Cathedrals and the Future of English Heritage – Commons debate

The number of visitors to cathedrals, not counting other churches, is some 11 million people a year, which is equivalent to current visitor levels to English Heritage properties – Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry MP, 2/4/14

On 2nd April 2014 Rt Hon Sir Tony Baldry MP, Second Church Estates Commissioner, spoke in a House of Commons debate about the future of English Heritage.

Sir Tony raised the importance of ecclesiastical buildings to the cultural heritage of the nation and asked for assurances that altering the status of English Heritage would not change the valuable work done by their conservation specialists, so weakening the progress of research and support available to those who operate listed and heritage buildings.

Future of English Heritage

14.01 CCQ Baldry

Sir Tony Baldry (Banbury) (Con): The whole House owes a debt to the hon. Member for Darlington (Jenny Chapman) for securing the debate. I declare an interest as a member of English Heritage. The image on this year’s membership card is a statue of King Richard III, whose mortal remains were recently discovered in a car park in Leicester—an outstanding feat of English archaeology. We now await the decision of the courts as to which of our noble cathedrals those mortal remains will be buried in.

I hope the House will allow me to make a short contribution to this debate in my capacity as Second Church Estates Commissioner. I will fully understand if the Minister replies in writing rather than responding at the end of the debate, given all the questions that other Members are going to ask.

Helen Goodman (Bishop Auckland) (Lab): To all Members.

Sir Tony Baldry: Yes, to all Members.

From the Church of England’s perspective, I will emphasise three points raised in the consultation on the proposed split of English Heritage. As currently constituted, English Heritage plays an important role in progressing and sharing new discoveries in building conservation.

The fact that the research specialists have their own estate on which to conduct trials and see problems at first hand means that they have a wide and deep knowledge of complex conservation issues. There is a risk that the split will isolate those conservation specialists from the estate, and thus weaken the progress of their research.

As Members will appreciate, churches are among the most complex historical buildings. The Church of England has within its stewardship 16,000 churches, 12,500 of which are either grade I or grade II listed. If everyone thinks of their local parish church, work will often have been done over many centuries, so we obviously have a considerable interest. Several major churches are currently involved in the nanolime trial research project for stonework conservation. Such research is valued by many across the heritage sector, and it would be an enormous pity if that work were either weakened or lost.

Secondly, English Heritage’s current role as a heritage advocate to Government is invaluable. As a whole, I suspect that the Church of England is big enough to defend and promote itself, but heritage is clearly not our primary purpose. The Church of England’s primary purpose is the care of souls, and English Heritage’s role in taking up the banner for the contribution of the heritage sector is key. The loss of English Heritage’s cathedrals team in 2009 demonstrates what happens when such advocacy is lost. For the past five years, until the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s welcome recent Budget announcement of £20 million to help with the maintenance and repair of cathedrals, there simply was no national funding for pure building repairs to cathedrals, which led to an £87 million shortfall that now has to be addressed collectively. Without English Heritage to speak up for cathedral repairs, cathedrals had to fight long and hard to be recognised as the key heritage assets that they are. With the statutory side of the new English Heritage being potentially vulnerable to ongoing and understandable reductions in Government funding, the Church of England needs to warn now that it would be disastrous if that loss of advocacy were to spread across the heritage sector.

Thirdly, the Church of England has its own action plan under the national heritage protection plan and has found the NHPP to be a useful mechanism for marshalling projects and prioritising work. We feel strongly that the NHPP should continue to form the business plan for heritage and should be held and managed by the statutory side of English Heritage. That is linked to my point about advocacy, as it is incredibly valuable for heritage organisations to be able to unite under the NHPP banner and for the Government to see that, in that way, English Heritage speaks for the sector as a whole. A strong English Heritage means a strong heritage sector that contributes to growth, renewal and community.

In addition to those three specific points, which I emphasise, the consultation document asked a number of specific questions, and it may help the House if I share the Church of England’s response to a small number of those questions. Although we agree strongly with the proposed benefits of the new model for the national heritage collection, we are concerned that the new charity may have an adverse impact on the funding available to churches, as the charity is likely to make strong demands on the Heritage Lottery Fund. The number of visitors to cathedrals, not counting other churches, is some 11 million people a year, which is equivalent to current visitor levels to English Heritage properties. We ask that the importance of ecclesiastical heritage not in the care of English Heritage be given due weight in funding decisions.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport (Mr Edward Vaizey): I hope my right hon. Friend welcomes the £20 million that the Chancellor announced specifically for cathedrals alongside the new money for English Heritage. The Government are putting £100 million into our heritage.

Sir Tony Baldry: Of course I welcome that money, and I have taken every conceivable opportunity to welcome it. I have written to every colleague.

Mr Vaizey: Not to me.

Sir Tony Baldry: Every colleague with a cathedral in their constituency. My constituency is a few miles from Christ Church cathedral, which benefits from Henry VIII’s munificence, so it does not count in that context. I have praised the funding at Church Commissioners questions, and I kneel before the Chancellor whenever he passes to thank him for the £20 million for cathedrals. We now need to start working on other bids. Of course we are grateful for the money we have received, but that has to be seen in the context of the estimated £87 million-worth of urgent and essential repairs that our cathedrals need. I suspect that we will get some match funding for that £20 million, but these are complex issues.

Research into historical buildings and their treatment is important work undertaken by English Heritage using its own properties. That work must not be lost by the new charity, which might not be able to prioritise that work due to limited resources. If the new charity does not take on the conservation research team, Historic England should be allowed to access the national heritage collection for research. The outcome must be that either the new charity or Historic England is required to research historical building preservation.

The advice provided by the present English Heritage to the Church of England through its response to faculty consultations, to staff membership of diocesan advisory committees and to the Cathedrals Fabric Commission for England is extremely valuable. That input helps to keep the ecclesiastical exemption strong and robust, and the advisory work should continue with Historic England and be free at the point of delivery. The nation’s built heritage is an extremely valuable part of our national life.

We are sympathetic to what the Minister and his ministerial colleagues seek to achieve. Indeed, I personally and the Church of England as a whole are extremely grateful for the support that we receive from Ministers in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The Minister’s fantastic and outstanding advocacy within Government for financial support for cathedrals was evidenced in the recent Budget, but it is important that we get right some of the important structural and organisational issues in the Government’s proposals, so I hope the Minister will consider carefully the Church of England’s responses.


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