HL Deb 26 October 1992 vol 539 cc929-37

4.40 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I now wish to repeat in the form of a Statement the Answer made to a Private Notice Question by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage in another place. English Heritage has today published its forward strategy for the rest of the 1990s. The strategy sets out 20 key policy objectives. English Heritage proposes a new priority programme for restoration of the most important monuments in its care and new partnerships for local 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 a restructuring of the organisation to meet those objectives. Our Citizen's 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. This 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".

4.42 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer in this House. I have a personal interest in the matter as a former Minister in the Department of the Environment who was responsible for Britain's heritage until it was hived off to English Heritage. I am delighted to hear that so many plans are to be implemented after full consultation has taken place. In the past few days the chairman of English Heritage has dramatically outlined the plans of that organisation. That may have obscured the important strategies that English Heritage is trying to implement.

As I view the position, English Heritage has two strategic aims: one is to achieve a closer partnership with local authorities and local bodies and the other is to attempt to obtain better value for money. Clearly, those aims are to be welcomed. However, I am still puzzled about the secrecy surrounding those aims. I am puzzled that English Heritage's senior archaeologists, architectural historians and important committees were not consulted on the proposals. Therefore I hope that the Government will press for consultation on the plans.

English Heritage proposes to achieve its objectives of better value for money and closer partnership with local authorities with a diminished staff. It has been said that 80 staff will go by 31st March. It is not clear whether 380 to 400 staff will leave in the next three years. It has always been a problem replacing some of the staff who work for English Heritage as a number have extraordinary skills, for example, stonemasons and people who are skilled in handling lead or caring for windows of awkward shape. It is important to retain those people. In a period of mass unemployment the issue of redundancy is a serious one. How many compulsory and how many voluntary redundancies are forecast? Will 450 to 500 staff go in the next three years? I hope that the Minister can reply to my point on skilled staff.

Asking local authorities and local trusts to take on management responsibility, in effect the stewardship, of half the monuments in English Heritage's care has a great many advantages. However, the main problem is that English Heritage will merely export its own financial problems to local authorities. All local authorities are now capped and are having to make huge cuts across the board in all their services. Unless English Heritage obtains a great deal more funding it will have great difficulty in funding the strategies it wishes to implement.

From what has been said and reported so far the position in London remains unclear. After the demise of the GLC, the London advisory committee, the body dealing with heritage matters, has played a central role. That body has been praised by people associated with all political parties. I shall not lengthen this discussion by giving a complete list of the bodies the London advisory committee has managed to save; suffice it to say that it has saved a great many. If it had not been for the intervention of the London advisory committee, many of those bodies would have been lost or would have been dealt with shabbily.

The success of the strategy will be measured in terms of the adequate care of buildings, the availability of public access to those buildings and educational input. The latter factor is increasingly important with regard to our historic monuments. The Government will have to ensure that both English Heritage and local authorities receive more adequate funding if we are not to lose our heritage. If we lose many of our fragile monuments and buildings we shall not be able to replace them. They are irreplaceable. The proposals should be studied carefully; they should certainly not be rushed through. I know that we often blame the Government for not acting quickly enough. However, I do not wish to see these proposals rushed through to the detriment of our heritage. I hope that the Minister can be more reassuring on these proposals than the present chairman of English Heritage has been.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, first I wish to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Amherst, for the fact that I shall be unable to hear his maiden speech as I have a train to catch. I regret that fact greatly. I thank the Minister for repeating the Answer to the Private Notice Question that was given in another place. I associate myself with many of the remarks made by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk.

Is it really the case that the drastic changes in the policy of English Heritage were undertaken without any consultation with the ancient monuments advisory committee or the historical buildings advisory committee or the specialist archaeology advisers whom English Heritage has hitherto employed? If so, that is a totally irresponsible state of affairs. I must confess that until I read, not the Answer to the PNQ, but the statement issued by English Heritage at its press conference this afternoon, I had always supposed that the purpose of English Heritage was to preserve our heritage, not to dispose of it. Nor had I thought that the purpose of English Heritage was to make a profit; rather I had thought that it was to spend money to preserve that heritage. There seems to be a radical change of policy which deserves a fuller explanation than that given in the Minister's statement.

Is it really the case that at a time of high unemployment English Heritage proposes to dispose of 80 skilled craftsmen by March,380 skilled tradesmen in the next three years and 100 skilled people from its headquarters? Is that really the policy of the Government in the middle of a recession, the policy of a government which is going for growth? It is an extraordinary move to make, particularly when—I think I am right in saying—the National Audit Office last summer expressed the opinion that the private sector did not possess the skills to perform those tasks. I appreciate that in its press statement English Heritage says, not that it will dispose of the skilled tradesmen or make them redundant, but that it will privatise them. That is a new euphemism for compulsory unemployment.

English Heritage also proposes to dispose of half of the properties for which it is responsible to the private sector and local authorities. As the noble Baroness asked, what evidence is there that the local authorities have the financial resources to undertake those responsibilities? Local authorities are hardly flush with money at the moment. How will they find the resources for that task? What expertise do they possess? Some have no conservation officers and will certainly not be able to afford to train and recruit them. Those are questions which deserve serious answers.

It is suggested that the properties retained should be managed as joint ventures by English Heritage with the private sector. Stonehenge is an example. The loss makers will be off loaded, if not on to the local authorities then on to the private sector. What evidence is there that the private sector will be more interested in preservation than profit, which is after all its purpose?

I find the statement deeply disturbing. The introduction given to it in the PNQ was inadequate in the sense that it does not cover the very wide implications of what is intended. We have not had an opportunity to read the report Managing England's Heritage on which I take it the statement is based. I should like to know when that will be available and when, having read that document, we shall be able to discuss the matter at greater length.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, is right to say that there was considerable press speculation over the weekend about English Heritage and its future. Today English Heritage announced its proposals, which are rather different from much of the speculation. The noble Baroness asked me a number of questions, which I shall attempt to answer.

First, the noble Baroness asked me about consultation. The chairman of English Heritage announced today that consultations will now begin. This is a programme of strategy for the future. It does not relate to individual sites or cases or to tactics. It sets out how English Heritage wishes to go ahead in the future.

The noble Baroness also asked me about the staff. I do not belief that their skills will be lost. I believe that they will be taken up by the private sector. She also asked about the numbers involved. English Heritage believes that probably the majority of the 100 headquarters staff will opt for voluntary redundancy or early retirement, but that is obviously a matter for negotiation. The position of the 380 members of the directly employed labour force is also a matter for negotiation. I must point out that that is a matter for negotiation between now and 1996. That is three and a half years. Therefore it is not sudden and there is no rush.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I thank the Minister for allowing me to intervene. It is an important question. If the purpose of the statement was to indicate that there was to be consultation, why were specific figures given in the hand-out about the number of staff who are to go? How could that come about if there has not yet been any consultation on the subject?

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, I should like to add that the hand-out refers to privatising, over a three-year period, the directly employed labour force of 380 skilled tradesmen. There is no suggestion in the statement that any negotiation is to take place. It is a statement of intention.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Lord is absolutely right. When I mentioned consultation I was not referring to consultation with the direct labour force. I was talking about consultation with the headquarters staff and whether the reductions might be achieved by voluntary redundancy or early retirement. That is a matter for English Heritage. English Heritage has announced that 380 jobs are to go between now and 1996, the first 80 by next March. That is a matter for English Heritage to negotiate with its staff. We are confident that English Heritage will do its utmost to ensure a smooth transition. There may be opportunities for the privatised workforce to bid for contracts. It would be very odd if we did not apply to English Heritage the same principles of competition which we have successfully applied to many local government services.

The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, also asked about the transfer of sites to local authorities. No local authority will he forced to take on responsibility for sites. Sites can be transferred to local authorities if they wish to take them on. Some local authorities have already expressed the wish to look after certain sites. Indeed, some have been negotiating for a number of years to look after a number of sites. They are often well able to do so.

The noble Baroness also referred to the announcement in relation to London. English Heritage proposes to withdraw from its role in relation to ordinary Grade II sites. It would still be closely involved in all Grade I and II style building casework. That would merely put London on exactly the same basis as any other city in England, such as historic cities like Bath, Chester, Oxford and Norwich. It is a matter for English Heritage to negotiate with the London boroughs. The boroughs will not be forced to take on the role. Indeed, English Heritage announced today that it will consider offering grants to London boroughs in order that they can establish expertise in those areas.

The noble Lord, Lord Bonham-Carter, mentioned profit. There is no mention in the statement of profit. Profit does not enter into it. English Heritage is still responsible for preserving our heritage. That will always be the same. However, it does not mean that local authorities, local trusts or groups of local people might not wish to take on sites and be able to look after them better.

Some sites do not have any staff. They may be merely something on the top of a hill; there may be nothing there but an open site. There is no cost involved in looking after them. If they were looked after by a local organisation that might improve access and facilities. We are seeking to improve the way in which we look after our heritage.

4.59 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether the Government, when considering the matter further, will bear in mind the fact that the Government themselves, every year, add to the tasks and difficulties of preserving our national heritage by the imposition of death duties—or whatever they are now called—whenever the owner of a historic and splendid house dies? Surely my noble friend is aware that inheritance tax, falling as it does with particular weight on historic and splendid houses, every year increases the task of preserving them. Will my noble friend convey particularly to his right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer that one of the best and most sensible ways of helping to preserve ancient and splendid houses would be to do away with inheritance tax when their owners die?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I certainly take note of the points made by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Of course, much of what he has talked about is a matter for the Chancellor of the Exchequer. However, one of the things English Heritage is trying to do is to organise its resources better so that they go to the places that really need the money.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, are we not presented here with a moderately remarkable situation? It is reported that English Heritage proposes suddenly to hand over a large number of sites entrusted to its care to private charities, trusts, local councils and private commercial companies. If that is so, what reasons has English Heritage to believe that any substantial number of local councils will cheerfully and happily assume responsibility for any monuments that English Heritage does not need and wants rid of? At the moment most local councils want an ancient monument on their books like they want the proverbial hole in the head. They will have got rid of the very staff—the conservationists—who could conceivably cope with this kind of thing and most, surely, will not welcome such additional responsibility. Can the Minister name, say, the first half dozen who have signified so far in writing their eagerness to acquire one of these sites? Or does this plan not simply mean that English Heritage is attempting to offload its own cuts on to anyone and everyone in sight? Will resources be made available to any local council which agrees to take on anything that will cost any money at all and, if so, where will the money come from?

Perhaps the Minister can also indicate which bodies, if any, were consulted before this extraordinary plan was promulgated? It is reported in the press that neither the senior archaeologists and architectural historians of English Heritage nor its ancient monuments advisory committee or historic buildings advisory committee were consulted. One wonders to what extent the Department of National Heritage was consulted before the proposal came out. That may be held to be an internal matter. However, is it not the case that there was no consultation with the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the chief adviser to the Museums and Galleries Commission or the Council of British Archaeology who have described the plan as outrageous?

The backwards way of doing things—that the statement is issued and consultations will now take place—seems a trifle odd. But if the forthcoming consultations do not support the strategy as we have had it can we reasonably expect a moratorium on anything happening? If these reports are accurate, should the Government not advise the very new chairman of English Heritage to do what the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York advised the Government to do over the closure of the coal pits, namely, to think again?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the simple answer to the noble Lord, Lord Morris of Castle Morris, is no. He is under the impression that English Heritage will go out and hand over lots of properties saying, "Here is one for you and one for you." That is not the case. I do not know whether the noble Lord has managed to read the announcement today. What he says is absolutely not the case. It is a matter of negotiation with the local authorities. No local authority will be forced to take on any site whatsoever. If it does not want to take on a site it need not do so.

The noble Lord asked me to cite examples. I cannot give him half a dozen but I can certainly give one. The local authority in Hampshire is very keen to take over a fort now run by English Heritage which sits in the middle of the Solent. It is almost impossible to get to it; it is quite dangerous to get on to it. The local council has some great plans for it and will be able to do with it much better things than English Heritage.

As for the point about consultations, it is a strategy and it will go to the various advisory committees for detailed consideration. Most of the quotes I have seen about the proposals were made over the weekend long before anyone had a chance to look at them.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, as a previous chairman of English Heritage perhaps I may say that the strategy document has my full endorsement. Indeed, many of the proposals were formulated during my chairmanship. But does the noble Viscount agree that local authorities already administer an enormous number of historic houses and sites—just as many as English Heritage? Therefore it seems to me there is no reason why they should not, if they wish, administer them in future. There is no question of sites being given away or sold. Is my noble friend aware that during my chairmanship English Heritage negotiated with Hampshire County Council with a view to taking over Calshot and Fort Cumberland? It also negotiated with private people who were living in guardianship properties which their families had given some years ago.

I ask my noble friend to agree that there would not be a queue of local authorities to take over these properties. Indeed, it would be a question of persuading them to do so. I hope the House and others will allow the document to be sensibly looked at, because a lot of hysteria and inaccuracies in the press are causing a deal of concern.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am grateful for the support of my noble friend Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. I must pay tribute to his chairmanship of English Heritage. He did an extremely fine job which is welcomed on every side of this House. He built it up to the great state in which it is today. One has only to look at the English Heritage membership figures. In 1984 the figure was 13,000; it has recently signed its 300,000th member. That in itself is a tribute to the chairmanship of my noble friend.

Nobody will be forced to take on properties. Some people actively want to take them on. For example, we are not going to dictate a timetable to London boroughs. It will be a matter for full and open negotiation with them. English Heritage hopes to work with them to help them set up expertise which, after all, is the same expertise that exists everywhere else in the country.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the performance of local authorities in this matter is likely to be very uneven? Perhaps I may assure him that I know of one local authority in Huntingdon that has given generous grants to local voluntary bodies for the restoration of ancient monuments. But there are other local authorities which may agree to take on responsibility but will be incapable of fulfilling it and find that they do not have the resources. In those cases, where will the ultimate responsibility lie for getting things done?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Renton makes an important point. Some local authorities have a much better track record, if one may call it so, in looking after some important sites in their areas. Some look after a great many important sites at the moment and do an extremely good job. It will be a matter for negotiation between them and English Heritage. Obviously, it will be important for English Heritage to establish that public access is guaranteed and that the site will be looked after at least better than it is looked after at the moment. I feel that in many cases local management will probably do a much better job than having things run from London.

Lord Marlesford

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, with the world facing the greatest deflation for 60 years and the recognition by Her Majesty's Government of the need to deal with the deepening recession in this country, this would be an ideal moment to increase very considerably the funds available to English Heritage for the restoration of many buildings which are sadly falling into disrepair? Will he further agree that that would be a most useful, non-inflationary, non-import-inducing stimulus to the local economy? It could be widely spread and stimulate craftsmen, perhaps rescuing a lot of small building firms which otherwise could go under in the next 12 months or so.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely important point. One purpose of the whole operation is to produce savings in English Heritage which can be targeted on grants to support various projects, whether they be grants to private owners, local authorities or whatever. It is a matter of targeting resources as well as can be done.

Lord Bridges

My Lords, perhaps I may underline the point which was referred to briefly by the noble Lord, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. Is it not the case that properties now managed by English Heritage have been assembled from a variety of sources over a long period of time? It seems to me important that there should be consultation not merely with local authorities but with those who may have been involved in the ownership and management of those properties in the past. A number of public bodies will have entrusted properties to English Heritage in the belief that they would be looked after in perpetuity. I sincerely hope that the noble Viscount can give an assurance that previous owners who may have given such properties to English Heritage will be consulted fully and not merely the local authorities where those properties happen to lie.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is important that the properties are properly kept up and maintained and that they are available for the public to see. The many properties of English Heritage are owned in a variety of ways. I believe that the majority are owned by the Secretary of State. A number are owned under rather complicated guardianship arrangements. Indeed, sometimes the original ownership or provenance is not entirely clear. English Heritage also looks after a number of properties on behalf of the National Trust. I believe that English Heritage itself owns a minority of the properties. Obviously, these are issues which it will have to consider very carefully before coming to any decision.

Baroness David

My Lords, will the Minister consider asking that part of the Department of the Environment which deals with the standard spending assessment and delivers grant whether money could be made available in the grant to help those authorities with historic buildings—authorities such as Bath, Norwich, Cambridge and so on—which otherwise would not have specific moneys to spend for that necessary purpose.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Baroness asks a question which is rather outside the area of English Heritage which I am answering at the moment. I take note of her point and will pass it on to the department.