Future of English Heritage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:36 pm on 2nd April 2014.

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Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale Chair, Culture, Media and Sport Committee, Vice-Chair, Conservative 1922 Committee 3:36 pm, 2nd April 2014

I congratulate Jenny Chapman on obtaining the debate. The proposed change is a huge one for English Heritage and it is right for us to have an opportunity to consider it in the House.

The Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport, which I chair, has taken a close interest in English Heritage for some years. We understand that the budget of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport has been under considerable pressure and that within it English Heritage has perhaps borne greater reductions than some other funding bodies. There is no question but that it has had a difficult time. It is a remarkable achievement by the Minister to manage to persuade the Treasury to come up with an extraordinary amount of money to sustain English Heritage—we hope—in the longer term. I pay tribute not just to the Minister but to his predecessor, my hon. Friend John Penrose, who was in the Chamber until a short time ago, and who, I think, played a large part.

The scheme is radical and imaginative, and I welcome it in principle. The Minister will understand that there are one or two concerns, and I hope he will use the opportunity to set minds at rest on certain points. In particular, it is estimated that the backlog of maintenance repairs for English Heritage properties is of the order of £52 million, which will be funded out of the £80 million. That is welcome, although I take the point made by my hon. Friend Tim Loughton about the impact on visitors while the work is taking place. However, I should be interested to know where the estimate of £52 million came from. The Minister will be aware that some people argue that the maintenance and repair backlog for English Heritage properties is even greater. Indeed, I have seen figures of up to £100 million.

The hon. Member for Darlington raised the central point of what happens once that money is spent. The intention is that English Heritage should become self-sustaining in the longer term, but only a small number of its 400 properties generate serious income. English Heritage has a few iconic sites such as Stonehenge, and Dover and Kenilworth castles, but an awful lot of its sites do not generate revenue. If there is an expectation that in a few years the property portfolio will be capable of generating the kind of money that will be needed to sustain the required maintenance work, we need a little more confidence about that, and an indication of what will happen if the target is not met.

In particular, we are concerned that Historic England’s budget should not be raided and that the new charity should not be able to divest itself of certain properties if it is not capable of sustaining them. I seek a little more detail on that issue. I am also concerned about the impact that a more aggressive marketing campaign for English Heritage properties will have on the heritage properties in private ownership. The Historic Houses Association is having a difficult time, and its life will be made much more difficult if faces tougher competition from English Heritage properties. To what extent has that been taken into account?

Finally—the Minister and the Opposition spokesman need time to make the winding-up speeches—reference was made to the role of local authorities. I am deeply concerned about the extent to which the resource in local authorities, in the form of conservation officers, has steadily declined. There has been a massive loss of expertise in local authorities, which is making Historic England’s job more difficult, as well as local authorities’ role in preserving the heritage for which they are responsible. I wonder whether the Minister would like to say something about that as well.