Statutory controls exist to protect historic buildings and monuments when this is considered to be in the public interest. The Museums Act 1845 empowered borough councils of at least 10,000 inhabitants to levy a half penny on the local rates to provide public museums. The National Heritage Act 1983 clarified the administration of heritage and established English Heritage. Buildings of special architectural or historic significance (including occupied premises) are “listed” according to specific grades of importance by the relevant government departments or their appointed agencies in all four countries of the UK. Government departments are also responsible for compiling a schedule of ancient monuments, which offers a similar level of protection to that of “listed” buildings. Local planning authorities in England and Wales are legally obliged to designate as “conservation” areas those places (as opposed to buildings) of special historic or architectural interest.
Licenses are required to export national treasure purchased (generally in auction) from the UK and may be temporarily deferred by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. An advisory panel, the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) decides whether an object is of exceptional cultural and historic value and a six-month period is allowed for sufficient funds to be raised by museums, galleries and other institutions (often through public appeal) to keep the works in the UK. Arts Council England provides the secretariat for the RCEWA. However, research by the ‘I’newspaper (reported on 2 February 2019) suggests that almost GB£ 500 million of national treasures have been lost to the UK in the past decade, because matching funds could not be raised in time from the public or museum and gallery budgets.
In 2019 Member of the UK Parliament indicated their support for the Holocaust Return of Cultural Objects (Amendment) Bill, which seeks to consolidate 2009 legislation allowing museums and libraries to return items lost, stolen or seized during the Holocaust.
The Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 makes it an offence to acquire, dispose of, import or export illicit or “tainted” cultural objects.