Letter: English Heritage and questions of monumental responsibility

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The Independent Online
Sir: Recent events serve to point up important differences between ownership by the National Trust, which is an independent charity, and by English Heritage, which is a quango. The trust is sometimes criticised for seeking mind-boggling sums before it will agree to take on a property. But this is largely because the trust generally acquires only properties that its Executive Committee, of which I am a member, is prepared to declare 'inalienable' under the terms of the National Trust Acts.

The effect of such a declaration is two-fold. On the one hand, the trust is not allowed to dispose of such a property in the future, however short of money it may find itself, or whatever may be the inclinations and political philosophy of any future chairman or chief executive. On the other hand, the property may not be taken away from the trust against its will by compulsory purchase.

Neither of these prohibitions can be over-ridden without a specific decision of Parliament. The result is that the trust is undertaking to protect the property for ever, and for that reason it must calculate what sorts of expenses are likely to arise in future, and seek to set up an endowment fund that will provide adequate resources to meet these.

This week, it has appeared that English Heritage is not troubled by any such inconvenient principle as 'inalienability', and the properties for which it is responsible are certainly not protected for all time. One hopes that the bodies on to which English Heritage hopes to unload some of its sites will consult the National Trust about what is likely to be involved in caring for them. If they are then unwilling to take on these properties, English Heritage may be forced to think again, and the Government may be persuaded to take steps to ensure that the protection of that part of our heritage which is in its hand is as strong as that offered by the trust.

Yours faithfully,

MALCOLM PETYT

Earley, Berkshire

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