Photo of Margaret Hodge

Margaret Hodge (Minister of State (Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism), Department for Culture, Media & Sport; Barking, Labour)

Season's greetings to you, Mr. Cummings, on the last day of our debates and happy birthday to my hon. Friend David Wright. Like others, I congratulate 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 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 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.

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