York Minster

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:06 pm on 21st March 2007.

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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.