Future of English Heritage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 2:56 pm on 2nd April 2014.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Transport) 2:56 pm, 2nd April 2014

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jenny Chapman on setting out the issues with such clarity and measured determination. Thirty years ago this week, I stood in the Banqueting house alongside Lord Montagu of Beaulieu and various others at the launch of English Heritage. I am not sure whether I should call them interests, but I declare that I have perspectives. First, I was public affairs adviser to English Heritage on its launch in 1984, and I acted in that role for nearly two years. Secondly, I am a historian and was editor of History Today in the 1990s, when I had a close view of all the ebbs and flows of the new organisation. Finally, I am a Member of Parliament for Blackpool, where for more than 15 years English Heritage has been a positive and helpful force, not just for our great buildings, such as the tower and the winter gardens, but in helping us to celebrate and develop our heritage strategy.

Only last week, for example, the chief executive of English Heritage, Simon Thurley, was in Blackpool to launch an English Heritage publication on the history of the town by the distinguished historian and contributor Allan Brodie. English Heritage has also done an enormous amount for the delicate negotiations on Blackpool borough council’s 2010 acquisition of the winter gardens and tower, and it has been involved in the delicate repair and restoration since.

English Heritage has been generally supportive of Blackpool. The 20th anniversary of English Heritage was marked by a conference and get-together of all its staff in Blackpool. I pay tribute to the leadership of Simon Thurley, whom I have known personally for more than 20 years in various guises, and to Henry Owen-John, the English Heritage north-west planning director, for his enormous contribution to Blackpool—his help has been fantastic. English Heritage has supported us with the concept of a museum of popular culture and the seaside, and the “Blackpool story” project will go before the Heritage Lottery Fund. Colleagues were encouraged by Simon’s positive words last week.

English Heritage has contributed to other initiatives, such as the creative people and places funding that we are getting from Arts Council England. English Heritage’s listening role and support for our sites has been key in many areas. I mention all those things, not simply because I am a Blackpool MP and I am expected to mention them, but because they offer a good case history of the multifarious roles that English Heritage has played over the years in historical advice, planning, publications support, townscape heritage and initiatives, and archaeology, which in our case is mainly industrial buildings and townscapes. Those multifarious roles have been and remain key to something that is much bigger than the sum of its parts.

We have heard about the nature of the properties. At the start of English Heritage, as a good public relations man, I was trying to sum up for journalists the difference between the National Trust and English Heritage, which was a completely new concept. I said, “There are many differences, but the one that you will notice most is that most of our buildings have not got roofs on, and most of the National Trust’s do.” That rapidly changed, of course, with the abolition of the Greater London council and the acquisition by English Heritage of Kenwood house and Marble Hill house.

That glorious confection of stuff, if I can call it that, which would and could be affected by the split between English Heritage and Historic England is at the heart of the concerns being expressed. I will refer to the excellent articles by Nick Clark in The Independent in December last year and March this year, in which he raised some of those concerns, particularly in reply to an early analysis of the responses to the plan. The March article stated:

“The Council for British Archaeology said the consultation had been ‘rushed’, leading to a document ‘that has errors and does not provide the level of detail we would have expected to enable us to reach an informed decision’.”

It continued:

“The lack of clarity over future funding ‘casts a considerable shadow over the viability’ of the new body, the Institute for Archaeologists said in its response…The chief executive, Peter Hinton, wrote that the Government had failed to provide enough detail ‘to give confidence that the charity can become self-funding’ in the eight-year period envisioned.”

My hon. Friend Sir Tony Baldry have already made that point. Those important issues have to be addressed and cannot be glossed over.

The English Heritage briefing provided for this debate by Stacey Frier, its senior parliamentary adviser, sets out the history, challenges and problems well, but it skates on thin ice when it starts to develop what I can only call a cracker-barrel justification for commercial activity. In particular, I have to take issue with the line that states:

“Running a £78 million visitor business, as English Heritage now does, was beyond the imagination of those who established it in 1983.”

I can tell the House—I am duty-bound to those individuals who were there, and one who is no longer here to say it—that the people who took part in that process were well aware of how English Heritage might develop in a commercial and expansionist way. Was it beyond the imagination of Michael Heseltine, who set it up, or of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, who remains one of the most successful historic entrepreneurs in history? Was it beyond the imagination of Peter Rumble or Jennie Page, who served with great distinction as chief executives? Was it beyond the imagination of Francis Golding, who was deputy chief executive and subsequently a distinguished planner and adviser? He is missed, following his premature death in a cycling accident last year.

On the contrary, the development of the English Heritage visitor business was at the centre of all those early discussions. It was balanced, however, by the need to reflect the scholarship and to look at how to move ahead, how to market, and how to lay the foundations of expansion, while keeping from bastardising the heritage even as it was popularised. It was about balance and understanding. Even at that early stage—in 1984 and 1985, the commissioners went on what can only be described as royal tours of the regions to advertise the new body—there was a balance between visiting Hadrian’s wall and looking at heritage properties in Newcastle. There was a balance between visiting Kirby Muxloe and looking at the Bosworth battlefield and its interpretation. Those things are important, not just to get the history right, but to understand how we resolve these issues today.

Of course, the Government’s proposals are a response to long-standing funding problems for, and cuts to, English Heritage since the 1990s. I am not here to play party politics with that, because that happened under all Governments, although the 32% cut in the English Heritage grant in 2010 was particularly difficult. The proposal to split is radical. I do not have a problem in principle with radical proposals, but it is the detail, the limits and the sense of holistic connection that people are rightly worried by. The big issues remain unaddressed in detail. How will the regional structure of English Heritage or Historic England be affected, at a time when Michael Heseltine is rightly leading an agenda for greater devolution? Incidentally, what engagement has there been with local authorities in particular, and the Local Government Association in general? What will happen to the focus, balance and remit of the publications, broad and specialised, that come out of English Heritage? Where will they reside? What will happen to the support for archaeology?

What will happen to the subtle connectivity between English Heritage and what is proposed to be called Historic England? That connectivity will not necessarily be reflected in the formal arrangements. The English Heritage press release refers to the national heritage collection being run by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England—that is, English Heritage—on its behalf. I feel a bit queasy about that phraseology. It is almost as if it is another gorgeous little jewel box that we will simply wrap up in a candyfloss “Downton Abbey” format. English Heritage sites are both grand and gritty, as my hon. Friend the Member for Darlington has said, but the connectivity between the grand and the gritty is important, as is support for the difference between them.

The Heritage Alliance has made criticisms regarding the ability to hold those things in balance. Its submission states:

“The financial projections…presented to support the case for the charity to achieve financial viability…were inadequate to form an informed judgment. The risk of failure is high and the Government must set out contingency arrangements. The potential for conflict of interest between the new Charity Board…and the Historic Monuments and Building Commission for England…is not resolved. The pressure to generate revenue should not favour investment in those with commercial potential. The whole Collection is a national resource for public benefit.”

I come back to some of the subtler themes. We are not simply talking about wonderful heritage assets for tourists, however important they are; we are talking about the body of landmarks in our nation’s history. Before English Heritage, the Historic Buildings Council and the Ancient Monuments Board had great scholars, but did not punch above their weight with the wider public, or reach a wider audience. English Heritage has been able to square that circle effectively.

I quote the observations of a distinguished historian who is a friend of mine:

“The new statutory body is set up by these means and funded for seven years, but what is happening thereafter….£80 million is also trumpeted as a means of immediately repairing and maintaining the ‘collection’ of buildings, but it won’t go far and again will come to an end, leaving…a lot of particularly fragile, ruinous structures at the mercy of fragile local trusts to run them and pay for expensive repairs. Stonehenge may pay its way”— or possibly not, given the price increase we have heard about today—

“many others cannot. Then, of course, there is the issue as to whether Historic England will feel pressured into giving expert advice to developers as a means of raising income.”