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Heritage at risk: protecting Britain's cultural treasures

Heritage at risk: protecting Britain's cultural treasures

The Iron Bridge following completion of conservation Feb 2019 | English Heritage

6 min read

Our historic buildings, museums and galleries are some of our country’s greatest assets. It is vital we sustain them

Lord Cormack:

The United Kingdom’s museums and galleries, both national and provincial; our castles and historic houses; our churches great and small and our magnificent cathedrals, individually and collectively, help to give our country its identity. Their beauty and their treasures resonate throughout the world and, when we again welcome tourists to our shores, they will not be coming for the weather, nor, to bask on our beautiful beaches. They will be seeking intellectual stimulation and refreshment in our theatres and concert halls, in our museums and galleries, and in our historic buildings.

It is all too likely that our concert halls and theatres will remain dark for months to come. Barring some resurgence of the pandemic, we ought to be able to enjoy our other cultural and historical assets from July onwards, albeit with a monitored degree of access.

But will we be able to do so in the years ahead? A very large question mark hangs over the future of these national assets. Almost half a century ago I wrote a book, Heritage in Danger, which sought to draw attention to the many problems that would have to be overcome if our museums and galleries and our historic houses and churches and cathedrals were to thrive through the 21st century. Then I was writing in the face of threatened taxes and other fiscal challenges. Thanks to the more enlightened attitude of governments of different persuasions in the last forty-five years many of those difficulties about which I wrote have been recognised. And, since the creation of the National Lottery a quarter of a century ago, vast sums have been given to help maintain historic buildings, and acquire works of art etc.

But when I wrote all those years ago I never envisaged the sort of calamity we now face. Hilary McGrady, the director general of the National Trust has said it faces a shortfall in income of £200m this year. The National Trust is facing grave difficulties. A considerable number of its five million members are failing to renew their subscriptions and its financial reserves are under threat. The owner of many a private historic house open to the public depends on the hosting of functions, especially weddings during the summer months. Everything planned for this summer has had to be cancelled. And some of those houses do not easily lend themselves to admitting visitors and sustaining social distancing – that menacing phrase that has entered our vocabulary. As for museums and galleries, I fear that many of the smaller ones, important as they are to local communities, will not survive.

The Church of England alone has over 12,000 Grade I and Grade II* listed parish churches, largely dependent upon the fundraising abilities of often dwindling congregations. After weeks of closure new problems will have emerged. I heard a bishop recently saying that many of the churches in his diocese would close. As I write this I am looking at one of the greatest buildings in the world. Lincoln Cathedral costs £50,000 a week to maintain even when it is closed. And that sum does not account for a single pound spent on restoration or repair.

The Government has, rightly, been concentrating its efforts and financial resources on the health service and on doing what it can to ensure the survival of the economy. But our heritage is in danger as never before. It is vital to sustain the soul of our country which is embodied in our countryside, in our historic buildings, both secular and religious, and in our museums and galleries. Parliamentarians need to focus on this. If they do not we could, in a few years’ time, be living in a very different country, shorn of many of its greatest and most civilising assets. Do we really want to throw away our history? 

Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer, president of the All-Party Parliamentary Arts and Heritage group and life president of The House


Sir Tim Laurence:

Even for a country with as eventful and dramatic history as ours, these are unprecedented and incredibly difficult times for everyone; and that includes the heritage sector. It is invidious to compare the challenges faced by this sector with those of the National Health Service and care homes, yet the past three months have given a huge financial punch in the solar plexus for the organisations – large and small – that look after the historic fabric of this country. Most rely on a steady stream of visitors for the bulk of their income, and this has dried up overnight.

On 18 March 2020, the castles, abbeys, monuments and historic houses within English Heritage’s care closed to the public. The resulting loss of income from visitor admissions, memberships, catering and retail is likely to be in excess of £50m. For a fledgling conservation charity such as ours the reserves built up during our first very successful five years are being rapidly depleted.

From Cornwall to Northumberland, our historic sites are found right across the country, in the centre of towns and in the heart of the countryside. These landmarks have survived centuries of warfare, man-made destruction and natural deterioration. They are vital links to the lives that came before our own, and an endless source of inspiration for young and old alike. We know (from our members and locals) that the sight of these landmarks has given people strength over these past few worrying and disorientating months. 

Over 300 of English Heritage’s sites are free to enter but they are not free to maintain. Without expert conservation, the deterioration will accelerate. We risk losing their stories and impoverishing our landscapes and lives. The recent loss of income puts all our sites at risk. We had hoped to stand on our own feet financially by 2023, and were well on the way to doing so. However, despite doing everything we can to cut our costs during lockdown, we will now need additional government support to see us through this crisis. We very much hope members of both Houses of Parliament will support this.

At English Heritage, we are getting ready to re-open some of our staffed properties and give our one million members and other visitors a warm and safe welcome back. The celebrated stones at Stonehenge, laid over 4,000 years ago; the Roman lighthouse, preserved within the fortress at Dover; the peaceful elegance of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire; Tintagel Castle, home of the Kings of Cornwall, with its brand new bridge; and the old bridge at Ironbridge Gorge, recently restored and standing firm against the winter floods - there’s something very reassuring about the way in which these landmarks seem to embody the spirit of endurance.

As we gradually emerge from this crisis, we will need inspiring and restful places to come back to – places that excite the mind and stir the soul. Your advocacy and support will help us conserve those places for your communities and constituents to enjoy. 

Sir Tim Laurence is chair of English Heritage
 

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