HC Deb 31 January 1974 vol 868 cc730-40

9.10 p.m.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

It is unusual that a private Member has the opportunity of raising a subject on a second Adjournment debate, but we are at the beginning of what could be a momentous weekend, and perhaps it is appropriate that in the quiet of this evening we should turn our minds to a gentle subject of far-reaching and continuing importance.

The subject is the preservation of the nation's historic buildings. It might seem at the outset that this speech is repetitious of the debate we had last Friday on the Town and Country Amenities Bill introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers), but I shall try to be at once wider and more specific than we were able to be then, talking in general about historic buildings and not expanding on the beauties of and the virtues of preserving the countryside.

This is an issue of great importance. We talk frequently about the quality of life, and very often we do not bother to define what we mean. But surely one of the essentials for a nation which boasts of having the quality of life in the forefront of its national objectives is to have a proper sense of history, a proper appreciation of its past. A nation's history is recorded perhaps more eloquently and graphically in its historic buildings than anywhere else.

In this country, which until this century generally escaped the ravages of war, we have a particularly magnificent architectural heritage, one which it should be the prime duty of any Government to safeguard. The problem is very difficult. It is not merely a question of being able to cope with the ordinary wear of centuries. The pressures of modern society make it increasingly difficult for old and often frail buildings to be properly maintained and, indeed, to survive. One thinks of the demands of modern technology and a growing population and of economic pressures, of the necessity for motorways and airports and so many other things, not to mention such factors as the effects of sonic booms, tunnelling and the rest.

What do we do in this country to try to safeguard our architectural heritage? What resources do we devote to it? I believe that the record of the present Government is good. They have increased very considerably the sum available for the maintenance and preservation of historic buildings. Indeed, they have virtually doubled it over a period of three and a half years. But even today we are spending in one financial year only about £1½ million from the national Exchequer towards this extremely important objective.

What I say now must not be taken in any critical spirit by my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, but, when one considers the enormous sums expended by his Department, this is a veritable drop in the bucket. Let us think for a moment of the annual expenditure on the roads. I believe that the annual sum spent on historic buildings is less than the average cost of a mile of motorway. That perhaps puts it into its somewhat incongruous perspective. When we turn to the vast contemplated expenditure on projects as enormous as Maplin and the Channel Tunnel, without for one moment commenting on their virtues or defects, we realise that we are not spending very much at all.

I want to highlight three problems, two of which are general and one of which is particular. I deal first with the recent problem confronting all those concerned with the restoration and repair of ancient buildings. I refer to the situation brought about by the introduction of value added tax. Again, I will not discuss the merits of VAT as a tax. It would be improper to do so and you would rule me out of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. It is a fact that this tax has imposed a severe burden upon those whose duty it is to look after the nation's historic buildings.

I quote briefly from an article which appeared in The Times six or seven months ago referring to the problem of restoring Ely Cathedral, surely one of the greatest gems of medieval architecture. It said: The cathedral has launched an appeal for £350,000, mainly to pay for necessary repairs to the west tower and other parts of the building and its associated medieval monastery buildings. On top of rising building costs, VAT will add 10 per cent., probably nearly £30,000 to the cost of the work … So far the Government have resisted making exceptions for historic buildings, and conservationists and architectural historians such as Sir Nikolaus Pevsner have been worried about the effect of VAT on conservation. The problem has become even more acute since that was written. Many more examples have come to the notice of those of us concerned with this subject. There is an overwhelming case for granting a degree of exemption. While I fully appreciate that this is not within the province of my hon. Friend, I hope he will at least draw to the attention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer what I am saying so that when he comes to decide upon the measures he wishes to incorporate in this year's Budget he will possibly think a little gently of those facing this problem. If we put this in another way, it can be said that 10 per cent. of the £1½ million at present being given for the maintenance of historic buildings is returning to the Treasury. That is not a very commendable statistic.

Another matter, different but in some ways more important, is the shortage of craftsmen. No one has done more in recent years in a practical sense than Mr. Bernard Feilden, the architect retained by York Minster and who presided over the restoration of that glorious building. I refer briefly to a paper which he prepared on the subject. He says: It is considered that the next 10 years will be a highly critical period for conservation craftsmen. They are affected by inflation and caught in a downward spiral of lack of work, low wages and rising costs. Subjected to these economic pressures they will tend to become so scarce that they will then acquire scarcity value and may only be appreciated in esoteric circles.… Certain traditional crafts are indispensable to the conservation and adaptation of historic buildings. In addition the practice of these crafts has a high cultural and social value in an age which is dominated by industrial technology. No one would dissent from that admirable sentiment.

Mr. Feilden goes on to say: It is curious that we are greatly concerned"— and rightly— about the extinction of certain species of birds and animals, but paying no attention to the potential extinction of conservation craftsmen". He advocates the setting up of heritage craft trusts.

I should like to lend Mr. Feilden's paper to my hon. Friend so that it can be given the study and attention in his Department which I believe it merits. Mr. Feilden refers to "cathedral workshops" and thinks that they could be turned into Heritage Craft Trusts, and if they received a subsidy on the cost of their work, their costs could be lowered substantially to the building owner. It is considered essential to do something quickly because time is short, and most of the craftsmen with the traditional skills are well over 50 years old. Whether we think of stonemasons or carvers, plasterers or glaziers, of which there is a critical shortage, the supply will be extinguished by the turn of the century unless positive steps are taken. I have urged the Government to spend more money, but it would be absolute folly if they merely spent more money on the buildings and then found that there was nobody to do the essential repairs and restoration work. Therefore, this matter should be given urgent and critical attention.

I said that I would discuss two general matters and one particular matter. The particular matter is the preservation of our historic churches. Possibly I shall be accused in some quarters of riding this hobby-horse too often, but it is a good thing that occasionally Members should have non-partisan bees in their bonnet and should talk about matters which greatly concern them.

It would be out of order for me to refer in detail to my Private Member's Historic Churches Preservation Bill which I hope will receive a Second Reading tomorrow. Suffice it to say that it is unlikely that we shall have time for a Second Reading debate and, although I do not intend to make my remarks a Second Reading speech, it would be generally accepted that it is permissible to talk about the problem in general.

I wish to refer to the nineteenth report of the Historic Buildings Council, which does magnificent work. In this its last published report, which appeared almost a year ago, the council turned its attention to the question of churches and other religious buildings in use—because there are reasonably satisfactory measures for looking after redundant churches and other religious buildings. The council points out that it is aware of the ecclesiastical exemption but that it must express its concern. at the possibility that congregations may no longer be able or even willing to maintain without help the fabric of the large number of churches of outstanding historic and architectural interest still in use in this country. We therefore warmly welcome your current discussions"— that is, the Secretary of State's discussions— with the church authorities and the steps being taken to find a solution for this urgent problem. I should like to say how much I welcome those discussions. I hope that they will make my projected Bill superfluous and that there will be a voluntary agreement satisfactory to all.

As the council says, So many of our churches and chapels, besides being of outstanding interest in their own right, are a key to the beauty and character of our cities, villages and countryside". They are often the focal point of a landscape or townscape. It is nonsense that someone living in a Queen Anne house is, rightly, eligible to receive a grant for the upkeep of the building, whereas a Norman church in the village which he may attend is not eligible for grants from public funds.

I have become even more acutely aware of this problem over recent months since I was appointed to the grants committee of the Historic Churches Preservation Trust, a body which for more than 20 years has done sterling work in the preservation of our churches. Although I do not want to breach any confidence, I think I may quote two examples that have come recently before the trust. One is a most charming Norman church in Shropshire with one of the most exquisite carvings in the country, a wonderful tympanum. The population of the parish is 53 and the average attendance at the Sunday services is eight. Although the parishioners are faithful and devoted and have raised many hundreds of pounds, without help that church would fall to the ground.

The trust was able to step in, just as it was able to step in in the diocese of Norwich, a diocese that is full of the most glorious churches. Again, the trust was confronted with a Norman church, a lovely little building. The population of the parish was 150 and the average attendance at Sunday services was between 15 and 20. The church needed £4,000 and the trust was able to help.

Whilst it is absolutely right that congregations should do everything in their power to raise the necessary sums, and that there should be voluntary bodies such as the trust to produce extra assistance, it is a glaring nonsense that these buildings should not at least be eligible to apply for grants from the public purse. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to consider what I have said in that regard. I appreciate that detailed negotiations are going on, but they have been going on for some considerable time. Many people, of whom I am one, are becoming understandably impatient, and I hope that soon a satisfactory conclusion will be reached.

Until about two hours ago I did not know that this debate would take place, nor did my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State. In tying up my perhaps somewhat disjointed remarks, may I say that Governments are judged not merely by their handling of crises, important as that is, and not merely by their political expertise in coping with the Opposition, important though that might be. Governments are judged by succeeding generations as much as anything else on the impact they have made on the quality of life in the country over which they have presided.

Increasingly today people are looking to the Government as the only body capable of ensuring that future generations enjoy the glory and the beauty of England as we have been able to enjoy it. Much destruction, much senseless development and much ugly juxtaposition of glaring modern buildings with ancient buildings has taken place in recent years, but we still have many glories of which to be proud. I hope that we shall never be complacent but always anxious to devote more and more resources to the preservation of our environment, so that in 100 years' time people will say that the Government which set up the first Department of the Environment did more than pay lip service to our heritage: they ensured its survival and preservation.

9.30 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Hugh Rossi)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock (Mr. Cormack) for taking the spare time that is available to us this evening to raise the important subject of the preservation of historic buildings, in which I know he has a genuine interest and concern.

There is today greater public interest than ever before in safeguarding and preserving our architectural heritage. Amenity societies proliferate, popular newspapers have their special correspondents on the subject, heated and lengthy letters to editors appear if an important building appears to be threatened, and many local societies back their views with hard cash—either to employ consultants to produce special reports or to purchase properties in danger. This is all most welcome, particularly in this age of increased pressure of development on our very limited resources of land. In the use of financial resources the Government must have regard to the nation's past as well as to its future. The problem is to strike the right balance.

My hon. Friend has raised three specific matters, and I shall try to answer him on each. The first matter concerns the lack of craftsmen. Part of the problem is that craftsmen are just not available in sufficient numbers. For instance, demand in one area for specialised craftsmen is usually intermittent and makes it difficult for builders who are small or medium-sized in their establishment to employ craftsmen permanently upon their staff. Where the craftsmen are employed in large firms based, for example, in London, these must charge high travelling costs for their labour, and this has the effect of making their services too expensive for potential users and, in turn, makes it less worth while for even the larger firms to carry specialist tradesmen.

Perhaps the most telling of all the considerations is the lack of mobility among the self-employed or previously itinerant craftsmen, and generally higher rewards in industry as a whole have the effect of making younger men reluctant to undertake long apprenticeships and training schemes in order to become skilled. There is in all these factors a growing tendency for fewer and fewer craftsmen to be available, and the more specialised the craft the fewer are the craftsmen practising it, for example, carvers in wood and stone. It is accepted that we may be meeting real difficulties within the next few years.

Two ways of increasing the supply of craftsmen are at present being studied. It has been suggested that craft trusts should be set up on a non-profit-making basis to provide a pool of specialists—the York Glaziers' Trust is one of them—but it is still to early to say whether this solution is viable when applied to other trades. My hon. Friend has asked me to study certain papers, and I shall gladly look at them.

A less acceptable possibility is to subsidise training schemes. There are economical and political problems involved in subsidising such schemes, but the schemes are being looked at seriously. There are already some 15 craft training establishments which are capable of expansion in terms of the number of men who go through them and the number of trades in which they are trained. But the real problem is to provide incentives to men to undertake this training and to ensure their subsequent employment in the industry. An ancillary difficulty is to keep alive the demand for the quality of standards which in themselves would generate a demand for a craftsman who is capable of fulfilling these quality standards.

There are no insuperable difficulties about setting up training courses, but the situation will not be helped if there is a lack of teachers, who must come from reducing numbers of older craftsmen.

My hon. Friend also referred to the problem of VAT, and I shall deal with that now. The application of VAT to the repair and maintenance of buildings in general and of historic buildings and churches in particular was carefully considered during the course of the 1972 Finance Bill. The Government concluded that VAT was not a suitable means of promoting specific social aims, however desirable they might be, since detailed reliefs would inevitably result in anomalies and distortions of the kind that were a constant source of difficulty in the case of purchase tax and SET. If relief were to be given for the repair and maintenance of historic buildings and churches there would be considerable pressure for an extension of this relief to other buildings, including those run by charities and other philanthropic organisations. The scope would widen considerably, possibly to the extent of relieving all repair and maintenance work, which accounts for a large part of discretionary consumer expenditure. I am advised by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that the cost of such relief would be over £75 million in a full year.

Mr. Cormack

I am afraid that I am not altogether clear. Does my hon. Friend mean if the cost of relief of all repair work were accepted, or just the work on historic buildings? If he means the latter, I think he is wrong.

Mr. Rossi

I am arguing that once an exception was made it would be difficult to refuse these other valid exceptions for which a precedent would have been created. I repeat that the total cost for a full year is estimated to be £75 million. If that kind of relief were conceded the standard rate of VAT—at present one of the lowest in Europe—would be endangered.

I shall draw the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to what my hon. Friend has said. But it would be wrong of me now not to mention the other side of the coin. As regards the availability of funds for preservation, grants made for the repair of buildings of outstanding historic or achitectural interest, on the advice of the Historic Buildings Council, take into account the cost of VAT; and part of the increase made this year in the allocation of funds for these grants from £1 million to £1.5 million was designed specifically to enable the extra costs arising from VAT to be taken into account.

Mr. Cormack

That is all very well as far as it goes. But it means that it is partially an artificial increase. In any event, it does not meet the point that those who give voluntarily to bodies such as those to which I have referred are, in effect, giving 10 per cent. of their money to the Exchequer. I hope that my hon. Friend will make specific mention of this point to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

Mr. Rossi

Certainly I will draw attention to that. But if the grant is geared to meet VAT, probably my hon. Friend's argument is not quite so logical. He must bear in mind that, similarly, the amount available for conservation grants for outstanding conservation areas was increased from £500,000 to £750,000.

Local authorities are, of course, partly shielded from VAT as work carried out on their historic buildings is exempt or recoverable.

Many historic buildings are owned or supported by charities. When account is taken of the recent substantial estate duty and capital gains tax concessions to charities, there is little doubt that the net benefit to them susbtantially outweighs the cost of the changeover to VAT.

Finally, I turn to the third point made by my hon. Friend about the absurdity of grant-aiding a Queen Anne building but not a Norman church. Churches of outstanding architectural or historic interest are not debarred by statute from receiving grant from the Secretary of State under Section 4 of the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953, but they have nevertheless been excluded by successive Governments from benefiting from the grant provisions. When the 1953 Act was debated, it was made clear that it was not the intention that the modest sum available should be used for the preservation of churches. This is also in line with the discussions between Church and State in 1913 at the time when the Ancient Monuments Act 1913 was debated. It was argued that the Church had its own method of control over historic churches through the bishops' faculty jurisdiction and, if given freedom from State control, would be responsible for looking after its churches without State help. As a consequence, churches in use are exempt from the listed building control in the planning Acts. There is perhaps the appearance of an absurdity here, but this Government, like their predecessors, have always expressed their willingness to consider any approach made by the Church authorities regarding the possibility of grants togards the cost of repairs to churches of outstanding historic or architectural interest which are in use for public worship.

The General Synod of the Church of England set up a working party with instructions to resume discussions with my Department on this question. The discussions are not, of course, confined to the Church of England. The working party is in close touch with the Churches Main Committee.

The working party has now, with the advice of the Department, carried out studies in the dioceses of Norwich and Lincoln of the estimated costs of necessary repairs and the local funds available to meet these. These have now been completed, but in order to give a more balanced picture the working party is also carrying out some less intensive studies on churches in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Cheltenham, and we hope to receive these in the near future.

The studies are designed to show the scale and nature of the problem and its implications for public expenditure, and provide a basis for detailed discussions both with representatives of the General Synod and with Treasury Ministers. The question of the ecclesiastical exemption will also come up in these discussions. Along with my hon. Friend, I hope that the discussions will not be too protracted.

I hope I have said sufficient to indicate to my hon. Friend that the Government are not unsympathetic to the matters which he has raised and that wherever practical solutions can be found they will be proceeded with.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eighteen minutes to Ten o'clock.