Battling Baroness leads the fight that means more than bricks and mortar

The country’s ancient monuments and historic sites should not suffer because of the recession, says the head of English Heritage. Sheena Hastings reports.

KAY Andrews has what she calls “a fabulous job”, and for a trained historian it certainly is. She is the chair of English Heritage, an organisation with a modest budget of £100m whose major role is as the steward of over 400 significant historical and archaeological sites, from Stonehenge to the world’s earliest iron bridge.

It has direct ownership over some sites and also liaises with private owners of others that are managed under guardianship arrangements. EH has major responsibilities in conservation, giving advice and registering and protecting the historic environment. It also maintains the English Heritage Archive, formerly known as the National Monuments Record (NMR).

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To Kay Andrews the essence of the job is this: To plan for the historic environment and make our many and wondrous heritage sites part of the future.

Baroness Andrews (she was created a life peer by Tony Blair in 1998) is here in Yorkshire for a heritage tour of the county – meeting craft skill apprentices working on stonemasonry in the conservation of the 12th-century Wykeham Priory near Scarborough, to Ayton Castle, Haworth and Sheffield, where she will see the recently completed development of the Joel’s Yard cutlery works and announce a new £300k grant for work on North Yard, another of the city’s Victorian cutlery works in the Meadow Street conservation area.

But with her organisation’s government grant cut by a third in the last couple of spending reviews (although it raises funds and visitors also pay to see some of the sites under EH’s wing), tough choices have to be made about which features of our heritage can be helped and which must languish in the queue for longer while they continue to disintegrate.

“We maintain and invest in 450 national monuments, with most of them having been in the nation’s care since 1888, when it was decided that important sites had to be cared for by the country,” says the Baroness. “They include burial mounds, ancient ironworks, bridges, castles, major sites like Rievaulx and Dover Castle in the south.

“We have unbelievably wonderful sites that tell the story of England and attract international attention as well as being about national pride. But yes, difficult choices have to be made when it comes to how to spend our money wisely.”

English Heritage has on its staff some of the world’s most eminent experts in areas as disparate as Norman castles and tree ageing.

“People come from around the globe to look at how we do things,” enthuses the Baroness in a lilting South Wales accent.

Her own job involves being abreast of history, understanding planning issues and the workings of local government and charities, as well as being a charismatic, can-do individual who can inspire the many voluntary organisations whose members gladly give their time for free to preserve local historical sites.

She was born and grew up in Hengoed, Ystrad Mynachm, a contemporary of near neighbour young Neil Kinnock, and went on to study international politics at Aberystwyth before moving to Sussex University and an MA in political sociology then a PhD in history and social studies of science.

She’s written many books and articles on history and the organisation of science and technology policy, poverty, social policy and education. Starting as a parliamentary clerk in the House of Commons she went on to become an advisor and speech writer to Kinnock as leader of the Opposition. (“He would have been a tremendous PM – a man of great integrity and empathy,” she says.)

In 1992 she was the founder and director of national charity Education Extra – providing the template for after-school learning and activities as we now know them, and was a government whip for Tony Blair on housing, regeneration, local government and planning. She went on to become a spokesperson in the Lords on health, work and pensions, education and skills.

In 2005 Baroness Andrews was appointed Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State in the Department for Communities and Local Government, and in 2009 she won the post of first female chair of English Heritage.

“It was useful to me and to the organisation that I had firm grip of legislation and regenerations as well as an instinctive love of history,” she says. She was involved in the planning policy framework as we know it, and her job now is to make sure that heritage is not “pushed aside in favour of development”.

Andrews says that, in these cash-strapped times, an organisation like EH and others concerned with historic monuments must think laterally and work together more than ever.

“We need to keep these places alive and well, whatever he economic climate. They don’t look after themselves and are huge part of the attraction and economy of the area. People don’t come to this country for the weather – they come for York Minster, the Dales and Haworth – and our wonderful heritage sites are places we can help to attract more visitors by looking after these treasures.”

During her Yorkshire visit the Baroness will be looking at moors management schemes and hearing about the progress of a survey of Yorkshire wolds and moors farmers which has been developed to involve landowners and tenants in development of new ways to reduce the impact of plough damage on important archaelogical sites.

There are 483 buildings and monuments at risk on the moors and wolds, says the Baroness – that’s 61 per cent of the buildings and monuments at risk in the region. The vast majority are burial mounds and other pre-historic features, under cultivation or overgrown by scrub. These sites will be the main focus for EH’s Heritage At Risk work in Yorkshire over the next few years. EH offers advice and potentially grants as well as agri-environment schemes to work around valuable historic features.

“Farmers are so conscious of the place they live and work in, and they do care deeply,” says Baroness Andrews. “The government cares, too, even at a difficult time like this. We know our work is valued. That’s why we have to think creatively and look for partnerships.

“At Wykeham Priory near Scarborough we have contributed £10,000 towards funding for the Traditional Estates Craft Apprenticeship Project, which has also been funded by The Ernest Cook Trust, the Historic Houses Association (Yorkshire, the Radcliffe Trust, the York Foundation for Conservation 
and Craftsmanship and the North York Moors Coast and Hills Programme jointly funded by Defra and the EU. We need more of these joint schemes to tackle the large number of monuments at risk.”

Baroness Andrews says 
some of the public tend to take the historic environment for granted.

On the other hand the plethora of popular history programmes on television seems to suggest a stirring of the national consciousness about the fragility of history around us.

“Those big audiences show us that there is a considerable number that do understand why these places are part of what makes the country special.”

Despite the fiscal doldrums, 
EH has had three very successful years in terms of visitors to its most popular sites because 
Brits have stayed at home for holidays.

“I don’t despair,” says the Baroness. “It’s hard work but I have to do it and absolutely love doing it.”