English Heritage Merger Planned

Article excerpt

The government is proposing to make radical changes to the official face of English archaeology and the built environment. English Heritage (the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission) and the Royal Commission on the Historical Monuments of England (RCHME) are to be merged on April 1st, 1999, and at a future date, many of their functions devolved to multi-disciplinary regional bodies, which will also administer the regional aspects of such disparate activities as libraries, film and sport.

The initial announcement was made in the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's Comprehensive Spending Review (which amounts to a review of the Department's policy priorities), and received almost no publicity until December 1998, hardly surprising since the changes were not even mentioned in the Department's press releases.

Of the two organisations to merge, the Royal Commission is the older, founded ninety years ago in 1908. It is charged with the role of compiling and making available a record of England's ancient monuments and historic buildings. Until this decade it did this primarily through a series of magisterial county inventories; now its principal public face is the National Monuments Record (NMR), a public archive housed in part of the former Great Western Railway's works in Swindon. English Heritage was created in 1984 by Michael Heseltine, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, from the archaeological sections of his department. It was hoped that its quasi-governmental status would enable it to build a large membership base akin to that of the National Trust, who would visit and support the 409 monuments in its guardianship. It is also the government's advisor on archaeological and historic building matters, making recommendations on the scheduling of ancient monuments and the listing of buildings.

The interests of the two bodies overlap on some issues, such as the sites and monuments records maintained by local government, which are both a primary record of archaeological sites and finds (a RCHME concern) and a tool of archaeological conservation through their use in the planning process (an English Heritage concern). Both bodies have worked to ensure complete coverage of the country to uniform and compatible standards. However, the concerns of an information-gathering organisation and a policy-making one are by and large separate, and the case for their amalgamation is primarily not based on efficiency savings from avoiding duplication, but on the Secretary of State's wish to have only one quasi-governmental body operating in each of his ministry's areas of responsibility, in this case what it calls the `built environment', a change justified on the grounds of administrative tidiness.

The current Labour administration is committed to working towards regional government, and so many of the new body's functions will be devolved to regional bodies composed of representatives of all the Department of Culture, Media and Sport's disparate portfolio of interests, including sport, film, television and art. The Secretary of State is not, however, clear exactly what functions might be devolved. …