Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witness (Questions 1-19)



  Chairman: Dr Thurley, I am very sorry indeed that we have delayed by these minutes your appearance before the Committee; we had some complex business to transact, and, while we are all intellectuals, dealing with complex business is not always our greatest strength. Mr Wyatt will start the questioning.

Derek Wyatt

  1. Good morning, Dr Thurley.

  (Dr Thurley) Good morning.

  2. I know you have only recently taken up your post, if I have understood the correspondence correctly, so this may be rather a loaded question to start with; but, in looking at the philosophy of the way in which heritage is protected in the UK, do you think it is more appropriate to be in the Culture, Media and Sport Department, for government, or do you think it would be better if you were in a local government department, because so much of our mail and correspondence, as individual MPs, ends up between constituents asking us to intervene on local government issues where they have (a) either no jurisdiction, or (b) no funding?
  (Dr Thurley) Clearly, the matter of sponsorship of English Heritage is a matter for government, not for us; but, having said that, I think it would be fair to say that the DCMS and the DTLR do work very closely together, and the recent policy statement "A Force for our Future" was a joint statement by the two departments, and I think that working relationships at a high level, and actually at working level, are very good between the two departments and currently work reasonably well.

  3. The trouble is, with that, that may all be well at the very top, but the fact of the matter is, it comes down to councils, and the councils work only to one department; so I am trying to push you here, I am not asking you to make a categorical statement on behalf of English Heritage, but would it not make more sense for it to be moved across?
  (Dr Thurley) We have quite a wide range of responsibilities, and some of our responsibilities sit very happily with DCMS and some sit very happily with DTLR, and I think that the current situation, whereby we have close working relationships with both departments, is good for us; if government were to decide that a change were necessary, or advisable, that is a matter for government.

  4. Can I ask you about, because we are a very old country and we have remains going back, well, I should think at least 10,000 years, but many of us have what I would call 14th, 15th, 16th century cottages and houses which are graded, and they are falling to pieces, because, although they are graded by your organisation, there is no funding to protect them, and, as a consequence, they either fall down, they are knocked down, or they go into disrepair. So, in a sense, what is the point of even grading them then, because you do not have the authority to actually dictate, or tell, or fund enough of these buildings?
  (Dr Thurley) There are several questions there. On the question of granting, how much money we have, we have about 32 million, 33 million a year, which, admittedly, is a drop in the ocean; with that money we could not even take all the buildings off the Buildings At Risk register, it is a very small amount of money. What we do is we use that money in the most creative way possible to lever out money from elsewhere, to solve some of those problems; and, later on, when you speak to the HLF, they have yet more money, and I think that we and the HLF have worked together, trying to solve some of these problems. So that is one question, in terms of money; of course there is not enough money, but we do use the money that we do have in the most creative way possible. In terms of why we bother to list them in the first place, it is only a relatively small number of the total number of listed buildings that are at risk and are on the At Risk register, only a couple of thousand, really, and the purpose of designation is not entirely to save buildings that are falling down, it is to protect buildings that are at threat from other forces, such as development.

  5. Let me come on to two that are in my constituency, I hope you have been given some early indication I was going to bring this up, but we have a fantastic, first, largest industrial warehouse by Rennie the architect, in Sheerness Dock, I forget, but I think it might be 1812 or 1813, but the first and the biggest, and it is decrepit, falling to pieces, and if we allow it to carry on it will just fall to pieces. Now what we would like, as a community, is to physically move the building about 250 metres, which would save it, bring it back into use and it would become a community arts and cultural centre; but we can neither get permission from you nor from the Government to do this. So this building will just fall apart. It is a wonderful, wonderful piece of industrial archaeology. So what can we do, when there is the will of the people, who would like to save it, but it is in the wrong place? So what happens when you move buildings, and you do move buildings, you do allow buildings to be moved; so what is the sort of—who makes these decisions?
  (Dr Thurley) Again, there are two questions there. I did receive a list of buildings that specific questions might be asked on, and I received it only about ten minutes ago; and after a hasty 'phone call, I can tell you that we are very concerned about Sheerness Dockyard, and our people are involved in it, and currently there are four buildings at risk in the Dockyard, and we are about to add a fifth on to the list. And, as you know, we have been involved in that, and I am sure we will continue to be involved in that. In terms of who makes the decision, English Heritage, as you know, has advisory powers, we are the Government's principal adviser on the built environment in England; it is either DCMS Ministers or DTLR Ministers, depending on whether it is a listed building or scheduled ancient monument, that actually make the decision, on our advice.

  6. We have had the Arts Minister down to see it, Alan Howarth, but the issue is, I have only been the MP for five years, but this building and the others in the Dock, that you have mentioned, they have been a bone of contention now for a good 15 or 20 years, and, as that bone gets gnawed, the buildings are falling down; well, how long will we wait before we get some decision, one way or the other? I am not asking now; but we just get bounced around and we do not understand why we cannot do something. We want to protect these buildings?
  (Dr Thurley) So do we.

  7. I know.
  (Dr Thurley) That is why we are there. And, I think, perhaps, on this specific case, the best thing is if I got our Regional Director to write to you with the current situation and keep you appraised of what we are doing.

  8. I know what the current situation is; so nothing will change. I think there is an impasse here in the system, and that is what I am scared of; if it is in my constituency, it is in all MPs' constituencies. So there is something wrong in the sort of system. I am trying to tease that out a bit this morning. And, finally, we also have a building that was on the Risk register, that has been in the top ten in the Risk, Shurland Hall, which is just a bundle of scaffolding, and it is an eyesore, it is a ghastly eyesore; and it will remain there for ever and ever and it will never be repaired, that scaffolding will fall down in the end. So I just do not understand what on earth happened there?
  (Dr Thurley) Shurland Hall is a very important Tudor house, as you know. We, I think, have put money into the whole business of putting—I think we paid for the scaffolding, actually; we are as eager as you are to find a use for it, it is in private ownership, it belongs to the farmer who owns the land about. We have been working for a long time with the farmer to try to find a viable use. It has to be a private owner, whom we may be able to help, we may be able to grant aid, but, essentially, we need to find someone to take that on; and that is a priority, it is one of, as you say, the top buildings at risk in the country.

  9. But, again, it has been there for six years, the scaffolding, it is ghastly, it looks absolutely awful, in the community; so it will be there another six years. It is at risk, but nothing will happen?
  (Dr Thurley) We do, every year, remove a large number of buildings from the At Risk register; last year, we removed 15 per cent of them, that is 211 buildings. But every year more buildings get put on, because more buildings are found to be at risk. And it is like the Forth Road Bridge, I am afraid you just have to carry on going; and we will, I hope, manage to find a solution for Shurland Hall.

Mr Doran

  10. I am interested in your overall strategy and the way in which English Heritage approaches its task, and I am particularly concerned about the owners of private buildings. And my own experience and background, it is mainly Scottish, but I do not think the situation down here is very different, is that the heritage agencies, if you like, are generally seen as a barrier rather than as something positive, and I am interested in how you deal with that issue?
  (Dr Thurley) English Heritage is, or certainly should be, a service organisation, we provide a service to the public, we also actually provide a service to the public that has not been born yet, in future generations, in that we do need to make sure we pass on the historic environment to them in a good and secure state. So when we are dealing with people who want to make changes to the protected historic environment, it is our task to provide a service. I think we are too often seen as people who like to say "no". I certainly see us as people who are helping people to make changes to the protected part of the environment, enabling them to make change. Occasionally, it has to be necessary to say "no", but certainly it is the intention of English Heritage, and has been for some years, to try to work with people who want to make changes, to make sure that the changes actually enhance the monument, or the building, and pass it on in a better condition for the future.

  11. But one of the difficulties that many organisations face, and we found this, as a Committee, in some of our earlier inquiries, particularly when we have been looking, for example, at Stratford, the very fact of English Heritage's involvement creates a certain uncertainty, which has a number of consequences, one of which, in a commercial enterprise, is just raising the funding. Because it is very difficult, first of all, to determine timescales for a project, because of the time which it takes to process not only the planning issues, because planning has to relate to your own organisation's requirements, and just generally to get proper timing and proper timescales for developments and any certainty about the whole process. I have got one example in my own constituency, which is outside your area of concern, but a major factory, which has been on the same site for several hundred years and is basically a history of the British textile industry; the company has found it impossible to move forward because of Historic Scotland's requirements; and that must be replicated across the country. How do you deal with that, in terms of speeding up the process, making sure that you are much more accessible, making sure that you are providing a service which is positive, rather than negative?
  (Dr Thurley) The first thing that you should bear in mind is that, although there are 400,000, approximately, listed buildings in England, it is only the top 10 per cent of those that English Heritage directly deals with; now there are some exceptions to that, if we can come on to it, but without complicating the issue, it is only that top 10 per cent. And those top 10 per cent are the Grade 1 and the Two Star buildings, which are specifically identified by the Government as the most important buildings in the country; that is one per cent of planning applications that we deal with, so it is a very small number. And the reason that we deal with them is because they are part of everyone's, in England, heritage, they are part of the national heritage. And we attempt to deal with that in such a way that the people who are applying are dealt with fairly quickly, transparently, and that is our aim.

  12. But, in your terms, what is "quickly"?
  (Dr Thurley) There are targets set, as you know, for dealing with planning applications. We deal with 71 per cent[1] of all applications that come to us within the deadline. The reason that we do not deal with a higher number is because 60 per cent of the applications that we receive are incorrectly filled in or do not provide enough information to enable us to make a determination. And so one of the things that we are very, very keen to develop is a greater degree of pre-application discussion with people, so by the time the bits of paper actually hit our desk the issues have been discussed fully and we are not delaying anybody. And that is, I think, one of the thrusts of the Planning Green Paper also, that a greater emphasis should be put on pre-discussion. And I think where that happens, and that is one of the things we have been leading the way in, planning applications are determined much faster.

  13. That will mean that you will have to have links with everyone who is in a listed building, so that they will know to turn to you first, before they even think about the planning stage?
  (Dr Thurley) Not everyone, of course, because the local authorities deal with by far the greatest number of applications, and we deal with just the tip of the iceberg.

  Michael Fabricant: I really want to follow on with the line of questioning of Frank Doran. You said, in an answer to him just now, that you want to help people to make changes, and, generally, may I say how much I commend the work that is done by English Heritage, but I sometimes feel, from the experience I have had with English Heritage, I live in Lichfield, which has a lot of heritage to be preserved, that at times English Heritage makes it difficult to carry out that preservation. And perhaps I can give you a few, very brief, examples, because they involve cost. For example, sometimes English Heritage have said that, when exteriors are to be painted gloss white, linseed oil paint has to be used, instead of normal gloss, except it is eight times more expensive, and it lasts about a quarter as long and it is highly inflammable; and I wonder at times, when one looks at white gloss, whether you can tell anyway whether it is linseed oil paint or whether it is Dulux or some other brand. Let me give you another example, and you do not have to talk about specific examples, but I just want to give you an idea of what I am getting on about. Apparently, there was an 18th century lead hopper on the head of the north transept of Lichfield Cathedral, and it was too small, and, after a long discussion, eventually English Heritage decided, well, all right this hopper could be got rid of and be increased with a different one, to take in the amount of rainwater, but then they said "We have got to preserve the hopper." And I gather now there is a huge storage area, bits of lead, and things, which English Heritage say have to be kept, they are not kept on exhibition, they are just being kept in storage, which is very costly. Look, I have got other examples, but I will not give them to you.

  Chairman: May I just interrupt you, Michael, and add the one we got from our RSC inquiry, the machinery under the stage at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre, Stratford, which is there, which is listed, which they cannot do anything about, and which is simply in the way.

Michael Fabricant

  14. And, in the end, does it not mean that, far from things being restored for our nation's heritage, sometimes they rot into disrepair because the money is not available, because there is this block to any action being taken?
  (Dr Thurley) The first point to make is that our organisation is concerned with quality, and we want to make sure that the very, very best of our historic environment is preserved to the very highest quality, and, when one is talking about paint finishes and design of hoppers, all those small things contribute to the wider objective of achieving quality; and walking into this building is a perfect example of quality, and here we have attention to detail everywhere, and that is really all we are trying to do, in the historic environment, is bring attention to detail. Whether it is actually stopping things or not is a slightly different issue; and, to take the Chairman's example of the stage machinery, as far as I understand it, there has not been an application put in yet to move that machinery, it would not be inconceivable that it might be moved, under some circumstances. And we are, obviously, very eager to try to find solutions which enable buildings to continue to have a useful life and yet preserve the quality of their historical importance.


  15. Can I just interrupt, on that, Michael. You say, Dr Thurley, and obviously you have not been there too long, so you cannot carry responsibility for any past sins there may be.
  (Dr Thurley) Thank you.

  16. You say there has been no application to move it, Dr Thurley, but if there were to be an application to move it there would have to be a place to move it to; who is going to house it? It may well be that it could end up at the Shakespeare Museum in Covent Garden, but they would have to find immense space for it. So, with respect, an application to move it is only the start of any process, rather than a solution?
  (Dr Thurley) Chairman, thank you for your kindness in noting I have been in post for only three weeks; but, clearly, the issues still are important matters of principle. And if I could just reiterate what I said, which is that we need to make sure that modern uses can be found for these buildings. It is not in our interest to make buildings unviable, commercially, or in any other way, because what we are looking for is the long-term preservation of them, and so we have to find ways of making buildings like that usable.

Michael Fabricant

  17. You say, quite rightly, that, of course, we do not want to see cheap repairs, or repairs made in such a way that it damages the style of a building, but do you not think there needs to be a balance between restoring a building to the quality and type so that, when one looks at it, it demonstrates how the building was originally constructed, while, at the same time, not doing it to such an extreme? As I say, white gloss paint looks like white gloss paint, and this was just a small example, or, in the case of the hopper, of course replace it with a lead hopper that does the job, but, again, there was the problem of storing other bits of lead, which nobody seems to be looking at. Do you not accept that there needs to be a review of practices within English Heritage to ensure that, in extremis, English Heritage is not setting demands on people who want to restore the environment such that the environment is not restored, and instead we simply see impasse and age taking its toll on the building, and, far from restoration, we see desecration and destruction?
  (Dr Thurley) Of course I agree with you, there is a balance, and we continually review these issues; we will not get into the merits of gloss paint and lead paint,—

  18. Or even linseed oil paint?
  (Dr Thurley) Yes. I could probably have a robust discussion with you about that on another occasion. But I think the point must be that there has to be balance, we are very aware of that, and we continually review the way we deal with these issues, these cases, to ensure that we do strike a proper balance; and days like this are very useful for us to hear that your constituents may feel that, on occasions, we have not struck the right balance.

  19. I wonder if I might just ask you a general point, and, again, I ought to declare an interest, but, you are English Heritage, English cathedrals must be a major part of the nation's architectural heritage. I understand that, about ten years ago, there was 10 million available for the preservation of English cathedrals, and this has now reduced to 2 million. I wonder if you could explain the rationale behind that, and how you see things progressing in the future, and how you expect, and I am not even Christian, a cash-strapped Church of England to maintain its architectural heritage?
  (Dr Thurley) I can answer that question. You are quite right, the amount of money that has been made available for cathedrals has reduced, and that is a very, very simple product of the fact that the vast number of cathedrals in England now are in a much, much, much better condition than they have, probably, ever been. And, while there are needs still amongst the cathedrals, our assessment of it, we have a special team of architects who look at cathedrals, is that the cathedrals of England are, generally speaking, in pretty good nick. We have now diverted that money towards looking at parish churches, and parish churches must be one of the sort of hallmarks of England, and we believe very strongly that parish churches are an extremely important part of England's built heritage, and we have now a joint scheme, with the Heritage Lottery Fund, whereby we are putting substantial sums of money into parish churches rather than cathedrals. And that is a question of prioritisation; because the parish churches have been saying, for ten years, while we have been putting huge amounts of money into cathedrals, "This is not necessarily entirely fair, the cathedrals are large organisations who are able to do fund-raising, we are small, poor organisations, often in areas of deprivation, shouldn't we get support too?" And it is a matter of policy that we have switched from cathedrals to parish churches.


1   Actual figure is 77 per cent Back

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