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Westminster Hall

Thursday 25 January 2007

[Sir John Butterfill in the Chair]


[Relevant documents: Third Report from the Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 912, and the Government’s response thereto, Cm 6947.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Lammy.]

2.30 pm

Mr. John Whittingdale (Maldon and East Chelmsford) (Con): I am grateful for the opportunity to debate the report of the Select Committee on protecting and preserving our heritage. It is extremely gratifying to see the interest that the debate has generated among Members of the House and members of the public who have chosen to attend. That interest reflects the fact that our heritage in this country is perhaps one of our greatest assets: there is no question but that it is envied by many other countries and admired across the world. Our heritage is a wonderful demonstration of creativity in this country, in the work of our artists and architects, for example. It reminds us of our history, it has acted as a focus for regeneration and redevelopment, and it attracts thousands of visitors every year from within these islands and from abroad, which makes a major contribution to our economy.

The Government clearly have an important role in helping to protect, preserve and promote our heritage and that was explicitly recognised in 1992 with the creation of the Department of National Heritage, which has evolved into the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Despite its importance, I believe that too little attention is paid to heritage in this place. When my Select Committee decided to carry out an inquiry into heritage, it was the first time that it had been examined by the Committee for 12 years. Heritage debates are few and far between, which is perhaps reflected by the number of hon. Members who have chosen to come along this afternoon. It is an indication of how few opportunities there are to debate such matters.

During the course of the inquiry, we received a huge number of submissions. The Committee published about 124 of those, held six evidence sessions in public, and visited Lincoln and Liverpool. I would particularly like to thank the Committee’s two expert advisers, Bob Kindred, who is a conservation officer with Ipswich borough council, and David Sekers, who is a trustee of Heritage Link. Both provided us with invaluable advice.

There is no doubt that the debate is extremely timely. We are awaiting the outcome of a comprehensive spending review, which is keenly anticipated, if not feared, by those in the heritage sector. We also have concerns about the future funding of the Heritage Lottery Fund and are awaiting a decision from the Government about the financing of the Olympics, which may impact upon that. We are obviously looking
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forward to the publication of the heritage White Paper, which has been awaited for some time. I hope that the Committee’s report will have some influence on all three of those matters, and perhaps this debate will, too.

I begin by focusing on English Heritage, which plays a role as the Government’s main adviser on heritage matters. It also acts as a regulator through its responsibility for a large part of the heritage protection system, and it acts as a vehicle for support by giving grants and financial assistance to the maintenance of heritage properties. In recent times, the responsibilities given to English Heritage have increased. It has taken on the role of safeguarding maritime archaeology and it is due to play an even greater part in listed building administration and, in due course, designation. Fears have been expressed that there may be some conflict between those roles which could be made worse by the fact that resources have fallen behind. Priorities have had to be set and certain areas may have had less attention paid to them than others. That situation is now becoming critical.

Since 2000-01, the grant in aid given to English Heritage has fallen way behind inflation. Using the figures projected up to 2007-08, we calculated that there was a cumulative shortfall of £18 million. That is the amount by which the grant paid to English Heritage had declined in real terms by not keeping pace with inflation. It is also notable, as was pointed out to us vigorously by the sector, that English Heritage appears to have suffered much worse than other bodies funded by the DCMS.

It is perhaps a cause for celebration that museums, galleries and libraries have done relatively well in recent times, enjoying a 36 per cent. increase in funding. Funding for the Arts Council is up by 53 per cent. and that of Sport England is up by 98 per cent. We make no criticism of increases to those bodies, but they do draw a stark contrast with the failure to maintain funding, even at a pace level with inflation, that has been the fate of English Heritage. It has led many to believe that heritage is a low priority for the DCMS and that was the theme of the evidence given to us by a large number of our witnesses.

The consequence of the decline in funding of English Heritage has been a steady fall in the level of grants payable. There have been delays in processing applications and a number of the other functions that English Heritage is required to undertake have suffered as a result. Almost all our witnesses highlighted the serious impact that that is now having. The Government’s response to our report was to say:

I have to say that that is not believed by almost anyone throughout the whole heritage sector. For that reason, the Select Committee recommended that there should be an above-retail prices index increase in grant-in-aid to English Heritage. That recommendation will become all the more important, given the proposals for the improved heritage protection regime, in which English Heritage will be required to play a major part.

I understand that the Minister will not be able to comment on the outcome of the CSR. I asked him on Tuesday whether he would like to comment on my
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pressing him to get more money for, or at least safeguard the resources available to museums, and he very honestly and frankly said, “No”. I suspect that his answer this afternoon may be the same. However, I urge him to press the case as hard as possible. We have great faith in his powers of persuasion at the Treasury, but it is desperately important, if we are to achieve half of the protection of heritage necessary, that we restore the finances of English Heritage and its ability to undertake its responsibilities.

We hoped that English Heritage might enjoy a period of some stability. It has had to undergo three reorganisations in recent times, and we were slightly alarmed when, in the middle of our inquiry, we discovered that it was to be subjected to a further peer review. We understand that that will not lead to major change, which is welcome, but there is still a gaping hole to be filled, which is the matter of who will be the next chairman of English Heritage. That has been the subject of speculation and press comment for some time, but time is running out and, at the very least, uncertainty has been created. I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure us that an appointment will be made fairly soon.

Robert Key (Salisbury) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that such is the disrepute into which the selection of a new chairman of English Heritage has fallen that the whole process should be opened up again to public competition and proper independent scrutiny?

Mr. Whittingdale: I can fully understand why my hon. Friend should say that. Obviously, we have to go by what we have read in the press but it has seemed a remarkably unseemly process. On the other hand, I do not think that we want to delay for too much longer and so whatever solution is arrived at I hope that the matter can be resolved relatively swiftly. I look forward to the Minister saying a few words about that later in the debate.

I turn now to the specific responsibility of the Government. Clearly lead responsibility lies with the Minister’s Department, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. We found that in fact heritage is important across the whole of government. The Department for Communities and Local Government, because of its responsibility for planning, has a major say and it is also a matter for the Treasury, because of funding and the tax regime, for the Department for Transport—particularly in relation to a national monument, Stonehenge, which I shall come on to—and for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has a lot of responsibility for ancient monuments and so on.

Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): Like many hon. Members in the Chamber, my constituency includes a world heritage site—in my case, Edinburgh new town. Although most of the responsibilities for heritage in Scotland are devolved matters, the fiscal regime is a UK-wide responsibility. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman will come to VAT later in his speech, but for my constituency’s interests I share the concerns
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expressed by the Committee about the current arrangements, which more or less discourage the repair of historic buildings and favour alterations and new builds. I hope that the Committee will continue to represent that concern for all of us throughout the UK who share that interest.

Mr. Whittingdale: The hon. Gentleman is correct. I was going to touch on that matter in due course, since this issue provoked more submissions than any other specific matter in our inquiry. However, even though that subject is relevant to what I want to say next, before I move on to it I want to say that the fact that heritage affects a number of Departments across government makes it more important that there should be a strong voice—a champion—for heritage issues in government. That is clearly a role for the DCMS. One would hope that the Department would be at the forefront of trying to put pressure on the Treasury to address VAT.

It was of some concern to us when we saw that the letter from the Prime Minister to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, which set out the priorities for her Department, did not mention heritage at all, although that was rectified in the response sent by the Department. We considered ways in which heritage might rise up the agenda across government. One suggestion was that green Ministers in each Department should also play a heritage role, and that was suggested in the Department’s paper, “A Force for Our Future”. I understand that that idea has not particularly found favour, but more attention clearly needs to be paid to heritage matters across government.

Another issue that we considered, which was put to us by several people, was that heritage might do better if it were not in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport at all. [Interruption.] It was suggested that it might be moved to the Department for Communities and Local Government. A huge amount of heritage issues are associated with planning matters, and we would like to see more attention paid to heritage and closer working between the Departments. Despite the support for that idea, which I heard just now from my hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Tim Loughton), we did not agree and felt that heritage was in the right place in the DCMS and that, as long as it was given the priority that it needs, it should stay there.

The Department’s key forthcoming heritage initiative will be the publication of the White Paper setting out the new proposals for heritage protection reform. It started life as a consultation back in 2003, and at that time it was envisaged that a White Paper would be published in 2005. When the Minister came to give evidence to the Committee, he said that there had been some delay and that he wanted to take account of the work that we were doing, which was a welcome commitment, and that the White Paper was likely to be published in autumn 2006. We are now in January 2007, so the first question that I want the Minister to answer is where the White Paper is and when we can expect it to be published.

In considering the bodies that have major responsibility in heritage, particularly for financing it, the other major contributor is the Heritage Lottery Fund. Originally, 20 per cent. of proceeds from the
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national lottery were to be put into heritage, and that figure fell to 16.6 per cent. I welcome the Government’s commitment that it will not fall further and that that proportion will remain for the time being. There is no question but that the Heritage Lottery Fund has made a fantastic difference. There is probably not a single constituency in the country that has not had some benefit from HLF funding. If I might be permitted, Sir John, I shall give three examples from my own area: Blue House farm in Fambridge was acquired by the Essex Wildlife Trust through the HLF; the excavation of Beeleigh abbey and the repair of St. James’s church in Dengie was financed by the HLF; and the Dawn Sailing Barge Trust, of which I am a patron, has received £675,000 towards restoration. I believe that that grant was made before I became Chairman of the Select Committee, in case there was any concern that I might have received preferential treatment.

Mr. Mark Field (Cities of London and Westminster) (Con): I fear that I would have to give 103 examples from my constituency, which I suspect gets more from the Heritage Lottery Fund than any other body. I suspect that my hon. Friend will be coming to my point in his next few paragraphs, but although there are assurances from the Government about the 16.6 per cent. that will be taken into the HLF, given the emergence of the Big Lottery Fund surely the big issue is not so much whether it will have the same slice of the cake but how big that cake will be given our commitments to the Olympic games. Does my hon. Friend have any observations on that matter on behalf of his Committee that might help to inform the debate?

Mr. Whittingdale: My hon. Friend is entirely right. That is the exact subject that I want to come on to and the Committee has some strong views on that.

The concern is about future funding. We already know that the funds available to the HLF will decline significantly. The establishment of an Olympic game will, we believe, cost the HLF some £75 million and the additional amount which it has been announced will be taken out of the main lottery will remove £68 million over four years from lottery funds. The HLF’s ability to fund projects in future will be considerably affected by that. The fund has made it clear to us that in the main large grants are likely to be cut. That is a matter of some concern. When we published our report, we said specifically that the Government should undertake that no more should be taken away from the original good causes to fund a possible increase in costs of the Olympics.

Since the report was published, we have had a second inquiry into the Olympics and we know, because the Secretary of State came and told us, that costs have already gone up by £900 million. We are awaiting a decision from the Government on how that money will be found. The Secretary of State gave us a strong steer in our session that she was looking to the lottery to make a big contribution, if not to meet the entire overspend. That is a matter of concern to us. There is no doubt that if the lottery has to go on giving more and more to meet the costs of the Olympics, its ability to fund other good causes will be severely affected. That risks doing real damage to all of those other areas—the arts, sport outside of the Olympics, charities
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and particularly the area that we are debating today, the heritage. Again, I do not expect the Minister to give a commitment, but I hope that he will at least take on board our strong view that it is not appropriate for the lottery to fund any more of the Olympic games than is already proposed.

I turn to the other big player in heritage matters, and perhaps the biggest—local authorities. They are doubtless at the sharp end in delivering heritage protection, and they have the key responsibilities. There is a huge variation between authorities in the degree of expertise that is available to them, the resources that they can put into heritage matters and the priority that they can give to it. Not all authorities employ conservation officers, and we are concerned that that position may deteriorate because, as the officers reach retirement age, they may not be replaced.

Our first recommendation was that more information is needed about the number of authorities that have conservation expertise, and about the extent to which that can be expected to increase or diminish in coming years. That is particularly important given that the main thrust of the heritage protection review will be to place new responsibilities on local authorities.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I commend my hon. Friend on the excellent way in which he chairs the Select Committee. Would he agree that world heritage sites can place a huge burden on local authorities such as Saltaire in my constituency? Does he agree that our recommendation that regional development agencies should do more to support local authorities is important in ensuring the funding necessary to support them properly? For instance, Yorkshire Forward in my area could do an awful lot more to support Bradford council, helping it with extra money to preserve our world heritage site.

Mr. Whittingdale: In return, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who was assiduous in drawing our attention to the particular challenges faced by those authorities that have world heritage sites within their boundaries. It clearly is a difficulty. He is right to say that we believe that regional development agencies could help shoulder the burden. It is a wonderful thing to have a world heritage site close by, but it brings with it considerable costs and responsibilities. It seems unfair that a small authority should be expected to meet them all.

The general requirements on local authorities include maintaining historic environment records and establishing heritage partnership agreements with English Heritage. We are concerned that some authorities will not give priority to the heritage, and we believe that a case can be made for it becoming a statutory responsibility in some areas, as it may be the only way to ensure that they are properly resourced. Without doubt, the new responsibilities will bring significant extra costs.

The Minister told us of the compact that exists whereby, if the Government place extra burdens on local authorities, resources will be provided to meet them. If the heritage review is to work, it will need to be properly financed. I should be grateful if the Minister could assure us that local authorities will receive the funding necessary to meet their new responsibilities.

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Mr. Mark Field: I thank my hon. Friend for generously giving way a second time. He appreciates, as we all do, the massive constraints on local government finance. However, if we are to believe in localism, we must also realise how important it is to avoid the passporting that has been the tendency over the past 20 years—under Conservative and Labour Governments. Does my hon. Friend recognise that realistically the money needs to come from central Government? The connection between a thriving heritage sector and a tourism industry that is worth £75 billion a year is crucial to the country.

Sir John Butterfill (in the Chair): Order. Interventions must be brief, and we do not have a great deal of time.

Mr. Whittingdale: Thank you, Sir John. I concur with my hon. Friend. Local authorities have the job of delivering at the cutting edge, but the Government must stand behind them.

I want to mention a few specific concerns. We feel that the question of existing controls in conservation areas needs to be addressed. We were particularly concerned that the Shimizu decision, which caused consternation across the heritage sector, has allowed the demolition of parts of unlisted buildings in conservation areas. That was acknowledged to be a serious problem, and the Government have indicated that they wish to correct it. We are slightly alarmed at the suggestion now being made by the Government that it is not a priority. Many do see it as a priority, and the sooner that loophole can be closed the better.

My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) has already mentioned world heritage sites. I shall not repeat what he said, but I thoroughly agree with him. One such site—I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) may wish to speak about it if he catches your eye, Sir John—is Stonehenge. Thirteen years ago it was described as a national disgrace. If anything, it is worse now. We have the chance to address the problem and the sooner we put it right the better. It would end a shameful episode for our country. We have responsibility for what clearly is a major monument of world importance, and we are not giving it the attention that it deserves.

VAT was mentioned by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and the subject was raised repeatedly during our inquiry. The fact that VAT is chargeable on repairs but not on new build distorts priorities and creates perverse incentives for owners to neglect buildings and allow them to fall down. It is the completely wrong priority.

An opportunity arose to put it right; the Government had the chance to use a time window and tell the European Union that we wished to have the opportunity at some point to take advantage of a reduced rate for VAT on labour input for repairs. We were extremely disappointed that the Treasury did not take up that opportunity. Indeed, we were somewhat disappointed that the Minister was not able to tell us that he had lobbied hard for the Treasury to do so. That window has now closed, but VAT remains a major problem. We would like to see it addressed, if not by a reduction perhaps by giving grants to those who have pay the tax. However, the problem will not go away.

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