HC Deb 02 August 1972 vol 842 cc871-85

7.30 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Though I shall have some sharp things to say about the Government's plans for the future of Nature Conservancy and some less than gentle things to say about the financial attitude to the preservation of churches, I make no general complaint on the first two subjects—archaeology and ancient monuments. The truth is that the Minister has the good fortune to be served by extremely distinguished and scholarly people in the Ancient Monuments Inspectorate. Britain can be proud of this organisation.

If I put terse questions, it is to save time rather than make any kind of blanket complaint. The inspectorate has not only impressed the external world, but has internally impressed people here, like my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Pannell) who at one time was the Minister responsible.

If I speak shortly, it is because I have given the Department ample and detailed warning of some rather recondite questions which I should like to raise and we have gone through a great deal of the ground, perhaps marginally within the order of business on the Field Monuments Bill.

First, Durrington Walls, and I quote from a letter of 12th July: I can only express my chagrin that Paul Channon and the Department were misled into thinking—and he and they genuinely thought this—that the terms of the preservation order would be observed. It is no good crying over spilled milk. What I want to know is what steps are being taken to prevent such a situation recurring.

Secondly, on Sutton Hoo, a letter of 12th July says: We were waiting on the British Museum and they may be waiting on Dr. St. Joseph's aerial survey. I should like to know what has happened about Sutton Hoo, granted a new owner.

Thirdly, I warned the Department that I would ask for some kind of account of what was happening in our own backyard, if I may call New Palace Yard such. There was an undertaking that there would be a constant archaeological watch and we should like to know what has happened. How about interim reports to be put in the Library?

Fourthly, there is the issue of the Roman Basilica and Leadenhall Market site which is of particular importance, and with it the question whether the Department is satisfied that the City is paying sufficient attention to its own unique archaeology. I appreciate that space is short in the city and that people say that they have to earn their living and archaeology is costly but, with a little forethought, buildings can be put on stilts or there can be some exploration given time and records can be kept.

Here I again mention a subject of which I have given the Department warning, the imaginative scheme of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish) who is concerned with what is to happen to the nine miles along the Thames to the east of Blackfriars. I ask in this context what archaeological survey will be made during redevelopment.

Sixth, I am interested in marine archaeology and the discussions with Mr. Van der Heide, the distinguished nautical archaeologist, and the Dutch Government about the future of the "Amsterdam" and "Hollandia". Can we perhaps preserve the Dutch wreck off Hastings in the same way as the Swedes saved the "Vasa"?

Seventh, there is the question of the Barford area. This is a large early Bronze Age site which is in danger of destruction, and I ask whether the Department is going to take any action.

I refer to the letter to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister for Housing and Construction of 27th July from the dynamic Martin Biddle. To save time I shall not go through the letter other than to say that we would like a breakdown of the allocation of grant. In this context, the expenditure per capita, in the United Kingdom is 0.38p. In Holland it is 2.4 times as great, 0.91p. In Sweden it is 5.4p, 14 times as great. Other countries are spending significantly more per capita on their ancient heritage than we are. Not least, I suspect the Chinese. I hope the prospect of a Chinese exhibition in Britain materialises.

My hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) and my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Taverne) have taken a great interest in their cities. I should like to refer briefly to a meeting with Professor Maurice Barley, Martin Biddle and others. Professor Barley, the Chairman of the York Trust and the Urban Research Committee, pointed out on Monday that foundations and appeals no longer provided sufficient support in relation to need. Local authority support is given, but the complexity and depth of the sites now outstrip the competence of the local authority to provide matching grants. This is much of our problem.

I am concerned, as is my hon. Friend the Member for York, who has taken such a persistent interest in the archæology of his city, that work at York is to stop on 14th August. York is for many of us the epitome of urban archæology. According to Norman Hammond, and Martin Biddle, the shortfall is apparently £65,000, for many sites. Where work is going on now we rely tremendously on student volunteers, but people need more experience than they did 20 years ago. It is the job of central Government to provide more funds.

It is legitimate in general terms to ask about what concerns me above everything else, the shape of the Ancient Monuments Bill which we hope will be introduced next Session. Does it go further than merely to tidy up the Walsh Committee Report? Which of the Walsh recommendations do the Government not intend to implement? If they do not go further than Walsh, what will the Act do about the problems outlined in "The Erosion of History"? I refer to the meeting of Rescue on 29th April last year. Perhaps a Green Paper would be the answer.

The next subject is the preservation of churches. I praise the work of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust and many others. I want to refer to Norfolk and discussions I have had with Lady Harrod and others. The situation in Norfolk will apply in Devon and a number of other underpopulated areas, where in total there are 659 pre-1700 churches. Many of their communities cannot maintain them, but there are shining examples of what can be done. Worsted, a place with 300 inhabitants, raised £40,000 out of the £60,000 necessary. That is commendable, but not every community has that kind of spirit. What is at stake is our medieval heritage. I praise the county town of West Lothian and what the Rev. David Steel has done at St. Michael's, Linlithgow. The problem is known to the Department. If it were not, the eloquent exhibition in Westminster Abbey would prove the point.

I wish now to make my first major carp. This relates to the Finance Bill. Norwich, of all places, is vitally concerned with the problem. The hon. Member for Norwich, South (Dr. Stuttaford) said on 19th July: I come to one other odd anomaly, and now I refer to historic churches and other buildings. Many of us on this side of the House feel that we were badly treated because last week … their proposal"— on value added tax— would not have gone through had we not been given an assurance that the following day there would be a large grant made to historic churches. That statement was made to us sitting here in a determined group, who stayed sitting here for two or three minutes when the Division Bells rang, and then we heard that this great grant would he coming the following day. There were enough of us to take away the Government's majority. Then he expressed his sense of let-down: There is no doubt whatsoever that that other night there were enough of us here to have taken away the Government's majority in the Lobby."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 19th July, 1972; Vol. 841, c. 662–3.] The Minister is a former Whip. I do not chide him personally, but the fact is that there is a feeling of let-down. An announcement should be made about the kind of help, not necessarily through the tax system, being given to the historic churches.

Finally, I come to the Nature Conservancy, a subject of considerable interest to my right hon. Friend the Member for Grimsby (Mr. Crosland).

Because there are many others who wish to take part in the debate I will cut corners and refer the Minister, as I have his Department, to the authoritative report entitled "Requiem for the Nature Conservancy" on nature conservancy and also to the introduction by Kenneth Mellanby to the Monks Wood 1969–71 Report. The issue here is whether the executive service agency should join with the Department of the Environment and the research programme should remain with the NERC. It is the research staff who provide the ideas, the scientific know how, the ecological intuition, on which the general services programme is based.

The Nature Conservancy's evidence to the Lucas Committee said three things—conservation and research activities must be preserved, greater administrative independence as well as freedom to speak out in public on important issues must he preserved, and there should be more money. Above all the research and conservation functions should not be separated—indeed, the distinction between them is rather meaningless, in fact.

There are objections to putting the whole Conservancy in the Department of the Environment. That would have been my first choice, but the IPCS has serious objections and the IPCS is to fight, that in itself is a reason for not doing it. I gather from the professional organisation that it does not want this. The matter of over-riding importance is to keep the Nature Conservancy together, not to have Monks Wood or other parts hived off. To put it in the words of John Tinker in an article in New Scientist, what we do not want is a rump of a Nature Conservancy which has become a second-rate bureaucracy staffed by land agents. These are high-quality people we are talking about.

I hope that at the eleventh hour the Government will draw back from their proposals. They are bitterly resented. Yes, personalities do come into it, but this debate will have been worthwhile if only we can have an undertaking that the Government will reconsider their proposals for the Nature Conservancy and rescue it from what some of us regard as iconoclasm. I have put this into shorthand because I hope that others will have an opportunity of bringing forward their subjects.

7.42 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for his kind remarks in the opening stages of his speech concerning those who work in archæology. The hon. Gentleman raised a number of subjects and to be able to answer his questions I have quickly to fill in a certain amount of background information.

The Government's main responsibilities under the Ancient Monuments Acts are the protection of monuments of national importance against harm and their preservation by offering advice and repair grants and by taking specially important ones into their own care. That there is general support for this is suggested by the rapidly increasing numbers of visitors to the monuments in the Government's care—over 14 million in 1971 which is nearly double the 1961 figure. This has enabled us continually, and rapidly, to increase the funds available. Our budget this year of just over £3 million is ten times what it was 20 years ago—and nearly 25 per cent. more than last year. But we also recognise a further duty, to help secure the prior recording of those sites of significance which must inevitably make way for modern development. Although this is not of such interest—for instance visually—to the general public it is certainly most important for archæology. Here we try to arrange the necessary archæological investigation which often, but by no means always, consists of an excavation. We undertake some ourselves and arrange for others to be done by local societies and so on with the help of grants from us. The Government were concerned with over 150 such excavations in 1971.

The measure of our effort here is shown by the figures. Our allocations have increased at a much greater rate than have those for our general ancient monuments purposes—in spite of the much greater public appeal of the latter. In fact our allocation for excavations has multiplied nine-fold over the past nine years and now stands at £311,000. This is nearly 50 per cent. more than last year: and within the total the increase for highway excavations—the hon. Gentleman appreciates the importance of this matter—is over 100 per cent.

However, in spite of this very considerable increase over last year a real problem has suddenly arisen. On the one hand, the increase has raised the expectations of archaeologists so that applications have been made for extended or additional programmes. On the other hand, as I understand it, archaeologists have met with unexpected difficulty in raising money from other sources. The result has been that even our vastly increased allocation has now all been earmarked and societies making new or additional bids have, of course, had to he told this.

The hon. Gentleman said that he thought that all funds should be provided by the Government.

Mr. Dalyell

I was then referring to the difficulty of matching funds.

Mr. Eyre

If I have misunderstood the hon. Gentleman I apologise, but I am sure that we both welcome the efforts of Rescue and other organisations to raise money for this important work. However, we have not cancelled or curtailed any grants already promised. Nor are we taking the line that no new bids can be entertained this year even if they are for something really important. We have made no declaration other than that we would consider important matters.

It would, of course, be very easy to suggest that the Government should simply increase their allocation so as fully to bridge any gap there may be. But our resources for all ancient monuments purposes are inevitably limited and it would be a serious matter if, for instance, standing monuments were left to crumble through diverting money for their repair to the recording of archaeological sites which are about to be destroyed by development. Nor would it be right to move towards a position where all rescue excavations were 100 per cent. Government financed.

As I know they fully realise, archaeologists must also continue to look to other sources of finance, such as local authorities, the various charitable trusts and public appeals. But it is also up to the Department—and I fully recognise this —to consider how far we can help towards resolving this sudden problem. What we are in fact doing is carefully but urgently to review the whole position, and our priorities generally, in the hope that extra money can be found for important projects.

I cannot now deal with specific cases, but I noted the hon. Gentleman's remarks about York. However, I will read his speech and if there are any outstanding points I will write to him about them.

Mr. Dalyell

I was impressed by the trouble taken by the ancient monuments advisers in replying by letter to my points throughout the Field Monuments Bill.

Mr. Eyre

I much appreciate that. I assure the hon. Gentleman that any case which is particularly urgent will be dealt with first.

I hope I have said enough to make it clear that, so far from cutting off promised help, we are not only making available the whole of the vastly increased amount we have already found but are also, and anxiously, considering whether we can give further help towards resolving the difficulties now facing archaeologists.

The hon. Gentleman raised a number of questions. The first concerned Durrington Walls. The hon. Gentleman will remember that he raised this matter by was of Question on 26th July and that I then reported to the House that I had been given no notice of recent work but was assured by the owners that it was not deep ploughing but rotavation intended to prepare the land for grazing. He will remember that in reply to his supplementary question I stressed the importance of this historic monument and said it was under a preservation order. I also assured him that we were carefully investigating all the circumstances, and I had to make it clear that, till those inquiries are completed, I would be unable to say any more, and that continues to be the position since 26th July.

The hon. Gentleman raised the question of Sutton Hoo. We are waiting to hear from the British Museum. The new owner took over only a month ago, and it is felt that he should be allowed time to settle in a little before further approaches are made.

The hon. Gentleman also raised the matter of New Palace Yard. I am certainly able to give him the assurance that there is a continuing archaelogical watch there while the work goes on and that this will be maintained.

He also referred to Bermondsey. I am a little mystified by his reference to points which, he said, had been raised by his right hon. Friend the Member for Bermondsey (Mr. Mellish), because I have read carefully the letter from his right hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the study group in London dockland. It is dated 17th July, and though this letter expresses great concern about dockland, and the right hon. Gentleman is well known for his knowledge of and interest in the affairs of his district, and he describes the general problem, there is no reference in his letter to an archaeological matter.

Mr. Dalyell

He made reference to discussions.

Mr. Eyre

My right hon. Friend replied to the right hon. Gentleman's letter. Perhaps, in view of what he said, I ought to read the letter which the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bermondsey sent.

Mr. Dalyell

No. I do not press the point, other than make the general point that those nine miles of Thames-side are unique in Britain if not in Europe and the archaeological considerations are of extreme importance.

Mr. Eyre

The right hon. Gentleman on 17th July, in raising the question of the activities of the study group in London dockland, did not make reference to archaeological matters. In his reply on 26th July my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State gave a strong reassurance to the right hon. Gentleman in respect of the various points which he had raised, although he had not in any way referred to archaeological matters. I hope that that will be of some help to the hon. Gentleman. It appears that so far there is no written record of any archaeological matter raised by his right hon. Friend.

I pass to medieval churches. The Government are conscious of the problem of preserving the magnificent heritage of medieval churches which, together with those of a later date, form so important a part of the architectural and historic wealth of this country. There are some 2,000 churches listed in Category A and a further 9,000 in Categories B and C. A fair number of these are medieval. A great deal of thought is being given in various circles to the most effective way to achieve their preservation. There are bound to be many difficulties to be overcome in dealing with this complex and long-standing problem, but the Government approach the question of historic churches with appreciation and sympathy. There is no statutory bar on Exchequer aid for such buildings and if they are of outstanding historic or architectural interest they would, without change in the statutes, be eligible like other outstanding buildings for grant under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act, 1953.

Nevertheless, outstanding churches in use have been excluded by successive Governments from benefiting from those grant provisions. The main reason is that—largely at the Church of England's own insistence—churches in use as such have been excluded since 1913 from successive legislative controls in respect of material alterations to, or demolition of, secular historic structures. The argument was that the Church had its own method of control over historic churches; namely, by the Bishop's faculty jurisdiction.

This Government, like their predecessor, have always expressed their willingness to consider with an open mind any approach made by the Church authorities regarding the possibility of grants towards the cost of repairs to churches which are in use for ecclesiastical purposes. The General Synod of the Church of England has set up a working party with instructions to resume discussions with the Department on the question of grant aid for churches in use and this is not confined to those of the Church of England. The working party is in close touch with the Churches Main Committee. Preliminary meetings have taken place at officer level with the General Synod and its working party, which is at present collecting information, based on the quinquennial inspections, on the estimated cost of repairs to churches in a sample diocese, Lincoln, and the resources available to meet this, together with details of past expenditure on such works. The Department is collaborating in guiding this study, and when it is complete it is hoped it will provide a basis on which the Government can decide how to organise any subsequent discussions with the representatives of the Synod on this problem.

The Church authorities in Scotland have approached the Scottish Development Department on the question of grant aid for churches in that country and discussions are in progress.

Any decision on the provision of funds for grants for the repair of ecclesiastical buildings will have to be taken in the light of all the factors involved, including the ecclesiastical exemption from listed building control and the related question of churches which may be declared redundant under the terms of the Pastoral Measure, 1968.

I turn to the subject of value added tax. As my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer told the House on 12th July It may be that one solution for dealing with historic churches would be to do so through the normal grant system. The Government are ready to consider such a solution with the churches. But there may be a better answer and before any decision is taken the best course would be for the churches to discuss their problem with the Customs".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 12th July, 1972; Vol. 840, c. 1690.] Since then the Churches Main Committee has been in touch with the Treasury and arrangements have been made for a meeting to discuss the matter with Her Majesty's Customs next week. We must await the outcome of those discussions. I know that the hon. Gentleman will appreciate that any question of the effect of VAT on churches is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Dalyell

May I say, in the fortuitous presence in the Chamber of the hon. Gentleman the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that my number one choice would be help to the churches, not through VAT, but through some form of direct grant.

Mr. Eyre

I wish now to refer to churches no longer required for public worship. The present procedures in relation to such churches are laid down in the Pastoral Measure, 1968, which in turn derives from the report of the Arch- bishop's Commission on Redundant Churches which was published in 1960. Two bodies were established under the Measure—the Redundant Churches Fund whose object was the preservation, in the interest of the Church and nation, of churches and parts of churches of historic or architectural interest vested in the fund by the Measure together with their contents so vested, and the Advisory Board for Redundant Churches whose function is to give information and advice to the Commissioners on or concerning the historic and architectural qualities of any church or part of a church as respects which the question arises whether it ought to be declared redundant, or as respects which questions arise as to its use, demolition or preservation on, or in the event of, its being declared redundant; the board has a duty to consult the Redundant Churches Fund as to the money available for the preservation of any church.

Section 2 of the Redundant Churches and Other Religious Buildings Act, 1969, provides that Section 55 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1971, which restricts the execution of works for the demolition, alteration or extension of a listed building, shall not apply to demolition in pursuance of a pastoral or redundancy scheme under the Pastoral Measure 1968 of a redundant church. Under the Redundant Churches and Other Religious Buildings Act, 1969, the Secretary of State was empowered to contribute £200,000 from public funds over the first quinquennium towards expenditure by the Redundant Churches Fund, and to make grants for subsequent quinquennia. The Church Commissioners have also made £200,000 available for the first quinquennium. The Secretary of State's and the Church Commissioners' contributions are made by annual payments of £40,000 each. In addition the fund can receive up to £100,000 over the first five years by way of one-third of the proceeds of the sale of sites of such redundant churches of insufficient merit to require preservation.

Under Section 66 of the Pastoral Measure, the Diocesan Board of Finance, or the Redundant Churches Fund in respect of redundant churches which are vested in them, may enter into an agreement with the Secretary of State for the acquisition and preservation of such buildings by the Secretary of State. This would apply only in the case of buildings of such exceptional quality that they merit the highest standards of restoration and maintenance. No churches have so far been accepted though three are under consideration.

I now turn to the subject of nature conservancy, which the hon. Gentleman also raised. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment has as yet no responsibilities in relation to the Nature Conservancy. As the Government's White Paper of 19th July, "A Framework for Government Research and Development," made clear, it remains a constituent part of the Natural Environment Research Council until Parliament passes legislation to alter its status. However, in the meantime the NERC will be working very closely with my Department and the Conservancy itself in devising appropriate arrangements for the interim and longer term.

But the White Paper announced the Government's decision, subject to Parliament, to reconstitute the Conservancy; while its research side would stay with the NERC its conservation side would come under a new Nature Conservancy Council, which would be appointed by my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for the Environment. This would be a Great Britain body, having committees for England, Wales and Scotland, and of course the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales and their Departments would be closely associated with the Secretary of State for the Environment and his Department in dealings with the Conservancy.

Mr. Dalyell

The close association that I care about is between research and the executive function.

Mr. Eyre

If the hon. Gentleman will bear with me, I shall be explaining the principle which is to be applied. My right hon. Friend has already met the Nature Conservancy Committee, and it may help if I repeat a little of what he told them about his intentions for the new Nature Conservancy Council when, and if, Parliament approves its setting up. It will be a statutory body; it will be largely autonomous; it will have freedom to express its views on issues affecting wild life; and, indeed, it will be free to take a different line from the Government on issues if it is so minded. The Secretary of State plans to fund it by grant-in-aid, so it would have a good deal of financial freedom without the need for detailed approval by the Department of the Environment. The new Council will, of course, have a separate job from that of the two Countryside Commissions, and the Government have no intention of combining it with them.

Naturally some people are anxious about what the future holds. In particular, they fear that the new Nature Conservancy Council may lose its scientific character. In making arrangements to carry through the Government's decision we shall want to make sure that this does not happen. We shall want the staff to continue the present interchange of ideas and experience at working level with their colleagues in the NERC. We hope to see staff transferring from the research to the conservation side and vice versa as may be appropriate, including, for example, in the interests of their careers. We want the research staff to use the nature reserves without impediment. It is envisaged that in future, as in the past, some conservation staff should be working at the research stations.

Present arrangements for inter-working ought to continue, unless better ones can be devised. We believe this degree of integration can be retained, although it will be essential for individual jobs and facilities to be the responsibility of one Council or the other. The Government's decision is not intended to divide the Conservancy staff at working level, but to put each functional activity under a council that can concentrate on main responsibility—research, on the one hand, and environmental conservation, on the other.

The hon. Gentleman has by implication referred to recent Press articles on the Nature Conservancy's future. I hope what I have said will go some way to setting the fears at rest.

Mr. Dalyell

The reason I did not spell out these articles was to save time. There is no "by implication" about it.

Mr. Eyre

If I have been inexplicit, it is because my right hon. Friend approaches his future responsibility for nature conservation without preconceptions, except perhaps the need to ensure that the achievements of the Conservancy are maintained, and also that it develops its full potential in the widest possible context.

There is a lot to be done to devise appropriate ways and means. My right hon. Friend hopes the staff and the staff associations will play a full and constructive part in working them out. If they do, and adequate arrangements are thus made, my right hon. Friend is confident that, with the growing interest in environmental conservation, the Conservancy can look forward to an expanding and active future.

I know the hon. Gentleman will understand that other hon. Members wish to raise further matters. I assure him that any outstanding points that he has raised will be dealt with by letter from my Department.