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English Heritage

Volume 450: debated on Monday 9 October 2006

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State visited Stonehenge last month. She will be speaking at the launch of the English Heritage report on 15 November and will visit more English Heritage sites in an official and private capacity by the end of the year.

My constituency probably has more listed buildings than almost any other area of England and I was pleased recently to welcome both the chairman and chief executive of English Heritage to the underground bunkers in Corsham and to Brunel’s famous Box tunnel, but is the Minister not concerned that, if the rather peculiar plan to bring in a hybrid Bill to de-list and then to demolish to Commonwealth Institute building in London is brought forward, that will set a worrying precedent for buildings at risk across England?

We are having discussions on the Commonwealth Institute, but those discussions are unique. There is no other building whose sale and listing have a bearing on education in the Commonwealth. We clearly have a responsibility in that regard and that is why we are having the discussions.

It is always a pleasure to welcome the Minister to the Stonehenge world heritage site in my constituency and it was a pleasure to welcome the Secretary of State last month, together with the chairman of English Heritage and the Roads Minister, and, significantly, a Treasury official. Are the Government fully apprised of the importance of the development of the visitor centre at Stonehenge, of getting the decision on the road right and of the fact that this is about the Olympics as well? It is not in competition with the Olympics but should be seen as complementary to the Olympics, as showcasing the best of English Heritage properties to the world.

There is no doubt that Stonehenge is a great iconic site and incredibly important to Britain’s heritage, and that is why the Secretary of State made her visit recently and why I too have visited it in my present capacity. The hon. Gentleman will know that, because of the huge cost implications in relation to that site, there was a review that will be considered by Ministers shortly, and that must be right. I make no comment in relation to the planning matters raised, because those have been called in by the local authority.

Shurland hall in my constituency is a building in which Henry VIII had one of his honeymoons. Ten years ago, English Heritage put up special scaffolding at a cost of £200,000, probably more than the building was worth at the time; at one point I asked whether that could be listed. I am pleased to say that we have won a £300,000 award from English Heritage to restore the façade of this fantastic hall. When it is finished, would the Minister would come and open it?

It is generous of my hon. Friend to invite me to the scene of Henry VIII’s honeymoon, and I will surely visit in the coming months.

I appreciate the problems with regard to Stonehenge that the Minister pointed out, but may I try to ensure that it is predominantly a heritage rather than just a transport-related matter, and that the heritage rather than transport issues hold sway as far as possible? It is disappointing that, in the Secretary of State’s first five years at the helm, she failed to visit a single English Heritage property in an official capacity, as the Minister said in a parliamentary answer on 6 April. As well as her endeavours to acquaint herself with English Heritage property, will she ensure that its vacant chairmanship is taken up by a Government appointee not as closely associated with the Labour party as the incoming chairmen of Ofcom and Sport England?

Surely the Opposition can do better than that. The Secretary of State is the first Secretary of State for 20 years to introduce heritage protection legislation, which will be introduced shortly. She is the first to begin a discussion about the public value of heritage, which she began last year in her essay and which led to a huge conference in January with the heritage community. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State and others will decide the future chairmanship of English Heritage in an appropriate, transparent and open way.