Historic Homes

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 1:12 pm on 25 January 2011.

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Photo of John Penrose John Penrose Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Culture, Media and Sport) 1:12, 25 January 2011

It is pleasure, as always, to see you in the Chair, Mr Williams, for this important and timely debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend Tony Baldry on raising the issue. He clearly has a strong personal interest and, as he has made clear, a strong constituency interest in the issues that he has raised, which I will try to address point by point.

I am the Minister with responsibility for tourism and heritage, and I think that the Government accept that there is a very close and entirely appropriate link between those two elements of British life. I accept and agree with my hon. Friend's central principle that heritage is a tremendously important part of British national life not only from a tourism perspective, but because, as he has rightly pointed out, heritage assets-be they houses, museums, prehistoric monuments or any of the things that we are lucky enough to have in this country-create a sense of place and convey the individual history and sense of character of a particular village or town. They are an essential part of what makes us us. We would be the poorer if we tried to pretend that that was not so, and it would be foolish to ignore what is one of our most central and important national assets.

My hon. Friend has rightly pointed out that heritage is one of the most frequently cited reasons for tourists to visit Britain in the first place, and it would be perverse of us to ignore or downplay that. He is, therefore, absolutely right to put the issue front and centre, and I could not agree more with the central principle that he is enunciating.

My hon. Friend is also right to applaud the work of the Historic Houses Association, which represents about 1,500 owners of historic houses up and down the country. Those owners are incredibly careful and committed stewards of the properties for which they are responsible, looking after them for themselves and for future generations of not only their own family but the communities in which their houses are located and the wider public in general, because, as he has rightly pointed out, many of those houses are open to the public, either permanently or periodically, giving us all a chance to enjoy one of the things that makes Britain unique among countries.

The HHA does some tremendously good work and its members are tremendously important, particularly because-as my hon. Friend has pointed out-it is easy to assume that heritage is just something that the state or government do. I am pleased to say that nothing could be further from the truth. We are lucky in this country to have a variety of different types of ownership and stewardship of our national heritage in its various forms. First, there is public ownership of some essential assets. English Heritage's properties, which my hon. Friend has mentioned, are a good example of such assets. Secondly, there is ownership by charitable or third sector-the voluntary and community sector-organisations. The National Trust is the biggest, most prominent and certainly the most famous of those organisations, but there are dozens-indeed, probably hundreds-of other charitable trusts and other such organisations that run other parts of our national heritage, and they all do extremely good work. Thirdly and finally, as we have already mentioned, there is of course private ownership. It is instructive-is it not?-to note that all three of these types of stewardship or ownership have extremely strong advocates and that all three perform tremendously good work in looking after our nation's heritage.

So there is not a preconception that only one system of ownership will work. In the UK, we are lucky to have a mixed economy-if I can call it that-in this sector and long may that continue. It is an essential part of ensuring that we do not have all our eggs in one basket and that our heritage is properly looked after in a number of different ways.

My hon. Friend made a series of points, and I will try to address them one a time. He began by explaining the background to heritage maintenance funds and some of what I think is their noble purpose. He said that a central theme underlies them, which he believes is, "Sensible is good sense," and I agree with him on that. However, he also pointed out that there is a fair degree of frustration, not only in the membership of the HHA but more broadly in the heritage world, about the limitations of HMFs and the fact that they are not necessarily working as many people would like them to.

I must say that, as the Minister with responsibility for tourism and heritage, nothing would give me greater pleasure than being able to turn around and promise my hon. Friend that all those issues concerning tax and the other details of HMFs can be dealt with by the wave of a magic wand or the stroke of a pen. Sadly, however, given the state of the national finances in particular, I cannot make that promise here today, although I suspect that my hon. Friend did not really expect me to do so. Nevertheless, it is important to note the concerns that he has rightly identified and outlined for us in the Chamber today.

It is also important to note some of the constraints on HMFs. It is worth while pointing out, as my hon. Friend did, that there are only 135 extant HMFs and that not all of them are active. Even if we were able to wave the magic wand that I have mentioned and remove some-or perhaps even all-of the constraints that he has pointed out, most estimates are that only another 40 or so HMFs would be established in the next five years. Given that the members of the HHA are responsible for 1,500 houses, we are talking about a comparatively small proportion of houses that would be affected, although some of them are tremendously important national assets-indeed, some are among our most famous and well recognised national assets. Nevertheless, the HMF scheme is quite a narrow one, as it currently stands. Therefore, there are many other assets-many other heritage properties-that are managing well without using that particular mechanism.

It is also true to say that the Treasury is rightly cautious about some of the proposals from the HHA. That is not because it dislikes the notion of heritage or trying to support it, but simply because it is concerned about the wider budget questions that this entire Parliament will be remembered for trying to grapple with and about the major issues that we face on the national deficit. It also needs to be clear that it cannot necessarily create a special deal for heritage charities, funds or trusts, because that might create the thin end of a rather larger wedge for other classes of asset.

The Treasury is interested, it is listening and it is concerned to address the issues that the Historic Houses Association has raised. I have spoken with the association, which has come to see me at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. I understand that there are also ongoing discussions between the association and my opposite numbers at the Treasury. I want to make it clear that my Department and the Treasury are also discussing these issues. A great deal of conversation is therefore going on, but it is subject to some fairly severe financial constraints, as I am sure that my hon. Friend will understand. Although, we both, I suspect, wish that those constraints did not exist, they are real, and it would be remiss and wrong of us to pretend otherwise.

Some of the proposals that the association suggests would be at least fiscally neutral are probably slightly easier for the Treasury to view more favourably than others, but I need to leave that to the Treasury, as I am sure my hon. Friend will understand. I am afraid that I cannot commit the Treasury in this debate, and there would be fairly serious repercussions if I tried. None the less, discussions are ongoing, and I hope that the association understands that it is being carefully listened to and that its audience is, wherever possible, being receptive to its concerns.

My hon. Friend has mentioned two issues concerning the broader deregulation agenda. One is licensing, particularly of live music and entertainment events. He gave some good examples of the great breadth of entertainment that is frequently provided by owners of historic houses up and down the country. The creativity and range of those events is continuously growing, and we can all cite examples of the events being held at historic properties in almost every constituency around the country, which is all to the good. The fact that such events take place is superb, because it provides a sustainable reason for many of these properties to continue to exist. It will make sure that they are living and thriving and that they are not just museums or mausoleums, but have a current purpose, which is excellent.

The second issue that my hon. Friend has mentioned is heritage signs-brown signs, as they are frequently called-on our motorways and other roads. In both cases-licensing and heritage signs-policy ideas are being discussed in my Department. I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend a categorical promise at this stage, because the discussions are ongoing, and there would have to be sign-off all around Whitehall in the usual Cabinet government collective responsibility fashion, as I am sure that he understands as a former Minister himself. However, I promise that both ideas are under active discussion.

In the case of the licensing regime, a great many people have concerns. Musicians' unions, for example, are calling for deregulation. My hon. Friend will understand that if one chose to go down that route, it would be important to make sure that there were no unintended consequences. There are real risks associated with live entertainment of one kind or another, simply because it can involve a large number of people in a comparatively small space. There are therefore concerns about health and safety, the disturbance caused by people arriving at and leaving a venue, public order and so on. All those issues have to be dealt with, so the devil in deregulating, or reducing the amount of regulation involved in, the licensing of entertaining is very much in the detail.

I am, however, happy to reassure my hon. Friend that we are in the middle of discussions. I hope to have something to announce in due course, but that will rather depend on collective responsibility. My hon. Friend will understand that other Whitehall Departments are concerned to ensure that the right things are done on, for example, health and safety legislation or public order. The Department for Work and Pensions would be involved on health and safety, while the Home Office would be involved on public order. They have to sign off and approve these things, which have to be carefully and properly considered so that everybody is sure that we are not creating an unintended consequence.

My hon. Friend also mentioned his concerns about the red tape surrounding fire and health and safety regulations. He is absolutely right that due to dramatic changes in building styles over many centuries, historic buildings often create and deliver a unique set of complexities and difficulties for fire and health and safety inspectors. Because they are, by definition, unusual and rare, they present issues that are not necessarily common or frequently encountered in modern buildings. Therefore, a degree of sensitivity is required on the part of health and safety and fire inspectors. A fire regulation solution that might be normal, natural and fairly straightforward in a modern building might be deeply antithetical to a historic building and fundamentally undermine its essential historic character. An approved and appropriate set of solutions to many problems commonly encountered in historic buildings is increasingly widely available.

Of course, it is not sufficient to say, "Well, there's one answer that suits historic buildings and one that suits modern buildings." The sad and difficult point is that an answer to the problem of fire doors and so on in a 19th-century building could be completely inappropriate for an 18th or 17th-century building, and a timber-framed building would need a different set of solutions again. It requires an in-depth understanding of heritage issues and of the available solutions, but a widely understood range of solutions is increasingly being developed. However, I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right that it would not hurt for those solutions to be more widely known, simply because it is easy otherwise for an individual inspector to fall out with the owner or heritage guardian of a historic house, which is unhelpful for all concerned.

Increasingly, there is a trend toward a risk-based approach to fire and health and safety inspections. Five, 10 or 15 years ago, some parts of the country had a rotational system where everybody was inspected every year, two years, three years or whatever, whether the property in question was well or badly run. Nowadays, I am pleased to say that there is a move in many parts of the country-I am told that it is spreading steadily-towards a risk-based approach. For a property that is known to be well-run and can be checked as such, perhaps a longer time can pass, whereas a property that causes grave concerns should perhaps be inspected more frequently and regularly. Such a flexible approach, particularly toward many of our excellently run heritage properties, is entirely sensible and appropriate.

I hope that I have reassured my hon. Friend and given him answers to some of the issues that he has raised. I repeat that he is absolutely correct that heritage is crucial to this country. It is one of the things that makes us what we are and distinguishes us from any other part of the world. I know that he and I are both committed to ensuring that our heritage assets are kept in good hands for future as well as current generations. I am sure that he will hold me to account for how we do so as ably as he has done in the past half-hour.