Simon Thurley

Running English Heritage involves juggling so many conflicting agendas that it can seem like a graveyard for ambition

by Andrew Davidson
Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Simon Thurley is not, you suspect, a man who lacks drive. An expert in royal palaces, former head of the Museum of London, he has been chief executive of English Heritage - the government-backed body that regulates and maintains many of our most precious ancient monuments - since 2002, and he's still only 41.

Slim, floppy-haired, poshly spoken, with that slightly camp acuity that a passion for aesthetics gives many straight men, he talks so fluidly about his chosen subjects - buildings, costs, management, government, himself - that you can imagine the panel that interviewed him for the English Heritage job might just have given him the post on the strength of his confidence alone.

Added to which, he is clearly one of life's great organisers - his opinions, his books and his endless collections of minerals, rocks, bones and whatnot that he categorises and labels at weekends to fill his spare time. The top slot at English Heritage, a quango that needs an organising touch as well as a big character to lead it, might seem the perfect fit for Thurley. For starters, everything he does seems to be laid out and displayed with precision - he cares about the appearance of things. 'It's one of the things I care about most,' he grins.

You can tell as much from his large, spotlessly tidy office up on the fourth floor of English Heritage's beautiful 1950s base in London's Savile Row (if that sounds grand, it's not; it's an old insurance building that's shortly to be demolished for development). And you can tell it too from his gift for confident, cogent argument.

So here is Thurley, straight out of the traps when we meet, giving me his two-minute, brilliantly organised description of what running a 6,000-staff, £172 million-budget quango is like these days... 'There's a lot of misunderstanding in the private sector about how difficult and how tricky all these types of public-sector jobs are, because there is often a fundamental lack of clarity about what you are trying to achieve in the organisation.

'At English Heritage, for example, we have a series of statutory duties, which are things that parliament has set out and said that we have to do. Then those are overlaid by a series of political imperatives that whichever political party is in power at the time tries to get you to take note of - and they actually try to control you by the way they fund you.

'Then you are an independent body with what in the corporate world would be known as a non-executive board, and that board is about making policy that you follow.

But, of course, if you are a quango like us, you actually represent the interests of a group of people, and those people are all the people in this country who care passionately about their heritage and the historic environment.

'So as chief executive of an organisation like that, it is sometimes very unclear whether you are trying to fulfil your statutory duty or trying to please the politicians, or trying to please your main constituency, or trying to do what the board says - and there are occasions when all four of those are facing in opposite directions.'

Such as? 'Well,' he smiles, 'there are significant issues that all bodies in the art world face at the moment: our core duties are essentially about conserving - passing things on to future generations - and the Government's real priority is access. Because it quite rightly believes that the things that are looked after by museums and galleries, and the buildings that we look after and put public money into, are public assets and all sectors of society should have access to them, whether they are rich or poor, white or black.

'And being a civilised, liberal human being, I absolutely agree with that, but it does give us as a sector a dilemma, because it (the Government) wants much more expenditure on access when we haven't enough money in the first place to deal with conservation. So the two conflict, and your constituency might fall down on the preservation side and your board might be split between which way to go. It's very stimulating.'

And don't even get him started on the three different arms of government to which he has to report - the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (conservation), the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (planning and regeneration) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (all the above).

The adjective Byzantine doesn't do it justice.

If this implies that Thurley is in a state of aggravation, he is not - he lays it all out rather cheerily so I can get an understanding of the pitch he is playing on. By the time he's finished, it's pretty clear he enjoys the complexity of it all. It makes it much more interesting to tidy up and organise, after all.

But heading English Heritage, 21 years old this year, is very much what you make of it.

Sir Jocelyn Stevens, a former head, used it - according to some - rather loudly, sidestepping his chief executive, stirring up controversy and getting people to think about what matters in the fabric of old Britain.

Other chairmen and chief executives have simply disappeared under its bureaucracy and the burden of everything it has to do.

And what a lot English Heritage has to do. The organisation was primed originally to promote conservation and preserve the monuments - castles, houses, gardens - that were put into its care. From April this year it is also taking on administration of the listing system, where significant buildings are protected.

Most in the UK know English Heritage from the sites it runs: Stonehenge, Dover Castle, Kenwood in London, Tintagel Castle in Cornwall, and hundreds more. There will be some, I suspect, who can't really tell it apart from the National Trust.

Thurley sighs when I put this to him. 'Looking after sites is not our core reason for existing, unlike the National Trust. It takes sites only with endowments. We only take sites that are economically and financially stuffed. We are the social security system of heritage, if you like. But in our regulatory role, we also regulate the National Trust and give it grants and enthusiastically support its work of preserving important buildings and sites. There are very few things we disagree on.'

So why not just give his sites to the National Trust with a big government endowment, and get on with the regulatory side of his remit? 'We did calculate it once, because someone in government asked, and the answer is you'd need to find £1 billion.'

That, as far as the Government is concerned, is out of the question.

So English Heritage works hard to make its sites pay (though most still survive off government grants). And then it gets on with all its other work: providing a source of research and advice for what it thinks should stay and what should go in the fabric of modern Britain.

It's an awkward mix that frequently brings the organisation into confrontation with architects, property developers, local authorities and even government.

Thurley says his priority is to provide leadership and consistency. He might add that just staying in the job for a significant amount of time would help too: English Heritage has been plagued by too many bosses in recent years.

'Six chief executives in five years,' he nods, making a face. 'Interim CEOs, people who came and went... Chris Green, Jennie Page, each wanted a different structure and plan, and I think I just need to make sure people can get on with their job without any more management being done to them.'

However, he came in on the back of a highly critical review of what the organisation actually did, so no change was not an option. 'There were heavy criticisms of the way we operated, and we had to address those as quickly as possible.'

Which meant? 'Well, we weren't making the most of our sites and were missing commercial opportunities. We had an ambiguous role in the planning process and couldn't decide if we were involved in the strategic level or the detail level; and we had substantial research activities that had no apparent focus or strategy to them.'

Crikey. 'Um, yes, quite significant criticisms. When we looked at them in detail, though, some were less justified than they appeared, because we had sold ourselves really badly in review. It is a feature of English Heritage that we are bad at telling people what an exciting and important organisation we are.'

So, he says, he focused his first two years on addressing the problems, internal and external. Despite having a pegged budget, he spent money on new IT, changed the structure so that planning experts weren't also in charge of running commercial operations, and produced a five-year, six-aim plan, stating exactly what English Heritage hoped to achieve.

Those aims look pretty broad: to help people develop their understanding of the historic environment; to get the historic environment on other peoples' agendas; to enable and promote sustainable change to England's historic environment; to help local communities to care for their historic environment; to stimulate and harness enthusiasm for England's historic environment; and to make the most effective use of the assets in English Heritage's care.

'It's a very directional plan,' says Thurley. 'It helps everyone understand what we are trying to achieve. And our brand is increasingly clear and strong. Although we have a long way to go, there is much greater clarity about what's needed.'

But with such a list of purposes, how do we judge if he is doing it well?

'That's the difficult thing that organisations like us face. Property developers might think we did a good job when we refused to list market buildings in Smithfield in London, but the conservation lobby thought we'd done a bad job, and the Government thought we'd dropped them in it.

We thought we'd made the right decision, but it depends who you ask in the list of stakeholders.

'So measures of success are hard to find. It's easier on the financial side. Last year, our turnover increased 7.5% - that's pretty good, but some people might say it is not the job of a heritage organisation to make money out of sites. So what you have to do is have a very clear plan with very clear objectives, and when everyone throws brickbats, if it accords with your objectives, you can say it is a success. People need to know what is expected of them and when they've achieved it.'

But it's not easy, simply because many of his employees - as is common in not-for-profit organisations - are passionate about what they do and don't want their working lives hemmed in.

'People work here because they love the job,' agrees Thurley. 'They love the contact with the buildings and the opportunity to get involved with the sites, and the organisation is the vehicle that enables them to do that. It's a bit like the Church of England, all those different parishes that don't take much notice of the Archbishop of Canterbury because they answer to God.

'And God here is heritage and conservation and buildings, and I am the archbishop and frequently people go straight through to God. By focusing English Heritage so there is greater clarity about what we are trying to achieve, we will all get to God - hopefully, on the same route.'

There's an engagingly eccentric edge to Thurley that, no doubt, keeps his employees on their toes. Others in the arts world have him pegged as very articulate, very ambitious - 'I am not at all,' he protests - and somewhat tricky, possibly because he has learnt to push hard to get things done and is not averse to appearing on television. That can be useful in an anonymous, amorphous organisation such as English Heritage, but it doesn't make you friends at the interface of arts, academia and government.

Stephen Bayley, former director of the Design Museum, sums up Thurley's conundrum thus: 'Basically, English Heritage is a weary, toothless, old-school quango, groaning under its enormous cultural responsibilities.

It does not have, so far as I can tell, the power or authority to do what's needed. But it has been a fine vehicle for monstres sacres like Jocelyn Stevens to barge into, make a lot of noise and achieve sweet FA.'

Quite how much barging about Thurley wants to do is still open to question.

No-one doubts his drive and obsessive passion - Rupert Hambro, who served as his chairman at the Museum of London, says Thurley is an inspiring leader, part showman, part academic, and a very good administrator. 'He's also bringing a lot of good people into English Heritage now,' he adds. The downside is that Thurley is so decisive that people beneath him often find it difficult to develop their own authority.

But Thurley has carried that sense of mission with him since he was young.

Born the eldest son of a Cambridgeshire vet (his father) and amateur archaeologist (his mother), he had his interest in all things old piqued by some Roman remains found by the family in the garden at home.

Thurley went on to read history at London University and completed a PhD in architectural history, becoming an expert on 16th- and 17th-century royal palaces. Later, after a fire at Hampton Court, he was asked by English Heritage to advise the team repairing the damage. He was just 26.

There must have been more experienced experts. Why him? 'Perhaps because they thought I was a clever chap,' he says, looking rather offended by the question.

Could he have stayed in academia? He shakes his head. 'I never wanted to be an academic and, anyway, the practical application is exciting.

The job enabled me to spend half my time doing research and the other half exacting influence over what buildings looked like. They were two very happy years.'

A slot on the newly formed board running historical palaces followed, then the top job at the Museum of London in the Barbican. At the museum, he experienced 'a Damascene conversion' in his views on matters modern. 'I'd always been rather rude about the Barbican, and I used to call the museum a white-tiled lavatory built on a black brick box, because that's what it looked like. But through working in it I realised it was a superb building, and we had none of the problems that the National Gallery or the V&A have, where there's a conflict between the historic building and the exhibition space.'

That appreciation of the modern now stands him in good stead, as English Heritage faces tough choices over what is worth preserving among post-war British architecture. You have only to talk to staff at the CBI, based in London's Centrepoint - a listed building - about the frustrations of working in an environment not built for the 21st century, but which has to be preserved. 'Centrepoint is listed because it's a very innovative building,' counters Thurley, 'and the latticework on the outside is extraordinary.

It's just unfortunate where it is - the disaster is the way it hits the ground.'

The important thing is that the building is still economically viable and still being used, and English Heritage, he promises, is going to become more flexible in what it allows businesses to do in modern listed buildings.

'What's dangerous is that a lot of prime sites get developed and the less valuable ones get left. Our role is to give the good buildings a degree of protection so taste can ebb and flow.'

He cites the Victorian warehouses in Manchester, once the target of developers.

'Now people are buying million-pound penthouses in them, they are the defining feature of Manchester's character.'

He has a point. And certainly, as he acknowledges, there is no lack of interest in heritage and the built environment, with television programmes and constant discussion in the media as to the rights and wrongs of what stays and what goes. It doesn't make English Heritage any more popular with property developers - always anxious as to what restrictions the regulators might put on their work - but it should mean it's easier to raise issues. A recent campaign against visual clutter in our streets, in partnership with the Women's Institute, looked bang on the button.

Thurley, it's clear, has a good eye for what will sway the public. He is also happy listening to the worries of business. Running the Museum of London, he made precious contacts in the property world, many of whom were impressed. 'I think he did very well there,' says John Ritblatt, chairman of British Land. 'He's vastly enthusiastic and energetic. His problem at English Heritage is that it's not a position where you can please all of the people all of the time.'

Thurley says that it helps to speak property developers' language. 'We tell them that heritage is a great adder of value. If you look at where the most valuable buildings are, and the most valuable places to live, like here in Savile Row, they are all historical places.'

Does he miss the more glamorous world of gallery-running? He bridles.

'Running a museum would be boring if I went back to it now. We have 400 sites, 100 registered museums, 6,000 staff, a £170 million budget; we influence national planning policy. The remit of what we do is vast. The thought of going back to planning exhibitions in a single gallery... it would feel like retirement.' He laughs, and then checks himself. 'Not that running a gallery is a lesser job,' he says, 'just different.'

Others suggest that Thurley is keeping his options open. He popped up at English Heritage only after his applications to run the V&A and the British Museum were turned down, and some think he is just biding his time at English Heritage until Neil MacGregor sees out his contract at the British Museum. Thurley admits he misses the social life that running a gallery brings. 'At museums you spend every night with the richest people you can find,' he says bluntly. English Heritage's social circle tends to be drawn more prosaically - planners, architects, politicians, civil servants.

The other downside, he says, is that you don't get paid very much for running English Heritage. How much is not very much? 'One hundred and twenty thousand - it's a very small amount of money.' It would seem quite a lot to some. 'Yes, but it's not very much compared with the director of the Tate Gallery. He earns a lot more than that. But money has not been my main motivation in working here.'

Ah. So where does his money go? Well, he says, he has spent the last six years gutting and renovating a beautiful 17th-century townhouse in east London, which he shares with his wife, milliner Katherine Goodison.

He also eats out nearly every night - 'I am so often at functions, the last thing you want to do is come home and cook.' And he is a voracious buyer of collectables. 'At the moment, it is 19th-century books on Christopher Wren.'

Which don't, you imagine, come cheap. He keeps a large library at home, along with his display cabinets for fossils and minerals and so on. His house was featured in Grand Design magazine's July issue this year - full of wood panelling, stuffed animals, endless objets d'art. Thurley is pictured standing proudly by his seated wife, with his crammed bookshelves behind him, the pair of them looking like Gainsborough's Mr and Mrs Andrews gone east.

So much stuff - lucky he doesn't have kids. He laughs foppishly. 'I think I would struggle then, as children are expensive. But I do have a lot of godchildren, who I adore.'

In short, Thurley is quite a character, and now, perhaps, after reorganising what's around him at English Heritage, he can really start to make his mark. The organisation, according to some, has always been at its most interesting when run by a driven eccentric who takes himself very seriously.

'The last thing English Heritage needs,' says Ritblatt, 'is a dull administrator.' No-one can accuse Thurley of being that. It's up to him now how he uses the position.

FOUR CHALLENGES FACING THURLEY

1. Convincing Government of the value of 'heritage'

2. Thinking in the long term when all the pressures conspire to be short term

3. Balancing the needs of today's society with the responsibilities owed to future generations

4. Facing the fact that you can't please all the people you work with all the time - the penalty of being a regulatory body

THURLEY IN A MINUTE

1962: Born 29 August in Huntingdon. Educated Kimbolton School, Cambridgeshire; Bedford College, University of London; Courtauld Institute of Art, University of London

1988: Inspector of Ancient Monuments at English Heritage, member of the design team for the restoration of the fire-damaged wing of Hampton Court

1990: Curator and main board member of Historic Royal Palaces

1998: Director of the Museum of London

2002: Chief executive of English Heritage.

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