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Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 15th January 2010
David Winpenny considers the consequences of straitened economic times of the care of our historic buildings.

What is the future for our historic buildings? This is, of course, one of those questions that are impossible to answer. If we had the gift of foresight, we should be able to plan with confidence and know exactly what is needed to protect our best buildings. And we wouldn’t have to try to assess today what future generations will value.

But it is possible to know that over the next few years we shall need to be increasingly vigilant. As a result of the economic crisis that has engulfed us, the amount of money that can be spent on protecting historic buildings will, inevitably, be reduced. In fact, the amount of money available for grants to repair or maintain buildings has been declining for several years. English Heritage’s grants budget fell from £8 million in 1999 (even then hardly enough) to £4.1 million today. In the main, grants have been given only to buildings that are listed Grade II* or Grade I; the bulk of listed buildings, those at Grade II, have mostly been ineligible.

Now, though, even the grants that the country’s ‘best buildings’ were able to apply for are being curtailed. And, whatever the outcome of the forthcoming General Election, that won’t change. Cuts are the order of the day – and not just that chimera to which all governments point, ‘savings in administration’. There will be real cuts, and owners of historic buildings will feel them, possibly disproportionately.

While the current government has not yet been too specific about its plans – except on the Olympics, which are draining cash from all sorts of good and worthy causes, including historic buildings – we have some indication of what a possible incoming Conservative government may do. One of its proposals has raised some eyebrows – the merging of English Heritage with the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF).

When the National Lottery was launched (by a Conservative government) in 1994 it was firmly stated that its purpose was to raise funds that were additional to government spending. We were to have plenty of extra funds for good causes; levels of government support for such causes would certainly be maintained. The Lottery money was a very welcome supplement – a brave new world of charitable support.

It was, of course, too good to last. Soon money from the Lottery was being diverted to what in the past would have been financed from taxation. The Lottery pot proved, perhaps inevitably, too much of temptation. HLF, specifically set up to provide funding for anything that could be termed ‘heritage’ – and that, of course, includes our historic buildings – is not, it seems, able to fund as many ‘good causes’ as in the past.

Merging the HLF with English Heritage may be viewed as an obvious move by those who see only the savings to be made in administrative costs. After all, they argue, both bodies deal with much the same subject. Yet a little thought will show how curious the idea really is.

The two organisations overlap only in specific areas of their work. HLF covers the United Kingdom; English Heritage (the name is a clue) covers only England. English Heritage deals with, as its website says, ‘all aspects of protecting and promoting the historic environment in England’ – in the broadest terms, buildings and archaeology. HLF has much wider responsibilities, including museums, parks, landscapes and wildlife sites, as well as less tangible but equally important matters such as oral history and education. English Heritage can give grants to private owners of buildings; HLF cannot, except in very special circumstances.

Such problems can be solved, of course – but the costs of doing so might outweigh the savings that could possibly be made. And whatever happens, there will certainly be even less help for our historic buildings. There are likely to be fewer people whose job it is to care for them, as English Heritage budgets are reduced. Local authorities will cut down even further on Conservation Officers in their planning departments. There will be even less impetus for financially-stretched local authorities to intervene with repair notices or even compulsory purchases when listed buildings are neglected. There will be fewer ways in which bodies trying to save important local buildings can raise funds for the necessary feasibility studies.

The other side of the coin is that, with less money in the economy, there may be less pressure for unsuitable developments of historic buildings; the way that Harrogate Borough Council has put its plans for the Spa Baths into abeyance is a good example of that. Developers may be very cautious over the next few years, and we may not have as many planning applications to alter listed buildings. What is likely to increase is neglect; it is important that we are alert for the signs of it.

The next few years will be a challenge, whatever the colour of our national and local governments. But with vigilance from us all our historic buildings will survive and flourish.

Here are the answers to the Christmas Quiz.
The winners are: Mrs Shirley Gendall of Gallows Hill, who correctly identified all but one, and Carol and Christopher Hughes of All Saints Square, with 13 correct. Congratulations to them.

A Plaque listing hornblowers, on the obelisk, Market Square
B Outside the Ripon Little Shops, Duck Hill
C Former fountain, Cathedral Gardens, near Old Deanery Hotel
D Bondgate Bridge, near St John’s Church
E Gas lamp outside the Town Hall
F Weather vane above clock tower at bottom of Bedern Bank
G Plaque on the Cathedral Hall, High St Agnesgate
H War Memorial, Spa Gardens
I Stained glass in foyer of Spa Baths
J Wrought iron arch over entrance to Smithson’s Court, North Street
K Weather vane on house in Old Park Mews
L Clock Tower, junction of Palace Road and North Street
M On top of the obelisk, Market Square
N East window of cathedral library
O Gateposts into Spa Gardens
P Glazed doors at entry to Town Hall
Q Harrison, Printers, sign on their former shop (now Alexon) in Market Square
R 1986 frieze inside Ripon Little Shops, Duck Hill

How many did you spot?

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