How does Heritage Link work? Heritage Link is a strange organisation that aims to help heritage charities work better. It presents an image of the utmost political correctness, so as the AGM was to be held just round the corner from me at the old Hampstead Town Hall, I decided to go along and find out what it was all about. After a certain amount of digging, I eventually found out. The accounts gave the game away, and having cornered the Treasurer over a glass of wine in the lunch break, I found out how Heritage Link really works. £68,000 for the core establishment but there are also ‘project donations’ of £43,000, of which all but £2,000 comes from English Heritage. Only £8,000 comes from members’ subscriptions, nearly £7,000 from donations and the remainder are bits and bobs. On the expenditure side, nearly half appears to be spent on salaries for four staff.
Heritage Link was set up because the Government felt that the heritage sector was too fragmented and they wanted the heritage sector to ‘speak with one voice’ — and preferably a voice that echoed its own thoughts and spoke its own language. It has succeeded admirably: Heritage Link is the perfect spokesman. It is a paradise for bureaucrats and those who delight in sitting on committees and working parties and responding to the Government’s consultation papers. In the past year they proudly responded to no less than sixteen government consultation papers: they have a wonderful phrase about ‘building capacity’ which means setting up ever more committees. Indeed in the Heritage Link hutch, committees, sub-committees and working parties are breeding like rabbits — you name it, Heritage Link has a working party for it. One of their major projects is to extend their ‘capacity building’ to the regions, so they can have regional sub-committees – with, of course, the help of yet another government grant. ‘The Trustees have drawn up a ‘revised structure intended to take Heritage Link to a higher level of operation, requiring a doubling of staff resources’ — and guess who is going to pay for it.
Much time was spent at the AGM lamenting that the Heritage Protection Bill, which is to replace the Ancient Monument Acts, has been omitted from the Queen’s Speech for this parliament. The trouble is that the bill is a monster of over 300 clauses, which means that it is a ‘major bill’ for which a lot of parliamentary time must be found: it cannot be slotted into an odd corner. Studying the bill soon reveals three main problems. Firstly, it is over 200 pages long; I must admit that I never managed to struggle all the way through it. Secondly, it is written in the most impenetrable jargon, which means that readers rapidly gets lost. Thirdly, it gives far too much power to English Heritage and other outside bodies to make various quasi-laws, notably PPG 15 and 16 (Planning Policy Guidelines 15 and 16, both of which are to be rewritten but are not included in the bill). This seems to me to be quite contrary to democratic legal principles. Any building owner who is unhappy with the treatment received at the hands of English Heritage will find it quite impossible to understand this law — and it is surely wrong to produce laws which are so convoluted that they are incomprehensible. One would like to hope that the opportunity will now be taken to slim down the bill: one fear is that in practice the delay will simply mean that it will become even more monstrous as time goes on. The bureaucrats are hoist with their own petard.
The Scots have doubts about the bill. A recent letter from Historic Scotland stated: ‘After careful consideration, the Minister came to the view that the present system did not have sufficient problems to warrant major legislative reform. While rejecting the need for a wholesale review and revision on the English model, she indicated that there were legislative changes that might be considered, as part of wider improvements to the current system. Ministers have made it clear that they do not see imposing new statutory controls and duties as a desirable approach when, better and more proportionate means are available to bring about improvements’.
Heritage Link does do some useful work, as in their opposition to the diversion of funds from the Heritage Lottery Fund to the Olympic Games in 2012. However, the Government has thrown a sop to Cerberus in the form of ‘Cultural Olympiads’; Heritage Link has taken the sop and has secured funding from English Heritage to further their proposals; but would not the money be better spent locally around the country? And should they not continue to oppose the diversion of funds, and not allow themselves to be bought off in this way?
They also produce a fortnightly ‘e-bulletin’ that is distributed over the internet and claims a growing readership of 9,000. Details from www.heritagelink.org.uk – but you are meant to receive your subscription of our one of the member organisations. It is a useful compilation of the latest bureaucracy, but it is undigested and too long, and there is no linking system to enable one to jump to the paragraph that may be of interest, so I rarely succeed in reading it through to the end. And there is little of interest to the average local archaeological Society.
I think there are problems with Heritage Link. Due to its funding it clearly cannot be considered in any way to be ‘independent’. It is essentially a mirror in which English Heritage and the Government can admire themselves; and, since it consists of committees, it will essentially reflect the views of those archaeologists who love sitting on committees — and not the grass-roots of archaeology. For instance, they completely fail to realise that the Heritage Protection Bill is far too long and too jargon-filled. They always put themselves in the position of the bureaucracy and ask whether it is strong enough; they never put themselves in the position of the owner of a small listed building, and ask whether the new bill will mean more time consuming form-filling — and more expense. They seem entirely unaware of the problems of local societies — relationships with professionals, the advice given by the Charity Commission, and problems over allowing children to join in digs.
One fears that the Government and English Heritage may believe in what Heritage Link tells them: if so, they are gravely mistaken.