I congratulate Jenny Chapman on securing this important debate. English Heritage does fine work to protect historic places in England, and to preserve the past so that future generations may discover it. I fully appreciate the hon. Lady’s concern that it should remain financially secure, so that key historic sites, and particularly those that do not attract high numbers of visitors, will be protected. However, it is vital during the changes that English Heritage should do all it can to allow people to be involved with historic sites in their area. That lets them connect with their heritage, and it will help to preserve historic sites and improve their financial viability. Sadly, that is not what has happened to Fort Brockhurst, in my constituency. My remarks will be blatantly parochial and will deal with the performance of English Heritage in my area.
Fort Brockhurst is an imposing structure built in the 1850s and 1860s to protect Portsmouth harbour against a French invasion. The sides and top are covered in grass; clearly Victorian architects assumed that that might fool the French. It has a magnificent red brick, moated keep, gun ramps and fascinating buildings, but there is also a massive green space in the middle, which local people enjoyed for decades. It played host to many concerts and even car boot sales over the years, and other events that brought the community together. However, it also brought to life the military history that is such a feature of the Gosport peninsula. It became a tangible asset for generations of youngsters, who grew up proud of their area’s role in the defence of the nation.
Unfortunately, such events ground to a halt, and that striking example of mid-19th century fortification is now open to the public for only a few hours a month, in the summer. Throughout the winter its doors are barred to all comers. It is a gently rotting relic of the past, with no life or role in the community where it used to have an integral place. Would not it be wonderful if the community could rally together to breathe life back into it?
The situation is frustrating, because there exists a community organisation in Gosport that has been willing and able to staff the site, provide tours, and maintain and restore it. It is called the Gosport Shed. It is a social club for older men, and it gives retired men a chance to keep active by working with their hands, mending things and learning new skills while meeting new people. As many as 800,000 people in England are chronically lonely, and many are older or retired men. Groups such as the Gosport Shed offer them great opportunities to make new friends and take up a new hobby. A wonderful man called Martin Corrick founded it to help retired men battle social isolation and depression.
Originally Gosport Shed struck a deal with English Heritage to make its home in Fort Brockhurst. It was a fantastic example of local people coming together to do something for the community. Maintaining the historic site also offered older people a project to give them a renewed sense of purpose. I know that the local curator was supportive, but unfortunately the group felt that English Heritage threw obstacles in its path, until eventually, its tenure recently became unsuitable and unsustainable. The group has now moved out, and thankfully has found a new home at Priddy’s Hard, the home of the Explosion! museum of naval firepower, which is also in my constituency. Thanks to the Portsmouth Naval Base Property Trust, members will help to restore the grounds and the amazing old buildings, and will offer guided tours of the ramparts. They have been welcomed with open arms. Yet, although the Gosport Shed has found a new home, Fort Brockhurst remains locked up, and for most of the year is closed to the public. Officially it is used for storage, although it is beyond me to think what could reasonably be stored in a damp, decaying building.
Does the Minister agree that in a discussion of how we protect historic buildings, it is crucial that English Heritage should remember that it is the guardian of our heritage, not that of clerks, curators and museum keepers? Fort Brockhurst should offer local people the chance to connect with the history of the region, rather than being a dusty old store room. It should play an integral role in the community. English Heritage says that it wants community groups to consider local heritage, and that it wants to encourage people to be involved in preserving history. Unfortunately, however, when local people tried to help preserve an historic site, they were shut out. Does the Minister agree that it is regrettable that they were not only shut out of an old building, but were shut out of part of their history?
Our unique heritage is not something to be kept under lock and key. It should be a living thing that groups and individuals feel they can engage with. I do not know whether the example I have outlined is an isolated one. I hope that it is. Does the Minister agree that, to face the future, we must remember that we and English Heritage are guardians of our heritage, and that there is little point in preserving that as a dusty relic that no one can see, enjoy, learn from or participate in?