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10 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Elmet (Colin Burgon) on securing this debate and on the passion and commitment that he has shown in putting forward his case. I agree entirely that we work best when we work together, and with Bill Bryson’s words. It is crucial that we retain the sense of place that was created by our forefathers through the many structures and buildings that they developed. Therefore, the protection of our proud past and heritage is crucial, not only for the present but for future generations. I endorse that completely.

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I also wish to take this opportunity to congratulate Barwick historical society, which has done an enormous amount of work in the community to promote, protect and raise awareness of an important historical site. My hon. Friend is right to say that I do not know the site, but I would be delighted to visit it. I have visited other hill forts and I know how exciting and interesting they can be.

I have been given a lot of information about the site, and it has been developed as a result of strong community effort, which we should applaud. As my hon. Friend said, many local organisations were involved in looking after the monument, including the Maypole Trust; the primary school that my hon. Friend mentioned, especially Mr. Peter Doherty, its head teacher, who has taken a real interest in it and ensured that his pupils do; and Barwick in Elmet’s parish council.

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s concerns and those of the historical society about the monument. I need no persuading of its national importance, from my general knowledge and also from my understanding that the site consists of no fewer than two scheduled ancient monuments. My hon. Friend talked about the rarity of iron age hill forts. He may be interested to know that there are more than he thinks—814 in England, with only 23 in Yorkshire. His local fort is one of only a handful in west and north Yorkshire. The monument at Barwick in Elmet is a good, and reasonably well-preserved, large example. Although I have been in the job for only just over a week, I have already had the opportunity to visit an English Heritage site and had one meeting and one encounter with staff. They are doing an important and effective job on behalf of us all in looking after sites and buildings in which often no one else takes an interest. We should applaud that.

English Heritage tells me that very little of the surviving remains of the Barwick in Elmet monument have been disturbed, making it of even greater importance as a future resource for research. Equally important are the well-preserved remains of the Norman motte and bailey castle, dating from the invasion of William the Conqueror, as my hon. Friend said. In answer to a question from him on 4 June, the then Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Lammy), replied that English Heritage had provided a substantial grant last year of nearly £22,000 to cover the cost of clearing the site of overgrown vegetation and dumped material, repairing steps and boundary fencing and, importantly, establishing an improved maintenance regime. I note my hon. Friend’s request that English Heritage should be more proactively engaged locally in respect of the monument, and I will make sure that English Heritage sees a copy of the report of my hon. Friend’s remarks tonight. As I develop my response, he will see that English Heritage takes the site particularly seriously.

There are some problems in relation to the site because it is owned by about 20 individuals and groups. English Heritage’s first responsibility is to the owners. It considers that it has provided extensive assistance and advice to the historical society. Achieving the full participation of everybody in the local community—all the owners and occupiers—in positive conservation
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management, which is a shared aim of all those involved, is important. The scheme started promisingly, with strong support from most sections of the community, but as my hon. Friend knows there is still a long way to go to get everybody involved.

English Heritage applauds the work of the local historical society, the parish council and the local community in Barwick in Elmet. It, too, acknowledges that it is always possible to do more. As I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, however, it must also prioritise its staff resources across the country in ensuring that it gives proper care to all our scheduled monuments. English Heritage gave the grant to which I alluded to the parish council, which has much cross-membership with the historical society—there are people who belong to both community organisations. That grant was given to enable the local community to manage the monument without the need for English Heritage’s direct involvement in day-to-day issues.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has now provided more than £29,000 in grants for the site over the past two years. That was for two local heritage initiative projects, one of which was completed in March 2006, and the other, which is for more than £24,000, is still ongoing. The purpose of the latter, rather large grant is to support investigation of part of the monument through excavation and to undertake some geophysical investigations. That project is fully endorsed by English Heritage.

My hon. Friend knows that site management is complex because the site has a large number of owners, especially when the adjacent properties are taken into account. The hill fort is surrounded on most sides by residential gardens, which abut the fortifications. Many of the people who own those properties are enthusiastic supporters of the management project, but some are less so. English Heritage became aware of various management and maintenance problems at the site through monitoring visits undertaken by the regional English Heritage field monument warden. To facilitate a solution to the management issues, the wardens have worked hard with the owners of properties on and adjacent to the site, as well as with the local parish council, to raise awareness and to increase interest in those important monuments.

My hon. Friend referred to the concerns about alleged encroachment on to the site by neighbours. English Heritage cannot stop wrongdoing, but it has a role to investigate any works undertaken without consent, and to consider remedial action. As he knows, it can prosecute if appropriate. One matter is a long-standing encroachment of a patio on to a small part of the scheduled area. Apparently, the house concerned has changed hands recently, as I am sure he is aware. I have been informed that the works have a limited effect on the monument.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about garden waste being dumped on the newly cleared monument. There was previously a major problem and the management project has considerably reduced it, but some members of the community have asked English Heritage to take action about dumping. English Heritage tells me that it has assessed both the encroachment and the waste dumping issues but believes that legal action would be inappropriate. It wants to encourage and develop the community’s understanding of the importance of the
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site and believes that punitive measures might undermine that intent. However, if my hon. Friend or others hold a different view, I should be interested in hearing it. There is also the practical consideration that disproportionate costs would be involved, especially if the prosecution was unsuccessful. The costs and the time spent on it might be better devoted to building an improved local management scheme and consensus about the importance of the site.

My hon. Friend suggested that there should be a long-term management plan for the site—between 10 and 15 years. We put that suggestion to English Heritage, which agrees that although such a plan would be beneficial, it would be a challenge to develop in this case as it would require the involvement of all the owners and the historical society. In effect, such a process has already started through English Heritage’s management agreement with the parish council, but English Heritage is happy to explore widening that approach for the whole monument. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes that proposal.

English Heritage appreciates the importance of a tree management plan on the site—another issue raised by my hon. Friend. The current management agreement empowers the parish council to undertake any necessary works in the event of trees falling. As my hon. Friend knows, the loss of trees is always contentious and we need to balance archaeological conservation with amenity and nature conservation interests. It is always a difficult balance to achieve. I note my hon. Friend’s comments about Leeds council. I am told that the council has provided advice and support for the community project team by offering the services of its tree officer to advise on the process of felling and lopping trees. If the volunteer trained by the council has left, there is room for further discussion to see whether another member of the local community can be trained.

My hon. Friend raised concerns that English Heritage did not inform everybody in the local community before a site visit. English Heritage is aware of only one visit that took place at short notice,
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without the knowledge and involvement of the historical society. Its normal practice is to agree site visits with owners and occupiers, and all interested parties, so there was obviously an error in that case. I believe that English Heritage has sought community involvement throughout the project, largely through the parish council. That has proved successful, but obviously further work is needed fully to engage the whole community and to achieve the participation of all owners and occupiers so that we really can get improved management of the site. English Heritage has recently visited the site to assess the situation on the ground and is contacting all those responsible. It does not feel that legal action is appropriate, but it will continue to assist the community and monitor the situation through visits and meetings.

Since the announcement of my hon. Friend’s debate, English Heritage has contacted the parish council to set up a further meeting, which I hope my hon. Friend welcomes. Through that meeting it hopes that there will be a further phase of community engagement. As my hon. Friend rightly said, by celebrating the rich history of the site, the local community will come together, work together and appreciate and value that vivid expression of our nation’s history, which he so clearly described, that lies literally in some of their back gardens. That is a real treat to me. A consensual approach is the answer to the future management of the monument. That would bring great benefits for the local community, showing how a shared sense of

ownership of our common inheritance can bring a sense of pride in place and enrich everyone’s life.

English Heritage was pleased to meet the historical society again to explore how its current involvement can be extended to help to achieve the aim of empowering my hon. Friend’s local community to care for what I know is an important, historic site that lies literally in their back gardens. Again, I congratulate him on a very good debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Ten o’clock.

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