Future of English Heritage

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:41 pm on 2nd April 2014.

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Photo of Helen Goodman Helen Goodman Shadow Minister (Culture, Media and Sport) 3:41 pm, 2nd April 2014

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Osborne. I must declare an interest, as I am a trustee of Auckland castle. I congratulate my hon. Friend Jenny Chapman on securing this important debate and on making such a good opening speech, which gave an excellent overview of the work of English Heritage and the financial issues that have arisen from the Government’s proposals. I did not know she was an archaeologist, but it was clear that she did a lot of digging in preparing for her speech.

I thank my hon. Friends the hon. Members for Blackpool South (Mr Marsden) and for City of Durham (Roberta Blackman-Woods). My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool South has been involved in this issue from the very beginning, and he has brought his great knowledge and experience to bear. There is no more passionate defender of Durham than my hon. Friend the Member for City of Durham.

The quality of the built environment is incredibly important to people’s well-being, and their sense of place is defined by the buildings around them. Indeed, some buildings become the institutions in people’s minds. Thus, for many people, Parliament is Big Ben, and the Church is their local parish church. Therefore, how we care for, preserve, enhance and use our heritage sites is incredibly important. If it is done well, it is a source of pleasure and enjoyment for generations to come. There is, of course, an economic and financial payoff from the tourism income it generates for the country, but it is worth doing in itself; it is not a burden but a privilege. Our aim this afternoon is to test whether the Minister’s proposal will achieve those aims.

It is logical to put the management of the 420 sites into a charitable trust while retaining their ownership by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, given the 45% cuts to English Heritage in this Parliament. It is welcome that an £85 million dowry from the Treasury has been secured and that there will be greater management freedom to raise money, but will the Minister guarantee that the sites that are currently free will remain so? What will happen if other sources of income do not materialise? He is assuming a philanthropic income of £84 million in a climate of huge pressure on philanthropic funds, which other hon. Members have described. Is that £84 million realistic? What will happen if it does not materialise?

Local authorities are under massive pressure, totally, if I may say so, caused by the 40% cuts imposed by the Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government. High-profile sites might attract grants and philanthropic giving, but what about the others? Even more worryingly, what will happen to English Heritage’s role as custodian of last resort? What if there is another Windsor castle? What if another building that is not in the English Heritage or National Trust portfolio is seriously damaged? If Castle Howard has a big fire, are the Government seriously suggesting they will walk away? What contingency has been made for that? Nigel Hewitson of Norton Rose said:

“The distinction between English Heritage and the National Trust is that the former is the custodian of last resort…The National Trust won’t take properties on unless they have a dowry for future maintenance.”

English Heritage does precisely that.

That is far from being an unrealistic risk, as the news from Hadrian’s wall amply demonstrates. The trust set up to safeguard the wall is to be closed down as a result of funding cuts. Staff at Hadrian’s Wall Trust face an uncertain future. The body tasked with managing the world heritage site will be lost. English Heritage has reduced the funds for Hadrian’s wall management over the past three years. We are told that a working group will be chaired by Northumberland county council, the partnership will be chaired by Cumbria county council, and there will be a steering group with members from the public, private and voluntary sectors. I am sorry to say that that sounds utterly chaotic. People in the north-east cannot believe that the Government can rightly find a lot of money to invest in Stonehenge but cannot get their act together adequately to look after Hadrian’s wall. People do not believe that that would have happened if the wall were in the south. It is shameful that the northern extent of the Roman empire, marked with wall built 2,000 years ago, is in doubt under the Tory-led Government. It is amazing that the Romans were able to build a wall 1,500 miles from their capital but the Minister cannot look after one 300 miles from his.