Select Committee on Public Accounts Minutes of Evidence

Examination of witnesses (100-119)



  100. Let us take, for example, the nursing home. All of us call without giving any appointment at all to nursing homes all over our constituencies to say hello to elderly residents living there. I was always welcome. I cannot conceive why it will disrupt a nursing home if a member of the public wants to ring up the day before and say, "Can I come tomorrow?" Why should they have to apply in writing? Nowadays to force people to apply in writing and go out and buy a stamp is often an effort for a lot of people. People do not write a lot of letters nowadays, they use the phone or younger people use e-mail. You must accept that is a deterrent.
  (Ms Alexander) One of the reasons why by appointment in writing is sometimes sought by the owners is because they do feel it is likely to make their security worries less. Some of these properties are owned by single people and some of them are quite distant from main towns, and they do have worries about security. One of the things that we do find is that they feel that if they have someone serious enough to write a letter, first of all, they will turn up when they make the appointment, and it may be that they have to make a particular arrangement to be there. Secondly, they will be able to feel that there is a person who is willing to put their name to the bottom of a piece of paper. So there are those reasons why people believe that by appointment in writing is sometimes valid.

  101. We are talking about quite small properties here, we are not talking about a wonderful day at Blenheim Palace. Have you done any surveys of how much it is a deterrent to go out and buy a stamp, put pen to paper, say exactly when you are going to come, perhaps up to a month in advance, just to go round some small farm or nursing home or whatever? Are you not worried about that? Surely your priority should not be with the home owner, it should be with the public who are helping to pay for this property to be kept up?
  (Ms Alexander) As is clear from the consultants' more detailed report, a lot of the arrangements that we make are really quite complex for individual properties. They may be open at certain times of the year but then open by appointment at other times of the year. That actually expands the time in which people can visit and we think that is valuable. Sometimes we think it is suitable for people to be able to write letters. I am sure that when we are able to get more feedback, as we now will be with our website and much more accessible list of properties, we will be able to take into account any problems that people have and we will certainly take those into account in making our decisions in the future. I do think that some of this is about expanding the opportunities, it is not simply about constraining them.

  102. If that is the whole purpose of this, the whole purpose is you see this as a principal area of your work to expand access, that is fine. For instance, in paragraph 2.16 it says "Ten offered other times, but four did not and in effect refused the request to visit." Would you like to look into these sorts of cases, to go back to these people and say "this is not acceptable behaviour"?
  (Ms Alexander) We have already looked into those. Three of them are over the ten year limit and that was why they refused. The other one, which if you will give me one second I will find, yes, the other one is a mistake in the details that we were given for our website. Far from being by appointment it is actually open all the time by virtue of its use as a library.

  103. All right. Paragraph 2.17, "82 respondents (70 per cent) commented that there were certain times or days of the week, or family holidays, when the property would not be available for viewing." Are you launching a drive to make sure that it is precisely that sort of period of family holidays— This is family holidays for the owner, is it?
  (Ms Alexander) Yes.

  104. Okay, I will leave that one. Some of these comments that the owner said, "(name) had nothing to say, he just opened it up and stood and waited for us to leave so he could lock up." That is unacceptable behaviour, is it not?
  (Ms Alexander) Yes, and it is very unusual as the NAO consultants found. The vast majority of people, over 90 per cent, were friendly or very friendly and gave people more than they expected, or at least as much as they expected to see. It is actually a record which most public bodies would be extremely proud of, to be told that more than 90 per cent of their relations with the public were very friendly.

  105. You do accept that this is not acceptable behaviour. If you are in receipt of public money to open up your property and you just stand and wait for the person to leave and apparently say nothing, that is not a very welcoming attitude. It may only be ten per cent, or whatever it is, but even if it is only five per cent that is not acceptable. Are you making sure that this sort of thing does not go on? After all, if somebody is treated like that once that might put them off repeating the experience and ringing up other properties and turning up.
  (Ms Alexander) We will certainly encourage those in receipt of grants to see that what they are providing is a service to customers. I hope that is the way in which the development of our systems shows we see it. We cannot be sure that it was the owner who was unfriendly, it may be that they had brought somebody in who was not friendly. I think part of our advice would be about the fact that a service should be given in an appropriate way. I think the invitation to people to give us feedback on their visits will give us a lot of material, a lot of information, which we can then follow up on the benefits to visitors and the sorts of attitudes met at the properties. By and large, as I said, the Report does suggest they are very, very welcoming in a way that most visitor attractions, let alone most other public bodies, would be proud of.

  106. 2.24 deals with car parking. Car parking was available at more than 80 per cent of the properties. I do not know if that is good or bad. I do not know the nature of these properties but you would have expected that car parking could have been available at nearly all of them. You may have one or two terraced houses I suppose, and probably you do, but generally I am surprised it is not closer to 100 per cent. Generally they are fairly large properties, are they not?
  (Ms Alexander) Some of them are, some of them are not. The Assembly Rooms in Bath is probably one where it is very difficult to park your car anywhere nearby. There may be remote properties where it is difficult to get car access. What we are giving priority to is making sure the information is correct so that at least people know they are going to have car parking when they get there. That is currently provided for on the website and will be even more accurate next time around.

  107. Paragraph 2.11, this problem has already been alluded to where potential visitors could be charged £50 to £100. You said that you now understand that an individual can ring up and go. Do you know how much they would be charged?
  (Ms Alexander) Yes, £5 per person.

  Mr Leigh: Thank you. That is all, thank you very much.

Mr Love

  108. A little bit more of the same, I am afraid, Ms Alexander. Can I refer you to page seven, paragraph 1.5, the second sentence of that paragraph which reads "English Heritage attempt to balance this broader community interest with the conservation needs of the grant-aided building, and the interests of the owners of private properties, many of whom use these as their place of residence." From your comments to the last group of questions, and indeed from this Report itself, that attempt has failed, has it not?
  (Ms Alexander) No, I would not agree with that. I think it is clear from the Report that in the very large majority of cases, and indeed the Report itself talks about the great majority of grant recipients, this has succeeded extraordinarily well.

  109. Without going into all the details contained in this Report, there is a whole variety of issues about costs, about access, about advertising that would lead anyone who has no knowledge of this area to conclude that the so-called "community interest" has not been taken into account at all.
  (Ms Alexander) There are, of course, community interests in getting many of these properties refurbished in the first place. A number of them are public buildings, libraries, nursing homes, there are schools, a number of different buildings in the 80 per cent which are not in private ownership. I think the community has a significant interest in having those kept to a standard. If you are referring specifically to the community interest of having access to them, everything we are currently doing is about trying to make sure that there is effective information which will enable people to know when they can see them and that the conditions that we set are as appropriate as possible.

  110. Let me come on to that in a second. Let me give you an example. The North Tottenham, Edmonton area that I represent used to be the weekend residence of city merchants and, therefore, it has got a very proud Georgian history which has fallen into disrepute and the local authority and all the heritage organisations have great difficulty in getting those properties kept in decent repair. They will go to almost any lengths to get them repaired, that being their overwhelming priority. Is that your overwhelming priority, the community interest?
  (Ms Alexander) Absolutely, and we have a heritage economic regeneration scheme running in your constituency which is very important to us.

  111. I am well aware of that.
  (Ms Alexander) And also continues the work we have been doing on the Tottenham High Road Conservation Area Partnership.

  112. I do not want to get into parochial issues. I suspect you will be aware of the sensitivity of the issue of access, not in relation to properties, although that does come into it. There have been several television exposés about the taxation of heritage assets. Are you aware of those that happened three or four years ago?
  (Ms Alexander) Yes.

  113. Are you aware of how much of an issue it became in the 1998 Finance Bill as to whether access was being provided properly?
  (Ms Alexander) Yes.

  114. Yet this Report tells us that around that time and subsequently not much action was taken, the only action appears to be subsequent to that report. Were you simply ignoring that public sensitivity?
  (Ms Alexander) No. In fact, the action that we took to create the website database on which this Report was based was taken at exactly the time of those debates around the Finance Bill when we took the view that we needed to be more proactive and we needed to set up a much more active list of information that we ourselves could control. It was very much in the context of that debate that we took that action.

  115. Can I talk to Mr Young. He will certainly be aware of the sensitivity of this as an issue and the comment that there has been in the press mainly about access to heritage assets rather than specific buildings. The issue of access has been very much at the core of that and yet nothing seems to have been done here. You have an objective in your Department to do something about that, why has nothing happened? Why have you not been pressurising them to do things?
  (Mr Young) We have been having discussions with them about exactly that. What we have got here is a system whereby not only does the grant recipient have to say each year what the arrangements are for visiting the property and how many people have visited and at what price, but also we have set up a system whereby the customer, who is a jolly good inspector in these matters, is encouraged to give his/her views either by the web or in future by the printed material. Then if there is anything fishy about that property English Heritage reserve the right to carry out physical inspections as well. I would say we have got a three-pronged attack on this in order to enhance the access opportunities that this Report is about.

  116. Let me take you on, Ms Alexander, to page ten, types of access, paragraph 2.4. The third is "access by virtue of use", that is mainly straight forward access. On the first two we have already heard from almost every contributor about the vagueness of the commitment that is given by some of the people in receipt of these grants about what the access arrangements are. Are you even today monitoring what access arrangements are available? This has been an issue of public debate for some time. Where you feel they are not adequate are you insisting on changes?
  (Ms Alexander) Yes, we are. We followed up all of those which were outstanding last year and at the time of this Report and we will be carrying out a complete re-survey in July this year to achieve the information that we need for this year's website and the next edition of Hudsons. We are determined to get this information straight and if we hear any suggestions that it is not accurate we will follow them up to find out why not.

  117. I am pleased you have said that. Can I then refer you to page 32 which is recovery of grant on sale of property. At figure 13 there is a quote about the recovery of five grants and it says quite clearly that all of those grants have been recovered because of disposal. Have you at any time either done so or considered recovery of grant or part of grant for lack of fulfilment of the conditions, especially the community related conditions that are set out in this Report?
  (Ms Alexander) Yes, we have considered it. In all the cases that we have so far negotiated we have managed to achieve access conditions which would be complied with. Were we not to be able to we would certainly consider recovery of grant.

  118. Are there any special monitoring requirements of someone under the threat of the return of a grant that has been paid to them to ensure that they are being complied with? There does seem to be a lot of evidence that although people have agreed to many, many things to receive the grant, they are not actually carrying them out.
  (Ms Alexander) I would suggest that the evidence of the Report is that in over 90 per cent of cases they are. The work which we will do, as I think was just outlined, is that we will make sure that the self-certification that comes in each year is put on to the website and made available and feedback is requested if anyone has any difficulties whatsoever. Now that we have a regional structure of nine regions we are much closer to the ground and to our grant recipients and will have much better local information so that if, for example, properties come on to the market we will be there and much more likely to know about it. I do trust that the combination of the self-certification and the annual re-survey will mean that we are much more likely to hear about any problems.

  119. Can I ask you about costs. You mentioned earlier in reply to the question about £50 and £100 being charged that that would be for groups of up to 20 people, I think that was the number you quoted. A quick arithmetic calculation puts that down at £5 per person which does seem a fairly large sum of money. Most of the large historic houses in this country would not charge those sorts of amounts for a group. Is there any action taken in relation to overcharging and how much do you monitor that?
  (Ms Alexander) We have not monitored it in the past but we will monitor it starting with this July's survey. In advance we will tell grant recipients we are going to take a view on what is reasonable. The range of charges that are set out in this Report would not be out of line with the range in this market generally. I think we are very pleased indeed to see that over half are allowing access free.

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