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18 Dec 2007 : Column 227WH—continued

2.53 pm

Dan Rogerson (North Cornwall) (LD): I apologise if I sniff and cough my way through my contribution. One connection that I might have with those who built Stonehenge, other than a love of the stones themselves, is the fact that I am suffering from a common cold, which no doubt they experienced during its construction.

I pay tribute to the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) for introducing this important debate at this crucial time. Clearly he has a constituency interest, but I am sure that it has been demonstrated to all hon. Members that his interest goes far beyond that—he has a personal connection to the site having grown up in the area. He spoke about the long identification of Stonehenge as a world heritage site. Happily we now have many more in this country, but this country’s performance will be assessed according to how we approach our more major and long-standing commitments, such as that to Stonehenge.

The hon. Gentleman addressed the wider historical landscape and the dangers of simplistic solutions, such as closing the junction on the A344, in isolation, which would not resolve the problems facing the landscape and the site itself, but would have consequences for congestion on the A303 and present problems for his constituents and those seeking to explore and enjoy the wider south-west. He also mentioned shadow tolling, which shows that he has a positive contribution to make and is not merely criticising the Government. He should be congratulated on taking a constructive approach.

The hon. Gentleman raised the important issue of the visitors’ centre, as did the hon. Member for Telford (David Wright). However, although progress on the visitors’ centre would be welcome, we must consider how people would get there, otherwise we could create a huge problem. We cannot encourage greater numbers of people to experience what is on offer without affording them proper access. The hon. Member for Salisbury also spoke of the connection with the supporting heritage and tourist facilities in Salisbury and elsewhere, and about the importance of finding the right approach for the benefit of the wider economy and Stonehenge itself.

The hon. Member for Telford spoke about the long-standing support of the all-party world heritage sites group for Stonehenge, and I pay tribute to the work of his group. He raised some crucial points about the landscape and maintaining the stones’ legacy, which is why we all support the scheme on which sadly the Government recently turned their backs. It presented an opportunity to reunite some of the features of the landscape. He spoke also about the link with the 2012 games and the opportunity to present the heritage of our country at its very best. That deadline looms for all sorts of projects. I hope that the Minister will refer to that in her remarks.

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We might be having this debate during the last full year in which Stonehenge enjoys and retains unquestioned UNESCO world heritage status, as has been mentioned. After years of failing Stonehenge, Ministers in the Department for Transport seem to have settled on failure as their chosen course of action. Stonehenge is arguably the United Kingdom’s single most important historical monument, but sadly the Government’s recent decision puts the UNESCO world heritage status at risk. The monument is at risk from further damage from growing volumes of traffic. UNESCO accorded Stonehenge its world heritage status on the condition that nearby roads be examined and progress be made on protecting the site.

Transport Ministers have consistently let down the Department for Culture, Media and Sport by underestimating the importance of the scheme. Indeed, the DFT sees the A303 improvements as a regional scheme only, which demonstrates its indifference to Stonehenge’s national and international significance. I speak from the heart as a Member for a south-west constituency where there are other projects. Had the scheme gone ahead, it would have gobbled up south-west funding for many years to come. Trying to brush the scheme off as regional would, therefore, have had deleterious effects on important safety schemes, such as the A30 improvement between Temple and Higher Carblake in north Cornwall.

Now that a decision has finally been made, we need to look to the future. The Minister must have asked herself, “What am I going to do now?” She has said that she still wants to resolve this matter, so what are her plans for the current Stonehenge visitors’ centre and what is the future for the ambitious plans previously connected with the A303 changes and the centre? What is her, and her Department’s, view of the proposed closure of the A303-A344 junction? Local Members are said to be concerned about further congestion in that area, and hon. Members have raised that concern in this debate. What, on balance, does she believe should be done?

As we have heard, UNESCO will meet next year to discuss Stonehenge’s status. How will the Minister convince UNESCO to give the Government the benefit of the doubt? She will need to act early to influence the UNESCO world heritage centre’s report to the world heritage committee in July. Images of Stonehenge were used as part of the successful bid for the 2012 Olympics, and improvements to the site were anticipated to be in place by then. It is a cruel irony that a British site given such credence by the International Olympic Committee should be given so little priority by the British Government themselves.

Before the DFT made its decision, how many visitors did the Minister anticipate visiting Stonehenge in 2012? By contrast, how many does she think will now get there? Indeed, what does she anticipate to be the wider implications for tourism in the wider south-west of the DFT’s decision? Stonehenge is a magnet for the region, but the A303 is also a major artery to the wider south-west, and the Government have chosen to undermine one and block the other. What was the outcome of the Stonehenge programme board meeting on 10 December, to which the hon. Member for Salisbury referred? Does the Minister feel that her colleagues at the DFT recognised the importance of Stonehenge to the United Kingdom
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and beyond? Do her colleagues in the DFT, in the Ministry of Defence, which could be a vital partner in any scheme elsewhere in the area, and, crucially, in the Treasury share her resolve to get the issue right?

Have Treasury officials been asked to compare the relative worth of capital expenditure on protecting a site of such unique status as Stonehenge with, for example, other high-profile Government schemes? Have DFT officials been asked to compare the increased costs of going ahead with the Stonehenge scheme with other schemes that have suffered serious delay? It has been reported that the costs are much higher than originally anticipated, but in the meantime the costs of most road schemes have also escalated due to rising labour costs. Should not the DFT have anticipated that likely increase in cost when it was budgeting?

After a decade of dithering, there remain countless questions for the Government. It is almost 18 years since the Public Accounts Committee said that the setting around Stonehenge was “a national disgrace”, but we seem to have moved no further forward. The Liberal Democrats welcome the Minister’s recent support for Stonehenge, but we need to know that she is not whistling in the inter-departmental wind. She has to convince not only this House, but UNESCO. We all agree that for Stonehenge to lose its status would be a tragedy. I hope we can agree that the south-west as a whole needs the revenue it receives from tourism, and that the Government’s decisions on Stonehenge will have serious effects on it, too.

The Government have spent years failing to decide, and now they have decided to do nothing. Stonehenge may be famous for its longevity, but it cannot wait for action for ever.

3.3 pm

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): It is a pleasure to participate in this important and timely debate. I, too, congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on accumulating so much knowledge over the 10 years that he has pursued the matter. His constituents can be rightly proud of the way in which he has stood up for and pioneered Stonehenge, helping to remind us that the issue is about not only Stonehenge and the stones themselves, but Durrington Walls, Woodhenge and the surrounding area. He has shown a commitment and dedication that I hope the Government will honour as we move forward and consider another proposal, following their announcement. Indeed, the announcement on 6 December has led us to the debate today.

I need not remind the Chamber that after 10 years of studies, at a cost of £23 million, all plans, details, ideas and improvements concerning Stonehenge have been thrown out. As we have heard, that is a massive blow to the area and for many people who simply want a solution. We are back to square one. The way in which the announcement was made was a surprise. It was slipped out in a written statement, and it was only thanks to Mr. Speaker agreeing to an urgent question that we forced a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box to answer it. Unfortunately, it is a reflection of the importance that the Government grant to tourism that instead of the Secretary of State for Transport responding
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to that question, she simply left a junior Minister, the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), to stand up to the wrath of the questioners and justify the decision.

Under the Government, the tourism deficit—the amount that we spend abroad compared with inbound spending—has changed significantly since 1997. It was £4 billion then; it is £18 billion now, which shows that we spend far more money abroad than we are able to attract from visitors to the United Kingdom. Tourism is a competitive international market, but Britain is losing out to competition from abroad, and more Britons than ever before are choosing to holiday abroad. We do not enjoy the increases in inbound tourism that our competitors enjoy.

It was interesting to see a reply to a question that we tabled last week, in which the Government acknowledged that the percentage of tourists who come to the UK was 3.9 per cent. in 1997, but down to 3.6 per cent. last year. We do not benefit from the increases in the number of flights and in people’s disposable income, because we do not attract visitors to the UK. That is reflected in the status of Stonehenge, and unless we harness the visitor potential of such attractions, we will continue to suffer.

I shall recap the history of the issue. It goes back to 1989 when the then Government, under their roads programme, first considered improving the A303. More than 50 possible routes were considered prior to public consultation, involving the Highways Agency and a huge planning conference in 1995, at which it was recommended that only one acceptable scheme had been put forward—a tunnel, 4 km long, at an estimated cost of £300 million. The then Government considered it unaffordable and withdrew the scheme from the roads programme in November 1996.

In July 1998, the new Government identified a new A303 scheme, which was in their targeted programme of improvements. It included a 2.1 km tunnel, a bypass of Winterbourne Stoke, a two-level junction at Countess roundabout and a new junction arrangement at Longbarrow crossroads. There was then a public inquiry, which concluded in May 2004, and the inspector recommended a new dual carriageway be built along with the bored tunnel. However, the costs had increased significantly, and the Government, concerned about the costs, decided to review the entire process. Consultation was held in 2006, leading us to the announcement on 6 December in which all plans and ideas were thrown out. So we are now back to the drawing board.

I visited Stonehenge the weekend before last. It was a miserable day weather-wise, with appalling rain, but it was stunning to see the car park almost full. Coachloads of visitors wanted to walk around and explore the grounds, and the gift shop was full. What was sad, however, was the state of the visitor facilities, which have been referred to already. They are third-rate, prefab construction units that have no place on such a wonderful site as Stonehenge. It is strange to have such an archaic and temporary outfit supporting something that has been around for so long. That is the irony: a heritage site that has existed for thousands of years is supported by such inadequate facilities that they could not last a decade.

I left with a brochure that the very friendly staff gave to me. On the back page, it says:

Clearly, the brochure is now out of date, so perhaps the Government might be brave enough to add a different line, saying, “We apologise for the delay in improving the visitor facilities and infrastructure around Stonehenge. Your patience in waiting another 10 years before a new plan is announced is much appreciated.”

I am a little cynical, but I fear that I echo many concerns of people throughout the country who support the site and wonder why on earth it is taking so long to improve what might arguably be described as our No. 1 outdoor heritage attraction. As I said at the Dispatch Box last week:

I should acknowledge straight away, however, that the Minister has only recently inherited the brief and is not responsible for the tourism policy that the Department introduced before the summer. None the less, she must accept that she now carries the burden of responsibility and will therefore feel the wrath of those on all sides of this issue, although I hope that she understands that it is directed at the issues themselves, not at her personally.

Stonehenge is a wonderful site, but we would not expect to find temporary facilities at similar places, such as the temple of Artemis, the pyramids of Giza or even the Grand Canyon. At such places, people are continually looking at ways to market the attractions and improve what is on offer, but in a manner that protects the attractions themselves. If we are to celebrate our history and heritage—whether man-made or natural—we must provide the necessary infrastructure to both market and protect attractions for future generations. Doing nothing is a dereliction of duty and an insult to heritage, but I am afraid that that is exactly what the Government are doing.

It is interesting to think about when the Government made their announcement, because it came out in a week when we had an awful lot of bad news from them. We heard about the hard drive lost by the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency, which contained millions of details, and about the discs lost by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs, which contained 25 million people’s records. When I heard that the money was not available for Stonehenge, part of me thought that the Government had perhaps lost the cheque, but I hope that that is not the case.

As we have heard, we are talking about not only tourism, but transport. I live in Bournemouth and I am fully aware of the importance of upgrading the A303. The road is a key arterial route into the south-west, and it is critical that such a strategic pipeline receives the attention that it deserves. We also heard about the number of accidents that happen on the road, but the issue has been thrown out with the bathwater, and we now hear that the South West of England Regional Development Agency will be expected to pay for any improvements in that respect. I would be grateful if the Minister spelled out in a little more detail whether there
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are any additional funds that the RDA might be able to use. Placing such a burden on the RDA would, as my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury said, mean denying the south-west other transport improvements. Many areas will not benefit from the improvements to the A303, so placing the burden of paying for them on the whole south-west would be very unfair, particularly considering that the Government were committed to making those improvements for so long.

As has been said, the Department for Transport had the final say on this issue. I would be curious to hear what discussions the Minister, or indeed the Secretary of State, had with the Department and whether she failed to persuade it to take a different approach. Sadly, such problems reflect the way in which the Department for Culture, Media and Sport often plays second fiddle to other Departments, which often dole out legislation that has a massive impact on DCMS areas. For example, the cost of visas has been doubled, bed and breakfasts are now affected by red tape and air passenger duty has been increased. All those things happened almost as if the DCMS had not been consulted. Again, I would be grateful if the Minister said what efforts she is making to ensure that tourism is pushed up the agenda.

Such decisions are not helped by Treasury pressure to cut heritage and tourism budgets, which is a bizarre attitude, given that we should be marketing Britain in the lead-up to the Olympics. Organisations such as VisitBritain promote Britain abroad and encourage visitors to see attractions such as Stonehenge, so why did the DCMS decide to cut VisitBritain’s budget by £18 million over three years? What links all these issues, I suspect, is the fact that the Treasury has the final say, and the voice of tourism gets lost.

Such is the anger over this issue that the Tourism Alliance, a hugely influential body that links many of the voices in the tourism industry, accused the Government of

Those are damaging words, considering that the alliance is the very body that benefits from support and guides the tourist industry in the UK. The alliance had a crisis meeting with the Minister, and I would be grateful to hear what it asked her to do. There has been an absence of leadership on tourism, and the Tourism Alliance has recently launched its “Take Tourism Seriously” campaign, which urges the Prime Minister to reconsider what the Government are doing with Britain’s fifth-largest industry, which lacks a robust voice in the Government.

We must recognise the appetite for heritage. I think that the Minister has visited the British Museum exhibition on the terracotta army from China’s Xi’an area. The exhibition has been a huge success and provides evidence that there is a massive appetite in the UK for heritage, but that appetite will be denied if we do not explore and take advantage of our own heritage.

I cannot finish without mentioning the concern about the UN’s world heritage committee, which is seriously considering removing Stonehenge’s world heritage status. That would have a devastating impact on the area, and I would be curious to hear the Minister comment on what discussions she has had on the issue. The committee has certainly voiced concerns about the visitors’ centre
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and about the infrastructure being woefully under par, and it has said that improvements are needed as soon as possible.

I have a number of other questions for the Minister. What feedback did she have from interested parties following the decision that was made on 6 December? The Government say that they are now looking at new options. What are those options and what timetable—however vague—is in place? Will she report back to Parliament in six months on the progress that has been made on this critical issue?

Will the Minister also comment on her meeting on 10 December with the new Stonehenge board? What was decided? Was the local planning authority invited? When will the next meeting take place? Was Salisbury district council invited? It is a Liberal Democrat-controlled council, but I gather that it did not turn up. Will the Minister confirm whether that was indeed the case?

The Minister has inherited a difficult brief. It is said that Stonehenge is most impressive at sunrise, with beams of light reflecting on the sarsen stones, but thanks to the Government’s poor stewardship, and the mist of confusion that now hangs over the future, I fear that although the stones themselves will continue to defy time, the sun will set on the Government before a plan worthy of this ancient and historic landmark is brought forward.

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