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National Heritage

Volume 888: debated on Friday 21 March 1975

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3.23 p.m.

I beg to move,

That this House regrets the division of Ministerial responsibility by which the national heritage in private hands is threatened by the Chancellor of the Exchequer's capital transfer tax (despite the New Clause added to the Finance Bill), and that what remains in private hands, following the imposition of CTT, is threatened by the wealth tax which promises to remove the remaining resources of private persons preserving the national heritage for public benefit; further regrets that whilst the Secretary of State for the Environment through the Historic Buildings Councils endeavours with slender resources to prevent the decay and loss of historic buildings of outstanding importance, there is little liaison with the Parliamentary Secretary at the Department of Education and Science, who has responsibility for the Arts, which could be enjoyed by a far wider audience than at present if more use was made of existing historic buildings to house the arts in the form of music, drama, painting and sculpture where these things find a more sympathetic home than in the expensive clinical conditions of modern purpose-built buildings which Great Britain in her present state of economic stress can ill afford when faced with the pressing need to finance the National Theatre, now nearing completion, in a manner which will enable it to meet the expectations of the public who have waited for 117 years for the opening and the need to maintain all those other British artistic institutions whose present standards compare favourably with anywhere in the world; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to give urgent consideration to the question of Ministerial responsibility with a view to making better use of existing resources to the benefit of the people whose interests this Government claims to serve.
By a happy chance, we find ourselves with enough time to look at a big subject in more leisurely fashion than I had hoped. Seeing the hon. Member for Putney (Mr. Jenkins) taking his place on the Government Front Bench, and having in mind the expanded form of motion which I put on the Order Paper for fear that I should never be allowed to make a speech on the subject this afternoon, I almost live in hope that I shall receive a reply by a Minister of State in charge of the arts and the national heritage, and I am tempted for a moment to think that I see that Minister in the presence of the hon. Gentleman.

However, having had some experience over a fairly long time in the House. I fear that I have not so quickly achieved my aim and I understand that, in fact, the Minister with responsibility for the arts is here this afternoon to look after the affairs of the Department of the Environment. I understand that Department's difficulties in sending a Minister to the House for an occasion which might not even materialise, and I can only hope that those at work in it are usefully employed elsewhere in looking after the national heritage.

We should not have half the problems to which I shall refer if there were a Minister whose influence and scope covered the subjects under discussion. I want to develop that theme at some length. However, before doing so I should ask the Minister about a vital matter which affects many people in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. King), who has the added advantage of an hon. Friend in the House today who can ask the Minister a direct question about a pressing local problem which has national significance.

This is Architectural Heritage Year Europe, and yet we understand from this morning's Western Gazette that 35 masons, sawyers and labourers have been served with redundancy notices by the Portland stone firms. That is a pretty depressing picture in Architectural Heritage Year Europe, and I believe that the Under-Secretary of State, through his colleagues in the Department of the Environment, could do something about it at once.

There is a contract for the Crown offices at Cathays Park, Cardiff, for which the Property Services Agency of the Department of the Environment is responsible. I believe that the stonework for that project which will be needed in early 1976 could well be embarked upon now, thus keeping these valuable men in work. The Minister will know that if skilled men are lost from an industry of ancient skills it is possible that they will never return in better times.

That leads me to make another suggestion. Stonework has a habit of keeping for a very long time, and I should have thought that it would not be impossible for the Government to keep the stone firms and a number of other craft industries in work preparing stonework to be put into works of restoration or new construction perhaps some years ahead. Indeed, some restoration work of historic buildings is much better done with stonework which has been cut out of the quarry and worked and left to season. Some of the stark new work would not look so stark and new if it had been able to weather at Portland, where there is plenty of space for stone to weather. I hope that the Minister will give special attention to this matter. If he has not already thought about it, there is time for him to inquire of the Department of the Environment and give an answer today.

I began by saying that I believed there should be one Minister with responsibility for the arts and the national heritage. The Government invented the phrase "national heritage ", and I suppose that they know what it means. It is not a particularly attractive phrase, but no one has come up with a better phrase. It is the bringing together of a number of Government activities which have a profound effect on our lives. That. I believe, is the next sensible step. I have tried to raise debates with various Government Departments and Ministers over quite a long time. Now, a debate on a subject for which the Department of the Environment has considerable responsibility is being answered by the Minister responsible for the arts. That is perhaps a good beginning.

To bring the more civilised aspects of Government activity back into the mainstream of politics would be no bad thing. The public certainly require that they should be brought back into the mainstream. There is immense public interest in every aspect of parks and the national heritage.

But Government activity is not yet properly co-ordinated. Ministerial responsibility for the arts has been an up-and-down affair. Originally the matter came under the Treasury, which can be more civilised than some people might think. Then there was an Under-Secretary in the Department of Education who was raised to the rank of Minister of State. When the Conservative Party returned to office we had the Paymaster-General, but he was in the other place. Then for a brief period it was a Minister of State, again at the Department of Education.

I do not want to hurt the Under-Secretary of State's feelings when I say that he has been returned to the rank where all this began. I know that a Minister's influence to some degree de- pends on his personality and drive, but a Government are a somewhat hierarchical institution and a Minister of State would be able to achieve more than an Under-Secretary with less effort. Whereas an Under-Secretary has to fight hard to get things moving, a Minister of State has something of an advantage.

The Minister responsible for the arts has no authority in decisions which are vital to a wider field of enjoyment than the things which he seeks to promote. Museums, galleries and theatres house the arts and the Under-Secretary is to some extent responsible for them, but these are complementary to the original homes of the arts—the palaces and historic houses, where much that we term art was originally produced. They still play a great part, but they could play a far greater part.

The formation by my party of the Department of the Environment at last brought a lot of civilised activity under one head. It prevented the conservationists in the old Ministry of Public Building and Works from being defeated by the Ministry of Transport driving a road through what had been conserved. But that Department must be judged a vast affair in which some of the quieter subjects seem easily to get lost.

I believe that the relationships between the arts and their original homes, many of which are under the wing of the Department of the Environment, could produce a much more fruitful future with more ministerial cultivation. Historic buildings, representing as they do the finest craftsmanship that their owners could find, filled with the best works of art then obtainable and added to by succeeding generations, make them in effect into galleries and museums which existed long before most of our public collections were even thought of.

The Minister will recognise that the national collections for which he is responsible contain principally works of art which have been wrenched from the historic buildings for which they were created. Comparatively few works of art in our national collections were created with a public gallery in mind.

All this leads me to suggest that historic houses are far better places in which to see works of art than are the some- what antiseptic conditions of public galleries. There have been politicians—I will not say where I think they came from—who were very keen to drag away everything in private ownership and take it off to public collections, but now the public collections themselves say that they could not possibly cope with this situation, so I hope that the Government will think again. There are already encouraging signs in that direction.

Two other aspects of Government activity are involved—the regional arts associations, under the Under-Secretary, and the British Tourist Authority, with its various tourist boards, under another Department. There is no doubt that the activities of the regional associations could be based far more on existing historic buildings in public and principally in private ownership.

It would be far better to have a concert or exhibition at a stately home, where it could be enjoyed together with all the other things that such a place has to offer. I am not suggesting that it should be in conjunction with the zoo park associated with some stately homes. The majority of places do not have that sort of thing. That is where the regional arts should be directing their attention. They could achieve far more at much less cost than they would be able to do on the slender resources, a lot of them contributed reluctantly by local authorities with a separate empire of officialdom.

That shades off into regional tourist boards. There should be much more collaboration between tourist boards, the regions, regional arts associations and the owners of historic buildings. People come to Britain to see what? We are told that it is the theatre which comes first. We had a debate on that this week. The next attraction is the national heritage. How necessary it is to co-ordinate our efforts in that direction.

I could spend the rest of the afternoon happily talking about the problems of historic buildings. Perhaps we can have another debate on that subject later. We have had some helpful noises from the Government during the course of the Finance Act through this House, particularly during the debate on the capital transfer tax. The Select Committee considering the wealth tax is now wading through many problems, one of which is the national heritage.

If the Minister had been present at the public hearings of that Committee this week he would have heard the Inland Revenue agree that if there were a thousand major historic houses threatened by the wealth tax—that is not an exaggerated estimate—and if they all presented the same sort of problems as Hevening-ham, of which the Minister will have knowledge—Heveningham costs the Department of the Environment £30,000 a year and is an empty shell with some furniture in it—it would not be difficult to imagine that it would cost the nation £30 million a year to maintain those historic houses if private ownership was destroyed by the taxes the Government are determined to institute and if no exemptions were granted. Of course exemptions in conjunction with proper safeguards for increased public access are provided—although public access to the vast majority is not difficult now.

I am glad that the Minister responsible for the arts is taking an interest in this, because there is not much point in another part of his Department spending £30,000 a year on an increasing number of Heveninghams if it is not used to doing so. This is where the Minister comes in.

I suppose that there is no direct Government responsibility for great cathedrals, although there is a semiofficial interest in redundant churches. Historic buildings of all kinds are becoming more involved with government in one way or another. The Historic Buildings Council is tentatively moving towards a policy of helping buildings of an ecclesiastical nature. I wonder whether we make proper use of our churches—the ones still in use for worship, and long may they remain so—and the redundant ones. It ought to be possible to have a series of splendid concerts in our great cathedrals. They stand half empty for half of the time and completely empty for a lot of the time. They are splendid places for the performance of many great musical works such as Berlioz's "Te Deum" which, the Minister will have heard, has been completely recorded for the first time.

What a splendid event it would be if it could be performed in every one of our cathedrals in turn. Why not have a tour of cathedral concerts inspired by the Minister for the Arts? He might be able to find the necessary equipment which could travel around with the orchestra, because it would be pointless to have a special set of fittings made for every cathedral. The Minister may say that he is not responsible for that. However, as Minister responsible for the arts he must have an interest in all artistic activity wherever it takes place.

The Minister might direct his attention to the Musicians' Union. Sometimes the attitude of union members is self-defeating. Television provides a great opportunity for the arts. However, sometimes the unions make it almost impossible for concerts and opera to be broadcast because they demand fees which the television companies are not prepared to meet. The musicians should be persuaded that if they were prepared to see their work on television several times in exchange for more money, that would be of benefit both to the viewer and to the musician. However, at present there are too few opportunities of seeing such productions on television because of the musicians' restrictive attitude.

It is no good the Minister saying that it is all too difficult. It is not difficult if union members are given a financial inducement to perform. The Minister will be able to decide how that can be done, so that their work will reach millions of people by means of television when musicians can otherwise hope to reach only thousands during a lifetime.

The Minister is responsible for local museums. He informed me in reply to a Question that museums were primarily the responsibility of the local authorities. However, I am sure that he is still interested in museums. If he has any resources, I am sure he will help local authorities with their conservation services, since much lies mouldering in the basements of museums which never sees the light of day, and probably never will, because it will have mouldered away.

Can the Minister do more to foster the activities of local museums so that they can become a significant part of the communities in which they are situated? There are splendid examples of private enterprise museums in Dorset and in Kendal. Some municipal museums are good, while others are very bad. I hope that the Minister will lean upon local authorities and persuade them to make better use of their facilities.

Museums should provide centres for local amenity societies formed by happy bands of people, which have sprung up in almost every part of the United Kingdom. I wonder why there are so many amenity societies. I believe the reason is the failure of the planners and of officialdom to take people into their confidence. It is not surprising when we see the frustrations which the morass of planning law has produced. There is too much attention to petty detail and not enough vision.

The building regulations are applied in the most insensitive fashion by many local authorities. I wonder how many of them know that they can waive the building regulations in respect of any historic building. There is no need to put an aluminium picture window in the middle of a Tudor cottage. That process should he stopped, not encouraged. Sympathetic local materials can be used. That brings me back to the Portland stone argument. I do not refer to local stone ground up and pressed into uniform concrete blocks, because that is not a use of local materials in the true spirit of all the possibilities. Grants can be made to encourage the use of local materials.

Planners spend a good deal of time preventing new building. I wonder whether they pay attention to the removal of eyesores. All too often the atmosphere of a village is destroyed by a misplaced filling station or a building of that kind. I hope that the Minister will give a gentle nudge to the Department of the Environment to deal effectively with these matters. Financial incentives can be given to owners to clean and improve their properties. I do not refer to the mere dishing out of taxpayers' money, but perhaps one could say to them that if they provided something which was of community benefit from which they got a small return, they should not be taxed on that return. I hope that the Minister will look at that.

I want to leave the Minister time in which to make a brief reply. My last topic concerns the countryside as a whole. The landscape which we enjoy today was substantially man-made, except perhaps in the rugged North. Most of the landscape enjoyed by most people today was substantially man-made, but it was created to suit an agricultural economy, which has changed out of all recognition. The picturesque gives way to the practical.

I wonder how much the Forestry Commission is doing to plant for the future the hardwoods, possibly even the avenues, that we enjoy today. The avenues of the future should be planted today. I am prepared to bet that not one avenue of 100 yards was planted in Tree Year—" Plant a tree in '73 "—certainly not by a public authority. There may have been some private patrons who did. There is an avenue of monkey puzzles about 300 yards long in Scotland. I am not suggesting that we need another avenue of monkey puzzles. We have got one. But perhaps we should plant one now for the future.

Let us try to improve the landscape. What about the desecrations? Why do we not have all the hellish things in one place? Why not have the road, the line of pylons and the railway all in one place? All too often one hears of a splendid village having its views ruined by pylons. The planners say "It has not got the road or the railway. It must have the pylons." What nonsense that is.

I hope that the Minister will not forget about archaeology. These days, we destroy so much without knowing what was there before. Recently, a little booklet about New Palace Yard has been published by the Department of the Environment. I hope that a little money will be made available to help local authorities to record what they are wiping out.

I hope that some thought will be given to ways in which we can prevent people destroying that which they seek to enjoy. I am not suggesting restricted access to the countryside. That would be a most repressive measure. But we could do more with our modern aids to tell people who are setting off for the Lake District that 3 million people are already there that day and that perhaps they might choose another day on which to go.

That is quite a long catalogue. I hope that we shall now have a considered reply from the Minister. I remind him that there was an article in a newspaper recently entitled,
"Is Architectural Heritage Year a sham? '
I hope that it is not a sham. I intend to return to that subject in some detail. But I hope that I shall hear today that the Minister will at least give all these matters some thought.

3.48 p.m.

I have been asked to reply, and I am here today rather than visiting the Manchester area, and other places in the North-West, to establish what contribution is being made, for example, in its city museum to display the valuable objects which it has and which are part of the national heritage in that part of the world. Because the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Cooke) had today's Adjournment debate and because the matter which he intended to raise was of such current interest, it was felt that only the Minister responsible for the day-to-day handling of these matters should be here. Therefore, I postponed my visit to Manchester in order to be here for the Adjournment. However, I did not expect that the consequence of that action would be that I should be replying not only to the Adjournment debate but also to the immediately preceding debate.

I have often said that one of the advantages of this House is that it is like a theatre. It is an impromptu place with a changing and rather large cast. But, as a result of repeated performances by the hon. Gentleman and myself, people are beginning to feel that the cast is becoming rather small. They will think that even more by the time we reach the next debate, which will have the same two protagonists, albeit with a changed text.

If the Minister looks at the Order Paper he will see that the cast will be much larger for his Question Time soon after Easter.

Indeed, I am looking forward to that occasion with much interest. I hope that on that occasion we shall have a full cast. At any rate, this afternoon we have an audience. That is more than we had, if I remember rightly, at about 4 o'clock on Tuesday morning.

The motion is something of a curate's egg. If I may say so, it is a large curate's egg. It touches on a wide range of subjects. Because of that there are some points in it on which we find ourselves in agreement and there are other points in it with which the Government cannot possibly concur. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will understand that for that reason it will not be within my power to ask the House to accept the motion. I shall not be able to do that for reasons which I shall be making clear.

Before going any further I must refer to ministerial responsibility. As a back bencher I always felt that the division of ministerial responsibilities was wrong. I felt that if the lines were drawn in different places we could arrive at better solutions. Now that the time has come for me to occupy a seat upon the Government Front Bench I have not changed my mind. I find that most other Ministers seem to agree with me. Most Ministers nearly always feel that things would be rather better if they were responsible for just a little more. It is the universal ministerial process of imagining that if one can look after a bit more various matters will be dealt with a little better—goodness knows whether or not that would be the case.

I have a fairly full commitment in my present area of responsibility. I feel rather flattered that the hon. Gentleman is always seeking to add to my functions. I regard that as a form of flattery, but as the matter does not lie in my hands it is better that I try to get on with my present responsibilities as well as I can and not seek further responsibilities.

The fact that there is close liaison between Ministers with different responsibilities may be demonstrated by the fact that this afternoon my right hon. Friend the Minister for Planning and Local Government asked me to be present to reply to the debate as best I may. There may be some points which I shall have to refer to my right hon. Friend and not deal with personally. That is partly because I think there are matters peculiarly within his knowledge and responsibility and partly because there is not time to reply to all the points which have been raised in this wide-ranging debate.

One of the matters that I shall have to draw to my right hon. Friend's attention for a more extended answer is the question that has been raised about Portland stone. As I understand it, the project is a new Crown Office for the Welsh Office at Cardiff. Portland stone is being used, and it appears that the order for the stone is being passed through a sub-contractor rather than being directly ordered by the main contractor. That is a somewhat complex matter. Having covered the nature of the problem, I shall have to ask my right hon. Friend to consider it further. I feel that it is not a matter on which my right hon. Friend will be able to give the hon. Gentleman the kind of answer that he might wish to receive, because there is not a direct responsibility upon the Department of the Environment. The responsibility lies with the main contractor and with the sub-contractor who is ordering the stone. Nevertheless, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will wish to look into the matter personally, and if he feels that he can add suitably, encouragingly and effectively to what I have said in this brief reply I am sure that he will write to the hon. Gentleman or respond to a Question if he puts one down.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, South (Mr. King) is anxious to know. He is down there this afternoon, and perhaps the Minister could inform him with all possible speed.

I am sure that when the hon. Member for Dorset, South (Mr. King) returns next week he will contact my right hon. Friend. I think we can leave it to my right hon. Friend.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that the phrase "national heritage" was an invention of the present Government. I do not know whether it is. I do not think it is a bad phrase, but I agree it is rather vague. What is "national heritage "? Is an object part of the national heritage if it is privately owned? If I walk into a private house and see a valuable object and say "This is part of the national heritage and I should like to have it, thank you very much ", I should speedily be told that it is not part of the national heritage but is private property.

The phrase is used rather vaguely in different circumstances. I do not think that the present Government introduced it though we have referred to it and used it in our Green Paper as a convenient description—and it is no more than that—of what most people would regard as part of our history, part of our valuable objects and worthy of being retained in the general interests of our people.

The Government's determination to secure the preservation and enhancement of the national heritage, whether in public or in private hands, has been amply proved in both word and deed. In the Green Paper on the wealth tax we said that we
" recognise the danger that the wealth tax could lead to the dispersal of the national heritage; they intend to ensure that this does not happen and that instead our heritage becomes more readily available to the public generally."
The Select Committee which is now sitting will no doubt consider how to give effect to those intentions, and it is understood that the Historic Buildings Council will be submitting evidence to the Committee on the problem of historic building in private ownership. Other bodies have submitted, and will be submitting, evidence to the Select Committee, and I have made it clear to them that they should feel free to do so. The Arts Council will be submitting evidence, as will the Review Committee on the Arts. The Department, too, will be submitting its evidence. It is possible that we may differ, but this seems to me to be a healthy thing. I do not think one should be afraid of the possibility that different views may be put forward by different organisations all of which are active in an area which may possibly be regarded as coming under the umbrella of my Department.

As proof that we do not merely pay lip-service to the need to preserve the architectural heritage, the Government have increased the allocation for repair grants for historic buildings. This is done on the advice of the Historic Buildings Council. Repair grants have been increased from £1½ million in 1974–75 to £2¼ million for 1975–76, and conservation grants from £1 million to £l¼ million.

The preservation and enhancement of the national heritage, however, is not something which can be—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.