Examination of witnesses (100-119)|
MONDAY 19 JUNE 2000
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
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
(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
(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