A question of ownership of national heritage assets

There has been some recent press coverage in The Scotsman about plans by the Royal Collection Trust to create holiday flats in Abbey Strand – buildings that form part of the complex of the Palace of Holyroodhouse in Edinburgh. This has been picked up subsequently in a debate on the ownership of the heritage asset and who picks up the bill for managing it.

Asset ownership in the public sector has come into focus of late, partly because of austerity forcing public bodies to rationalise their building stock and use to cut costs, and also because of the move to empower communities (particularly in Scotland) to take ownership of, or responsibility for buildings that were previously run by national or local Government agencies.

In the heritage sector, this has prompted Historic Environment Scotland to consult the public on its policy and guidance for Asset Transfer – which in theory could open elements of the national historic properties portfolio up for alternative ownership or management models.  At one point in the consultation process the list of assets were described, somewhat erroneously as a ‘shopping list of castles’.  In fact, many of the properties that could be transferred are ancillary buildings such as car parks and ticket huts, as the main historic property is either held only in Guardianship (for a private owner) or is a Crown holding.

Anything to do with land ownership is of course complicated and can get tied up with wider society arguments on equity and access – and as the debate on the Palace of Holyroodhouse demonstrates – it is a real rabbit hole to explore ownership and organisational management responsibility of heritage assets (buildings and land) in particular where the ‘public organisational realm’ is concerned. Any investigation soon throws up all kinds of interesting historical quirks and complicated relationships between ownership and management and sometimes a collective scratching of heads.

Ancient title of ownership associated with the Monarchy and Government, regulated by law such as the Crown Lands Act (and subsequent associated legislation) nonetheless makes for fascinating investigation – in some respects these lands and properties have formed part of the core of the national collections of historic properties, which are now managed by Historic Environment Scotland, English Heritage and Cadw.  But, also in the mix of heritage asset owners and managers are other Governmental or public bodies such as Historic Royal Palaces, the Royal Parks, the Crown Estate (and new Crown Estate Scotland body), the Ministry of Defence, the Courts Service and on a wider landscape scale bodies such as the Forestry Commission.

Being the UK, there are some delightful quirks to be discovered in organisations such as the Crown Estate Paving Commission, which manages and maintains areas of Crown Land around the Regent’s Park and Carlton House Terrace in London, and the Duchy of Lancaster which holds land and property in trust for the Sovereign.  Management of the elements of what might be considered the national heritage estate is therefore as varied as the properties themselves.

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