Once upon a time English Heritage used to publish an annual report.
Today, if it still publishes its annual report, it no longer sends me a copy, but instead sends me a propaganda document called Heritage Counts: The State of England’s Historic Environment. The 2005 edition focuses on the Countryside. Rural England, it says, is steeped in History. Almost half of all listed buildings and three quarters of scheduled monuments can be found there. However half of all historic parkland has disappeared in the last 100 years and approximately 8% of nearly all listed farm buildings are in a severe state of disrepair. Looking on the bright side however, the countryside is more ‘accessible’ than ever before (note that buzz word ‘accessible’) and funding from Defra and the HLF has done much to bring new life to the rural areas. (Hurrah, hurrah for Defra and the HLF – Defra is the old Ministry of Agriculture in disguise). However an estimated £163 million is needed to repair rural churches while at 70 private-owned historic houses, £66 million of grant aid is currently outstanding. Only by working in partnership, says Sir Neil Cossons, can we hope to solve these problems. (No, Sir Neil: not partnership. It is up to the government to pay its outstanding debts).
My overall impression of Heritage Countsis that it is curiously disconnected from reality. In reality, farming is a nationalised industry, where nothing moves without permission from the Government and the EU. If half of all historic parkland has disappeared in the last 100 years, this has been due to government policy, to two world wars and the ploughing-up grants given by successive governments. Today in practice our countryside is dominated not by the Government but by the European Union and the Common Agricultural Policy; and yet nowhere is the EU mentioned. One just wonders what planet English Heritage is living on? How can one discuss the English countryside without mentioning the EU?
Instead they concentrate on what they call ‘Characterising the Rural Historic Environment’. As a result of their researches, they can now reveal that on Dartmoor, there are between 510 and 1500 scheduled monuments per hectare; In London there are more than 3,000 listed buildings per hectare; more than 70 listed places of worship per hectare; and 11 to 27 parks and gardens per hectare: they must be counting in everyone’s back gardens to obtain this figure. Are all their statistics similarly incredible?
Heritage Counts pretends to be some sort of unbiased report on heritage in the countryside, but in fact it is nothing of the sort. A real report would ask a whole range of rather different questions: what has been the effect of estate duties and their predecessors on life in the countryside? What have been the effects of Government policies over the last 100 years? Currently there is of course a major change-over, with emphasis now given not to agriculture but to landscape conservation, access and recreation. Is this working? What are the differences between EU policies and British government policies? Should either be changed? And what about private owners? They devote all of two thirds of a page to private owners, who, they admit, give by far the largest contribution: but what do they feel about government policies?
In summary, this document should be treated with a very large pinch of salt. It is not the sort of document that can be produced by any government department (which is after all what English Heritage essentially is), because government bodies cannot criticise the government, and the only useful sort of document is one that can assess and if necessary criticise government and EU policies. Instead there is the strong smell of advertising hanging over the document. Give us more money, more powers, more patronage, more partnership (which being interpreted means: gives us a bigger stick to beat private landowners with). It is really rather a pathetic document. I wish EH would send me a proper annual report instead.
This opinion comes from CA issue 202