Simon Thurley: Heritage Guardian

16 mins read


CA recently interviewed Simon Thurley, Chief Executive of English Heritage, on challenges facing the heritage sector, and the new draft National Planning Framework.



The National Trust is extremely worried about the new draft National Planning Framework. Do you share their concerns?

Absolutely, and we are delighted that the NT is making a fuss. It is important to realise that the whole basis of the planning system that has given us the country we have today is potentially at risk. As it stands at the moment, protection for the historic environment will be weakened, which is not what the government intends, so I very much hope that we, together with our partners, can tighten the framework up. I think your readers should be concerned as well. Anyone who cares about archaeology in this country should make their views known; go to the Department for Communities and Local Government website ( and write in. It is incredibly important that individuals express their concerns, as well as organisations. The stakes  couldn’t  be higher.

We seem to have lost references in the Framework to the fact that developer-funded archaeology is done on behalf of the community — in the public interest.

When I was at the Museum of London one of the things I really campaigned for was a visible link between the investment that a developer puts in to contract archaeology and the benefit the public got out of it. This is of fundamental importance because if developers cannot see that what they are doing is of some wider social benefit, they will skimp and treat it as something imposed upon them, whereas we want developers to embrace it, and get excited about it, and see the potential of it. Archaeology is only any good if it enriches people’s lives and understanding.

Archaeological units can seem better at extracting archaeological data than explaining why it matters. CA sometimes struggles to get stories because the units are worried it will inflame developers.

To an extent that is true, but often that is because the developers want to do it as cheaply as possible. Big developers — Land Securities and British Land, for example — have a more sophisticated understanding of the added value that comes from community engagement through archaeology, and the wider benefits that accrue to them and their shareholders. It is much harder if you are a small company, bearing what you feel is an unreasonable expense for extracting a whole lot of old bones that you don’t care about.

Local authorities must surely share the blame for that. It is often said that we don’t need more historic environment legislation and guidance as a nation, we just need the existing guidance to be properly implemented.

For that to happen we need good people working for local authorities, people with the knowledge and expertise to draft the right planning conditions — and to persuade the elected members to back them. That is a weak link in the chain, and it is a link that is getting weaker rather than stronger. We are about to publish our most recent survey of staff provision in local authorities and, without breaking any secrets, I can tell you that it is a bleak picture: it will show that staff have reduced by more than 11 per cent in the last 12 months.

This is the huge question, then: what do we do about it? It is very easy for people to accuse English Heritage (EH) of fiddling while Rome burns, but we have lost 35 per cent of our grant in aid, and are all in a new world that we don’t yet understand.  We can’t know yet what the new planning framework will end up like, or what the resources are going to be. Many of the decisions have yet to be made. Local authority services are under review all over the country. If we dropped 11 per cent before these reviews, goodness knows what we are going to see after they have concluded.

So it is too early for EH to formulate a response. We need to understand what is happening, and we will know what the damage is going to be towards the end of this calendar year. That is when the reviews will report and when the consultants will make recommendations to elected Council members. Until then, all we can do is monitor the state of local authority expertise.

How can members of the public have an influence? Have successive governments not made it more and more difficult for ordinary people to influence local authorities?

What we need to do, as people who care about the historic environment, is re-engage members of the public with the local political process. There have been protests recently: in my own town ofKing’s Lynn, there was a review of arts and libraries provision, and the huge outcry from local people did influence the outcome. That’s what people have got to do: they’ve got to get out on the streets so they can make their views known.

But we are spread so thin — a sense of helplessness has set in and the politicians are counting on our apathy.

I take a slightly less pessimistic view than that. This government is sympathetic to the heritage, but it has embarked on a massive programme of change — not just the huge budget reduction, but the desire to rebalance the relationship between state and individual, and they are doing it before all the ideas are in place about exactly how that is going to happen.

They have a tendency to knock things down to see whether people notice, or try to build it back up again, or say ‘we care about that; leave it alone’. What we have to do is show that we care very much. Think back to the late 1960s when the conservation movement stopped all sorts of bad things — saved Covent Garden, saved St Pancras station, saved the centre of the town I live in. That was a time of terrible threats, but we saw the birth of Rescue, we saw the birth of SAVE Britain’s Heritage and we saw the birth of Current Archaeology, which helped enormously to spread the word. That was all done by people power, and some of that campaigning fire needs to get back into people’s bellies.

You have been appointed to the transitional board of British Waterways. Could Government plans to turn BW into a charitable trust be a model for the future of English Heritage?

The transition of BW into a new waterways charity is one of the most interesting things happening in heritage at the moment. What the Government is proposing to do is untried: nobody has ever translated a nationalised industry into a charity before. I am privileged to have been chosen as one of the interim trustees, and my job, and that of my fellow trustees, is to make sure it is successful. If we can get it right, BW will be looked at by this and future governments as a model for other cultural institutions — not just EH, but national and local museums and galleries, the British Museum, the British Library, even archaeological units.

Will British Waterways be endowed in any way or is the operational income sufficient to support the charity?

That is one of the questions that I and my fellow trustees are tasked to determine, but the Treasury has at least agreed that property portfolio assets will be part of the transfer. Whether they are sufficient is up to us to determine.

Is it realistic to apply that model to EH?

It is no secret that there was a discussion prior to the recent Comprehensive Spending Review about whether English Heritage could be self-supporting, but there is still a £35m annual deficit involved in running the National Heritage Collection and no time soon is Stonehenge, or Apsley House, or Kenwood going to generate enough income to cover that £35m deficit. On the other hand, no publicly funded institution should assume that any government’s funding model is necessarily going to last forever.

You referred there to the National Heritage Collection; to many people that is a new concept. Is it your new brand?

It is less a brand and more an attempt to make clear to people what it is that EH looks after. I think we have underestimated in the past the coherence and academic underpinning of what the inspectorate did from 1913 to the 1950s. Then they systematically went around the country to collect for the nation what they regarded as the most important Prehistoric monuments and Medieval buildings in the country.

We will be celebrating the centenary of the 1913 Ancient Monuments Consolidation and Amendment Act next year. That was the founding Act that led to the creation of the Ancient Monuments Board, with powers to issue preservation orders to protect monuments and to take key monuments into public ownership. As a result, the Office of Works acquired over 450 sites across England, Scotland, and Wales, long before the National Trust acquired even one country house. What we now have as a result is a collection of buildings and monuments that reflect key events and themes in our national story.

With all the emphasis on localism and the possibility of future charitable status, is it now even more important that EH engage with actively with volunteers?

All our new projects now build in a substantial provision for volunteer input and we are getting people more involved on the ground with the National Heritage Collection. At Wrest Park (see CA 259), there are 70 volunteer gardeners, which is great for  EH staff who are discovering what can be achieved with 10 times the resources they had previously. I would be very surprised if the number of volunteers working with us on some aspect of the National Collection  doesn’t  quadruple in the next few years, so there will be lots of powerful opportunities for people to help.

On the research side, we have bent over backwards in the National Heritage Protection Plan to protect our capacity to stimulate activity outside EH by ensuring that our commissioning budgets have not been cut. A fundamental principle of that plan is that we should concentrate on building the capacity outside EH to do the things we were formerly doing inside.

What that means quite simply is that we would not expect to organise or lead a big volunteer-based research project, like the CBA’s Defence of England project of a decade ago, as a result of which nearly 20,000 military sites in theUKwere recorded by an army of some 600 volunteers. On the other hand, if the CBA or the Ancient Monuments Society or Current Archaeology came to us and said ‘this is what we aim to do’, and if it fitted with the objectives and priorities of the National Heritage Protection Plan, we would welcome it with open arms and support it financially.

May we end by asking about your outlook on life: why does heritage matter to you?

My view is incredibly simple, which is that history, heritage, archaeology, whatever you want to call it — time depth — is one of the things that improves the human condition. It is a major contributor to what people call ‘quality of life’. All the nicest places to live in, work in, and visit are places with a heritage behind them; all the places that work, do so because people have a sense of pride in their history. I have just been toNorfolkwhere 250 people came together to raise the money to save their parish church. Not because they were church-goers or even liked going to the  Christmas Carol Service, but because the building that was there when they were kids, will be there for their kids, an important historic anchor for the community. Simple as that.