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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.”


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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.