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Blue plaques hit a brick wall

English Heritage budget cuts threaten the future of London's 150 year old commemorative scheme

They embody a city oozing with history, yet blue plaques that commemorate the birthplaces, homes and landmarks of London’s great and good face an uncertain future.

English Heritage has announced that it can no longer afford to continue the 146 year old scheme.

The installation of the cultural hallmarks has been suspended after a 34 per cent cut in government funding, the quango’s only source of income. From £130m in 2010-11, English Heritage’s budget will be slashed to £92m in 2014. An £18m cut is planned for this year.

In a letter obtained by the Mail on Sunday, Dr Emily Cole, head of the blue plaque team, said: “These are extremely difficult times for English Heritage and for the scheme, which has a very uncertain future.”

Eight-hundred and sixty-nine tablets have been erected since the scheme was started by the Royal Society of Arts in 1866 - believed to be the oldest of its kind worldwide. It became the responsibility of English Heritage in 1986.

The first ever plaque, which in 1867 commemorated Lord Byron at his birthplace in Cavendish Square, was demolished in 1889. The earliest surviving marker, erected the same year, pays tribute to Napoleon III in King Street, St James’.

A blue tablet to be unveiled next week in Great Russell Street for John Nash, the architect behind Regency London, is expected to be among the last.

Within the mile surrounding the New Statesman’s Carmellite Street offices alone, there are 260 plaques remembering diverse characters, including the author and lexicographer Dr Samuel Johnson, Crimean war hero Mary Seacole, Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling and former four-times Prime Minister William Gladstone. Others include founding father Benjamin Franklin, economist John Maynard Keynes, Lady Nancy Astor and Dame Gracie Fields. A correspondent to The Times in 1873 suggested the plaques make “our houses their own biographers”.

Each plaque costs around £965 to install. In almost 150 years, the scheme has only been suspended as a result of wartime austerity from 1915 to 1919 and 1940 to 1947.

A spokeswoman for English Heritage said: “Following our 34% funding cut in the 2010 spending settlement, English Heritage commissioners made the decision that the blue plaques scheme was to be funded in an alternative way in the future.”

She said that by reducing the team by two full-time equivalent posts and suspending installations, £240,000 will be saved over two years.

Yesterday four English Heritage employees earning six-figure wages came under fire, however. It emerged it emerged that chief executive Simon Thurley, earns £163,000 annually, over £20,000 more than the Prime Minister.

In light of the cut backs, English Heritage has prioritised its planning advice services, the maintenance and conservation of its properties, existing grant commitments and its Buildings at Risk programme, which seeks to save historical sites at risk of being lost forever.

The current panel of plaque experts, which includes Stephen Fry, Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, and broadcaster Bonnie Greer has also been disbanded.

Plaque schemes outside London that are not funded by English Heritage, but by local authorities charities, trusts and organisations, will continue. The Corporation of the City of London erects plaques within the square mile.

A statement provided by English Heritage said: “English heritage remains committed to the Blue Plaques scheme that has done so much to inspire Londoners and visitors with the history of the capital and its inhabitants.”


Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 70p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits It's easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough. 


Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.