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25 Jan 2007 : Column 561WH—continued

5.26 pm

On resuming—

Tim Loughton: I shall finish in just a few sentences, to let others get in. I want to make a plea to the Minister. Having picked up the lottery funding for the portable antiquities scheme, the proposed cuts, which are potentially as high as 7 per cent., will lead to seven full-time equivalent posts being lost out of 47, which would be devastating. I know that he values the subject and the scheme. Heritage and archaeology bring people together, and as the hon. Member for Sittingbourne and Sheppey (Derek Wyatt) said, they also bring nations together and their value goes beyond buildings and artefacts; we can all further culture, international understanding and education more by valuing more greatly our heritage.

5.27 pm

Paul Farrelly (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab): I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, of which I am a member, on securing the debate. Hon. Members present might like to know that we are carrying out a lengthy investigation into museums, which is heritage part two, I think, although it has been going on for so long that it feels like heritage parts three, four and five to 10. No doubt the Chairman will be suggesting gardens next to mend the heinous error of his ways.

I want to thank the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) for highlighting the work that has been done to restore the Bethesda chapel in Stoke-on-Trent, which is next door to my constituency. The report is not only about chapels and cathedrals or about a plea for more money for English Heritage. I want to say a few words about another part of the terms of reference, which is the availability of conservation and heritage expertise, particularly to local authorities, and how the network of architecture and built environment centres sponsored by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment is helping to plug the skills gap.

Sadly, the Potteries cannot boast a cathedral or a large circle of stone age megaliths—I do not think that we even have a listed barn—but we are fortunate enough to have one of the 19 CABE centres in Urban
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Vision North Staffordshire, of which I am happy to act as patron. It has been an uphill struggle, particularly with respect to funding, to get it up and running, and it has taken an enormous amount of dedication and commitment from a small group of people.

Local authorities clearly bear much responsibility for conservation and protecting our heritage, particularly from poor piecemeal development and, in some instances, from poor box-ticking regeneration projects that have a feel for quantity but not for quality. The availability of skills has suffered in part because of the degradation of public service as a career for people to aspire to, which started in the time of the Select Committee Chairman’s mistress, Lady Thatcher, and has gone on since.

It is a testament to economic success that there is an awful lot of development going on, but an awful lot of developers poach good local authority officers. My conservation officer in Newcastle-under-Lyme was poached a few years ago by a developer. A great deal of effort is going into regeneration—my area has two agencies, a regeneration zone and a housing market renewal pathfinder—and those quangos recruit from the limited pool of expertise. Second-tier councils such as Newcastle-under-Lyme and even unitary authorities such as Stoke-on-Trent suffer from gaps in personnel and expertise. Advice from people under intense pressure is often of poor quality; officers retreat into comfort zones and deal with small and big applications at the same length. They often roll over in the face of determined big developers. In some instances, training and experience are not up to date; officers are still mired in questions about the best way to use land, rather than being at the cutting edge of urban design and heritage-led regeneration.

In Newcastle-under-Lyme, we finally recruited a new conservation officer to fill the gap, but there is not much evidence of a wider improvement. That issue affects other local authorities. My traditional market town has a good town centre, which has been preserved and has many conservation areas. However, I am afraid that the latest draft town centre action plan within the new planning framework would simply legitimise a lot of inappropriate and piecemeal development. I shall take that up with the Government office, which has made critical comments, and my own council before it appears in front of an inspector.

The key issue is the limited availability of expertise. The architecture and built environment centres have been started by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment, and they are helping to plug the gap. Urban Vision North Staffordshire grew from the efforts of a small number of individuals about five years ago. I highlight two people. Mick Downs, a former planning manager at Stoke-on-Trent council, has been responsible for running the centre. Boy, what a liberation getting out of the local authority has been for him; he can say much more and contribute much more constructively outside its confines.

The chair of the centre, Chris Taylor, a local architect with a thriving small practice, has put much effort into getting the initiative off the ground. The aims are simple—to promote design-led regeneration and best practice in our area. At the end of the day, areas such as mine, which are affected by industrial decay, need well-designed things for people to talk
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about. Clearly, we also need to make the most of our heritage, and conservation plays a great part in that.

The centre has been involved in a great deal of training for local authority officials. In October 2004, it set up a design review panel chaired by an eminent, nationally known architect, Ted Cullinan. We are fortunate to have him. As a matter of course, major projects now go through the design and review panel, which comments on their design and how they fit into the built and historic environment.

We now have the support of Advantage West Midlands, which is the local regional development agency, RENEW, which is the housing renewal pathfinder, Stoke-on-Trent city council and Newcastle-under-Lyme borough council, as well as of CABE. Approaches have been made to English Heritage; we are not shy of asking everybody for funding.

I shall give an example of the uphill struggle that is involved. Although the regional development agency bought into our proposal, it took more than 12 months to process a contract. I had to go to a steering group meeting, look an official in the eye and say, “If at the end of this month that contract is not signed, can Urban Vision North Staffordshire pay the staff that it is finally recruiting?” The answer was no, so the contract was finally biked round the next day. I should not have had to do that. Fortunately, since then AWM has been fully committed. I thank Marie Greer, an official there, for her support.

Like the other 19 centres around the country, the centre is a valuable source of expertise to fill gaps. It has an urban design focus, but there is no reason why centres cannot be, as we mentioned in the report, a one-stop shop for proper advice and expertise and, as a matter of course, include people with conservation and heritage skills. Clearly, we would like English Heritage to sign up to as many centres as possible. There is a funding issue, but a small amount of funding for centres goes a long way.

I should like encouragement from the Minister that funding bodies will take a longer-term view than they have so far. The centres live from hand to mouth, with funding that lasts one year rather than three. I would like the local authorities and the regional development agencies to be encouraged to take a longer-term view. I would welcome some encouragement from the Minister about the work of the centres. I would like some encouragement for all the partners in those centres to view the work of funding bodies as absolutely central and instrumental to the regeneration and preservation of our heritage—particularly in areas such as mine, which is not untypical of industrial centres around the country.

5.35 pm

Dr. Ian Gibson (Norwich, North) (Lab): It is a credit to the Committee and its Chairman that so many people have expressed an interest and a passionate enthusiasm for some of the issues raised. Many hon. Members have stayed on to make their points despite the murk and the mire of voting—not just for their area, but because of their own experiences, the people they have met and the wonderful work that goes on.

25 Jan 2007 : Column 564WH

I want to make a point about winning the argument. In political circles, we still have to win the argument about heritage and what it means. In some ways, it sounds like a funny kind of word and it perhaps needs to be rebranded. We all know what it means, but many people out there do not really understand it. I represent an area of Norwich where we have a church for every day of the year and a pub for every Sunday, and I have been to every one—I mean pub, not church. It will be of no surprise that I am about to talk about the churches and historical buildings in my constituency, where the cultural heritage includes the largest collection of mediaeval churches in northern Europe. The local newspaper, the Norwich Evening News, has said that we need £75 million over 10 years spent on heritage in Norwich to safeguard the city’s historical buildings.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead (Mr. Field) said, heritage is one of the ways in which a nation constructs a collective social meaning; it tells us who we are, where we are and how we are, and gives us a sense of identity. All over the country, people shout, “Who are you?” at each other at football grounds. The answer is not simply, “I am heritage”, but heritage is part of people’s desire to identify what is going on around them and to express that. Heritage helps people to understand the story of the country, the area in which they live, and the representation that they have had throughout the historical past.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Birkenhead made the point about Britishness, so I will not elaborate on that. A friend of mine, Bill Bryson, who sits on the English Heritage commission, is captivated by English Heritage in general. He lives in Norfolk and says that he looks out of his window at an 18th century Norman church. He loves it and says, “Gosh, if you had it in Iowa, people would come from miles around to see that church”. He has not been attracted to anything else around where he lives in Norfolk. He describes it as an anonymous country church that is treasured by a few ageing parishioners and one obese American—he said that, I did not. It often falls to an objective observer such as Bryson to say what our heritage is. He says that we have

That is not a bad CV for the work that goes on in this sceptred isle. What goes on is often unnoticed and this debate is reflecting that.

We have talked a lot about the money that we need to help build communities, and heritage is part of that through social inclusion, economic regeneration and so on. In Norwich, we have the Norwich Heritage Economic and Regeneration Trust—HEART, as we call it. There are 12 major heritage attractions from the 12th century Norman cathedral to the 21st century millennium library. They work together, not in a competitive way; they try to combine to address the problems in that city, attract tourists and make people proud of their heritage. The trust also regenerates areas. A small amount of money can help fashion an area and suddenly there will be an explosion of activity,
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as is happening at the moment in King street in Norwich. A few pounds invested in a building can lead to homes, schools and cafés being developed—at times it is almost like Paris. We have the same situation in Norwich Lanes, where small changes are happening. There is a sense of identity, and people are interested in trying to develop the area.

Norwich guildhall dates from the early 1400s. It is the largest mediaeval city hall in Europe. It has been a council chamber, a court and a prison in its time. Its staircase is a lesson in mediaeval police methods—the Home Office might be listening to this. The idea was that the prisoner could not make a run for it without stumbling on the uneven steps. Presumably they ended up in the mediaeval equivalent of accident and emergency, but they could not get away. The guildhall features a café on the ground floor, owned by Caley’s, the chocolate firm, which used to have a huge factory in the city, employing many local people. The factory site is now home to the millennium library, while the café is a reminder of the city’s industrial legacy. There is a clear correlation between the historic environment and quality of life. Heritage gives a city character. It earths us in many ways. It makes us feel part of an inherited community and combats the alienation that we often feel in the modern world.

The Forum building in Norwich is a fine example of millennium architecture. It was designed with older buildings around it, such as the 15th-century St. Peter Mancroft church. The same man who designed Portcullis House designed the Forum. The idea that it could fit in with those old buildings was quite a concept, but it works. The Forum is a centre for various activities. All sorts of events take place there, yet the church is just 100 m across the road from it. Everything melds together well. Everyone said, “It will never work. It will never fit,” but now they are all calling it an architectural wonder. It was a result of lottery money.

I support the partnership between the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment—CABE—and English Heritage. I hope that that interaction between the old and the new will also address problems such as climate change. Sometimes we save a lot of energy and address the problem of climate change if we make use of an old building. We do not have to get all the bricks and do all the work that would be needed for a new building. If an old building is already there, refashion it. As climate change hits the top of the political agenda, we can combine ideas to combat it with ideas for maintaining cities that are both modern and rich in heritage.

Churches, of course, are used for many functions. We see that in our constituencies all the time. The halls are used for fairs and so on. Indeed, they are used as community centres. There are people called heritage champions, who operate in this field. It is the bidding for grants that is the problem. I think that the voluntary sector often has a much better ability to obtain funding than statutory bodies do. Almost half the churches in Norfolk see their bids for grant aid refused by English Heritage each year. There is a huge backlog of repairs that are needed. We need to decide how, over a period of time, we are going to fund seriously that aspect of national heritage. There is a 14th-century parish church, St. Mary and St. Margaret’s, in Sprowston, in my area. It needs better
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access for the disabled, lighting to facilitate its use by the public and so on. It needs £60,000. That is about a day’s wages if you play for Tottenham Hotspur, I believe, so it is not a lot of money. A partnership there, a voluntary innovative scheme, could be built up with some support from English Heritage or, indeed, the Government.

I want to say something briefly about volunteers and heritage. Volunteers must never substitute for real activity and money coming in from professional bodies, as has been said. We need volunteers and they do sterling work, such as at Blickling hall, home of Anne Boleyn. Such sites are supported amazingly by volunteers, but we need professionals there to guide them and develop that heritage.

The Government have to recognise the importance of heritage and move it up the agenda. We have to put it at the heart of our community development. As we have said, it is not an add-on or a box to be ticked. People are passionate about heritage. It is a vocation, rather than a job, for many people. Their work is a labour of love. It is tough, but we must encourage them from the political perspective. Heritage has a unique ability to inspire interest and support and it is, I believe, the fabric of our experience in our environment, both now and in the past.

5.44 pm

Mr. David Anderson (Blaydon) (Lab): This is a very welcome report, Sir John. I was going to give you a tour of my constituency and the north-east of England, but I will not, other than to say that we have a long and proud history of culture in the north-east. The report is about whether we will have a long future of culture in the north-east. I particularly hope that people will agree with the statement in the report that

We should all accept that.

The report is also right to question how well the Department has performed in cross-departmental negotiations. I hope that it will act with more energy and particularly that it will impress upon the Department for Communities and Local Government the importance of heritage issues when planning guidance is being updated and scrutinised. Being well-meaning is not enough.

I mention a particular case to show that a more powerful Department could play a key role. In my constituency we have Gibside hall and estate. The property was built about 250 years ago by the family of the Queen Mother, the Bowes-Lyons. It was built on the profits from coal. Inside the hall, a crypt chapel has a mausoleum with the bodies of five of the Queen Mother’s ancestors. The grounds are magnificent. The stables have been beautifully renovated by the National Trust, and they are now used for educational purposes.

Everything there is going well, except for the fact that it is under threat: a coal contractor is attempting to operate an open-cast mine within 400 m of the site. Only 500,000 tonnes of coal can be mined, and it will take three years to mine it. After massive opposition from all concerned, the application was rightly thrown out by the local authorities. However, a national appeal has been launched. The level of disrespect shown by
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the contractors is not unique, but their answers to the genuine questions raised by the National Trust about what will happen at Gibside are difficult to believe. I shall quote some of the National Trust’s comments in its submission when trying to get information about the impact on Gibside. It said:

That property is one of the gems of our countryside, part of a green lung for Tyneside. Everyone opposes that development—the local community, the local authorities in Durham, Derwentside and Gateshead, and many public bodies including the airport and Northumbrian Water. They will not be happy with what is going on.

I believe that the Department could play a key role in such cases. If the Department punches its weight; if it says to people, including the Department for Communities and Local Government, that it wants a stake in, and to stand up for, the built environment and the rest of our heritage, I believe that it could do so. It could be done, and it should be done. With cross-party support, we in Parliament could ensure, through the Minister and the Government, that culture has a proper role.

5.49 pm

Dr. Roberta Blackman-Woods (City of Durham) (Lab): I congratulate the hon. Member for Maldon and East Chelmsford (Mr. Whittingdale) on securing the debate and I congratulate the Select Committee on its extremely useful report.

I start by focusing on the report. Its summary states:

It goes on to warn against too much reliance on local authorities without adequate resources. I concur. I emphasise the Committee’s statement that the Government should

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