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Hadrian’s Wall

Volume 530: debated on Wednesday 22 June 2011

I am grateful for the opportunity to hold this important debate under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I want to talk about Hadrian’s Wall, its ownership and the future management and marketing of it.

Hadrian’s Wall is of great importance to the economy not just of my constituency of Carlisle but of the north of England from Wallsend to the Solway. The future arrangements for this world heritage tourist attraction could have significant implications for the area. The beauty of Hadrian’s Wall is that it combines educational and economic benefits into one attraction.

Let me focus first on the educational benefits. Our country has an important link with Roman history. The Roman occupation of Britain is very much part of our heritage. Hadrian’s Wall gives schools and colleges the opportunity to educate their students in a very real way. Instead of using just textbooks to study the period, students can see the physical evidence of the Roman occupation. In addition, people visiting the area can also benefit from the various educational and visitor centres along the wall, giving them a much better insight into Roman history and culture.

We often talk about the impact that the Roman empire had on world history, but it also had an impact on the social and economic life of small communities in the north of England. The physical presence of some of our Roman heritage truly helps to bring this history to life. Many people have had the opportunity to visit Hadrian’s Wall and learn about the way in which the Romans lived nearly 2,000 years ago. The best demonstration of that are the educational facilities along the wall, which will be hugely enhanced by the opening on Friday this week of the Roman Frontier Gallery at Tullie House museum and art gallery in Carlisle. This gallery will enable schools, colleges and the general public to discover more about our Roman ancestors.

There are also vital economic benefits. In the past, following the demise of the Roman empire, the physical structure of the wall provided building materials for locals to construct houses, steadings and much else. In modern times, Hadrian’s Wall has become a significant tourist attraction, bringing thousands of people to the area. Those tourists may come to view the wall and its remains or to visit the different forts and steadings. Alternatively, others have come to walk or cycle the length of the wall. Indeed, my colleagues and I are hoping to walk across the wall this summer to see what it has to offer. All such visits bring much-needed investment to the area, which helps to support existing businesses as well as creating new ones. On my own trip this summer, there will be six of us who will need accommodation, food and transport, all of which adds to the economy of the area. It may be a small contribution, but if we multiply it by the many tourists who visit the area over the summer, it is a substantial boost to the local economy. I want to concentrate on how we maintain and develop the two benefits of education and economics. Before I do, let me give a bit of background on Hadrian’s Wall so that we get some idea of its worth and potential.

Work on Hadrian’s Wall began in 122 AD during the reign of Emperor Hadrian. At the time, it was one of the most fortified borders in Europe, taking around 16 years to complete. The wall is more than 75 miles long from east to west and a further 75 miles down the west coast. The first 45 miles of the wall, from Newcastle to the River Irthing, was constructed of stone, and the 31 miles from the Irthing to the Solway coast was initially of turf. Along the wall, there were 16 forts. Castles were built at intervals of 1 mile with two watchtower turrets between each one. The precise reason for building the wall is not known, although it is reasonable to assume that it was to secure the northern frontier of the Roman empire. Undoubtedly, it was a major undertaking at the time. The numbers who garrisoned the wall fluctuated throughout the life of the Roman occupation but it was usually around 9,000. The impact of the wall on the local population would have been considerable. Fortunately, there are remains from the original wall, forts and steadings that have allowed academics and archaeologists to study the wall, the Roman way of life and the effect it had on the local community.

With the decline of the Roman empire, the wall was abandoned as a military outpost for the Roman army, though it is believed that the local population continued to live and farm around the wall until the 8th century after which the wall was effectively abandoned and allowed to fall into ruin. Much of the wall has disappeared, but in the 19th century, John Clayton, the town clerk of Newcastle upon Tyne, began taking an interest in preserving as much of it as possible. Indeed, he acquired some sections of the wall in an effort to stop farmers using the stones. Anyone who visits the place will find a number of steadings and houses that were clearly built from the remains of the Roman wall.

It is hard to believe that it was not until the later part of the 20th century that a real interest in Hadrian’s Wall started to take hold. It hit real prominence when it was declared a world heritage site in 1987. It achieved that status because of its uniqueness as the most complex and best preserved frontier of the Roman empire. However, even then the full potential of the wall was not realised, not just as a source of education but as a major tourist attraction with the potential to give a significant boost to the local economies along the wall.

Although Hadrian’s Wall was now recognised as a site of international importance, it was not managed in any meaningful way. It took until the early part of this century before an attempt to co-ordinate the management of the wall was made. That came in the form of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd, which was set up in 2006 as a company limited by guarantee. It was set up following a study in 2004 that identified the fact that the heritage site was failing to achieve its potential.

This organisation has been extremely successful in turning the site around and helping to raise the profile of Hadrian’s Wall and developing it as a tourist attraction. I would like publicly to acknowledge the hard work of the board, staff and volunteers who have done a terrific job, and continue to do so, in promoting Hadrian’s Wall through the Hadrian’s Wall company and the many other organisations which have an interest along the wall.

Why are we having this debate today? In one sense it has been an opportunity for me to bring to the attention of the House and the Minister the importance of Hadrian’s Wall and its relevance to us today. Hadrian’s Wall is a major tourist attraction of significant historic and economic importance. It is also a resource for the local communities along the wall, which should be exploited in a responsible way by the Hadrian’s Wall Heritage company. What, therefore, are the problems? It is hard to believe that the wall and land that adjoins it have more than 125 different legal land owners. Some of those owners are private land owners, but many are public and they include councils, the National Trust, English Heritage and the Hadrian’s Wall Heritage company itself. Unfortunately, the company is a very small landowner, yet it is charged with promoting and caring for the wall almost in its entirety. Would it not therefore make sense for much if not all of the ownership of the wall and relevant surrounding land to be transferred into the company’s ownership? I fully accept that that cannot happen overnight, but it would appear to be sensible in the long term. It would allow the company to manage, maintain and promote the wall in a far more efficient and systematic way.

I accept that these are financially difficult times, with little public money available to help boost projects such as this one. However, notwithstanding that reality, why should the various councils or public bodies, such as the National Trust or English Heritage, that own part of the wall not act—by way of setting an example and in the interests of preserving and promoting the wall for environmental as well as economic reasons—and transfer their ownership of parts of the wall into the ownership of the Hadrian’s Wall company? If they think that that is a step too far, there might be the opportunity for them to lease their interests to the company or to pass the direct management responsibility for their section of the wall to the company. Clearly, the company would have to accept the responsibilities that go with ownership or control, but it would be fairer for it to have the responsibility for preserving the wall and at the same time it would have the opportunity to generate some kind of income stream, which could then be reinvested in the preservation and promotion of the wall.

A lot of the wall is not actually in public ownership but in private ownership. Quite simply, I say to those private owners of parts of the wall that those who want to could voluntarily transfer their ownership to the company—hopefully at little cost—and those who do not want to do so could just continue with the present arrangements and retain their ownership.

What, therefore, is the purpose of this debate? First, I want to raise the Minister’s awareness of the international, national and local importance of Hadrian’s Wall. I also want to encourage him to visit the area. I understand that he may well be going to the north-east and may visit part of the wall, but I encourage him to visit the western end of the wall at some point in the future, in particular the new gallery at Tullie House. As I mentioned earlier, that gallery opens on Friday.

Secondly, I want to highlight the various ownership issues to the Minister. Thirdly, I ask him to support the idea of unifying the ownership of as much of the wall as possible, and to help to facilitate the Hadrian’s Wall company in doing so. Having said that, I fully acknowledge and accept that that would be a long-term project.

Fourthly, I ask the Minister to recognise the importance of Hadrian’s Wall within the national tourism strategy. Will he say what the Government can do to achieve that goal, which would ensure the success of the wall for the country as well as for the region?

Fifthly, I ask the Minister to help to identify sources of funding for the company. That could be funding to invest in the physical aspects of the wall, in its preservation or in the promotion of the wall as a tourist attraction, which would link in with the Government’s growth and tourism strategies.

The Minister will be very aware of the huge economic benefits that flow from tourism. However, there is always a great difficulty in how we finance and market tourism as it involves trying to calculate the benefits of tourism, including how it creates jobs, economic growth and so on. I accept that that is difficult, but I genuinely believe that Hadrian’s Wall is a major tourist attraction and that it has the potential to create huge economic benefits for my region.

We are starting to see a great deal of improvement, in that there are more and more visitors to the wall every year and new businesses are opening up along the wall, such as bed and breakfasts, restaurants and coffee shops. That trend is to be encouraged. However, I fear that, given the economic difficulties that we are in, funding for the marketing of the wall will be reduced and that could have a knock-on effect on the economy of the local area. If we do not promote the wall sufficiently, that will result in a decline in the area’s economic activity.

My hon. Friend is making a fantastic speech. When I saw that he had secured this debate today, I wanted to come along to Westminster Hall and support him. He said that Hadrian’s Wall is a UNESCO world heritage site. When I think of other world heritage sites—other fantastic places such as Petra, the pyramids at Giza, Angkor Wat and Machu Picchu—I feel that we should certainly encourage people in this country to go along and see Hadrian’s Wall.

However, will my hon. Friend say a little more about the number of people who visit the Lake district, for example, and perhaps suggest how we can encourage people not only to visit the Lake district but to go a bit further north, to spread the money that they spend across the whole of the county instead of just in the southern and western parts?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention and he raises a very important point. In my part of the country, the Lake district is clearly dominant as a tourist attraction. I think that it is the second most popular tourist attraction in this country, after London, with about 16 million visitors annually. However, because of the dominance of the Lake district locally, Hadrian’s Wall sometimes loses out on visitors and indeed my own constituency, the city of Carlisle, sometimes fails to receive as many visitors as it might.

This debate has raised considerable interest in my local community. That is a good sign, because it means that people in my patch are interested in promoting Hadrian’s Wall. I look to the Minister today, to see how we can build on that to ensure that the wall has a very prosperous and successful future.

It is always a pleasure to have you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I was debating opposite you yesterday with someone else in the Chair, but it is good to see you back in your accustomed place, looking after us today.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (John Stevenson) on securing the debate and putting the case so strongly. It is always good to see a constituency MP batting hard for an important local asset and industry. It is absolutely clear, as he rightly pointed out, that tourism is one of the most important industries, if not the most important, in the Lake district as a whole, including the area around Carlisle. It is a crucial part of the local economy. The area does not have just beautiful scenery, but one of the country’s—indeed the world’s—pre-eminent heritage assets, in the shape of the wall, running right through the middle of it. There is plenty to be proud of, raise awareness of, and shout about to attract more people to visit both Carlisle and the wall, and my hon. Friend has contributed to that by securing this debate.

My hon. Friend asked me to acknowledge and comment on the importance of the wall to tourism, and I do not think it possible to overstate that importance. The wall is a crucial part of this country’s offer. One of the reasons most frequently given by foreign visitors for coming to the UK is our heritage. Heritage is an incredibly broad term, including everything from Stonehenge, which is plus or minus 4,000 years old depending on the part of the site, right the way up to modern culture such as the Glastonbury and Reading music festivals, and everything in between. There is no doubt that Britain was a very important part of the Roman empire; in fact, the city of York was effectively its administrative capital for decades. The wall is an incredibly visible and solid reminder of that period, and is an iconic example of the kinds of things that people come to Britain to see.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: the wall is a very important site, and is part of a world heritage site. I think it was one of the first transnational world heritage sites, because it takes in not just Hadrian’s wall but the Antonine wall, which runs parallel to the north, and goes across into the northern German elements of the old Roman empire. It is part of a project that is, I think, ultimately intended to include the entire borders of the old Roman empire, right the way around through to the coast of north Africa. It was one of the first elements of that project to be put up, and it is of global significance. We are incredibly lucky in this country to have something that is so well-preserved and, importantly, properly looked after to ensure that it remains preserved for not just our generation but future ones. My hon. Friend is also entirely right to say that it is an essential part of rounding out the local tourism offer, so that the area does not have just beautiful countryside and lakes—which it undoubtedly does—but an incredibly impressive heritage offer.

There is, however, the problem that my hon. Friend was right to raise. Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is struggling, along with a great many other destination management organisations. That is what they are called in the jargon, Mr Hollobone, but you and I would probably call them local tourist boards of one sort or another. They are organisations that are having to make the transition from an era when money was a great deal freer and the Government’s budget was a great deal larger, through to an era when regional development agencies no longer exist and everyone has to cut their cloth to fit. I will not try your patience, Mr Hollobone, by going too far off piste by talking about the economic mismanagement that led to that situation. However, for whatever reason, we are faced with a far tighter economic and fiscal situation. Therefore, everyone is having to cut their cloth to fit. Indeed, I am sure that the various business owners, land owners and attraction owners along the whole length of the wall would all understand that it is important for someone not to spend more than they earn, otherwise pretty soon they will go bust. This country is no different. We must ensure that we are living within our means. Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is faced with precisely the same challenge as many other local tourism bodies around the country: that budgets are smaller. It is therefore trying to find and plug a hole in its budget.

My hon. Friend came up with a creative and intriguing potential solution to that. It is not something I have heard before, and interestingly, it is certainly not a solution that has been suggested to me in other parts of the country. It has the merit of being entirely original and certainly very thought-provoking. His suggestion is that public sector bodies along the wall might want to hand ownership of their assets over to Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd. I suspect that the underlying assumption behind that idea is that enough cash will be thrown off to plug all or at least some of the gap in the organisation’s funding.

I am not sure that that underlying assumption is necessarily correct, although my hon. Friend is entirely within his rights to ask me to check it, which is effectively what he has done. We have gone away and done some numbers, and I am not sure that such an approach would fill the gap as it currently stands. The organisation is going through a great many other changes.

Yes, the Minister is on the right track in terms of what I am thinking. However, I am also thinking that the sole purpose of Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is to maintain, preserve, look after and promote Hadrian’s Wall. Some of the other organisations have other interests and will have calls on their resources from the other attractions that they may have. If the wall’s assets were transferred into the Hadrian’s Wall company, the focus would be solely on Hadrian’s Wall.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying; he gave a capable exposition of his idea. However, the stumbling block for me is simply this: if we consider other destination management organisations—local tourism bodies of one kind or another—he is absolutely right to say that Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is unusual in that the collection of tourism assets with which it is dealing happen to be stretched out in a long, thin line that cuts through a variety of different villages, towns, steadings and local authorities.

Apart from that geographical oddity, it is entirely normal that Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd has to interact with a breadth and variety of different types of organisation. There are different owners—public, private and in some cases third sector—and people from the National Trust as well. Any destination management organisation must deal with a variety of local tourism companies. We could be talking about destination management organisations in York, in my constituency of Weston-super-Mare or in Bristol—it does not matter where someone is in the country; they could be in the Cotswolds or anywhere else. Such organisations have to deal with everything from local hotels to local restaurants, attraction owners and everything else in between, plus local councillors and so on. They are all faced with that precise mixture of stakeholders and interests to match up.

The interesting thing is that there is no instance of such organisations expecting to own the assets that they are helping to promote and manage. In fact, their role is subtly different. They are not quite a trade association, but they are an organisation that helps to promote a particular area. The attraction owners, whether they are private, public or third sector, are key members of that organisation. They come in a variety of different legal wrappers—partnerships, companies limited by guarantee or whatever—but in each case, the various different stakeholders are key members of that organisation and if it is well run, they are the people who dictate terms and set the agenda for what the organisation is trying to do.

It is therefore crucial that although the organisation does not have to own the assets that it is working with, it must have an extremely close and effective relationship with the people whom it is seeking to represent. I am talking about a different kind of relationship, which is a bit more flexible. I would suggest anyway—my hon. Friend was right to point this out—that going down the route of trying to transfer ownership is not necessary, because many other examples of a membership model are being pursued successfully throughout the rest of the country. He was also right to say that it would be an extremely long and slow process.

In the case of private sector owners—from what I can see, some 90% of the wall is in private ownership of one kind or another—I suspect that, persuasive, effective and passionate as my hon. Friend is, he would have to go some in order to persuade most of them to give over voluntarily property that may have been in their family for generations. They may have purchased it recently, but either way, it is private property. I am a huge fan of the Government’s philanthropy agenda, but I suspect that that would be philanthropy on a different scale and that, if my hon. Friend managed to do it, he would go down in history as one of the greatest philanthropic persuaders this country has ever seen.

I understand where my hon. Friend is coming from and why he is making that suggestion. What I would suggest in return is that I think there is an alternative way, which may be a little quicker and simpler, of achieving the goals that he and I both share, and that is to make sure that we have some kind of membership-related approach, whatever kind of legal wrapper it may come in. If we can get to that position—I understand that that is where Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd is trying to move—the company will be able to do precisely the kinds of things that my hon. Friend is talking about and attempt to market and promote the entire wall from one coast to the other, and put across and sell the huge benefits that he has rightly and passionately outlined in his speech. That is precisely what needs to be done and, I think, what everybody wants to see happen.

The huge advantage that Hadrian’s Wall Heritage Ltd has is that, after many years of trying, it is managing to stitch together an incredibly disparate range of people, simply because of this geographical oddity. The asset, associated companies, attractions and issues that it is trying to deal with stretch from one coast of the country to another. I do not know how many different local authority areas it goes through, but it is a very large number, and it has proven extremely difficult to co-ordinate it in the past. It has started to do it, but as my hon. Friend rightly points out, it has to make this transition.

My hon. Friend has asked about other kinds of funding sources. It will be partly up to local tourism companies and local attraction owners, be they public, private or third sector, to say whether it is in their commercial interest to be part of a collective marketing scheme. I am not suggesting that this should be a piece of corporate philanthropy, but that it should be a natural part of everybody’s corporate marketing plan to say, “If we contribute to a collective marketing plan for Hadrian’s Wall as a whole, it will help my business and my neighbour’s business as well.” This is, therefore, a piece of self-interest as well as collective action, and I think it will be tremendously positive.

It is also worth saying that local authorities may conclude, as is happening in many other parts of the country, that tourism is such an important part of the local economy—my hon. Friend rightly pointed out that it is very important in Carlisle and Cumbria as a whole—that they want to contribute in some way to some of these collective marketing operations through council tax payers’ money. That is happening, as I have said, in many other parts of the country. It depends on the importance of tourism in the local economy, but as my hon. Friend has pointed out, that is a very easy point to make in his part of the world, because it is such a vital part of local job creation. I encourage him to speak to his local council and fellow MPs in the area, to see whether or not they feel that the local authority’s contribution reflects the importance of this crucial part of the economy to local jobs and employment.

I think that we are speaking a similar language in terms of what we want to achieve and that everybody agrees about the importance of Hadrian’s Wall to the nation’s heritage, the world’s heritage and the local tourism industry. I think that we have slightly different recipes for how the issue might be addressed, but a great deal more can be done and I suspect that my hon. Friend and I will look to work with the local authority and local businesses to ensure that that happens.

I congratulate and thank the hon. Members for Carlisle (John Stevenson) and for Hendon (Mr Offord) and the Minister for their participation in a most interesting and informative debate.