HC Deb 26 October 1992 vol 212 cc775-82 3.30 pm
Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington)

(by private notice): To ask the Secretary of State for National Heritage whether he will make a statement on the future of English Heritage.

The Secretary of State for National Heritage (Mr. Peter Brooke)

English Heritage has today published its forward strategy for the rest of the 1990s. The strategy sets out 20 key policy objectives. It proposes a new priority programme for restoration of the most important monuments in English Heritage's care and new partnerships for total management of other monuments. Grant resources will be better targeted on areas of greatest need. There will be vigorous private sector fund raising to widen support for key projects. There will be restructuring of the organisation to meet those objectives. Our citizens charter principles will be applied to raise standards of service. Proposals for London, which would redefine relationships between English Heritage and the boroughs, will be the subject of full consultation.

That is a positive, forward-looking strategy which recognises both the opportunities and the constraints which lie ahead. It confirms English Heritage's central role in the protection of our heritage. That role will continue, with my full support.

Mr. Corbett

I thank the Secretary of State for that reply, but why were the plans drawn up in such total secrecy? Was it a bureaucratic muddle, or does it demonstrate the scale of the shame and neglect that lie behind them? Why were not English Heritage's senior archaeologists and architectural historians consulted? Why was its Historic Buildings and Areas Advisory Committee ignored? Does not the Secretary of State understand that dividing English Heritage's 400-property estate into three arbitrary categories ensures that some sites will be doomed to neglect?

When we are in the depths of a never-ending recession, how does the right hon. Gentleman think that councils, owners and voluntary organisations can raise the money to take over the 200 sites that will be sold off when vital day-to-day services, which are already underfunded, are threatened with more cuts? How can they be expected to pay for the 480 jobs of people with unique skills, which are set to go for starters?

Does he accept that, for more than 100 years, the national responsibility for those sites has been maintained in the public interest, and that they are visited by increasing numbers of people from home and abroad who have a better love of our history than the unsuitable ideological ignoramus who presently chairs English Heritage?

Does the Secretary of State acknowledge that, under these plans, at the very least public accessibility is threatened, admission charges are to be increased and further work to uncover sites of national and international importance is to be put at risk? Many will see a Government, who have already sold so much of the family silver, now opening the vaults of our national heritage in an outrageous bid to place in private hands a valued heritage that, as the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor said, gives us our identity as a nation and helps bind us together?

Mr. Brooke

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his rhetoric, if not on the underlying sense of his questions.

The document that the chairman of English Heritage announced this morning is essentially a strategy document. There is an immense amount of work to be done at a tactical level, over which there will be widespread consultation with, among others, the advisory committees involved.

The hon. Gentleman said that the properties that fell to English Heritage would be doomed to neglect. The chairman made it clear this morning that approximately 60 sites of major, first-class importance will remain permanently within the hands of English Heritage. English Heritage will expect to continue to maintain a further 100 sites that are of significant importance. At the remaining sites, no charge is made for admission, they have no commercial aspect and no staff are physically present. In due course, English Heritage will discuss those sites with other organisations to see whether, by negotiation, other responsibility could be taken for them.

I particularly resile from the phrase used by the hon. Gentleman when he described the sites as being "sold off". That is not the project's intention—indeed, it would not be within the powers of English Heritage, as the ownership of sites either falls under a form of property law known as guardianship or rests with me as Secretary of State.

Of the 480 jobs to which the hon. Gentleman referred, 380 fall within the direct labour force and 100 relate to the administrative body. Of course the hon. Gentleman is right to say that there are some workers with unique skills, but some of the direct labour force—I do not mean this unkindly—are engaged in lawnmowing, and it would be wrong to use the phrase "unique skill" with reference to that job.

The hon. Gentleman was kind enough to refer to the increasing numbers wishing to visit English Heritage sites. In the past seven years, English Heritage has successfully improved public access to the sites and increased the numbers of those who visit them.

I took particular exception to the phrase used by the hon. Gentleman about the new chairman of English Heritage. I did not appoint the new chairman, but I worked with him closely for seven years at the Royal College of Art, initially as the Higher Education Minister and latterly as Member of Parliament for the constituency. Those who work at the Royal College of Art, including—notably—the student body, expressed the greatest regret when he left the Royal College of Art and transferred to his new post.

As I said earlier, public accessibility will be maintained. That will continue to be the case even if another organisation takes responsibility for the site.

There is of course a reference to raised income from admissions, but income can be raised from admissions by increasing the number of people who visit as well as by raising charges.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Will my right hon. Friend constantly uphold Britain's heritage, which is second to none in the world? If we do not do that, future generations will curse us, and they will be right to curse us.

In London, will not English Heritage be rather more reliable than some of the London boroughs?

Mr. Brooke

Of course I endorse everything my hon. Friend has said, not only about the scale of our heritage but about the commitment to its maintenance on my part and on that of my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key).

The London decision which is foreshadowed in the statement that Mr. Stevens made this morning will be the subject of consultation over a period. Certain local authorities in London are anxious to take over these responsibilities.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Does the Secretary of State accept that this document has caused the most widespread anxiety among all the bodies in this country concerned about national heritage; and that it outlines a strategy the detailed tactics of which suggest that more than half the properties currently owned by English Heritage will not enjoy the direct attention or involvement of the body statutorily responsible for their care?

Does the right hon. Gentleman further accept that the proposals with respect to dispensing with the direct labour organisation are in direct conflict with the advice of the National Audit Office, which as recently as July pointed to the shortage of skills in areas for which English Heritage has responsibility? Will he ensure that irreversible steps are not taken before the House has an opportunity to debate these matters—for the preservation of our heritage is the right hon. Gentleman's and our first responsibility?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman refers to the proposals as prompting widespread anxiety, but certain aspects of them will secure a welcome—such as, for instance, the concentration of resources that will flow from the redirection that Mr. Stevens has foreshadowed.

Each site will be a special and individual case, and the terms on which responsibility will be transferred will vary in every case and will respond to each case's circumstances. In certain instances, I dare say that management agreements will be considered.

The sites for which English Heritage is responsible have come together over the past decades—I mean this descriptively, not evaluatively—in a miscellaneous manner. I am perfectly aware of other organisations for which I am responsible deciding that it may be the interests of particular owners or controllers of sites. or of institutions, to transfer them into the hands of others who believe that they might be better able to look after their interests. The problem with looking after a rural property in, say Wales, is that that may be better done by those who wish—

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

English Heritage is not responsible for Wales.

Mr. Brooke

The right hon. Gentleman is right to exclude my Welsh example. Such a property is much more likely to be looked after well locally than by central control from London.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Staffordshire, South)

May I first say how much many of us welcome my right hon. Friend to his new responsibilities on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box? Most of us will want to study the document in rather more depth and detail than the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett) has studied his press releases. We will also expect the House to have an opportunity to debate the matter.

There is already great concern in London; English Heritage has performed a most valuable role, and it would be a great pity if would-be vandal developers thought that they could get away with things without proper monitoring in future. That impression is being given, probably wrongly, but I should be grateful for a robust rebuttal of it by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Brooke

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for his welcome. He is quite right to say that we shall get a more measured view of these proposals when their detail is looked at. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) asked about irreversibility. I should add to what I said in reply to the hon. Gentleman that there will be plenty of time during the discussion on the tactics of these strategic moves for sensible debate.

My hon. Friend asked about London. Because it is recognised that the performance by local authorities may be variable, there will be extended consultation to make sure that local authorities will properly be able to take the transferred powers.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

I also congratulate the Secretary of State on his appointment. Does he not understand that his statement will be viewed with anger and dismay by people all over the country, because it fails to grasp that the sites are our national heritage and that responsibility for them should be national—that is to say, with and by the Government?

Does the right hon. Gentleman not further understand that the third category of unstaffed sites, which he apparently considers to be of lesser importance, includes vital sites such as Arbor Low in a national park which are of key importance to our archaeological heritage? If those are privatised and responsibility is divested by the Government and English Heritage, and local authorities are asked to be responsible for them, will he at least make the responsibility statutory, so that local authorities can claim revenue support grant to help them fulfil the responsibilities in which the right hon. Gentleman does not seem interested although many people throughout the country are interested in them?

Mr. Brooke

The hon. Gentleman speaks about anger and dismay, and was obviously echoing the remarks by his hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), who asked the first question.

When I said that the unstaffed sites were in Mr. Stevens's third category, I was being descriptive in terms of the category. I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's kind words, but I stress that English Heritage is not thinking of transferring responsibility only to local authorities. It is looking for local voluntary bodies and bodies of a professional or expert nature. In the case of an archaeological site, there may well be an archaeological body into whose hands the site could be transferred. I repeat that each case will be looked at individually. English Heritage will need to be satisfied about those who will take on the responsibility, and it made it clear in its strategy document that, if it is not so satisfied, it will retain the responsibility.

Mr. John Gorst (Hendon, North)

As one who attended this morning's launch by Mr. Stevens along with my right hon. Friend, may I ask him to remember that one was left with the clear impression that the proposal is strong on wishful thinking and very weak on the possibility of resources? If no local authority resources are available, will my right hon. Friend's Department make the necessary expenditure, or will there be a complete wilderness in the B and C category sites for which English Heritage is responsible?

Mr. Brooke

I welcomed my hon. Friend's presence at this morning's press conference. The first question he asked gave rise to a lengthy answer by Mr. Stevens. I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher)—that the transfers are individual, and English Heritage will need to be satisfied that the body to which it is contemplating a transfer will be properly able to look after it. The issue of resources will obviously arise, but will be part of the decision as to whether the transfer should take place.

Ms. Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East)

Does the Secretary of State accept that, when he speaks vaguely about redirecting and concentrating resources, that is bound to give rise to a great deal of concern in some areas and on some sites which it is felt will lose out? Can he assure me that in my area, the north-east, all sites will be maintained, none will be allowed to fall into disrepair, public access will be maintained at all times and the essential character of the sites will not be changed simply for commercial exploitation?

Mr. Brooke

I am glad that the hon. Lady has asked those questions, although they are obviously rather detailed, about the sites in her area. The object of the exercise is not, in her phrase, "commercial exploitation". Some of the significant body of sites that have come into the hands of English Heritage over the years could more properly and sensibly be looked after by bodies closer to them, rather than being managed from London or one of the regional offices. Local bodies already have an interest in taking over such sites, and are prepared to enter into negotiations with English Heritage for them.

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)

I add my congratulations to my right hon. Friend. I am sure that he will agree that the description of Mr. Stevens by the hon. Member for Erdington is ridiculous. Many Conservative Members have the greatest confidence in his stewardship of English Heritage.

Can my right hon. Friend assure me that, regardless of ownership of the sites, the important factor in the policy of English Heritage will be that the sites are properly maintained? Secondly, will he bear in mind the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack)—that there is disquiet among Conservative Members about the listed buildings casework in London, in which English Heritage has a splendid record?

Mr. Brooke

I hope that it has been implicit in all my answers that English Heritage will be concerned, whatever the future of any site, to ensure that it is maintained to the standard that it has so far enjoyed. Secondly, we are contemplating local authorities in Greater London having responsibility for grade 2 buildings, although not for grade 2 star and grade 1 buildings, which are the responsibility of English Heritage around the country.

In that respect, London is coming into line with other parts of the country. Because a number of the London boroughs will have only sketchy facilities, there will be a prolonged consultation period to ensure that they are ready and prepared to take over that responsibility.

Ms. Glenda Jackson (Hampstead and Highgate)

Could the Secretary of State elaborate a little more on what is meant by "properly caring" for such sites? The Opposition have no argument with local management of sites by local people, but we are concerned because local people may have to provide the funds. Certain sites may lose their natural character by being taken over by the entrepreneurial spirit, or may be closed to the general public because entrance fees will exclude the majority of people for whom these sites are part of their history. Should not the House be concerned if these sites are barred to the generations who wish to admire what has gone before?

Mr. Brooke

I am happy to give the hon. Lady the assurance for which she asks. However, I must remark in passing that she is leading with her chin, in that Keats's house has been in the ownership of Hampstead borough council since 1924 and of Camden council since 1965. It is a matter of great regret to those of us who know the house well that Camden council is denying access to it.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the speculation in the press today that the Avebury site in my constituency will be affected by this morning's announcement? Will he give me an assurance that the unique nature of this immensley valuable prehistoric site will not be adversely affected by the strategy announced today?

Mr. Brooke

I am delighted to give my hon. Friend the assurance for which he asks. Like Stonehenge, Avebury is one of the seven world heritage sites for which English Heritage is responsible, and its care and maintenance of the site will continue in the same way as heretofore.

Mr. Geoffrey Robinson (Coventry, North-West)

The Secretary of State will know that we welcome his appointment to this important position. Will he assure the House on a couple of matters? First, he will be aware that the west midlands has many sites that could fall into the category that he has announced will be affected. While we welcome his assurance that these will not be subject to commercial exploitation, in his phrase, he must be aware that, as has been made clear already, the maintenance of those sites is paramount, as is public access to them on terms at least equal to the present ones.

Secondly, if the right hon. Gentleman has—as I understood him to say in his statement—the ultimate say on transfer of ownership, can he assure the House that he will not agree to any change of ownership or transfer of responsibility that does not as a minimum guarantee the two requirements to which I have referred? Indeed, could there not be an enhancement, as it were, of responsibilities, especially as some of the sites that are taken over will probably require additional resources in the light of additional responsibilities?

Mr. Brooke

I had the pleasure of being in the west midlands a weekend or so back, when I looked specifically at sites in the ownership of English Heritage and others in private hands. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he is seeking in terms of any decision about change of ownership that might be involved.

I shall give an example at random. Fort Cumberland, one of the forts in the River Solent, is extremely difficult to visit at present, for relatively obvious reasons, Hampshire county council wishes to acquire the fort from English Heritage, and I suspect that access to Fort Cumberland will be increased by such a move.

Mr. James Couchman (Gillingham)

I make no apologies for asking about a specific site. Chatham historic dockyard has the greatest concentration of ancient monuments in Europe in one place. Although it is managed by the historic dockyard trust, I would be grateful for my right hon. Friend's reassurance that the input that has come from English Heritage in the refurbishment of the historic dockyard will continue unabated and without any problem.

Mr. Brooke

I am pleased that my hon. Friend has praised what is happening at Chatham dockyard. As he knows, there is an agreed programme, and that programme will be honoured. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key), the Under-Secretary of State, had the pleasure of visiting the dockyard recently.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

When did Jocelyn Stevens advise the Secretary of State of his proposals? Why were documents not available to Members this morning? Will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that documents are available in the Library this afternoon?

Will the right hon. Gentleman clarify his statement that there will be private sector funding and reconcile that with his claim that there will not be any sell-off? Are we to assume from his statement that franchising and leases will be granted to private companies for some of the properties? Will he assure me that none of the properties that are much valued in Essex is proposed for sale or leasing? Finally, will he understand that all 1,400 members of staff have cause for anxiety, not only 300 of them?

I am sure that the members of staff will be as much in the dark as hon. Members about the details of the proposals. Is it not unsatisfactory and unfair for them? Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that they and others outside the House will see today's statement as indicative of the Government's decay, their lack of standards and a lack of pride in British heritage?

Mr. Brooke

I am rather diffident about saying to the hon. Gentleman, who I realise is a new Member, that I bring to the job both affection and pride in our heritage. I know that he did not intend to be personally disagreeable, but that was an incidental effect of his remarks.

The easiest response to the hon. Gentleman's question about private funding is to refer to the proposals for Stonehenge, which have been made public. We are planning to build a visitors centre quite some distance from the site. A private developer will be involved with the centre but we shall be working also in conjunction with the National Trust, which owns the land. Basically, we have a site which draws 1 million people a year. I think that it is the most visited ancient site in Europe. It is important that we ensure that the quality of services available to those who visit it are worthy of them.

Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I add my congratulations to those expressed to my right hon. Friend on his new responsibilities. Does he acknowledge that historic buildings and sites are the cornerstone of this country's tourist industry, and will he ensure that tourist boards and other bodies involved in tourism are widely consulted on the proposed strategy? Does my right hon. Friend believe that, if the review is implemented, overall a larger sum of money will be available for the preservation and maintenance of historic buildings and sites?

Mr. Brooke

I give my hon. Friend an assurance that tourist interests in the heritage, which are very important, will be kept informed and consulted. As to funding, I cannot prejudge any statement by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in a fortnight's time, but the grain of English Heritage's proposals is in line with the contribution that the private sector has made and will continue to make. I should earlier have answered the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) with an assurance that I will make the documents available in the Library.

Mr. Tony Banks (Newham, North-West)

This seems like the country's final closing down sale, when historic monuments are to be transferred to whomsoever they are transferred to. Will the Secretary of State give a firm assurance that, when monuments are transferred to local authorities, they will be given the necessary funds to continue to keep those monuments in the order that we would expect? Will the right hon. Gentleman also undertake that, when sites are transferred, those remaining will not be privatised by English Heritage?

Mr. Brooke

The question of resources for local authorities rests more with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment than with me, but I repeat my earlier assurance that, in its negotiations, English Heritage must be satisfied that those taking on responsibility for sites have the means of looking after them. The hon. Gentleman's point about the privatisation of other sites had the flavour of a rhetorical question. I gave an assurance earlier that the main body of sites, to which English Heritage assigns the first two categories of importance, will essentially remain under English Heritage's control. I repeat that we do not envisage commercial exploitation or the sale of sites.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker.

Madam Speaker

Order. I have a Standing Order No. 20 application to hear, so I ask the hon. Gentleman and others to resume their seats.