HC Deb 10 February 1998 vol 306 cc156-9 4.19 pm
Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the preservation of war memorials; to ensure their proper transfer to a suitable location if their present site is redeveloped; to amend the War Memorials (Local Authorities' Powers) Act 1923; and for connected purposes. The immortal words of Laurence Binyon stir most of us:

  • "They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
  • Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
  • At the going down of the sun and in the morning
  • We will remember them."
Yes, we will remember them and, for the most part, we do. There is a new interest in remembrance. The undoubted success of the Royal British Legion's 11.11.11 campaign shows that people of all ages appreciate how important it is never to forget. Young people too, who could never be accused of wanting to glorify war, realise that remembrance of past suffering is the prerequisite to the avoidance of future conflict.

At remembrance services, we not only honour the dead who made the supreme sacrifice, but renew our determination never to let it happen again if at all possible. Those services take place at thousands of well-kept memorials up and down this land. One might be forgiven for concluding that there is no problem, but there is indeed a problem or, more correctly, a few problems.

First, we do not know exactly how many war memorials we have in the United Kingdom or where they all are. The charity Friends of War Memorials estimates that there are at least 50,000 and possibly up to 70,000. The national inventory of war memorials, started by Alan Borg, director general of the imperial war museum, is doing excellent work, but has recorded only about 26,000 of them so far. That inventory is vital. We cannot ultimately prevent a memorial from being lost, if we do not know of its existence in the first place.

For the most part, the vast majority of our war memorials are in good repair, well tended and not vandalised, and the names of those honoured are legible. However, not all are thus. Friends of War Memorials has disturbing documented evidence that hundreds of war memorials are in a state of disrepair or neglect. I have a file of photographs here, taken across the country, showing memorials broken, damaged or so eroded that the names have disappeared, while others tucked away at the back of a municipal park or garden are so overgrown with weeds that they are practically invisible.

However, there is an even worse problem. Some memorials no longer exist at all. When we see the awe-inspiring solidity of the Cenotaph, or the other great memorials to the Royal Navy, the Army and the Air Force around the country, or the marble, stone and bronze monuments commemorating the fallen in all our towns, villages and parishes, it is difficult to accept that some memorials are disappearing for ever, or are being disposed of inappropriately.

The problem is not those on public land or in civic ownership, but largely those in churches that have become redundant. In the past few years, hundreds of churches have closed down and in many cases, the war memorials, rolls of honour and commemorative plaques have ended up in scrap yards or architectural salvage shops. In October last year, Mr. Ian Davidson, the founder of Friends of War Memorials, purchased for £35 from an antique dealer in Surrey a wooden memorial roll of honour containing the names of 109 war dead. That is just £3 per name. That memorial came from a redundant church, and he is searching for a suitable site for its rededication.

How has that appalling state of affairs come about? As a result of the sheer scale of losses in the first world war, every community was affected and wanted to build a war memorial. Of course, there was no legislation to control the construction and as a result, Britain now has a great wealth of memorials, some of outstanding architectural design and others much more plain, but all worth preserving. Thus we have memorials in churches, outside churches, in public parks, private gardens and cemeteries, in village halls, town halls and community centres, police headquarters and scout huts, hospitals, railway stations and private company offices, in small Government buildings in the provinces and great Departments of state in Whitehall and, of course, here in the royal palace of Westminster itself.

In most cases, no arrangements were made for future maintenance or upkeep when the memorials were built. It was just assumed that they would be maintained and there was no question of them being disposed of, just as no one thought in the 1920s that churches would become redundant one day. The first legislation to be passed was the War Memorials (Local Authorities' Powers) Act 1923, which gave power to local authorities, including parish councils, to spend reasonable sums on the maintenance, repair and protection of any war memorial within their district". However, it is a power, not a duty.

There is also legislation relating to the disposal of memorials in disused churches, but that is primarily concerned with burial grounds, the proper reinterment of human remains and the appropriate disposal of any accompanying monuments or memorials. The legislation is weak on memorials to people who are not buried in church grounds and, of course, it does not apply to all those buildings which do not have burial grounds attached. That is why so many memorials are being destroyed or sold off, or turning up in scrap yards. The legislation even states that memorials shall be broken or defaced before being otherwise disposed of. It is obvious to me that the legislation is intended to deal with individual tombstones in old cemeteries and that it was never envisaged that war memorials should be disposed of in that way.

The House will agree that there are loopholes in our existing law and that there is a problem that is growing daily. I am not asking the Government to take responsibility and therefore pay for any action, because that would be wrong in principle. The Government should be responsible only for national war memorials and those on Crown land; it cannot be right to make them responsible for memorials in churches, village halls, community centres and the thousands of private buildings and places that currently house war memorials. Nor should we make local authorities automatically responsible, as that might impose a large new financial burden. It is only where there are no alternative carers for memorials that local authorities might be given a duty to be the carer of last resort. However, I can envisage some possible solutions, which I want to examine carefully with some Government assistance. My only request to the Minister today is that she permits me to seek advice from the relevant officials in the Home Office who are knowledgeable on these matters.

The suggestion has already been made that all war memorials should be treated as listed monuments and so be made subject to the same planning controls as apply to all listed buildings and ancient monuments. That was the subject of an early-day motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers), which attracted support from hon. Members on both sides of the House. That idea has considerable merit and we need to explore what changes to the legislation would be necessary and to consider whether there might be unforeseen consequences. There are many memorials that are lovingly tended by veterans associations, regimental trusts and existing military units. Any solution to protect the vulnerable or neglected war memorials should not impinge on the excellent work being done by those who already care for so many of our memorials.

We also need to explore new ways in which to raise finance to ensure that all war memorials are maintained in pristine condition, irrespective of who owns them. Memorials must be maintained, not only because to do otherwise is grossly offensive to the memories of those who made the supreme sacrifice so that we could live in freedom and because the memorials are a precious part of our national heritage, but because destruction and neglect of memorials sends the wrong signal to our younger generations—that war and the death it brings are of little importance.

When the veterans form up in Whitehall on Remembrance Sunday, television usually shows us scenes from impeccably kept Commonwealth war graves from around the world: mile upon mile of white crosses or simple stones bearing the names of the fallen, which are as carefully tended today as they were 50 or 70 years ago. When we see that stark picture of the destruction that war brings, do we not strengthen our resolve to prevent that in future?

I have with me here another stark picture, of a large brass plate containing the names of 35 men from the Southampton area who died in the great war. It is boldly inscribed: Their name liveth for evermore", but it was found a few months ago lying tarnished and rusty in a scrap yard. It has been restored, and the finder is now searching for a suitable home for it.

If we can so easily betray the memory of past generations by throwing their memorial into a scrap yard, why should today's generation have any confidence that they too would not be betrayed? As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) wrote in the Royal British Legion's "Golden Book of Remembrance": As those who are left grow old, it falls to those who have derived the great benefits of peace and freedom in succeeding generations to say of the fallen, 'We will remember them'. My Bill is a step towards ensuring that in all cases, their names will live for ever more.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. David Maclean, Mr. A. J. Beith, Mr. Menzies Campbell, Mr. Frank Cook, Sir Peter Emery, Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith, Mr. Barry Jones, Sir Peter Lloyd, Rev. Martin Smyth, Mr. Nicholas Soames and Mr. Peter Viggers.

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