At the end of March, HM Treasury announced its Spending Review 2020. It invited applications that were ‘evidence-based’ and contributed to ‘levelling up’ regional economies. Priority would be given to funding that strengthened the ‘UK’s place in the world’.
There is perhaps no organisation that exemplifies Britain’s regional spirit of place better than English Heritage, whose scattered 400 historic buildings, castles, ruined abbeys and sites – from Stonehenge to Hadrian’s Wall – tell the story of England. To visit such sites is to step into England’s history. Our built heritage is what makes Britain the envy of the world. Which is why English Heritage has ten million visitors a year – including 300,000 school children – over a million members and 3,200 local volunteers.
But what English Heritage does not have, unlike the £1.6bn cash reserves of the National Trust, is a contingency fund to cope with an estimated loss of £70m due to the pandemic. This is why the government must support English Heritage over the coming months to ensure the organisation can ultimately become financially independent.
What not everyone knows is that in 2015 English Heritage was split in two. Historic England is now responsible for listed buildings and ancient monuments while English Heritage looks after our national collection of heritage sites. The idea was to be financially self-sufficient by 2022, relying on admissions, membership and private philanthropy (like the £2.5m gift of the Rausing family to build a bridge at Tintagel Castle). Chaired by Sir Tim Laurence since 2015, English Heritage, which also runs London’s blue plaque scheme, was on track to become self-funded by 2022 with 42 per cent income growth.
But the cancellation of the summer tourism season – worth £106bn to the UK economy – has checked such ambitions. It is only right that our classicist prime minister, who must have tramped around more Romano-British sites than most, should support our nation’s heritage collection in its hour of need. English Heritage contributes to every regional economy in the country, as well as being a magnet for international tourism, and thus fits the criteria set out in the Spending Review.
Without this support, a worst-case scenario would see the government having to take back the nation’s collection of heritage sites into its care with the burden of their significant conservation costs. Supporting English Heritage will secure regional jobs, create apprenticeships in much-needed heritage skills and promote community identity around shared history. Heritage teaches us who we are. Boris knows the meaning of the Latin word tuebor: I will protect.