Skip to main content

Purton Hulks

Volume 502: debated on Tuesday 8 December 2009

I am delighted, Mr. Benton, that you have already given some publicity to my Adjournment debate; I shall say more about the Purton hulks over the next quarter of an hour. I am delighted to see my right hon. Friend the Minister in her place. Not only will she be responding to the debate, but she has been to Purton and seen for herself a wonderful bit of potential archaeology—something that is witness to the history of our nation.

Although the Minister has visited the area, I should explain that the hulks are beached vessels, barges and trows, that date from 1919 to 1965. They were drawn up on the banks of the River Severn. Some say, rather stupidly perhaps, that to some extent we have preserved the vessels, but they were put there to protect the river banks and have been there ever since. That would be of interest in itself, but I raise the subject today because although the weather and the river have taken their toll, human beings too have taken a toll.

If nothing else, I do not need to disabuse my right hon. Friend about the Purton hulks. Some might think that they are some form of Gloucestershire manhood. I repeat the ditty that we sing on the terraces, “We can’t read and we can’t write, but it don’t really matter ’cause we come from Glos-shire and we can drive a tratter.” I do not need to say anything more, except that we are here not to drive tractors but to try to protect this wonderful site. We want to do whatever we can.

To be fair, I have received almost a deluge of paperwork and many phone calls over the past couple of days, which shows that there is interest and commitment. The reason for calling today’s debate is to give the matter some urgency and some oomph. We seek a solution to what is a tricky problem. Sadly, we might have had a proper debate if the Heritage Protection Bill had not been put on hold, because it included a section on protecting the marine environment. It was not included in the Queen’s Speech but is sitting on someone’s table, and I hope that it will be resurrected because, although we are debating the Purton hulks today, the problem arises in other marine sites; they too need protection.

I start by paying due regard to those who proselytised me to take up the matter. I think of the group led by Paul Barnett, who chairs the Friends of Purton and many others, including Professor Mark Horton of Bristol university. They have helped us to understand that we ought to do something about this little bit of our history. We are not asking for the hulks to be repaired or to be floated away; we are just asking for them to be kept in as good a state as possible and for humankind to stop damaging them.

There are 81 vessels tied up alongside the Severn, and they have been there since 1919. Some of the vessels are unique; they are the last of their type. That in itself is a good reason for trying to keep them for people to see. Until I was sent the itinerary, I could not believe how popular the site has become for visitors. Virtually every weekend, groups are looking at what, when I was younger, was simply something on the shore line. We did not understand what it was; it looked rather like a collection of boats, but one could not make sense of it.

Now, however, the boats are all labelled, and thanks to British Waterways a monument has been constructed. I congratulate those who have made it such a unique experience. It certainly seems unique when one hears Paul Barnett talking about the hulks for several hours; he is most enthusiastic about them. I know that some find him somewhat difficult because he has driven things forward as a personal campaign, but with hindsight people will say, “Thank goodness he saw it as a vision and as his responsibility.”

What am I asking for? In reality, two simple things. First, I would like the Minister to organise a round table to bring together the various parties. I would like to be there, and although I do not expect the Minister to attend, she may care to drop in. At the meeting, we could establish where we are at. There have been misunderstandings and, dare I say, a degree of distrust as a result of the belief that something would be done and promises that people thought had been made but were not kept. It is time that we cleared the air.

Secondly, I am pleased that as a result of today’s debate we now have an interim statement of significance—is it a coincidence that it arrived in time for the debate?—but I would like to know when the final version will be available and what it will say. At least we now have some documentation. Alongside that, I was sent last month’s scheduled monuments paper by the Department for Communities and Local Government. I am not sure that I understand it all—as the Minister knows, I am a poor country boy—but it suggests ways in which we can consider some form of protection without legislation. I hope that my right hon. Friend will have something to say about that.

Those 81 vessels are there for the reasons that I have given, and nature will take its toll, but we want to stop human beings taking their toll—wantonly damaging the site and setting fire to it. Even trophy hunters have been taking quite valuable artefacts. Some artefacts may be best in other places, but some are best left in situ; that is what makes the hulks, the beached boats, what they are.

I know that a lot of work has gone on. The Department has been working with English Heritage, the Friends of Purton Hulks, Bristol university and Mark Horton, Cotswold Archaeology, Stroud district council, Gloucestershire county council, National Historic Ships—formerly the Advisory Committee on National Historic Ships—and the Advisory Committee on Historic Wreck Sites. If we get them all around the table, we will need a big table, but that may be the way forward. There is also English Heritage. The area is a site of special scientific interest and is the responsibility of Natural England, but does that body have the ability to protect the human environment? We can protect the natural environment, but the hulks have become part of the natural environment despite being entirely man-made. It would be interesting to know whether SSSIs fit its remit.

I shall go through the interim statement of significance. The hulks have four heritage values—English Heritage’s definition of how to measure the site—which are evidential, historical, aesthetic and communal. It would be great if that referred to all marine sites of importance, but how does it relate to Purton, and what protections does it give the area?

In particular, the question is whether there is a statutory duty on the various bodies, such as Natural England and English Heritage, to protect it. We know that we cannot have the site policed morning, noon and night, but it is not as simple as that. However, although theft has been reported to the police, they say that it is impossible to do anything because the site has no specific protection. That is galling for those who have spent their lives trying to protect it. The Minister told me in a parliamentary answer that perhaps we should consider asking the local authority to CPO it. To be fair, I have asked the police about using crime prevention officers, but they say that it would be difficult and might not be appropriate on such a site. None the less, that is one matter that could be discussed around the table. We would also need to include British Waterways—as my right hon. Friend knows only too well, the hulks are next to the Gloucestershire to Sharpness canal—and the Berkeley estate, the landowners; both would have a view on whether it should be CPO-ed. I imagine that neither would object to that, but there would be questions about value, access and who should take responsibility.

I welcome the interim statement of significance as a move in the right direction. However, it has been criticised by the Friends of Purton, which is why, if we want to move things on, we need a round robin discussion. The four heritage value statements in the document include tangible reasons why the site should receive better protection, which would help us to take it forward for future generations. As I have already said, the boats are unique, and we want to keep them for as long as we possibly can.

I have only one other point to make before I hand over to my right hon. Friend the Minister, who, I am sure, will have some interesting things to say about the site. The existing mechanism that enables the friends and other interested parties to give their time and effort to the site is one of the ways in which we could take the matter forward. If we give such people some status—I do not necessarily mean that they will be policemen and women—they will know that they have the power of protection. They will be working with English Heritage, which is very important, and the Department. However, I do not want to underestimate or deny the influence of those volunteers who have been so important in getting the matter to this stage.

It is sad for me and the Minister that we are not taking the Heritage Protection Bill through the House. I am sure that it would have been a consensual Bill. I would have been interested to find out where Purton fitted within the wider marine environmental concerns that the Bill would have addressed. I have already talked about the issue of the SSSIs, but more particularly, will we be more serious about protecting the marine environment? The people who have talked to me, passionate though they are about Purton, raise all manner of questions about other sites, which are less well known and sometimes in an even poorer state in terms of the type of material that is left as evidence of their former selves. They are, nevertheless, important.

Although I am no expert—I am fast becoming one—I have been told that the subject is one of growing interest, both historically and archeologically. Quite rightly, we protect buildings of all manners because we think that they are really important to our heritage. Yet our maritime environment seems to be subjected far more not to the depredations of nature but to the wilfulness of human beings, which is very sad. Perhaps if people knew what they were doing, they would not do it, and let us hope that if we get some protection on the site, they will stop doing it. I hope that explaining to people and educating them is a good way forward. That is why to get people round the table would at least be a helpful way forward.

It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) on securing this debate. He is assiduous in working on behalf of his constituents. I have had innumerable debates on issues that he has raised in this Chamber. He is an excellent constituency MP.

Let me say something general about heritage and scheduled monuments and then come to the issues around Purton. We have a proud record in the UK on the policy and practice of heritage protection. We have had legislation in place to protect all our ancient monuments since the 1880s. This Government have a proud record of investing in heritage and developing policies around heritage.

More than 19,000 sites are legally protected through designation, and they are called “scheduled monuments”. They represent our most valued archaeological sites and landscapes, and they are designated because they are of national importance. They include a whole range of lovely things, such as burial mounds, stone circles and hill forts, Roman towns, villas, medieval settlements, castles and abbeys. They also include the structures of our more recent industrial and military past. They are a unique inheritance that tells the story of many generations of human endeavour, and provide the only record of millennia for which we have no written history.

In compiling the schedule, our aim is not just to preserve everything of interest— clearly that would not be practicable—but to ensure that a representative sample of England’s most important assets are protected and conserved for the benefit of current and future generations.

Scheduling a site is a three-step process. First, we must ensure that it complies with the definition of a “monument” under the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Secondly, we must ensure that it complies with our non-statutory criteria for determining “national importance”, which are published in planning policy guidance note 16. Finally, we must ensure that scheduling represents the most appropriate management option for long-term protection and conservation.

If there is a site that does not meet scheduled monument status, we have the Government draft planning policy statement for the historic environment, which we are just putting together and hope to publish shortly. In my trip to Purton—I thank my hon. Friend for buying me a pair of Wellington boots to ensure that I did not ruin my high heels—I was very well looked after by the Friends of Purton. I know that the work of local communities and voluntary groups is important to ensure that our heritage assets are valued and cared for. Heritage assets are strong in creating a sense of identity in the community, and in bringing a community together.

When there are monuments or other heritage assets that are at risk, English Heritage intervenes. It has a register that includes all our scheduled monuments. Some 18 per cent. of scheduled monuments that are currently considered to be at risk are monuments, compared with only 3.5 per cent. of buildings. Therefore, that indicates that even if something is scheduled, there is difficulty in ensuring that it is conserved properly and protected for this and future generations.

Scheduled monuments are vulnerable not just to development, which we will come back to, but to the pressures of nature, whether totally natural forces such as erosion, which faces us in Purton, or agricultural intensification, forestry and other factors. It is those pressures that pose the greatest threat to lots of scheduled monuments, and that brings us to Purton hulks.

If we were to schedule Purton hulks, it would oblige the owner of the site, the Berkeley estate, to apply for consent if it wanted to change something. It would not put any legal obligations on the owner to do anything with regard to conservation. So, it stops the owner from doing things, rather than positively making the owner act in a way to conserve the hulks for future generations.

Vandalism is one of the problems facing the hulks. If the hulks were scheduled, theoretically English Heritage could then prosecute those responsible for the vandalism, because it is a criminal offence. However, as my hon. Friend knows, it is a terribly isolated site, and the idea that anyone could catch the villains who either took a trophy from it or deliberately damaged it is remote. So I am not sure that scheduling would provide the sort of protection that my hon. Friend and the Friends of Purton seek.

Erosion is a similar problem, and an important one in that particular area, but there is no legal obligation on the owner of the land or on English Heritage, if Purton were to become a scheduled monument, to do anything about it.

There are many agencies that could take an interest in the Purton hulks. Perhaps my hon. Friend and the Friends of Purton, as an active group, could persuade those agencies to take action. Obviously one thinks of the Environment Agency, Natural England and English Heritage, and if those agencies worked together they might do something. However, there is not a legal obligation on anybody to do anything. So scheduling would not be the silver bullet that some members of the Friends of Purton group believe it to be.

Finally, I want to say that English Heritage is doing a lot. It has published the interim statement of significance that I referred to and it has also published an aerial photographic review of Purton, which is part of the Severn estuary rapid coastal zone assessment survey; I think that that survey will be published in June 2010. In January, it will commission a strategic thematic review of hulks around the country, to establish the value of those hulks in general and the specific value of the Purton hulks. It is preparing a conservation statement and management plan for the assemblage at Purton. Also, a report that will assess boats and ships will be published in June 2010, which will determine the special interest of surviving hulked vessels. So there is quite a lot going on.

I am just trying to see what the time is.

Then I can go back and discuss all that in a bit more detail. I panicked and thought, “My goodness, I’ve got three minutes left”.

So, as I said, English Heritage is doing quite a lot. Now that I have realised that I have slightly more time than I had thought, I can say that by June 2010 English Heritage, according to its current timetable, will be able to assess the vessels at Purton as part of the nationwide assessment that it is making of the vessels that are scattered right across the coast and probably in other estuaries around the UK. By July 2010, it will issue the first draft of a conservation statement and management plan, which will enable the assessment of the national importance of the assemblage at Purton to be undertaken. So, as I say, English Heritage believes that by July 2010 it will have done something about Purton.

My hon. Friend referred to the letter that I sent to him. I say to him that his local authority can and should seriously consider taking action to compulsorily purchase the site at Purton. I know that he said that the local authority has no interest in doing so. However, if there is local concern about conserving and preserving those hulks, it is for the local authority in that instance to consider whether the use of a compulsory purchase order would be appropriate. Frankly, if one thinks about the problem of vandalism at the site it seems to me that the local authority, rather than a Government agency, taking responsibility for dealing with that problem would be a good way forward.

That is a very good reason for getting us all around a table, so that we can at least address issues such as vandalism, find out why there may be some reluctance on the part of the local authority to deal with them and see how English Heritage, the Minister’s Department and Natural England might be able to help it to deal with them.

I will come to that issue shortly. I think that I will finish soon and, knowing my hon. Friend, I am sure that he will take up the last two minutes of the time allotted for this debate.

I will undertake to do two things. First, I have asked my officials to consider whether we should schedule this particular site in advance of the other actions that are being taken in relation to the site. So there will be consideration of that issue and I hope to come back to him within about two or three months with more details, if he can give me that time. However, he must recognise that scheduling is not the silver bullet answer that he wants.

Secondly, after we have taken a view on whether to schedule the Purton site, I will undertake to convene the round-table discussion that my hon. Friend has sought today. I hope that that discussion can happen in March or April—in that sort of time frame.

March, rather than April. I hope that, by the end of March, we will be able to convene that round-table discussion.

Finally, I want to say something about the Friends of Purton group. It is doing a fantastic job. Having seen the commitment, enthusiasm and determination of members of what is a very small community in a very lovely part of my hon. Friend’s constituency as they work together to conserve hulks that excited me when I saw them—I thought that they were really something and that we ought to do our best to achieve a good solution for them, despite all the difficulties that we face—I want to say that their efforts need to be commended in this House. I hope that my hon. Friend and I, working in co-operation, can find some solution to the problem of the Purton hulks before the end of this Parliament.

Sitting adjourned.