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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.”


David Young
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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

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

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide