FREE entry to many of the region’s historical treasures could be lost under a shake-up of English Heritage, ministers were warned today.
Darlington MP Jenny Chapman raised the alarm over plans to turn the much-loved body into a self-funding charity – axing its £103m annual Government grant.
The Labour MP warned predictions of surges in visitor and membership numbers were wildly over-optimistic, threatening a future cash crisis.
And that raised the danger of charges being introduced at 250 sites that are currently free to enter – including up to 20 across the North-East and North Yorkshire.
Ms Chapman pointed to the example of Egglestone Abbey, near Barnard Castle, where visitors are free to roam the dramatic 13th century ruins.
She told ministers: “We are talking about a ruined abbey and some old roman walls. Families visit as part of a walk through the countryside.
“It’s one of most beautiful places in the North, set perfectly in a landscape and benefits from not having gates, a tea shop or other buildings.
“It’s been ruins for centuries and it will be real shame if visitors were to be charged to visit in the future.”
Ms Chapman questioned whether English Heritage could treble visitor numbers and almost double membership, to achieve self-sufficiency by the end of the decade.
And she said: “I’m not opposed in principle, but I have deep concerns about the practicalities. It would be a real disgrace if this was allowed to fail.
“People care a huge amount about our shared national heritage - and they care about the open access that they currently enjoy to many of these sites.”
Significantly, several Conservative MPs – as well as Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) and Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) – echoed the fears.
The shake-up – announced in December – has also triggered stinging criticism from expert groups which raised fears over the future of financially unviable sites.
The Council for British Archaeology said a Government consultation “has errors and does not provide the level of detail we would have expected to enable us to reach an informed decision”.
But Ed Vaisey, the culture minister, brushed aside the protests, insisting English Heritage would emerge a “more resilient organisation”.
The minister accused critics of “tilting at windmills”, saying: “They say ‘will it be able to do this, will it be able to do that’?
“It’s mildly galling that - when we found £80m to launch the new charity and clear the backlog of repairs – people are now muttering about resources.”
Ms Goodman pointed to the demise of the trust managing Hadrian’s Wall as a worrying signpost to the future.
And she said: “The Romans managed to build a wall 1,500 miles away from Rome. This minister cannot manage to look after one 300 miles away from here.”
Roberta Blackman-Woods, MP for Durham also spoke at the debate.
She said: "English Heritage acts as custodian of last resort if heritage sites are at risk. Safeguarding this role is particularly important in relation to the North-East, due to the region's very special heritage.
"The planning role of the Historic England must not be diluted and their expertise in this key area must be safeguarded by the Government. Our national heritage is too important to gamble on an unknown future with and the Government must provide certainty."