Interview: Sir Laurie Magnus

The chair of English Heritage says "the jungle drums are basically positive" about the plan to turn part of it into a charity

Sir Laurie Magnus
Sir Laurie Magnus

Sir Laurie Magnus, chair of English Heritage, is an Eton-educated baronet and City financier - charming, well-spoken, immaculately presented and broad of smile. He is also a trustee of the Landmark Trust and was deputy chair of the National Trust for eight years.

When he was appointed last September, the culture secretary, Maria Miller, said his "long and distinguished career in finance, coupled with his passion for - and experience of - the heritage world, make him an ideal choice to carry this work forward".

The interest in heritage, and his consummate diplomacy, shine through when he's asked which is his favourite site in the quango he is charged with turning into a charity. "Oh no," he says, smiling, "I don't answer that, because actually I'm very fond of a lot of English Heritage sites and it would be very invidious to identify one as being my favourite."

However, twice he gives something of a plug to the recently renovated Kenwood House on the edge of Hampstead Heath in north London. "If you haven't been, you should go to see it," he says, adding temptingly that "it's just up the Northern Line".

He also notes that the conversion of part of English Heritage into a charity is not quite a fait accompli. "We've put this out to consultation, so we're still waiting to see what people say," he says. "But the jungle drums, if you like, are basically positive.

"I think it would be quite surprising if the wheels were to come off at this stage, but we have to go through the consultation. We have a business plan we're working on that has to be approved by the Treasury. The government is, as you know, very focused on the control of public expenditure, so I would say we've still got to get there and we haven't yet reached the other side."

The plan is to open the charitable arm of English Heritage for business on 1 April 2015, putting in motion an eight-year timetable to achieve financial self-sufficiency. "We will probably know that we've got the green light in the summer, but you never quite know," says Magnus. "And then we have to work on the detail, and there's a lot of detail to resolve.

"It's important to make it clear that the ownership of the properties themselves will stay where it is. They are mainly government assets, the people's assets; some are in guardianship, so they are still owned by private owners who entrusted the care to English Heritage or its predecessor. It's the care that's going to be taken on by the charity.

"This is not a privatisation in any way. Maybe in 15 years' time somebody might say 'why don't you do that', but I think there would be a lot of concern about that because these are state assets. Imagine the outcry if the government said that we're going to put Stonehenge up for sale to a group of Chinese investors, or something like that."

Magnus is paid £40,000 - £5,000 less than his predecessor - for working two days a week at English Heritage. He is the third baronet of Tangley Hill, Wonersh, in Surrey, having inherited the title on the death of his uncle 25 years ago. His interests are listed in Who's Who as fishing, reading and walking.

- Read our analysis on English Heritage

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