HL Deb 30 March 1987 vol 486 cc354-6

2.42 p.m.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps are being taken to ensure that applications for grants from English Heritage will be processed more quickly so that repairs and archaeological rescue work can be dealt with before sites are demolished.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment (Lord Skelmersdale)

My Lords, English Heritage advises us that it does not now face problems in processing applications for grants for rescue archaeology or historic buildings repairs. It points out that a large number of sites are affected by development work and that it is not feasible to excavate them all. Cases are judged against English Heritage's established criteria for national significance.

Baroness Stedman

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the archaeological pressure group, Rescue, suggests that as many as 20 sites were lost under the bulldozers last year, and that there is or has appeared to be a delay in the processing of applications for grants? Is the reason for such delay when it occurs that we do not have sufficient qualified staff to process the applications? If so, is he satisfied that there are enough such staff in training who are likely to be available to enable the job to be done expeditiously in the future?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am aware that there are claims that 20 or more sites were bulldozed in 1985–86. Without having details of precise cases I am unable to comment, but if any noble Lord (including of course the noble Baroness) has identified such sites, I shall be very interested to look into the matter. Of course, we shall not know the precise position of the reported underspend until final end-year figures are available. Naturally, we are concerned at the possibility of underspend. I can confirm that there are arrangements for the carry-forward of underspend to the following year's budget. If it occurs, some of that underspend will be as a result of slippage.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, is it not a fact that the money for rescue is decided well in advance, and that insufficient funds are allowed for rescue excavations arising later in the year that would have received high priority had the facts been known earlier?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, yes, certainly. These grants are decided well in advance. In 1980-81, the budget provision for rescue archaeology grants was some £3.5 million; for 1987–88 it is £7.8 million.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, the Minister was answering the question on underspend to the best of his ability. But does he accept that it is rather worrying? Even if English Heritage can carry over a certain amount, is there not the possibility, given considerable underspend, that its budget could be cut next year?

Further, is it not true that in its recent report the Select Committee of another place recommended that English Heritage should be given increased funds to grant-aid archaeology? Should that not extend to core funding as well as project funding so that our archaeological heritage can be properly preserved? Does the Minister agree that the situation at the moment is unsatisfactory? The money is either not being spent, or it is being spent. But if it is, English Heritage still needs a great deal more if we are not to suffer the loss of a great many of these sites.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I cannot confirm the speculative figure which has been given in certain parts of the media. I am advised that the figure will be nothing like that; it will be significantly lower. I am unable to comment on the report of the Select Committee on the Environment of another place on heritage buildings and ancient monuments. The report was published only on 18th February last, and my right honourable friend is still considering the recommendations contained therein.

Lord Mowbray and Stourton

My Lords, is my noble friend happy that there are enough powers to freeze a situation while the expenditure is being considered?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am not sure of what my noble friend is thinking. I do not know of any problems in that area. If my noble friend has a specific example, I shall be interested to look into it.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, will consideration also be given to grants for Welsh heritage?

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, the Question was directed specifically to English Heritage. As I am sure the noble and learned Lord knows well, Welsh heritage comes under the Welsh Office.