House of Commons inquiry
‘We find the logic unconvincing…’
‘Heritage Under Threat’: the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s inquiry into Heritage Protection 2006
By the time you read this, the Heritage White Paper may have been published, but probably not. It was due ‘in the autumn’ – a season which may now stretch beyond January. There may be several reasons for the delay. One could be a consequence of David Lammy, the heritage minister, giving an assurance that his department would take into account the Commons Select Committee’s findings from its recent inquiry into heritage protection – the subject of this article.
another could be that Ruth Kelly, the secretary of state for communities and local government, is proposing a ‘radical’ white paper on local government reform. given that the Heritage Protection Review (HPR) proposes greater responsibilities for local authorities (and with so few being statutory at present), it is not difficult to see that heritage reform and local government reform should go hand-in-hand. But on the basis of past performance, don’t hold your breath. any delay to the introduction of legislation could of course delay the much-vaunted new heritage protection regime in 2010.
The House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s inquiry into heritage protection began in January. a compressed timescale aimed to enable it to report before the anticipated publication of the white paper (then thought to be May).
The aims were seven-fold and wide ranging:
1) What the Department for Culture, Media and Sport should identify as priorities in the forthcoming heritage white paper
2) The remit and effectiveness of the DCMS, english Heritage and other relevant organisations in representing heritage interests inside and outside government
3) The balance between heritage and development needs in planning policy
4) access to heritage and the position of heritage as a cultural asset in the community
5) funding, with particular reference to the adequacy of the budget for english Heritage and for museums and galleries, the impact of the London 2012
Olympics on Lottery funding for heritage projects, and forthcoming decisions on the sharing of funds from Lottery sources between good causes
6) What the roles and responsibilities should be for english Heritage, the Heritage Lottery fund, local authorities, museums and galleries, charitable and other non-governmental organisations in maintaining the nation’s heritage, and
7) Whether there is an adequate supply of professionals with conservation skills; the priority placed by planning authorities on conservation; and means of making conservation expertise more accessible to planning officers, councillors and the general public.
There was a strong response from the sector, with over 150 written submissions. Initial analysis highlighted two issues. first, to address the heritage protection reforms properly in the time available, the inquiry would have to defer considerations affecting museums, galleries, archives and collections (which will now take place this winter). Second, four key constituencies had not come forward through the written evidence: local government interests; individual owners’ concerns; the role of the then ODPM; and heritage skills.
given that one of the most significant elements of the HPR is the transfer of additional responsibilities to local authorities, including additional powers such as determining scheduled monuments consents, it was surprising that no formal written evidence was submitted by the Local government association, by the english Historic Towns forum or by the Royal Town Planning Institute (although, after prompting, submissions were eventually received from the last two). Very few individual local authorities submitted evidence, perhaps reflecting widespread ignorance of the full extent and costs to local authorities of the anticipated additional responsibilities.
There was also an absence of representation from individual building owners. although submissions from the Historic Houses association (HHa) and the Country Land and Business association (CLa) detailed their excellent work and the views of their members, these represent a particular small constituency drawn primarily from rural country houses.
With nearly 70 per cent of all listed
buildings in residential use (and a further estimated 4.4 million dwellings in conservation areas ranging across inner-city suburbs to market towns to villages) this is a very considerable part of the sector without a clear representative voice. These owners have generally been disregarded since Power of Place in 2000 and remain essentially disenfranchised.
Despite the major role of the DCLg in planning policy and local government more generally, the department presented no written evidence to the committee. This was extraordinary given its crucial responsibilities for such issues as local development frameworks (and the diminished status of conservation area policies and guidance); development control performance (with up to 30 per cent of all planning applications being heritage-related); statutory asset management (including council-owned and managed listed buildings, and their disposal); the building regulations; as well as a wide range of other local authority regulatory and financial functions. although Baroness andrews gave oral evidence for the DCLg, the sense of discontinuity of policy with the DCMS and the low priority were almost palpable.
finally, buildings must be maintained and repaired if they are to be enjoyed by future generations. Not only must there be skilled advisors, there must be skilled tradesmen and contractors. While the IHBC and others submitted evidence about the shortage of professional skills, there was silence from within the industry on the deficit of craft skills, despite a comprehensive survey of the considerable current shortages, published in 2005. No evidence was submitted from, for example, the National Heritage Training group, the Heritage Building Contractors group or CITB-Construction Skills.
When the inquiry began, the sector’s expectation had been that the white paper would do little more than announce a statement of intent to take forward most of the proposals in the 2003 Heritage Protection Review: to establish a single Register of Historic Sites and Buildings to replace the current disparate lists, registers and schedules of buildings, archaeological sites and monuments, and so on; to transfer responsibility for the designation of sites from the secretary of state to
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english Heritage; to introduce a new voluntary management system for complex sites; and to introduce a unified regime for applying for consent for works to historic assets. If the secretary of state was proposing any radicalism, it was not to emerge during the inquiry.
Respondents to the committee’s call for evidence were therefore clearly hoping for more, in particular for a statement on the value of heritage to the nation, engendering a sense of personal identity, place and community, pride, and maintenance of community memory; improving a community’s quality of life; offering value as a cultural, educational and economic resource, and as a means to fulfilling cross-government objectives.
Whatever the outcome of the inquiry and the government’s response to it, it was clear that expectations within the sector had been raised however comprehensive (or otherwise) the white paper would eventually turn out to be. furthermore, there were expectations that heritage should address other pressing unresolved issues such as Shimitzu and go beyond only those identified by english Heritage through the HPR.
Oral evidence was taken in six sessions in february to april from the national amenity societies; the redundant churches sector; the National Trust; the HHa and CLa; professional organisations including the IHBC, Ifa and aLgaO; and ecclesiastical and industrial archaeological interests. Liverpool and Manchester City Councils, english Partnerships and the Northwest Regional Development agency gave evidence at a session in Liverpool and concluded in London with the Heritage Lottery fund; Heritage Link; english Heritage and the two government ministers.
The inquiry produced four volumes documenting the written submissions, the evidence and its conclusions. The committee made 57 recommendations.
The documents can be downloaded from www.publications.parliament. uk/pa/cm200506/cmselect/ cmcumeds/912/91202.htm.
The government is obliged to respond formally to select committee inquiries and should have done so in this case by the time you read this (although it had not appeared by the time this article was written).
The committee concluded that historic buildings were at risk unless the sector was properly resourced. It concluded that the government must start to provide english Heritage with the money and political support it needed. ‘We find the logic underlying DCMS’s explanation of why funding to english Heritage has decreased in real terms in recent years unconvincing, and it inevitably leads observers to conclude that its claim to attach priority to heritage issues is cosmetic and not borne out by the facts.’
The committee called on the government to ‘take action to ensure that english Heritage can fulfil its functions properly’ and warned that english Heritage should not be expected to fund its portion of the costs of setting up the government’s new heritage protection regime unless it received more funding.
MPs questioned the extent to which the DCMS championed heritage in joined-up working across government and urged the secretary of state to convince the Treasury to supply the financial support which the historic environment deserves. The committee was particularly disappointed that the DCMS had failed to ensure tax breaks for repair work on listed buildings. ‘The present VaT regime for repairs distorts priorities, rewards neglect and works against conscientious maintenance of historic assets. The result can be either a slide towards demolition or a call on public funds for grant aid’. This conclusion aligned with the ODPM Select Committee’s views in 2004 in its
heritage and regeneration inquiry.
The prime minister also came under criticism for failing to include the UK’s heritage in his letter to Tessa Jowell outlining the challenges facing her department. It was felt that this did not auger well for a forthcoming Heritage Bill. The committee commented: ‘The omission of a reference to the importance of the historic environment from the prime minister’s recent ‘priorities letter’ to the DCMS is a surprising and worrying omission... We encourage the DCMS to restate the priority it attaches to the role of the historic environment, and the government should remedy this omission in its response to this report’.
The committee also urged that the campaign demonstrating the growing public appetite for knowledge about the past should be maintained, and that continuing engagement with historic sites would be the key to their preservation. ‘Heritage assets, once lost, can not be replaced; they are a very special resource and we are only now beginning to realise their full benefits.’
finally, and crucially for the IHBC in particular, the committee called on the government to ensure that local authorities receive sufficient funding to enable them to discharge their new responsibilities under the new heritage protection reforms.
This was the first specific Parliamentary inquiry into heritage since 1993. If it has had no other benefit, it has articulated many of the key concerns of the sector. The evidence captured and published by the committee will be invaluable in moving the aims of the sector forward. It is hoped that David Lammy – despite his lack-lustre performance before the committee – will agree.
Bob Kindred MBE was special advisor to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee’s inquiry into Heritage Protection and also gave evidence to the inquiry on behalf of the IHBC.
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