HC Deb 20 May 1998 vol 312 cc1077-84

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Jane Kennedy.]

11.27 pm
Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

First, I should like to set the scene. High in the towers of many of England's beautiful parish churches, as well as our cathedrals, including Lichfield cathedral, which is over 800 years old, are some of the oldest and finest examples of English heritage. Their future now seems threatened by the very organisation that ought to be protecting them.

Hanging side by side, church bells cast up to 600 or 700 years ago are often found next to bells cast in the present century. Both are examples of a truly English craft now practised by only two bell foundries in our land. Week by week, many of our church bells are rung in the truly English fashion of change-ringing, which has been practised for almost 350 years now, and which has resulted in England being known throughout the world as "The Ringing Isle". Church bells usually weigh several hundred pounds and frequently exceed a tonne. Such weights, revolving through 360 deg each time the rope is pulled by the ringer below, exert huge dynamic forces upon their supporting structures: the bell frames. Those forces are transmitted to the fabric of the church tower. A strong, firm and stable bell frame is obviously essential if bells are to be rung correctly, safely and without risk to tower or the bell ringers below.

Traditionally, bell frames were constructed from timber, often locally grown on the squire's estate and put together by the local carpenter. Sometimes, the frames were very robust and substantial, but often their design and construction left much to be desired and they would be replaced within a relatively short time. Down the years, as change-ringing became an accepted art in England, bell frame design evolved to give more substantial frames capable of holding larger numbers of bells, up to a maximum of 12. A well-constructed frame, carefully maintained, might have lasted 100 years or more before repairs or a replacement were needed.

During the 19th century, developments in engineering by the bell founders led to the introduction of cast-iron frames replacing the all-timber bell frame. Initially, the head and base of a bell frame would still be made of timber—usually oak—but by the end of the century, the head and side of a frame would be made of cast iron, bolted down on to a massive steel or cast-iron base grillage. In turn, the grillage was built into the tower walls, which gave added stability and often helped to strengthen an otherwise weak tower.

Modern bell frames follow the same design, although in recent years, cost-saving economic considerations forced on England's churches have resulted in some bell frames being fabricated from steel sections. Although fairly successful and satisfactory for lighter rings of bells, in the short term, they do not have the proven longevity of their predecessors.

The approach of the third millennium has provided a focus for churches and bell ringers alike, who are addressing the problem of many aging and even derelict bell installations around the country. As the Minister will know, encouragement has been given by the awarding of a £3 million grant—on a partnership funding basis—by the Millennium Commission, using money from the national lottery, and a number of bell restoration projects have merited grants from the Heritage Lottery Fund, all of which has provided a valuable upturn in the long-established craft of bell founding and bell hanging.

The dream of our churches ringing out the new millennium is rapidly turning to dust in many cases. Many of those projects, including the restoration of the bells in Longdon parish church in my constituency, have foundered through the inept intervention of English Heritage. Bells that have been prevented from being rung in their intended manner because of bell frames that are of inherently weak design or which have reached the end of their useful life could well remain silent in the new millennium because English Heritage will not allow those useless structures to be replaced with a well-designed, modern bell frame built into the tower. Some towers are even threatened by such intervention. English Heritage's present policy appears to be conservation at all costs, regardless of the end result.

The problem affects churches not just in my constituency, but throughout the land. Today, I received an e-mail—it shows that we bell ringers are up to date with the latest technology—saying that the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers, which will meet on Monday 25 May, has a motion to discuss that very problem, caused by English Heritage. I am sure that the Minister is a regular reader of The Ringing World and, as such, will know that that is a constant theme, which is appearing in letters and editorials throughout the magazine.

Let us be clear. Often, the bell frames that are so beloved of English Heritage are now unsuitable for bell ringing. They are often dangerous or totally inaccessible, except to steeplejacks. If English Heritage is so concerned about the frames, why does it not allow them to be removed and put on display in the church or a local museum, where at least they could be seen?

In my constituency, there are several examples of schemes that have now been held up for unacceptable periods because English Heritage will not accept professional organisations' and advisers' recommendations. Instead, it insists that parishes should spend much larger sums to repair existing structures, which may preclude the addition of further bells now wanted by the churches.

In our cathedral church of the diocese, huge sums have been spent over the past 10 years on repairing the old bell frame. That expenditure is unlikely to prolong the frame's life for more than a handful of years, and has prevented the full peal of 10 bells from being rung for more than three years. A new bell frame would have been much cheaper at today's prices and would have taken a matter of a few weeks to install. Can the expenditure, either of hard-earned funds by a parish or of public funds from the national lottery and English Heritage, be justified?

Bell founders, bell hangers and bell ringers are aware of the need to preserve special examples of heritage, be they bells, bell frames or bell fittings, and would value the help and support of bodies such as English Heritage to preserve a selection of worthy examples. In recent years, there has been a growing trend towards preserving anything and everything, regardless of age. Even poor examples of bells cast by prolific 19th and 20th-century founders have been subjected to preservation orders, contrary to the code of practice established between the trade and the Council for the Care of Churches.

Bells are the living voice of the Church in the community. They do far more than merely mark the time or announce that a service is shortly to start; they are musical instruments, whether hung individually or as a peal, and deserve to be treated as such, just as a church organ is. I live within 60 yards of the spire of Lichfield cathedral, and I welcome the sound of bells ringing through my open window on a spring Sunday morning.

Bells should be hung using the best principles of engineering, to ensure that they can be rung with precision and without risk of physical injury or damage, either to bell ringers or to the tower in which they hang. Why, then, should English Heritage be allowed to adopt policies which, in all but a few cases, compromise those essential precepts? Bells and bell frames are not historical artefacts to be treated like museum pieces. Is it not self-evident that bells are meant to be rung? [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."] I thank my hon. Friends.

Let me give an example. A major restoration scheme was carried out at Alstonefield church 10 years ago. The work had been planned for more than 20 years, and was made possible by a generous benefactor. Costs had risen greatly since the scheme was conceived, then more delays occurred, because English Heritage insisted that the old bell frame should be preserved. Costs escalated; then, even more cost was incurred, because English Heritage insisted that the original bell frame had to be secured in the upper part of the tower, while a new bell frame had to be installed lower in the tower. The bells could not be rung as well in the smaller area available. Eventually, the scheme was completed—without funding from English Heritage, which does not usually fund such work—and not one person has asked to look at the original bell frame.

Bell frames are not the only issue, however. English Heritage states that it has a presumption against the tuning of old bells. An intrinsic part of the bell founder's craft is the production of a rich-sounding, melodious and well-tuned bell or set of bells. When a peal comprises bells cast by different founders at different times, a marked improvement in the musical quality of the peal can be achieved by carefully monitored treatment by the tuning machine, to put the bells on to a proper musical scale. The bell founder's skills, coupled with modern technology, which earlier generations of founders were denied, enable that to be done relatively easily and without altering the characteristics of the bells, but making them much more pleasant and melodious. That is what it is all about.

Traditionally, a bell was melted down by the bell founder when it became cracked and toneless, and was recast as a sound bell. Today, English Heritage prefers many bells to be repaired by a welding process, which is not cheap, does little to enhance the musicality of a damaged bell, and denies the bell founder his craft.

In September 1997, the Open Churches Trust, with the active support of the right hon. Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field), launched a scheme to encourage more bell-ringing recruits to come forward and to learn the art in time to man all the bells in the land at the millennium. The Millennium Commission has funded a special project to restore old bell installations and to provide some completely new ones, but if English Heritage is allowed to continue its present policy of preservation and procrastination, much of that work will be to no avail. It cannot see the wood for the trees. We are putting at risk the continued existence of bell ringing and bell founding, two of the oldest and finest examples of the heritage found only in England.

By all means, let us preserve the rare and very special examples of bell frames and bells in a manner that can be enjoyed by all people, but in all other cases, let common sense be coupled with prompt decisions—where indeed any decision is required—so that some of the finest parts of our English heritage may continue long into the following millennium. Let us ensure that the already costly work of restoring our bells and bell frames does not become even more costly on account of bureaucracy and procrastination on the part of English Heritage. Let us ensure that the unique art of English bell ringing and the craft of English bell founding have secure futures and that they are given every possible encouragement.

I call on the Minister to use his influence in two areas: first, to make English Heritage see sense, so that sensible decisions can be made promptly and fairly. As the Minister said when he recently came before the Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, of which I have the privilege to be a member, one of his strengths is the ability to bang heads together. I believed him. I hope that he will bang a few heads together following this debate.

Secondly, now that the delays caused by English Heritage have resulted in churches such as mine in Longdon and many others missing the millennium fund's application deadline, I call on the Minister to ensure that the Heritage Lottery Fund makes money available for the restoration of church bells in greater numbers than it does already, to compensate for the applications that have gone past the deadline because of the procrastination of English Heritage.

I urge the Minister and the House to give their fullest support to securing those very special parts of our English heritage.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

I call Mr. Tony Banks.

11.41 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. Tony Banks)

Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. You can call me Quasimodo if you wish.

There are times when one finds oneself at the Dispatch Box after everyone has departed feeling that one would more suitably wring necks than bells, but, even at this unlikely hour, it is more pleasing to talk about church bells than to have six bells kicked out of me over the sale of World cup tickets. I thank the hon. Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) for giving me notice of the main points that he wished to debate. It will enable me, I hope, to give him a constructive reply.

The hon. Gentleman is one of the characters of the House; I think that we can all, even at this late hour, agree on that. Certainly tonight, he managed to put the camp back into campanology. I assure him that the Government are firmly committed to the preservation of heritage in all its forms, including church bells, but there will always be conflict between preserving the best of our history and providing useful and practical facilities for today. We are confronted with the dilemma regularly, particularly, for example, in respect of sports stadiums, cinemas, leisure complexes and shopping centres. I am facing such a dilemma over the Milton Keynes shopping centre. I assure the hon. Gentleman that, by comparison, Solomon's judgment was a bit of a doddle.

The hon. Gentleman has highlighted a specific example that he is interested in, and revealed extensive knowledge. He always surprises us, and tonight, he has told me things that I never knew or guessed at. I will now go away and assiduously study Bell Ringers News, The Ringing Times or whatever it was that he flourished at me. He asks: do we try simply to retain ancient fabric, or do we provide the best facilities for today's bell ringers? I understand his point. Inevitably, some compromise will be required.

English Heritage's statutory remit is, in part, to preserve the element of our heritage that is most important in terms of architectural and historical significance. In practice, of course, that generally means buildings that are listed grade 1, grade 2 star or grade 2 in conservation areas. That includes a large number of ecclesiastical buildings. Over the past five years, English Heritage has offered £57 million in grants for church conservation works and a further £18 million for cathedrals.

Given its specific locus, English Heritage does not offer funding for the restoration of church bells. However, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund are now in the second year of a joint venture to fund heritage works in churches and other places of worship. The Heritage Lottery Fund's remit allows it to fund works to buildings and structures that are not of outstanding architectural or historic interest. That enables the joint scheme to encompass a wide scope of projects, including church bells. I understand that 70 applications have been advised on by English Heritage.

The scheme has been a huge success. English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund jointly provided £20 million in 1997–98. A further £20 million is available for 1998–99. However, there have been 1,194 applications. If they were all granted, the total cost would be £186 million. The demand is clearly greater than the funds available. However, bell ringing associations now have a new stream of funding. There may have been some difficulties in adapting to the rigours of public accounting, but the new pool of money is a huge bonus for bells and ringers.

The new stream of funding has created some debate about priorities for church bells. Bell ringing associations consider their church bells to be musical instruments and are understandably concerned to ensure that any works take advantage of technical advances that can improve the tone of ringing and the ease of playing. The joint scheme focuses primarily on the preservation of the heritage and conservation of historic fabric, but in assessing applications from bell ringing associations, English Heritage is most concerned about how the proposed works make use of existing bells, their frames and beams.

English Heritage fully appreciates the views of the bell ringers, and is working hard to accommodate them in its overall remit to preserve the heritage. English Heritage could not recommend heritage funding for a scheme that removed existing bells and associated apparatus wholesale. Equally, English Heritage would not see it as a conservation success if the bell frame and other supports were retained at its insistence, but could not be used by the ringers. That would make no sense.

A great deal of time and energy has been committed to resolving the dilemma, in consultation with appropriate organisations such as the Council for the Care of Churches and the Central Council of Church Bell Ringers. I am sure that more practical compromises will emerge that allow for the retention of original fabric, while meeting the aspirations of the bell ringers.

The hon. Gentleman mentions the debate about repairing bells by welding cracks rather than recasting the entire bell. He seems strangely reluctant to encourage new technology in that case, although he is keen to use new technology for the bell frames. Welding cracked bells is a new technique that may need improvement, but it seems successful. English Heritage is not aware of any complaints about the results.

As the hon. Gentleman said, St. James the Great in Longdon did not receive funding from the joint scheme. That was because the proposed works incorporated too much new fabric to justify heritage funding. However, the decision did not impede the parish's ability to apply for millennium funding under the ringing in the millennium scheme. It was open to the parish to apply for funding from both streams simultaneously, as many other parishes did.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned an earlier case at Alstonefield. He has acknowledged the code of practice for conservation and repair of bells and bell frames, which is widely endorsed by relevant organisations in the professions. The code clearly states that unnecessary replacement or alteration of historic bells, including retuning, should be avoided, and that, where it becomes apparent that major replacement and alteration is inevitable, full consideration should be given to preservation of the bells and frame in situ. That is what happened at St. Peter's in Alstonefield.

There are many examples of English Heritage having negotiated an acceptable compromise, such as at St. Mary's at Pakenham in Suffolk, where it grant-aided the repair of a mediaeval frame to allow the existing five bells to be rung and enabled a sixth bell to be added to the ring on a separate small metal frame.

English Heritage has a wealth of expert knowledge and practical experience in the conservation of our heritage. The Government and English Heritage are keen to ensure that the very best of our heritage is preserved. Equally, of course, we must be alive to the fact that heritage is a living thing. To that end, English Heritage knows that a restoration project must both do its best to meet current needs and retain essential historic character. English Heritage's involvement in a project should therefore be viewed not as an unnecessary obstacle, but as assisting the overall preservation and promotion of our heritage for future generations to enjoy.

The hon. Gentleman put two specific points to me. On the first, English Heritage supports the code of practice, the first aim of which is to encourage the continuing use of bells to announce public worship. Sir Jocelyn Stevens has confirmed: We grant-aid historic frames if they can be made to work. If they cannot be made to work we allow new frames to be built, while conserving the historic frame where possible. That seems to be a reasonable compromise.

On the hon. Gentleman's second point, concerning particularly his own church at Longdon, the Heritage Lottery Fund is continuing to commit money to churches, including bells. However, it is not in my gift to determine which projects it supports. The church at Longdon had five months from final refusal by the Heritage Lottery Fund to the Millennium Commission's deadline. Surely that should have been enough time.

The Millennium Commission is considering whether, with reference to the millennium money, it might be able to offer further support to umbrella projects that it has funded, such as ringing in the millennium. There may therefore be a further opportunity for parishes to apply for bell restoration. I wish the hon. Gentleman's church well in such a project, although, of course, no guarantee can be given here at the Dispatch Box on future applications.

My good lady wife—as they say—has been sitting in splendid isolation, listening to this debate. She has a great interest in it, and is here because she is herself a former bell ringer. I therefore take very close advice from her on those matters. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has raised a subject that is vital both to him and to many people in the United Kingdom. I give him my assurance that I shall keep the matter under close review.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Twelve midnight.