Skip to main content

UNESCO: Westminster World Heritage Site

Volume 760: debated on Thursday 26 March 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what response they have given to the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s request for an updated reply by 1 February to its concerns about the development of the South Bank and that development’s impact on the Palace of Westminster as part of the Westminster World Heritage Site.

My Lords, on 26 January, the DCMS Secretary of State submitted an updated state of conservation report on the Westminster world heritage site to UNESCO. This report outlined further policy measures to protect the world heritage site taken since the date of the request. It also provided an update on proposals for developments on the South Bank. The full report can be read on the UNESCO website.

My Lords, why have the Government not published that response to UNESCO’s renewed concerns about the spread of high-rise development on the South Bank? They have not produced the report for this House. My copy of the Government’s response, which I have here, has been provided to me by UNESCO itself. It refers to many things but does not promise the protection that UNESCO seeks for the Westminster heritage site; nor does it reflect the advice of the Government’s statutory advisers on heritage policy, whose statement I also happen to have. Do the Government no longer care about their responsibilities to the national heritage in London? Who calls the tune? Is it Mr Eric Pickles, the Communities Secretary, or is it Mr Boris Johnson, the mayor? Will the noble Baroness accept that the prospect of Parliament and all it stands for being downgraded in favour of mega projects that cost millions but do little to ease London’s housing shortage would be a national disgrace and an international humiliation?

I will tell the noble Baroness that all the planning regulations and the whole planning flow have been exactly as they should be. Currently, having been through the Secretary of State and Lambeth twice, it is now back with Lambeth. So we wait. As for the report, I am not sure whether it would have normally been placed in the Library, but it has clearly been on the UNESCO website since the end of January.

My Lords, by standing on Waterloo Bridge, not many visitors would appreciate just how many of the buildings they see are in different planning authorities. The Secretary of State, in refusing to call in the Elizabeth House development, said that it could not,

“have significant effects beyond the immediate locality, give rise to substantial cross boundary or national controversy”.

Bearing in mind what we have heard, does the noble Baroness really share that view; or, like the Secretary of State, is she so committed to the dogma or doctrine that a local council should have the sole responsibility, whatever the consequence? Talking about Westminster heritage, I should like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Graham on his 90th birthday today.

Noble Lords may not be aware, but the Government Whips all sang happy birthday to him first thing this morning. There are planning guidelines and protocols, which have been used all the way through this process. Everybody in your Lordships’ House values the skyline. I have seen many maps and reconstructions of how the whole thing will look alongside Big Ben or Elizabeth Tower. From where the Supreme Court is you can still see clear sky, which is one of the things that caused concern.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that there is a great deal of confusing guidance here? Might everybody’s life not be made a little simpler if we went for one clear set of regulations that we could all refer back to and have a nice argument about that when we pass them?

My understanding is that there is plenty of policy at a national and a local level, and there are probably people who are not terribly happy about that policy.

My Lords, major changes are being proposed for the Palace of Westminster in the coming years. These include a many millions of pounds upgrade to the building, the possible removal of the archive and a new education centre. Could the Minister please tell the House who the named individual is with responsibility for and overview of all these moving parts?

I am not sure that I can name an individual, but my understanding is that the House of Commons Commission and the House of Lords House Committee are working together on this issue.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that the original reason why Mr Pickles did not call in this application was because he said that it did not have national significance—something that contradicted the best possible statutory advice and the reality of the application? This is probably the most famous building and skyline in the world. Could she tell me what does constitute “national significance” in the light of Mr Pickles’ judgment, and perhaps give some examples of how he has applied that judgment?

My Lords, it is very important that my noble friend, even at this late stage in the Parliament, does obtain the ear of Mr Pickles, because what he has done has placed in jeopardy the whole future of Westminster as a world heritage site. Do we really want to end this Parliament on that note?

I take the noble Lord’s point. However, UNESCO has not warned us of a possible delisting of the Palace. It has asked that the state of conservation report for the site be submitted by 1 February. The Government have carefully considered UNESCO’s request not to approve the scheme but concluded that the level of harm to the world heritage site would be substantially less than that suggested by UNESCO.

My Lords, further to the question asked opposite, would my noble friend agree that a great threat to the Palace of Westminster is the constant reports that we read in the papers that the place is falling down about our ears? Will she undertake that in the new Parliament we will definitely get a definitive report on the state of the building so that both Houses can consider it?

I can indeed. The next Government are expected to confirm a decision in spring 2016 as to the Palace of Westminster and conservation.

My Lords, I am only a simple sailor, but I am slightly confused. Is the Minister really saying that she is unable to talk to the Minister who is the head of her department?

With due respect to the noble Lord, I am answering this as a DCMS Minister, but I have not been briefed by Mr Pickles on this issue.