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War Memorials

Volume 497: debated on Wednesday 21 October 2009

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Blizzard.)

I thank Mr. Speaker for allowing me to address the House on the subject of the nation’s war memorials on the day after the launch of the annual poppy appeal.

My interest in war memorials began some time ago. My late father served 25 years in the armed forces, and one of his postings was to NATO headquarters in Belgium. My father organised family outings to visit the war memorials in that part of Belgium and northern France to seek out names of members of my family who had died in the first world war. By a quirk of fate, I attended a Canadian school at NATO headquarters in Belgium. The school took us on outings to Vimy ridge, where many Canadians lost their lives in the first world war. I was a teenager at the time, and seeing those cemeteries left a lasting impression on me—the symmetry of the white headstones, the stillness and quiet. But what stuck in my mind was the age of so many of the men—young boys really—who died when just a few years older than me.

When the family returned to Britain, I started to notice the village war memorials, big war memorials in towns, rolls of honour in churches, memorial plaques and many other forms of remembrance, not just from the first world war but from other conflicts. I got a sense that without graves at which to mourn, there had been a great upwelling of feeling in this country at the end of the first world war. Public subscriptions enabled memorials to be erected so that people had somewhere to go and grieve, and to remember the people whom they had lost in the Great War. That was not just for families; it was for communities. It was, in fact, for society. It was to ensure that none of us would ever forget those who had lost their lives in that conflict—as, indeed, none of us should ever forget those who are currently fighting for our country.

Every Remembrance day when, attending the main ceremony, I lay a wreath in Cleethorpes outside St. Peter’s church, I remember the cemeteries in France and Belgium. I remember the lives cut short. I think of all who are serving now, and of all who have lost their lives in more recent conflicts in Northern Ireland, the Falklands, Iraq and, now, Afghanistan.

I remember that when I had just been elected—it was one of those bitterly cold November days—standing with all the civil dignitaries, ready to lay my wreath, and thinking “This is not the only memorial in the constituency; there are many, many others. There are small village memorials, and there are memorials in other churches.” I made a little promise to myself that I would do my best to visit each and every memorial in my constituency. That has led me, over the past decade, to begin to record the names of the people commemorated on those memorials, and also to explore a little about their family backgrounds and the lives that they led. The period that I am discussing was one of great social change in Britain, certainly in the area that I represent. Because of the growth in the fishing industry, it was a time when thousands of people flocked to Grimsby and Cleethorpes to earn money. The whole social history is absolutely fascinating.

One of the memorials that I visited during my exploration of the constituency was in a very small village in the Lincolnshire wolds called Wold Newton. The names on the memorial cross had faded and almost vanished, but I took a photograph and put it on the computer. Having used all sorts of effects, I eventually managed to transcribe the names of four who died in the first world war and one who died in the Boer war, but I think that by now, because of increased weathering, those names have probably faded completely.

That was when I really began to think about the problem of memorials that have been weathered and memorials that are neglected. We must face the fact that although most memorials are well loved, not all of them are. I want to make people aware that those memorials exist. Although the families who raised money for them obviously wanted the names to be there for evermore, the names have faded.

That is why I feel so passionately that we must restore the war memorials in this country. It is not just about memorials that have faded or have been neglected; there is also the issue of development. Some memorials are threatened by demolition and road-building schemes, for instance. I know that there are memorials in many factories, workplaces and schools.

I am delighted that the hon. Lady has initiated this debate. She has mentioned schools. The issue of war memorials in schools has a particular resonance at a time when the country is involved in conflict. I have been lobbied by Mr. Michael Lyons of the Royal British Legion in New Addington, in Croydon, about the efforts being made to preserve school memorials when demolition is planned. A great deal of activity has taken place in relation to Building Schools for the Future. A very good ceremony took place in Applegarth school in New Addington last week, when “dead men’s pennies” from the first world war were put in a permanent exhibition. That will enable young people to have a good sense of remembrance of those who served our country so well.

I am glad that I accepted the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, in which he illustrated beautifully the way in which memorials are under threat. They are not all in listed buildings; in fact, three memorials in my local party office have been saved. If we had not done that, I dread to think where they might have gone. Luckily, some others have gone into local archives, for example. People just think of the main, free-standing memorials, and often forget that in many public buildings—schools, hospitals, fire stations and post offices—there were memorials to many other people who signed up, perhaps in the pals’ battalions, in the first world war. They are very telling memorials, and we must not let them be destroyed or neglected.

Knowing that I had secured this debate—and also because we are approaching the launch of the annual poppy appeal—on Friday I tabled early-day motion 2070. Many Members have already signed it, and I want to read it out as it summarises my emotions about this issue:

“That this House praises the British Legion’s Roll of Honour, English Heritage, Historic Scotland, the War Memorials Trust, the Imperial War Museum and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission for their work dedicated to commemorating those who have died as a result of conflict and to preserving war memorials in the UK and abroad; calls upon the Government to examine ways of assisting communities to preserve and restore the UK’s war memorials and rolls of honour in advance of the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914; and further calls on the Government to establish a national code of practice to protect war memorials from destruction, and to have a national day of commemoration on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.”

All the organisations I mention, such as the War Memorials Trust, do tremendous work. There is now a national inventory of war memorials, but it has only two full-time members of staff, although it has many volunteers. We have five years before there will be a lot of services of remembrance not only here, but throughout Europe and America, as well as in Australia and New Zealand because of the Anzac forces. We must do our bit. We must ensure that all our memorials are brought up to scratch in advance of that 100th anniversary. Five years seems a long way off, but I know that if we do not start doing something now, and if there is not a co-ordinated approach, some of the neglected memorials will remain neglected.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the tone she has struck in this timely and relevant debate. May I say to her, however, that I cannot imagine that any free-standing war memorial or cenotaph would be subsumed in building works, as I think most local authorities would make absolutely sure that that did not happen? She rightly and percipiently put her finger on another problem, which concerns memorials other than the free-standing ones. May I urge her to do something that I am sure she has already done, which is to encourage every Member of this House to contact the Royal British Legion, which is the custodian of the fallen, if ever there is any question of any plaque or memorial in any way being threatened? If that were the case, I would expect the Royal British Legion to contact its local Member, and I think well enough of this House to believe that no Member would turn aside a request from the Royal British Legion to honour our fallen.

My hon. Friend makes an important point, and he is right. The Royal British Legion has what it calls its roll of honour, and it has been asking volunteers to record the names on memorials throughout the country.

The problem, however, is knowing where the memorials are. When I first started doing this, I was thinking about cemetery gates, rolls of honour in churches, memorial plaques and so on, but I have discovered many more that I did not know existed. Although I knew this one existed, for example, I have asked many residents in my area whether they have noticed the first world war memorial in the main post office in Grimsby, and they tell me that they have not. That memorial was saved from a building that was demolished, but the one for the fire service is locked away in an archive. The issue is all about knowing whether memorials exist. If we do not know that memorials are in boarded-up buildings, particularly factories and redundant schools, that is a problem. A national inventory is so vital, because we have to get those things on record. Then we can contact the Legion to ensure that the memorials are protected.

Although the last Tommy has passed away, the number of people attending remembrance parades has increased in recent years—certainly in the past decade. That is because of things such as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website, where one can input the names of family members and find out about people. Intriguingly, as we approach the 100th anniversary of world war one an increasing number of people are becoming interested in this issue. That is why I am calling for a national day of commemoration similar to what the French do—they have what they call their days of “patromoine”, when public buildings are opened up. It would be wonderful to see churches, schools and council buildings in this country—wherever the more hidden memorials can be found—opened up. We could restore the memorials and open the doors, so that people can see the memorials and pay their respects. That would help tourism too, because people visit places to see memorials. It would be a real boost to this country’s economy if we could co-ordinate that.

I shall end my speech with a little local story. I know that sport is the normal brief of my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Sutcliffe), who is on the Front Bench for this debate, so I shall briefly discuss the footballers who enlisted in the 17th Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment in the first world war. One of those to enlist was the Grimsby Town football club captain, Sid Wheelhouse. In France, the various battalions played against each other to try to win the “British Expeditionary Force Football Association Cup”. Being professional footballers, the 17th Battalion had the edge and sailed though to the final, which was set for 11 April 1915. The 17th Battalion met the 34th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery and were decisive winners, by a score of 11-0. Tommy Lonsdale, Sid Wheelhouse and Dave Kenny from Grimsby Town were in the winning team, but by September the following year Sid Wheelhouse had become another casualty of the war. He was a well-respected player of his day—almost its David Beckham.

St. Aidan’s church is across the road from Blundell Park, where Grimsby Town play and where I believe my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) has been.

A memorial in the form of a wooden wall plaque in the Lady chapel in that church records the names of the many, many men who lived in north Cleethorpes—it was called New Cleethorpes at the time—who lost their lives in the first world war. Many of them were trawlermen. Hundreds of men from that community died when trawlers were hit; the number is phenomenal. One of the names on that memorial is S. Wheelhouse. He lived across the road from the ground and St. Aidan’s was his local church. That is one of the memorials where the names are fading away; some of them are barely legible now.

It is those sorts of memorials that I want to see restored. They sometimes do not fit the criteria to get grants, because they are not necessarily in listed buildings or in conservation areas. This Remembrance Sunday, we will all be reading our prayers and we will remember these people. If we can bring all our memorials up to scratch by getting them all restored in advance of the 100th anniversary of the first world war, that would be a fantastic tribute not only to those people but for the future.

I would hate it if, at some point in the future, the names that are now being recorded on war memorials—those of people who have died in Iraq or Afghanistan—were to fade away. That is what is happening to these first world war names, and I would not want it to happen to our forces who are currently serving in Afghanistan, either. We owe that to all our forces and to all the people who have fought for our country.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes (Shona McIsaac) for securing the slot for this debate on an important subject. I am deeply grateful for the way in which she has presented the issue. It is clear from her speech how emotionally involved she has become in this issue and in ensuring, through her useful website, that her constituents learn about the men and women whose names are on the war memorials in their local area. She demonstrates the diversity of war memorials: from plaques to obelisks to more elaborate structures. I believe that her web address is and I am sure that many people will want to have a look at the site.

War memorials are of course a very special part of our environment; they help us to remember and to celebrate the lives and contributions of those men and women who gave so much to protect the freedoms of our country. They remain a vital, and sadly, still necessary part of modern life as young men and women continue to do their duty serving at home and in foreign parts. I was particularly struck by my hon. Friend’s reference to the 100th anniversary of the first world war, and I agree that we need to ensure that preparations are in place to commemorate that in five years’ time. I shall take note of her point so that we can ensure that those preparations are in place.

Memorials are also important to the communities in which they are situated and I know that, up and down the country, many people voluntarily ensure that memorials continue to be a fitting tribute by undertaking cleaning and maintenance. I want to offer the Government’s sincere thanks to those who volunteer in this way.

The subject of the debate is the protection, conservation and restoration of war memorials, and I believe that the Government have a good record in each of these areas. I shall deal with each of them in turn. A useful first step would be to ensure that we know about the nation’s stock of war memorials. I note of course the contents of my hon. Friend’s early-day motion 1829, which calls for a national record of—and enhanced protection from developers—for war memorials. I have noted also the content of early-day motion 2070, and I echo her support for the work of the groups that she mentioned.

On the subject of a national register, I am pleased to report that we already have one in operation. The United Kingdom national inventory of war memorials started in 1989 and was initially a joint project between the Imperial War museum and the Royal Commission on the Historic Monuments of England, which is now part of English Heritage. The inventory continues to be supported by the Imperial War museum, which is in turn supported by my Department. I take the point about the two members of staff and we will have a look at what can be done to ensure that, in addition to the volunteers, we can ensure that we are adequately resourced.

I pay tribute to the two hon. Members who intervened on my hon. Friend—the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound)—for their contributions and for ensuring that we keep this important issue in our minds, especially at this time. The aim of the inventory is eventually to have the story of each memorial in the country—its building, its unveiling and its significance to community life—within its archive. The inventory is a work in progress, and anyone who keeps records of memorials could help by sharing any information that they have.

As time goes on and the information becomes more complete, perhaps the inventory can consider whether there is a role it could usefully fulfil in showing us where protection might be lacking. Although the inventory is staffed by the Imperial War museum, I and those who work on it are very grateful for the work of large numbers of volunteer recorders and photographers. The inventory would be very grateful for any further offers of help with administration, fieldwork or research in addition to the support of the Royal British Legion.

Let me move on to the issue of protection. We have heard calls for enhanced protection for war memorials. Protection of war memorials is based on their status as listed buildings, parts of listed buildings and scheduled ancient monuments, or on their situation in conservation areas, and there are already a range of powers at the disposal of Government, its agencies, and local authorities, to ensure that such memorials are well cared for. Again, I am aware that I have not mentioned some of the possibilities, and I undertake to help my hon. Friend to ensure that the ones that she mentioned are included.

Any works to memorials that are listed, scheduled or in a conservation area will require the appropriate consents from the local authority or the Secretary of State, to ensure that they are in the best interests of the preservation of the memorial and its setting. Where a memorial is situated in a listed building, consents will be required from the local authority for any changes or for removal. Where proper steps are not being taken for the preservation of a listed memorial, a local authority has the power to undertake any repairs considered necessary, and it can then seek repayment from the owners for the cost of those repairs.

Ultimately, a local authority could compulsorily purchase a listed memorial to ensure its proper care and maintenance, and English Heritage is also able to exercise those powers in London. The Secretary of State also has reserve powers in this area but, thankfully, they are seldom needed or used. In respect of any memorial, listed or not, the War Memorials (Local Authorities’ Powers) Act 1923 allows local authorities to carry out works, whether or not the memorial is in their ownership.

We consider that war memorials situated inside a listed church building of a major denomination—and there are many memorials within Church of England churches—are best cared for by the relevant denomination. The biggest denominations have their own stringent systems of care under the ecclesiastical exemption, and they provide excellent care for listed churches and their contents.

The Minister has mentioned Church of England churches, but increasingly former Methodist chapels are being sold for residential purposes. The same is true of redundant Church of England buildings. What is the situation when a church becomes redundant? Who has responsibility for the memorials in it?

My hon. Friend raises a fair point, and I undertake to write to her about how we can deal with the situation that she describes. We need volunteers to help us identify where memorials are located, but we also need to determine what we can do, in addition to the powers that we have already, when buildings change use.

I realise that many war memorials might not be classed as, or situated in, listed buildings, but if a memorial represents a building of historic or architectural significance, an application can be made to English Heritage to have it considered for listing. Where neither a memorial nor the building in which it is situated merit listed building status, the Government’s draft planning policy statement for the historic environment, currently out for consultation, encourages local authorities and owners to agree between them the significance of a building or its parts. In that way, and in advance of any application for planning consent, they can reach an understanding about what can or cannot be changed.

I note that the London boroughs of Harrow, Bromley and Bexley keep registers of the war memorials situated in their areas in order to inform relevant planning decisions, and that two more boroughs are planning similar lists. That is certainly an approach to be encouraged, and I suggest that authorities should work with the national inventory wherever possible. Beyond statutory recognition and processes, however, and whether or not memorials are historically significant, there will always also be a role for local communities in making sure that memorials are respected for what they are and what they signify.

As the hon. Member for Croydon, Central said, there is also a role for educators in making sure that people respect the legacy of those who gave their lives, and the tributes made to them. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Cleethorpes, I of course deplore any acts of vandalism that damage our memorials. I should also like to add my thanks to the Royal British Legion, English Heritage, the War Memorials Trust, the Imperial War museum and the National Memorial Arboretum, especially for their work with educators and children in making sure that memorials are understood and kept for future generations.

English Heritage is helping us to recognise where memorials might be at risk, and where intervention might be needed. Last year, it launched its heritage-at-risk register, which sets out the buildings listed at the highest grades, and the scheduled ancient monuments, that are considered to be either at risk through neglect and decay, or vulnerable to becoming so. I am pleased to report that, out of the more than 5,000 entries on the register, the number of purpose-built memorials is only just in double figures, and that just four are war memorials.

Although I do not consider it appropriate this evening to name those memorials considered to be at risk, suffice it to say that English Heritage has the matter in hand on all of them. One memorial is in local authority ownership, and English Heritage is preparing to work with the authority and a local group to ensure its preservation. The others are, respectively, in private ownership, in the care of a charitable trust and in joint ownership. English Heritage is in discussions over all three. It is carrying out repairs in one case, in discussion with the local authority, and offering grants for repair in the other two cases. All in all, it is not a bad picture considering that there are approximately 1,200 listed war memorials.

The help being offered by English Heritage in these cases brings me to the range of assistance that is on offer to those conserving and restoring memorials, by way of funding and guidance in the technical matters of restoration and maintenance. English Heritage and the Wolfson Foundation, in association with the War Memorials Trust, provide grants for the repair and conservation of freestanding war memorials in England. These grants enable those who are responsible for the upkeep of war memorials to carry out repair projects to a high standard. To date, over £600,000 has been offered to 250 projects. The War Memorials Trust has its own separate grant scheme.

The Department for Culture, Media and Sport operates the memorials grant scheme, which makes grants to registered charities and faith groups equivalent to the VAT incurred in making repairs to, or establishing, public memorial structures, including war memorials. To date, the scheme has given out more than £1.5 million UK-wide. A significant proportion of this has helped to establish the armed forces memorial at the National Memorial Arboretum, but many other grants have been made for the repair of war memorials across the UK. My hon. Friend’s website mentions some memorials in her constituency where the names, as she said, have become illegible. Where such memorials are in the care of charities or Church groups, a grant under this scheme could help with restoration.

The sister scheme to the memorials grant scheme, the listed places of worship grant scheme, will also make grants equivalent to the VAT costs of making repairs to memorials that form part of the fabric of a listed church building. In addition, the Heritage Lottery Fund, distributing funding from the lottery good causes contribution, has made 36 grants, totalling £17,369,308 where projects have involved the conservation or repair of war memorials or have sought to increase awareness of their significance and meaning. English Heritage cares for six of the capital’s most important memorials, including the Cenotaph. Altogether, there is a great deal of financial help out there for those who need it when caring for memorials.

I have noted my hon. Friend’s comments about how we could go further. It was right and proper that she raised the issue. We are working to maintain our memorials, and I look forward to working with her and other colleagues across the House to make sure that we protect the memorials to those who gave their lives for this country.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.