It is a pleasure to hold this debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone.
Local communities throughout the country face the challenge of joining up the powers that we give to them to act in their local areas with their ambitions for those areas. Many people are concerned about that situation, and many levels of frustration are experienced by a lot of people—in particular, by those charged with protecting our heritage, as they cannot do as much as they would like to support communities. Today, I hope to interest the Minister in some possible courses of action that would help to support the passion of such communities throughout the country.
This debate is not about planning policy per se, but about heritage and how we could revise the way in which heritage is defined and enacted to better ensure that our nation is not simply preserving its heritage but can enjoy and experience it. We have a large amount of time, for which I am grateful, to talk about what we mean by heritage, what that means for policy at present, the difficulties facing some of those who seek to use current powers and what can be done to address those difficulties.
It will not surprise any hon. Member in the Chamber, especially Tristram Hunt, that someone from Walthamstow is concerned about heritage. My part of the country has a long tradition, especially with the influence of William Morris, who founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings. Founder members back in the 1800s were deeply concerned that well-meaning architects were scraping away the historic fabric of too many buildings in their zealous restoration. Morris was worried about the danger of restoration. The Victorians plastered over beautiful interiors of mediaeval architecture, and he wanted policies to repair, rather than to reproduce, that fabric. He might have approved of the flowery way that modern policy has defined the concept of heritage, because it speaks to the feeling that it is more than physical infrastructure.
The Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s policy paper on the listing process says:
“In its broadest sense, the historic environment embraces all those aspects of the country that reflect the shaping hand of human history.
Today, I am concerned about the concept of heritage in that broader sense. We want a vision of heritage and history that is not just about the preservation and physical existence of buildings alone, but one that provides a progressive concept of heritage, involving the experience and enjoyment of all assets by all people. There is a lot of support for that vision of heritage among the British public.
Interestingly, in an era when the public will not join us in political parties, millions of them join organisations that campaign on and protect our heritage. The National Trust has a membership of nearly 3.8 million, and English Heritage has nearly 700,000 members. Many organisations that work with communities to try to protect heritage are reporting a stronger than ever passion for involvement in the preservation of buildings and restoring them to public use. The Heritage Lottery Fund has reported that, and it is not hard to see why. Countless surveys on the role of heritage in our cultural identity and sense of place reveal how important people believe those assets are. They help us to create a distinct sense of place and to know where we come from, and perhaps also where we are going.
People’s vision of heritage is not narrow. It is not just about buildings that are centuries old—75% of us believe that the best of our post-war buildings should be preserved, and that rises to nearly 95% of people aged 16 to 24. The concept of what is important, what markers help us to define the areas that we live in and why they matter to us is not confined to a small number of buildings, but includes a sense of place. When one talks to people about heritage, they say that local buildings are equally important as the grand sites that we might traditionally associate with heritage debates. A survey in 2000 found that, for most people, the concept of the historic environment was the places where they live, not heritage sites such as castles, churches and stately homes, and that reflects current heritage policy. Two thirds of all heritage assets are privately owned, which reflects the fact that they are often small houses and local sites, instead of just big public buildings.
We define buildings as our heritage, but turning our ambitions for what happens to them has always been a challenge. We make a comparison between campaigning in poetry and governing in prose, and there is a comparison between the poetry of our history—how we talk and think about our environment, and the passions and emotions that that evokes—and the practicality of how we act to preserve those buildings and assets.
At present, there are two ways of preserving our heritage through legislation—the element of prose rather than poetry. The primary way is through the planning process—30% of planning applications have heritage implications—particularly the role of development frameworks. I shall return to that, but they were most recently set out in planning policy statement 5 on planning for the historic environment. That very good document has been helpful to many of us who campaign on heritage in our local communities because of its breadth and specificity about what heritage is. It states that a heritage asset is a
“building, monument, site, place, area or landscape positively identified as having a degree of significance meriting consideration in planning decisions” and includes
“valued components of the historic environment”.
The concept of value and significance gives strong powers to local authorities when determining planning applications about the value of an asset to a community in that broader sense of heritage as not simply preservation, but enjoyment and experience.
The second power is the listing process, and I want to talk about that today because it falls into the Minister’s purview. In this country, we differentiate types of buildings and their status and stature through that process. The guidance states:
“Many buildings are interesting architecturally or historically, but, in order to be listed, a building must have ‘special’ interest”.
I call that the Marks and Spencer approach to buildings, which needs a voice-over saying that they are not just any old building; they have a special role in a community.
With my constituency hat on, I point out that the listing process was introduced in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 under the auspices of one of my predecessors. Clement Attlee, the former MP for Walthamstow, found time to introduce some important measures that we still support today. Walthamstow has a strong claim to being an area that promotes heritage in many different ways. The listing process has a range of grades covering 374,000 buildings in the country, whether grade I, grade II* or grade II.
The variation in what is listed reflects the sense that heritage is about more than simply the physical fabric of a building and includes its interest and contribution to our cultural identity and history. A wide variety of buildings are therefore listed, including the Birmingham New Street signal box, the Park Hill flats in Sheffield, and even some toilets in north London and the Elephant and Castle in south London. A wide variety of buildings and places are seen as significant, and we value them accordingly. What matters is not just the craftsmanship in the nave of a church or the detail on an architrave, but the way in which places have been a focus for activity for citizens for decades, if not centuries.
It is important that listing does not mean, as Morris might have wished, that a building is set in stone—pardon the pun; it is not a preservation order preventing change, but an identification stage when buildings are marked and celebrated as having exceptional architecture or historic special interest before planning decides their future. I strongly agree with that principle, and I want to make it clear that I am not talking about preventing progress and change in such buildings, particularly when that might lead to a greater ability to achieve our vision of heritage—the experience and enjoyment of a building. That raises an interesting question about which other areas of public policy have such wide potential to cover such a range of buildings, institutions and ideals, as revealed in the mystery of the listing process.
The criteria that can be used to make a claim include not just the architectural interest of a building, but its historical interest. A classic example is the Walthamstow dog track in my constituency—a listed building that has
“special historic interest as the best surviving and most celebrated inter-war greyhound stadium” and is a
“nationally loved building type expressive of developments in inter-war mass culture and entertainment.”
That building, and its place in Walthamstow’s history, tells us everything about Walthamstow’s position in east London. As the local MP, “What’s happening to the dog track?” is often the first question that I am asked when I state which constituency I represent. People often regale me with stories about nights out at the dog track, or the things that they have heard about it such as when Brad Pitt visited, or the time that Winston Churchill was heckled. The best stories that I have heard come from a gentleman named Norman Roach, who still lives in Walthamstow and is now 88. Norman went to the dog track as a young boy and attended the opening ceremony when Amy Johnson was there. He carried on working at the track and met Lana Turner and George Raft.
For me, the dog track is not about heritage as nostalgia. The passion that I share with Norman comes from the idea that such buildings can be anchors around which our future is shaped, not just in Walthamstow but across the country. At present, Walthamstow dog track lies derelict. It is currently owned by London and Quadrant housing association, which bought it in a private sale in 2008, before the local community had time to offer an alternative plan when the site was put up for sale. London and Quadrant wants to turn the dog track into flats, and it has resisted proposals that have widespread community backing to sell back the track so that it can be restored. The proposal currently on the table, supported by a business man called Bob Morton, would bring 500 jobs to the local area at the London living wage. It would be run as a co-operative and the League Against Cruel Sports is working with campaigners on the animal welfare principles that would underpin the running of the track. That is the best experience that a heritage building could provide, and it would celebrate not only the culture of Walthamstow in the past, but that of Walthamstow in the future. It is an area that desperately needs regeneration, investment and local jobs.
Although London and Quadrant clings to the land and claims that it could develop the site in the face of local opposition, local people feel frustrated that they cannot make progress on the alternative proposal and the good that would come from that. I secured this debate because I wanted to look at ways in which we, as national representatives, can make progress on such issues, not only so that they involve people like Norman who remember the good times, but so that local communities can benefit from such heritage sites in the future.
There are countless examples of heritage assets that have been a focus not only for the local community but for the regeneration of a wider area. Stockport Plaza Trust has regenerated a listed cinema and been a motor for regeneration in the Stockport area. The Phoenix cinema in Finchley is another example of such an initiative. On a grander scale, many of us will have seen the developments at King’s Cross and the role played by English Heritage, which worked with the local council and local developers to use heritage assets to drive the regeneration of the local area.
The idea that heritage is not simply about preservation but about the experience and the enjoyment of assets can benefit local communities. Such benefits are not simply about tourism, important though that is. The heritage and tourism industry generates about £7.4 billion in the country—not an inconsiderable sum—and 80% of people who come to the country want to see British heritage. Heritage is also, however, about helping communities to change their localities for the better, perhaps through sustainable development. William Morris would find much in modern policy to commend; he understood the environmental implications of a heritage policy and that it is better to repair than to rebuild.
There is a social impact in using heritage sites as community anchors, and 90% of people who live in areas with historic environmental regeneration plans say that such projects have fundamentally improved the quality of their lives, whether by creating jobs, or bringing pride back to the local area. Public support for assets being used in that way reflects a sense that heritage is about the experience as much as the physical appearance of the building.
Nevertheless, despite the best efforts of planners and conservationists, such examples are often the exception rather than the rule. I know that English Heritage and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are keen to do more in the area, which is what I would like to test today. Too often, heritage is defined in a certain way and change is secured only through the planning process and formal applications. Although planning policy statement 5 has many well thought-out powers and directions, the powers for intervention and what happens next need further work.
Currently, our only mechanism for intervention is for buildings that are on the at-risk register because they are in a poor condition or are not being made best use of. We highlight those deteriorating sites through the at-risk register, but as the law stands, and as the guidelines are interpreted, there is no sense of escalation and the register is not used as a stepping stone towards more intervention. There are just under 1,000 grade I and grade II* listed buildings on the at-risk register, half of which have been on it since 1999. They represent about 3% of all grade I and grade II* listed buildings, but about 45% of them could benefit their local communities. About 80 buildings a year are added to the list, and a slightly lower number are removed. There is, therefore, stagnation regarding the at-risk register and what it means.
Over the past 10 years, the powers available for the protection of heritage sites have been used on only two buildings on the at-risk register; the Minister will be aware of my parliamentary questions on that matter. An urgent works notice can be issued for emergency works to be carried out on a listed site, but it amounts to little more than forcing owners to put tarpaulin over leaking roofs. An urgent repairs notice is often the first step towards a compulsory purchase order.
Over the past 10 years, six urgent works notices have been issued, five of them for one building—Apethorpe Hall in Northamptonshire—and one for Harmondsworth barn in Hillingdon. Over the same period, only one urgent repairs notice has been issued, again on Apethorpe Hall. Crucially, both buildings remain on the at-risk register. Local authorities often try to prevent a building getting to the stage at which an urgent repairs notice or an urgent works notice is required. Nevertheless, the fact that those powers are enacted so rarely calls into question whether they are working properly and are appropriate.
A second example from my constituency and a cause that is close to me concerns a building on the at-risk register—the EMD cinema in Walthamstow. It is listed as the ABC cinema, but known locally as the EMD. It is a grade II* listed building and
“the oldest surviving of the cinemas designed by Komisarjevsky” in London. It is
“one of the very few cinemas (in fact buildings of any type) designed in the Moorish style in Britain.”
It has a unique console; it contains the only organ outside Leicester square that is in situ in a cinema and can be played. The cinema has played a tremendous role in the history of Walthamstow. The Rolling Stones played there; again, we can lay claim to heritage because Keith Richard’s granny was the mayor of Waltham Forest, and I am proud to say that I followed in her footsteps. We in Walthamstow lay claim to many forms of heritage, including rock music. The Who played at the EMD when it was a centre for cultural activity in the local community.
The EMD was sold in 2003 to the United Church of the Kingdom of God, and has been on the at-risk register since 2004. Since then, the UCKG has sought planning permission to convert the building—the only cinema operating in Waltham Forest, the home of Alfred Hitchcock—into a church. Permission has been refused twice, including once by the Secretary of State.
In February this year, squatters gained access to the building for the second time since it closed. As the local MP, I spent a long, cold Saturday night trying to negotiate with them, asking them to leave the building and ensure that it was not damaged by any of their activities. During that process, I gained access to the building, and to my horror I saw the condition it was in. The cinema had been flooded because the pump that manages the underwater stream was not working properly. The central heating system was broken and water was dripping down the walls and coming through the roof.
Time and again, the UCKG has done the bare minimum to protect the building while the question of its future remains unresolved. Following the second planning application, which was refused a few weeks ago, the UCKG told the local community that the building belonged to the Church, and that it would continue to hold on to it until it gets its way.
The Waltham Forest cinema trust is a community-led project that seeks to bring the building back to its former glory. It hopes to ensure that we are able to capitalise on Walthamstow’s heritage in the British film industry, to bring the cinema back to Alfred Hitchcock’s borough, and provide a resource for the local community that will generate jobs, tourism and commerce for an area of east London that desperately needs that support.
The example of the EMD cinema flags up the problems with the listing and at-risk processes, because the rave there was not the first time that there had been concerns about the condition of the building and English Heritage had been asked to visit. Each time, the Church puts up tarpaulin, and that is enough; that is what it is currently asked to do. Many of us in the local community, including Norman Roach, who was also a regular visitor to the cinema and has spoken to me at length of his concerns about it, ask how much more damage must happen to the building before something can be done.
Determining what can be done is often a very difficult process for local authorities and English Heritage. Clearly, the financial risks associated with an urgent repairs notice and possibly a compulsory purchase order make councils wary of pursuing that course. In relation to the use of powers at national level, we are also seeing hesitancy about whether powers can be justified, and in which conditions.
That shows the disconnect between some of the ambitions set out in planning policy statement 5 and broader heritage policy that we need to address. Planning policy calls on councils to consider viable alternatives when deciding whether to reject a planning application at a heritage site. If an alternative is on offer that conforms more closely to the use for which a site was originally designed, that can be taken into consideration in rejecting an application. That is a very welcome step, because it reflects the belief that heritage is about the enjoyment and experience of a site as well.
However, what we are seeing with the two examples that I have given, and, indeed, across the country, is that even if an application for planning permission is rejected because the heritage importance of an asset is upheld, owners can hold on to a site in any case, which leads to stalemate and, ultimately, the deterioration of heritage assets. The assize court in Devizes has been on the at-risk register since the late 1990s, but its Dubai-based owners refuse to budge. As with the EMD cinema and perhaps the Walthamstow dog track, the property continues to deteriorate. I note that planning policy statement 5 talks about that problem. It recognises that the active deterioration of a site in order to challenge, perhaps, the listed status of a building should not be part of the consideration of planning permission. How we deal with that in heritage policy is a key concern and an open question.
I suspect that at this point the Minister might point me in the direction of the Localism Bill. However, I am slightly concerned that, if anything, some of the current proposals on planning guidance may inadvertently take away the existing protections set out in PPS5. I recognise that some of the earlier unintended consequences of the Localism Bill in this area have been resolved, but there is strong concern among heritage professionals about national planning guidance proposals and the consolidation of guidance. I recognise that that is not necessarily within the purview of the Minister, but I hope that he will take the opportunity of this debate to reassure us about it and the need to retain the clarity of guidance in PPS5 in the streamlining process. That would be welcomed by the National Trust, English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The Minister has written to me suggesting that the community right-to-buy provisions in the Localism Bill will allow local residents to act, but in situations such as those that I have outlined, the deadlock whereby developers sit on a building means that we cannot use the community right-to-buy provisions, because they exist only at the point of sale or the potential point of sale.
As the Minister has raised the Localism Bill with me in relation to this issue before, I would welcome his thoughts on whether the community right to challenge might be applicable in some of these circumstances. I am thinking not least of the conduct of a registered social landlord and whether, perhaps as in the case of the Walthamstow dog track, the community would have the right to challenge its actions as a publicly funded institution, given its behaviour towards our local heritage assets.
Above all, these instances suggest that we may be more dependent on case law and precedent than policy in order to make real our ambitions on heritage. I recognise that there has been a discussion about reinstating the measures that had cross-party support in the draft Heritage Protection Bill. I certainly agree that streamlining the process of listing will make it easier to start the process of protection and I await the Government’s next steps following the Penfold review. However, the challenge is to ensure that that does not just mean more buildings sitting on a list with no follow-up. It would be useful if the Minister outlined whether such proposals are being brought forward or, if they are not, what else we could do.
My concern is that if we do not act and nothing changes, there will be three consequences, not least of which will be the loss of such gems as the Walthamstow dog track; I think we all agree that that would be a travesty. It will also give a green light to developers who think long term and buy heritage assets with a view to waiting for them to decay so that they can be either demolished entirely or renovated in a way that destroys their original condition but ups the profit margin.
I certainly note with interest the suggestion that London and Quadrant might be looking to knock down the southern entrance to the Walthamstow dog stadium. That is listed, but frankly, it is unclear to me what difference it would make if it was star listed or on the at-risk register if the local community faced such a threat. That is only a suggestion at the moment; it has not been confirmed, as far as we know.
More important, the potential of heritage assets to do more than be mothballed will be missed. The contribution that a restored dog track or EMD cinema could make to my community will be lost. The ambition that many in the heritage world have for those assets to form part of the future of a locality as well as its past will never be realised.
With that in mind, I have three suggestions for the Minister about how policy could move forward. First, I think that the current powers around preservation need greater clarity. Planning offers a parallel process that is about use, not preservation. The heritage policy context would benefit from that. The Government should set out clear guidelines for existing policies. They should include a definition of heritage that can be tested in planning guidance, regeneration policy and the heritage world. They should encompass the concept of enjoyment and experience, as well as preservation. That might mean that fewer buildings pass the test, but it could be the foundation for being tougher about dealing with those that are on the list—that are covered by those guidelines. It could provide the ability to join up the aspirations that many people have about heritage buildings playing a role in regeneration, because grants and other forms of support could be offered that were more closely linked to such proposals, especially for tackling the relationship between deprivation and the restoration of the buildings. That is not just about planning, but about the role of development and the role that many businesses want to play in using those assets positively.
Secondly, we need to tackle what “at risk” means. If we need more clarity about what listing does for a building, we certainly need more explicit criteria for intervention when a building is at risk. I wrote to the Minister about the cinema in Walthamstow, and he wrote back to say that he felt that there was not such a case at this point in time. I disagree very strongly, as do thousands of residents of Walthamstow, and I will continue to petition for stronger measures to be taken than accepting that tarpaulin is an adequate response to the fortunes of a grade II* listed building. As I have said, the real concern for many of us in Walthamstow is what more the UCKG has to do to the EMD before English Heritage and the local authority have the confidence to intervene.
Many heritage groups want councils to have access to greater heritage expertise, which would give them the confidence to pursue compulsory purchase order processes with less fear of financial or legal risk. Surely there is a case for English Heritage not only to provide that expertise, but to be given more power to make these types of intervention. I hope, therefore, that the Minister will commit to a review of the powers and to further research on how and why local authorities have and have not used them and what lessons can be drawn from that. The inequality in use, which reflects social deprivation, suggests that it is not just the quality of the guidance as interpreted by conservation officers that is at issue, but the support and many different types of resources needed to be able do this work so that poorer communities are not at greater risk of losing heritage assets.
I also hope that the Minister will work with the Department for Communities and Local Government to publish criteria for intervention in cases when communities either suspect deliberate damage or recognise that stalemate over the future of a building would have such consequences, so that we can all have more confidence that intervention will occur—and will mean more than tarpaulin. I hope that the Minister will commit to considering whether the proposal could include owners who damage the historical interest of a building, as well as those who let the fabric of a building deteriorate.
I hope that the Minister will consider whether there are parallels in the power to call in a planning decision that could be reversed, so that on sites of special interest the decision of a local authority not to issue an urgent repairs notice could be contested. The Mayor of London has told me of his concerns for the Walthamstow dog track, but says that at present his powers to act are limited. I know that he would certainly be interested in looking at whether he could do more.
In addition to the question about current powers and processes, there is one about whether further powers are required. That is my third suggestion. The promises that Ministers have made about community empowerment in local planning need to extend to heritage policy and should not depend on a building being run down, or an owner being generous enough to sell, in order to be active. We know that people want access to heritage sites and that planning has already identified the concept of a viable alternative as a factor that can be brought into play in the management of a decision about the use of a building. If the Government are serious about localism and giving communities the ability not only to plan for but to actively achieve the locality that they want, they should consider how that concept of viability can be built into heritage policy.
If we are not to have a heritage protection Bill, the Minister may face an uphill battle getting time for new heritage protection powers. However, it is not too late to be creative about the Localism Bill and to make meaningful the talk of community participation and the principle of listing buildings. Two thirds of heritage assets are privately owned, but approximately half of those on the at-risk register are publicly owned. If the Localism Bill has teeth, there may be more opportunities for community ownership as local authorities seek to dispose of assets to balance their books. Such measures would, however, need to work for buildings that are not in the public domain as well as for those that are.
It cannot be beyond the realms of possibility to explore the idea of a trigger process to extend a community right to bid to all assets with a specific listed status. That would force private owners to respond seriously to community-led bids if an asset was deemed to be unoccupied and to require adjudication—perhaps at Secretary of State level—as to whether the refusal to accept a bid constituted intention to encourage disrepair. At the very least, the Government could set out criteria for offering a subsidy for a community right to compulsory purchase in instances where heritage is a factor. They could also use that possibility as a precursor to a heritage partnership agreement between the owner and the local community.
Such measures may be difficult and sensitive, but if listing can take place in the national interest, this cannot be only at a single point in time. The Minister could seek stronger powers to determine when such measures could be used in the public interest. Indeed, there is a parallel in the planning appeals process. When Ministers are so minded, there could be provision in extreme cases, such as those that I have set out, and when all other avenues have been exhausted, for the Secretary of State to have a direct appeal and direct involvement.
Furthermore, we could explore the guidelines on funding for heritage grants, which at present preclude any activity until a building is definitely committed for sale, and the conditions under which such grants could be used to further actions to restore buildings if there was substantial community support from thousands of local people. There is certainly public support for that, and MORI found that 87% of people think that it is right that there should be public funding to preserve the historic environment.
Of course, I recognise that the call for such changes would require heritage bodies that do not face substantial cuts in their budgets. The mass disposal of heritage assets may cause problems in terms of our ability to make real these proposals. The introduction of buildings-at-risk officers in London has made a real difference to dealing with some of the challenges, but it requires funding.
Critically, if we are to help communities to access their local environment, they will need more resources than just legal expertise. They will need financial support, and I pay tribute to the Heritage Lottery Fund, which is trying to help many communities, but it is hampered, as I explained, by some of the restrictions that it faces, which are preventing it from making real some of its ambitions.
Even if the existing powers were clearer, and the proposals being discussed in the Localism Bill were enacted, the time they will take to have meaning will be a barrier. I therefore hope that the Minister will consider applying a schedule of escalation, including a much tighter time scale for the exercise of urgent repair notices and for any community right to introduce a compulsory purchase order.
Not all those ideas require legislation, but they do require thought and, dare I say it, joined-up government. I hope that I have convinced the Minister that we need to turn warm words on preservation into something more meaningful for the benefit of our local communities. We must have a heritage policy that is about not simply mothballing buildings for future generations, but ensuring that future generations can experience those buildings.
Norman Roach is 88, and if we do not act to improve the way the Government, English Heritage and local authorities can support communities that want to protect buildings, Norman will become the sole record of our local community’s heritage in Walthamstow, telling stories of the old days and giving us just a glimpse of what those assets could have offered our local area.
I refer again to our famous son, William Morris, who said:
“I love art, and I love history, but it is living art and living history that I love. It is in the interest of living art and living history that I oppose so-called restoration. What history can there be in a building bedaubed with ornament, which cannot at the best be anything but a hopeless and lifeless imitation of the hope and vigour of the earlier world?”
People in Walthamstow share William Morris’s ambition. We want to live our history, not just to look at it, and we want our dog track and our cinema back. I hope that I have convinced the Minister that he should help us to realise that ambition, and I look forward to his response.
It is a great pleasure to speak in the debate, and I congratulate my hon. Friend Stella Creasy on securing it. We can all agree that we have heard a wonderful history of Walthamstow’s inter-war cultural heritage, stretching from Clement Attlee to Keith Richards’s granny, via the dog track and the cinema. I can add to that oral history, because it is almost seven years to the day that I went to Walthamstow dog track in celebration of my forthcoming nuptials. I won successively and consecutively throughout the evening, so it was a very happy event.
It is good to have the Minister here. Over the past year, he has proved himself very open to the worlds of heritage and history. I pay tribute to the Government’s policy of returning to the lottery’s original causes and increasing funding to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Sadly, the Heritage Lottery Fund is now the only major funder in our heritage community, and although its resources are increasing, other resources are being cut. The achievement of putting money into the Heritage Lottery Fund is being undone by the terrible cuts to English Heritage, among others.
The Minister will travel south to Dover castle on Thursday to see the brilliant new installation exploring its role in the evacuation of the British expeditionary force from Dunkirk. Having had the privilege of seeing the installation yesterday, I can tell hon. Members that that work of scholarship, interaction and interpretation, which has been produced by Anna Keay and her team, is truly awe-inspiring. That shows what this country can do to manage its history and heritage.
However, English Heritage has had a 32% cut to its grant, which is higher than the cuts imposed on UK Sport, the Arts Council and Visit Britain. That leads Labour Members to question whether the Government share the enthusiasm and admiration that the Labour party has always shown for heritage. The Heritage Lottery Fund thinks that if we combine the cuts to English Heritage with the front-loaded cuts to local authorities, which often trickle down to conservation officers and heritage officers, we will see upwards of £600 million in funding extracted from the heritage sector, which could be very damaging.
However, we are here to talk about heritage assets. As my hon. Friend beautifully explained, it is important to recognise that buildings matter. There has been an interesting shift in heritage thinking over the past 15 to 20 years, with an extraordinary opening-up of the heritage vista and a reconceptualisation of what our past means, as we look beyond cathedrals, country houses and abbeys to the houses of the Beatles and even to public toilets in north London, although I might draw the line there.
As Britain has become a more complicated and diverse community, and with the success of television programmes such as “Who Do You Think You Are?”, the compulsion to look into our genealogy has accelerated. We have sought to explore ourselves, our histories and our identities. Although that is, in part, not connected to the built environment, I would suggest that it is often best explained through it.
As my hon. Friend said, the built environment is important for those of us on the left. We can point back to Hugh Dalton’s work with the national land fund, to the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 and, of course, to William Morris, who lived in my hon. Friend’s constituency. As has been explained, he set up the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in response to what happened to Tewkesbury abbey.
For Morris, as for John Ruskin, progress meant going beyond the money-wage economy, spurning mass production and specialisation and rejecting some of the ethos of the industrial revolution. For Morris, old buildings—heritage—were signs of what freely given, unalienated labour could achieve. As Ruskin explained in “The Stones of Venice”, his wonderful account of the meaning of the buildings in Venice—you will remember, Mr Hollobone, his description of St Mark’s palace, which he compared to the Book Of Common Prayer—he was exploring history through the stones. Buildings were celebrations of work, faith and meaning—the very antithesis of a modern commodity—and protection was an act of defiance against commodification and capitalism; it was a defence of pleasure and humanity, a gesture of hope and possibly something of real, practical value for generations to come.
The shadow Minister, my hon. Friend Gloria De Piero, will explain how, in our socialist future, historic buildings will be the germs from which socialist art will spring. In 1889, William Morris argued:
“It is degradation and not progress to destroy and lose these powerful aids to the happiness of human life for the sake of a whim or the greed of the passing hour.”
All of which makes the defence of our heritage assets so important. You will know, Mr Hollobone, that that is particularly the case in Stoke-on-Trent.
We have been greatly privileged to have had the publication of a wonderful book, which the Minister has no doubt thumbed conscientiously, entitled “The Lost City of Stoke-on-Trent” by Matthew Rice, partner of the celebrated potter, Emma Bridgewater, and owner of the wonderful Meakin factory in Litchfield street, which, in case the Minister has forgotten, is in south Hanley. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow explored, it is a celebration of the sense of place—what Matthew Rice calls “cultural anchors”—to defend the urban environment and continue our connection with place and history. The work brings to mind the history written in the 1960s and 1970s as the city of Bath was being destroyed. Even as the heritage of Bath was being knocked down, people were crying out that it was a destruction of our link to the past and to history. What has changed since then is the understanding of our industrial heritage. Cities such as Manchester, Liverpool and Birmingham have begun to lead the way.
Our hope in Stoke-on-Trent is that, having seen a swathe of devastation in the pottery industry—the loss of bottle kiln oven after bottle kiln oven—we are now beginning to think about the economic, social and cultural value of such heritage assets. If I may, I shall take a little bit of time to explore a few buildings—heritage assets—that illustrate the argument. The old Goss bottle ovens at the Falcon works are in Stoke town above the Portmeirion works, which now controls the Spode line of pottery. They are also known as the eagle works and have beautiful bottle oven brick kilns in front of a huge pot bank, which are falling into an advanced state of disrepair. They were sold by Portmeirion to a company called Connexa—no doubt, we shall not get to the bottom of how many companies are called Connex—in Crewe, which seems to have little connection with the commerce or history of Stoke-on-Trent or an understanding of the value of the asset to the area.
I have been in touch with Stoke-on-Trent city council to explore the possibility of an urgent repairs notice. As my hon. Friend suggested, such developments are expensive, but luckily we have a very good English Heritage team in the west midlands and there is some suggestion that the city council could apply for funding from English Heritage to support an application for a notice, but it is wary of going down that road, which is why my hon. Friend’s explanation of the reticence with which the laws are used is important. We need the laws to be used more regularly and more effectively, to make people unafraid of using them and to make them cheaper and more accessible, so that they become part of the armoury of defence for our heritage assets. We have lost so many kilns in Stoke-on-Trent; it would be a great crime to lose more. I hope that there will be action on that front. There are now trees growing out of them.
The old Spode site, which the city council has bought, is also in Stoke town. You, Mr Hollobone, will know the history of the kingdom of Spode and the great competition that it had with the Wedgwood family. Its huge, wonderful site, which went out of business only a few years ago, is in the middle of Stoke town. In one sense, it is not an at-risk site, in that to make such heritage assets work we must have a successful commercial model. The challenge in Stoke-on-Trent now is not simply about enveloping the buildings for their protection, but about working out how to use them. We are hopeful that with innovative thinking we will develop an economic model for the site, which will involve artists’ workshops, studios and second-hand shops. When the Minister comes to see the site, which I am convinced is only a matter of time, he will be excited by its new prospects.
What gives us hope is the recent success—we hope—of the Middleport pottery works, which are north of the city outside my constituency. If recent suggestions are to be believed, they may come within my constituency in future months, which would be a great boon, as we can imagine. The Middleport pottery works have received funding from the regional growth fund, the Prince’s Trust and the Heritage Lottery Fund to revive the site and lease it back to a functioning ceramics company, Burleigh. That is a model of co-operation, local leadership and Government and quango action, all of which have come together to save an historic site. I am not enemy of quangos; indeed, I declare an interest as having served as a trustee of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The results are absolutely vital for the economic regeneration of Stoke-on-Trent. As we build an economy based on our engineering businesses and ceramics sector, but also on tourism and heritage assets, having such cultural anchors and significant sites is important.
It would be remiss of me to stand here as an MP for Stoke-on-Trent talking about heritage assets and not mention the threat posed to the extraordinary asset that is the Wedgwood museum. A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that the collection inside the building was now UNESCO designated and part of the Memory of World register. That shows an understanding that the extraordinary collection is of world-class significance. The Minister knows that the complicated issue of whether the collection is a permanent endowment held in trust comes to court on
We need a sea change in thinking to begin to think about heritage assets not as obstacles to economic regeneration that need, in that great Glaswegian parlance, “to go on fire”, but as cultural anchors, vehicles for meaning and identity and economic assets for the community, which is why Matthew Rice’s book is so important. I agree 100% with my brilliant hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, who set out the policy options for the DCMS plan for the next four years on improvements to the at-risk register, the community right-to-challenge, local usage and restoration.
I shall end with the point that taking action on heritage assets should be more accessible and usable. We need to change the culture of use of heritage assets in the business world and in the community. We are enormously privileged to work in this environment. It is a make-believe environment, with which William Morris had certain problems because it was conjured up in the 1830s and 40s. Many of our constituents have had their connection to history, the past and their local communities taken away, sometimes for understandable reasons of economic growth, but we need to box slightly more clever when considering the value of heritage assets and what Government, business and communities can do collectively to preserve those things that matter to people.
It is a pleasure, Mr Hollobone, to respond for the Opposition under your chairmanship.
I congratulate my hon. Friend Stella Creasy on securing this important debate, and I commend the work that she is doing on both fronts for her constituents in relation to heritage. My hon. Friend spoke passionately, and it is clear how important the matter is for her constituents. It is obvious that I am not Brad Pitt, Winston Churchill or Norman Roach, but I once had an extremely good night at Walthamstow dog track, and I can see how important it is to the community that my hon. Friend represents.
The Labour party has a proud tradition of standing up for heritage, a tradition that I am determined to continue in my role as shadow Culture Minister. Since the end of world war two, Labour has recognised not only the historical importance of heritage sites, but the economic benefits that such sites can yield. Heritage is central for so many reasons. It goes beyond class boundaries. From Giant’s Causeway to Canterbury cathedral, it is central to our local and national identity. It is crucial in regeneration projects in towns and cities across the United Kingdom.
The Town and Country Planning Act 1947 was the first step on the road to establishing the system of listing buildings. Now, 64 years on, we are continuing the debate to reform and refine it, and my hon. Friends the Members for Walthamstow and for Stoke-on-Trent Central (Tristram Hunt) have important contributions to make to that debate. Labour then passed the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act 1949, which helped to bring about the first 10 national parks. Our commitment to heritage continued in the late 1960s with the Civic Amenities Act 1967, which introduced conservation areas and allowed local authorities to administer loans and grants for the restoration of historic buildings and sites. Soon afterwards, Labour introduced legislation stipulating that anyone who is found to have destroyed a historic building can be imprisoned.
I am proud of Labour’s history in standing up for heritage, and I want a new and reinvigorated debate on the subject. We have clearly made a good start today, and the contributions to this debate focused on the ability of heritage to galvanise and organise local communities. Its importance in defining our cultural, moral, political, theological and social values cannot be underestimated. It incorporates the most special and valued remains and structures. These landscapes physically mark moments in history. Most importantly, people can relive them on a day-to-day basis, and they help to shape our beliefs and our passions. They have lived through the ages, and all elected to this place have an obligation to ensure that they are preserved for the next generation to be enjoyed and to be used as a tool for learning.
For each of us, there are treasured personal objects—a pair of spectacles or a particular chair—that instantly bring back the memory of a loved one. The physical remains from generations past—homes, schools, factories, and churches—are the equivalent for society, for entire communities and for the nation. Historic places are the repositories of our communal memory and identity, and as a result they are deserving of special respect and care. A society that ignores its past cannot embrace the future. We owe it to the next generation to preserve the best achievements of past generations.
A poll conducted last year revealed that 70% of Britons attend one or more UK heritage sites every year, many more than those who visit football games or art galleries. The sector provides work for just less than 500,000 paid staff and 500,000 volunteers. That is as many staff as are employed in the NHS.
In a recent speech to English Heritage, the Minister highlighted the fact that the industry has captured the nation’s imagination. Membership of the National Trust has risen by 33%, and membership of English Heritage has risen by a staggering 62%. The Minister has said in recent speeches that tourism is one of the nation’s fastest growing industries. The sector is set to increase by 3.5% between 2009 and 2018.
A central reason for tourists being attracted to the British isles is our heritage sites. In Yorkshire, for example, local councils were told a few years ago that they were taking a massive risk in pumping money into the tourism industry. However, they believed in the power of their local history and their heritage sites—sites such as Ripley castle and Harewood house, Roche abbey and the York cold war bunker. The “Welcome to Yorkshire” television campaign has heritage at its very core, and the county attracts more than 200 million visitors a year. In fact, a large percentage of heritage tourism in the UK is domestic, especially in recent years given the rise of the staycation.
Heritage is an industry, and Brits spend money on it as much as people from overseas, especially outside London. That is an important and positive aspect, because Government investment in our heritage can support other key agendas, such as quality of life, healthy living, lifelong learning and families spending time together. I am minded to ask the Minister what impact the heritage industry had on the Prime Minister’s inquiry into what makes the nation happy. I shall wait eagerly to see whether it features in his closing remarks. Of course, there are more advantages to the staycation. If Brits are spending their money on domestic tourism and in shops and restaurants near heritage sites, rather than abroad, that is of benefit to the Treasury.
[Mr Mike Hancock in the Chair]
We learned over the weekend that leading economists believe that we are on the road to ruin with the Government’s programme of cuts. Surely the Minister realises that schemes such as “Welcome to Yorkshire” are vital for local economies across Britain. These initiatives are having a positive impact on the region, but they are at risk because of the 32% cut to English Heritage and the overall 25% cut to the Minister’s Department. My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central explained the consequences of such cuts in his wonderfully entertaining speech. He pointed out that without professional staff to care for, to open and to interpret historic places, the huge rises in visitor numbers we have seen over recent years would fall.
I know all too well the dangers that these heritage sites face. Eastwood in my constituency is the birthplace of D.H. Lawrence, something of which we are very proud. However, the D.H. Lawrence heritage centre, which contains exhibits of the life and times of Lawrence and the original court copies of Lawrence’s most controversial novel, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”, was under threat of closure earlier in the year as the local council was seeking to make cuts. Looking through the visitor book, it is clear that the centre is a resource not only for the people of Eastwood but for people across the country and from all over the world—people who otherwise might never come to our area.
It was vital to save the centre so that we could preserve an essential source of tourist income for the area. The campaign to save Durban house was backed, at my suggestion, by a host of famous faces, including Salman Rushdie, Martin Amis, the Nottinghamshire writer Billy Ivory, Michael Parkinson, Lord Puttnam,
Glenda Jackson and Ken Russell, as well as countless ordinary people. I am sure that the Minister will agree that celebrating local culture and heritage is a vital part of the regeneration of the ex-coalfields of north Nottinghamshire. I was thrilled that the centre was saved thanks to an eleventh-hour agreement with Nottingham university. I suspect that that may be news to the Minister who, of course, rejected my invitation to visit it.
The cut to English Heritage funding equates to roughly £51 million over the next four years, but the true consequence of the loss is not yet calculable. Rolling the dice with the UK’s most special treasures is not the action of a responsible Government. Thirteen years of Labour Governments saw an increase in the number of visitors to historic sites, a broadening of knowledge about our heritage culture and an increase in profits. The last Labour Government did some fantastic work, and although I accept that we may have done more, our heritage sites were safe in our hands.
The Minister has said that we tend to underestimate just how great the UK is. I disagree. Britons from across the country and around the world are rightly proud of our heritage sites, and they show their support with their feet and with their purses. It is the Government who have underestimated the true value of such sites, and it seems that they are content to put the future of such sites at risk.
What we know today is radically different from what we knew a century ago. Britain’s fascination with what went before will long outlive this Government’s reckless cuts. There is a real risk that our historic public buildings—built with taxpayer’s money with the sort of craftsmanship and materials that we cannot afford today—will simply be sold to the highest bidder. That will have two results. In prosperous areas, public buildings such as Victorian schools will become unaffordable, exclusive private apartments, yet in less well-off places such buildings will sit derelict and empty, blighting the town centre or the high street.
Some aspects of the historic environment are already worse off. The extent of Labour’s grant scheme to return to congregations the VAT paid on the repair of historic places of worship has been reduced under the coalition Government. What could be a better example of the big society than congregations coming together to raise funds to restore their buildings and open them to wider community use? Yet donations to these funds to pay for all church fittings and architects’ fees will now go straight to the Treasury.
Does the Minister truly appreciate his responsibility to protect the heritage industry? Does he appreciate the strain that local authority cuts are putting on the authorities’ ability to protect heritage sites, to offer grants to historic buildings at risk and to ensure that changes to listed buildings take place with the advice of expert conservation staff? Given his recognition of how far the tourism industry is set to go in the next few years, why was there no mention of the heritage industry in the tourism strategy?
Will the Government’s emphasis on localism undermine our tried and tested ways of protecting our heritage at a national level through organisations such as English Heritage? As local authorities begin to sell off their historic buildings, libraries, schools, swimming baths and town halls to make ends meet, how will the Government support community groups that want to preserve their public services in the beautiful and historic buildings that have served them well for centuries?
Thank you, Mr Hancock, for taking over the Chair from Mr Hollobone in mid-debate. I am looking forward to completing this debate under your chairmanship.
I congratulate Stella Creasy on securing this vitally important debate. Although some hon. Members have been unable to resist making some party political points, there is, none the less, a great degree of cross-party agreement on the importance of heritage and on the generalised approach to it.
The hon. Member for Walthamstow is right to say that heritage amounts to a great deal more than just buildings. I can attest to that as I am the Minister who has just listed, among other things, a zebra crossing in Abbey road. As she said, heritage goes far wider than just structures. It encompasses all sorts of things from pre-historic archaeological sites right the way through to bang up-to-date modern pieces of architecture, which are tomorrow’s heritage.
The hon. Lady is also right to say that heritage is important not just for the undoubted tourism benefits that it brings, but for its own sake. It is about not just place making for those of us who are the current occupants of each community and each built environment, but a local and a national story. One reason why we have a listing system is to ensure that the crucial marks, illustrations or buildings along that national story are preserved for current and future generations. That applies to not just the grand sweep of history—the national story of kings and queens and grand social movements—but local communities.
The hon. Lady was right to say that in any local community there are people who take huge pride in a local building that may be listed at grade II or only listed on a local scheme—if I can call a conservation area that—but which is, none the less, an important piece of that local community’s past. Such a building can make a community feel special, and it explains to people who live there where they came from and why their surroundings are the way that they are. That is an essential part of our understanding of our roots. Britain is not a new country but an old one. We are a modern country, but we have a history and a heritage to be proud of and we lose that at our peril. Let me acknowledge in passing the point made by Gloria De Piero that pride in one’s heritage is an essential component of happiness—a nebulous but very important concept that the Prime Minister is currently trying to grapple with.
Incidentally, for future speeches, I will plagiarise heavily without apology the comment of the hon. Member for Walthamstow about the Marks and Spencer approach to heritage. She is absolutely right to say that it is not enough to recognise as historically important a building, structure or an archaeological remain; we need to have an explanation and a narrative. We need to have an exposition of why something is important. It is not enough to say, “This is an important building.” Explaining why it is important is an essential part of the heritage story. She will see her words cropping up in various speeches, but I am sure that she will claim credit for them whenever they do.
The hon. Lady mentioned a couple of points in passing, which I shall try to deal with quickly before moving on to the main meat of her comments. She mentioned that there is a degree of concern in the heritage world about the successor to planning policy statement 5. I have already made some comments about that in public, but perhaps I can repeat them here just for the record.
A couple of amendments to the Localism Bill ensured that we kept the statutory protections for listing and heritage preservation. However, the hon. Lady is right to say that that is only part of the story and that heritage protection requires many of the other points, which were elaborated on in PPS5, to be included in the new revised planning guidelines. We are working closely with the Department for Communities and Local Government to ensure that that happens. In the same way that we have already come good on our promise to maintain the statutory protections, we aim to ensure that they are read across into the new forms of planning guidance, too. The draft has not yet been published, but no doubt there will be plenty of comment from the many experts in the heritage world when it is.
We are trying to ensure that the heritage voice is heard while the draft is being compiled, and there is a great deal more to do to ensure that the details are done properly. I want to reassure both the hon. Lady and those in the wider heritage world that that is an ongoing process and that we are taking it very seriously indeed. It is also true to say that there is a great deal of admiration and affection for PPS5. It sounds rather strange to say that people like planning guidelines, but those are probably the only ones that people like. The heritage world feels that PPS5 contains some important protections and wants them preserved for the future.
Does the Minister see any reason why the intentions behind PPS5 in their entirety might not continue? There is talk today that an application might come forward for the Walthamstow dog track. The local community would welcome confirmation that, as far as the Minister is concerned, regulations in PPS5 about taking into account any alternative viable option for a heritage site will be relevant to that decision.
I need to tread a careful line here to avoid prejudging the ongoing process to produce the new guidance. There are important things that the new guidance will do to make the whole panoply of different planning guidelines—not just the ones for heritage—become shorter, simpler and generally less burdensome. Within that context, we absolutely want to make sure that the principles behind PPS5 are maintained and truly and faithfully carried across. I do not want to comment on the detailed wording. As in all such things, the devil can be in the detail. I hope that I have given the hon. Lady a direction of travel and a statement of principle that will be helpful to her at this point.
The hon. Lady also mentioned some points about the Heritage Protection Bill, which, as I understand it, the previous Government spent a great deal of time working on. Certainly, officials in my Department spent a great deal of time working on it. None the less, the poor thing led a rather peripatetic existence, wandering around different parts of Whitehall desperately trying to find a slot in the legislative timetable. As it did not manage to find one before the end of the previous Government, it fell without ever being debated in the House. There were some rather useful technical points in it which we shall try to take through. We are currently discussing them with the Ministry of Justice to see whether they might fit into the Repeals Bill that is coming up. Many of them are entirely technical but worthy and sensible, too.
I am thinking of ideas such as trying to make sure that if we amended the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 to try to ensure that listings apply not just willy-nilly to the entire curtilage of a listed structure but to the bits that are genuinely important and listable. Such a proposal will provide greater clarity to the current owners and potential future developers about which parts of a site could be important. Another of my favourite Acts is the Public Statues (Metropolis) Act 1854, which apparently requires the Secretary of State to assent to the erection of statues in public places in London rather than that being done through the planning appeals system. I am not quite sure of the reason for that, but all such things are sensible and worthy.
However, nothing is certain yet because we cannot find a slot in the current legislative timetable. As we are focused on dealing with the Localism Bill and all the other factors related to the deficit, we will not be able to get a heritage protection Bill on to the statute book in the short term, but we may be able to do one or two of those things if we can find other slots. We are working on that, but I can make no promises at this stage.
I think that the meat of the hon. Lady’s comments were about the heritage at-risk regulations and processes are whether or not they are currently up to the task that has been set for them. It is worth pointing out that the heritage at-risk register, which has now been in existence for more than a decade, has had quite a lot of success. Various speakers in the debate have quoted figures about the number of heritage assets that are on that register and about how many of them have gone through the register. I think that it is true to say that a very large number of the sites that are fairly difficult but not impossible to deal with have now been dealt with. A quite large proportion of sites have come on to the register and come off it again after three, four or five years; I think that the average length of time that such sites are on the register is about five years. They come off the register because they have been dealt with and a solution has been found for them.
Tristram Hunt put it nicely when he said that we need a sensible commercial model for an at-risk heritage site for that site to work. There is no point in simply transferring ownership of the site or making a temporary fix. If we do not come up with a sustainable solution, within 18 months, two years or a similar period, the site will start to deteriorate again and pretty soon we will be back where we started. I think that it was the hon. Member for Walthamstow who quoted William Morris, who said that we need
“living art and living history”.
It is vital that we all make that point as strongly as we possibly can.
What has happened is that a large number of sites have come on to the heritage at-risk register, sustainable solutions have been found for them and then they have come off the register after four or five years. However, we also have a hard core of sites that are much harder to deal with, which have been on the at-risk register pretty much since it was started. Many of them have been on the register for well over 10 years, and either they are very difficult to find an economically sustainable solution for or they will always be at risk for other reasons—for example, they are coastal sites suffering from erosion. Forces of nature, such as coastal erosion, may be harder to deal with than economic difficulties, which may be solved by changing a site’s use. I think that the hon. Member for Walthamstow also talked about sites that have been on the at-risk register for a long time.
I completely agree with the hon. Lady that we have a series of powers that are being used spottily at the moment. She quoted some figures on how few times various powers have been used either by English Heritage or by my own Department, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. As she rightly pointed out, that number is in the single figures. However, I should point out for the record that that is only part of the story; indeed, I think that she implicitly acknowledged that herself. There are many other occasions when such powers are used around the country, particularly by local authorities.
It is noticeable, however, that when we examine the figures for local authorities we find that some are much more comfortable with applying such powers—urgent works notices, compulsory purchase orders or whatever they may be—while others are much less comfortable and much less confident about using them and use them only rarely, if ever. As I say, there is a wide variety of practice by local authorities in the heritage sector. It is clear that some local authorities are comfortable about their ability to use such powers effectively to advance the cause of at-risk heritage assets and sites within their area, whereas other local authorities are a great deal more cautious or nervous about using them and are much more worried about the cost and other implications of doing so. Given that some local authorities are using such powers frequently while others are not, perhaps we can start to consider the reasons why the powers are not being used effectively in some cases and try to understand the issues involved.
I am happy to confirm to the hon. Lady that we are already addressing that issue and are trying to understand the reasons for that difference in the use of the powers by local authorities. Inevitably, given the huge variety of different heritage sites—all of which face an individual and entirely specific set of issues—and of political situations in local authorities, there is an extremely complicated patchwork. Therefore, finding answers that will raise the worst-performing authorities even to the standard of the average-performing authorities is not a trivial exercise. It is not easy to find answers that will work across that very complicated patchwork, but we are already looking at that issue.
I think that the hon. Lady and I have already made the important point to each other—in earlier private conversations about the local heritage sites in her constituency that she has mentioned today—that it is important to start looking at having a rather more nuanced and finer gradation of stepping stones or escalation of powers. At the moment, particularly in those local authorities where the use of a compulsory purchase order or an urgent works notice is viewed as a bit of a nuclear button—that is, as a last resort—there is nothing in between using those powers and having a nice chat over a cup of coffee with the owner of a site who is not necessarily doing what needs to be done with the site. Perhaps we need to consider whether there should be a collection of both carrots and sticks that can be used between those two extremes. At the moment, such powers do not exist. We do not have them at present, but we are considering whether it is possible to develop them.
Even if we can develop such powers, however, we would need to use them extremely carefully. If we just go for carrots—that is, incentives—for owners to plough more money into a heritage at-risk asset and that asset gets to a certain state of disrepair, we run the very real risk of creating a very sizeable moral hazard. We do not want to create a situation whereby the entire system is set up to encourage people to allow the assets that they own to fall into disrepair, until they reach a certain stage of advanced disrepair whereupon the state will come galloping to the rescue with a large wodge of public cash. Clearly, that would be an extremely perverse incentive, and it is not one that we want. However, we may want to have some incentives that are matched up with additional powers to push or prod owners who are not doing the right thing. At the same time, we must be very careful to ensure that we match those powers to avoid creating the type of perverse incentive that I have just described.
I must add a note of caution to my responses to the hon. Member for Walthamstow. When an owner of a heritage site wants to do something with it—say, x—and there is a community that wants to do something else with it—say, y—and those two things do not match and there is no overlap between them, it is very easy to end up with a degree of deadlock through the planning system. From what the hon. Lady has said this morning, it sounds as though that has happened in at least one if not both of the two heritage cases in her constituency that she referred to. However tempting it may appear, it would be a mistake to try to cast the heritage industry and the heritage world as some kind of deus ex machina that will turn up and solve such problems for the good of all concerned, by coming down either on the side of the owner or that of the community. It is not possible—indeed, it is not even desirable—for the heritage world to try to act as the court of appeal between those two parties, because coming to a conclusion that both the owner and the community can live with must be achieved by dialogue through the normal democratic process. That is what the planning system is set up to do.
The hon. Lady rightly said at the start of her remarks that this debate today is not about planning policy. The heritage world must ensure that planning policy is applied where necessary in a heritage-sensitive and heritage-sympathetic way. However, the heritage world cannot fix a fundamental democratic disagreement; such a disagreement must be dealt with through the mechanisms of the planning system. Even if we can come up with new and better powers and incentives, we would breach that principle at our peril.
A conclusion may be reached about the best use for a heritage asset, and that use might be the same type of use that the asset was originally designed for. The hon.
Lady gave the example of a cinema, and a cinema might be brought back into use as a cinema. However, the heritage world is not too precious about whether or not a cinema has to be brought back into use as a cinema, for the very reason that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent Central gave earlier: it is more important to have a viable, sustainable and ongoing commercial use for a building than that it should go back to its previous use. It is far better for that heritage asset to have a future that is workable, even if it is being used for another purpose than the one that it was originally designed for, than that it should have no commercial future at all.
Let me give an example. The hon. Member for Walthamstow referred to some of the excellent work that is happening in the area around King’s Cross. If one walks north of King’s Cross, it is possible to see a building that I believe is called the university of the creative arts in London. It is a wonderful combination of modern architecture and a couple of old train sheds that are being turned into a wonderful university campus. That building is an outstanding example of blending the old and the new—it is an absolutely gorgeous combination of the two—and it is something that I think the country will be hugely proud of. If I can venture an opinion, it will definitely be a piece of heritage of the future as well as a piece of heritage of the past, and it is being created right now. That, however, would be completely impossible if we were too precious and insisted that a railway shed had to be used as a railway shed. I do not think that anyone here would argue that re-purposing the sheds and giving them a new use is a bad thing. I accept that it is entirely reasonable and sensible for there to be a local democratic debate between residents and the owner of a site about whether it carries on as a cinema, for example, or is used for something else, but from a heritage point of view that is not part of the solution. The heritage solution is to achieve a sustainable answer that ensures that the fabric of the building and, if necessary, its cultural resonance—let us not forget that its use will have created cultural ripples in the local area—is preserved.
I am afraid, therefore, that I am going to slightly disappoint the hon. Lady by saying that it would be a mistake for heritage to intervene and say, “This is an unacceptable use”—within very wide boundaries. Heritage needs to say, “This is a sustainable use, which will preserve the heritage character and fabric of the building, and any further conversation about the suitability of the use has to be expressed through the local planning mechanism rather than through the heritage world.”
In the Walthamstow examples, there is a viable, commercially backed and community backed alternative for both buildings. The current planning process allows that to be taken into consideration, and the Minister has just very kindly confirmed that such an alternative should be taken into account if a plan comes forward for the dog track. What we do not see in heritage is a parallel ability to say that, if there is a viable alternative that is in keeping with the heritage listed status, we can make progress, and I want to press the Minister a little more on that. I understand his concern not to see a deus ex machina approach to heritage policy, but what confidence can communities such as mine have that he will not stand by and say that the heritage and sustainability aspects cannot be taken in account and that when owners sit on assets and do nothing, as they have in Walthamstow, we will not be left waiting, hoping that a planning application—as the only mechanism for expressing our heritage concerns—will come forward?
I understand the hon. Lady’s concerns, and I refer her to my earlier comments about the need for some interim and escalation powers. From the list of cases that have gone through and have come off the heritage at risk register, we know that we have conversations, discussions and expert advice at one end of the spectrum of existing powers and the nuclear button—as we discussed earlier—at the other. We need some interim steps, which we just do not have at the moment. The letter that I wrote to the hon. Lady a couple of weeks ago, which I think arrived just in time for her planning meeting, made the point that there is no opportunity to use or impose the current legal powers from the centre here in Whitehall, but if we came up with some interim steps—stepping stones—we could use some of them for an equivalent future case. A far better solution to the kind of problem that the hon. Lady is laying out would be to create those kinds of powers, with the right mix of carrots and sticks to ensure that we did not create perverse incentives.
The hon. Lady mentioned that there is a solution on the table that has the approval of many local people and an alternative investor waiting in the wings, but the missing third party is the existing owners, who either need to be convinced that the solution is in their interests or, with some interim or other stepping-stone powers, be given some opportunities and incentives. As I think the hon. Lady mentioned in her initial remarks, that is an aspect in which such policy crucially needs to develop, and I hope that we can do so on a cross-party basis. Putting aside some of the comments about whether individual quangos have done well, I hope that the broader collection of approaches that we will be able to take on heritage will have cross-party approval. Incidentally, and for the record, the overall funding for heritage as a whole is going down by only 2%, even though funding for individual heritage quangos is decreasing by a substantially larger amount. If we can get to that position, perhaps Mr Norman Roach will be able to stop being the only repository of knowledge, understanding and memory in Walthamstow about one or two of the local heritage assets and instead be part of a much wider and better elucidated and enunciated set of heritage assets and experience there.
I just hope that I can encourage the Minister to commit to coming to Walthamstow, to see the two sites and talk both to members of the local community and to the investors that we have for both sites, so that he can understand some of the challenges that we need to embrace in heritage policy. I would be very happy to show him the range of heritage that we have in Walthamstow. Perhaps he could even meet Norman, to understand how the examples in Walthamstow reflect the wider problems with heritage policy. I hope that the Minister will make at least that commitment, so that we can show him the work that we are doing in Walthamstow to try to make heritage not just preservation but experience and enjoyment.
I have had an invitation to Stoke and now to Walthamstow. I think that I did go to Walthamstow dogs before it closed. I am afraid that I will, as the saying goes, have to look at my diary, but I appreciate both invitations and hope that we can advance this policy.
There should be agreement on both sides of the House on this, but we have to tread very carefully because the devil will be in the detail and we must make certain that, while enhancing opportunity for communities to ensure that their heritage is looked after, we do not traduce or ignore the very real and legitimate rights of owners.