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With the decision about the location of the Stonehenge visitor centre presumably now made but not yet handed down we thought it was the right moment to raise something that ought to be of concern to everyone that is interested in the future of this and other British world heritage sites.
The minutes of the English Heritage Commission (recently rebranded as The Heritage Forum) are (quite properly) published on the internet for the public to see and we were struck by this from the latest minutes in January –
Item 8 – Stonehenge Environmental Improvements Project (Oral)
8.1 This item is included in the exempt minutes of this meeting as it contains information that is potentially exempt from public access under the Freedom of Information Act, Section 43: commercial interests.
We quite understand that where delicate commercial issues are involved full public disclosure is not always possible. But the whole report? Are there valid commercial reasons why not a single solitary word about the future of our national icon can be offered to the public? We rather doubt it.
There is perhaps a clue in the subsequent minutes of their Advisory Commitee in March:
Members noted the following:
two sites for the new visitor centre are still actively being considered: Fargo Plantation and Airman’s Corner. The challenge will now be for English Heritage to balance the preferences of stakeholders and those of other interested parties
Two obvious questions are begged by that:
First, are EITHER of those what most of the main stakeholders want? We strongly question that and wonder why there is no explanation for why the choice has been narrowed to just these two. Perhaps there’s a valid reason but is it really “potentially exempt from public access under the Freedom of Information Act for commercial reasons? We doubt it.
Second, since Airman’s Corner is well away from the stones and Fargo isn’t, we are prepared to wager that the great majority of stakeholders prefer Airman’s Corner out of the two. That being so, what does this mean: “The challenge will now be for English Heritage to balance the preferences of stakeholders and those of other interested parties”? Who are these “other interested parties” that aren’t stakeholders? The government? What sort of Public Consultation was it if English Heritage are likely to “balance” what the stakeholders want with what the government tells them to decide?
Our doubts might well be dismissed as inconsequential heritage whining (after all, everyone knows how these things work and that public consultations tend to be sops that have little effect upon final decisions – where’s the news in that?) were it not for something else….
The Government has produced a World Heritage review and the Commission’s reaction has been to endorse the view there should be a ten year moratorium on nominations to the World Heritage List. In addition, the Committee has “noted” that “the pursuit of WHS status can become a diversion from the real task of protecting and developing the regeneration of an area. There is a real need to find an avenue for management of a WHS”
Taken together, a disturbing picture appears to be emerging: there appears to be a move to reduce the influence of UNESCO in the management of major heritage sites and it will be down to the government to decide their fate. And the public? They will have as much real say as they have had at Stonehenge, presumably, and will be “told” about the government’s decisions by English Heritage when the time is deemed right.
Considering what English Heritage and the Government had in store for Stonehenge until very recently (in the teeth of total opposition from almost every heritage and archaeological organisation including UNESCO’s British agency) this is not good news for the future.