HC Deb 31 January 1961 vol 633 cc943-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

11.28 p.m.

Mr. Francis Noel-Baker (Swindon)

Mr. Speaker, when I was first elected to this House fifteen years ago it was quite customary, at this time of night, to look forward to another ten hours or so of work. Times have changed, and perhaps I should now start by apologising to you, Sir, and to the Parliamentary Secretary for detaining you at what has come to be thought of as rather a late hour.

I am grateful to have this opportunity not only to raise matters that I raised in Question Time 'shortly before Christmas concerning one group of ancient monuments in Wiltshire but to bring to the attention of the House an issue that has reached some prominence in the columns of the Press during the last few weeks, namely, the future of the Manor Farm barn at Avebury.

Perhaps I can start by addressing myself to that question. The Parliamentary Secretary will be aware that this very fine seventeenth century or sixteenth century building—there is some doubt about when it was first erected—stands on the very edge of the Neolithic stone circle at Avebury and almost touches the corner of the moat, although it is not inside the stone circle.

A picture was published in The Times a few days ago, from which it can be seen that the building presents a very dilapidated appearance—which I confirmed on Saturday when I visited it with members of the Wiltshire Archeological Society. This is a very sad contrast to the state of this building only twelve years ago when not only was it in an excellent state of repair, but was being used by the farmer in occupation of the farm of which it forms part. I should like to say, about the photograph, that although the appearance from the outside, both from the picture and when one goes there. is dilapidated and depressing, the inside of the building is in a reasonable condition. It is really a thrilling experience to visit the inside of this building.

As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, the threatened demolition of the building has caused a storm of protest among local residents, including one prominent peer who has raised the subject in another place, by people like the President of the Royal Society of Antiquaries, Sir Mortimer Wheeler, the Secretary of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, Professor Geoffrey Webb, and others.

The principal investigator at Salisbury of the Royal Commission on Historic Monuments was asked to make a report on the 'building, which he did in December, 1959, an extract from which I should like to read to the House. It said: The barn is very worth while preserving and demolition should not be considered under any circumstances. Even if a thatch roof cannot be repeated, and the exterior finish and appearance is somewhat impaired by the substitution of a cheaper material, the beauty of the interior trusses, aisles and timber framing will still remain. The investigator added: The present condition is only brought about by the deplorable neglect of the thatched roof. The state to which this barn has been reduced is the result of a general policy adopted when the National Trust took over the stone circle and other property in the vicinity from their previous owner, Mr. Keiller, in 1943. At the time, the Trust said that its intention was to clear the circle of all buildings. This has been held to apply to the barn, though, as I pointed out a moment or two ago, the barn only touches the edge of the moat and is not in the stone circle.

I always regretted the decision to clear the circle because, although it might perhaps have been an acceptable view of the archaeological purists, part of the interest and charm of the great stone circle is precisely that it has a village built inside it, and this reflects a continuity of our history which I think well worth preserving. I am glad to say that the National Trust has come round to this view, and, following the meeting of the Ancient Monuments Board in 1959, it has reversed its policy.

That is what I understand the position to be, but I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he can confirm that the policy of the Trust and of his Department is now that the buildings inside the stone circle, at any rate those which have same architectural merit, shall be allowed to remain. As far as the barn is concerned, it has been allowed for the last twelve years to deteriorate.

In 1955, the National Trust took the very regrettable decision to allow the barn to collapse and to put up alternative buildings for the use of the farmer some distance away. I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he knows what the cost of putting up these alternative buildings was, because at that time it would have been a simple matter to repair the barn.

By the time that the general policy with regard to buildings within the circle, which, apparently, was made to apply to the barn itself, was reversed, the National Trust also started to reconsider the position of the barn. I understand that by last summer the Ministry of Works and the National Trust were discussing the repair of the barn and that there was talk of each side putting up a sum of £6,000. But it seems that while the Chairman of the National Trust was away from this country the Trust's surveyors put in a revised estimate for repairs amounting to no less than £17,000, which was a very big increase on previous estimates.

Eventually, this figure was again revised in the sense that the Ministry said that on an economy basis, which meant restoring the barn without replacing the thatch roof and putting in something cheaper instead, the job could be done for between £10,000 and £13,000. Meanwhile, Lord Moyne asked a firm of surveyors, Messrs. Lewis and Redman, to conduct an independent survey. It reported that if straight shingling were used instead of thatch, restoration could be done for £10,000.

A group of enthusiasts, headed by Lord Moyne, has, I understand, offered to provide, as the result of a private appeal which it has conducted, £5,000. This fact does not seem to have been recognised by the National Trust, or the Ministry, and I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he is aware that Lord Moyne and his friends are offering to contribute that sum, and are, I imagine, prepared to conduct a wider appeal and would be glad to see the National Trust conduct an appeal for the restoration of this barn.

Even if the National Trust did not raise any additional money, all that the taxpayer is now being asked to find, if the Ministry is approached for an historic buildings grant, is about £5,000. This is, I believe, a good deal less than the Ministry was considering paying out last summer. Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware of the offer of these individuals? Will he encourage the National Trust to make an appeal of its own? If an application were made now by the National Trust, as owner of the barn, for an historic buildings grant, would he look at it with sympathy? I appeal to him to bear in mind the very strong local feeling, which will be confirmed by the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Pott)—I almost did him a political disservice by calling him my hon. Friend.

This debate arises out of a matter which I raised before Christmas—the fate of the large number of round barrows and long barrows in Wiltshire which are threatened with destruction. Indeed, I can go further. I spent part of last Saturday in the rain at Winterbourne Stoke and Bishops Cannings and was able to see some very sad sights—the effect of bulldozing and deep ploughing with multiple ploughs and powerful modern tractors.

At one side of the Devizes-Beckenham Road, all I could see of a long barrow which had been 15 feet high was a patch of discoloured ground in a field, because it had entirely disappeared. Members of the Wiltshire Historical Society, who briefed me on this matter and accompanied me on Saturday, are very worried about what is happening to these long barrows and round harrows. The long barrows were built by Neolithic man between 2100 and 1800 B.C., when they were used as burial chambers. They were followed in the Bronze Age by the round barrows, built between 1800 B.C. and as late as 300 B.C. These were, likewise, burial chambers, but there were no skeletons in them, only urns containing ashes, because burial habits had changed.

These barrows are the only source of information about the habits and civilisation of those primitive people in this country during two thousand years of our history. Although archaeologists are able to learn something by excavation, there is no doubt that their techniques will improve, as they have done over the last thirty years. Over successive generations very much more will be learnt from excavations of some sites—if they are still there. But at the present rate of destruction there will be no barrows, long or round, left in Wiltshire in perhaps twenty or twenty-five years.

I and my friends in the Wiltshire Archaeological Society believe that the present procedure is not effective and that large numbers of barrows have never been scheduled or listed and that the present procedure for listing these monuments should be revised, and even that many of those which are scheduled are being destroyed without the knowledge of the Ministry of Works.

We would like to see a reversal of the present procedure so that a farmer, or any other land owner, was not permitted to destroy, or, indeed, to touch one of these ancient monuments, without a specific order, which might be called a ploughing order, being issued in each case. Will the Parliamentary Secretary consider a change in the procedure?

I am asked by my friends in the Wiltshire Archaeological Society to say that they feel strongly that there is more joy over one barrow that is preserved than over ninety and nine barrows which are ploughed out now, because of the need for keeping these monuments for archaeologists of the future to work on and in their original state to be looked at and admired by people interested in these things. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to tell us that he is proposing to take steps to do something to prevent the present destruction.

We appreciate, of course, that these barrows are a nuisance to the farmers on whose land they are found and ought to be preserved, but it is only fair to add that farmers buying land with barrows on them usually get heavy reductions in the price because the barrows are there.

I think that there is a very strong case for some of these groups of barrows, particularly those in the neighbourhood of Stonehenge, being acquired and preserved as a group, as ancient monuments and, if he does not have them, I would like the Minister to take powers permanently to secure these sites for the nation.

I conclude with one general observation. It is that many people who take an interest in these matters feel that the present arrangements for dealing with ancient monuments of all kinds are unsatisfactory. They wonder whether the Ministry of Works is really the right institution to look after the very wide range of architectural and historical monuments and buildings which is now in its hands. The Financial Secretary to the Treasury will shortly be receiving representations from the Council for British Archeology—if he has not already done so—which will urge that a new department be set up, perhaps on the lines of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research or the Nature Conservancy as it was when it was originally set up, in order to remove this responsibility from the hands of the hon. Member and his noble Friend. Is the Parliamentary Secretary aware that those representations are being made, and, if so, can he give an assurance that the entire question of the responsibility for ancient monuments will be studied?

Unless he can say something hopeful and helpful, I do not ask the Parliamentary Secretary to commit himself on that subject tonight, or on the future of the barrows, or, indeed, on the future of the barn. If he cannot give an encouraging reply, we would be quite content to wait until his noble Friend himself comes to Wiltshire on 12th May. We were extremely grateful to the noble Lord when he responded to the invitation, which I made to him across the Floor of the House, to come to Wiltshire. We will do our best to occupy his time in the county as usefully as we can, and I end by thanking him very much for giving us his time and for coming to see us.

11.44 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Works (Mr. Richard Thompson)

I thank the hon. Member for Swindon (Mr. F. Noel-Baker) for using his good fortune in the Ballot to raise this interesting subject, ranging quite wide, because, apart from anything else, it gives me an opportunity of stating what we at the Ministry of Works are doing to preserve the archaeological heritage to which the hon. Member rightly attaches so much importance.

I think that I shall not be paraphrasing the hon. Member unfairly if I say that what he wanted was more information under four main heads. First, he expressed the fear that even now considerable destruction of ancient monuments, particularly of barrows, in Wiltshire is going on despite the efforts to stop it. His second apprehension was about whether my right hon. Friend's powers and the present arrangements were adequate to prevent this occurring. Thirdly, there was a reference to Ave-bury, about which I shall have something to say later. Finally, he queried whether the Ministry's general arrangements for listing, scheduling and the like were appropriate, and whether they should not be reviewed.

Perhaps I might start by dealing with the general point about the feared destruction of ancient monuments. I emphatically assure the hon. Gentleman that no widespread destruction of Wiltshire barrows is going on. Ploughing-up cases are very rare, and I am glad that they always attract the widespread attention that they do. That is salutary, because it serves to emphasise the obligations of farmers and others to scheduled monuments which may exist on their land.

It is important to distinguish between scheduled and unscheduled monuments. It is true that the great majority of the important ones are already scheduled, and that there are very few cases of destruction without my right hon. Friend having had the chance to intervene. When unscheduled, or for that matter scheduled, monuments are threatened, warning is usually given via the Ministry's county correspondents, local societies, or interested individuals. It is very seldom that we do not get a warning.

Because of the very heavy concentration of monuments in Wiltshire, we recently intensively surveyed the county to ensure that scheduling was as complete as possible. Nearly 800 monuments were involved, and are thus protected. I am glad to tell the hon. Gentleman, because he associated this debate with Wiltshire, that this means that that county is ahead by a clear margin of any other county in Britain in the number of its scheduled monuments. A particularly thorough job has been done there. Two-thirds of these are prehistoric burial grounds, megalithic remains, camps, and ancient settlements.

Scheduling does not mean that all of the vast number of barrows can be preserved, but it effectively ensures that such monuments are not destroyed without my right hon. Friend's knowledge and without his first having had an opportunity to intervene. In important cases—I am talking about barrows which are judged to be the most significant—preservation can some times be achieved by negotiation, by the offer of grants, by purchase, by guardianship, or even by the threat of compulsory action. In the less important cases it is sufficient to ensure that the barrows are adequately investigated by excavation before destruction.

Sometimes the Ministry of Works does this job. Sometimes we get it done by making a grant to the local committee or archaeological society. May 1 say, in passing, that the Wiltshire Archaeological Society is a particularly live and helpful one in all these activities.

The hon. Gentleman might like to know that the expenditure on these grants for excavation in the year 1953–54—which was the year before we began our intensive survey in Wiltshire—over the country as a whole was £18,500, and for the current year which we are just finishing it is estimated at £38,000, so that during that period we have effectively doubled our expenditure on this. For instance, after the special Wiltshire survey to which I have referred the Ancient Monuments Board agreed that about 80 barrows which had already been extensively ploughed, and which were in danger of being lost altogether, should be excavated before finally being allowed to go. About half of those barrows have so far been dealt with. The results have been good, and much valuable information has been gained.

Then there is the case of barrows on Crown land. They are not formally scheduled, but the Crown Department is notified of their existence and position and asked to act as though scheduling applied, and the system works well. Many barrows are on National Trust land, and a good deal of this is sublet to tenant farmers, but I am glad to say that, following discussions with my Ministry, the National Trust has agreed to instruct its tenants not to plough up barrows, and is considering the acquisition of barrows elsewhere, as may be necessary.

I want now to say a word about the adequacy of my right hon. Friend's powers in this matter. I am confident that they are adequate. Let us first consider scheduling. It is on the advice of the Ancient Monuments Board relating to monuments that their preservation is judged to be of national importance, and the legal effect is that owners and occupiers must give three months' notice of demolition—and along with demolition I include addition to the monument or alteration to it—except in an emergency.

This gives my right hon. Friend time for reflection, in order to decide whether to use his further powers or not. His further powers include interim preservation notices, preservation orders and guardianship orders. An interim preservation order is valid for twenty-one months, a preservation order remains in force indefinitely unless it is revoked, and a guardianship order may be made if it appears to my right hon. Friend that the monument may fall into decay due to neglect. He then becomes responsible for its maintenance.

Owners are given preliminary warning of intention to schedule, and statutory notices are served on owners and occupiers. Further, the scheduling is recorded in the register of local land charges, so that new owners may be fully aware of their responsibility. To ensure that that responsibility is not lost sight of we have a system whereby all owners and occupiers are reminded by letter at least once every five years of their ownership of a scheduled monument.

I find it difficult to believe that this system can be improved on, in practice, in the way suggested by the hon. Member. The obligation is on owners now to give three months' notice of any intention to destroy, alter or in any way change a monument. In cases where destruction has occurred it is usually due to the carelessness of an employee, and we do not believe that the law is being abused. Nevertheless, I would like the hon. Member to feel that on the rare occasions when the law is contravened—sometimes inadvertently— my Ministry invariably considers the question of prosecution and initiates proceedings where the circumstances appear to justify this.

The penalties under the Ancient Monuments Act where a farmer ploughs up a scheduled barrow without giving three months' notice of his intention are a fine of up to £100 or imprisonment up to three months, or both, and the publicity which these proceedings normally attract has a valuable deterrent effect.

In conclusion, I should like to say a few words about Avebury. Broadly speaking, our policy is to clear the Circle as far as possible for archaeological excavation, and in implementing this we are, naturally, concerned with various factors, such as the condition of the present buildings, their usefulness and—this is relevant to the barn—their degree of historic and architectural interest, and the principles which guided us here were recommended by the Ancient Monuments Board and have been accepted both by us and by the National Trust. They are, broadly, that no new buildings should be erected within the Circle, that demolition should be selective, that buildings of antiquity and quality should as far as possible be retained and that corrugated iron and other dilapidated structures should be removed as soon as possible.

If the hon. Member likes to know our immediate plans, I can tell him that in 1958 the Ancient Monuments Board considered which works the Ministry should be recommended to do. The Board proposed a limited research dig to elucidate what is known as the North Setting. That was carried out by Professor Piggott last year. The Board considers that further recommendations must await the publication by Professor Piggott of his report on Avebury, which would incorporate the substance of Mr. Keiller's unedited papers about his work. Mr. Keiller was the prewar owner who did a lot of work on the monument before the war. That report has not yet been published, but the Ancient Monuments Board attaches great importance to further reconstruction work, for instance the re-erection of stones, which would add to public interest, and it hopes to give further advice about this when Professor Piegott's report is in its hands.

I was asked about preserving the barn at Avebury. This is not our monument, but belongs to the National Trust. My right hon. Friend will be glad to see this building preserved, and it is open to the Trust to apply for an historic buildings grant, but naturally I cannot forecast what the outcome of that would be.

The hon. Member asked whether we had agreed with the Trust to put up any money for this purpose, and I can tell him firmly that we have never discussed with the National Trust at any time a proposal that we should put up £6,000 each. I should not like him to have the idea that this proposal had been put on the table at any time. In 1960, we received the Trusts's application for an historic buildings grant on the basis of outstanding group value—that is, in relation to nearby buildings outside the Circle—but when the Trust's estimate increased from the original £5,000 to £10,000—£17,000, which was the figure mentioned by the hon. Member, the Trust withdrew its application.

I have tried to show that in this matter we are fully alive to the importance of the work which we have to do.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Twelve o'clock.