Previous Section Index Home Page

17 May 2006 : Column 290WH

There are responsibilities for the industry, but clearly there are also responsibilities for the Government. I shall touch quickly on several issues that I hope the Minister will address as she gets to grips with her new brief.

The first relates to a point made by the hon. Member for Foyle (Mark Durkan) about the need for co-ordination within Government. The Federation of Small Businesses in Northern Ireland recommended that if devolution is restored there should be a junior Minister with specific responsibility for tourism. At present, responsibilities are divided among different Departments and agencies. The Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment has a target to raise the annual visitor spend in Northern Ireland, but the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Roads Service, the Planning Service and the Department of the Environment all have responsibilities, and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development has an interest in promoting farm diversification. It is important to co-ordinate not just the budgets of the various Departments and agencies but their forward planning and ways of setting their various priorities, so that tourism does not always slip to fifth or sixth place in each Department’s list. There must be a regional focus on the importance of the industry.

Connected with that is a point made by the hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). We must remember that most tourist businesses in Northern Ireland are small, family-run businesses. People do not have time to search through acres of paper or pages on Government websites to find out what needs to be done, so how the Government disseminate best practice in an easily accessible form must be an important part of the strategy.

Improving transport infrastructure is of continuing importance. The point has been well made about the lack of rail links not just from Belfast International airport but from Belfast city. There are no direct rail links into the city centre, and anybody who has been stuck behind a tractor on the road between Dungannon and Enniskillen knows that there are some serious bottlenecks in the Northern Ireland road network that need attention.

A wealth of projects represented by promoters seeking Government financial support will compete for the Minister’s attention. I hope that the Government will be able to push forward the pace of decisions on the proposed international sports venue. There has been a perfectly reasonable debate about the best location for it, but a sports venue that is able to host major international fixtures would be a big tourist asset. The promoters of the Ulster canal regeneration bombard me with letters from time to time, and I suspect that that is another project that will find its way on to the Minister’s desk.

There are opportunities, but there have also been warnings in some of the Northern Ireland Audit Office reports. The experience from well-intended projects such as the Navan centre in Armagh, to which many hopes were pinned, is that money can be spent with good intention but customers may not come in. I return to my opening point: every decision that is taken about tourism in Northern Ireland must aim to provide what the customer wants to spend his or her money on.

17 May 2006 : Column 291WH
10.50 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Maria Eagle): This has been an excellent debate, and a great one with which to start so early in my time as Minister with responsibility for such issues in Northern Ireland. I congratulate the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) not only on securing the debate—it is awkward enough to get time for debates in Westminster Hall—but on putting his points so coherently, forcefully and clearly.

I always try to deal at least with some of the points made by the Member who initiated the debate. Ministers never have enough time to deal with all of the many points that arise in these hour and a half debates, but I undertake to write to Members concerning any points that I omit to address. It is clear to me that most of the Members in the Chamber today are not as new to this as I am, and I have enjoyed hearing from everybody about the many attractions in Northern Ireland that should be pulling in tourists. I have no doubt that Members from all parties, regardless of any divisions, will agree that Northern Ireland has fantastic potential as a tourist destination, and agreement on that is a pretty good place to start.

The fact that we are starting from a low base gives us a chance to move quickly. There is no reason why we cannot start moving toward the position in which Northern Ireland would have been in the absence of past disadvantages and difficulties, and that should be the aim. There is significant potential for further growth, and notwithstanding the success of recent years we should not rest on our laurels. We should go further and faster to translate the potential into reality, because that reality can mean jobs for local people, increased business activity and increased balance between public and private sectors, all of which are tremendously important to the future of Northern Ireland. I see the responsibility for that as one of the most important that I have acquired in my new role, and I shall focus on it a great deal.

In 2005, there were some 2 million out-of-state visitors to Northern Ireland. That is quite a number—more than the number of inhabitants. It is a landmark that needs to be built on and a significant achievement. Visitor spending from that group topped £354 million, with a further £146 million spent by local people holidaying at home—it is not only visitors from outside who offer potential. The latest quarterly employment survey showed that more than 51,300 people were employed in the tourism and leisure sector, which represents a significant number of jobs for the local population. There is already improvement, there is great potential, and we should progress a lot further.

As the hon. Member for Aylesbury (Mr. Lidington) and several other Members mentioned, if Northern Ireland is to compete effectively in an international and increasingly global travel and tourism market, there must be knowledge of what customers want. We must match what is available in accordance with that principle, so that the available products are marketed as well as possible. Getting the products right and marketing them properly is the key to best performance.

I was interested to learn that some 69 per cent. of overseas holidaymakers to Northern Ireland use the
17 May 2006 : Column 292WH
internet when planning their trip; 65 per cent. actually book their flight or ferry online, and a further 27 per cent. book their accommodation online. We must ensure that we move with the trends in how people book and plan their trips—it is no good having lousy websites, and products that can be marketed only in the traditional way. We must be up to date, and it is important that Tourism Ireland and other institutions promoting tourism on the island of Ireland seek to achieve that.

I want to deal with some of the points raised by the hon. Member for East Londonderry, because this is his debate. He referred to the Smithsonian folklife festival. I am sure that we would all agree that that has enormous potential for showcasing the delights of Northern Ireland. We have until next July to get it right, but we need to get moving sooner than that if we are to do so.

I asked officials to let me know what benefit Scotland had gained, having had the same honour. The results were impressive, and I am glad that officials from the Northern Ireland Departments are talking with their Scottish counterparts to ensure that they learn the lessons that Scotland learned and do not miss any tricks, but exploit the opportunity to the full. Some 10,000 key travel prospects attended lectures on Scottish holidays, 44,000 people logged on to the VisitScotland website for travel information and key members of the international industry attended events in Washington. All of them now know far more about Scotland and visiting Scotland than they knew before. We have to ensure that the activities that we undertake this time next year present Northern Ireland with similar opportunities. We must design what we do to maximise those opportunities, and I intend to ensure that we do that.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the 12 July celebrations and the Orange Order, and made some points about tricks that might be being missed, and commemorations and cultural displays that are not being properly exploited as products for visitors. I think that he said that the NITB treats some of those events as unavoidable irritants. I hope that he will accept that more links have been made recently in order to improve on what he sees as a poor record. Meetings have taken place between the Orange Order and senior NITB officials to attempt to ensure that the situation improves, so he should in future feel able to say nicer things about the efforts that are being made. Certainly, the main event on 12 July is now on the visitor website. Lots of people decide whether to visit on the basis of websites and what they see online. We hope that there will be improvements in understanding and better links, and therefore better marketing of all appropriate events in future.

I should like to say a word about the Ulster Scots traditions, on which several hon. Members commented. There were concerns that the tourist potential of those traditions—part of the culture of Northern Ireland—is not being exploited to the full, particularly among people in the United States of America seeking information about their family history. I am aware that there have also been a number of parliamentary questions. I have answered some and had a look at others. The Ulster-Scots Agency has made a contribution towards marketing materials that
17 May 2006 : Column 293WH
Tourism Ireland and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board have produced specifically to try to market that sector. Again, I will not argue at this early stage that that has been exploited to the full, but I will say to the hon. Gentleman that we clearly recognise that there is an opportunity that has not been exploited, and we are determined to do more in relation to that tradition. I hope that in due course he will be satisfied that things are improving in that respect.

Many hon. Members, including the hon. Member for East Londonderry, made the point that Tourism Ireland should be looking east-west rather than just north-south. I heard what was said about money and resources, and about the focus of the institutions, whether Tourism Ireland or the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. Tourism Ireland’s targets for growth in visitor numbers and revenue are higher for the north than they are for the south. That might not answer all the points that were made, but it demonstrates that we recognise that the industry is less developed in the north than it is in the south, and that the gap needs to be narrowed. All the institutions, tourist boards and various bits of Government—

Mr. Eric Martlew (in the Chair): Order. We must move on to the next debate.

17 May 2006 : Column 294WH

Places of Worship

11 am

Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): It does not matter which county, town or city of England one chooses, there are beautiful, small, great, sometimes grand churches everywhere, and no two are alike. We see the magnificence of wool churches and the splendour of the perpendicular style, where the perpendicular nave is little more than a stone framework for a gorgeous blaze of colour in stained glass—a style adapted to a country where the sun is a friend to be welcomed. There are small Saxon churches, grim, solid Norman churches in the style of their heavy-handed conquerors, early English churches and decorated churches. As Jeremy Paxman observed last week:

And as Sir John Betjeman observed:

Our places of worship are frequently places of architectural importance. English Heritage has statutorily listed 14,500 places of worship, many of them mediaeval. I have initiated this debate to support the “Inspired!” campaign by English Heritage, which is supported by many denominations and faith groups—Anglican, Baptist, Catholic, Jewish and Methodist—and trusts and organisations such as Friends of Friendless Churches, the Historic Churches Preservation Trust and the Open Churches Trust. In a recent letter to me, the Minister made it clear that he and the Government agreed

The Minister went on to observe:

And he concluded that he was excited by English Heritage’s campaign and would certainly be looking carefully at the results.

There is no ambiguity about what English Heritage is saying to the Government. Ministers do not have to wait; the facts are stark. Thousands of churches and other places of worship are crumbling and in danger because of a multi-million pound shortfall in funds needed to keep them standing. In its briefing for the
17 May 2006 : Column 295WH
“Inspired!” campaign, subtitled, “Securing a Future for Historic Places of Worship”, English Heritage makes it clear that

I recently undertook a survey in just one small part of my constituency, the Deddington deanery. I asked for an estimate of what parishes thought the cost of repairs and maintenance would be over the next five years. Adderbury church, which is a very fine parish church, of which John Piper did a very beautiful picture, will require £250,000. Banbury St. Mary’s, which is a grade I listed church in the centre of Banbury, estimates that it will need £220,000.

I visited St. Mary’s last Friday with the vicar, Janet Chapman, and the area dean, Ben Phillips. It is a magnificent church, built in honey-coloured Hornton stone, with a green copper cupola. The difficulty is that the copper on the cupola and the lead that seals the stone expand and wear at differing rates, so leadmen are now on the church roof in Banbury repairing the lead. Of course, with any of those exercises, there are now considerable and understandable associated health and safety costs.

It is estimated that Bloxham parish church, which Simon Jenkins considers to be architecturally one of the best 1,000 parish churches in England, will need £100,000. Indeed, Bloxham only recently had to spend approximately £85,000 on repairing the spire, which can be seen at 4 o’clock on Sunday in a programme on television about steeplejacks, starring Tony Robinson of “Blackadder” fame.

I shall not take hon. Members through every churchin the Deddington deanery, but the total came to£1.5 million: that is what the community needs to raise over the next five years simply to maintain the fabric of buildings of considerable historic interest in one deanery in one county. English Heritage estimates that the cost of repairing all England’s 14,500 statutorily listed places of worship would be £925 million—almost £1 billion over the next five years.

English Heritage is making some extremely modest requests of the Government. The thrust of its campaign is about understanding the problems of the need to repair crumbling churches and taking action before crisis is reached. That crisis is approaching—it will strike, perhaps not this year or next year, but certainly in the near future. English Heritage has a five-point plan, which I commend to the Minister and invite the Government to support.

English Heritage wants to make places of worship fit for purpose in the 21st century by reforming heritage protection legislation. It is asking the Government for a one-off payment of £2.52 million to allow it to rewrite outdated list descriptions for all grade I listed places of worship. The Government’s own planning policy guidance observes:

The best way to secure the future of churches of historic and architectural significance is to ensure that they remain, if possible, living buildings at the heart of
17 May 2006 : Column 296WH
communities—visited, valued and enjoyed by all. As with any other listed building, a balance must be struck between changing patterns of use and the protection of the special architectural and historical interest for which the building has been listed. St. Mary’s in Banbury, for example, is at the very heart of the town and is now used for public meetings, concerts and exhibitions.

Sensibly, English Heritage wants to develop partnerships between everyone concerned, to encourage planning ahead and a positive rather than reactive approach to the management of church buildings. English Heritage is asking the Government for £8 million a year for three years for various purposes. Those purposes include helping congregations to help themselves by appointing advisers in denominations who can offer support and expertise, helping communities and congregations to understand the repair priorities, and then helping individual congregations to make the most of their buildings.

Another use for the funding would be to create a maintenance grant scheme to shrink repair bills in the longer term. English Heritage wants to start a new maintenance grants programme to help the congregations that are least able to fund maintenance themselves. For example, the diocese of London is undertaking a private study in the City of London of the benefits of a centralised gutter clearance service, so that the gutters on all churches in the diocese, as well as vicarages and church halls, can be cleared twice a year. The diocese employs a contractor to clear the gutters and downpipes and check the drains, and while on the roof the contractor also undertakes emergency repair work such as fixing slipped slates. A simple checklist and digital photographs are used to show the condition of the roof and gutters and even hard-to-reach places, providing good information about what repairs are required. That is sensible “a stitch in time saves nine” work.

The funding could also be used to maintain a joint English Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund repair grant scheme and augment it with a small grant scheme. The joint English Heritage and Heritage Lottery Fund repair grants for places of worship scheme is the largest single source of funds for repairs to listed places of worship in England. It gives out£25 million a year, but it is 100 per cent. over-subscribed. Government funding for English Heritage has remained static and, as a consequence, so have its grants schemes. The allocations from the lottery to the Heritage Lottery Fund have also declined, and although it continues to help places of worship with other grant schemes, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund help fewer congregations each year. English Heritage is therefore modestly asking the Government for an extra £4 million a year for three years, to start a grant scheme to help those congregations that are most in need to carry out smaller repairs. With that extra £4 million, they will be able to double the number of repair projects that English Heritage can support each year.

Next Section Index Home Page