Leading Article: Yesterday and tomorrow

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IT IS sadly consonant with the tone set by this government that an important change of policy relating to the care of the nation's archaeological heritage should be thrust on the public without consultation or debate. All that remains to be discussed, it seems, is which sites and properties are to be turned over to local authorities, trusts or charities, not whether the whole policy is on the right lines.

On a subject of such sensitivity, Jocelyn Stevens, the chairman of English Heritage, would have done better to start more diffidently with an analytical consultation document setting out the problems and a variety of proposed solutions, rather than drawing up a plan in conditions of secrecy that were bound to arouse the worst suspicions before presenting it as a finished product with only the details to be filled in. The righteous passions aroused by this procedure, particularly among experts who should have been consulted, is understandable.

That there is a problem is not in doubt. English Heritage is overburdened and under- funded. The National Audit Office reported in July that there had been weakness in the selection, appraisal and targeting of grants, the control of costs and other aspects of its work and that it faced a 'major backlog of repair and conservation'. As part of his response, Mr Stevens now wants to transfer about 200 out of 350 properties to local management, concentrating resources on those judged to be important to the national heritage. He also proposes to shed a large number of staff. Less controversially, he wishes to privatise the directly employed labour force responsible for repairs and maintenance.

Not all his ideas are bad. There are untapped reserves of local loyalty around certain sites that could make for better care, and there are sites inherited from conservation efforts of the last century that may not be all that important. At the other extreme, there are a few popular monuments that are commercially viable, or nearly so. There is nothing wrong with carefully sorting out priorities and trying to reduce costs and mobilise local support. Provided a vigorous inspectorate is retained to ensure that standards are maintained, not all sites need direct management.

But the manner in which the new plans have been drawn up and presented does not inspire confidence. Ancient monuments and archaeological sites are precious and delicate components of the national memory to be treasured with care. When properly preserved and presented, they can give much pleasure and be of great educational value. They also attract tourists, including a substantial proportion of the 16 million or so foreign visitors who came to Britain last year. If foreign earnings are put into the equation, our archaeological heritage is a much smaller burden on the public purse than it may otherwise seem.

Mr Stevens's plans must now be submitted to the critical scrutiny that was denied them in their formative stages. The essential criterion by which they must be judged is whether they serve the national interest by ensuring that all significant sites are maintained to high standards and are presented with sufficiently illuminating educational information. Centuries of history should not be jeopardised by the economic constraints of one brief era.