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18 Dec 2007 : Column 233WH—continued

3.18 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport (Margaret Hodge): Season’s greetings to you, Mr. Cummings, on the last day of our debates and happy birthday to my hon. Friend the Member for Telford (David Wright). Like others, I congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing this important debate, even if it is being held on the last day before the recess.

The hon. Gentleman is an expert on Stonehenge. Not only is he the area’s representative, but he has had ministerial responsibility for transport and culture at different points in his career. In both roles, he probably grappled with many of the difficult issues that face me today as I try to find a way forward.

I endorse my hon. Friend’s suggestion that it is all too easy to score political points on this complex issue, but I hope that we will not try to do so. It is in all our interests to find a solution of sufficient substance, because that is what is warranted by this magnificent historical site, and we can best reach such a solution by working together.

The problem before us has not been around for just the past 10 years; sadly, it has been around for a generation. When I went to visit Stonehenge with the hon. Member for Salisbury in September I had not been there for many years. When one goes back one realises what a mistake we made putting up a visitor centre of that quality in that place—presumably in the ’60s. There are other buildings around of that era, and I am sure that we would never make such a mistake again—as long as English Heritage does not go and list it, and create further difficulties.

Stonehenge is of international importance. We share that view across the Chamber. It is one of our most iconic sites, and has fascinated people across millenniums. We probably will never know—that is its fascination—why our ancestors built the structure 5,000 years ago, and
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went on building and changing it over the two millennia that followed its original construction. It is not just the stones that are important. As hon. Members have said, there is the cursus just north of the stones, which I saw on my visit: two grass banks 100 m apart, stretching nearly 3 km. They are also an enigma. On the ridges surrounding the stones are burial mounds, which were built more than 1,000 years after the stones were erected. The landscape all around Stonehenge continues to reveal wonderful new archaeological finds. In September, I met a team of archaeologists who work, they told me, every year at Durrington Walls.

The Stonehenge landscape includes sites of special scientific interest, and a major objective of the management plan—which has to a considerable extent been achieved, with the help of the countryside stewardship scheme and its successors—has been the reversion of that core area of the world heritage site from arable to traditional chalk grassland. It is now home to the stone curlew, a rare, red-listed visitor to our isles—although I did not see one. Of course, Stonehenge is also the place where druids and pagans celebrate the solstice.

Stonehenge, as the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood) drew to the House’s attention, is a hugely important tourist destination. Every year it attracts about 875,000 visitors, and another 23,000 go to the solstices and equinoxes. The income for the area is about £5 million. The hon. Gentleman opposes our policies for tourism, but I am perfectly happy, if he wants to call a debate, to justify our decisions. It is precisely because we want to invest in what tourists experience when they come to the UK that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has used the budget allocated to it in the comprehensive spending review as it has. We have deliberately put more money into heritage, at the expense—to a slight extent—of the money that we invest in marketing.

We have done that not so much for the benefit of Stonehenge as a specific site; rather, for the first time in a long while English Heritage is getting more money, and it is the first time we have ever set up a budget that focuses specifically on the heritage of our seaside resorts. Some of our seaside resorts have done extremely well in the past 20 or 25 years, but others have suffered. Yet they all have within them little heritage jewels, and if we can use those, with a little investment, as a catalyst to regenerate those areas for tourism, that will be money well spent by Government—proper investment that will grow our tourism.

At the same time, it would be dilatory of us not to ask VisitBritain to modernise the way in which it markets the UK—including its use of office infrastructure and new methods of communication. With regard to the hon. Gentleman’s refusal to support us in that, I attended last week a meeting of the VisitBritain board, which could have been difficult, given that its budget is being cut in the coming period. However, all the people at the table, including representatives of the devolved Administrations, welcomed what we had done, because it energised them into strategically rethinking, in a way that has not happened before, how best to use the £350 million—including the hon. Gentleman’s money and mine—in tourism support to market our country.

Mr. Ellwood: We are mixing numbers up. The overall headline figure for heritage funding has dropped from £461 million in 1997-98 to £231 million in 2006-07. It
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might have increased slightly from last year, but overall there has been a net decrease. The Minister mentions VisitBritain, but if she cares to look at its website, Christopher Rodrigues, the chief executive, is said to have expressed

The Minister is aware that funding for VisitBritain has remained about £35 million for the past 10 years. It has not changed—excluding the running costs of about £15 million—but this time the Government have decided to reduce that amount by £18 million in the next three years.

John Cummings (in the Chair): Order. Interventions must be brief and to the point.

Margaret Hodge: That intervention was full of selective statistics, and it is not the real issue for debate. If the hon. Gentleman had spent more time understanding the challenges that we face at Stonehenge he might have focused his contribution on that. I feel that I have to respond to what he said, however.

First, the hon. Gentleman was selective in his figures on heritage investment, because he did not include the money that has gone through the Heritage Lottery Fund. Secondly, it is not only VisitBritain that markets Britain. The regional development agencies have had responsibility since 2003; the devolved Administrations have responsibility as well. One of the purposes of the review is to make sure that we eliminate duplication and use the resources—I repeat that £350 million of support for tourism is coming from the taxpayer’s and council tax payer’s purse—to the best effect. I am sure that under Christopher Rodrigues’s superb leadership of VisitBritain, the enthusiasm that he and other board members showed last week will result in better marketing of Britain.

Stonehenge is important; I recognise that, and because of it I am investing a lot of time in trying to find a solution for it. I have said that we want the relevant improvements to Stonehenge’s traffic management and visitor centre and the environment surrounding that world heritage site to happen by 2012. That gives us a catalyst for action. When visitors come to Britain they tend to come to London. There are a few places outside London that they choose to visit, and Stonehenge is always on that list. If we want the whole UK to capture the benefits of our hosting the Olympics in London in 2012, it is crucial that we get world heritage tourist attractions such as Stonehenge in proper, fit, modern and well-preserved order by that time.

Stonehenge was one of the first UK sites to be inscribed on the world heritage list. That was more than 20 years ago. Not just the stones were inscribed, but also the associated monuments, which are spread over more than 2,000 hectares. Since the signing of the world heritage convention in 1984, we are proud as a country to have attained a total of 27 world heritage sites on the list, which now totals more than 800 sites worldwide. The UK sites differ greatly, ranging from uninhabited islands in the southern oceans, through great prehistoric, Roman and mediaeval monumental buildings, to marvels
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of Georgian urban architecture and planning and an increasing number of sites that demonstrate the contribution of the UK to industrialisation, which underpins the modern world. The UK is among the top 10 countries for the number of sites inscribed on the world heritage list. I say to the hon. Members for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) and for Bournemouth, East, that we have absolutely no intention of suggesting that Stonehenge should drop off that list.

Inscription on the world heritage list is the highest accolade that can be afforded a place, and it brings international prestige. It also brings international responsibilities, which we take seriously. The world heritage convention brings together countries from all parts of the globe, acting together to safeguard places that are of such outstanding universal value that their protection transcends national boundaries.

In the UK, we are proud of the part that we have played in the movement’s success. Until 2005 we were one of the member states elected to sit on the world heritage committee, and since our four-year term of office ended we have continued to work closely with and support the world heritage centre to deal with the development pressures facing some of our sites, which my hon. Friend the Member for Telford mentioned. As part of the heritage protection review, we are taking measures to increase the protection of world heritage sites in England.

In London next month, we will host an international expert meeting, which we hope will help the committee to achieve its goal of increasing the number of sites represented, particularly in developing nations, and recognising advancements in science and technology. We are in the throes of our own world heritage policy review, which will examine how we should nominate our sites best to reflect the world heritage committee’s priorities, and we always send experts to participate in international events. I hope that that shows our commitment to the world heritage convention, which will continue and be reflected in how we handle Stonehenge.

As several hon. Members have noted, work to determine a way forward for Stonehenge and address the traffic problems on the A303 has been going on for some time. We also want to see work to improve the landscape environment around Stonehenge, and the improved visitor facilities and interpretation that a number of hon. Members have referred to. The work has been going on too long, and I hope that hon. Members will join me in paying tribute to the hon. Member for Salisbury, because in the discussions that I have had with him since the summer he has committed himself to helping me achieve what we require—a consensus on the way forward. If we can build that consensus with all the relevant authorities, we will not need long planning inquiries. That is our best opportunity to get improvements made before spring 2012.

The Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South (Mr. Harris), with whom I have had conversations since I took this job, outlined the history of the Stonehenge project when he made his statement to the House. It is not a matter of the DCMS playing second fiddle to the Department for Transport or any Department, but we must examine expenditure commitments responsibly across Government.

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Considering what has happened over time to the proposal that was on the table for Stonehenge, the decision that was taken last week, sad and frustrating though it was to all of us, was right for the spending priorities of the Government as a whole. The money involved had grown beyond belief, and there were complications once people had started burrowing and examining the site. I think that the chalk underneath was the wrong type, and the site also had a high water table or something like that, which created greater costs. The cost had become intolerable, and it was much better to cut the plan dead so that we could start thinking creatively about alternative solutions, rather than to believe that we could find the necessary moneys. It was not a viable proposition, given competing demands for transport infrastructure. We reluctantly concluded that it was unaffordable, which meant that English Heritage’s proposed visitor centre, for which it had got planning permission from Salisbury district council, could no longer proceed. The planning approval was contingent on the A303 road improvements. English Heritage will retain the land that it had intended to use for the visitor centre, close to Countess East, and it will have to review its future use.

Costs have been incurred in the past 10 years, but looking back at the history of the matter, when the previous Secretary of State, Lord Smith, made his announcement as long ago as 1998, Sir Jocelyn Stevens, then chair of English Heritage, said:

That takes us back, dare I say it, to previous Administrations. That is why people should not try to score political points on the matter.

We recognise that the decision on the traffic management of Stonehenge will have implications for the whole south-west as well as for local residents. As part of our further work, we are exploring much smaller-scale measures to improve the traffic flow and safety on the relevant section of the A303. Decisions on funding improvements to other sections of the A303 to the west of Stonehenge are a matter for the south-west region, using its resources provided by central Government in the south-west’s regional funding allocation for major transport schemes. We have deliberately decentralised that budget, which was the right thing to do so that people can take the most appropriate decisions at a regional level.

Dan Rogerson: I am grateful to the Minister for making that point on a matter that a number of hon. Members mentioned, but will she concede that some projects—I appreciate that it is difficult to assess them—are not regional in nature?

Margaret Hodge: Of course, but my understanding —I am no transport expert—is that the responsibility for determining the road’s future is classified as lying with the regional authorities. Interestingly, when the region made its recent determination of allocations and transport priorities, it decided not to allocate funding for improvements to the A303 until about 2014. I have not checked, but that may well have been because it was waiting for central Government’s decisions on the tunnel. At the meeting that we had on 10 December, Juliet Williams, who chairs the south-west RDA, said several times that improvements to the road infrastructure were
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a significant regional priority, so I am pretty confident that the region will revisit how it decides to spend its money.

Mr. Ellwood: I am slightly confused; perhaps the Minister can clarify this point. For the past 10 years, there has been an understanding that the Government would contribute to the transport improvement scheme, but she is now making it very clear that the South West of England Regional Development Agency is responsible. If that is the case and that has been the policy, why did the Government allow people to believe for so long that they were going to contribute significantly to the road improvement scheme?

Margaret Hodge: I stress again that I am not a Transport Minister, so I shall not reply to that kind of detailed question. Clearly, the decision was taken earlier that it was a major transport scheme and therefore could not be funded regionally. I said—I suggest that the hon. Gentleman read the Official Reportcarefully—that it is possible that there will be small-scale measures to improve traffic flow. The Highways Agency will have some responsibilities in that regard, and I hope that there will be some collaboration with the Highways Agency on anything that it feels it has to do after further study. I hope that that, together with a reprioritisation of the regional transport pot of money by SWERDA and its partners, will lead to a compromise solution that will enable us to move forward.

Hon. Members know that one possibility on the table—the ideal solution, because it would not disturb archaeological sites elsewhere—is to close the relevant part of the A344 and use that site as the basis for creating a visitors centre. However, that solution would require everyone to come to the table, to compromise and to contribute. That is what we will try to achieve with the reconvened board. All that must be subject to consultation in the usual ways. I stress again that consensus will be the only way forward, and that will depend on the county council, the local authority and others. Salisbury district council was invited to the meeting, but it told us that the date clashed with a full meeting of the council and sent its apologies.

Our focus must be on where to go from here. In response to a question asked in the House by the hon. Member for Salisbury on 10 December, I announced that the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South, and I would jointly chair a meeting with key stakeholders, which we did—indeed, we had the first meeting that evening. Our goal is to deliver environmental improvements to Stonehenge, including new visitor facilities, in keeping with its status as a world heritage site by the beginning of 2012. In response to requests to report on that meeting, I will say that there was a real spirit of determination among those who were present to work together and bury the hatchet and to seek a consensual solution. We have set an ambitious timetable, but we will achieve what we want only if we work creatively and co-operate in the next phase. I cannot stress enough the importance of co-operation and I ask all those with an interest to support us in any way they can.

We will, as the hon. Member for Salisbury noted, draw on the detailed investigations that have taken place over the years—it would be madness to try to
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reinvent the wheel. They will include the Stonehenge master plan, which was presented at the public inquiries for the A303 and the visitor centre, as well as the earlier plans that he mentioned regarding the location of the visitor centre. A central part of that work will be a review of the Stonehenge world heritage site management plan published in 2000, which my hon. Friend the Member for Telford mentioned. That plan has stood the test of time and much has been achieved since then, so we will use it as a basis from which to move forward, as the hon. Member for Salisbury suggested.

The overall vision still has long-term validity and many objectives need no change, including the ones that the hon. Gentleman mentioned—1 to 3, 11 and 18. We will, however, need to review how those objectives can be achieved. To make any significant changes to the world heritage site boundary, which I think he might have suggested, we would have to submit a new nomination to the UNESCO world heritage committee, which would render our timetable impossible. Much though I would like to help him in that regard, we will not go down that route. I therefore seek a review that focuses on the parts of the plan that need to be changed as a result of the decision that was announced to Parliament on 6 December.

The process of considering those decisions will inform subsequent decisions on making improvements to the environment around the stones and, crucially, on the location of the new visitor centre. We will keep the UNESCO committee fully informed about developments; indeed, we have already written to advise it of our decision, and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Transport is to write again. We will report further to the committee at the end of January 2008 and keep it informed as we review the management plan.

Flowing from the revised management plan will be a new planning application and a new environmental statement, which we will publish. Work on that will involve exploring the case for closing the junction between the A303 and the A344, on which we must have a detailed assessment and public consultation. I look forward to co-operating with the hon. Member for Salisbury to ensure that that progresses as smoothly as possible, because on it will depend the need for a public inquiry.

We have wasted no time—we had our first meeting on the second working day after the announcement of 6 December. At this stage, I cannot comment further on all the costs and funding streams, but I am determined that we will have a set of exciting proposals in the
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shortest possible time. That being the case, I am sure that the Heritage Lottery Fund will be very interested to hear about them, but as the hon. Gentleman knows, decisions on such matters are for the trustees of the fund not for the House or the Government.

We have had a good debate in which I hope we have aired the issue in full. I think that we all share certain concerns and some disappointment regarding the current position. However, I trust that I have made it clear that the Government have a huge commitment as we move into the latest phase of delivering our goal, which must be to provide the right environment for Stonehenge in keeping with its world heritage status. We must do that in the shortest possible time, while adhering to proper procedures and public consultation. I ask all hon. Members for their co-operation throughout that process, and we shall report to the UNESCO committee for its meeting next July.

With those comments, I wish hon. Members a happy and peaceful Christmas. I look forward to pressing ahead with this important work in the new year. There is a lot to be done and it is an enormous privilege for me to be associated with this important piece of work.

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