Stonehenge – from private to public good

Stonehenge is a stunning sight to behold, sitting high on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire it retains an air of mystery in terms of its origins and purpose, and an ability to draw a million visitors per year.  Two circles of massive stones, dragged across country and erected over 2,000 years ago, with evidence of earlier activity going back 5,000 years.  It must have taken a massive level of organisation to source, transport, and erect these stones for some kind of common purpose.   The site is currently managed by English Heritage as an ancient monument for the nation, in other words as a ‘public good’ to ensure everyone can benefit from its continued preservation.

It has not always been in public ownership, in fact for most of the last 1,000 years it has been in private hands[i], the property of the owner of the land on which it stands.  The ownership has changed hands multiple times and was last purchased as a private good in 1915 at an auction by Cecil Chubb (for £6,600); he must have got carried away as he apparently had only intended to purchase some chairs[ii].  Despite the widespread belief that privatisation of a good is one of the best ways of ensuring preservation, the increasing interest in understanding the past from the 18th century onwards, along with the desire to ‘own’ a piece of history, did not stop deterioration of the monument.  From the late 18th century onwards there were reports of stones falling over, some being shored up with timber supports, and visitors chipping away bits as souvenirs as well as carving their names in the stone.  Even establishing a warden in the early part of the 19th century did not prevent deterioration and damage, with little hope for investment in a private good that had wide public interest.

Three years after purchasing the site Cecil and Mary Chubb donated it to the nation to be managed under the Ancient Monuments Act of 1913[iii], an improvement on earlier 19th century legislation which established the principle of ‘enabling public access to monuments under state guardianship’.  Since then restoration has taken place and in 1977 the stones were roped off[iv] to prevent further damage from the increasingly large numbers of visitors.  Today a modern visitor centre is sited well away from the monument itself, to ensure that the large numbers of visitors do not diminish the experience of walking around the stones.  The only way to get inside the stone circle is to purchase special access tickets but even then the visitor is not allowed to touch the stones.  The numbers of visitors, the investment in management, and the income stream generated, are indicative of the cultural value placed on the monument, which requires protection from the very people who place some value on it (enough at least to spend a significant amount in travel and entrance fee).

In summary, although Stonehenge is now protected for the nation, and there are clear benefits in public ownership, it is not possible to allow complete and unrestricted access[v].  Stonehenge is not a ‘pure’ public good in the sense of being difficult to exclude access and non-rival in consumption.  Like many other cultural heritage sites around the world unlimited access to a ‘public good’ causes congestion and even physical damage to the fabric of a site, requiring limits on both access and the behaviour that can take place.  These sites are thus managed as ‘club goods’ where it is recognised that enabling too many people to visit at any one time diminishes the value of the experience, and of the good itself.  Restricting access and charging admission, while potentially reducing the intensity of the experience that might be gained, enables funding for maintenance and restoration, and preservation for future generations to gain value from the site.  It is not perfect, but it is better than the two alternatives – private ownership which locks people out and lacks capacity for investment, or open access, which would see a rapid deterioration in the visitor’s experience, and the physical resource.  After 100 years of public ownership we have a heritage site in better condition and with a capacity to handle more visitors than ever before.  For sites such as Stonehenge, where access is easy (the site sits very close to a main road) management as a form of ‘club good’ is probably the best option available for long-term sustainable management.