Barwick in Elmet Hill Fort

– in the House of Commons at 9:26 pm on 10th July 2007.

Alert me about debates like this

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

Watch this
Embed this video

Copy and paste this code on your website


Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet 9:45 pm, 10th July 2007

Thank you, Mr. Speaker, for selecting this subject for debate. Adjournment debates cover a huge range of subjects, and I hope that my contribution will extend that further. I think that this is the Minister's first Adjournment debate in her new post. I bet she cannot believe her luck in pulling the plum subject of the hill fort in Barwick in Elmet. If she can restrain herself, I will explain a few things about it.

I know the Minister to be well travelled and knowledgeable, and although I am not usually a betting man, I am willing to bet in this case that she has never been to Elmet and that before today she had no knowledge whatsoever of the national monument that is the hill fort in Barwick in Elmet. However, I hope that by the end of the evening she will be aware of that valued historical site because then one of my aims will have been achieved—that of raising awareness of that monument. I know that you like to travel in Yorkshire, Mr. Speaker, because you have made several visits there, and I should like to set the scene.

Barwick in Elmet is in the centre of the constituency that I am so proud to represent. It is set in attractive rolling countryside to the east of that wonderful city of Leeds. It has an equally attractive village centre, with its late 14th century church of All Saints. It has friendly pubs, attractive homes, an excellent primary school and its famous maypole. It is a village with real community involvement across a range of activities from sport to history, and it is the latter on which I shall concentrate.

The Minister will be interested—at least, I hope that she will be interested—to hear that the earth works at Barwick are of national importance. The Barwick in Elmet historical society tells me that there are only between 50 and 100 pre-Roman hill forts nationally, and most of those are found in the south of England. It is clear that even in the days of the iron age there was a north-south divide, and as usual the north came off worst.

There are very few examples of such iron age hill forts in Yorkshire, so Barwick is in a fortunate position. It is worth noting that the fort is considered to be large compared with others in Britain. As a footnote I add that the other similar fort is in Huddersfield, which does not even rank alongside Leeds. In addition, the earth works have a well-preserved Norman motte and bailey, of which there are roughly 600 nationally. That Norman motte and bailey is constructed in the iron age hill fort. It is history built on history. To add another little footnote, the people who were responsible for building the Norman construction were the De Lacy family, who ruled a huge part of west Yorkshire from that particular monument, as we call it now, in Barwick. In some respects, Barwick in Elmet was the tower of London of west Yorkshire. The combination of the iron age and the Norman makes the Barwick site doubly important and fully deserving of efforts to protect and enhance it. The role of the Barwick in Elmet historical society has been absolutely crucial and critical in doing just that.

For those who prefer their history in a slightly more contemporary style, had they joined me last Monday and walked up to the top of the Norman establishment, they would have found a base of concrete, which was used in the second world war by the air defence people to look eastwards towards the Humber coast to spot and track the German bombers coming over to bomb our fair city of Leeds. I merely add that as an extra point.

The catalyst for the revival of interest in the earth works probably occurred in 2003, when following a meeting attended by members of the parish council and the maypole committee it was decided to raise awareness of the site in the village and the surrounding area, and to consider more proactive ways of maintaining. Individuals such as Harold Smith, Jeff Yapp and Nigel Trotter deserve praise for the steps that they have taken to mobilise the community.

A very important step has been taking children from the local primary school around the earth works every year and explaining its history to them. On my last visit to the school, the pupils put me on the spot by asking what I had done to safeguard the hill fort. Hopefully, I am doing my bit for them this evening. On those trips, the children are made aware of the need to value this wonderful, historic site in the years ahead. The work of the school, under the excellent leadership of head teacher Peter Docherty, is vital in ensuring that future generations of villagers appreciate and value what is in their midst.

I should also mention the doughty workers of Barwick in Bloom, led by the ever-energetic John Tinker. They have helped to eradicate the Japanese knotweed that was in danger of obliterating part of the iron age ditch. I also congratulate them on their work on the Methodist chapel churchyard adjoining the site. It provided a useful backdrop for a Sky television interview on Monday in which I attacked Ken Bates, chairman of Leeds United football club—but I will not go into that now.

The historical society has put up notice boards around the iron age ditch, highlighting the need to protect this vital piece of our heritage. I know that in the weeks ahead it hopes to improve the signage with pictures of what the site would have looked like historically, and I welcome that move.

The historical society, the parish council and others have been proactive, and following funding of some £21,000 from English Heritage—a large sum in its terms—a three-year improvement programme was drawn up. It has enabled the parish council to supervise contracts for work such as clearing rubbish from the iron age ditch, constructing access steps into the ditch, and renewing and repairing the steps leading up a steep slope to the top of the Norman site. In turn, English Heritage has encouraged the parish council to apply for heritage lottery funding, and a £4,000 grant has been used to increase knowledge about the village earth works in the local community. Lottery funding was also secured for an archaeological dig on a site within the boundaries of the earth works, which yielded some interesting materials. In September 2006, tours of the earth works were organised for local people. I was fortunate enough to be taken around by Harold Smith, who brought the whole site to life for me.

I have to admit that in my previous life I was a teacher of history. It has always depressed me that although most people dislike history when they are at school, once they leave school they begin to love it. I hope that that is not down to history teachers. I do know this about history, though: it is about facts, but it is also about the power of imagination. Standing on the iron age earth works and visualising the huge efforts required by iron age society to construct such a feature was a very engaging experience for me.

It is not possible for me to embark on a massive, detailed account of the work done around the site. I am merely giving the Minister a brief overview of the work that is being done. As with many aspects of our lives—this does not apply to the Minister, but it applies to some of us—it is not all progress and renewal. There are also problems, and I hope to enlist the Minister's help in addressing them.

First, there are unfortunate examples of encroachment into the iron age ditch. We shall have to deal with that sooner or later if we consider the ditch to be an important national monument. Secondly, the dumping over a number of years of garden rubbish and other refuse into the ditch has been a great problem for those who wish to preserve the site. Thirdly, because the earth works lie within a conservation area, protected trees can become a problem. That is especially true in the area known as the Wendel ditch. On Monday, I saw in the company of Mr. Smith the damage caused to the ditch sides by a fallen tree whose roots had pulled away the earth. I am told that the tree fell over in winter, but it is still littering the 2,200-year-old ditch and impeding access for people who want to see it.

It is important to frame a way forward and I have some constructive suggestions to make. Will the Minister encourage English Heritage to seek closer working relations with Leeds city council in order to address some of the planning issues that have arisen? MPs are fully aware from their mailbag and from personal experience that planning is a complicated issue, and several brains are required to work out solutions to many planning problems. Will the Minister also agree to discuss with English Heritage the possibility of it using its powers under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979 to address the encroachment issue in a timely manner? English Heritage is trying to create a mood in the village that will lead to there being full support and that strategy is to be applauded, but organisations must sometimes use the powers that are available to them. I know from speaking to English Heritage officials that it values the site. It would greatly assist its efforts if it sought to enlist fully in support of its work members of the historical society, especially when visiting the site.

All organisations benefit from improved communications, and I know that English Heritage is keen to take this matter on board. It is vital to tap the enthusiasm of local people. When officers visit, the simple step of contacting someone from the parish council or the historical society would lead to a better result. I would also like English Heritage to be asked to liaise with Leeds city council's tree officer in order to receive professional advice on tackling tree maintenance on the site. I am aware that in a recent programme there was training for a volunteer. Unfortunately, that volunteer moved and there is now a funding difficulty. It would be good if Leeds city council and English Heritage came together to provide training for somebody in the village so that the skill base of the historical group and the parish are enhanced.

To make a dig at Leeds city council—I can do so as it is in Liberal-Conservative hands—I would hope that after four years it might finally get round to improving what is a dangerous footpath running alongside Wendel hill. Does the Minister agree that a 10-year plan—I plucked that number out of the air, so if she wants to change it I am happy to discuss that with her—agreed by English Heritage, the parish council and the historical society would be a constructive way to take matters forward?

Let me also make an offer to the Minister. I am happy to host any visit that she might like to make to the site. She might wish to do so during the day, and sit on a bench opposite the Methodist chapel and eat a bag of fish and chips; or if she arrives a bit later, we could have a drink in one of the good local pubs. I am also prepared to report back to the Minister in the coming months about whether raising the issue in this debate has had an effect.

A part of my political philosophy is the principle that we work better when we work together. In that context, co-operation between the Barwick in Elmet community organisations, local authorities and national bodies is the best way to achieve our objectives in respect of this wonderful monument.

It is always good to end with a stirring quote from a famous historical figure. I strive to do that but usually fail miserably. On this occasion, I can do no better than use a contemporary quotation. I do not know whether the Minister read the wonderful article in The Guardian yesterday by Bill Bryson

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Watch this

Photo of Colin Burgon Colin Burgon Labour, Elmet

As I was saying, Bill Bryson wrote a powerful article about the British countryside and how humans have shaped it positively, and I can certainly identify with that. He said:

"All that posterity asks of us is that we look after what has been created for us already."

There is no better way to sum up the way forward for the hill fort at Barwick in Elmet. I await the Minister's comments with hopeful anticipation.

Watch this

Photo of Margaret Hodge Margaret Hodge Minister of State (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) (Culture, Creative Industries and Tourism) 10:00 pm, 10th July 2007

I congratulate my hon. Friend Colin Burgon on securing this debate and on the passion and commitment that he has shown in putting forward his case. I agree entirely that we work best when we work together, and with Bill Bryson's words. It is crucial that we retain the sense of place that was created by our forefathers through the many structures and buildings that they developed. Therefore, the protection of our proud past and heritage is crucial, not only for the present but for future generations. I endorse that completely.

I also wish to take this opportunity to congratulate Barwick historical society, which has done an enormous amount of work in the community to promote, protect and raise awareness of an important historical site. My hon. Friend is right to say that I do not know the site, but I would be delighted to visit it. I have visited other hill forts and I know how exciting and interesting they can be.

I have been given a lot of information about the site, and it has been developed as a result of strong community effort, which we should applaud. As my hon. Friend said, many local organisations were involved in looking after the monument, including the Maypole Trust; the primary school that my hon. Friend mentioned, especially Mr. Peter Doherty, its head teacher, who has taken a real interest in it and ensured that his pupils do; and Barwick in Elmet's parish council.

I appreciate my hon. Friend's concerns and those of the historical society about the monument. I need no persuading of its national importance, from my general knowledge and also from my understanding that the site consists of no fewer than two scheduled ancient monuments. My hon. Friend talked about the rarity of iron age hill forts. He may be interested to know that there are more than he thinks—814 in England, with only 23 in Yorkshire. His local fort is one of only a handful in west and north Yorkshire. The monument at Barwick in Elmet is a good, and reasonably well-preserved, large example. Although I have been in the job for only just over a week, I have already had the opportunity to visit an English Heritage site and had one meeting and one encounter with staff. They are doing an important and effective job on behalf of us all in looking after sites and buildings in which often no one else takes an interest. We should applaud that.

English Heritage tells me that very little of the surviving remains of the Barwick in Elmet monument have been disturbed, making it of even greater importance as a future resource for research. Equally important are the well-preserved remains of the Norman motte and bailey castle, dating from the invasion of William the Conqueror, as my hon. Friend said. In answer to a question from him on 4 June, the then Minister, my hon. Friend Mr. Lammy, replied that English Heritage had provided a substantial grant last year of nearly £22,000 to cover the cost of clearing the site of overgrown vegetation and dumped material, repairing steps and boundary fencing and, importantly, establishing an improved maintenance regime. I note my hon. Friend's request that English Heritage should be more proactively engaged locally in respect of the monument, and I will make sure that English Heritage sees a copy of the report of my hon. Friend's remarks tonight. As I develop my response, he will see that English Heritage takes the site particularly seriously.

There are some problems in relation to the site because it is owned by about 20 individuals and groups. English Heritage's first responsibility is to the owners. It considers that it has provided extensive assistance and advice to the historical society. Achieving the full participation of everybody in the local community—all the owners and occupiers—in positive conservation management, which is a shared aim of all those involved, is important. The scheme started promisingly, with strong support from most sections of the community, but as my hon. Friend knows there is still a long way to go to get everybody involved.

English Heritage applauds the work of the local historical society, the parish council and the local community in Barwick in Elmet. It, too, acknowledges that it is always possible to do more. As I am sure my hon. Friend will understand, however, it must also prioritise its staff resources across the country in ensuring that it gives proper care to all our scheduled monuments. English Heritage gave the grant to which I alluded to the parish council, which has much cross-membership with the historical society—there are people who belong to both community organisations. That grant was given to enable the local community to manage the monument without the need for English Heritage's direct involvement in day-to-day issues.

The Heritage Lottery Fund has now provided more than £29,000 in grants for the site over the past two years. That was for two local heritage initiative projects, one of which was completed in March 2006, and the other, which is for more than £24,000, is still ongoing. The purpose of the latter, rather large grant is to support investigation of part of the monument through excavation and to undertake some geophysical investigations. That project is fully endorsed by English Heritage.

My hon. Friend knows that site management is complex because the site has a large number of owners, especially when the adjacent properties are taken into account. The hill fort is surrounded on most sides by residential gardens, which abut the fortifications. Many of the people who own those properties are enthusiastic supporters of the management project, but some are less so. English Heritage became aware of various management and maintenance problems at the site through monitoring visits undertaken by the regional English Heritage field monument warden. To facilitate a solution to the management issues, the wardens have worked hard with the owners of properties on and adjacent to the site, as well as with the local parish council, to raise awareness and to increase interest in those important monuments.

My hon. Friend referred to the concerns about alleged encroachment on to the site by neighbours. English Heritage cannot stop wrongdoing, but it has a role to investigate any works undertaken without consent, and to consider remedial action. As he knows, it can prosecute if appropriate. One matter is a long-standing encroachment of a patio on to a small part of the scheduled area. Apparently, the house concerned has changed hands recently, as I am sure he is aware. I have been informed that the works have a limited effect on the monument.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about garden waste being dumped on the newly cleared monument. There was previously a major problem and the management project has considerably reduced it, but some members of the community have asked English Heritage to take action about dumping. English Heritage tells me that it has assessed both the encroachment and the waste dumping issues but believes that legal action would be inappropriate. It wants to encourage and develop the community's understanding of the importance of the site and believes that punitive measures might undermine that intent. However, if my hon. Friend or others hold a different view, I should be interested in hearing it. There is also the practical consideration that disproportionate costs would be involved, especially if the prosecution was unsuccessful. The costs and the time spent on it might be better devoted to building an improved local management scheme and consensus about the importance of the site.

My hon. Friend suggested that there should be a long-term management plan for the site—between 10 and 15 years. We put that suggestion to English Heritage, which agrees that although such a plan would be beneficial, it would be a challenge to develop in this case as it would require the involvement of all the owners and the historical society. In effect, such a process has already started through English Heritage's management agreement with the parish council, but English Heritage is happy to explore widening that approach for the whole monument. I hope that my hon. Friend welcomes that proposal.

English Heritage appreciates the importance of a tree management plan on the site—another issue raised by my hon. Friend. The current management agreement empowers the parish council to undertake any necessary works in the event of trees falling. As my hon. Friend knows, the loss of trees is always contentious and we need to balance archaeological conservation with amenity and nature conservation interests. It is always a difficult balance to achieve. I note my hon. Friend's comments about Leeds council. I am told that the council has provided advice and support for the community project team by offering the services of its tree officer to advise on the process of felling and lopping trees. If the volunteer trained by the council has left, there is room for further discussion to see whether another member of the local community can be trained.

My hon. Friend raised concerns that English Heritage did not inform everybody in the local community before a site visit. English Heritage is aware of only one visit that took place at short notice, without the knowledge and involvement of the historical society. Its normal practice is to agree site visits with owners and occupiers, and all interested parties, so there was obviously an error in that case. I believe that English Heritage has sought community involvement throughout the project, largely through the parish council. That has proved successful, but obviously further work is needed fully to engage the whole community and to achieve the participation of all owners and occupiers so that we really can get improved management of the site. English Heritage has recently visited the site to assess the situation on the ground and is contacting all those responsible. It does not feel that legal action is appropriate, but it will continue to assist the community and monitor the situation through visits and meetings.

Since the announcement of my hon. Friend's debate, English Heritage has contacted the parish council to set up a further meeting, which I hope my hon. Friend welcomes. Through that meeting it hopes that there will be a further phase of community engagement. As my hon. Friend rightly said, by celebrating the rich history of the site, the local community will come together, work together and appreciate and value that vivid expression of our nation's history, which he so clearly described, that lies literally in some of their back gardens. That is a real treat to me. A consensual approach is the answer to the future management of the monument. That would bring great benefits for the local community, showing how a shared sense of ownership of our common inheritance can bring a sense of pride in place and enrich everyone's life.

English Heritage was pleased to meet the historical society again to explore how its current involvement can be extended to help to achieve the aim of empowering my hon. Friend's local community to care for what I know is an important, historic site that lies literally in their back gardens. Again, I congratulate him on a very good debate.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fifteen minutes past Ten o'clock.

Watch this