Exclusive: Volunteers will have to help save Yorkshire’s historic sites

Decades of under-spending and neglect from successive governments have left some of the region’s oldest and most significant places in poor condition, conservationists have warned, as a radical shake-up of the way historical sites are managed is launched.

Liz Page of English Heritage, at Rievaulx Abbey. Picture by Gerard Binks

English Heritage is today pleading for support for its move to operating as an independent charity, as it reveals the region has been earmarked for a £1.7million ‘trailblazing’ refurbishment project following the go-ahead from Whitehall.

Heads of the organisation argue that while visitor numbers rose by three per cent in the region this year, it is feared further cuts to public spending will cause more of the region’s 32 venues to fall short of modern expectations.

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Liz Paige, English Heritage’s historic properties director for the north of the country, told The Yorkshire Post that it was now essential that the public volunteer to help address what she called a multi-million pound “conservation deficit”.

“We’ve always relied on the support of members, visitors and donors and now we’re calling on them to help us safeguard these sites,” she said.

“When we pass them on to the next generation, we want to pass them on in good shape.”

Michael Murray-Fennell, English Heritage’s head of communications, said: “Over the years government funding has not been enough. Our buildings are not under cover, they are exposed to the elements.

“We could see the way it was going, we had been cut and cut, so English Heritage came up with this idea to address the £52million conservation deficit and get our sites back into ship-shape.”

Under a business plan rubber-stamped this week, a new charity retaining the name English Heritage will look after the National Heritage Collection, allowing it to benefit from the tax breaks which come with charitable status, and the opportunity to bid for grants and funding from bodies such as the Heritage Lottery Fund.

The Government will award £80million towards the safeguarding and improvement of the historic properties in its care when changes come into effect in April next year.

Once the most urgent conservation work is carried out, the remainder of the cash will be spent on pioneering projects such as Rievaulx, in Helmsley.

Proposals for the abbey include the modernisation and extension of the museum, allowing for the display of more of its historic artefacts which currently have to be kept in storage elsewhere. The gift shop, cafe and other visitor facilities will also be improved.

There are also plans to host more events, such as historical re-enactments, to bring its 882-year-old history to life.

“We need an exhibition and events programme which reflects the historical significance of Rievaulx and at the moment that’s not there,” said Ms Page.

“We want to complete a project of high quality so the public will fully embrace us as a charity,” added Mr Murray-Fennell.

“For the north, this will be trailblazing.”

Crucial to its future as an independent, self-sufficient body is also the expansion of English Heritage’s volunteer base in Yorkshire and recruitment of members who pay an annual fee of £39 for access to the National Heritage Collection.