Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts, said:
"The Department for Culture, Media and Sport gave English Heritage unrealistic targets to increase the number of visits to historic sites by people from three specific underrepresented groups. With no clear evidence of how the target levels might be achieved, English Heritage opted instead to focus on increasing its income from visitor attractions, at the expense of activities to increase participation.
"The truth is that the proportion of the UK population visiting historic sites is already some 70 per cent, an impressive total, and most of the people who don’t visit say that they are not interested in doing so. It is hard to see what useful purpose was achieved by setting targets to increase visits from this or that underrepresented group.
"There was certainly no point in the Department’s setting targets to widen participation when it did not know how achievable they were, had little understanding of the different factors affecting participation and had no way of measuring the impact of its own actions or those of English Heritage.
"This Committee supports the principle that the nation’s heritage should be accessible to all. A crucial factor in developing a lifelong interest in historic sites is to be taken to see them as a child. English Heritage should aim to reverse the decline in free educational visits by children to its own sites, establish a way of measuring progress and report back to this Committee by April 2010 on what has been done."
Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 5th Report of this Session which, on the basis of evidence from Department for Culture, Media and Sport and English Heritage, examined the actions taken to achieve the Department’s objective to get more people interested in heritage.
Many people care deeply about and value the nation’s heritage. Widening opportunities for people to interact withthe historic environment has been a policy objective of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (the Department) for a number of years. In 2005, the Department agreed targets to increase the numbers of people who visit historic sites from three priority groups-those with a limiting disability, those from lower socio-economic groups and those from black and minority ethnic groups.
The Department missed its targets to increase visits from two of the three priority groups but has no idea why. It has not conducted research into how achievable the targets were, or how they would be met, and the survey for measuring visits to historic sites does not allow the Department to evaluate the impact of its own activities or those of its main delivery agent, English Heritage.
English Heritage is the Government’s statutory adviser on the historic environment and has a critical role to play in increasing public support and interest in heritage. But in recent years it has been faced with a decline in public funding, coupled with an increase in its responsibilities, and has therefore prioritised increasing the money it makes from visitors to its sites.
The Department reached agreement with the English Heritage on what it would do to support the Department’s objectives for participation in the future only just in time for our hearing, and over half way through the current funding period. Such weak accountability creates serious risks to value for money.
The Department did not convince us that having a target focussed on increasing visits from those in underrepresented groups to historic sites served a useful purpose. The proportion of the population visiting historic sites is already high and most of those who do not do so say they are not interested in heritage.
Furthermore, the historic environment can be experienced and enjoyed by walking down the street, visiting a local church, watching television or using the internet. Building stronger public support will depend on taking an inclusive approach to what constitutes our heritage and in particular on developing an interest in heritage in children of all backgrounds. English Heritage has assured us that it will reverse the concerning downwards trend in educational visits to its own sites.