Heritage Assets: Uxbridge and South Ruislip

– in Westminster Hall at 11:00 am on 16 January 2024.

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Photo of Steve Tuckwell Steve Tuckwell Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip 11:00, 16 January 2024

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered the protection of heritage assets in Uxbridge and South Ruislip constituency.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship in this—my first Westminster Hall debate.

“Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few.”—[Official Report, 20 August 1940;
Vol. 364, c. 1167.]

As I am sure colleagues will know, those words were immortalised by Sir Winston Churchill, as Prime Minister, on 20 August 1940 in the House of Commons Chamber, only a few steps away from this very room. The speech containing those famous words came at a time when Nazi invasion was long suspected and indeed feared. Adolf Hitler knew that if an invasion of the British Isles were to be successful, the German Luftwaffe would have to establish superiority over our skies. This was inconceivable, but by the end of June 1940—only a couple of months before Churchill gave his speech—the Luftwaffe’s superiority in terms of planes seemed insurmountable, with a count of 2,550 planes to the RAF’s 750.

Let us fast forward a couple of months. With war now raging over the skies of Britain, the sound of a Spitfire or Hurricane drawn into a dogfight against its Nazi foe echoed all around. The airfields of southern England faced the full force of the Third Reich, and what’s more, by 16 August the resources of Fighter Command in this part of the country had almost been completely spent. In Churchill’s speech, he remarked on and paid tribute to the enormous bravery and sacrifice of Fighter Command and the wider Royal Air Force. Sir Gary, I hope you will forgive my short history lesson; I know how famous those words are, how they epitomised that point in the war, and everything they represented.

What many people do not know, however, is that that day in the Commons Chamber was not, in fact, the first time that Churchill spoke those words. Indeed, the first time he quipped, “Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few” was four days earlier in my constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip. On 16 August 1940, Churchill, along with Major General Hastings Ismay, visited the then RAF Uxbridge, including what we today call the Battle of Britain Bunker. The trip was especially eye-opening for the then Prime Minister, as it was from that bunker that No. 11 Fighter Command operated.

Of the four Fighter Command groups, No. 11 saw the most action during the battle of Britain, shooting down many of the 1,700 enemy aircraft lost during the war. The sheer scale of No. 11’s work was evident when, on Churchill’s visit, each squadron in the group was actively engaged in combat, right at that moment, against the continuous Luftwaffe raids pouring from over the channel. When leaving the bunker, Churchill said to Ismay,

“Don’t speak to me;
I have never been so moved.”

A couple of moments later, while still reflecting on what he witnessed, he turned and uttered those famous words. No. 11 Fighter Command’s continuous defence on that day was not a one-off either. Churchill would go on to write in his memoirs

“all the bulbs glowed red” in reference to the tracking boards in the bunker’s operation room, which showed each group’s squadron engaged on 15 September that year as well.

It was not just as the stage from which Churchill uttered his famed words, or as the home of No. 11 Group’s operations, that the bunker underlined its important part in the history of Uxbridge and South Ruislip and of the entire country. I am incredibly proud of the part that the bunker played in our national history, and of the immensely courageous and brave men and women based there during the most momentous moment in Britain’s history. I am also proud that the bunker not only exists, but is one of the most popular places to visit in my constituency. I hope to be able to welcome the Minister there soon.

The bunker shows what can happen when local interest groups, alongside the wider community—those keen to preserve important parts of our history—are given institutional support. After the war, No. 11 Group relocated elsewhere, with Dowding unveiling a memorial close to the bunker entrance noting the role it played during the second world war. Thirty years after the war, and through painstaking work, the operations room of the Battle of Britain Bunker was recreated in that very room, through the tireless work of those committed to the building and its history, and those associated with it. A couple of years on, a museum was opened in the bunker, with the operations room open to visits.

When I was growing up, the bunker was an incredibly interesting place for me to visit and to learn more about my local area’s ties with the wider war effort and the role it played protecting Britain in some of her darkest days. Much of the work, however, was done off the back of volunteers and special interest groups, which is why in 2015 the whole community was thrilled when the Government pledged £1 million to fully restore the bunker, and even more people were able to visit through a specially built visitor centre. Alongside that pledge was a multi-million pound grant from Hillingdon Council to celebrate and build the visitor centre. Along with its incredible popularity, the bunker demonstrates what can happen when local heritage projects and assets have institutional support, whether from local or national Government or established charities and organisations.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Human Rights), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Health)

I remind the hon. Gentleman, as I think he probably already knows, that the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland has some of the richest heritage around. We in Northern Ireland have some of that, including at the Conlig mines, where the first world war and second world war soldiers trained. The hon. Gentleman mentioned funding. It is incredibly important that the seed funding and help for councils to develop our heritage is made available. Does he agree that when it comes to the Minister’s input, which we very much welcome, the opportunity to have projects in my constituency of Strangford should also be supported?

Photo of Steve Tuckwell Steve Tuckwell Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip

I think that later in the debate we will see how the Minister responds on the issue of funding, but I thank the hon. Member for those remarks.

What is more, this does not always have to be about funding; it can be about advice and even signposting. I recently spoke in the main Chamber on a similar project, so I look forward to the Minister expanding on other ways in which local residents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip can access support and guidance to ensure that the heritage assets that they believe are worth saving can be saved. I hope to come on to a number of those.

Just as decades ago it played host to the valiant men of No. 11 Group, Fighter Command, the Battle of Britain Bunker has now become the very place where those people’s stories are told. I wholeheartedly thank all the team who work at the Battle of Britain Bunker for all that they do as part of this important work. As I have already noted, the bunker’s experience shows how local heritage assets can be protected. The process can be summed up in three stages: identification, protection and capitalisation. Each of those stages can have its own pitfalls. For the remainder of my time, I will try to address each of these within the local context of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

We are incredibly lucky to have organisations such as Historic England, which maintains the “Heritage at Risk” register, giving a yearly glimpse at the state of England’s heritage fabric. But the register can make for troubling reading. For instance, the 2023 edition details 392 buildings, 98 places of worship and 25 archaeological sites at risk in London. Altogether, with the other categories combined, there are 599 entries from across London. For the Borough of Hillingdon, the register contains 44 entries, including historic stables, crumbling church walls, a cinema and Hubbard’s Farm Barn and outbuildings in Uxbridge. However, the register is only as effective as the information that it contains, and I am sure that, despite the valiant work of Historic England, some sites may go undetected, known only to niche local knowledge and unfortunately then lost when that local knowledge is lost. On this, I would like to repeat my ask of the Minister to highlight how residents in Uxbridge and South Ruislip might go about highlighting the local assets that they are worried about, and how they can get them through the first and most important step of the protection process.

I have said that the register can make for troubling reading, but it can also provide a positive glimpse into the state of heritage preservation in our communities. For example, the 2023 register details that 203 assets, including 41 sites in London, were removed from the register for positive reasons. These success stories show the importance of identifying heritage assets at risk, as they underpin the protection process that I have been talking about. However, any prospect of this success stands to be undercut by a lack of suitable funding and expertise to get the work under way suitably, sympathetically and in a way that will ensure longevity.

Here is where I draw on another part of Uxbridge and South Ruislip’s aviation history—although to call RAF Northolt “aviation history” is not quite true, as it is still a fully working airfield, dealing with commercial and military flights, including Government, both national and international, to and from London. Established in 1915, RAF Northolt actually predates the establishment of the Royal Air Force and is the longest continuously used RAF airfield in the country. Like the Battle of Britain Bunker, RAF Northolt has a number of links with the second world war, but especially with the battle of Britain itself. Indeed, RAF Northolt was the first airfield to receive the Hawker Hurricane in 1937, two years before the outbreak of the second world war. The Hurricane, often overshadowed in the public psyche by the sprightly Spitfire, was the workhorse of the battle of Britain, inflicting 60% of the Luftwaffe’s losses. Four out of the five squadrons based at RAF Northolt at the time of the battle of Britain would fly Hurricanes during that time.

One of the squadrons that we are especially proud of in Uxbridge and South Ruislip was No. 303 Polish Fighter Squadron. The squadron was made up of Polish forces who were withdrawn to Britain following the 1939 invasion of Poland and then the fall of France. By 1940, 8,000 Polish airmen had arrived in Britain from across the channel. Unlike many of their British counterparts, the Polish pilots were incredibly experienced and had already had wartime service. Despite that, many of the Polish servicemen were originally met with scepticism and often relegated to jobs that left them stood firmly on the ground. The 303 Squadron would go on to serve with enormous heroism and skill. Indeed, during the battle of Britain, the squadron shot down the greatest number of enemy aircraft. Air Chief Marshal Hugh Dowding noted:

“Had it not been for the magnificent material contributed by the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of the Battle would have been the same.”

Neither that nor the service of the Polish squadron is lost on my residents. We are proud custodians of the Polish air force memorial. Dedicated to Polish airmen who lost their lives during the second world war, the memorial stands close to the airfield’s south-eastern corner.

All squadrons based at RAF Northolt during the battle of Britain and beyond demonstrated great courage, skill and resolute determination, and 30 allied airmen from the United Kingdom, Poland, Belgium, Canada, Czechoslovakia and New Zealand were killed after flying out of RAF Northolt. That is why I would like to draw the Minister’s attention to one small part of the airfield’s fabric that those overseeing the airfield believe to be at risk and would like to preserve. The physical space of RAF Northolt went through a lot during the second world war, with the Luftwaffe concentrating its efforts on crippling Britain’s air superiority by targeting airfields. More than 4,000 bombs fell within two miles of the airfield in just over 14 months. During the war, the airfield was camouflaged to look like housing from the air to confuse the German bombers, and a stream was even painted over the primary runway. The only problem was that these designs were so ingenious that they even fooled allied pilots when approaching Northolt for the first time.

The airfield saw so much of the physical effects of war and the lives and stories of the brave few. That is why it is important to protect the remaining fabric of the airfield such as the scramble hut, which airfield authorities are looking to preserve and to better protect. To have this physical asset harking back to a point of huge bravery during wartime, while continuing to operate as an RAF airbase, would underline the timeless notions of bravery, commitment and what is right. I hope the Minister will agree to meet me, the airfield authorities and other local groups to discuss how best to preserve this second world war asset. Hopefully we can guarantee the stories of those who have used it, including our Polish allies, and continue their legacy of fighting for what is right.

So far, I have explored the first two parts of the heritage asset journey: identification and protection. The final part remains. For this last stage, I am departing from the aviation of Uxbridge and South Ruislip and instead making a pit stop at another local point of pride for many residents and myself: our pubs, and especially our historic heritage pubs. Across our area, we are incredibly lucky not just to have pubs but to have historic pubs. This is a topic I have contributed on before in Westminster Hall, although I hope that you will allow me the chance to briefly revisit it, Sir Gary.

Photo of Gary Streeter Gary Streeter Conservative, South West Devon

I just want to make clear that I want to give the Minister a good 10 minutes to respond and that the debate must conclude by 11.30 am.

Photo of Steve Tuckwell Steve Tuckwell Conservative, Uxbridge and South Ruislip

Okay, I will move on. In the 16th-century Red Lion, regulars and one-off visitors can sup a pint or something less alcoholic, taking in the pub’s original Tudor fireplaces and beams. One of the most distinctive and storied pubs is The Crown and Treaty, which is historic and entwined with this very place. Both sides of the English civil war met in the pub to discuss a document that proved to be ill fated and short lived. The treaty of Uxbridge was an attempt at negotiated peace between the two sides, which had already been at war for three years. The treaty failed, but the pub is still going after 400 years.

As I said earlier, this is a potted history of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, and I recognise the work that the Department has already done on heritage asset protection and especially their engagement with myself. I hope that the Minister and hon. Members leave this debate with greater knowledge of places to visit when they are next in Uxbridge and South Ruislip.

The process of ensuring that an asset survives is identification, protection and consistent consolidation. These assets are more than just structures; rather, the stories of ordinary men and women and of extraordinary situations and moments in history are woven into their fabric. Finally, I look forward to working with the Minister to ensure that these stories of the few are left for the many to hear and learn from in the centuries to come.

Photo of Julia Lopez Julia Lopez Parliamentary Secretary (Cabinet Office), The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology) 11:19, 16 January 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Gary. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Steve Tuckwell for securing this debate. I was on maternity leave when he was elected, so I belatedly welcome him to this place. I am proud and glad to be responding to his first ever Westminster Hall debate, which is on such an important subject. As he knows, we are committed to protecting the historic environment for the benefit of present and future generations.

As my hon. Friend said, he has a significant number of important historic buildings in his constituency, many of which are already protected for future generations to enjoy, including a total of 148 listed buildings—nine at grade II* and 138 at grade II. The most recently designated was the church of St Mary’s, South Ruislip, which was listed at grade II in 2022. It is clear that Uxbridge and South Ruislip is a standout place for heritage and history, particularly military history. He and I have similar constituencies in many regards. Our constituents are virulently anti-ultra low emission zone, and we have histories of protecting the capital of our nation in the battle of Britain. RAF Hornchurch is in my constituency, and my hon. Friend eloquently set out the role that his constituency played.

I recommend that my hon. Friend join the armed forces parliamentary scheme. I did so, and I was honoured to be able to go to RAF Coningsby in Lincolnshire, which had the battle of Britain memorial flight. I also had the opportunity to visit RAF Northolt on that tremendous scheme, which connects today’s parliamentarians to the service and sacrifice that so many of our fellow citizens have made over the course of our nation’s history.

One of my projects on maternity leave was publishing the memoirs of my late auntie, who spoke about her time in Bexley when London was under the blitz. We forget about the terrible human cost that was paid by ordinary people in those terrible times for our nation, so I am grateful for the role that our constituencies played in protecting London.

The story of Uxbridge and South Ruislip is an important source of local pride, but it also brings in visitors and has an important and positive economic impact. I am speaking on behalf of my noble Friend Lord Parkinson, the Minister for Arts and Heritage, but I am the tourism Minister, so I recommend my hon. Friend’s constituency, which I have visited, to those who are interested in military history and those from across the world who want to think about the role this nation played in the war.

The primary way that my Department protects heritage assets is through the designation system, which highlights an asset’s special interest and value to this and future generations, and provides protection under law. The grade I listing of the Battle of Britain Bunker means that potentially harmful changes to it are given particularly careful scrutiny through the listed building consent process. DCMS works closely with Historic England to protect England’s heritage. Historic England gives expert advice to the Secretary of State on the listing of historic buildings and the scheduling of ancient monuments, and to central and local Government, property owners and other stakeholders. Anybody can request an assessment through Historic England with a view to listing a building, and it can then set out, with its experts, the process to ensure that an applicant has all the information they need for a listing to take place.

My hon. Friend mentioned Historic England’s “Heritage at Risk” programme, which is another excellent way to ensure that our most vulnerable heritage sites are highlighted and protected. The risk register also has available repair grants, which are given to local community groups. Again, that is something that my hon. Friend might consider.

I mentioned that my constituency has RAF Hornchurch. We have a fantastic band of volunteers, and it sounds like my hon. Friend has a similar group in his constituency. There are myriad ways in which local volunteers can leverage their position in the community. In my case, they did work with a developer to get some section 106 and community infrastructure levy funds to help to fund local heritage. Similarly, work is under way in my constituency with National Highways to help to protect some of our heritage. My hon. Friend might look into those initiatives, and his band of volunteers can also look at the National Lottery Heritage Fund as a potential avenue for funding.

According to the community life survey, 5% of all adults who have volunteered in the last year did so in the heritage sector. There is enormous enthusiasm across many people’s constituencies for that kind of work, and I want volunteer groups to be aware of the range of ways in which they can access it. The Friends of the No.11 (Fighter) Group Operations Room are very appreciated by our Department for the vital work they do so that others in London and beyond can understand our history.

Historical buildings are also a key part of our high streets. The £95 million high streets heritage action zones programme, delivered by Historic England, looks at how we can remind people of the histories of their high streets. As I said, the battle of Britain bunker is an important tourism destination. Local lists also play an essential role in building and reinforcing a sense of local character and distinctiveness in the historic environment. Historic England provides guidance on local heritage listing for councils, community groups, and other interested stakeholders. The assets of community value and community right to bid initiatives are further opportunities for local groups to protect locally important assets. The heritage action zone scheme has also worked closely with building preservation trusts, such as Valley Heritage in Lancashire and the Tyne and Wear building preservation trust, to support community groups in ownership of particular assets. That is something that my hon. Friend’s local group might want to explore. I encourage local groups across the country to contact our public bodies and their local councils for advice on how to support heritage in their area.

My hon. Friend also mentioned another important aspect of our country’s heritage: historic pubs. As he so perfectly summarised it in the debate on heritage pubs back in November:

“They are not just pubs. They are our communities;
they are our history.”—[Official Report, 16 November 2023;
Vol. 740, c. 24WH.]

There are currently over 12,250 listed pubs in England. That is 3.2% of all listed buildings, so the appreciation for the local boozer is well known and appreciated by people across the country. Since 2015, a number of listings have taken place as a result of research projects into heritage pubs undertaken by Heritage England. I am sure my hon. Friend is aware that barriers to the serving of building preservation notices by local planning authorities have been removed by the Levelling-up and Regeneration Act 2023, which means that historic buildings at risk of development or demolition can be protected much more quickly. Through measures such as our designations process and the serving of building preservation notices, our historic pubs, such as Uxbridge’s nearly 400-year-old The Crown and Treaty, can be preserved for generations to come.

I shall pass on my hon. Friend’s kind invitation to the heritage Minister, my noble friend Lord Parkinson, who sits in the other place. We will also look at this issue from a tourism perspective. I thank my hon. Friend again for bringing such an important debate to this place and highlighting the fantastic history that his constituency has to offer the rest of the country.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.