Arts and Heritage

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:43 pm on 15th June 1989.

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Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West 6:43 pm, 15th June 1989

I have considerable sympathy with the hon. Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack) and those hon. Members who were not able to make a speech. We should stop meeting like this, every five years on a European election day, to discuss arts and heritage. It is the intention of the impending Labour Government to include both arts and heritage in a single Ministry.

I am sorry that the unreconstructed hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (Mr. Dicks) has left the Chamber. He has probably gone to vandalise a few paintings somewhere. He is to the arts what Vlad the Impaler was to origami. He gives us a laugh, and all he needs is a pig's bladder on a stick to complete his costume.

I shall devote most of my speech to the heritage because this year archaeologists in London have unearthed two priceless gems, the Roman baths complex at Huggin Hill and the Rose theatre. They have also laid bare the appalling lack of protection under existing laws for sites of archaeological influence. The campaigns surrounding Huggin Hill and the Rose have had a partial success in that neither will be totally destroyed, which was the original intention of their respective developers. However, in the case of the Roman baths, access has been lost, as tonnes of sand have now reburied what one senior archaeologist has described as one of the best preserved and most extensive Roman baths complexes in northern Europe.

I have a few questions to ask the Minister about the Rose theatre, which was mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Blaenau Gwent (Mr. Foot) and the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). Any Government truly wedded to the positive promotion of arts and the heritage would have scheduled the Rose theatre site under the relevant Act. How can the Government allow a speculative office block, an excrescence, to be built over the Rose theatre site? The adapted plans put forward to date are wholly unacceptable and I have two questions for the Minister. First, why were the museum of London archaeologists moved off site by English Heritage? Is it because English Heritage felt that the museum of London staff would stand too much by their principles and that English Heritage was in a better position to do a cosy deal with Imry Merchant, the developers? Secondly, why are the excavations of the pile sites going ahead before planning permission has been given by Southwark council or before a possible judicial review has been held?

The facts surrounding the Roman site at Huggin Hill present an unbelievable combination of ineptitude, confusion and vacillation. The facts show clearly that within the span of a few months a Roman site nearly 2,000 years old, described in September 1988 as of "national importance" by English Heritage, was, by February 1989, facing total destruction. It is difficult to exonerate English Heritage from a charge of gross incompetence. One can only assume that, since it is a quango headed up by Thatcherist nominees, advice is given on the basis of what it is believed that political masters want, rather than on what archaeology needs.

No other country in Europe would have allowed its archaeological heritage to be treated in such a shameful and purblind fashion as the Government have treated these two important sites. If property developers were interested in anything other than short-term profits, they might realise that heritage can serve mammon and the muse. The political and media campaigns might have secured a partial victory at Huggin Hill and the Rose, but no one can seriously believe that this piecemeal approach to the preservation of archaeological sites is either efficient or acceptable. The next significant site might be uncovered outside of easy walking distance of London and the press offices. What chance then of salvation?

We can and must learn a number of lessons from recent events. English Heritage as it is organised is incapable of properly serving the interests of archaeological preservation. It is too obviously in the pockets of Ministers and there is no serious money in those pockets for archaeology. We need a wholly independent commission, equipped with legislative teeth and a budget, substantially larger than the miserable £7·2 million, allocated for archaeological investigation and recording. Secondly, the 1986 voluntary code of practice between the British Property Federation and the Standing Conference of Archaeological Managers is highly unsatisfactory. The code is an agreement struck between unequals. It places archaeologists in the position of supplicants, relying almost entirely on the good will of property developers—a group not noted for altruism and selflessness.

The Minister for the Arts said that big business gives millions of pounds a year for archaeological restoration and rescue work. Such sums are pocket change in comparison with the profits made by city developers, and small compensation for the destruction being inflicted on archaeological remains in London and elsewhere. A voluntary code is no substitute for statutory regulations backed up by fines and gaol sentences for those who demolish first and try to avoid awkward questions afterwards. I support the call made by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey and others that any developer wanting to develop in an area of archaeological significance as determined by part II of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 should be required to carry out at his own expense a full survey before preliminary planning consent is given.

We want to make sure that part II of that Act is immediately extended to the City of London as it has been to the town centres of York, Chester, Hereford, Exeter and Canterbury. It is ironic that the 1979 Act, which was carried through by the Labour Government, started off as a private Member's Bill introduced by the chairman of the Tory party, who is also the Member of Parliament for the constituency in which Huggin Hill Roman baths are located. As far as I am aware, the right hon. Member for City of London and Westminster, South (Mr. Brooke) has not yet found the time to visit the site, nor has he publicly commented on it. One can only assume that the failure to bring the City within part II of the 1979 Act owes much to the cosy relations between Guildhall and the property developers allied to the pusillanimous attitude of English Heritage.

We have to do more for our archaeological heritage. The sign erected over the Rose theatre site reads, "Revealing today's heritage, building tomorrow's". When will it be realised that ugly and short-lived speculative office blocks are no more an acceptable replacement for the past than they are a worthy legacy for the future? The arts and heritage are not safe in the hands of the Government, driven as they are by the do-it-on-the-cheap approach to the arts required by probably the most philistine Prime Minister since the days of Lord Liverpool. It is hardly the mark of a truly civilised society to provide funds galore for defence and then to make the arts rely more and more on the begging bowl and on the good will of big business and the whims of rich men.

We can have no finer role in the world than to become a nation where the artistic skills and creativity of our people are given the maximum encouragement, a nation of craftsmen and craftswomen, painters, writers, poets and sculptors—a Mount Olympus of artistic creativity and excellence. What a prospect. What a vision we can offer the British people. Instead, we are all too often regarded these days as a nation of lager louts with the values of market spivs. I look forward to the vision of a new society, but I know that it will not become a reality until we have a Socialist Government. We shall have a separate Arts Department that will be under the guidance and control of my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Mr. Fisher).