request to English Heritage.

A spokesman said that English Heritage was already taking steps to improve the commercial viability and management of its sites and the department was pleased with its progress.

Historic Scotland said it had been asked to examine franchising and that it maintained 'an open mind' over greater private involvement in its properites. But a spokeswoman pointed out that Ian Lang, Secretary of State for Scotland, had said recently that there were no plans to privatise Edinburgh Castle - far and away the agency's most popular site, which brought in more than pounds 4m of its pounds 6.7m income last year. 'We would consider that full management of a site by an external body would constitute privatisation,' the agency added.

Cadw also confirmed that it has been asked by John Redwood, Secretary of State for Wales, to find new ways of involving the private sector.

Mo Mowlam, Labour's national heritage spokeswoman, said: 'The Government has already sold off the family silver - now it seems that Michael Portillo wants to put historic Britain into a car-boot sale.' English Heritage, she said, already had a range of sensible partnerships with private companies and, as a grant-giving body, was supposed to make less than it received in income.