Examination of Witness (Questions 20-39)
DR SIMON THURLEY
WEDNESDAY 1 MAY 2002
20. Can I stick with churches for a moment. I was curate of All Saints, High Wycombe, which celebrated its 900th anniversary while I was curate there, and I remember that the previous vicar had been removed from his post because, having finally lost his cool with English Heritage, he took a chainsaw to the pulpit and removed it, because it was hideous, it was a hideous Victorian monstrosity, but, of course, it had become listed in the meantime. And I think there would probably be a lot of clergy in the land who would say that English Heritage is a bit anal about churches, in particular, because churches are living buildings, and their ecclesiastical ritual needs have changed dramatically. Rood screens, which might have been wonderful in the 14th century, were an important part of keeping the priest a long way away from the people; in the 20th century, there is a completely different set of needs. So can I just ask you about where you sit on the sort of spectrum between liberalising and authoritarianism?
(Dr Thurley) I really have to go back to what I said a few moments ago, which was that we recognise that the best way of securing the future of any important building is making sure that it has a contemporary use, that has to be the way of securing its future, and that goes for churches as much as anything else. And our inspectors, through both our grant programmes and through the way we work with the Church of England, work very, very closely with thousands and thousands of vicars and PCCs a year to try to find satisfactory solutions to buildings that, on the one hand, may be, nationally, perhaps, even world-class buildings, and also the needs of the congregation. Sometimes, like the occasion you mention, there is a fundamental disagreement, but, I think, for every vicar that you talk to where there has been problems, there are many, many, many who would say that we have helped them through very difficult decisions about balancing the beauty of the church and the liturgical requirements, and we have found a way through.
21. I just wonder whether that is right, I just wonder whether you have got the balance right still. Sometimes, talking to clergy, you get the impression that, if Wells Cathedral put in an application now to put in the great arch, it would have been rejected by English Heritage, and yet, now, it is considered to be one of the finest parts of the building. And in so many different areas, the muffling of bells, because it changes the aspect of many towers, of course, there are hundreds and thousands of people in the country who would love to see more towers muffled so that the bells do not wake them at 7.30 every Sunday morning, but they are prevented by English Heritage from doing so because it might change the outlook of the spire, or the tower?
(Dr Thurley) I think, one of the big messages I would like to get across is, we are not against change, we are not against development, but we are for change taking place in a sympathetic way and taking into account the existing historic environment. We have a duty to pass on these very, very important buildings to future generations, so that they can appreciate them; and if we have destroyed them, or altered them irrevocably, future generations will not have the opportunity of appreciating them in the way we do. And that is the balance; and there is no right and there is no wrong, and we employ a lot of very, very clever people, who sometimes do a very, very good job and sometimes make mistakes, and it is my job to try to make sure that they do that job as fairly and as well as possible. That is the only answer I can give you.
22. But maybe some of the people that work for you are too clever. I do not mean that they are smart Alicks, I just mean that maybe their background, your own background is largely in writing about royal palaces, and things like that, and I just wonder whether we need to give you a strong urge down a liberalising route, if Britain is not just to become a sort of Donald Sinden world?
(Dr Thurley) I would urge you to go and visit Whitby Abbey, which is one of English Heritage's own properties, which we opened on Easter Saturday, in fact, the Archbishop of York opened it, and it is a 17th century building in which we have inserted a brand-new glass and steel box for our visitors. We are absolutely not against making good-quality changes to the historic environment, and if I had been in post longer than three weeks I would have at my fingertips a whole range of brilliant examples I could give to you where we have encouraged churches and cathedrals in the area of good, modern design to meet contemporary problems. That is something we are very interested in, and we work very closely with CABE, the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, to ensure that good, modern design does take place in historic areas; and that is one of our principal objectives. So I wish I could give you more examples, and I am hampered by my ignorance.
23. Just one final question, which is, the legislation that a government frames, in any given country, on the environment, dramatically affects the landscape in ways that people do not even know. In Greece, one of the reasons why lots of houses are unfinished is because you do not have to pay local taxes if your house is not finished, so nobody ever finishes the garage; and in Spain, advertising boards were not allowed to have words on them, out in the countryside, which was why you had all those big bulls, just advertising sherry, and things like that. And in the UK, from the 1948 Act, you were not allowed to put any advertising hoardings more than a certain distance from the centre of a town, which is why the English countryside, the British countryside, does not have any advertising hoardings over it, unlike the rest of Europe. Is there one legislative change that you think government should consider now?
(Dr Thurley) Invite me back in a year's time and I will tell you.
24. I should think you must have something to say, on that, as you have just taken up post; so, come on, we want an answer, what would you want to do?
(Dr Thurley) In terms of legislation, I think that English Heritage wants to work much more through persuasion and through argument and through leadership and through partnership than through legislation. And I think that a lot of the questions that other, fellow members of your Committee have put to me have been about "English Heritage does, or does not, allow us to do this." We want to be seen to be an organisation that enables change to take place in the historic environment, we want to have partnerships, we want to work through persuasion. Actually, if you look at it, we have very, very few powers, it is actually the Secretaries of State that have the power; we recommend. And most of our influence, and I would prefer to use the word "influence" rather than "power", comes through our powers of persuasion. I am sure that, for instance, Mr Fabricant, we did not actually insist that the lead hopper was kept, I am sure we said, "This is a very important hopper and it should be put somewhere." We have no power to insist that anything should be kept. So I think what we want to develop is ways of working in which we can persuade people, just through the sheer powerfulness of our argument, rather than having yet more legislation; there are enough rules, probably, already.
25. May I say, just one sentence
(Dr Thurley) Oh dear, I wish I had not mentioned the hopper, Chairman.
Chairman: Michael, I have got several other people who want to put questions.
26. Just to say that they were required.
(Dr Thurley) Right. I accept that.
Chairman: Have you finished, Chris?
Mr Bryant: Only to say that I would urge you, personally, to take an interest in the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford; and one of the reasons that we wanted to do this report today and to look at these issues was because of what seemed to us almost a scandal about Stratford. I know the Prince of Wales takes a different view
Ms Shipley: And I do.
27. And Debra does, as well. But, some of these issues, I do not see why we should keep the stage machinery at all, let alone move it to somewhere else?
(Dr Thurley) I should say, I have taken a personal interest. I have also met John Maples, who is the local MP, and the Chairman of the Shakespeare Company, before I even took up post.
28. I represent Taunton, which, I hope you will know, is in Somerset, and our great contribution are church towers to England's heritage, and, particularly, one is St Mary Magdalene in the centre of Taunton, which Simon Johnson said is certainly not one of the finest towers, and they have a half a million pound fabric fund, and I rather hope your people will be sympathetic otherwise that bill will be 600 and 700. And it is really your people I want to talk about, just for the breakdown, of the length of service, I know you have only been there one month, the qualifications, where they are based, with reference, if you take the one area to the South West and Somerset, if you can?
(Dr Thurley) I will do my best; a tricky question. Two years ago, we regionalised, and we did that because we realised that we were a service organisation and that we should be delivering our services at point of need, and so we have set up nine regional offices, and each of those offices, essentially, has two teams in them, at the moment, they have a team that run our historic properties that we open to the public, and we have a team who are involved in, what I like to call, change enablement, which is the whole business of grants and dealing with specific casework. The people who actually deal with the casework are known, in a rather archaic term, as inspectors, and they tend to be either archaeologists, if they are dealing with scheduled ancient monuments, or, if they are dealing with listed buildings, they tend to be architectural historians. And one of the other members of the Committee did raise the issue about whether these people could be too expert, and I would certainly accept that some of the people, whilst being very brilliant, are not perhaps as well trained at dealing with the public as they ought to be, and that is something certainly that I want to look into, because, as I said right at the beginning, I think that we are a service organisation and we need to have a service culture. So we employ very clever, very educated people, who have a great deal of experience and look at these issues on a national basis, they are not just looking at them on a local basis, because we are dealing with the buildings that are nationally important, and they are able, theoretically, at any rate, to look at the tower of Taunton church in a national perspective and come to a national view on it. Now where I would accept that some of our staff could benefit from training is the way they deal with the public, and that is certainly something I would like to look at.
29. Because I think that is particularly important. Is there a shortage of qualified people?
(Dr Thurley) Yes, there is, there is a shortage of qualified people for us, but, even more importantly, there is an appalling, desperate shortage of qualified people for the conservation departments of local authorities, it is a very, very serious problem.
30. And how could that situation be resolved, and what are you hoping to do about that, in terms of putting pressure on courses to be set up so those people can become qualified?
(Dr Thurley) That is precisely what we are doing, we want to do. The Government's new statement on the built environment does recognise this is a problem, and recognise that in order to make these sorts of very difficult decisions, and all the questioning I have had so far is basically all about recognising that these are very difficult decisions, the basis of the decisions does have to be knowledge, and we do have to have expert people who have the knowledge. English Heritage are very keen to set up more training courses, we are looking, at the moment, into the possibility of setting up possibly some chairs in universities, of people who are actually looking into particular building history, and that is a major focus for us, making sure that the expert, well-trained people, who are not only just sort of brain experts but also good at dealing with people, exist so that we can provide the service we need to provide.
31. One small observation, which you may or may not have noticed, but there are an awful lot of antipodeans telling English home-owners what they have to do with their homes, and, to some extent, that can rankle, as much as where they are coming from, to those home-owners, and saying, "Well, you've got to paint it with linseed oil-based paint," and saying, "Well, you know, where are you from?"
(Dr Thurley) They may be British citizens; so, whatever their accent, whatever they look like, they are the people.
32. It is a public relations thing, as much as anything.
(Dr Thurley) I would agree.
33. If you get somebody who evidently is not even from that area, I accept your point about the national handle, but evidently do not come across as somebody who. . .
(Dr Thurley) I agree. We employ Scottish inspectors, Irish inspectors, Welsh inspectors, we employ quality people to do a quality job, and, I agree with you, it can be difficult, but, as long as the quality of the service that people are receiving is good, I do not think it matters where the people come from.
34. I accept that; it is a public relations issue?
(Dr Thurley) And I accept that.
35. I would like to wish you well in your new job, because it is one of the most vital in the country. I care so much about what you do. We have heard a lot about the experts; when did the English Heritage last try to produce some sort of survey, or receive some sort of survey, on what the general public think about these sorts of things?
(Dr Thurley) In 1999, this very Committee challenged the DCMS to undertake a review of policy on the built environment, and English Heritage was responsible for leading that review; and that resulted in the publication, which you are perhaps familiar with, called, "Power of Place", and a central part of "Power of Place" was a very significant MORI poll that took place to ascertain exactly what you are referring to, which was what the general public thought of England's historic environment. The results for us were very, very encouraging; 90 per cent of people who were asked believed that the built environment was very important to them, and 97 per cent of people who were asked believed that it was an essential part of their children's education to learn about the built environment. Now that research is available, and we can send it to you, if you would like to see it; but it was a very important piece of research in forming the document "Power of Place", which was the foundation for "A Force for our Future", which is now government policy for the built environment.
36. Do you know whether there were any clashes, when that came out, between your experts and the public's views on it, were there any major differences, were people surprised by the results of the survey?
(Dr Thurley) I think that the issue is always that people are very happy to endorse the importance of the historic built environment in generalised terms; when it comes to the specific issue of them putting double-glazing into their Georgian house, which is in a conservation area, they might take a slightly different view. And so there is this interesting balance between the direct personal impact and the general support; and what certainly our research shows is that there is tremendous general support, and the vast majority of people in England do regard our historic environment as being a very, very important part of their lives.
Alan Keen: My inability to operate my video-recorder, probably, on Sunday night, meant that I could not watch "Auf Wiedersehen Pet", but I understand that they had got the job of demolishing the transporter bridge at Middlesbrough and selling it abroad somewhere. I hope you will make sure that that is only a story and never becomes true. Thank you very much.
37. I have an interest in disabled access and historic buildings, and early on in the last Parliament we tried to get one of our colleagues, who is in a wheelchair, into the Marriott Hotel, in the old GLC building, and disabled access was through the kitchens; and they blamed English Heritage for that, because they said you would not allow them to interfere with the building. Now I rather suspect that what you said was, "You have to do it in a certain way," and, therefore, because of the cost, they did not do it, but they managed to turn it round on you. But, in general, what do you do to help disabled people access buildings that are very important, and it is a real major concern for us?
(Dr Thurley) It is a very major concern for us too, and the DDA, as you know, has put an obligation on people to make changes to buildings, which, of course, impacts directly on both local authorities and on us. And one of the roles that we have, particularly with the local authority work, is to provide advice and best practice guides, and we have been very heavily involved in providing advice and guides to show people how this can best be done. Also, of course, we open a large number of properties to the public ourselves and we do aim to use those properties as places where we can experiment, first of all, and, secondly, provide examples of the best way it can be done, so we can show other people, who have a ruined castle in the middle of nowhere, how to get people, not only with mobility disabilities but with other disabilities, round those sorts of buildings and help them to enjoy them.
38. And do you work with the Heritage Lottery Fund on that kind of thing; would you work with them closely to make sure that, if there was any assistance available, it would be made available?
(Dr Thurley) We do advise the Heritage Lottery Fund on their work, when it impacts on listed buildings.
39. I am going to be a bit of a whip of the clerk now, because I think there are some questions he wants asking. The National Heritage Bill 2002 talks about a forthcoming freedom to operate and trade overseas. What does that mean, and what are you going to do?
(Dr Thurley) What it means and what we are going to do are two very different things. What it means is that we have powers to sell our services, and, essentially, sell our services overseas; when it says overseas, that is everywhere except Scotland and Wales and Northern Ireland. What it actually means, in practice, is that, if we had the capacity, which currently we do not have, we could provide advice to other countries, other governments, who might want to benefit from some of the experiences we have had in the UK, particularly in Europe, but also, to a degree, in our former colonies, where there are buildings which have been built by British or English architects, where advice is thought to have been possibly helpful from us. But, in the short term, we have got a great deal on our plate, dealing with matters in England, and this is a permissive power that gives us, in the future, the ability to do this, if we have the capacity.