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Heritage Sites: Sustainability

Volume 734: debated on Tuesday 20 June 2023

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the sustainability of heritage sites across the UK.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I am grateful to have been granted this time to shed light on the important contributions that independent heritage sites make to the UK.

The current climate emergency demands that we act fast to mitigate the fatal consequences for our natural world, and one way we should do that is by making man-made environments energy-efficient. There are also concerns about the fragility of heritage sites and doubts about their long-term existence.

I put on the record my thanks to Historic Houses, which has taken the time to educate me and my staff about this issue, and to come and watch this debate. I particularly want to name-check my assistant, Olivia Sharma, for her work on this issue. I also want to thank the custodians and caretakers of listed buildings—especially those in my constituency—who work tirelessly to preserve our heritage. In 2022 alone, Historic Houses’ members welcomed over 20 million visits, generating over £1.3 billion in expenditure for the UK economy. They supported over 32,000 jobs across the UK, over 4,000 of which were in Scotland. I believe the figures speak for themselves.

In my constituency, in the far north, I have seen at first hand how heritage sites, such as Dunrobin castle in Sutherland, ignite pride in the locals and provide fascination for tourists. That was evident in 2019, when the attraction welcomed—can you believe this?—100,000 visitors to a remote part of the UK. Attracting tourists from within and outside the UK to visit rural communities is imperative for the survival of those communities, as independent businesses are boosted considerably by visitors each year. The popularity of heritage sites as tourist attractions speaks to their unique ability to put rural communities in the highlands on the global map.

I commend the hon. Gentleman for bringing this issue forward. Heritage sites help not only his constituency but mine. An example is the abbey at Greyabbey, which dates back to 1193 AD. It is worthy of protection not simply to preserve the history and the beautiful building, but so that it can act as a tourist attraction for cruises and coach tours, including the Disney Cruise Line tours. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we must recognise the beauty of wonderful buildings, that funding needs to be put in place to ensure that moneys are ringfenced for historic sites, and that each and every pound must ensure that tourist money comes in, that tourists visit and that we all benefit, including the shops and the economy?

The hon. Gentleman makes his point eloquently. As he knows, my wife hails from the Province of Northern Ireland, and I know Greyabbey. He makes his point very well indeed.

Historic buildings are pieces of our history in the far north, and keeping them standing protects our heritage in the highlands, Scotland and the rest of the UK. In 2022, Historic Houses properties hosted over 26,000 events, such as festivals, theatrical performances and recitals. Listed buildings and their custodians make history, art and culture more accessible to people in communities right across the UK. It would be wrong to underestimate the value of listed buildings as sources of education as well as entertainment.

However, as I said at the outset, the climate emergency poses a challenge to the survival of estates and calls into question their long-term existence. Despite being sustainable partners who view decarbonisation as crucial to the preservation of heritage for future generations, custodians of listed buildings face practical barriers, which I am afraid to say include current planning permission and listed building consent, both of which inhibit the pursuit of net zero targets. For example, energy performance certificates use a metric of cost, as opposed to carbon. That often encourages the installation of new fossil-fuel boilers, rather than green alternatives such as solar panels, in listed buildings.

Furthermore, listed building consent adds delay, expertise and, indeed, hassle to the process of installing any energy-efficiency measures in listed buildings—even those with minimal impact on their historic fabric. I would suggest that the regulations are flawed and that they lead to the slow and difficult uptake of energy-efficiency measures. These houses were built to last, but the Government must allow them to adapt and change as necessary. Planning frameworks need to provide support for the implementation of sensitive energy-efficiency measures in a way that reflects the climate emergency.

Greater investment in renewable energy in off-grid rural communities is imperative, particularly in my constituency and other rural constituencies, because it would lower renewable fuel costs and increase self-sufficiency. That way, green energy projects in the heritage sector could be integrated into their surrounding communities. Reviewed planning frameworks must ensure that buildings are repaired and adapted in energy-efficient ways, not demolished. In short, heritage protections must be maintained and prioritised in future reviews of planning policies. We must put sustainability at the forefront of our thinking.

I am fully aware that housing is devolved to the Scottish Government, but perhaps—with the best will in the world—the two Governments could work together to ensure best practice. After all, having a chain of historic attractions all around the UK can only benefit the four nations of the United Kingdom. The United Kingdom has the oldest building stock in Europe. It would be shameful and reckless to let it succumb to insolvency when we have the tools to ensure its survival.

The point I want to make is simply this: the climate crisis is growing ever more urgent and we need to start taking tourism and heritage more seriously. We can do that by recognising this historic environment as part of the solution to achieving net zero. I suggest that tourism has for too long been treated as second rate—an afterthought to bigger, more important issues. We are talking about people’s livelihoods, the preservation of our national identity and, indeed, the very existence of our planet as somewhere we can live and work for many years to come—these are no small feats.

That is why I join the voices that have been calling on the Government to support heritage sites that are committed to net zero targets by publishing a review of the planning and regulatory reforms that face listed buildings. The survival of our country’s heritage requires a supportive regulatory framework, and we need it as soon as is humanly possible. I look forward to hearing the contributions of other Members present, and I thank them for attending the debate.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I thank the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for his excellent opening speech and his commitment to the important matter of heritage and its connection with sustainability and the wider environment.

I would like to address my remarks to the question of the future of Reading gaol, which is a grade II listed building. It is famous for being the place where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated, and it was designed by the famous Victorian architect George Gilbert Scott, who was responsible for a number of well-known Victorian buildings in London, including the Albert memorial and St Pancras station. Sadly, the gaol has been mothballed since 2013 and faces an uncertain future. Locally, we would like to see this historic building reused as an arts and heritage hub and preserved for the community, possibly with some support from outside benefactors. We have had interest from Banksy and, indeed, members of the arts community.

When the Minister responds, I hope he will indicate that he has passed on my concerns to the Ministry of Justice, which owns the site. Sadly, the Ministry mothballed the gaol in 2013. It spent a large amount on maintaining the building’s integrity, but it has not sold it, and has not wished to sell it, to a community-led bid, despite an offer of interest from Reading Borough Council. The council and I are waiting to hear from the Ministry what the future of the gaol might be. We would very much like the Government to reconsider the community interest in the future of the gaol and to look at an arts and heritage hub as a possible future use for the building, so I hope the Minister will be able to address that. I thank you, Mr Dowd, for allowing me to briefly speak about this matter.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing this important debate, because heritage sites and tourism mean so much to people in places like Stoke-on-Trent, Kidsgrove and Talke. I will start with a success story that shows what can be done to sustain important icons in our communities. The shadow Minister, the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith), visited Middleport pottery. I was delighted that he was able to see it; it is just a shame that he did not visit with a much sounder group of individuals like me, but I understand he was there in a party political capacity. Anyway, I am glad that he was able to see that fantastic work.

All thanks to His Majesty King Charles III: his charities came in and turned Middleport pottery around. It is a great icon of our history and heritage that was on the verge of crumbling and falling down. Today, it is a continuously working factory—the only factory in the world where pottery is still handmade and hand-printed. Every piece of Burleigh is unique to its owner.

Middleport pottery is opening up and giving tourists the opportunity to see a working factory in action, and to be involved in arts and crafts. It has developed the Harper Street project, which has an excellent veterans support network; it creates artwork for local veterans to sell. That gives them skills and ambition for the future, and helps them to tackle their physical and mental health ailments. There are fantastic organisations, such as Middleport Matters Community Trust, led by Vicki Gwynne, who does tremendous work. It ensures that young people and mothers get the support that they need all year round, through holiday activities and food programmes. It is linked to the Hubb Foundation, and gives important community support.

Channel 4 has used Middleport pottery for “The Great Pottery Throwdown”. Canal scenes in “Peaky Blinders” were filmed there. The site has been used diversely to bring in a sustainable income. The factory produces an awful lot of heat, so that is shared around the complex to drive down energy costs. Also, many volunteers kindly give up their time to support that success.

The greatest honour I have had as a Member of Parliament was seeing those at the heart of this Government—the Cabinet—have a regional away day in the Middleport pottery building. Hosting a Cabinet meeting, and knowing that those decision makers were in the community, was iconic for the people of Stoke-on-Trent. These local charities and organisations would maybe never otherwise be able to access Ministers at first hand; having them on their doorstep sent a real signal of intent and seriousness. I congratulate Boris Johnson, the former Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, on doing that. It was a big decision, and it meant a lot to the people of Stoke-on-Trent. I am delighted that Middleport pottery also recently received £249,962 from the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Middleport pottery is a success story, but there are many challenges. Stoke-on-Trent is littered with beautiful buildings and historic heritage. The mother town of Burslem has many of those buildings. The Queen’s Theatre, the Victorian Burslem indoor market and the Wedgwood Institute are three iconic buildings. The city council recently found that it would cost between £30 million and £40 million to bring them back to life. Through feasibility studies, the council has been looking at what could be done with those spaces.

The indoor market—a fantastic building—had the Office for Place visit it; being the cheapest of the three, I think it is a real goer. It could be not only a great venue for meetings and conferences, but a performing arts space. Street food stalls could be set up there. An iconic building could be brought back into use. It was recently listed, which is important, because it gave us access to funds that were unavailable before. Stoke-on-Trent City Council took the risk of bringing the building back under the public purse. The council wants to see it future-proofed and used, so that Burslem can continue to thrive.

I welcome the Minister to come and see at first hand that iconic sight, and to stop off at the mighty Port Vale football club. There is another football team in the south of the city, but we do not need to worry about them quite as much. Port Vale are a great football team, and the Minister would be more than welcome there. Port Vale’s promotion from league 2 to league 1 has helped bring an awful lot of extra footfall into the mother town of Burslem. That supports pubs and independent restaurants, such as Agie and Katie, an award-winning west midlands food provider, as well as The Bull’s Head in Burslem, near the fantastic Titanic Brewery; it is a great epicentre.

There is one building that is iconic to the history of not just the city but the country: the Leopard pub. Sadly, arsonists attacked this important building and caused tremendous damage. It is where Josiah Wedgwood and James Brindley met to discuss and plan the Trent and Mersey canal, which fuelled so much of the industrial revolution across the city. Now, potentially just the frontage can be kept. The new owners are talking about turning the building into housing. I hope that can be done, but Government support is required to move those plans forward.

Price and Kensington teapot works is another important site. I am grateful to the Government for supporting my ten-minute rule Bill and including it in the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. It means that the current capped fine of £1,000 for someone found guilty under section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 will be unlimited for the first offence, and will go up from £100 to £500 a day for a second offence. That will help us hold to account rogue and absent landlords, such as Charles Lewis and Co, which owns that great heritage site and was today fined up to £72,000 for its misuse. I hope that people such as Simon Davies of Kidsgrove, a local businessman, will come forward with plans to take over the site and deliver a new arts and cultural centre. It will be a corridor into Stoke-on-Trent north, off the A500. That would be really powerful, and would support the tourism industry. It would go into Middleport pottery, using the canal network.

Finally, there is a great sleeping giant that I have been proud to bang on about time and again: Chatterley Whitfield colliery, which is the largest complete deep coal mine site in Europe. It was the first colliery in the country to dig up 1 million tonnes of coal, and it did so not just once but twice. I congratulate Nigel Bowers, who in the recent honours list was recognised for his public service, and for standing up for such fantastic local charitable organisations. Stoke-on-Trent City Council, Historic England, the Chatterley Whitfield Friends and I have come up with a plan to make the colliery a really exciting centre for geothermal exploration; it can be used as a trial. The Coal Authority has revealed that there is pre-existing infrastructure that could help develop a mine energy project with a heat pump that can bring heat from the ground to the surface and power homes. The Coal Authority estimates that the site could generate about 1 MW of energy—enough to power 500 homes. I hope the Minister will take that back, feed it into Government and make the most of the opportunity to bring to that important site the investment that we need if we are to turn around that sleeping giant, which I want to see flourish.

Just a bit of housekeeping: I expect to call the Opposition spokespeople at 5.16 pm, and I will give the mover of the motion a couple of minutes to wind up, so hon. Members have no more than five minutes each. Try to keep it under five minutes, please.

It is a real pleasure to take part in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing a debate on the sustainability of heritage sites across the UK.

I should like to discuss the Llanelli railway goods shed in my constituency. When the local planning authority conservation officer deals with the application for solar panels, the matter will of course come under Welsh Government guidance, which has much in common with the guidelines elsewhere; the same issues are raised. It is a huge challenge to finance the renovation of a large, grade II listed building. The building has featured in TV programmes by Michael Portillo and Huw Edwards. The dedication of volunteers, and the desire of local residents to see it restored to its former glory, is immense.

If a building is commercially viable, it will be snapped up, and there will be plenty of options—it can be done up for flats or whatever—but so many of these buildings are not in that category. The costs of renovation far outweigh any easy profit for commercial investors, so the buildings remain there until local volunteers get together, start raising money, including through grant funding, and make a business plan that stacks up. It is very important that they can show that the building is sustainable. In our case, we have gone for a mixture of commercial and business start-ups, plus community and educational use. We are already bringing in schools and showing the children material about Llanelli’s industrial heritage. For us, putting on solar panels is extremely important, because we want to tackle climate change. Every level of Government—the UK Government, the Welsh Government and the local county council, which is the local planning authority—has professed its commitment to getting to net zero. We have a huge south-facing roof, which is not visible from the front of the building—from the road, where people go in. The building backs on to the railway; somebody has to be right over the other side of the railway to see that part of the roof.

We were concerned not only to tackle climate change, but to make the building more viable and save on running costs, all the more so given that energy costs have soared recently. However, our local planning authority conservation officer has been adamant that the guidance will not permit solar panels. It was strange; they would not contemplate the modern solar panels that we liked, which look so much like slates that it is hardly possible to tell the difference. We were told that we had to have the ones that stand proud. I can understand the theory, which is that restoration to the original would be required; that might be the reasoning. Anyway, neither option is apparently acceptable, and we have been flatly refused permission to put solar panels on the roof.

This is a listed building that we want to be preserved and to look as it has looked. It is an industrial building, and we want to move with the times. We want to use technologies that are up to date, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross mentioned, just as the builders used the technologies of their day. We want to conserve the building and preserve the planet. We want to contribute to tackling climate change, and make the building more viable.

Even well known buildings with high footfall do not necessarily find it easy to make ends meet, because running costs can be so high. With a building in a less well-off part of the country, which probably will not attract such high footfall and is wanted principally for community use, it matters even more that we should have the opportunity to put on solar panels, out of sight, and in a way that helps the sustainability of the building, and ensures its preservation for the future.

Brookwood cemetery in my constituency is a beautiful grade I listed historic park and garden. It has a fascinating history, which I would recommend to everyone. In brief, London ran out of space in its churchyards and cemeteries in the Victorian age, in the late 1840s. Given the potential for cholera outbreaks and so on, Brookwood cemetery in the heart of Surrey was designated to take all of London’s deceased, and a special train line was set up. Its other name was the London necropolis.

Today, 170 years later, it is still a beautiful place. Originally, the London Necropolis Company bought more than 2,000 acres. The site is still very large, at 220 acres. It holds the remains of more than 265,000 deceased, from the great and the good through to paupers. Recently, about 15,000 sets of remains from the route of the HS2 line have been reinterred at the cemetery. It is still used as an active cemetery, and still has that historic job of taking in remains when the need arises.

Brookwood has had a slightly chequered history in more recent times. It has always been in private ownership. Some of the private owners looked after the cemetery well; others not so much. Woking Borough Council stepped in a few years ago to buy the cemetery, and has done an amazing job of restoring it. The buildings, walls and memorials were in great need of love, attention and restoration. There are also some wonderful flora and fauna, but the area had become overrun with rhododendrons and all sorts of other things. Some of the trees are 170 years old; they are an absolutely magnificent sight, all set out in serried lines, particularly next to the old railway line. As Members can hear, this is a very special place, but it needs further restoration. It is the largest cemetery in the United Kingdom and one of the largest, if not the largest, in Europe. As I say, it has an amazing amount of history.

Going forward, Woking Borough Council will not be able to spend the sort of money on the cemetery that it has done in recent times. As I say, the council has done a great restoration job, but we are talking about a site of national importance. The Minister will forgive me if I engage with the Government and with his Department on this magnificent place, along with other heritage bodies and lottery organisations, because it really deserves the public’s support. As I have said, I recommend that everyone becomes acquainted with this most amazing place, but national support will be needed for this very special and important national monument.

It is a pleasure, Mr Dowd, to serve under you today. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing this debate, and on the way in which he put the case for what he charmingly termed “the far north”, or the start of the south, as we in the northern isles call it.

I flatter myself that we know a thing or two about heritage sustainability in the northern isles; we have been doing it for 5,000 years, after all. Since 1969, Orkney has been home to a UNESCO world heritage site—the heart of neolithic Orkney, incorporating Skara Brae, the stones of Stenness, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar. However, that is just the start of it, because there is so much more archaeology peppered around the northern isles, and of course we have in Kirkwall St Magnus Cathedral, which is a relatively late addition to our portfolio, being a mere 12th-century construction. Most recently, we have had a very important addition in the Scapa Flow Museum in Hoy, which does a tremendous job in retaining historic artefacts that take us back to the first and second world wars—a time when Orkney and Scapa Flow were at the heart of the nation’s defence.

Of course, for some time now, Shetland has been designated a UNESCO global geopark. Earlier this year, the Government gave their support to the Zenith of Iron Age Shetland, which is also acquiring UNESCO status as a world heritage site. There are also Mousa, Old Scatness and Jarlshof. Jarlshof is a 4,000-year-old settlement. Can the Minister give us any update on support for the Zenith of Iron Age Shetland? Obviously, it was never going to be a fast process; we know that. However, if he can give us an indication of what his Department is doing to sustain that process, it would be most appreciated.

In many ways, heritage defines what we are about in Orkney and Shetland. It is one of the things that marks us out as being very different from the rest of the country, and we are enormously proud of it. It now brings in a huge amount of business, and a huge number of people from right across the world for tourism. That is both an opportunity and, if we are not careful, something of a threat. It has developed in Orkney and Shetland a tremendous visitor economy, all made up of small and medium-sized enterprises; in particular, there is now an army of well qualified and well trained tourism guides who are able to offer a great visitor experience to people coming to the northern isles.

In recent years, however, we have seen an enormous growth in cruise ship traffic. That has been enormously valuable, especially financially, to the community, but there are challenges given the sheer number of people who come to visit sites such as Skara Brae, Maeshowe and the Ring of Brodgar. I commend everybody who has been involved in the management of that influx of tourists, because they have balanced the needs of maintaining the integrity of our world heritage site while making sure it is open and accessible to those who visit our islands.

The other threat to all built heritage, of whatever age, is climate change. We see that manifesting itself in so many different ways. Skara Brae on Orkney has been listed as a site that, because of its sheer location, is particularly vulnerable to the threat of climate change. It would be an absolute tragedy for our country if we were to lose such a site. I would like to see our Government in Scotland and the UK Government in Westminster come up with a more strategic and co-ordinated approach to ensure that these very important sites are maintained for future generations.

It is a pleasure to serve under your guidance this afternoon, Mr Dowd. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), who I am delighted to follow, and my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone), who secured this debate and made a wonderful opening speech. I commend the other speeches made in this debate.

UNESCO granted world heritage site status to the 1,000 square mile English Lake District in 2017. The document that UNESCO released on that proud announcement gave as much credit to the farmers and land managers as to the glaciers that first shaped its environment. World heritage site status was hard won by the Lake District National Park Authority and the many communities within it. The status is richly deserved and precious, but it is not without being at some risk.

I will identify a handful of the risks to the world heritage site status that we enjoy in the Lake district, starting with the environmental risks. The great risk we face at the moment relates to the transition from the old farm payments scheme we had under the European Union, the common agriculture policy, to the new environmental land management scheme being designed by this Government. In theory and principle, I am fully in favour of the scheme; in practice, the Government are botching the transition and risking our landscape.

Why is that the case? This year, all my farmers will lose at least a third of their basic payments. Last time I checked, not very long ago, a grand total of 27 of the 1,000 farmers in my constituency alone—there are many more in the broader Lake district—had signed up to the new sustainable farming incentive. What will the farmers outside the new environmental schemes do? I suggest they will either go broke or go backwards. Many will go out of farming altogether, which means our landscape will rapidly change, damaging both the environment and our tourism economy, or they will go backwards. I have talked to many farmers who are desperate to work out how on earth they will make ends meet. What are they going to do? They are already increasing their livestock numbers, over-intensifying their farming and undoing the good environmental work they have done over the past few decades.

Meanwhile, badly put-together schemes are effectively giving landlords vast sums of money. What are they being compensated for? For evicting their tenants and creating valleys that are completely lost to farming and wildlife protection, which many of us have termed a Lakeland clearance. The landscape will look very different in a few years’ time if the Government continue on this trajectory. We have a tourism economy worth £3.5 billion a year in places like Bowness, Windermere, Ambleside, Grasmere, Grizedale, Langdale, Coniston, Hawkshead, Staveley, Glenridding, Patterdale and all the lakes and fells that people come to visit.

The tourism economy from which we hugely benefit will be damaged if we do not have the protection for which I am calling. We have 20 million visitors to our community, underpinning 60,000 jobs. It is important that we recognise how precious it is to the life of our community that we protect our world heritage site status. The national parks were originally founded on the Sandford principle, the idea that, all other things being the same, priority must be given to the conservation of the national parks.

We need to conserve our landscape, as I have already set out, but we also need to conserve our communities. The massive unrestricted growth of second home ownership in many of our communities means that I can name many villages where almost 90% of the housing stock is not lived in all year round. So you lose your school, you lose your bus service, you lose your pub. You lose everything there is that held the community together. We also see a growth in the ownership of the landscape falling into private hands. I trudged my way around Windermere lake a few weeks ago, when I ran the Windermere marathon. Apart from the fact that it was very uncomfortable and quite hot, it struck me how much of the frontage of the lake is privately owned. At the moment we are campaigning to stop YMCA Lakeside North Camp being sold off to a private owner who would permit no direct public access to the lake. I want the Lake district to be available to everybody, not just those of us who live there—I am so lucky to do so—but the country as a whole.

Our environment, our tourism economy and the communities that make up our national park—these things are hugely important. World heritage site status was tragically and sadly lost by Liverpool just two years ago, a reminder that all of us can lose this precious status. I ask the Government to take the action needed to protect world heritage site status for our wonderful communities in the Lake district.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd.

I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing the debate. I share with him a heritage in the highlands. I grew up in Inverness and I recognise much of what he describes. Everyone has spoken today with passion about the heritage sites in their area, whether they are world heritage sites, scheduled monuments, listed buildings or community assets of local value, and whether they are in the far north, Reading, Stoke, Llanelli, Woking, Orkney or the Lake district. I am sure I will be able to mention a couple in Glasgow. All such assets have a value in their own right as tangible and sometimes intangible connections to our past, our culture and the role they played in shaping our society.

In Glasgow North, we have a portion of the world heritage site of the Antonine wall, which was part of the frontier of the Roman empire. Much can be learned from the wall and associated sites about the Roman presence on these islands. Apparently, the first Romans who came here were chased away from the white cliffs of Dover, and people threw rocks and stones at them. These days the Government might call them illegal migrants and try to deport them to Rwanda. Nevertheless, the legacy is there to see in all the assets we are talking about. That important economic and social value remains in the here and now. These places bring people together and attract interested visitors who spend money on site and in the local economy. That in turn provides further benefit for the local community.

In Glasgow North we have the Maryhill Burgh Halls and in the east of the city Provan Hall. They are fantastic examples not just because my younger sister has worked on their heritage and regeneration, but because the projects to save and restore those facilities have themselves supported the local economy. They will be developed into functioning buildings that provide a place for people to make new memories, as well as to share their memories of them in times past.

The development and redevelopment of such sites is rarely, at least in the first instance, a purely commercial endeavour. Many heritage sites rely on charitable giving or funding from grant-making organisations, not least the National Lottery Heritage Fund, and from statutory bodies. The Charles Rennie Mackintosh Society, which marks its 50th anniversary this year, has received support from Historic Environment Scotland and has maintained and developed Mackintosh church at Queen’s Cross in Glasgow North as an attraction in its own right and as a venue for performances, weddings and other events. Currently, it is hosting Luke Jerram’s famous Gaia installation, last seen in Glasgow at COP26, where of course we were all encouraged, as the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross rightly said at the start, to think about how we tackle climate change and work towards reaching net zero targets.

In Glasgow’s west end, the Arlington Baths Club, of which I am a member, benefited from lottery heritage funding in the past. This recognised its value not only to the club’s members, but to the wider public. The facility is used by schools and is open throughout the year to those who wish to learn more about the building’s architecture and history. It is also a good example of how sites can adapt to a changing climate while becoming more sustainable at the same time. It recently produced a very ambitious plan to reach net zero. It will reduce carbon emissions, which is good for all of us, but also save money through energy efficiency and local generation. Supporting such projects should not just be seen as some sort of nice to have or luxury extra by Governments. Investing in heritage sites pays dividends for both the economy and wider society, and failure to invest results in either long-term maintenance costs or costs associated with the loss or even the destruction of assets.

The hon. Gentleman touched on a range of devolved areas. The Scottish Government invest what they can from the resources available to them. That includes the £278 million for the culture and heritage sector in the current year’s budget. We would, of course, welcome further investment at a UK level, because that would result in Barnett consequentials. I hope the Government will keep up with EU regulations in this area despite their insistence on a hard Brexit. There has been consensus on the value that these heritage sites bring to our culture, economy and society, but preserving them for future generations will not happen by magic. I hope the Government are prepared to step up to meet the challenges ahead.

It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Dowd. I congratulate the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) on securing the debate and on his opening remarks, most of which I agree with. We have heard contributions from a lot of right hon. and hon. Members across the Chamber, demonstrating the pride and passion that people feel in their local heritage sites. I greatly enjoyed my trip to Middleport Pottery. It is an excellent project and I also saw in Burslem the potential for wider regeneration of a heritage area.

Heritage sites tell the story of our country. They educate visitors from home and abroad, boost our visitor economy, and provide jobs and opportunities across the nation. Historic Houses has 1,450 sites, more than 900 of which are open to the public. They received 21 million visits last year, supported 32,000 jobs and generated over £1 billion for the UK economy. It is not just about money; living close to historic buildings and places associated with heritage is associated with higher levels of self-reported health, happiness and life satisfaction. Some 93% of people agree that local heritage improves their quality of life, and civil pride decreases when that heritage is in poor condition. For all those reasons, we need to preserve our heritage sites for the future so they can continue to enhance our local communities.

Like all sectors, there is a need to reduce carbon emissions as we transition to net zero. By their nature, heritage buildings are often old and inefficient. According to Historic England, improving the energy efficiency of historic properties could reduce emissions from the UK’s buildings by 5% a year and generate £35 billion for the economy, while making those buildings warmer and cheaper to run. Grosvenor’s recent research shows that retrofitting just half of pre-1919 homes in the next decade could lead to a saving of around £3.4 billion worth of CO2 reductions by 2050. Keeping historic buildings in use—adapting instead of demolishing them—is one of the most impactful things that can be done to lower carbon emissions and reduce waste.

These sites are vulnerable to risks beyond the climate crisis. During the pandemic, without a steady income stream from visitors and events, they immediately fell into difficulty, with repairs and maintenance projects cancelled. The backlog of repairs and maintenance projects will now cost around £2 billion. I would like to flag that work on historic buildings is currently subject to 20% VAT, but no VAT at all is charged on work on new buildings. Does the Minister agree that that creates a perverse incentive to pursue the most carbon intensive option, which is to demolish and rebuild rather than to repair?

Then there is the cost of living, inflation and energy costs for both operators and visitors. In January, a survey found that nine in 10 heritage sites feared for their future because of energy costs. I welcome the fact that historic sites were included in list of energy intensive industries eligible for sustained support from the energy bill relief scheme, but costs remain a problem.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) said, our under-resourced and often painfully slow planning system does not help either. Trying to upgrade listed buildings or buildings in conservation areas with things such as solar panels, window efficiency works and heat pumps is difficult. Some 87% of respondents to a Historic Houses survey believed that the planning system was a block to their efforts to decarbonise the buildings in their care.

In their energy security strategy, the Government said they would review

“planning barriers that households can face when installing energy efficiency measures…including in conservation areas and listed buildings.”

That review has been under way for some time but, halfway through 2023, it still has not been published. Recent responses from the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities give no clear indication of a timeline for publication, which is frustrating those in the sector. Delaying the energy efficiency review is holding up the review of the national planning policy framework, which is in turn holding up Historic England’s new climate guidance. I urge the Government to publish that review as soon as possible. Will the Minister provide us with a timeline, or at least engage with the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities and put some pressure on it to provide us with a timeline?

The hollowing out of local government and the loss of expertise under this Government and the coalition Government make these issues particularly difficult, but I presume that the work and thinking has already been done on the specific challenge of barriers to sustainability in the planning system. It is time that the Government brought those proposals forward and gave the heritage sector the information and support it needs to get on with safeguarding our heritage sites for the future.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Dowd. I offer my congratulations and thanks to the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Jamie Stone) for securing this important debate and for all the contributions from hon. and right hon. Members today. My noble Friend Lord Parkinson, the Minister for heritage, is keen on hearing the contributions from the debate today. I am delighted to respond to the debate, and will certainly feed back many of the points that have been made.

I want to give thanks to the custodians who look after our heritage in this country. Members rightly raised the importance of their contribution to our economy, with the role of heritage sites as tourist attractions. I recognise the high importance of tourism to this country as an industry. I also put on record my thanks to the volunteers and charities who do so much and give up so much of their time in this area. Members have listed a whole raft of heritage sites in their constituencies. I could commit my noble Friend to visit them all, but I will not. I am sure, however, that he would be keen to hear more about them.

It is important to recognise that in 2019 the sector provided 206,000 jobs directly. We can all agree that the nation’s rich heritage touches us all and is a vital part of life in this country. It has a crucial part to play, not only in our cultural lives, but in the wider economic and social fabric of society. That is true now more than ever, as we rebuild following the pandemic. Ensuring that we protect and future-proof our historic sites is a matter of utmost importance and something we must continue to do. Their value is clear. The protection and preservation of our historic sites, by making them more sustainable, plays an important role in generating economic growth as well as pride in our local village, town or city.

The Government-funded high street heritage action zones programme shows the positive return from heritage-focused investment, with over 171,000 square metres of public realm improved in 65 high streets. By ensuring that historic sites remain at the heart of our communities, we create great places to live, work and visit, making an area more attractive to visitors and locals alike. Heritage can also bring joy to people’s lives. It improves quality of life and brings a sense of wellbeing, helping to meet major challenges of ill health and social care and our wider environmental and climate goals. It is therefore imperative to ensure that the sector remains sustainable and able to deliver these positive effects.

A number of Members have mentioned financial sustainability. It goes without saying that the heritage sector, like many others, is still feeling the impact of the period of upheaval and disruption. The pandemic, and more recently cost of living pressures, have contributed to a challenging time for many organisations, which are still rebuilding their financial sustainability and finding ways to make ends meet. Our precious heritage sites continue to need routine but vital conservation work, as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington (Jeff Smith) mentioned, and financial sustainability is needed not just in the wake of the pandemic and the cost of living pressures but so that they can adapt to a changing digital world and meet the challenges of a net zero carbon agenda. We need to look to the future and at financial resilience. There is much that needs to be done.

The Government have been working very closely with the sector on those immediate pressures, including the unprecedented investment we gave the sector as part of the £1.5 billion culture recovery fund. I thank the sector for its engagement and the delivery of that fund. It certainly helped to deal with some essential capital restoration, as well as protecting the jobs of skilled specialists, and to make sure that historic buildings survived, workforces were retained, and most reopened to the public rather than being lost. The sector has been financially strained by the cost of living. I am delighted that we have been able to give more support through the energy bills support scheme, which was mentioned, to mitigate those costs.

Climate change was rightly raised by a number of Members. Heritage has a unique role to play in wider environmental sustainability. Our natural and historic environments are inextricably interlinked and by protecting one we can benefit the other. We need to maximise the potential of heritage to drive wider environmental goals around biodiversity, protecting habitat and sustainably managing our rural environment.

For example, in the constituency of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross, the National Lottery Heritage Fund, an arm’s length body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, supported the “Flows to the Future” project, which restored more than seven square miles of blanket bog habitat. Restoring and supporting peat bogs has multiple benefits for our environment by providing habitat for rare species and carbon capture, while also protecting unique archaeology and heritage that might otherwise not be preserved.

The Minister makes a very interesting point. People come from all over the UK and the world to see the blanket bog, and to look at the little animals and flowers that live there. They also come in the shoulder months—spring and the colder times. They are not fussed about the temperature; they want to see what it is like. That, in turn, boosts the local economy.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. That is a benefit that these places bring to our communities, and that is why preserving our heritage is so important.

On energy efficiency, the Government are fully committed to encouraging homeowners to incorporate energy-efficiency measures in their properties to reduce consumption and sustain our historic building stock. As part of that, we recognise the need to ensure that more historic buildings have the right energy-efficiency measures to support those objectives. In the strategy published last year, we committed to reviewing the practical planning barriers that households face when installing such measures, including glazing, or in conservation areas and listed buildings. We will be publishing the results of the review in due course and I will certainly speak to colleagues to find out when that might be.

The Government recently consulted on introducing a new national planning policy framework to support such energy-efficiency adaptations to existing buildings and historic homes. The consultation responses are currently being analysed and an announcement on the way forward will be made in due course.

I want to touch on a few specific points that were raised. The hon. Member for Reading East (Matt Rodda) mentioned Reading jail. I commit to speak to colleagues in the Ministry of Justice on those issues. I am always happy to visit Stoke, and look forward to combining that with a visit to the football.

The hon. Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) mentioned the issue of confusing guidance. We recognise that, which is why the review will be looking at refining it to make it easier for homeowners. Historic England has already refreshed some guidance providing advice to homeowners, but I certainly take her point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking (Mr Lord) spoke about the cemetery. Again, I will raise this matter with my noble Friend the heritage Minister. As a Department, we are happy to engage with him and other stakeholders.

I will have to write to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael) with an update on the issue he raises. I have a very good friend, Tracey Thompson, who lives up there. I keep being asked to go and visit her, so I look forward to going along.

I will certainly speak to colleagues in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the points that the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) raised. In my time as Housing Minister, I heard the issue about second homes, and he will know that the Government are working on that as we speak.

Conscious of time, I shall conclude by thanking all Members for bringing this debate forward and to life and talking about the great assets that we have in this country and the issues we are facing in making them sustainable, because that is important for us as a Government. It is an issue that is recognised, and I thank all Members for their contributions.

I will be very brief. I welcome the Minister’s tone, and we all look forward to seeing what emerges from a new planning framework for listed building consent and seeing what comes out the other end. I will make a simple point: if we get this right, there is a great prize, because the more people who come to these attractions that are supported in a sustainable way, the more that boosts the local economy and, in turn, His Majesty’s Government’s tax take increases. It becomes a beneficial spiral. It is a great goal if we can achieve it; I am sure we can if we work together. Finally, I thank all right hon. and hon. Members for their thoughtful contributions. I am personally grateful to each and every one of these splendid people. Sometimes I think that these Westminster Hall debates are like the very best kind of tutorial at a higher education institution. It leads to good thought and constructive work together.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the sustainability of heritage sites across the UK.

Sitting adjourned.