Previous Section Index Home Page

Most significant of all is the line:

On top of the tunnels there are many antiquities, but recently there has been a threat to the tunnels. A developer wished to establish a training facility for unemployed people from the midlands, and although the development was small to begin with, it was probably intended to become much bigger. The local council turned it down—thank goodness—because it is green belt land and there were no transport links, and because of the chance of damage to the iron-age fort, the area surrounding the Baxter memorial, and the rock-cut houses. I believe that there is a precedent: in 1967, the then Home Secretary wanted to build a prison for 1,200 people in Wolverley—the next-door village—on the site of a former camp for American forces, but Sir Tatton Brinton, the MP for the area between 1964 to 1974, opposed the development. A public inquiry ruled against the development:

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman kindly referred to my support. I want to put on the record the fact that I much appreciate his initiative in seeking the debate, and I congratulate him on securing it. He has given an excellent exposition, and my constituents in the Kinver area would wholly and utterly support everything that he has said.

Dr. Taylor: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention.

May I ask the Minister one or two questions about the heritage White Paper? Will it address the problems of complex sites such as Drakelow? In a letter to me, the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings said—I hope that it got this right—that

Does the White Paper address the problems of antiquities that are privately owned? Some fabulous stained-glass windows in our area are privately owned, and no one can see them. I fully realise that people who own something like that, and who intend to sell it, need to accept the best price, and if they are thinking of developing it for tourism, they need help to do so. Does the White Paper say anything about that?

I have a dream for my constituency. Sadly, in my area, industry is declining, with a few notable exceptions, but tourism is building up. Already, we have some exciting tourist sites. There is the Severn Valley railway and a huge heritage railway facility is being developed; there are also the canals and the beautiful
20 July 2006 : Column 573
Litchfield basin, which has been dry for years. It is being dug out to be refilled. We have a carpet museum on the drawing board. There are so many attractions, and it would be splendid if the Drakelow complex, demonstrating how it was used for aircraft production, the regional seat of government and everything else, could be added to the industrial heritage tour that we have set our sights on.

In a letter to me, the head of conservation at the Council for British Archaeology, Dr. Gill Chitty, states that

She goes on to say that she hopes that we will see in the White Paper

I will finish by explaining what I think the word “Drakelow” means. “Drake” is a well known old English expression for dragon. “Low” refers to the caves immemorial where the dragon has lain low. According to a popular story, it was last seen in 1591. I am hoping that if we have a real plan for the preservation of that unique site, maybe the dragon will feel safe and we will see it again in the coming years.

6.21 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): I thank the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) for securing the debate and for the opportunity to hear about a fascinating site. I, too, welcome this exchange, which is taking place in a friendly manner.

The historic environment is unique in telling the story of how we have interacted with our surroundings since prehistoric times. The Drakelow tunnels and the surrounding area are a rich illustration of that. In one small area, we have an iron age prehistoric hill fort, cave dwellings that are believed to date from the 19th century, the Richard Baxter monument, and the tunnels themselves, which alone provide a fascinating insight into the second world war and the cold war, as illustrated by the hon. Gentleman. I can appreciate why he considers the site to be of huge importance not just to his constituents, but to the region.

To set the context, it may help if set out the various regimes that we use to protect the historic environment. First, there are national systems designed to protect important historic assets. For buildings, that is the listed building system that protects buildings of special architectural or historic interest, graded at grade I, grade II* or grade II. For below ground archaeology, there is the system of scheduling, which is used to protect sites of national importance.

Mr. Ian Austin (Dudley, North) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Dr. Taylor) on securing this important debate and on his fascinating speech. Will my hon. Friend the Minister examine the
20 July 2006 : Column 574
proposal made by my constituent, Mr. Roger Bruton, who served his country with great distinction first in the Army and later in the Territorials, where he was charged with responsibility for defending the Drakelow tunnels and the regional government? He believes that Drakelow should become a museum dedicated to the second world war and the cold war years, which he says would be a major boost to tourism and the economy of the west midlands, especially because of the large number of American servicemen who were stationed in the area.

Mr. Lammy: That is certainly an interesting idea that should be taken forward locally. My hon. Friend will know that there are several museums in the area, including the Hack Green nuclear bunker museum at Nantwich. When we look to see how we can preserve our heritage, it is important that we work with people at museums, libraries and archives, because they have the expertise to identify and facilitate funding lines.

Let me return to the current protection arrangements. Alongside the scheduling and listing regimes that I described, we have a regime for protecting individual assets, and there are also tools to protect areas of significance. Most importantly, local authorities have a duty to designate conservation areas, which are areas of special architectural or historic interest that have a character and appearance deserving of preservation and enhancement.

Those are the main statutory protection systems, but there are also a range of non-statutory protections available to historic assets. English Heritage is responsible for developing registers of historic parks, gardens and battlefields. In addition, almost half of all local authorities, including Wyre Forest district council, have developed lists of locally significant buildings. Information about a building, place or area can also be captured on the national monuments record or on the local historic environment record.

What do all those designation systems achieve? In some cases, specific designation regimes carry specific protections. For example, listed buildings are managed through the system of listed building consent, scheduled ancient monuments are managed through the system of scheduled monument consent, and some change in conservation areas is managed through specific conservation area consent. However, those individual regulatory regimes are designed to deal with only a small proportion of our historic assets. Most change to our historic environment is managed not through those regimes but as part of the planning system, whereby information about an historic asset may be taken into account as a material consideration in determining a planning application.

The Drakelow tunnels site is a good illustration of how the various regimes come together, because several protection systems are in operation. The tunnels themselves are neither listed buildings nor scheduled ancient monuments. They were considered for listing by English Heritage in the late 1990s as part of a thematic review of the nine cold war regional seats of government. Following that review, two of the regional seats, at Nottingham and Cambridge, were listed at grade II. The iron age hill fort that sits above them is a scheduled ancient monument, while the Richard Baxter monument is grade II listed. The hon.
20 July 2006 : Column 575
Gentleman is right to say that it is a complex site with different systems bearing on it. Those protection systems sit alongside mainstream planning controls and the priority given to heritage in the Wyre Forest district council plan.

I have outlined a complex system of heritage protection in England. Indeed, we acknowledge that it is far too complex to be easily understandable. That is why we are finalising plans to make it more streamlined, open and accountable. We want to simplify our heritage protection systems and make it easier for local communities to engage with decisions that shape their environment.

In the time we have left, I do not want to go into the detail of our proposed reforms. Instead, I refer the hon. Gentleman to the 2004 document that the Department published, which sets out the proposed reforms in detail, or to the transcript of my recent appearance, with Baroness Andrews, before the Culture, Media and Sport Committee. However, it may help if I briefly outline the key changes that we propose.

First, we intend to simplify the designation system by developing a new unified register of historic sites and buildings of England. That will bring together the current systems of listing buildings, scheduling ancient monuments and registering parks, gardens and battlefields under a single designation regime. The register will make designation decisions easier to understand and dramatically improve the quality of information available about designated sites to enable owners, communities and local authorities to understand more about their historic assets.

At the same time as reforming designation, we will encourage local authorities to make greater use of local listing to provide recognition for locally important sites that may not be suitable candidates for national designation. As I have said, many authorities already make extensive use of local lists. Wyre Forest district council has already designated 300 locally listed buildings in Kidderminster and 350 in Stourport. We want to make that local designation process easier, and encourage more local authorities to use it.

Secondly, we want to streamline and simplify the consent regimes associated with national designation. We will introduce a new heritage consent regime, which will bring together scheduled monument consent and listed building consent in a single system.

We will introduce new management agreements for historic sites. They will encourage constructive
20 July 2006 : Column 576
partnership between owners, managers, regulators and communities in deciding how best to manage change to complex sites. Developing those partnerships will enable us to reduce bureaucratic burdens on owners and local authorities by reducing the volume of individual consent applications.

Pilot studies have already shown that the reforms can bring genuine benefits. We intend to publish a White Paper setting out the detail of our reforms later in the year. Once implemented, the reforms are likely to have some impact on a site such as the Drakelow tunnels. Let me outline possible matters of special interest. The improved designation documentation would increase understanding and appreciation of the listed memorial and the scheduled iron age hill fort. The move to encourage greater use of local listing is also relevant. Local listing can make it clear, when planning applications are made, that people treasure the area and building under consideration, and that specific obligations go with it. Wyre Forest district council is already making extensive use of local lists. However, it is worth underlining that the Drakelow tunnels are not currently listed or scheduled. We have not, as far as I am aware, received any recent application to list them.

The Department will consider any application to have a building or site listed or scheduled, though the tunnels have already been considered for listing by English Heritage. It is also worth pointing out that most change to historic sites is managed not through individual designation systems, but as part of the planning system. I understand that the original planning application for the site in January 2006 has now been withdrawn. If and when a revised application is made, it will be for the local planning authority to determine, in line with the policies set out in its local plan, including those that relate to the historic environment, the future of the site, what is appropriate and how matters should proceed.

I hope that I have been able to underline to the hon. Gentleman the importance of the historic environment and the reforms that we are trying to introduce to make the system easier to understand and more open, transparent and democratic. Those reforms will also assist locally. However, local things can be done and, if the enthusiasm that he has shown today reflects how local people feel about the site, it is likely to be preserved for many generations to enjoy.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Seven o’clock.

    Index Home Page