Blue plaques hit a brick wall

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

New Statesman
Earl Stanhope unveils a blue plaque commemorating the residence of his ancestor, reformer and inventor Charles Stanhope at 20 Mansfield Street, Westminster, 8th December 1951. (Getty Images)

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.”