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Thursday17 August 2017

Fireplace firm claims EH abused its position

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English Heritage is facing scrutiny from Britain’s new coalition government over claims of a conflict of interest which allegedly saw it “abuse” its planning powers in favour of a commercial partner.

Liberal Democrat MP and secretary for Scotland, Michael Moore, is investigating a complaint that the quango discriminated against specialist fireplace manufacturer Thistle & Rose – a firm based in his constituency – in favour of a rival firm licensed to sell a range of “English Heritage”-branded fireplaces.

EH strongly refutes this, arguing that its organisational structure is designed to protect against conflicts of interest between its commercial activities and its advisory role.

Nevertheless, news of the inquiry could not have come at a worse time for EH, as it battles to avoid the worst of public-sector cuts imposed to reduce the country’s £155 billion deficit.

Hawick-based Thistle & Rose, which restores and reproduces Adam fireplaces, claims it was unfairly prevented from supplying painted timber fireplaces to a developer renovating a grade I listed property, 52 Bedford Square in London, in 2008 after EH advised the local council that only marble should be used.

At the time, EH was poised to enter a promotional deal with marble fireplace manufacturer Acquisitions allowing it to use the EH name.

Thistle & Rose has since commissioned a detailed report on Bedford Square, finding no justification for the refusal of timber fireplaces. It is also preparing to take legal action against EH, claiming its actions are in breach of EU competition law.

In a “letter before claim” sent to EH’s lawyers, Thistle & Rose’s solicitor warned that it was seeking damages as a result of its losses.

“EH enjoys a dominant position by playing a regulatory role as the body selected by the UK government to secure the preservation of historic buildings in England,” the letter stated. “Simultaneously, EH has the ability to compete for commercial gain for the sale of traditional fireplaces for such listed buildings.

“It is our client’s position that, from 2008 onwards, EH abused that dominant position by seeking to exclude the commercial rivals of its chosen commercial partner, Acquisitions.”

The letter says Thistle & Rose fears it is likely to lose out again over the redevelopment of the neighbouring 53 Bedford Square.

In the event, Acquisitions did not supply the marble fireplace at number 52, and EH denied any wrongdoing.

A spokeswoman said: “English Heritage’s advice on the replacement of historic fireplaces in Georgian buildings is given on the sole basis of objective, expert advice.

“Any suggestion that financial gain from a licence arrangement with Acquisitions of London influenced our advice on listed building consent applications is utterly baseless.”

She added that EH had now ended its partnership with Acquisitions. “We value our good reputation too highly to give anyone the opportunity to mischievously cast doubt on our objectivity and judgment,” she said.

By quango’s appointment

This is not the first time that EH has faced criticism over product endorsements, writes Will Hurst.

Last year, former EH chief architect David Heath com-plained that its recommen-dation of a range of paints and wallpapers by Little Greene risked the loss of the organisation’s “good name” because of the potential conflict with its regulatory role.

“The argument about whether it is appropriate to endorse manufacturers has been the subject of consider-able internal discussion over many years and was certainly raging just before I left,” Heath told the Sunday Times.

EH told the newspaper that such licensing arrangements were “common practice” in the cultural sector.

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Readers' comments (5)

  • Old story resurrected now that there is a new government? It first appeared in the Sunday Times March 2009.

    The reality is that EH's advice on historic buildings is totally separate from its commercial money making arm. The latter is necessary because it doesn't receive enough funding, a situation which will only get worse.

    The issue of wood v marble in the building concerned is surely that of one expert opinion against another expert opinion? And presumably EH did not specify any supplier and so a free choice could be made?

    Still, nice publicity for the firm concerned.

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  • The story is indeed a follow up but has moved on significantly. Legal action is now being prepared by Thistle & Rose and inquiries are being made by Scottish secretary Michael Moore.
    We have also quoted the EH claim that their departments are entirely separate in the story.

  • English Heritage has a long history of promoting particular companies, wasting taxpayers money on legal challenges and and adding to the costs of development. English Heritage adds an extra, unnecessary layer of beaurocracy, which is a factor in the record housing shortage in this country. The time to has come to relieve English Heritage of its regulatory role and cut their public funding.

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  • The wielding of arbitrary prejudice for and against professional consultants, as well as suppliers, is endemic in EH. It has become part of its culture.

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  • Really, Steve Green? But then you never have a good word to say re any heritage issue, do you? It's all pro development, any development.

    EH fulfils its statutory role. If at times that means legal challenges, then that's a part of its role. This taxpayer thinks that not a waste of money.

    As for the 'chronic housing shortage', hardly the fault of English Heritage.

    No doubt you and Christopher Routledge will be making such allegations to the new Minister, backed up with detailed facts.

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  • Re Editor's Comments

    Did English Heritage's advice in this instance in any way specify that a fireplace had to be purchased from any particular source? That would be highly unlikely, and is surely the crux of the matter? Surely the issue is if marble was more appropriate than timber for that particular application? And that is an academic question, not a commercial one. I understand that there is some disagreement over that issue.

    And of course the two departments are totally separate. No doubt the Scottish Secretary will be able to find that out very rapidly.

    What is puzzing is the idea that a client/developer has gone ahead and ordered a fireplace without first resolving all listed building consent issues. If that is the case, then it possibly should have known better.

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