Heritage Action Zones — [Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 3:13 pm on 19th December 2018.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Digital, Culture, Media and Sport) (Digital Economy) 3:13 pm, 19th December 2018

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I do not intend to distract the House for very long because we have had a good and thorough debate. I congratulate Jack Brereton on securing it. We did not hear much about Wedgwood in his 23-minute speech, but it is entirely appropriate that a representative from Wedgwood’s hometown secured this debate.

As we know, Wedgwood was one of the great pioneers and entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution, but his field of interest extended far wider than simply the business of pottery. He was a great civic entrepreneur. What he created in Etruria was a model not only of modern factories, but of modern communities. He was a civic entrepreneur with a great interest in civil engineering, so his great push behind the Grand Union canal literally changed the economic geography of our country by providing the crucible of the industrial revolution in the west midlands, with new access to the ports, particularly the ports of Liverpool.

This debate needs the inspiration of great forebears such as Wedgwood. That is a long way of saying that I think the starting point for this debate and the consensus on which I want to start is the idea that our heritage and history bring us together. A deepening understanding of the place around us helps us to develop a sense of our own place in the world around us. That is why heritage action zones are such a good idea and I, too, add my congratulations to Historic England and its partners in local authorities and elsewhere on introducing and developing the initiative. We can learn a great deal from it.

Heritage action zones are particularly important for the Opposition, because we know now that culture is an important driver of modern economic development. We have seen it in towns and cities around the world. We saw it in spades in the extraordinary year of culture in Hull and we are now seeing it in the great city of Coventry, superbly led by my friend, the leader of Coventry Council, George Duggins. Many of us relish what will go on in Coventry. I hope the Minister will have the opportunity to spend some time there and draw out some of the lessons from that successful council’s leadership to inform others.

I want to add a particular note about industrial heritage and its role in town centre action zones. I agreed very much with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South when he underlined the importance of that particular aspect of town centre heritage. I commend the superb report written and presented by my hon. Friend Nick Thomas-Symonds, who chairs the all-party group on industrial heritage. He underlines the way in which industrial heritage can often be better protected and celebrated by ensuring that there are good development plans for town centres. The history that we find in our town centres is often one of the big magnets—one of the big draws—and therefore one of the secrets to economic development in the years to come. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen wrote:

“Industrial heritage has to be accessible: both physically, and to our modern, diverse communities.”

That is a lesson that we are now seeing incorporated in some action zone plans.

However, we have to be honest about the challenges. The scale of the fund, £55 million, comes nowhere near close to filling in the gap carved out by a 32% cut in council funding over the past few years. As the son of a planner, I feel quite strongly—this will echo some of the comments that we have heard this afternoon—about bad planning decisions scarring the urban landscape taking shape around us. Very often, such decisions are made these days because there are no planners left. In the great city of Birmingham, for example, very few people are left in the planning department. As for the number of architects now employed by local authorities, once upon a time I think half the country’s architects were employed by councils, but now there are very few left. I am afraid that that has implications for the quality of planning decisions and the urban environment that we will leave to the people who take our place.

Equally, we have to be realistic about the economic pressure that now weighs heavily on our high streets. That is of enormous importance to this House. Our high streets contribute some £100 billion to our economy and employ some 21,000 people. It is not a marginal issue in the debates that we have about the future of our economy; it is of critical importance.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, through its programme, “New ideas need old buildings”, made the point that our historic quarters are very often the crucibles of new ideas, new businesses, new jobs, new potential and new opportunities, which is something that we see in my home city of Birmingham. In the jewellery quarter, for example, ably represented by my hon. Friend Shabana Mahmood, we see a flourishing of small business that has helped to ensure our city is now the second biggest home for start-ups outside London. If we wander around the jewellery quarter, we see a lively amount of economic activity as new businesses begin to flourish.

In conclusion, I want to make three points to the Minister—advice, perhaps, from the Opposition. I have two general points and one specific point. I will follow others in adding to his list of good ideas that need much closer attention. The first is that, given the economic pressure on high streets and the scale of cuts that have been made in local authorities, the Minister and those of his poor officials not currently engaged in no-deal planning in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would do well to look at Labour’s idea for a £1-billion cultural capital fund to put in their bid to the comprehensive spending review next year. If the House believes that culture has a critical role to play, not just in equipping the country for the digital economy, but in making sure that we put the requisite level of investment into the ideas we have discussed this afternoon, it will not happen for free. Local authorities are not geared up to supply the funds that are needed. Therefore, it is important that a good strong culture bid goes to the Treasury from the Department next year.

The second idea that I urge the Minister to look at is the Daily Mirror’s high street fightback campaign. The Daily Mirror has done a good job, zeroing in on a concern that is of huge interest around the country. It has been well backed by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and its general secretary Paddy Lillis, and it has developed a common-sense manifesto of ideas, such as free bus travel for young people, free wi-fi, good bus routes, a register of landlords for empty shops, and regular reviews of business rates. Those are good ideas, which the Department should champion if it wants to advance the agenda set out by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South.

I want, finally, to make a point about Birmingham. As the Minister will know, the second biggest civic collection outside London is in Birmingham. The civic collection of art and historic artefacts is worth something like £2 billion—there are about £1 billion-worth of paintings, and about £1 billion-worth of objects. Many of the objects are now languishing in a warehouse in Nechells that has a leaky roof and is prone to floods.

Why on earth are we allowing High Speed 2 to develop, in the middle of our city, something that looks like a shed, with limited design and cultural potential? Why are we not using that massive-scale investment in a brand new High Speed 2 station, at the heart of the industrial revolution, to create the greatest science museum in the country? Why do we not designate the area around Curzon Street a heritage action zone? Why do we not use the hundreds of millions of pounds of new investment to create a space enabling us to take the objects out of the warehouse—artefacts going back to the days of Boulton and Watt—and build a facility that means that anyone who arrives on the high-speed train in Birmingham knows they are arriving at the home of the industrial revolution? The director general of the Science Museum and others from our home city will lobby the Minister about that in the coming months. However, some positive vibrations from the Minister about the notion would be welcome this afternoon.