Sir John Bourn, head of the National Audit Office, told Parliament today that the great majority of property owners who receive English Heritage grants are complying with requirements to allow public access. However, the access position remains unclear for a significant number of properties, and in a minority of cases practical obstacles were encountered when seeking access to properties.
English Heritage make grants towards the repair of historic properties and, require owners of grant-aided properties to provide access to the public. To test how access to the public works in practice, the National Audit Office conducted a postal survey of over 300 grant recipients, and complemented this by using consultants to conduct a “mystery shopper” survey.
The National Audit Office found that English Heritage have aided public access by making their new access guide available on their website (http://www.english-heritage.org.uk/). However, the National Audit Office also had concerns about some aspects of English Heritage’s performance and owners’ compliance with grant conditions:
- English Heritage are working to update their access records but have had no effective response from about a fifth of the 551 properties they originally identified as having these obligations;
- English Heritage have little information on the number of visits and the prices charged to visitors. The results of the National Audit Office’s work suggest that 90 per cent of properties have been visited by members of the public in the past year, with wide variations in visitor numbers probably reflecting to an extent the different types of properties. Similarly, there were variations in the prices charged to visitors, with just under half the properties not charging at all and most others charging £4 or less;
- in the mystery shopper survey, the National Audit Office’s consultants managed to contact 275 out of 317 properties on English Heritage’s website to enquire about arrangements for visiting the property. They were unable, despite trying over a three week period, to establish contact with the rest, effectively barring access. The large majority of properties contacted were open to the public, in accordance with the grant conditions. But in 12 cases where access was refused, although English Heritage had confirmed the access details with recipients, it appears that either grant recipients are not complying with their access conditions, or the information on the website is wrong;
- as English Heritage have not in the past carried out physical testing of access themselves, they have not been in a position to pursue owners who might not be complying with access requirements; and
- by publishing access arrangements on their website English Heritage have made it available in the most modern medium – although finding the information is not straightforward.
The National Audit Office also conclude that English Heritage have appropriate arrangements for assessing the financial need for grants including, where appropriate, an appraisal of the applicant’s ability to contribute to the costs involved. But, as the arrangements for appraising applicant’s means are not being followed in all cases where this is required, there is the risk that money is not always used to best effect.
The National Audit Office recommend that English Heritage:
- press ahead with the work they have already begun to ensure that they have a full and reliable record of which properties access conditions apply to;
- monitor trends in the number of visits to properties to gauge whether they are achieving their access objectives;
- physically test the access arrangements in ways which simulate the experience that a member of the public might have to be able to pursue owners who might not be complying with access requirements;
- consider what more can be done to capitalise on their initiative of developing a new access guide. For example, by making their website information more accessible; and
- ensure that in all cases grants are awarded on the basis of a financial needs assessment which included, where appropriate, an appraisal of the applicant’s means.