Future of English Heritage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:20 pm on 2nd April 2014.

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Photo of Roberta Blackman-Woods Roberta Blackman-Woods Shadow Minister (Communities and Local Government) 3:20 pm, 2nd April 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mrs Osborne.

I congratulate my hon. Friend Jenny Chapman not only on securing this important debate on the future of English Heritage, but on the measured and informed way in which she set out the issues involved. I also take a moment to thank Sir Tony Baldry for his special pleading on behalf of cathedrals and successfully getting more money for them in the Budget. If the Minister could see to it that some of that money comes the way of Durham cathedral, that would be great—I thank him.

I endorse many of the comments made by my hon. Friend Mr Marsden in his excellent speech. I will comment on the impact of the Government’s proposed changes to English Heritage in the north-east and in my constituency in particular, but I will first speak more generally about the vital role of English Heritage in securing our national heritage. If the Minister will forgive me, I will set out a series of anxieties about his proposals. If he could come back to me with some reassurances, that would be helpful.

As we have heard, English Heritage was set up by the National Heritage Act 1983, so it has not had a huge amount of time to get established. I am not sure that the Government have yet demonstrated clearly why there is a need for change, beyond the assertion that the system is not working. English Heritage had three prongs to its activities: to preserve ancient monuments and historic buildings; to promote the preservation of the character and appearance of conservation areas; and to promote public enjoyment of such areas. If the Government are promoting change, they need to be clear about the particular aspect of English Heritage’s work on which it was not delivering. That case has not been made. The Government, however, plan to create a new charity arm of English Heritage to manage the national heritage collection and a new non-departmental organisation, Historic England, to carry out English Heritage’s statutory duties.

I am concerned about the Government’s proposed changes to the national heritage collection, but in the time available I want to focus on the possible impact of the proposed changes to English Heritage’s role as statutory adviser and consultee on heritage sites outside the collection. English Heritage has a broad remit to manage the historic environment of England beyond the 400 or so sites in the collection, which includes scheduled ancient monuments, listed buildings, registered parks and gardens, and conservation areas in England. A key part of the English Heritage remit is to advise the Secretary of State on policy and in individual cases such as the registering of listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments. That role is vital to my constituency. Durham is a beautiful, historic city; we have many such historic cities throughout the country, but none of them is quite as beautiful as Durham. The role of English Heritage in protecting that environment and in ensuring that it is there for future generations to enjoy cannot be overestimated.

English Heritage’s remit includes archaeology, historic building sites and areas, designated landscapes and the historic elements of the wider landscape. It also monitors and reports on the state of England’s heritage. I am concerned that the Government’s consultation did not give enough weight to such a significant part of English Heritage’s role. The organisation also acts as a custodian of last resort if heritage sites are at risk. Safeguarding that role is particularly important in the north-east, due to the region’s unique heritage. Border conflicts have left a lasting legacy of defensive sites, such as Hadrian’s wall and, in my constituency, Durham castle.