York Minster

– in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 21st March 2007.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. —[Dan Norris.]

Photo of Hugh Bayley Hugh Bayley NATO Parliamentary Assembly UK Delegation 7:06 pm, 21st March 2007

York Minster is a special place. It is a huge building, but intimate at the same time. It has played a central role in the history of Christianity in our country for 1,400 years, and yet it also draws people together—Christians and those of other denominations—as we saw just three weeks ago in the service at York Minster to commemorate the bicentenary of the vote in this House to abolish the slave trade.

The place is of enormous national and international significance. In the undercroft, one finds oneself among the remains of the Roman legionary fort, where, in 306 AD, Constantine was declared emperor. Constantine went on to reunify the Roman empire and grant religious freedom to Christians, which moulded Europe's religion and culture, including the concepts of freedom of expression and toleration, which are such important parts of our way of life today.

The minster itself was founded in 627 by Edwin, King of Northumbria, after his conversion to Christianity. About 1,300 years ago, the minster library was founded. It is still there and contains the York gospels, an illuminated manuscript made closer to the time of Christ than to the present day. The minster building that we know today dates from the 12th century. The great east window was made and installed by John Thornton between 1405 and 1408, almost 600 years ago. It is the largest medieval work of art in the world—the size of a tennis court. From the ground, it looks almost like an abstract work of art, but up close, a wealth of detail is visible—some of the most delicate, sensitive and descriptive stained glass that has ever been made. The window is to stained glass what the Sistine chapel is to fresco. It is one of the greatest art works in the world.

Two years ago, York Minster established a development office under the direction of Dr. Richard Shepherd, to raise funds for the restoration and conservation of the east front and the great east window. The whole project will cost about £30 million. It includes not only restoration work, but work to improve access and public understanding of the minster and the window. The restoration of the window will cost about £19 million. The development campaign has raised an astonishing £5 million in just two years, which reflects the public interest in and concern for the minster, as well as the energy of Richard Shepherd and his staff. Many of the gifts have been made anonymously—people are not seeking self-aggrandisement; the gifts simply reflect the importance that the building has in their hearts.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has given great support to the development campaign. In January last year it provided a £50,000 project planning grant, and in September it provided a further grant of £390,000 to minimise the risk to the window—what it described as an immediate risk of deterioration. The grant will enable the 311 glass panels to be removed from the window and stored in the Bedern chapel, where visitors will be able to see the panes being conserved and the iconography—the pictures in the windows—explained. In December 2006, York Minster submitted its grant request for £10 million for its "York Minster Revealed" project to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Richard Shepherd has told me how beneficial the application process has been. Because the application is so large, it has undergone several iterations. It has been strengthened enormously as a result of the input and advice of staff of the fund. "York Minster Revealed" is more than just a restoration and conservation project, although that is at its heart. It will also pass on craft skills in carving stone and conserving stained glass to another generation. At present there are two stonemason apprentices in the York Minster stoneyard, and the aim is to add a further five. There is one apprentice in the York Glaziers Trust, and the trust wants another three.

The application to the lottery fund will improve physical access to the minster by facilitating public access through the main entrance in the south transept. There will be a better ramp to provide access for disabled people, and for the first time they will have access to the undercroft by means of a lift. There will also be what is described as "improved intellectual access". That is culturespeak—a language that I do not understand myself—for interpretation of what is in the minster for the benefit of the public. It does not mean that special walkways will be established for university professors; it means that people like my hon. Friend the Minister and I will be able better to understand the history and purpose of the minster, including the meaning of the great east window and its use for teaching in mediaeval times. All that will be done through the latest technology and through publications, short courses and lectures. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister has a strong personal interest in and knowledge of cathedrals in general. He was a chorister at Peterborough cathedral. I also know that he has a great interest in York Minster and the "York Minster Revealed" campaign in particular. He visited the minster in November last year, and is consequently well briefed on the state of the east front.

Two thirds of the stone in the window needs to be replaced. Some of the stone, particularly high up on the minster towers, is so loose that it could fall. That state of disrepair become apparent only when the scaffolding was erected. I thank the Heritage Lottery Fund for its "In the Beginning" funding, which allowed the scaffolding to be erected so that the window could be removed. Repairing the stonework will require 2,500 new blocks of stone to be carved, each a sculpture in its own right. The average cost of carving each block will be £600, and members of the public can sponsor a block by paying that sum. If people reading the report of the debate wish to do so, they should contact the minster to be told how they can make a contribution to this enormously important work.

The restoration is needed in heritage terms. I do not want the east front of York Minster to fall during my watch as Member of Parliament for the City of York, and I am sure that the Minister does not want to be seen to fail to protect a building of such importance on his watch. York Minster has cultural and economic importance, in addition to its supreme importance to our national heritage. It is the most important icon representing Yorkshire's identity, and it is a symbol of the quality of life in the city that I represent in Parliament. That quality of life has helped the city to attract new investment and new jobs in science, financial services and information technology—and, indeed, in heritage and conservation—which have replaced the manufacturing jobs that the city has lost over the past two decades. The minster is one of the most visited tourist attractions in the country. It has long been important to tourism, which brings millions of pounds to the city of York and to the region of Yorkshire. It has played that function for centuries.

I will not ask the Minister to approve the Heritage Lottery Fund grant, as I know that the fund is independent of his Department, but I appeal over his head to the trustees. I welcome the decision of the chair of the trustees, Liz Forgan, to visit York Minster in May, and I hope that she and her colleagues on the board will approve the large grant in July. I do, however, ask the Minister to ensure that the Government signal their own interest in, and support for, the restoration by discussing the project with Yorkshire Forward and by asking what contribution it can make to the restoration, and I ask the Minister to write to me after he has had such conversations.

I particularly welcome the announcement made in the Budget speech today that the Chancellor has launched a review of church funding, to be undertaken jointly by the Treasury and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, and I hope that the Chancellor will meet representatives of the cathedrals to discuss what additional support the state might be able to give them. I also welcome the partnership between English Heritage and the Wolfson Foundation, which will provide grants up to the value of £250,000 to cathedrals. I understand that it is possible for cathedrals to apply for those grants from September of this year. I know that the York Minster appeal will make such an application, and I hope that the Government will support it. If the Government acknowledge the importance of the restoration with their own statements and financial support, that will encourage the HLF to give the project the support that it needs, and encourage members of the public to make private donations.

The decision to be taken by the lottery fund in July is extremely important. We all know that the resources available to the HLF will fall between now and the Olympics, and I am afraid that if a grant is not approved this year the work on the window could be delayed for quite some time. It would be a disaster—a tragedy—if the window were missing or boarded up and millions of visitors over years to come were denied access to one of the art treasures of the world. When John Thornton completed the window in 1408 he was paid £58 for his labours, including a £10 bonus for completing it on time—within three years. I asked the statisticians in the House of Commons Library to calculate what £58 was worth in today's prices and I was astonished to learn that the answer was just the sum of £38,000. We all wish that the restoration could be completed for £38,000. However, restoration is harder and more costly than creating a new work of art, and the cost of labour and materials are much higher now than they were 600 years ago. It would, however, be a real shame and a failure of our stewardship of our country's heritage if a window that took three years to make 600 years ago were to take a decade, or even longer, to restore.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will do whatever he can to make sure that we do not face such delay. Indeed, as next year will be the 600th anniversary of the completion of the window, I hope that we will know by then that there will be sufficient funds to keep it in good repair for the next 600 years.

Photo of David Lammy David Lammy Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Culture) 7:20 pm, 21st March 2007

I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend Hugh Bayley on securing this important debate, and by thanking him for his valuable insights into this most iconic of buildings. As he pointed out, the contribution that York Minster makes to our nation and to all in our society—be they Christians, those of other faiths or of no faith—is nothing short of immense. It is of course primarily fulfilling the spiritual needs of many people, and it is extremely active in meeting the needs of its local community.

In heritage terms, York Minster's significance is immeasurable. It is a most intricate and exquisite building, and its archives and artefacts are of international importance. Its contribution to the arts is also huge, and it has a never-ending programme of events and exhibitions. It is a major provider of educational services, hosting innumerable school visits in its excellent education centre, and holding lectures and events for learners of all ages. It also provides training and apprenticeship in a range of traditional building skills, including stonemasonry and glazing. It is upholding the fine choral tradition of our country—a subject very close to my heart. That is perhaps why it is the most visited cathedral in our country.

The minster employs many people, thereby making its own direct contribution to the local economy, and it is a centre of much volunteer activity. A dedicated band of 500 people help to enhance the visitor experience and to keep everything going. As I said, it is a hugely important tourist magnet that attracts many people from all over the world not just to the minster itself, but to the surrounding areas, thereby benefiting the neighbouring businesses—the cafes, restaurants, pubs, hotels and guest houses—and providing a huge boost to that important local economy.

The Government know that such a huge, intricate and historic building is always going to need a lot of care and attention to ensure that it remains in the best possible condition, so that it can be enjoyed by those who come after us. I am of course aware of the conservation projects being undertaken, and they do not come any larger than the restoration of the east front, which is an enormous undertaking. I understand that well in excess of 100 panes of glass in the great east window need to be repaired, and that some 2,500 stones need to be replaced due to the ravages of time. The whole project will keep many people busy for 10 years or more, and they include some of our most skilled craftspeople, whose talents will be tested to the full.

As my hon. Friend said, I had the great privilege last November of visiting the minster to look at the restoration work. I visited the masons' yard and the glaziers' workshop, and I met some of the people striving to take this huge project forward. It was a great privilege to talk to the conservationists, particularly the glaziers, about that intricate work and to see some of it in progress. I was impressed with the skill and dedication with which these people were working, and I enjoyed learning about their work and their individual contributions to the wider project.

I am also very pleased that the restoration is itself being used as a way of engaging the public in the history of the minster and its methods of conservation. What better way to get a Minister's attention than to invite him to spend time on the roof of the York Minster? I wore a hard hat and I was petrified at the prospect of ending up on the ground, but I was delighted by the vista before me. I had a wonderful time and I thank Richard Shepherd and his team very much for making that so.

I recognise, of course, that there are enormous costs associated with the ongoing project, and I wish to congratulate all of those engaged in fundraising activity, and all those individuals and businesses who have contributed to this vital work. The Government make significant investments in the preservation of our ecclesiastical gems. Taken together, the Government and lottery support in that area has averaged around £60 million per year. Of course, it is necessary to target those resources on those buildings most in need of repair and least able to afford the work or raise the funds to pay for them.

My hon. Friend referred to the level of grant funding available through the English Heritage grants for cathedrals scheme. The scheme has been a success, pumping more than £43 million during its lifetime into cathedrals, and doing exactly what it was set up to do—to tackle the backlog of high-level repairs. As my hon. Friend said, English Heritage is now in an exciting partnership with the Wolfson Foundation, which is matching its contribution for three years, for which we and the cathedrals are grateful. I would encourage York Minster to make an application under the scheme and I wish it every success in doing so.

While the amounts of money dedicated to the scheme are a matter for the English Heritage commissioners, we in the Government support the refocusing of resources into our churches and places of worship of all faiths and denominations that are less able to raise the necessary funding themselves. York has benefited under the English Heritage cathedrals programme and it has received much more than £1 million for various previous projects.

English Heritage has also been extremely active in other ways in supporting and advising on the project. York has also had funding from our excellent listed places of worship scheme, which returns VAT on repairs. Historic buildings with a measure of commercial use are able to reclaim elements of the VAT incurred on repairs via their VAT returns. That is certainly the case for the minster, and any portion not reclaimable in that way can still be recouped from the LPW scheme. While I mention the LPW scheme, I remind the House that grants totalling more than £55 million have been made since 2001, and more than £1 million per month is being given out at present.

York Minster also has an excellent record of successful applications to the Heritage Lottery Fund, in respect of a variety of projects, including the extension of the library, the re-organisation of the exhibition space, support for craft skill training, a project planning grant for the planning stage of the current project, and a large contribution to the York Glaziers Trust so that work on the east window could start.

Turning to the issue of the future of funding, I am of course aware of the views of the heritage sector on the need for further funding for the conservation and care of those buildings whose importance to our heritage could not be more obvious. I acknowledge the requests for further funding as set out in the "Inspired!" campaign, in the paper "Building Faith in our Future" and in the Church of England's "Next Steps" document. I have already outlined some of the funding that is already in place.

My hon. Friend will know that I cannot comment on future funding during the course of a spending review. The sector's case has been well put and will be considered during the course of the work that is continuing on the spending settlement, but I must repeat that it will be a tough spending round and that I can make no attempt to second guess the final outcome. However, my hon. Friend will have heard what the Chancellor said from this Dispatch Box this afternoon about church heritage. My right hon. Friend set out the work that he is doing in that regard with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. We must all be pleased that that attention is being given to funding our heritage, and especially our church buildings.

The Heritage Lottery Fund should receive more than £700 million of new lottery money between 2008 and 2012, notwithstanding last week's announcement of the use of the fund for the Olympics. My hon. Friend the Member for City of York will know that it is for the HLF to make decisions about applications, and he will understand that I cannot comment. However, I wish the application every success, and the relationship between the HLF and York Minster means that it must be a worthy candidate.

The Government are also keen to support other areas of the life of our cathedrals, and that is why money is made available, where it is needed, through the choir schools scholarship scheme, which is funded by the Department for Education and Skills. Also, in respect of training for craft skills, the Government are keen to do what they can to ensure that there are sufficient people trained in all of the skills necessary to keep our historic buildings in good order.

I am pleased to note that York Minster is involved in the Yorkshire and Humber heritage skills academy, which is supported by Government money through the Department for Trade and Industry and the construction skills training board. York is also part of the cathedral workshop fellowship, which is joining up cathedrals across the country to provide a broader training experience for apprenticeships. Moreover, a large HLF grant is being used by English Heritage, the National Trust, Cadw and others to provide a range of bursaries for training in traditional craft skills. It is exactly these kinds of partnerships across the sector that will ensure that the skills will be there when needed, and that the resources that are available are used to maximum effect. I shall be happy to speak to the local regional development agency, Yorkshire Forward, to ensure that York Minster receives the attention that it deserves. I shall report back to my hon. Friend about that.

The House will be aware that two weeks ago my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State launched "Heritage Protection for the 21st Century", the long promised White Paper on the future of heritage protection. Last week, I attended the heritage forum, at which all the major heritage bodies for England are represented. I am pleased to say that the White Paper was met with support and enthusiasm across the board. Among many other provisions, a key feature of the White Paper is a proposal that will reduce the administrative burdens associated with work to historic churches and cathedrals. In dialogue with the exempt denominations, we propose an increase in the scope of the ecclesiastical exemption so that a wider range of assets can be free from the need for parallel permissions before vital works of repair can commence. A wide range of Government-sponsored activity is in place, designed specifically to make life easier for cathedrals and churches, not only in the area of conservation, but in wider ways that connect the preservation of the fabric into the life of the building.

York Minster is an ongoing success story: success in attracting people through the doors and into the area, success in its huge range of complementary activities and community outreach, and success in accessing support of all kinds for the massive job that is the restoration of the building. There is support from the Government and the lottery and from the local people, communities and economy that gain so much from having the minster at their heart. I have no doubt that the restoration of the east front will be part of that continuing success story.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Eight o'clock.