York Minster

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:20 pm on 21st March 2007.

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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.