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8 May 2007 : Column 65WH—continued

Evidence and history suggest that without intervention, at some stage, a major landslide will occur in the Ironbridge gorge. Major events of that nature took
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place in 1773, 1952 and 1982 and the Ironbridge gorge museums hold footage and photographs of landslips that took place over that time, all of which resulted in partial blockages of the river and the loss of roads and buildings. This is a serious matter as it involves a world heritage site that, in terms of significance, sits alongside places such as the Taj Mahal and the Grand Canyon. It is one of the most significant sites on the planet and the iron bridge and the gorge are an icon for this nation. It is up to the state party to play a role in ensuring that this world heritage site is properly protected as it is part of our commitment as a nation to UNESCO to protect such sites.

We know much more about the causes and likely impact of land instability because, through the work of the local authority, we have assembled the technical expertise to manage the process and to ensure that we make the gorge a safe environment for the coming years. The scale of funding required cannot be found locally and it is not fair that local tax payers should pick up the tab. It is clear that local residents, businesses and the entire community across Telford and the Wrekin should share some of the cost, but the lion’s share clearly must fall to regional, national and possibly European Government. It is important that we continue to ensure that, after ratifying the UNESCO world heritage convention commitment, we deliver on those commitments. Under the UNESCO world heritage convention the Government have committed themselves to

The convention refers to the “duty” placed upon each state party and the obligation to do “all it can” to utilise “the utmost of its resources” in carrying out its duty. By bringing together a range of partners such as, the local authority, regional government tiers, Departments at Whitehall, local businesses, parish councils, and the Ironbridge Gorge Museum Trust, we can ensure that local residents realise that the protection of the gorge and of their homes and environments will continue long into the future. We can also ensure that one of this nations great tourist assets and destinations is preserved for the future.

The gorge gave the world industrialisation. It has a unique place in the history of humankind and we have a responsibility to secure the long-term future of this unique asset and to ensure it is enjoyed and appreciated by generations to come. We should also ensure that those who live and work in the gorge are satisfied that their homes and communities are protected.

1.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr. David Lammy): I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright) for introducing this important debate about the land instability of the Ironbridge Gorge world heritage centre. It is important to put on the record that by its very nature, this issue is of paramount importance, not only for the long-term preservation of a unique place, but for the safety, well-being and reassurance of the people who live there.

As you are familiar with the area, Mr. Conway, I will start by saying that my Department leads on world heritage for the Government. We are responsible for
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ensuring that the UK fulfils its obligations under the world heritage convention for the conservation and protection of our world heritage sites. It is an important responsibility that, of course, we take very seriously. We recognise the need to react positively and quickly to the sort of environmental threats potentially facing Ironbridge today.

Ironbridge Gorge is one of 27 outstanding world heritage sites in the UK, of which there are a rich variety geographically and in terms of type. Ironbridge has a unique place in world history because of its role in the birth of the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries. It has made a significant contribution to the rapid development of the industrial economy of the region. The bridge itself was the first constructed of iron, and had a considerable influence on developments in the fields of technology and architecture. Today it is under the ownership of the borough of Telford and Wrekin local authority, which manages the site. It is also maintained by English Heritage.

The bridge and the other attractions in the gorge area are, of course, colourful and are key visitor attractions. As the hon. Gentleman said, they play an important role in contributing to the regional economy, but, more importantly, the location is home to around 4,000 residents, and over the coming months, we must seek to safeguard homes, schools and livelihoods.

On the environmental threat, the effects of land instability, coastal erosion, and flooding all threaten the long-term preservation of our world heritage sites and any other area in this country today that faces such pressures. Dealing with such threats is generally beyond the means of the local communities within which such sites are located. That point underlined much of what the hon. Gentleman said. Some local authorities consider that the primary responsibility for ensuring the protection of these sites rests with central Government. In this case, central, local and regional government are working together, and have been for some time, but it is imperative to understand fully the position, the issues involved, the nature of the threat and possible solutions.

We are aware, of course of the problem of land instability at Ironbridge. It is not new—it has been a problem since the gorge was formed some 10,000 to 15,000 years ago, and it is impossible to predict if and when further movements will occur. Indeed, only recently, erosion caused ground movement at the Lloyd's Head site leading to emergency repairs to the road and its temporary closure.

Flooding and land instability pose a real threat to local residents and their homes in and around the gorge—I sympathise with them. My hon. Friend has brought to our attention the pressure and stress on the minds of many of his constituents. It is of great concern. Remedial works have been identified and early indications are that costs will reach some £28 million in the short term, and that a longer-term stabilisation programme could reach in excess of £90 million. But the analysis is still being tested. However, the problem is unlikely to be solved entirely because the natural and relatively young geological structure makes the land inherently unstable. Matters
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have been worsened by the extent of past mining, the frequency and extent of flooding and the potential impact of climate change.

What is being done? Considerable efforts have been made to manage this serious problem. The Government office for the west midlands has been proactive on behalf of my and other Departments in working with the local authority to better understand what local, regional and national partners—including the utilities—can do to address the problem. I understand that consultancy work has been undertaken by EcoTec consultants for Telford and Wrekin borough council and is due to reach a conclusion shortly. Furthermore, in December 2005, £1.8 million was released from the region’s local transport plan fund for urgent maintenance on a road in the gorge, and a further grant of £2.4 million from the European regional development fund has been secured specifically for land stability works.

We are keen to support Ironbridge in its efforts to find a solution to the land instability problems at the gorge. Although my Department has no funds to contribute to a land stabilisation program, as the champions of world heritage in Whitehall, we must and want to be involved in discussions with the appropriate people in the Government, local authorities and other agencies in order to minimise the risks—as far as possible—and to find a practical and sustainable solution. Meanwhile, the local authority will be encouraged—I hope—by the approval of £154 million for the stabilisation of the Combe Down quarries in the city of Bath, which is a world heritage site, announced by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister in 2005. Where a need has been identified, and where we have been able to engage with national, regional, local and other partners, we have acted. That should continue.

The potential impact of any landslip on the unique cultural heritage of Ironbridge, tourism and the local economy would be considerable. However, the prime consideration must be public safely. The world heritage convention, which the UK signed in 1984, and to which I and my hon. Friend referred earlier, has proved to be an enormously effective and positive force in bringing together nations all over the world in order to act collectively and to safeguard sites of outstanding universal value at a global level. Those are powerful partnerships and we need to ensure that we follow the same approach at home in order to secure a sustainable future for Ironbridge.

We are not complacent about our responsibilities. Today’s debate has highlighted some critical issues that need to be faced urgently. There is much that we can do at national, regional and local levels. Of course, I shall respond to the local authority that wrote to me in the last few days, but before doing so I shall write to appropriate ministerial colleagues in Whitehall.

I say to my hon. Friend who brought these facts before the House today that I am happy to meet with him in order to secure an inter-departmental response in partnership with the local authority, when the latter has identified fully the costs of consultancy work and so on, and in order to ensure that the world heritage in his constituency is preserved for future generations.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at three minutes to Two o’clock.

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