Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 20 - 38)



  Q20  Chairman: Yet the Secretary of State has written a pamphlet about how much she values the heritage. They have recently had a seminar about Preservation of Heritage and we have a heritage White Paper coming out shortly, so the Government can point to quite a lot of rhetoric and also, we hope, action in due course?

  Mr Saunders: It is not reflected in money. English Heritage is being starved. The budget for grants that English Heritage has for the whole country to give to outside bodies is £30 million which is the cost of running half of a London hospital or buying half a jet. £30 million is pathetic as a sign of how Government values the heritage.

  Q21  Janet Anderson: You see this problem of DCMS not giving enough priority to heritage, how do you see this being overcome? Would you transfer it to a different government department, or is it a case of better liaison between government departments?

  Dr Dungavell: I was going to say I think there is an illness in the heart of DCMS to start with. Until we get heritage valued by the department that owns it there is going to be a problem wherever you move heritage as a responsibility. To highlight the problem again, as Matthew was saying of heritage being the poor relation within the Department—if you look at the figure of grant for English Heritage over the period 2000-06, the English Heritage grant increased by 3%, which in fact equates to a reduction of almost 10% in real terms. In the same period you see Sport England, funded by the same Department, having an increase of 98.6%, and sport as a whole by 143%. That is money the DCMS is deciding how to split up itself, and it has really got to prioritise heritage internally before we talk about where it might sit elsewhere in Government.

  Mr Wilkinson: Key is that wherever heritage goes there is a Minister representing it, and one thing I feel grateful for is we do have ministers within the Department at the moment who represent heritage. David Lammy, being a champion for heritage, has yet to have a chance to prove it, but we obviously hope that he will. If heritage were to be moved, so long as there is a minister within that department fighting a corner and willing to make sure that heritage gets across Government's agenda then that is going to be a positive thing.

  Q22  Mr Hall: In my constituency I have got a listed building, it is an old convalescent home, Crossley Hospital, a magnificent example of a listed building of its kind in total dilapidation because the Crown Agents and the Department of Health failed to repair it, which goes back to the earlier points all of you were making about the need to invest in affairs rather than having restoration as a main option. What do you think the Government needs to do with even its own properties, which are historical buildings of great value but have been left to decline because of a lack of use or no use at all; where we end up in the position we are now where a building will be redeveloped, it is in the green belt, and because it is a former hospital site it is not covered by the constraints of policy planning guidelines with the green belt; and what will happen is that some of the buildings on site will be demolished and we will have new four and five bed-roomed detached houses as well as the restoration of the site for residential development. A classic example of the point you were making. What should the Government do to avoid those problems arising in the future?

  Mr Wilkinson: It depends on the department really. The NHS is the worst offender within Government when it comes to historic buildings; whereas a department like the MoD has been very good in recent years, by looking ahead and seeing what is going to be made redundant and then starting to think about what can be done with it. The NHS has not been doing this. What it will do is see a large hospital site, it will then think about making it redundant, and once it is redundant it will call in the consultants who will get paid a very fat fee to draw some lines on a map, get an outline planning permission while the building rots, the kids get in, set fire to it and trash it. We have seen this happen at Severalls near Colchester, and I will provide you with information about this.

  Q23  Chairman: I live about a mile away from Severalls and I know it very well!

  Mr Wilkinson: The redevelopment costs shoot up and demolition, therefore, becomes an option and an excuse to bung more housing on the site. Yet there are many examples of how buildings like these can be converted and reused very effectively creating gorgeous locations and places for housing.

  Mr Saunders: At last Crown exemption has gone. Before you could not take on the Government. As a local authority you could not serve a repairs notice or refuse them permission to demolish something. Now the planning exemption has gone maybe the culture of local government will change, taking on the big boys in central government and saying, "It's a disgrace that this building is just wasted and empty. We, as local people, are offended by it. Quite apart from the heritage of it, it is just a waste. We want you to do something about it". The culture of local authorities may change rather more belligerently towards transparent examples of useless neglect.

  Q24  Mr Hall: Would it help if there was a statutory requirement on the owners of listed buildings to keep their buildings in a good state of repair, and if that applied to government buildings like the Department of Health that would solve part of the problem?

  Mr Wilkinson: I agree with that. That would make sense. Look at the Housing Corporation; housing associations have a statutory duty of care to keep their buildings in good condition and they do and it works and it saves them money as well. In the long-run it will save money and in the short-term it will cost a bit but it is something SAVE would support very strongly indeed. I obviously have my hat on as a board member of Maintain Our Heritage and have a strong interest there but it certainly makes sense.

  Q25  Mr Hall: Finally, what else can the Government do in terms of assisting people to maintain their buildings if it is not going to be a statutory requirement? You have already been very straightforward about the fact of removing VAT from maintenance and repairs. I assume that is the collective view of all of you?

  Mr Saunders: Yes.

  Mr Venning: Could I make one very simple suggestion and that is: we know that a sellers' pack is going to come in shortly where, when you sell a house, it will be a requirement on the person selling to produce a pack. At the moment there is a very good opportunity to provide much more information to the person buying about the building that they are taking on and some of the responsibilities; not a detailed architectural appraisal but just a bit more information than I believe is planned at the moment. This would be a very simple thing. Central government could fund it. We are not talking about large sums of money but again it would provide an enormous amount of help to the owner who often takes on an old building knowing very little and not knowing where to turn. This would again avoid a lot of the expensive mistakes and give them the helping hand that they need.

  Mr Wilkinson: The Government could also encourage maintenance services—literally a man with a van going around once a year and cleaning out gutters. There are a few initiatives happening at the moment. Maintain Our Heritage set up a service in Bath to see how it would work. It does work. It can be expensive; it can be cheap; it depends how you do it. Currently there is one in the diocese of St Edmondsbury, which is getting underway, going round the churches and helping out there, and overcoming the health and safety obstacles. There is currently one starting up in the Diocese of London as well and, I hope, shortly in the Diocese of Gloucester working with its places of worship. They are perhaps the most vulnerable and the most governed by, at times, frustrating legislation to do with health and safety, but ones where there is a real need to keep our common heritage on its feet.

  Q26  Chairman: Can I just come back to this potential tension between conservation and development. You have mentioned the NHS and I do know Severalls site very well. There are plenty of examples where the NHS wishes to invest in green field new build hospitals, and the way in which they look to finance this is by giving over existing sites for development. Severalls is an example where there is potential for enormous development. The fact that there is an historic building which is listed is an obstacle to that development. You would argue that it should not be but that may well be the perception in too many cases, that in some ways they almost stand by and hope it deteriorates over a long enough period so they can get rid of it and build lots of new houses. You have argued in your evidence that development and conservation should not be opponents of each other, they should go hand-in-hand. Perhaps you would like to say a little more about this.

  Mr Wilkinson: With these larger sites it is the power of the mass house builders where they have a standard product which they want to dump on the land they have in their hands. They do not employ architects. They do not want to look at these listed buildings; they are simply not on their horizon; and yet it is the smaller builders, like P J Livsey or Urban Splash, who can take on these buildings and can make plenty of money from developing them into housing. In the current market housing, however you develop property, it seems, is going to make you money. If you can develop an historic building you are in fact investing in the future of that site unlike those large housing developments of the 1960s and 1970s, which people look at now and think the estates are foul. However, those sites that are developed around historic buildings will maintain the private occupancy for many years to come. Development is about two things—it is not just about blatant profit but it is also about looking to the longer term and creating real places for people.

  Ms Cherry: It is also an attitude, is it not, where one needs to educate the developer to look constructively at the site, at the potential of the historic building, rather than just assume it is a nuisance. I think that is a learning process. There are good examples, as Adam said, where it has been done and one needs more publicity for such successes.

  Mr Venning: One of the advantages of representing an organisation which is nearly 130 years old is that we see how rapidly the world changes, and how so often decisions are taken about a building or site dependent entirely on the precise economic circumstance of that moment. Things change all the time; economic cycles change all the time; planning laws change; attitudes change; strange things like HLF come completely out of nowhere. The world is constantly changing. If we look back over our 130 years we can see so often occasions when it is said the only chance to save this building or site is to do X and it is something really horrible; and luckily that has not happened and the world has moved on and something much better has occurred. I think, as always, trying to assess what is worth or is not worth doing with a building or a site one needs to say, "Is there a realistic chance that something might change five years from now or in 10 years' time?" As we know, in the early 1990s there was a great slump in the property market and buildings had very little chance of being saved then; we then had a housing boom. Things are always changing and so many of these decisions are based on absolutely most short-term and immediate issues which may damn a building which has been around. We have plenty of Saxon buildings still in this country—not many of them are at risk—but buildings may have lasted hundreds and hundreds of years but they are condemned simply because at that precise moment in time the money is not right or the developer has a particular priority or the planning laws are as they are. Going back to my distinguished predecessor William Morris who founded the SPAB, he said, "We are only trustees for those that come after us". I think this is something we bear in mind all the time. We are thinking not just of the immediate but we are thinking of our children and our grandchildren and what they will enjoy and what we are handing on down to them.

  Q27  Mr Evans: It is true, is it not? I would just add one thing on that, which is that the economics of the 1960s in Swansea meant that the council did away with the oldest passenger railway in the world, and it is a great shame to everybody that that was allowed to happen and it would not be allowed to happen now. Do you think it has got better—that people are more heritage-aware than they were in the 1960s?

  Mr Venning: I think so. There are all sorts of good reasons for that. Even so, there are still going to be lots of things that are going to be at risk possibly for different reasons. The tragedy is you can look back at all sorts of things which could have been saved but were thought to be uneconomic but today would be valued, loved and have economic value if only they had been kept going.

  Dr Dungavell: Could I just mention airport expansion in terms of short-term economic need and long-term damage to the historic environment.

  Q28  Mr Evans: You will be fighting to save Terminal 5 in years to come!

  Mr Saunders: Too young!

  Mr Venning: Terminal 6 we do not want.

  Q29  Helen Southworth: What can be done to foster the kind of entrepreneurial ideas and partnerships? You talked about the housing opportunities in buildings which are no longer fit for their original purpose but that is quite dependent on sets of local circumstances fitting. What other things can be done that can actually be sustainable? Can we actually foster a kind of creative attitude that is sustainable?

  Dr Dungavell: I think that is interesting. You start from probably not the heritage perspective but the environmental perspective and you start to see buildings as embodied energy, for example. You then question the wisdom of demolition to start with and you say, "What are we trying to achieve?"

  Q30  Helen Southworth: How do we get the people to do that?

  Mr Wilkinson: There are so many good examples.

  Q31  Helen Southworth: How do we build up this group of people who can do that?

  Ms Cherry: One important thing is to have buildings that are accessible. Very often if you have a site which is walled off, nobody can see what there is and it then falls into dereliction. If there is an openness and an opportunity for people understanding what exists, that is one of the key things, and to educate people about their surroundings in ways so they understand what is on their doorstep. So often people only wake up when the bulldozers come in and they realise they are losing things. I think very often it is a question of local education and making things known to people, opening things up, and I suppose one comes back to local authorities providing opportunities.

  Dr Dungavell: I think publicity is a really valuable thing as well. There is a fantastic leisure centre in Nottingham which has—I think it has got a swimming pool—work out centres in the old train station, so the platforms have become exercise facilities. There is a former hospital chapel somewhere in East London—I have only seen photographs of it in an English Heritage publication—where there is a swimming pool in the nave.

  Mr Saunders: Woodford.

  Dr Dungavell: That is tremendously imaginative. I am not sure what my committee at The Victorian Society would think about that but I think that is quite an exciting re-use of an historic building.

  Mr Wilkinson: It is this question of perception and changing perception at all levels. It does not matter whether a building is listed or just locally valued, if it is re-used it can revitalise an entire area. If you look at something like the Hothouse scheme in Stoke-on-Trent, an unlisted and attractive primary school was going derelict, was going to be knocked down, but the local authority sponsored one person to take it on and use it as an incubator for small business. It ended up with a life of its own and became a central part of the community through getting people on their feet as small businesses, then sending them off into the wider world and they take on other buildings and give those a life and use as well. It is a question of economic use, of building if the imagination is there and the will is there, but so often it is the perception that these buildings are tired, at the end of their lives, when, in fact, they are far from it, they are just beginning their lives.

  Mr Venning: It is essential that we have more professionals—architects, surveyors, engineers and others—who understand old buildings and can work creatively with them. That is not about preserving them in aspic but finding new uses for them which at the same time do not destroy the very things that make them interesting. That is the problem. There are plenty of architects who work on old buildings but who do not have that sensitivity or knowledge.

  Q32  Helen Southworth: The DCMS has set targets for visits by new users from minority and socially deprived groups. How effective do you think the heritage sector is in meeting those targets in terms of tying these things together?

  Dr Dungavell: It is a slightly barmy way of approaching things anyway because one of the problems at the DCMS is it seems fixated by the idea of heritage as a visitor attraction. You can go and consume heritage in a museum and anywhere there is a turnstile they like it, but if you are walking through an historic neighbourhood, how can you be counted? How can we count those in Westminster?

  Q33  Helen Southworth: What happens if you are living in an area which is not an historic neighbourhood, how do you find out about them?

  Dr Dungavell: It is amazing how many areas do have historic elements. I live in an area of 1960s comprehensive redevelopment in Kentish Town and the local swimming pool there is 1901, a tremendous building, but the council is thinking about closing that down. For many people that is their only experience of the power of the historic environment and that is not appreciated.

  Q34  Helen Southworth: Does nobody have—

  Mr Wilkinson: You can lead a horse to water. People are interested in their areas, it is very hard to quantify that, and yet local history societies flourish. No matter where you go in this country there is a bit of heritage somewhere, whether you are tripping over an old gravestone somewhere or walking past a local church or just people's houses. As with these areas in the North that we have been dealing with in the Pathfinder areas, the local communities live in and are surrounded by their heritage. Most town centres, even those that have undergone some kind of comprehensive redevelopment in the 1960s, still have heritage left in them. Look at Coventry, it has got some fine medieval bits left in it. You can show people that they are there, you can change how people use towns, to walk through towns to try and help them perceive this, but you cannot count it. You cannot count how people react to their surroundings unless you are going to be on the street corners counting it, and that is not our job as societies fighting for historic buildings.

  Ms Cherry: I have to come in here and say that heritage is not just things in the distant past, heritage is the 20th Century as well. The 1960s is interesting in its own right. Certainly local history societies flourish and tend to attract an older generation, but what about the schools, what about education? Here you have the opportunity to encourage children to be interested in their surroundings at primary level, at secondary level, they can think about design problems, they can debate what sort of buildings they like and so on. That is where one should be focusing to try and get an appreciation, an understanding and an enjoyment of the world around one which is not just heritage spots here and there but it is everything, it is your local street, which may be 1960s, it may be 19th Century, it is more likely to be a mixture of them. If you can encourage children to understand that, appreciate it, enjoy it and debate it, then they can become intelligent adults who will take an interest in what is going on around them. It is not good enough just to send schools out on school visits to heritage spots. That is pernicious in a sense. They may have a good time but they have got this idea that it is something out there and it is different from their daily life. What you have got to do is encourage their interest in local history, local design, local environment and develop from there.

  Q35  Helen Southworth: Should the sector be doing more to see those things happen?

  Ms Cherry: Yes, absolutely. The difficulty is here we are going beyond DCMS perhaps, but that is what I would like to see happening.

  Q36  Janet Anderson: Do you think it would be helpful if HLF grants were more widely available to private owners?

  Ms Cherry: It depends how they are framed.

  Mr Wilkinson: It is very hard for the voluntary sector to deal with the grants sometimes because of the mass of paperwork that goes with them. If you are a professional body dealing with it, it is much easier. It is not necessarily a bad thing that you have certain hurdles to jump but how would you then account for how a private owner does with that money. It is very hard indeed.

  Dr Dungavell: I think also the HLF resources are shrinking for various reasons, partly to do with the Olympics and partly to do with how they are able to spend their money. In the public sector for the HLF there is not enough money for the need and if you spread it more thinly then some of the projects that we think should be supported—

  Q37  Janet Anderson: Do you not think it would persuade private owners to be more responsible about protecting our heritage?

  Mr Saunders: I must be careful because this is an issue HLF is looking at very closely. It has always been an assumption that Lottery money is for the public good and if you start keeping the roof on a private house where the public does not have access you have difficulties of potential private gain, but what HLF would say is English Heritage is the body—

  Q38  Janet Anderson: You have still got the environment even if you have not got access to it. This was the point that Bridget was making.

  Mr Saunders: It is. English Heritage is there not to provide exclusively for private owners but it has never had a prejudice against private owners, in fact almost the opposite. If you can prove poverty and your building is very important to the street, even though interior access might not be possible, English Heritage will help you, but the Lottery is a much more difficult creature to use in areas where there might be an element of private gain. This is way beyond what conservation is about, this is almost what the Lottery is about.

  Ms Cherry: The way in which English Heritage has been able to help through things like town schemes which have given seed money, balanced by local authority funding plus private owners, to improve the condition of small buildings in a high street can be extremely effective. To apply an HLF approach to that would be immensely complicated. Even the town schemes are difficult because they have to get so many agreements with so many different sorts of people. The way HLF grants work—I know through being on the receiving end—is a very complicated business and I think it would collapse for local owners, I do not think they could cope.

  Chairman: I think we are going to have to stop there. Can I thank all five of you for giving evidence. You have given us a lot to think about and we will be returning to a lot of these issues in the course of the next few weeks. Thank you.

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