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Chatham Dockyard

Volume 164: debated on Thursday 21 December 1989

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12.30 pm

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise the important matter of the historic dockyard in Chatham.

In June 1985, the Secretary of State for Defence announced the closure of one of our royal dockyarcls— Chatham. That was a trauma for the people of the Medway towns, and particularly for the people of Chatham. For centuries the names of the Royal Navy and Chatham have been synonymous. Many people in Medway towns worked in the dockyards, as their fathers and grandfathers had done before them. It was urgent that the Government should ensure that the valuable riverside site in Chatham should not become a derelict eyesore but should be redeveloped to maintain and improve the quality of the environment in the Medway towns and to provide job opportunities to replace some of those lost by the closure of the dockyard.

The Government also faced the problem that one fifth of the acreage of the dockyard is the great historical section of the famous yard. That is in my constituency. When one walks through the famous gate, one is confronted by the most complete Georgian dockyard in Britain. Nelson joined the Navy there, and his flagship Victory was built there around 1760 and rebuilt there between 1803 and 1804.

The dockyard comprises some 100 buildings, and 47 of them are the greatest concentration of scheduled ancient monuments in one place in Britain. To preserve that great heritage, the Chatham Historic Dockyard Trust was set up in 1984 as a company limited by guarantee. Its objectives were prepared by the Government and they were, first,
"to secure for the public benefit preservation and use of the historic dockyard in Chatham in a manner appropriate to its archaeological, historical and architectural importance"; and, secondly,
"to promote and foster for the public benefit a wide knowledge and understanding of the archaeological, historical and architectural significance of the Historic Dockyard".
The Government gave the trust the freehold of the site so that it could pursue those objectives and meet the criteria. They also gave the trust £.11,350,000—they did not say how they arrived at that figure—and a number of large industrial artefacts which were extremely expensive to move and set out for display.

The Government also gave the trust the responsibility to honour a contract, which had already been embarked on, for repairs to the ropery. Those who are not familiar with Chatham dockyard should be made aware that the ropery is a brick building some quarter of a mile long with a roof to match which the House may be interested to know supports one mile of guttering. The contract that was embarked upon was for £2,650,000, but turned out to cost £3,023,000, which had to be deducted from the original £11·5 million.

The public had previously been allowed in to the dockyard on Navy days, but in July 1984 the visitor centre and the whole historic dockyard was opened to them for the first time. There is now a living, working museum. Ropes are being made in the ropery and sold; flags are being made in the flag loft and sold. An historic ship is being repaired and restored and there are five museum galleries. The wooden ships gallery has recently been completed and the trust now wants to embark on an iron-clad gallery. There are facilities for temporary and visiting exhibitions, a steam centre and an extensive education programme which encourages schools and school parties to visit and make the most of the educational and historical opportunities there.

There is a seasonal theatre company, a range of annual special events, concerts and theme weeks. Visitor numbers have gradually increased as the museum has developed. This financial year, they numbered 95,000, which was a 43 per cent. increase on the previous year. The all-party heritage group, the chairman of which is my hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire, South (Mr. Cormack), were recent, distinguished visitors. My hon. Friend hoped that he might return to the Chamber in time to speak in this debate, but he has sent me a letter saying that the group was extremely impressed with the progress being made and the quality and excitement of what is on offer at the dockyard, and that I should convey to the House its strong support for the plea that I am making.

The trust's strategy can be encapsulated quite briefly. The museum's theme is principally to tell the story of the building of British warships and the life of dockyard workers. It is to develop housing in the dockyard. There is a magnificent terrace of 12 Georgian buildings there. To bring people to live in the dockyard again, a high-quality scheme has been prepared which we hope will be completed in 1992–93 and enable 82 families to return to the dockyard. The scheme provides facilities for maritime and craft-related tenants. So far, we have more than 50 tenants, two thirds of whom meet those strict criteria. By about 1993 the trust hopes to have developed residential courses in maritime-related skills and crafts on offer to the general public.

To the initial endowment, the trust has attracted, generated and earned through the gate donations and grants nearly £1·1 million. It also has £500,000 in loans, making a total of £12,453,000. The trust appointed a full-time fund raising officer in October 1988 further to develop and increase the fund-raising activities. The number of visitors has increased and a charge is made on them. That income has risen to £107,000 in the financial year that has just ended. Income from the 50 commercial tenants has risen dramatically to £195,000 in line with the growing rents on commercial property in the Medway towns.

The trust has doubled its original money by wise investment and income generation. A simple summary of the trust's current position is as follows. Capital receipts and commitments to date total £12·5 million. The reduction for the restoration liability—which was very heavy as it involved a concentration of 47 scheduled buildings—has declined from £22 million to £15 million and the total expenditure to date has been £13·5 million. At the end of the current financial year, the total remaining funds are a little less than £8·5 million.

I bring this case before the House in prudence before the trust's funds reach a lower level. The management team has recently completed a draft budget for 1990–93 because it wants to look ahead at the level of expenditure on further restoration and development of the museum facilities. The trust is committed to further restoration as the buildings concerned are scheduled buildings. The trust is committed to their restoration because the Government have scheduled them as a precious part of the nation's heritage and that restoration will cost a further £15 million. The development of the museum that is outstanding, including the iron-clad gallery, amounts to £5 million and a sum of £4 million is required to fund the budget deficit. In total that is just over £24 million.

I have already placed this matter before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. I know that the all-party heritage group has visited the museum and has listened to the facts. It fully supports my comments today. I trust that my hon. Friend the Minister will be able to convey to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State my wish to see his commitment to our national heritage and his reassurance to the trust which is caring for it.

The museum site is unique in Britain's history. The work on the site to date has been carried out expertly by the trust which has some very devoted trustees under the chairmanship of the chairman and chief executive, General Sir Steuart Pringle, former commandant general of the Royal Marines. Their work is of high quality. They have mapped out the path ahead, and I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will express a further commitment to that work and match it with the necessary funding.

12.44 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment
(Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Dame P. Fenner) on securing this debate and raising the important matter of the future of Chatham's historic dockyard. The dockyard is widely recognised as one of the nation's most important heritage assets. Indeed, it is probably the most complete Georgian dockyard in existence. Chatham was once the country's premier fleet base and, later, a most important repair and building yard. It is a memorial and a testament to British sea power. My hon. Friend has described its importance.

The Government's recognition of the historic importance of the dockyard was clearly reflected in our commitment to assist its preservation when the royal naval dockyard was closed in 1983. That commitment was delivered by the establishment of the Historic Dockyard Trust in 1984, together with an endowment of £11·35 million. That money went towards the cost of preserving and maintaining the built heritage assets. We have also given added legislative protection to many of the buildings and sites within the dockyard—50 are scheduled ancient monuments, and 13 of them are also listed.

The Government accepted, on the trust's inception, that the costs of maintaining the buildings and developing the site into a "living dockyard" through a mix of visitor facilities, light industry and housing would probably exceed £11 million. However, it was rightly felt at the time that, with a vigorous development and marketing strategy, the new trust would be able to supplement its endowment with private sector investment. So it was made clear to the original members of the trust that the £11 million was for the preservation and maintenance of the site and was not primarily intended to finance the developments that were necessary to establish the site as a heritage and tourist attraction.

We did not, and do not, underestimate the difficulty of attracting such private funding and, so far, the trust has not been as successful in attracting private support as it had hoped. Nevertheless there has been considerable additional finance from the public purse since 1984. English Heritage has provided about £420,000, the National Heritage Memorial Fund has provided £130,000, the English tourist board has offered a £200,000 repayable grant, Kent county council has contributed £360,000 with the prospect of more by way of a loan, and Rochester upon Medway city council has contributed £50,000.

I pay tribute to the considerable achievements of Lieutenant General Sir Steuart Pringle, his fellow board members and the staff at the trust over the past five years, particularly for bringing back into imaginative use a number of the historic buildings.

My hon. Friend has well described some of those activities and new facilities. The initiatives have attracted more than 50 commercial tenants, and developed the heritage assets of the dockyard for thousands of visitors to enjoy each year. We also welcome Sir Steuart's continuing commitment and enthusiasm to build on these achievements.

Despite the indisputable historical importance of the dockyard, however, I do not think that the House could readily or easily agree to the allocation of further public money at this stage—certainly not to the £24 million that Sir Steuart is seeking. But I recognise the Government's obligation to the funding of heritage projects—indeed, our overall budget next year will be about £150 million, compared with Government expenditure of only £37 million in 1979. Within this large national sum the grant-in-aid to English Heritage is nearly £80 million, of which it aims to spend about £30 million on repair grants to historic buildings throughout the country.

Despite the significant overall budget for heritage and the increase over the past 10 years, we must be cautious about spending large sums on any one site which would prevent money from being spent elsewhere. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Medway knows that there are many pressing candidates for additional spending in other parts of the United Kingdom.

There are, indeed, many worthy causes for public and private patrons. To see and understand the very best of objects and buildings from the past is important to our national way of life. It helps us to define who we are as a people. It helps us to form roots and it is an important component of education. The country's rich and valued heritage—of historic towns and villages, great houses and early industrial and military sites such as Chatham —has also provided a base for our growing tourist industry.

Against that background, I can assure my hon. Friend that the Government remain keen and concerned to identify a way forward for Chatham which is acceptable to all concerned and which secures the long-term future of the dockyard. The task is by no means easy; we do not dispute that the trust has a particularly difficult job on its hands. But, as my hon. Friend knows, we are undertaking detailed discussions with Sir Steuart to identify options for the future.

Senior officials from the Department will be meeting Sir Steuart again early in the new year; I think that the date is set as 10 January. That follows visits to the dockyard in October and November by my hon. Friend the Minister of State with responsibility for heritage matters, and my noble Friend Lord Arran on behalf of the Ministry of Defence. I am pleased to note that the chairman of the all-party heritage group also visited the site and I shall take careful note of his comments—in particular, of his message of support to my hon. Friend for today's debate. We shall pursue with the trust the feasibility of its current development strategy and its plans for attracting private investment and looking for new and increased commercial opportunities.

Does my hon. Friend accept that it is extremely difficult to get private patronage or support for maintaining the fabric of many historical buildings?

I acknowledge that. That is why, when the trust was set up in 1984, the £11 million endownment was primarily designed to be spent on the repair and maintenance aspects of the site. In addition, we recognised that development expenditure would be required, and that should be funded, at least in part, from private sources. I have emphasised throughout that we understand the difficulties of attracting such funding. I am pleased to note that a fund-raising officer was appointed in October 1988. That is a welcome development and we look forward to learning about what the trust plans to achieve through that appointment.

We all admire the vision of Sir Steuart and his colleagues, but we must be wary of counsels of perfection, even in the context of a unique asset such as the historic dockyard. A Rolls-Royce development plan would require massive short and long-term public investment, and that may not be realistic or feasible. However, I hope that a sensible compromise can be identified. I will convey these thoughts and the views of my hon. Friend to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, as she has asked. I hope that we can find a way to enable the trust to meet its original objectives—albeit over a longer time than it might have wished—and to secure the effective preservation of this historic dockyard.