Heritage Assets: London

– in the House of Commons at 4:57 pm on 23 March 2023.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Jo Churchill.)

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster 5:00, 23 March 2023

When I stood for election, I promised my constituents that I would be a strong local voice. This debate is at the heart of that promise. The Cities of London and Westminster sit in the heart of our nation’s capital. It may be considered one of a handful of global cities, but to those of us who call it home it is also a group of local villages, with local people who are incredibly proud of their neighbourhood’s history. Whether it is Covent Garden, the square mile, Marylebone, Pimlico, Hyde Park or the west end, heritage matters. Heritage matters for so many reasons, not least because of its significant pull factor for tourism. In London we see that on a magnified scale, with people coming from all over the world to visit our heritage buildings, palaces, iconic sites and parks, and enjoy our cultural offer. Places such as Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey will come into sharp focus later this year with the coronation of King Charles III and Queen Camilla. Right here, the Palace of Westminster, where we sit today, is a UNESCO world heritage site. I can therefore think of no better time for this debate, with this being English Tourism Week.

I recognise the incredible work that my hon. Friend the Minister’s Department is doing to bolster UK tourism, especially since the pandemic. In particular, I applaud the Department’s support for heritage and the arts including, of course, the £1.57 billion culture recovery fund, and measures within the tourism recovery plan. I do so in large part because London’s unique appeal lies in its ability for its heritage assets to tell the many stories of a 2,000-year-old city.

In London, our historic buildings are so common that it is easy for us to take them for granted without giving them a second thought, but without protection, those buildings may not be here in the future. That is made clear in Historic England’s annual at-risk register, which highlights the critical health of England’s most valued historic places. For those in the Cities of London and Westminster, such places have huge community importance, from the Buddhist temple in Margaret Street to the former Samaritan Hospital for Women in Marylebone, and the 18th-century church of St Mary Woolnoth in the City of London. Those are valued historic places, many of which, according to Historic England, are at risk of being lost.

In 2022, London had 421 listed buildings, 101 places of worship, 25 archaeological entries, 12 parks and gardens and 72 conservation areas that were at risk of neglect, decay or inappropriate change. Thankfully, many have been rescued thanks to heritage bodies and dedicated teams of volunteers, community groups, charities, owners and local government, all working together. For example, two historic buildings with heritage value were recently under threat in the two cities, but both were saved due to community action that I was delighted to fully support. I speak of Bevis Marks synagogue—the oldest synagogue in continuous use in the United Kingdom—and the historic Simpson’s Tavern in Leadenhall, which is 250 years old and a constant in an ever-changing part of the City of London. Both were under threat, but local people stood up and said no to unfettered development, and yes to heritage.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I commend the hon. Lady, who I spoke to beforehand, for securing this debate. She has said not a word that I do not fully support and see the need for. She is right to say that our heritage assets are historic and need to be retained and protected, and that can happen only through funding. She also referred to tourism. Our tourism goes across the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and we can all benefit. I encourage people to come to London for their holidays, and I am sure she encourages people to come to my constituency of Strangford for holidays. Whenever she comes, I suggest that she goes and visits Scrabo tower, an historic building that has been retained for two or three hundred years. It overlooks Strangford lough, and whenever I go home on the plane on a Thursday night—I usually head home then, but now it will be tomorrow morning—I see Scrabo tower and I know I am coming home, and it always does my heart good.

Photo of Nickie Aiken Nickie Aiken Conservative, Cities of London and Westminster

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. As he knows, I have visited Strangford several times and I plan to do so in the near future. It is a great and beloved place that is part of the United Kingdom.

We cannot rely solely on community action to protect our cultural assets. There are cases where local people and local government really make an effort to ensure we look after heritage assets—we saw that with the site of Smithfield market, which has been in place since the 14th century. It is now to be the home of the Museum of London, which is moving. The development plans pay a lot of attention to preserving the historic fabric of London for future generations, and I pay tribute to that. I appreciate that not everyone is happy to lose the meat market at Smithfield, but there are cases where development can be done well to create a new offer for the next generation.

There are also cases where people are still fighting to save their heritage. I share the concerns of Barbican residents about proposals to knock down and redevelop the former home of the Museum of London and Bastion House, and replace it with a major office development. I am delighted to work with the Barbican Association and Barbican Quarter Action to ensure local voices are heard by the City of London Corporation, and that these unique and important historic places are saved for community use, and, hopefully, housing. They are functional historic assets that serve their community and add to London’s cultural offer. That is so important, because communities want to see their local heritage thrive.

Yes, concentrating on digital and tech is important for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, but we cannot afford to lose focus on the conservation of the country’s cultural and historic heritage. Without that emphasis, heritage will be at risk. London is modernising, but tourism figures and local support underline the popularity of the historic landscape. People care passionately about their historic environment. They want to be involved in decisions about their heritage and how we manage change.

A good example of that recently was when constituents, as well as heritage experts and heritage bodies, wrote to me concerned that Westminster City Council was not, in their view, giving enough consideration to the historical significance of Victorian gas-powered lamps in its plans to replace them with LED replicas. There are now very few functioning gas lamps left in Westminster. Each, in its own right, is a work of art and a piece of our history, surviving the Blitz and London’s urban revolution, but not all of them will survive due to the council’s diktat to replace them with LED lamps.

Thankfully, the brilliant London Gasketeers, a fantastic group of locals, are rallying to save these historic lamps. I met the London Gasketeers on Maunsel Street in Westminster to show my solidarity with their cause, along with many locals. Many of those local people had never been part of a campaign before and they were delighted to support the London Gasketeers. The cause gained wide-ranging support: everyone from myself to the president of the GMB union—believe it or not—historians, actors, cabbies, heritage experts and, most importantly, a diverse mix of Westminster residents who care passionately about their local heritage. We have been successful. I pay tribute to the London Gasketeers and I am delighted to see many of them in the Public Gallery this afternoon.

Things like gas lamps might seem trivial to some, but like it or not, they are our material history. People care because Westminster’s heritage belongs to everyone. Such things matter to our overall social landscape, and are so important because London is a city where history and modernity remain intrinsically linked. The same can be said for urban development. Consider Soho, which has always been characterised by its narrow streets that lend it a friendly, human scale. That is part of Soho’s material history. However, the pavement licensing scheme, which might have been a great offer during covid as an emergency lifeline to many local restaurants and bars, could now have a detrimental effect on the historic streetscape if it becomes permanent without any protections in place. That is why I am calling on the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities to ensure that guidance accompanying the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill is clear about the conditions on which licences are granted. It is important that local councils have the flexibility to determine where it is appropriate to have a licence and where it is not.

Beyond the principal argument on access, we need to ensure that our streetscape is consistent with Soho’s conservation area status, respecting Soho’s unique history and character. We must preserve elements of material history and evolve sensitively in places that already have protection, such as Soho’s conservation area, or deserve protection, such as Westminster’s Victorian gas lamps or London’s historic buildings and places.

The preservation of our heritage and cultural assets draws millions of tourists to London every year. A VisitBritain survey found that the vast majority of tourists see Britain as a place where heritage meets vibrancy and modernity. The same can be said of our cultural institutions, as 15% of international tourists attend a play, musical, opera or ballet. I am incredibly proud of the vibrant arts and culture offer in my constituency, much of which can be found in the historic west end, dating back to the 1600s. In fact, according to the Office for National Statistics, 8% of the UK’s art and culture businesses are based in the Cities of London and Westminster—around 2,500 businesses.

There is no doubt that the past few years have been extremely difficult for the arts and culture. The commercial uncertainty of the current climate has not helped. Rising global inflation and consistent train and tube strikes have all had a knock-on effect, hampering the recovery of this £2.4 billion sector. We saw during the pandemic the fragility of the industry. We cannot be complacent; we must protect our cultural assets. After all, heritage and theatre bring in £890 million a year, with more than 16 million people attending London theatres last year.

We need to work with the theatre sector in London to develop a strong UK talent pipeline, through investment in the arts premium and development of the culture education plan. My hope is that will mean that we can make sustainable, evidence-based decisions to conserve our culture and heritage while enabling people to enjoy them. While I am on this point, although London is not part of the new levelling-up agenda per se, it forms the heartbeat of British artists and culture. We risk losing those institutions at our peril. We saw that with Arts Council England’s rash decision to cut funding to the English National Opera, based in the London Coliseum, not far from here. That decision would have seen the loss of a national icon that gave local people so much—not just world-class opera performances but local initiatives such as the ENO’s Breathe programme, which supports people suffering with long covid.

I urge the Minister to reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the arts and culture sector, and in particular the west end. We cannot forget the strength of the sector as an entrepreneurial and SME-led economic driver locally, nationally and globally. For those reasons, I am grateful to have the opportunity to speak on the importance of protecting heritage assets in London.

Since London’s founding in what is now the square mile in the City of London, this has been an ever-changing metropolis. Each generation has added its own personal touch, culminating in a hugely diverse and historic modern city. Now more than ever, it is our duty to ensure that we do not lose what makes London London. Therefore, we must be proactive in protecting our cultural assets, from the west end to the wider historic fabric of London, which is becoming increasingly under threat.

I urge the Minister to reaffirm her commitment to protecting our heritage assets for future generations, and ask that she work with London’s cultural sector to stimulate growth, encourage tourism and safeguard the industry. London’s historic assets are at risk of being lost to history; we cannot allow that happen.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 5:15, 23 March 2023

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend Nickie Aiken for securing a wonderful debate and for superbly highlighting London’s great and rich heritage, its wonderful villages and, of course, the importance of protecting historic assets for the benefit of present and future generations.

Like her, I absolutely adore London’s history. It is a pleasure to see her passion for her constituency again, after her contribution to last week’s debate on the lease of London zoo. I responded to that debate, and am responding to this one, on behalf of Lord Parkinson, who covers the arts and heritage portfolio for the Department. These are all fascinating diversions from my portfolio on data and digital infrastructure, and I am glad to say I have now taken on the tourism brief for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. With the creation of the new Department, tourism will play an increasingly important role within the work of DCMS.

As my hon. Friend said, our heritage is an essential part of our cultural landscape, our economy and our country. It is both globally renowned and world leading, playing a vital role in communities across the UK, making our places great to live in, work in and visit. She has a significant number of impressive heritage sites in her constituency, including the beautiful Westminster Abbey and the building in which we stand today. Her constituency contains more than 3,900 listed buildings, scheduled monuments and registered parks and gardens combined.

It is a fun coincidence, as my hon. Friend said, that the debate takes place during English Tourism Week. I hope she will agree that the UK’s tourism offer is truly world class. I had the pleasure of visiting the Goring Hotel, in her constituency; the staff were complimentary about her efforts to champion the hotel sector and they are doing fantastic work supporting young people into hospitality jobs. As she highlighted, the sector has been tremendously resilient after some difficult years. As it is English Tourism Week, I pay tribute to everybody in that sector who has done such incredibly demanding work throughout the last three years.

Our tourism landscape is iconic, from historic buildings and incredible scenery to culturally vibrant cities and world-leading hospitality, and that is not just here in Westminster. I loved the earlier plug for Strangford by Jim Shannon. I hope he will not mind if I encourage hon. Members to sample the delights of my own constituency of Hornchurch and Upminster, including the vibrant Queen’s theatre. I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said about levelling up, but I am pleased to say that the Queen’s theatre was a beneficiary of levelling up within London, with a great grant from the Arts Council of England. We also have a wonderful green space in Dagnam Park, the Manor, as well as Thames Chase forest and heritage assets such as Upminster Tithe Barn and its windmill.

It is undeniable that heritage sites are vital to our tourism industry and a tangible way to showcase our rich history. Of course, we want these sites to be around in the future for our children and grandchildren to learn from and be inspired by.

Photo of Andrew Slaughter Andrew Slaughter Shadow Solicitor General

It seems the theatre in the Minister’s constituency was drawn out of the Arts Council lottery and won a prize. I am pleased to say that the theatres in my constituency also did not have their grants cut, but the loss of the London Coliseum and the English National Opera is a grave blow to London, and indeed to the whole country. Will the Government use their best endeavours to ensure that very misguided decision by the Arts Council is reconsidered?

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I understand that hon. Members have made their feelings clearly known about ACE’s decision on the ENO. I know that a number of meetings have taken place, and I believe that some transitional funding is there, but I believe that this will continue to be a subject of ongoing discussion between the two organisations. I know that Lord Parkinson has been engaging with the issue.

We want to make sure we are protecting our historic buildings, statues and memorials. Local planning authorities are required to

“have regard to the desirability of preserving features of special architectural or historic interest” in any building. Buildings, statues and memorials of more modest interest can also be locally listed by local planning authorities. We want to make sure that developers and local authorities take into account the integrity and preservation of heritage sites and the local area. When considering applications for planning permission, local authorities are required to take into account national policy. That includes a clear framework on proposals that are liable to result in substantial harm to, or loss of, a grade I or grade II listed building.

In some cases, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who retains the power to take over planning applications rather than letting the local authority take over, can take the final decision. That is done only in exceptional circumstances, but my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will have seen a number of such cases in her constituency over the years.

I enjoyed my hon. Friend’s reference to the Gasketeers campaign. As she set out, there is often a tension between development and heritage. That is brought into sharp relief by examples in her constituency, including the planned redevelopment of the City of London and of Liverpool Street station. As she articulately set out, there are also proposals to replace gas-powered lamps in Westminster with modern LED lighting. Just before this debate, I was at a tourism reception in this House at which a lady thrust into my hand a little card telling me that Beverley in the East Riding also has some of the oldest gas streetlamps still in situ. I give a shout-out to them—it seems that Westminster has a level of competition when it comes to heritage.

There are tensions between conserving the significance of historic buildings and modernising them to be fit for purpose for future generations. It is therefore vital that Historic England, which is our expert heritage adviser, and planning authorities work constructively with development teams to facilitate creative solutions to resolve some of those tensions.

I would like to name-check Tim Bryars, a key member of the Gasketeers campaign. I first came across Tim, who is a map and book seller in Cecil Court, during a campaign to save that gloriously unique street in Westminster; he then went on to sell me a beautiful silk pocket map of London in the 1800s, which I very much treasure. I commend him for his enthusiasm and for all the work of the Gasketeers’ campaign. [Interruption.] Ah—hello, Tim.

I understand that, after concerted campaigning, pressure and support from my hon. Friend, the council has seen the light, or the gaslight, and has paused what it was doing. Heritage England has now offered to identify a way forward and is encouraging listing applications, which it will be prioritising. I understand that a site visit is being undertaken. It will also be engaging on the redevelopment plans for Liverpool Street station in my hon. Friend’s constituency; it will look especially at the station, but also at the Great Eastern Hotel. Having sat on the planning committee for the neighbouring borough of Tower Hamlets, I fully understand some of the tensions.

We have managed to save some parts of London’s historic fabric from rather ugly and unpleasant development over the years. I am thinking of the campaigns on the Fruit and Wool Exchange. My hon. Friend also cited campaigns relating to Smithfield; I think back with some concern to some of the original proposals for Smithfield, which were not sympathetic. I genuinely believe that preserving that historic fabric can really enhance, and no doubt increase the value of, some developments. If a sensitive approach is taken, the protection of heritage and a developer’s ability to make a profit should not need to be an either/or.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, it is a criminal offence to demolish a listed building or to carry out works of alteration or extension that affect its character without the permission of the local council. A recent example in which a local authority played a critical role was the reopening of the Tavern Inn, a London grade II listed pub, six years after its illegal demolition: the owners were ordered to rebuild it brick for brick following a planning enforcement ruling. It is hoped that such cases will prevent developers from demolishing other sites without the relevant permissions.

My hon. Friend will also be aware of Historic England’s Heritage at Risk programme, which gives our Department a strategic, overarching view of the overall state of England’s historic sites. It identifies the sites that are most at risk of being lost as a result of neglect, decay or inappropriate development. Historic England updates the Heritage at Risk register every year, and the end result is a dynamic picture of the sites most at risk and most in need of safeguarding for the future. As my hon. Friend said, there are 16 at-risk sites in her constituency, and Historic England is actively engaged with owners and local authorities to find solutions and ensure that repairs are made. I know that she will be watching those 16 sites like a hawk.

The protection of London’s great heritage also extends to supporting the capital’s vibrant theatre scene and cultural offerings. Recent Government funding has ensured that access to arts and culture is not limited to the bright lights of the west end, but can be experienced by everyone. Investment in theatres across the country has increased through the latest Arts Council England investment programme, in terms of both the number of organisations supported and the volume of funding, which is now more than £110 million each year for nearly 200 organisations. There were also some positive announcements in the Budget about the extension of tax reliefs. That is on top of the unprecedented £1.5 billion culture recovery fund, through which more than £270 million was given to support nearly 700 theatre organisations across England during the pandemic.

It goes without saying that the protection of heritage and cultural assets for the benefit of future generations requires people to work in those places, and for children to learn about and understand their heritage. We recognise the importance of cultural education for the future of our world-leading arts and culture sectors in the UK, and we think that all children should be entitled to take advantage of those enriching cultural opportunities. We consider them to be an essential part of a broad and balanced education, supporting children’s health, wellbeing and wider development. This is something about which I am particularly passionate, and I am working closely with Lord Parkinson in my Department and with the Department for Education to publish a cultural education plan later this year. The aim of the plan is to highlight the importance of high-quality cultural education in schools around the country, promoting its social value. As Minister for the creative industries, I also see it as critical to building our pipeline of talent into those industries, which suffer from skill shortages—as does the tourism industry.

We are committed to ensuring that our historic environment is properly protected, promoted and conserved for the benefit of present and future generations, but also because it is that heritage that draws visitors from every corner of the world. Whether through the statutory functions that protect our most special historic buildings and ancient monuments or through the public bodies that it funds, such as Historic England, my Department seeks to protect and promote understanding of and access to our glorious historic environment.

Let me once again thank my hon. Friend for bringing the House’s attention to this issue and for, as ever, being a truly passionate advocate for London’s heritage.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.