Future of English Heritage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:30 pm on 2nd April 2014.

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Photo of Jenny Chapman Jenny Chapman Shadow Minister (Justice) 2:30 pm, 2nd April 2014

It is a pleasure, Mrs Osborne, to serve under your chairmanship. I am pleased to have secured this debate. English Heritage—or, to give it its correct title, the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission—is a national institution that has guardianship of some of our most treasured monuments, buildings and landscapes. The two most famous that spring to mind are Stonehenge and Hadrian’s wall, but it manages a great variety of sites throughout the country, as well as fulfilling important duties in the planning and protection of our national heritage.

Hon. Members will know that the Government have consulted on a new model for English Heritage, which would see a new charity established to take over the conservation and management of the national heritage collection, while other responsibilities would remain with a smaller, renamed non-departmental body. The proposals have been welcomed in some quarters, and greeted with concern in others. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport is working on its response to the consultation, and I hope today will provide an opportunity for hon. Members to ask questions, to voice any concerns or hopes for the future of English Heritage, and to contribute to the Minister’s thinking.

The duties of English Heritage are set out in statute in the National Heritage Act 1983. They are to secure the preservation of historic sites and monuments, to promote the preservation and enhancement of conservation areas, and to promote the public’s enjoyment of ancient monuments and buildings. I am lucky to live near wonderful Durham university, which has a fabulous archaeology department where, some time ago, I studied mediaeval archaeology for a couple of years and looked in detail at the work of Sir Charles Peers who was, as colleagues may know, responsible for acquiring many of the sites for what was then the Ministry of Works. He was responsible and accountable, but was not always viewed in the best light by archaeologists because he swept away much of the archaeology from many sites and replaced it with immaculate lawns. That is what we are left with today.

The commission recognises that it is probably best known for its work in looking after the national heritage collection. The collection spans more than 400 historic sites and monuments that are open to the public, as well as more than 500,000 artefacts and 12 million photographs in its public archives. The sites range from Roman ruins to a 1960s nuclear bunker, and I am reliably informed that the collection includes both Charles Darwin’s diaries and the Duke of Wellington’s boots, although I have not seen them. It hosts 11 million visitors every year, as well as 445,000 free educational visits.

However, English Heritage’s work is far wider than just the collection. It has just under 75,000 members, who contribute to self-generated revenue, and gives out £24 million in grants every year for conservation projects. In addition, it advises the Government on heritage protection, designates places of significance to be listed for statutory protection, and advises owners, developers and local authorities on development decisions. In total, the commission advises on more than 17,000 planning applications every year, and it would be helpful if the Minister explained his assessment of developer-funded archaeology in this context and advice to local authorities on conservation areas. We have some conservation areas in my constituency, and any tampering with decision making on them will garner a huge amount of interest when it comes to residents’ attention.

Will the Minister also explain how the quality of preservation will be guaranteed in future? English Heritage is the custodian of last resort for heritage sites that are at risk and not otherwise being cared for. It would be a tragedy if the quality of curation that English Heritage has managed to achieve were diminished. English Heritage is currently a non-departmental public body. Its work is funded mainly by a departmental grant. Last year, its funding streams included grant in aid of £103 million, and just under £57 million was self-generated through membership, entry fees, retail and catering.

The reason for this debate is that the future funding and structure of English Heritage is uncertain. In December 2013, the Government published a consultation outlining a new model for the organisation, and closed it in early February. The model proposed would see English Heritage split into two separate bodies. One part would retain the name “English Heritage” but would become a charitable enterprise and would take on the management of sites in the national heritage collection. The charity would be fully responsible for the conservation and public use of sites, and would manage the collection for eight years.

The Government’s intention is to give the charity an £80 million one-off investment to tackle a significant backlog of conservation defects. That backlog has arisen, even with the grant-in-aid funding and the current arrangements, and there is concern that such a backlog could occur again. We need to know what the Government would do in that circumstance.