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Historic Battlefields

Volume 646: debated on Wednesday 12 September 2018

We now move on to a debate about the preservation of historic battlefields. I call Chris Skidmore, who is probably dangerously overqualified to speak about the subject, to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the preservation of historic battlefields.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your generous words and for chairing the debate. I chose this subject to allow other Members to contribute, as I am aware that there are historic battlefields, both on land and at sea, in or near many constituencies. This is a national issue, and it is right that it is given national attention by the Minister. However, I wish to turn my attention to a specific battlefield that is currently under threat. The battle of Bosworth is one of our nation’s most historic and important battles. It is where the last English king to be killed fighting in battle, Richard III, fell. It is where the Tudor dynasty under Henry VII was born. It truly changed the course of English history.

I must declare an interest. As the author of a book about the battle of Bosworth itself and a recent biography of Richard III, I have spent years researching the battlefield. I went from climbing rickety ladders to the top of St Margaret’s church in Stoke Golding to view the original site of the battlefield, to searching for original documentary evidence in the Vatican library. I was present at the 2010 conference at which a new location of the battlefield site was unveiled. It was demonstrated that the battlefield was far larger and stretched across a far wider area than previously thought. An expert archaeological team led by Dr Glenn Foard found nearly 40 cannonballs—the most ever found on a medieval battlefield—and the famous gilt silver boar badge, Richard III’s insignia, demonstrating that Richard’s men fought in a different location from previously thought. Those archaeological surveys of the battle, limited though they naturally were by time and resource pressures, provided a glimpse into what lies beneath the fields of Bosworth battlefield. More will surely be discovered if future archaeological investigation is allowed. Who knows what new technology will reveal in time?

The battlefield site, which is centred on Fenn Lane in what was then a marshy area known as Redemore, retains its rural setting and, crucially, provides us with an understanding of the contours and landscape of Henry Tudor’s approach to the battle on the morning of 22 August 1485. Given that we know Henry himself remained at the back of the battle as fighting began—he had never actually experienced open combat—only for Richard III to spot his standards and charge with his household cavalry towards Tudor, who was surrounded by his men, it is also likely that the final phase of the battle took place around the location of Fenn Lane.

I thank my hon. Friend for securing this important debate. I also congratulate him on growing a beard over the summer, in true Tudor fashion. I have received a host of emails about this matter, from Ricardians and non-Ricardians alike, which shows how much the preservation of the Bosworth battlefield matters to the public. As I think he will agree, the battle marked the transformation of this country from the middle ages to the early modern world, with all that means for our national story.

I could not agree more. I know that, aside from representing a constituency in relative proximity to the battlefields of the midlands, my hon. Friend is himself an historian and scholar and has read several books about the battle. We have talked privately about the matter, and I appreciate his input to the debate.

Henry VII was crowned at Stoke Golding and instituted a battlefield chapel at St James church in Dadlington. That indicates that the battle of Bosworth was fought in that area rather than in the traditionally accepted area of Ambion Hill, where Bosworth Battlefield Heritage Centre is based. Ambion Hill seems more likely to have been Richard III’s encampment the night before the battle. The fact that recent archaeological and documentary evidence demonstrates that the site of the battle was far wider and in a different place—around Fenn Lane—from the previous registered battlefield location overwhelmingly proves the need for caution in preserving the existing battlefield area and its surroundings.

However, that need is not being heeded. As the Minister will be aware, a recent planning application for an 83-acre driverless car testing track in Higham on the Hill, adjoining the Fenn Lane area, has been the subject of intense local and national opposition. Earlier this week more than 12,500 people had signed an online petition against the application, and hundreds of written objections have been submitted to the official planning process. A final decision on the application by Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council has been deferred to 25 September.

I am fully aware—I am sure the Minister will remind me—that that is a local decision that will be made by the council. I am sure the council will reflect on the overwhelming number of written submissions and the huge petition that will be submitted later this month. I want to put on the record my gratitude to the people and organisations who have been in touch with me since I secured the debate. I thank in particular the Battlefields Trust and Julian Humphrys; the historian Michael Jones; Richard Mackinder, who has been integral to some of the archaeological work on the battlefield site; and of course the Richard III Society, for their kind input to my speech. Their voices, along with those of the thousands who have expressed deep concern about what may happen to an area of the Bosworth battlefield, should be listened to closely. I hope councillors do so, for the sake of future research and knowledge about the battle. The application threatens to destroy precious historical material that I believe should be preserved.

We must recognise the national precedent that the local application risks setting, and ask ourselves how we managed to get into a situation in which a battlefield of historic national importance is threatened in this manner. It is worth considering the current national framework for the recognition and preservation of battlefields. Battlefield sites in England are material considerations in the planning process, and they are designated by Historic England and put on the register of historic battlefields under powers conferred by the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act 1953, as amended. Although that legislation does not confer a specific responsibility to create a register of battlefields, one was created in 1995 by a joint project of English Heritage, the National Army Museum and the Battlefields Trust. In 2011 that register was incorporated into the national heritage list for England, which is administered by Historic England.

In Scotland, an inventory of historic battlefields was introduced in 2009. It is compiled by Historic Scotland on behalf of the Scottish Ministers under the Historic Environment (Amendment) (Scotland) Act 2011, which followed the Scottish historic environment policy of July 2009. Further guidance was issued in March 2011.

Since 1995, 47 battlefields in England have been designated as registered battlefields by Historic England—previously called English Heritage. Under planning legislation, the effect on the site and setting of a registered battlefield should be a material consideration for any proposed development. Planning policy statement 5, “Planning for the Historic Environment”, states that there should be a presumption in favour of the conservation of designated historic assets, and that local authorities should assess whether the benefits of an application for development outweigh the disbenefits. It also recognises that many historic assets are not currently designated and that, despite that, there should be a presumption in favour of conservation such that substantial harm to, or loss of, the battlefield should be “wholly exceptional”.

Several issues with the legal status quo deserve to be reconsidered. Substantial harm to a battlefield location should be “wholly exceptional”, but what of “minor harm”? Notwithstanding that those definitions are entirely subjective, a series of planning applications granted over a period of time may individually be defined as causing only minor harm, but in combination may cause incremental damage that is defined as substantial harm. The culture of permissiveness in our planning process allows for historic sites to be substantially eroded without the law ever being broken. Over time, subjective decisions that encroach on an historic battlefield site create an objective reality of destruction. No one would suggest that to take a single stone from Stonehenge would be considered minor harm, for clearly that would not be the case. One stone of many, once taken, would permanently alter the appearance and the historic preservation of the site.

Perhaps one of the long-standing issues with getting battlefield preservation taken seriously is that so much of it is not visible to the naked eye. The dead, their remains and their relics are buried, so we are faced with what is unknown rather than what is known. If we knew what was there hidden beneath the fields, we would preserve it; yet not knowing currently allows for battlefields to be thrown into the mix of the planning process. To argue that just 1% of a battlefield might be affected by a development is entirely to miss the point. That could be the 1% of a battlefield that witnessed the most important stages of combat or may yield archaeological treasures of national importance, just as the discovery of the Bosworth boar demonstrated.

In the past, planning and development were dealt with with consideration for battlefield heritage by the then English Heritage battlefields panel, a non-executive specialist panel that advised the organisation on policy and practice and included membership of organisations such as the Battlefields Trust. Yet following the establishment of Historic England, that specialist panel was disbanded. Will the Minister consider either writing to, or convening a meeting with, Historic England to see whether the panel could be re-established? Will he also investigate whether the Battlefields Trust could be registered as a statutory consultee when it comes to any planning applications within the area of registered battlefield sites? Currently it is not, which has resulted in the trust becoming aware of the planning application at Bosworth only at a very late stage, placing the battlefield at risk. It would have made sense for it to have been consulted and indeed advised earlier on in the planning process.

Finally, there is the issue of the boundary of the registered battlefield site to consider and whether the register meets all of the preservation needs of historic battlefields. Bosworth battlefield has been on that register since its inception in 1995, originally as an area of 632 hectares. That has been expanded to 1,072 hectares, together with an extended area of newly located battlefield agreed by the English Heritage battlefields panel in July 2011 and formally adopted in June 2013 following an extended consultation period.

In addition, the battlefield has its own conservation plan—effectively a form of local plan—drawn up by Leicestershire County Council and approved by the local planning authority, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, for use as part of the evidence base for its local plan. The conservation management plan includes a set of guiding principles and policies intended for those involved in the management of the battlefield area, including those dealing with recreational activity, land management and planning matters.

It is interesting to note that in the plan, policies were drawn up to

“ensure that topographic views across the Battlefield and within its setting are conserved and managed in order to protect significance enabling understanding and interpretation”

and also to ensure that

“any new development within the area and its setting does not have an adverse visual or landscape impact on the special qualities of the area, and that existing development which detracts from the area, where appropriate, is mitigated”.

One might ask whether that conservation plan was not being mitigated by the current planning application, which indeed seems to run contrary to those policies. That is for Hinckley and Bosworth borough councillors to decide on 25 September, but councillors can be responsible only for implementing and adhering to existing legal guidance and frameworks as they stand in the national planning policy framework.

The current guidance and frameworks clearly do not afford historic battlefields adequate protection against development and destruction; hence we are faced with this important test case at Bosworth. I have called this debate today because this issue is of national significance. It is time to think again and revisit the entire topic of how battlefields are protected through the register of historic battlefields, and indeed the spatial limit in which the register itself self-defines battlefields. The register was first created over 23 years ago, and it is perhaps worth reflecting on the massive advances in battlefield archaeology and heritage studies since then. A review of how we could best preserve our historic battlefields and landscapes should be considered. Just as we have areas of outstanding natural beauty, it is worth considering whether for the future we should be creating areas of national historic importance that would recognise historic sites and their surroundings as areas that we wish—and need—to conserve for the future, just as we do with parks. I urge the Minister to consider my suggestion for a review. Perhaps he would be kind enough to consult his Department and see whether that might be possible.

Bosworth is the battlefield under threat today but, while the current legal framework continues, no doubt there will be others. To build over one part of a battlefield site threatens to set a precedent of permissiveness that could erode our ability to protect our battlefields across the country. We should plant our standard squarely on preserving Bosworth and its heritage, both past and yet to be discovered.

Order. The debate can last until 5.30 pm. I am obliged to call the Front-Bench speakers no later than seven minutes past 5. The guideline limits are five minutes for the Scottish National party, five minutes for Her Majesty’s Opposition and 10 minutes for the Minister. If the Minister would leave three minutes at the end for the mover of the debate to sum up, that would be great. Four Members are seeking to contribute and we have 20 minutes, so I impose a five- minute limit.

It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on bringing the issue to Westminster Hall. I feel strongly about the preservation of culture and history. As an Orangeman, as a member of the Royal Black Preceptory and as an Apprentice Boy of Derry, I have a sincere and real interest in our history. The Chamber will be glad to hear that I will not sing the historic song “The Sash”, but I will refer to the four important battles that took place to enable King William to overthrow the pretender James and his Jacobite army in what was then Ireland at the battle of the Boyne.

“It was worn at Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne.”

I could sing that, to everyone’s pleasure—but I am not sure that is the right word, so I will not do it.

There has been European funding successfully to preserve and build on the history of these monumental battle sites at the Boyne, with an incredibly impressive museum and guided tour of the site providing lots of information for the tourist and the historian alike. There are also museums aplenty in Londonderry to mark these historic events. However, in my opinion in Enniskillen we do not do justice to what was surely a turning point in the Williamite wars. In Enniskillen, armed Williamite civilians drawn from the local Protestant population organised a formidable irregular military force. The armed civilians of Enniskillen ignored an order from Robert Lundy that they should fall back to Londonderry and instead launched guerrilla attacks against the Jacobites. Operating with Enniskillen as a base, they carried out raids against the Jacobite forces in Connacht and Ulster, plundering Trillick, burning Augher Castle and raiding Clones.

A poorly trained Jacobite army of about 3,000 men, led by Viscount Mountcashel, advanced from Dublin. McCarthy’s men were mostly recruits, but on 28 July 1689 McCarthy’s force encamped near Enniskillen and bombarded the Williamite outpost of Crom Castle—better known as Crom. Two days later, they were confronted— and vastly outnumbered—by about 2,000 Williamite Enniskilleners under Colonel Berry, Colonel William Wolseley and Gustav Hamilton. The Jacobite dragoons under Anthony Hamilton stumbled into an ambush, taking some 230 casualties. Mountcashel managed to drive off Berry’s cavalry with his main force, but unwisely McCarthy halted and drew up his men about a mile south of Newtownbutler.

Many of the Jacobite troops fled as the first shots were fired, and up to 1,500 of the 3,000 were hacked down or drowned—500 tried to swim across the lough, but only one survived. Four hundred Jacobite officers were captured and later exchanged for Williamite prisoners. The other Jacobites were killed. Mountcashel was wounded by a bullet and narrowly avoided being killed. He went on to command the Irish brigade in the French army. That victory at Newtownbutler ensured that a landing by the Duke of Schomberg in County Down in August 1689 was unopposed.

That pivotal battle in the history of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and what was then Ireland deserves a museum. The hon. Gentleman made his case for Bosworth, and I am making mine for Enniskillen. When I was first elected to this place, my parliamentary aide was particularly excited just to walk around this place. She loves history, as I do; in all honesty, it was probably the only subject at school that I excelled in and enjoyed. With two little ones at home, she does not find the time to do that now, but when she comes over here she particularly enjoys it. The history of what is now Northern Ireland is just as rich, yet it is not marketed well. We must do more to attract people to the area. Enniskillen has some of the most beautiful landscape—aside from, of course, my own Strangford constituency—and its history is rich, but when we do a Google search of the battle we find no links whatever to anything that would draw people there.

We can do better. While we must physically preserve, we must also preserve interest, and that is done by making it interesting to new generations. The Orange Order, of which I am a proud member, does its part, but I believe there must be more funding available to commemorate such important sites, and interactive learning to make them as compelling to young people now as they are to this old boy here—I was a young boy at one time. It is important to do that.

I think of the Americans, who love coming over to enjoy the history and to celebrate their short history, when they look toward Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland for their historical background. I think how rich we are in culture and heritage, and it excites me to think what else we can do. I look forward to the Minister’s contribution and his endorsement of all the historic battle sites across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I put it to him and his team that they must determine the next steps not simply of preservation, but of enhancement of our history and our culture. The battles of Derry, Aughrim, Enniskillen and the Boyne were important battles. The battle of the Boyne was the one that changed history for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, but Enniskillen has never been looked after.

I speak as the Member for the constituency concerned, as I have been proudly for 30 years, when I say to the House that this is a battle between ancient and modern; it is about preserving the old or progressing the new. The old that we are talking about is only 1% of the battlefield, and the boundary of the battlefield was recently moved. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), whose excellent book “Bosworth: The Birth of the Tudors” I happen to have with me as a guide, is a historian and spoke passionately for the nation as a whole on changing the rules, but I must tell him that local opinion is not with him on this question.

I applaud Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council for calling this in to see what is possible, but we must be clear about this. The MIRA technology park, which has 35 international companies and will employ 1,000 engineers over the next seven years, needs the connected and autonomous vehicle testing track. I was there on 28 July for the Queen’s Award for Enterprise. It was a memorable occasion, since it is not often one sees a Lord Lieutenant in a yellow jacket driving a JCB; we had a very entertaining day, and I was able to talk to the senior employees, some of whom had flown in from Japan, about the importance of the project. I am not sure I see how that new track can be built anywhere other than at the location currently designated.

I point out to my hon. Friend that Historic England has agreed that the site will have no physical impact on the key parts of the battlefield. There is apparently limited harm to the varied archaeological sites there. There have already been 10 pieces of work, including geological surveys, trial trenching, metal detecting and an assessment of the battlefield setting. I would not object and I am sure MIRA will not object to looking at my hon. Friend’s suggestions; nevertheless, studies have been undertaken. Furthermore, Hinckley and Bosworth Borough Council, in connection with the county council and other authorities, is looking at a nature trail with six points throughout the battlefield to explain what happened there, which is an important part of our national heritage.

We must also bear in mind, however, that at MIRA, which is on the A5 boundary and almost straddles the east and west midlands, we have an £80 million investment twice over from Horiba. I spoke to both Takeshi Fukushima, the chairman of MIRA, and Masayuki Adachi, the president and chief executive officer of Horiba. We must understand that this is a multinational business, developing batteries and computer-aided connected and autonomous vehicles all across the world. It is critically important for the future not just of my constituency, but of the east midlands, the west midlands and the nation as a whole that this goes forward.

Today I was at a breakfast meeting at quarter to 8 at the Department for International Trade, at which the Secretary of State pointed out that we are still the fifth biggest economy in the world and the world’s fastest growing and most successful high-tech market. He also talked about TP11—the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership—in connection with post-Brexit trading arrangements; I know my hon. Friend who is chairing this debate will be pleased to hear about building trade deals with 11 Asian countries. We have to be the centre here; we do not want it to go anywhere else. I am indebted to local people I know well who have said to me that local people want it. I quote a friend of mine, Stan Rooney, a former borough councillor who is now chairman of a parish council, who said:

“A technology ‘war’ is being fought currently to develop the technology and only this week Chrysler Automobiles US have announced they are to build an identical facility costing £23m.”

That is, identical to MIRA. I agree with him when he says:

“Time is of the essence!”

I commend the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing the debate. He was right to talk at the start about the need to preserve our historic battlefields not only on land, but at sea. I feel that I have strayed into a very polite tussle between two Conservative Members, so hon. Members will be pleased to hear that I wish to restrict my remarks to talking about protection of other historic battlefields, including those at sea and in particular shipwrecks, rather than taking a side in this most polite of fracas.

The area I represent has its own historic battlefield in Freedom fields, where Plymouth parliamentarians fought off the cavaliers in the Sabbath Day fight, ensuring that Plymouth remained on the side of the parliamentarians in the English civil war. We also have many memorials to those sailors who died at sea. In particular, I will talk about the wrecks from the first and second world wars as part of our historic battlefields theme, because it is important that those people who died far away from our shores are remembered with the same fondness and receive the same level of protection as those who died on UK soil.

The issue of historic wrecks was picked up by the Defence Secretary over the summer, and his intervention was very welcome. Since entering this place last June, I have been raising the issue of HMS Exeter in particular, a Devonport-based warship that was sunk with a number of other Royal Navy warships in an engagement with the Japanese in the Java sea during the second world war. When she sank, some of her crew were taken to a Japanese prisoner of war camp, and their experiences after that are well known, but there are many people who died on board HMS Exeter, in sealed compartments. She sank to the bottom of the sea and that was supposed to be where she would rest.

That has not been the case, however, because there has been illegal salvage of HMS Exeter. We no longer have an HMS Exeter in the Java sea, because she has been completely salvaged and completely removed, including the remains of the Royal Navy sailors who died on board. There have been many stories in the press over the past couple of years about the remains of those people who perished on board HMS Exeter, as well as her sister ships, HMS Encounter and HMS Electra, being thrown into mass graves or discarded overboard when she was lost. The same focus on protecting our historic battlefields must also apply to those that are far from our sight, particularly in areas where we previously had a presence but no longer do, in order to keep up the protection of those sites.

The Dutch Government have done much work on the protection of the flotilla that HMS Exeter was part of, because of the loss of a number of Dutch warships, and the Dutch Parliament in particular has been putting pressure on its Government to do that. We in this place can learn a lot from them about how we can keep pressure on Ministers, because I do not believe that the Ministry of Defence or the Foreign Office have been as thorough as their Dutch counterparts in protecting those wrecks. In particular, teams that went to investigate reports of British sailors being dumped in mass graves were sent by the Dutch Government, not the UK Government. We have a lot to thank our Dutch cousins for. I particularly thank Captain Smitt, the Dutch defence and naval attaché in London, for his correspondence and for keeping us informed of how those remains are being preserved.

The simple truth is that we do not know where the remains of the sailors who died on HMS Exeter are. They could be on the seabed around her previous site, or they could have been taken on land when the sealed compartments of HMS Exeter would hoisted on to salvage vessels—we simply do not know. My challenge to the Minister, as part of a discussion of how we protect our historic battlefields, is to make sure that we monitor those lost wrecks not only for oil pollution but for illegal salvage. That should be a cross-departmental joint endeavour between the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign Office.

Can we also start to create public awareness of historic battle sites, either on land or lost wrecks—both from the Royal Navy and, importantly, from the merchant navy, which lost many more ships at sea? Will the Minister think about creating an equivalent of UNESCO’s register of at-risk world heritage sites for wrecks abroad? Several UK bodies keep a list of our wrecks and those that are in danger, raising awareness of at-risk wrecks and, importantly, where the remains of Royal Navy sailors who died in service to our country on those ships may be disturbed or not treated with dignity or respect. That should be looked at, and I will be grateful if the Minister will cover that in his response.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Hollobone. I thank and pay tribute to my very good friend and constituency neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore), for securing this important debate and, predictably, for an interesting and brilliant speech.

I am an ardent lover of battlefields and their powerful history. Whenever I travel to Europe and the middle east, for instance, I invariably end up looking for an historic battle site. I enjoy searching for them and relish finding them. They are inspirational places of heroism, honour and sacrifice. The United Kingdom has a wonderful native array of battlefields from across the span of history. Historic England lists 47 battlefields on its national heritage list, but the Battlefields Trust calculates that there are more than 500 battlefields or sites of conflict across the United Kingdom. They range from the obvious—castles and city walls—to culturally important targets of Viking raids, such as monasteries and ports, and from well-defined battle sites to more vaguely understood sites where there is record of a conflict.

Indeed, Little Solsbury Hill, overlooking Bath—about 12 miles from my constituency—has been identified by historians as a possible site for the battle of Badon Hill, in which, during the 5th century, a British Arthur-like figure led the resistance to the Saxons invading from the east. It is a beautiful site and it is well worth a walk to the top of the hill.

The castles and cities that saw important sieges and struggles, from the Norman conquest, through the wars of the roses and into the civil war, are already well protected from inappropriate development or destruction. However, although battlefields are just fields, they are culturally significant and are often filled to the brim with interesting and vital archaeological remains, but as we saw with the recent proposal to build on part of the site of the battle of Bosworth, people do not always treat them as valuable, historic sites.

More than that, battlefields have a number of concerns that built history does not, and it is not only the physical location of a battlefield that needs protection. Visitors and researchers alike can gain a wealth of information from visiting the site of a battle. To truly preserve them, we need to preserve the topography, the fields of view and the setting of the field. As my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood said, all those features were of great importance to the armies and commanders who fought on the field, and all are of interest to anyone seeking to understand how and why they fought where they did and the impact of territory and strategic points. As Winston Churchill said, one must “tread the terrain” to really understand a battlefield.

That is true of Landsdown Hill, the closest of the Historic England battlefields to my constituency. The 1643 battle there was a key part of the parliamentary defence of Bath, and so the whole strategic defence of our capital. Royalist forces and Cornish pikemen sought to force parliamentarian forces from the hill. I hope the parliamentarians here are pleased to hear that they failed against the steep slope and the protected position that parliamentary forces held on the top of the hill. Both sides retreated under darkness but, importantly, Bath was saved.

There is already a monument to Sir Bevil Grenville—erected before enlisted soldiers were commemorated—but the value of the battlefield is much greater than just the monument. To understand the history of Lansdown Hill, one needs to be able to see that it overlooks Bath, how steep the ascent was for men who had spent the day harassed by fast-moving cavalry and how easy it was for armed men to shelter at the top of the hill.

Lansdown Hill is not at any immediate risk. Historic England’s entry on the national heritage list for the hill makes for reassuring reading:

“The landscape of 1643 had much in common with that of today… Two key viewpoints are publicly accessible and a complete circuit can be achieved from public highways and footpaths.”

That is what the protection of battlefields has to look like: not only access to a restricted section of history, but freedom to enjoy and experience historic landscapes as they were used by the people—the men—who literally put them on the map.

The case of Bosworth Field is shocking not only because of the potential ruination of a battlefield, but because of the key role that that particular battle played in our nation’s story, and because it ignored the warnings of recent history. As my hon. Friend said, any building on recognised battle sites will disturb archeologically important remains, whether bodies, weapons or just material evidence of the armies that fought there. That not only is a risk to academic research into these battles, but will damage education across the school system. The new history GCSE encourages children to understand our nation’s history better and includes a requirement to study a local historic site, explicitly including battlefields.

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me, because I have cut a lot out of my speech. I hope that the battlefield at Bosworth remains protected and undisturbed. I also very much hope that the Minister will acknowledge that some larger good could come out of this, with developers and councils all across the country coming to value our incredible heritage more and understanding why it has to be preserved.

We now come to the first of the Front-Bench spokespeople. The guideline limits for speeches are five minutes for the Scottish National party and for Her Majesty’s Opposition.

It is, as always, a great pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Hollobone. I commend the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for securing the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Hannah Bardell) was due to respond on behalf of the Scottish National party but has unfortunately been called away on constituency business, so I am afraid that the House will have to contend with my response.

It has been a thoughtful debate, and it has been very interesting to observe. It started with the contribution from the hon. Member for Kingswood, who is clearly a well-respected historian and author—I think you said he was perhaps “dangerously overqualified” to speak in the debate, Mr Hollobone. It was a real pleasure to listen to him. He spoke very passionately about the situation in Bosworth and the number of people who objected to the development there. The hon. Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick) obviously takes a different view. It is difficult enough to comment on what is essentially a live planning application, but when two hon. Members from the same party disagree on the issue, it is very much a debate in which I wish I could take a step back.

There was then an interesting contribution from hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who is a very dear friend of mine. I was somewhat relieved when he decided it would probably be in his best interest not to recite “The Sash”. As a western Scotland politician, I will make no further comment on that. None the less, he spoke passionately about Enniskillen and the battle of the Boyne.

The hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) spoke passionately about HMS Exeter and made what I thought were fairly reasonable asks of the Minister, which I am sure he is hoping for a positive response to. I do not think it is beyond the wit of man for the Minister to look at those. We also heard from the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti), who spoke about his love of battlefields and who waded in a little to support the hon. Member for Kingswood. Based strictly on how many Members spoke to it, the cause of the hon. Member for Kingswood is probably winning.

The SNP is committed to the stabilisation and preservation of all archaeological and historic sites, and we encourage all their owners and managers to contribute towards the improvement of their condition. Last year Scotland celebrated the year of history, heritage and archaeology, marking the country’s rich historic environment and past. Scotland’s first historic environment strategy was published in 2014 and set out a vision, definition and desired outcomes for a rich, historic environment, and it provides a framework within which organisations can work together to achieve positive outcomes. Historic Scotland also provides grants and funding to projects that aim to protect and promote Scotland’s historic environment.

I will not comment on the situation with the A9 and Killiecrankie battlefield, because the issue is ongoing and the Scottish Government are giving it consideration. However, if hon. Members have not made one already, I would strongly recommend a trip to the Bannockburn heritage centre in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stirling (Stephen Kerr). There is great debate about where that battle actually took place. I think that most historians would acknowledge that it did not take place on the site where the heritage centre is, but it is well worth a visit.

I am conscious of time and of perhaps being a bit of an intruder in this debate, so I will conclude by saying that we must always ensure that we preserve and cherish our historic battlefields for the generations to come, because to do otherwise is historical and archaeological vandalism, which in my view is unforgivable.

We have had a very good debate—at least for the part that I could hear above the sound of the noisy heater directly behind me, which I am told engineers are being sent to try to fix for future debates. I congratulate the hon. Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) on securing the debate. We all know of his expertise in this subject and are all greatly informed whenever he makes an intervention about historical matters in the House. We all would have enjoyed, I am sure, hearing much more about his research and not just the planning difficulties around the Bosworth Field site. He made the very good suggestion that it was perhaps time to review the subject again and think about creating areas of national historic importance, and I know that the Minister will want to reflect on that.

We had a very good contribution, as ever, from my good friend the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who once again informed us in some detail about the historical background to the situation in Ulster. We heard from the hon. Member for Bosworth itself (David Tredinnick), who, perhaps surprisingly to some of us, was not in favour of the points made by the hon. Member for Kingswood, but made his own points about the important economic contribution that the development proposed there would make to the area.

We had a very good contribution from my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), who rightly reminded us of the importance of battlefields at sea and made the very good and sensible proposal of an at-risk register for wrecks. Again, the Government should consider that. Finally from the Back Benches, the hon. Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti) told us about important battlefields around his constituency, including around Solsbury Hill, that very beautiful area around Bath, and described how brave British warriors all those years ago—centuries ago—tried to see off European invaders known as Anglo-Saxons, who are still with us to this day, despite those brave efforts at the time.

It is a great pleasure to me, as a former history teacher, to speak on this subject, but I am very grateful to my work experience student, Sophie Lewis, who will shortly be going to Oxford to study history and English, for her help in researching for today’s debate.

Battlefields act as a visual reminder of events in the past that have shaped our culture. Winston Churchill once described battles as

“the punctuation marks of history”.

The presence of historic sites such as Bosworth reminds us that we are ultimately a product of all those past events and conflicts. Our heritage as a nation enriches our culture, underpinning so much of who we are and how we think of ourselves today. These are places that should, wherever possible, be preserved so that we can visit them and ponder on the meaning of them to us today.

As we have heard, however, battlefields are vulnerable to modern-day pressures. The most recent publication of the “Heritage at Risk” register, in 2017, showed that 8.7% of 46 registered battlefields in England are at risk—eight battlefields are under threat from development, 16 sites are endangered by arable cultivation, and 10 sites have been subjected to unregulated metal detecting. As we have heard, the establishment of the register of historic battlefields in 1995 was a very important step in the protection of our battlefields. As has been mentioned, the work of the Battlefields Trust and English Heritage, as well as the agencies in the nations of the UK, has been significant in advocating for the preservation of battlefields, but local authorities have a role to play, too.

The economic and historical consequences of neglect of battlefields should not be ignored. Tourism is closely linked—directly linked—with heritage sites, so preserving them will encourage the tourism industry and there are economic benefits to be considered. In addition, historical inquiry and archaeological study give us a greater insight into anthropology, providing us with a more complete understanding of the battles that forged our history and the people we are as a result. The revolution in archaeology in recent times has extended our knowledge, so we must allow room for that to continue.

Our own political role here in the Houses of Parliament has been influenced by these battles, including during the civil war. In my own constituency of Cardiff West, an important battle of the second civil war took place at St Fagans in May 1648, when parliamentary forces, I am glad to say, routed the royalists, killing 200 troops and taking 3,000 prisoners. In the space of 20 years, Britain experienced regicide, a republic and military rule. Things culminated in the trial in this very building of King Charles I and his execution just a quarter of a mile up the road from here. These events are reflective of wider issues that we face today: the fight for representation and democracy and disagreements on policy and the devolution of power.

In the case of Bosworth Field, the hon. Member for Kingswood has raised his concerns as a historian about the application to construct a connected and autonomous vehicle testing track. In Shakespeare’s version of the battle, Richard III cried out in anguish:

“A horse! a horse! my kingdom for a horse!”

He did not cry, “A driverless car, a driverless car, my kingdom for an autonomous vehicle.” Technological progress is important, but not at the expense of our essential heritage. When the Welshman Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven and marched through Wales under the standard of the red dragon to seize the English throne from Richard III, he ushered in what others have said is the modern era of our history. I hope that, in considering that application, the local authority will take that longer view. This site of a major turning point in history should not be tarmacked over to create a literal turning point for cars and lorries with no one at the wheel. As the Minister in theory is at the wheel here today, can he tell us what he will do to protect our heritage in this case and for historic battlefields in general? He ought not, as the hon. Member for Kingswood said at the outset, to consult and see whether it is possible to do something, but do what Ministers should do: act, and instruct his officials to do so.

Thank you, Mr Hollobone, for your chairmanship today. My sincere thanks go to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood (Chris Skidmore) for introducing the debate on this important issue and to all hon. Members for their valuable input and contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood is, as has already been said, a world-class expert in this area. His opinion is extremely authoritative; of that there is no doubt.

As the Minister responsible for arts, heritage and tourism, I am always heartened to see the passion and vigour that our nation’s heritage evokes. England—in fact, the whole United Kingdom—is fortunate not to have borne frequent witness, if one can put it that way, to the many pitched battles that have marked so many other landscapes worldwide, but that means that our historic battlefields are all the more precious and unique. Wherever they are located, historic battlefields provide an important anchor to the evolution of this country. They are a reminder of our past.

The conservation of historic battlefields is therefore integral to understanding this country’s heritage. They are currently conserved, of course, through our planning system. Their significance is highlighted by their inclusion in the register of historic battlefields, maintained by Historic England. For inclusion on that register, an historic battlefield must be historically significant and its location and boundaries should be well attested and beyond reasonable doubt. The determination of planning proposals that may impact on registered battlefields is the responsibility of local authorities across the country, unless, of course, the decisions are called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. It is imperative that local decisions and solutions, tailored to the unique circumstances, are reached in a way that is accountable and accessible to local residents. It is a local issue prima facie and one that local authorities should be accountable for.

Any appeals to the planning process are made to the Planning Inspectorate and the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. While I am extremely interested in the future of our registered battlefields, it would be inappropriate for any Minister to comment on individual planning decisions at this stage. None the less, I want to assure hon. Members that the current scheme for registered historic battlefields is robust and affords these battlefields a good degree of protection.

The national planning policy framework indicates that local planning authorities should give great weight to the conservation of heritage assets of the highest significance, such as registered battlefields. Any proposals there may be should seek to avoid or minimise, wherever possible, any conflict between conservation and development. The NPPF indicates that substantial harm or the total loss of registered battlefields should be wholly exceptional. Where a development proposal involves less than substantial harm to such a battlefield, the relevant local planning authorities should weigh that harm against any public benefit of the proposed development. We have heard different viewpoints in the debate, which exemplify the issue of harm and benefit. Short-term benefits are not, were not and will never be an acceptable reason to damage our national heritage.

The aim of the register of historic battlefields is to ensure that reminders of our past are sustained and enhanced, to preserve them for generations to come. I am therefore delighted to report that, of the 47 registered battlefields, the vast majority—43—are not deemed to be at any risk at all. I am proud to say that, in the past two years, two battlefields have been removed from the list of those at risk, due to the diligent and effective collaboration between Historic England and local authorities.

I appreciate the Minister is delivering a speech. He had my speech in advance so that he was able to reflect on my points. I would be grateful if he would address some of the specific questions I asked of him in terms of being able to look at the expertise, because it is clear from my speech that Historic England does not have that expertise and that we need to restore the battlefield committee.

Given the allotted time, I will address those points in a moment.

Historic England offers its expertise pre-application and once a planning application has been made. In all instances, it ensures that a thorough and complete assessment of any risk to the battlefield is made and provides that advice to the local planning authority. It then lies with the local planning authority to make a decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Kingswood spoke about the recent application to expand a test centre for autonomous vehicles near Bosworth battlefield. I reiterate that, while it is inappropriate for me to comment on local planning matters, I trust and expect that, in every case, the local planning authority will carefully balance the benefits of development against the harm. That said, I hope he will be pleased to hear that Historic England and Leicestershire County Council were able to agree a comprehensive new conservation management plan in 2013, which has helped to ensure development with limited public benefit has been avoided, while allowing improvements to the visitor centre and other features that enhance the historic appreciation of the battlefield.

I fully understand the concern hon. Members have for the other battlefields deemed at risk by Historic England. I want to reassure the House that Historic England has engaged with local authorities wherever our national heritage is under threat and continues to do so. While it is ultimately the decision of local planners, I commend the collaboration between Historic England and local partners that resulted in two of the at-risk battlefields—Stamford Bridge and the site of the first battle of Newbury—being removed from the register in 2016.

I note my hon. Friend’s comments on a possible review around the future preservation of historic battlefields, which I aim to discuss with my officials and Historic England. On his point about the previous existence of a register, the panel was amalgamated some years ago, which is why we are where we are now with the register of historic battlefields. So I think that issue is covered, but we will continue to look at it.

I will talk to my officials about my hon. Friend’s request concerning the Battlefield Trust’s role as a statutory consultee and ask them to discuss the proposal with colleagues in the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government. Additionally, I am happy to look at the proposals for areas of national historic importance, and I will write to him about that.

I am conscious of my hon. Friend’s point about incremental change causing harm to battlefields and the point made by the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard) about other sites. It is crucial that sites, including maritime sites, are respected, cherished and revered. While my hon. Friend is right to be concerned about incremental harm, the scale of proposed development does not mean that its impacts are downplayed.

I thank all hon. Members who have contributed to the debate. I have every faith that our historic battlefields will continue to be conserved in an appropriate and steadfast manner. Where issues arise, I expect local authorities will seek to conserve our treasured national assets and ensure they are protected for future generations to enjoy. I hope we can work together to conserve and advocate for these important, cherished reminders of our national heritage.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Bosworth (David Tredinnick), who has been incredibly gracious in allowing me to have this debate on what could be considered a constituency matter. We have spoken about it, and it is obviously also a matter of national significance. I am grateful for his permission to speak today. I also thank the hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport (Luke Pollard), for Glasgow East (David Linden) and for Cardiff West (Kevin Brennan), as well as my neighbour, my hon. Friend the Member for Filton and Bradley Stoke (Jack Lopresti). It is indicative of the passion that our heritage brings out across the entire United Kingdom that most of the major parties have been present.

When it comes to the Scots, I remind the hon. Member for Glasgow East that 500 Scots fought on Henry Tudor’s side under Bernard d’Aubigny at the battle of Bosworth, but Scots also fought on Richard III’s side, so they were fairly canny in splitting their allegiances. A Scot called MacGregor stole Richard III’s crown the night before that battle.

We have had an important debate, and I am grateful to the Minister for taking away some of the points I have raised. I will not repeat myself, but I underline that there are inadequacies in the legal framework as it stands. Most of the land in my constituency is protected by having the status of green-belt land, so no development can take place on it, yet a battlefield of historic national importance does not have the same protection in the planning process. I wonder whether it is time to revisit that. These sites are a crucial part of our heritage. Once they are gone, they are gone—once they are built over, they are built over—and we will no longer have the ability to look archaeologically at what might have taken place there.

I urge councillors to vote down the planning application on 25 September, but if it goes through, I hope that they will hold MIRA to account in ensuring that there is the maximum possible investment in archaeological surveys, which have not been fully conducted—there need to be a minimum of two full archaeological surveys on that land—and extra investment for a possible digital recreation of the battlefield site. That is very much a second-best option; I am still absolutely determined that the site of the battle of Bosworth should be protected.

The issue is about what we value in this country. When it comes to the dichotomy between the future and the past, there is money to be made in heritage. Leicester City Council estimates that £45 million was raised as a result of Richard III’s body being dug out of the tarmac, and I find it bizarre that having dug up a king and generated a huge amount of tourism revenue in the city, we are now about to tarmac over part of the battle of Bosworth, which I would argue against.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the preservation of historic battlefields.

Sitting adjourned.