HC Deb 09 June 2004 vol 422 cc128-36WH

4 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD)

I am grateful for the opportunity to lead this short debate on the future of the royal hall in Harrogate. I welcome the Minister to the Chamber. It may be rather empty, owing to the specific nature of the debate, but I assure her that today's proceedings will be widely reported. This is not simply a debate about another civic building in disrepair; it is about the architectural jewel in the crown of Harrogate. The royal hall, more than any other building, is emblematic of Harrogate's spa heritage and its links to the present. It is a building of local, national and international importance and is at the very heart of Harrogate's vibrant society.

The overwhelming support for the restoration of the royal hall to its former glory has been staggering. More than 15,000 people have pledged support, including 6,500 who signed a petition begging the council to work with the Heritage Lottery Fund to find a solution to the problem. Support has poured in from local and national organisations including the civic societies of Harrogate, Knaresborough and Ripon, the Victorian Society, the Frank Matcham Society, the Spas Research Fellowship, Harrogate symphony and philharmonic orchestras, the local Gilbert and Sullivan society, the St. Andrews players, the White Rose and the Tewitt youth bands and the Tom Roberts jazz band—to mention just a few. There is also support from Harrogate international festival, Ripon festival, numerous dance and drama societies and more than 20 local schools that regularly use the royal hall as their town hall for concerts and speech days.

However, the affection for the royal hall goes much further. Messages of support have poured in from a host of artists from the world of music, comedy, theatre and show business, who have entertained audiences over many decades. Sir Cliff Richard, who appeared at the royal hall as a youngster in July 1959, summed up the feelings of many: I wish every success to all who are associated with this project, and look forward to hearing that the Royal Hall is once again available for both established artists and those who, like me nearly 45 years ago, are just starting their careers". The patron of the Royal Hall Restoration Trust, which was set up by the hall's inspirational local champion, Lilian Mina, is none other than His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, who sent the following message for the launch of the trust: As Patron of the Royal Hall Restoration Trust, I am delighted to lend my support to the Trust's effort to raise funds towards the restoration of this unique part of our national heritage". In that sentence, His Royal Highness sums up why I have brought the issue to the House of Commons: the royal hall is quite simply a unique part of our national heritage.

The royal hall is the only surviving kursaal, as it was originally named—it was renamed in 1918 following anti-German sentiment; little changes—built by the nation's most famous and prolific theatre designer, Frank Matcham. Although Matcham built or helped to build more than 120 theatres between 1873 and 1913, including the Palladium and the Hackney Empire in London, and Black pool's Grand theatre, Harrogate's royal hall is the only example of a cure hall or kursaal conceived and designed in the great continental spa tradition.

Matcham's brilliant building was no ordinary theatre. It was designed to help late 19th century Harrogate retain its position as queen of inland watering places. It was built to incorporate the essential elements of the cure—mineral waters obtained from Europe's famous chloride of iron well, exercise indoors in all weathers using the 360° encircling ambulatories, and dancing or entertainment provided by an astonishing array of performers.

This building of immense elegance was opened in 1903, and Matcham's genius was manifest in many ways. He designed a mechanical system for clearing auditorium seats to allow for dancing that is commonplace in many theatres today. A plenum cooling chamber provided a natural and efficient air-conditioning system for the auditorium. It was similar to the system that we have in Portcullis House today. However, the key innovation, which transformed future theatre design, was the use of cantilever construction principles, rather than view-obstructing pillars, to support upper floors.

Although designed for wealthy visitors to the spa town, the royal hall proved fabulously versatile and has served visitors and locals alike for more than 100 years. Great artists appeared on its stage: Dame Nellie Melba, Sir Edward Elgar and music hall stars such as Harry Lauder. The 1930s saw the arrival of the great dance bands and, in one single season in 1938, Jack Payne, Jack Hilton, Henry Hall and Joe Loss all played to packed crowds. The hall has been associated with political meetings. Horatio Bottomley's jingoistic speeches during the first world war Mrs. Pankhurst's call for votes for women and Sir Oswald Mosley's blackshirt rallies in the 1930s all featured there. The entertainment and political tradition has continued into recent times. For the past 15 years, the royal hall has been home to Harrogate's growing international and conference exhibition centre.

That combination of tradition and progression was fatally halted in September 2000 when massive structural faults were found in the building. The 100-year-old concrete that makes up most of the internal structure was found to be in an advanced state of decay. In addition, the steel support beams taking the weight of the floors and the balcony were severely corroded. Large sections of the building had to be closed to the public.

To its credit, the borough council immediately put together a rescue bid and made an impressive proposal to the Heritage Lottery Fund and to English Heritage for financial support. The Heritage Lottery Fund supported the detailed appraisal stage and agreed to put £6 million into the final restoration scheme as matched funding for the £2.6 million that the council was prepared to invest. The initial shortfall of £1 million was to be provided by the newly formed restoration trust through private subscription.

Sadly, the initial enthusiasm and collaboration has turned sour. Estimates of costs have risen by £4 million and the new Conservative-led council has reduced its contribution by £600,000, accusing the Heritage Lottery Fund of behaving abominably. In retaliation, the Heritage Lottery Fund has made it clear that it will not give additional funds to the project, hinting that unless a reduced scheme can be agreed, it will withdraw its funding. Astonishingly, the council appears to want to send back the offer of £6 million, mothball the royal hall at an annual cost of more than £100,000 and allow that national treasure literally to decay into a ruin.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon) (Con)

I represent a large part of the Harrogate district, so my council tax payers have a major interest in the issue.

Can we be clear about the facts? The cost of restoration is estimated at £13.7 million. The council initially said that it had £2.6 million available—a sum supported by Conservative and Liberal Democrat councillors. Of that, a significant amount has gone on additional facilities to the conference centre itself, for so-called break-out facilities. The Heritage Lottery Fund is offering £6 million. The council has said that it is looking for a reduced scheme and is offering £2 million, because it needs a cash-limited scheme. It cannot have an open-ended commitment that exposes its own reserves and its constituents. When the hon. Gentleman blames the council, I think that he should understand that it does not wish to have an open-ended commitment on a scheme with major structural failure. The Liberal Democrat members of the council have never dissented from that evaluation of the position.

Mr. Willis

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you can see immediately why the project has become bogged down. The right hon. Gentleman is clearly defending the indefensible. A council that agreed a £2.6 million contribution, matched by the Heritage Lottery Fund's statement that it would make a £8.6 million contribution, should adhere to its agreement. Sadly, that will not be the case.

Of course, sending back £6 million is unacceptable. I hope that the Minister will make it clear that Harrogate borough council has a duty in law to maintain the building and that a partial restoration using the £8 million or £8.6 million that is available is essential. I hope, too, that through her Department she will offer support to bridge the funding gap. The plight of the royal hall illustrates the impossible situation that many small local authorities find themselves in when attempting to maintain listed buildings in their ownership. Had it been a building in private ownership, the council could have served an order, undertaken works and billed the owner, but how does a council serve a heritage order on itself? I hope that she will take that action if necessary.

Despite the borough council's actions, I have sympathy for its position. The resources available to local authorities to maintain, never mind restore, historic buildings are unacceptable. England has 442,000 listed buildings, of which 6,000 are grade I and 18,000 grade II*, including the royal hall. If the total combined budget for last year—£124 million from English Heritage and £113 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund—were allocated simply to grade I and grade II* listed buildings, the average grant per building would be less than £10,000. However, excluding heritage lottery funding, the total grant from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for the maintenance of historic buildings last year was a mere £28 million.

It is therefore hardly surprising that local authorities have problems with these major building projects. Either the number of listings has to decline or significantly greater resources must be made available to the listed buildings project. Can the Minister explain what additional funding will be made available to English Heritage in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review in order to support that programme? Will she accept that, given a limited budget and the estimated £50 billion that is required to sort out all listed building repairs, a clearer strategy is required for the application of funding?

First, buildings of national importance should be separated from those of local importance and should attract differential funding. It would help significantly if that principle could be established. There should be a national priority according to a building's rarity. If the country had 10 kursaals of similar design, I would accept a prioritisation with regard to restoration, but the royal hall is unique in the United Kingdom and to lose it would be a loss to our national heritage.

Secondly, when a building is selected as one of unique national importance, its restoration should be seen as a priority for Government, but only if it has a sustainable future. Sadly, many buildings do not have a sustainable future, but the royal hall has a full order book of engagements and is urgently needed to supplement the town's conference facilities, and the people of Harrogate want it back as their town hall. I appreciate that there is a list of key buildings at risk that receive special support, but why must we wait until a building deteriorates almost to the point of collapse before intervening?

Thirdly, we should have regard to the size of local authorities and the number of listed buildings that they have to look after. Harrogate is a medium-sized shire district with 110 grade II* and 50 grade I buildings. Were it a unitary authority, it would have a larger budget to manoeuvre within. At least as a halfway-house measure, will the Minister seek to apportion part of the responsibility for the upkeep of listed buildings to county councils?

To date, Harrogate borough council has refused to take up the offer of a £6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund in order to restore the royal hall. Two motions to the council, on 3 March and 29 April, to do so were defeated by the ruling Conservative group with a Whip. The offer from the fund remains on the table until 24 June, when it will be recommended to the lottery board whether to withdraw the offer.

I plead with the Minister to intervene and to seek increased flexibility from the Heritage Lottery Fund on funding partial restoration. It is essential that it increases its offer or at least encourages the council to return with another bid after the first phase is complete. I plead with her to seek a change of heart by the borough council so that it commits itself to a partial restoration and restores its agreed funding of £2.6 million. If the Minister can achieve a breakthrough with her own style of diplomacy or, better still, if she can secure some additional funding, her name will go up in lights at the royal hall, but it is currently dark and threatens to be so for ever.

4.14 pm
The Minister for the Arts (Estelle Morris)

I think that that is an offer that I can refuse. I welcome the debate, however. Indeed, if I am not wrong, I have had the pleasure of seeing tire hall and attending meetings there on previous visits to the constituency of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). Therefore, although I do not claim to know the building as well as he or the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) do, I acknowledge its importance to the local community. The hon. Gentleman makes a powerful case for its importance.

I often find myself in a difficult position in these Adjournment debates. I fully recognise that they offer hon. Members a welcome opportunity to raise what are essentially local issues, albeit ones that have national implications for the Government. I want to address my remarks to those two areas. It is of course the Government's responsibility to provide a framework within which decisions about the protection of our national heritage and our built environment can be taken, and I accept that responsibility. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to say a few words about the Government's approach to discharging that responsibility, even if they do not relate directly to the future of the royal hall.

Before I do so, however, I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport is undertaking a comprehensive review of heritage protection in partnership with English Heritage. Although I cannot say what will come out of that, I shall ensure that his comments about the wider policy issues are drawn to the attention of the group that is conducting that review. I do not have a feel for whether it will be appropriate to act on his suggestions, because those issues are not my primary ministerial responsibility. However, I shall ensure that the review group responds to him in detail. if appropriate.

We are lucky in this country to live among some beautiful buildings. most of which are exceptionally old and need a lot of care and attention. However, it is not possible for any nation to respond with the cash that any local community would need. We are left with the difficult dilemma of prioritising. I was grateful that the hon. Gentleman acknowledged that in his concluding comments. There is an absolutist argument, which says, "They're important, so Governments should provide the money." At first I feared that the hon. Gentleman was making that argument, but he did not do so and instead talked about prioritising.

The current provision is for the listing of buildings, which is a good way of doing things. First and foremost, listed buildings that are at risk should receive resources. The hall is a grade II* listed building, so it would normally receive priority. As the hon. Gentleman will know, a lot of the available money comes from the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is by necessity at arm's length from the Government. We put some money into English Heritage as well.

On the framework, three years ago the Government published "A Force for our Future", which was the first statement for a generation of Government policy on the historic environment. To some extent, the Government are still working on that, introducing a new framework and structure, which I hope will lead us through the coming decades. The Department has already looked at the structure of the Sports Council and of the Arts Council, introducing significant savings, which have been ploughed back into those activities. The Secretary of State has said that, in the same way, we hope in the coming months to look at the bodies that represent our heritage, to see whether savings can the made that can be ploughed back into the sector. I do not know what will come of that, but we are discussing the issue in the Department and announcements will be made in due course.

I say that to give an inkling that it is perhaps time that the Government looked at the many non-departmental public bodies, the funding streams and the structures that govern the nation's and the community's decisions about spending and about English Heritage. I do not stand up to defend the current structure as perfect, but it is time that we looked at it and that is what we are doing.

As I said, in 2001 we published "A Force for our Future". To reiterate what the hon. Gentleman talked about, we cannot underestimate the role that built heritage plays in our communities' hearts, and in regeneration, tourism, social inclusion, education and civic and local pride. Indeed, the definition of a failed community is one where, often, heritage has been forgotten and opportunities to build something that the community can in future be proud of have not been taken. Built heritage scores on all those counts.

I want to talk about the Yorkshire region, particularly the hon. Gentleman's constituency. I take his point that some of these decisions are local, and that there should be a regional perspective and input. However, I am not sure that he is right about the play that he made between issues of regional and national priority. We are all citizens. I am not from Yorkshire, but I have been to his constituency —more often than not for work. That has not stopped me gaining pleasure as someone who represents a midlands constituency.

We do acknowledge the importance of the regional level. Each region now has an historic environment forum that brings together the key players at regional level. In 2003, those groups each published "Regional Heritage Counts" alongside the national document. That is an effort to reflect the difference between the nature of the regional provision and the national one. The state of Yorkshire's historic environment demonstrates well the contribution that the historic environment is making to the region

More grade I and grade II* listed buildings and scheduled monuments in Yorkshire have been removed from English Heritage's register of buildings at risk than in any other region. That is an important point to make. One cannot argue that less has been done in Yorkshire to remove buildings from the at-risk register. More has been done in Yorkshire, possibly because more buildings were on that register. Indeed, almost half those still on the Yorkshire register are now under repair or have agreed solutions.

The Heritage Lottery Fund offered 25 per cent. more grant in Yorkshire in 2003–04 than in the previous year. The amount of grant offered by English Heritage in Yorkshire has increased by 11 per cent. since 2002. Indeed, since 1997, English Heritage has offered £371,000 in grants to the hon. Gentleman's constituency, which I suspect is £371,000 more than has been offered to my constituency in Birmingham. That is the nature of the different constituencies. It has also offered a further £1.3 million in grants to Harrogate district. My point is essentially twofold: it is time to examine the structure through which the Government operate when protecting the environment, and to ensure that buildings are listed and the at-risk register is run in a way that is most beneficial. There is no way that anybody from Harrogate district or Yorkshire can argue that they have been treated worse than any other city or region.

I acknowledge the difficulty faced by local authorities. I do not want to enter the evident dispute between the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon, who both have constituents who pay council tax to the Harrogate council. Both speak with passion from different sides of the argument. There is an issue about the capacity of local authorities always to respond to such matters. I suspect that local people will blame the local authority before they blame the Government, because of the local nature of such buildings. That is why it is essential that the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, the Department for Education and Skills and DCMS do what they can to work together. Whether local authorities have the necessary money to support all the local buildings that they need to support is a matter for ODPM, not for us, because of the grant system—although I am not trying to get out of replying to the debate.

In 2003, Ministers from the three key Departments signed a new and innovative funding agreement for English Heritage that recognises for the first time the contribution that English Heritage makes to the delivery of all three Departments' targets. I say that merely to make the point that the preservation of our built environment is the responsibility not only of the DCMS. Part of the trick is to get Departments to work more closely together and to ensure that the Government's different funding streams work with lottery funding streams to provide more leverage, whether through donations or money from the private sector or charitable organisations.

On the specific point about the royal hall, I am left with saying that I hope that the parties concerned solve the problem. Nothing that the hon. Gentleman has to say negates that. The Heritage Lottery Fund, which works at arm's length from Government, has provided £6 million, and always made it clear that it would not be in a position to increase the grant if the costs of the project escalated. In terms of the grants that are given out by HLF, £6 million is not unreasonably low. I do not believe that HLF is open to criticism about its action. We cannot constantly consider a project and return to HLF if costs escalate—which they do for legitimate and not so legitimate reasons—expecting that its grant can be similarly escalated. Sometimes it can be, sometimes it cannot be, but that decision must be for HLF to make.

Furthermore, the money from Yorkshire Forward that was on the table is not there now. A sum of £2.6 million came from the local council but, for whatever reason, that has been reduced to £2 million. I have no comment to make about that. I shall not criticise the council for reducing that sum by £600,000. The decision was made by the council and approved in the normal way. That is what local authority freedom is about. I must leave it to the borough council to make such decisions.

It seems that there are two options: first, to leave the cost of regenerating the hall at £13 million, and to use the £6 million that is on the table from HLF and the £2 million from the council and to raise other funding from elsewhere. The second option is to reduce the cost of the exercise to one that is manageable with an £8 million budget. It is not for me to decide which option to take; that is not my job. Rightly, that is for local people to decide.

It is important to bear it in mind that HLF has left the £6 million on the table longer that it would usually do, given the local argument that has been advanced and the change of mind that has taken place. I assure the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon that I am not using the term "change of mind" in a pejorative way. The council has a right to change its decision about how it spends its money. That has meant that time has elapsed. HLF could have taken the money away and spent it elsewhere. It has not. Reading between the lines, that is a sign that HLF wants the project to work. There is a meeting on 24 June, and I hope that all parties will sit round the table. I hope that the position is not reached whereby the £6 million is not spent on the hall.

I have had a private conversation with the right hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough has made public comments about the matter. The problem should be solvable. The town clearly cares passionately about the importance of the hall and its long history, and I hope that we can find a solution that £8 million can fund.

Mr. Curry

Can we be clear about the £2.6 million? Yorkshire Forward seemed as though it would offer about £2.5 million towards the royal hall and additional money for so-called break-out facilities—meeting rooms—to improve the conference facilities. When that failed to materialise, the council invested some of the £2.6 million in providing what was deemed necessary to make sure that the conference facilities were up to date. The council has not arbitrarily cut the amount; it has spent the money on something that is important for Harrogate, so that it can maintain its position in the conference world.

Estelle Morris

That is entirely a decision for the council. Such local matters fall the way of councils. I have been told that the area has problems with concrete sickness. Those problems are not predicted when outlaying funding. Problems have to be coped with as they come along. There is not a pot of money that can just be given to Harrogate or anywhere else because the costs of projects have escalated.

I join the hon Gentleman and the right hon. Gentleman in acknowledging the importance of the hall to the community. I very much hope that, in years to come, Members of Parliament can talk about the stars of politics and stagy who have appeared at the hall from 2004 onwards. I urge all parties to attend the meeting on the 24th and to go with a wish and a will to solve the problem. There is £6 million from HLF; there is £2 million from the local council. Please let that money point a way forward so that the hall will be saved.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.