Skip to main content

Heritage Action Zones

Volume 651: debated on Wednesday 19 December 2018

[Sir David Crausby in the Chair]

I beg to move,

That this House has considered town centre heritage action zones.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I am grateful to have secured this debate. I called it primarily because of the welcome decision by Historic England to create a Stoke-on-Trent ceramic heritage action zone.

The HAZ will focus on the historic centre of Longton, a market town in my constituency, the conservation area of which is currently described as “very bad” but “improving” on the heritage at risk register. The area retains much of its ceramics industrial heritage, and my constituency has the largest number of surviving bottle kilns. It is not alone on that list: Trentham mausoleum in the west of my constituency is on it, too. However, we are confident that Trentham mausoleum, the only grade I listed building in the city of Stoke-on-Trent, will soon be leaving the heritage at risk register following significant refurbishment works and the securing of its future through community arts use. However, it is not certain that Longton town centre will be leaving the heritage at risk register any time soon. As such, Longton will be the focus of my speech, but many of the issues it faces will be relevant to other town centres up and down the country that have, or aspire to have, heritage action zones.

Stoke-on-Trent is made up of six historic market towns, each with their own centre. I shall return to the implications of that in my list of asks to the Minister. Longton has a strong industrial past and we want to have a strong industrial future, too. Thankfully, after decades of decline, Longton is currently enjoying a manufacturing renaissance, including in the ceramics industry. That has seen parts of the Aynsley factory—the Sutherland works—brought back into use recently. There are many such great buildings from the Victorian years of our greatest success that need to be brought back into use, to deliver success in the future. At the same time, it is only through success that those buildings will have a sustainable future, so they need to be brought into sustainable use to encourage businesses and footfall into our town centres.

Sadly, in places where post-war regeneration has happened, historic buildings have too often been pulled down and replaced by things that can only be described as crude. Historical features have been blighted by out-of-place modern features, which are not in keeping with the historic architecture. I understand why planning permission was granted; there is often a feeling that a site with any economic activity is better than a site with none. However, the cumulative effect of out-of-place developments since the second world war is a town centre that has come to close to losing its sense of place altogether. That is why what is left of the historic town of Longton town centre is a conservation area, and why I am determined that the five-year HAZ will succeed in delivering a much longer-term legacy.

From the front door of my constituency office, I can tell I am in Longton. It has the characteristic view of high Victorian architecture, rich in ornamental features and details—some Italianate, some partly gothic—and lots of traditional red brick and tiles, as is common in the Potteries, with window placements of carved stone. It is a mix that says: Longton, the Potteries and Stoke-on-Trent. However, the view from the back door of my office is of a carpark and a modern retail shed, which could be pretty much anywhere in Europe. It is not distinctive—same new, same new.

If we are going to attract more visitors, more shoppers and more businesses, we need to do better at presenting our uniqueness, which can only come from those integral historical features. Our local tourism appeal will never come from looking like everywhere else in the world; it must be in looking like Longton and the Potteries—the home of bottle ovens and pottery works. That is one of the key paradoxes of globalisation: when people can go anywhere in the world, their preference is to see places that are like nowhere else on earth. Celebrating, preserving and enhancing our local distinctiveness is fundamental to our sense of place, sense of destination and sense of identity. It is fundamental to the sense of local pride that we have something special to offer the world.

With suitable heritage interventions, Longton has the potential to be a thriving commercial centre for the south of Stoke-on-Trent. There are 224 outlets within the town centre and a total of 65,000 square feet of floor space, about one fifth of which is, unfortunately, vacant. That is substantially higher than the regional average of 12.1%. The residential population within a 2.5 km radius of Longton is more than 80,000, but very few people live in the centre itself. One of the key objectives of the HAZ, therefore, is to focus on housing within the key urban conservation area, restoring heritage buildings creatively for residential use in the high street and getting more people living in our town centres above shops once again. Often, this means reinstating shopfronts that are more in keeping with the local architectural style and restoring access to flats above shops that have long since fallen out of use.

As in many town centres, the lack of occupation has been one of the key inhibitors to maintaining heritage buildings. Thankfully, urban living is back in vogue, particularly in quirky buildings, but modern expectations for communications, plumbing, insulation and so on will need to be met. The private rental sector outside the HAZ area is already relatively strong, with many renters paying monthly rent of twice what a mortgage repayment on the same property would cost. However, much of that is old terraced housing, and there is a singular lack of private rented apartments. There is a market yet to be made.

It often proves exceptionally difficult to get property owners to convert properties in town centres to residential use. Where there is a market for residential conversions, the up-front cost of converting much of the stock available can prove, in a low-value market, to be considerably more than the post-conversion values. There has been an unwillingness in the private sector to take the necessary risks where the market is untested and lower value, and therefore market-making measures are needed to de-risk development and incentivise conversions. That has been provided in part by the housing infrastructure fund, but further investment in road and rail links to potential housing sites would always be welcome. I was especially pleased to see the Government announce the future high streets fund as part of the recent Budget. That could provide critical support in helping to address the viability gap in converting historic town centre properties into alternative uses.

It was also fantastic to have my hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Jake Berry), the Minister with responsibility for high streets, visit my constituency recently, to see for himself and speak to local retailers about the challenges faced in our town centres. The HAZ can play its part by getting the town joined up in the ambition to move forward. However, alongside it we need incentives to address market challenges and viability constraints, and I hope the future high streets fund can provide those. A clear plan of action to increase residency, new businesses and footfall in our town centres can stimulate and leverage the increased private investment that our property market needs.

Improvements are also needed to the local public realm, Longton’s public transport network and the sense of liveability and visitability that a prospering urban centre needs to improve. It is not just about regenerating the high street in Longton; two town squares—Times Square and Union Square—do not function as visitable destinations at the moment and need improving. Dominating Times Square is the imposing Longton town hall building, which dates back to 1863. It is great to see Stoke-on-Trent City Council investing £1.9 million in plans to bring the historic Longton town hall building back into use. The building was saved by the local community from demolition in 1985 and is now, thankfully, grade II* listed. This important building will now provide a hub for the south of the city, to enable people more easily to access services in one place. There will also be investment in the fantastic adjacent Victorian market and improvement to facilities, including new public toilets.

Re-establishing the civic nature of our town squares could also establish a welcoming heritage route for visitors through the town to Gladstone Pottery Museum. Sightlines could also be opened up to the heritage landmarks of St James the Less church and the Sutherland Institute, which houses Longton library. It would, of course, mean having to improve the local traffic, with better public transport, and I hope that the existence of the HAZ will focus minds on that.

That is particularly pertinent now that we have secured funding for Stoke-on-Trent through the transforming cities fund, as outlined in the Red Book, and I thank the Government for their work on that. Getting the right balance of vehicles and pedestrians will be necessary to make the HAZ a success. I hope that the transforming cities fund will help better to join up our public transport links, and especially to improve bus links, which are severely lacking. There is plenty of capacity for numerous cultural and leisure uses, including niche retail, dining, start-ups and small and medium-sized enterprises—private sector investment that can be leveraged if we get the basics of attractive buildings and the public realm right.

I note that in Historic England’s excellent publication, “Heritage and the Economy 2018”, evaluation evidence from the Derby partnership scheme in conservation areas revealed that footfall grew between 12% and 15% in the partnership scheme area while it fell by 26% across the country. I understand that Derby’s partnership scheme involved grants for the sympathetic renovation of historic shop fronts using local tradespeople over an eight-year period. That is the kind of success that Longton traders—key partners in the HAZ—are keen to replicate.

Longton is on the same train line as Derby, and it can easily compete with that city if it draws the right lessons about best practice. We also need to establish better rail services for Longton. That was the focus of my last Westminster Hall debate a few weeks ago, which my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) also contributed to. I am glad that the Department for Transport has taken that message seriously and recognised the huge economic potential for growth in local rail connectivity.

That matters because Stoke-on-Trent is on the up, and we want to keep it that way. It is a city enjoying a modern industrial revolution in its traditional and new industries. It is one of the fastest-growing and best places to start a new business in the UK. Some of our key ceramics manufacturers have grown by more than 50% in the last few years. Heritage buildings in my constituency are once again full, with pottery manufacturing just one of the productive activities taking place there.

We are much more than ceramics, however; we have learned that we have to be. The economy in Stoke-on-Trent is more diverse than ever. Manufacturing is booming in the city and there have been significant advances in hi-tech, digital and research. There is an increasing vibrancy in the wider area, with two growing universities, Keele and Staffordshire, one of which is based right outside Stoke-on-Trent station.

The HAZ has to provide invaluable opportunities for academic research, such as the 3D scanning that has been undertaken of bottle ovens. That fascinating process has underlined the fact that no two bottle ovens are the same. They are all listed, of course, but only as “bottle oven”, because not enough detail has ever been known about them. Most are grade II listed, and at Gladstone Pottery Museum they are grade II* listed. The HAZ has an important role to play in filling the gaps in our city’s collective knowledge about those important historical features.

The city’s living industrial heritage is catalysed by a burgeoning tourist industry, which also has massive potential for growth in Stoke-on-Trent. According to VisitEngland, and backed by Historic England, the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery is the sixth most-visited free attraction in the west midlands in 2016. Visitor numbers increased by more than 25% from 2016 to 2017, to 176,000. The attraction of Stoke-on-Trent to tourists is clearly strengthening and I want to ensure that the south of the city—Longton, Fenton, Meir and Trentham—shares in that success.

As Historic England rightly stressed to local partners, the fundamental purpose of the HAZ is to increase the number of people who come to visit Longton and see and enjoy the heritage that is preserved there by the work of the HAZ. It is important to note that the HAZ is in addition to existing plans for heritage-led regeneration. As the authentic capital of world ceramics, Stoke-on-Trent has much to offer in destination-based tourism and experience-based tourism—for example, there are opportunities to have a go at throwing a pot in the actual potteries.

I look forward to VisitBritain running campaigns to bring international visitors to our area. Many already visit the award-winning World of Wedgwood in my constituency. The percentage of overseas visitors that it attracts is more in line with a London attraction than other sites in the midlands. Bringing those visitors into Longton, with its authentic Potteries skyline, would be great for local traders, who are only too keen to welcome more visitors to the town.

Tourism is not just about overseas visitors. We can do much to support VisitEngland to boost domestic tourism to Longton as the home of the Gladstone Pottery Museum and the largest collection of remaining bottle ovens in the Potteries, as I have said. My first ask to the Minister is this. What communication channels are there between Historic England, VisitEngland and VisitBritain to ensure that the heritage action zones in the regions will be promoted by professional tourism marketers based in London?

Historic England has rightly made it clear that the purpose of Longton’s town centre HAZ is to increase visitor numbers. Will VisitEngland and VisitBritain be primed to help with that? The benefits of UK tourism are overwhelmingly enjoyed by London. I do not begrudge our capital city its success, but I hope that we can have help where it is due to grow our tourism on the back of it.

Sadly, Longton has lost a lot of its bed space. Some hotels were pulled down altogether to make way for retail units that are now empty; others have been converted into office space. Much hotel accommodation was originally provided with travelling merchants in mind, as in most places across the country, and in our case it was linked to the ceramics trade. Staffordshire as a whole has one of the lowest levels of hotel beds per head of population, despite the increasing demand, which means that, amazingly, some hotels now charge London prices.

We are starting to see growth in that market. There are new and expanding hotels in Stoke-on-Trent, such as a Hilton under construction in the city centre as well as the expansion of Premier Inn and a Best Western in Meir Park. I hope that the HAZ will make Longton a more attractive destination for growing business-related markets. We certainly need to stimulate investment from accommodation providers for tourism and business travel.

Down the road in Leek, in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), a great example of a heritage building, the Victorian Talbot hotel, is being saved and revived by Premier Inn to suit contemporary demands and expectations for modern hotel accommodation. That demonstrates the potential to convert historic properties to new uses.

If Premier Inn, Travelodge—or Wetherspoon, for that matter—or any of the other modern hospitality companies that sustainably save and revive historical buildings would like a tour around Longton and my constituency, I would be only too delighted to provide them with one. When such properties are empty and up for sale, it is right to be proactive in encouraging potential new owners who might find that the vision of the HAZ conveniently aligns to their existing business model.

I note that tourism is the latest industry to explore a sector deal and that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport is keen to secure such a deal. Indeed, the Department stipulates that it must focus on accessible destinations with good accommodation, which is precisely what Longton can be if all the work is joined up properly. If we were to achieve a sector deal for ceramics that involved the proposed new international research centre for ceramics, we would need increased availability of accommodation for business travellers.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport for meeting me last week to discuss that aspect of the ceramics sector deal and the bid to Arts Council England for investment from the cultural development fund to dramatically improve creative facilities at Staffordshire University. I am glad that he is keen to visit my constituency to see how the various projects supported by his Department can link with the council and local enterprise partnership frameworks to maximise efficiency and impact.

That is a reminder that the HAZ does not exist in a vacuum. It complements other projects and developments in the city, and it needs to knit in with other Government initiatives and the work of national public bodies. For example, the HAZ in Longton could be complemented by attractive partnership work with Network Rail. That is my second ask: can the Minister bring any pressure to bear in cross-governmental tourism forums for Network Rail and train operators to be plugged into the HAZ project?

The iconic girder rail bridge in Longton is a local landmark, and it is as much a part of the sense of place and destination as the impressive town hall and Victorian market opposite. The potential for increased rail and passenger numbers is significant. The railway arches could also house commercial enterprises—as, indeed, they did previously.

Rail needs to play a much bigger role in the future success of our city to get people from place to place locally and to make it more accessible for visitors and tourists, so any support that the Minister can offer for Stoke-on-Trent’s bid for Access for All funding for Longton station and to improve local rail services would be welcome. The platforms at Longton station can only be reached using stairs, which makes access to the HAZ by alternative means of transport especially difficult for people who are less mobile or who have a disability. More generally, improved rail services would significantly encourage more tourists to visit the area, and especially to visit Gladstone Pottery Museum.

As a further ask, can the Minister comment on any possible links between the HAZ projects for preserving heritage buildings and Sir Roger Scruton’s commission on beauty? The Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government announced last month that the first aim of the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission is

“To promote better design and style of homes, villages, towns and high streets, to reflect what communities want, building on the knowledge and tradition of what they know works for their area.”

There seems to be an obvious crossover with what we are trying to achieve in Longton. We want to ensure that the buildings of the past, which make up the character of our area, have a future, and that modern design is respectful and complementary, adding to the urban fabric of our communities.

Business improvement districts may also have a role to play in ensuring that there is investment in making our town centres more welcoming environments. A BID is currently being developed for the city centre. If it is successful, I hope that it will be followed in other town centres across Stoke-on-Trent.

As I have mentioned, there is real potential for the future high streets fund to address the gap in viability of converting some of our historic buildings for future use. I also ask the Minister what opportunities he sees for town centre HAZ schemes to benefit from the future high streets fund announced by the Chancellor in his latest Budget. Where there are issues of viability, it is important that sufficient capital is available to help to incentivise and match fund private investment.

I will also touch on the support that the Heritage Lottery Fund can give through its townscape heritage grants. In 2016, we submitted a bid to HLF for funding and the west midlands HLF committee identified the Longton town centre townscape heritage programme as a high priority. Unfortunately, however, it was rejected at the second round by the HLF townscape heritage decision panel. My understanding is that it was rejected because such funding is allocated on a geographic basis. Since nearby towns had received funding previously, we missed out, no matter how good our bid was.

That cannot be the only justification for the refusal of a high-priority bid. That refusal has meant that the restoration of a number of prominent historic properties within the conservation zone has not been able to go ahead. I ask the Minister to consider closely the criteria for the future awarding of HLF grants, to ensure that Longton and the other towns that make up the Potteries do not miss out on the funding that is needed to restore important historic buildings and bring them back into use. We have a significant number of heritage buildings that are at risk and in a poor state of repair. They need support if they are to have a meaningful future.

In conclusion, the town centre HAZ is a great opportunity to put Longton firmly on the tourist map. Local partners are working with Historic England to agree a plan, managed and chaired by a board, to kick-start the process of bringing historic buildings back into use. I cannot stress enough the importance of that work in a town such as Longton, which is turning a corner and keen to share its successes as a city that is on the up.

We can save the heritage buildings that make people want to visit us by restoring them for alternative commercial and residential use. That would increase footfall, bringing people back into our town centres, benefiting local retailers and providing jobs. A town centre HAZ gives property owners a welcome forum to ask for advice from the local council and Historic England. It can also inspire new entrants to the local property market, who can secure the future of our heritage buildings with sustainable commercial uses. It is essential that we incentivise property owners to convert properties for new uses, ensuring that the important historic fabric of our town centres has a long-lasting future.

As a former landlord who once owned a historic building, I can attest to what my hon. Friend is saying. The upstairs rooms of that building were offices, but they are now being turned into flats. Does he agree that such work should not just be an isolated case in the north-west of England, but should be rolled out across the land?

Absolutely; we need to ensure that historic properties up and down the land are converted for alternative uses, so that the future of those buildings is preserved for posterity.

Other bodies need to play their part. National tourist boards should be primed to encourage more people to visit and stay in our area, and to enjoy the many local tourist attractions right around the city.

I finish by saying that if the Minister would like to visit Longton, I would be delighted to show him how we are putting his policies into action. I look forward to hearing his response to this debate.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing this debate and particularly on bringing into the open the examples of town centre heritage action zones that he has mentioned. Of course, he concentrated on heritage-led regeneration and it was right for him to do so. However, he also concentrated on the need to use buildings to their greatest effect, stressing the importance of bringing buildings back into use as we go through the process of improving town centres.

The starting point for me on this issue is how all of this activity can help to show, first, that we can breathe new life into the high streets of our towns and, secondly, how we can help to regenerate people’s shopping experience, eating experience and just the experience of enjoying a good environment in which to take a stroll, enjoy sport or whatever.

I look at this issue wearing two hats. First of all, I look at it wearing the hat of an archaeologist, which I was until a little while before I came into this House, and I also look at it wearing the hat of a planning expert. I use the term “expert” loosely; it is a term that is applied to me, rather than one that I apply myself.

I will consider the archaeological perspective first. We need to stress that people are genuinely interested in the archaeology and the history of the place in which they live. If I ask someone in one of the two towns in my constituency what their impression of the town is, they will always refer to some moment of history in describing how the town has grown.

Neither of the two towns in my constituency has become a town centre heritage action zone: the Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I think that neither Henley nor Thame fall into that category. I know that he does not wish for us all to use this debate as an opportunity to lobby him to include our own towns within a HAZ, but let me not disappoint my colleagues by staying away from that subject. I do not actually mind which one of the two towns the Minister chooses—he could even choose both—but it would be nice to have one in a HAZ.

I will stay on the subject of archaeology for a little longer. We have a development in the centre of Henley, just off the market square, that has had to have archaeological excavation before the planned buildings can be put up. That excavation has revealed a fascinating pattern from the 12th and 13th centuries, which shows how the town developed. It did not develop in an ad hoc way; instead, it developed on a medieval plan in a very focused way. The medieval planners were obviously very good at setting out the town. It would be really nice to believe that, in encouraging people to use Henley town centre and to enjoy the heritage there, some way could be found to include that find within the developments that will go up on that site, rather than just referring to it in the name of the street or by changing the name of that particular part of the town. That is an important element to bear in mind.

Since invitations are being given out to the Minister, I urge him to come to Henley and see that site for himself, so that he can hopefully put Henley forward as one of the next towns on the HAZ list.

I said that I approached this wearing two hats. The other hat is that of a planner, and somebody who was very much involved with the Government in producing the national planning policy framework in its original form and commenting on its second form. I wonder whether the Minister would take my advice that this issue needs to be looked at again. We do not judge planning applications in this House; that is the function of the local district council. However, when I go around the country in my role as Government champion for neighbourhood planning, I am astonished at the appalling glass, concrete and steel buildings that have gone up in our town centres. I do not want our town centres simply to become pastiches of what they were at a set point, but it is important to stress that there is good design from the 18th, 19th, and indeed 20th centuries that helped to shape town centres and give credibility to their status as heritage locations. When the Minister looks at heritage action zones, he ought to include buildings that were built in those times.

None of these proposals, on their own, will overcome the issues that have been raised by the internet. None of them will overcome the habitual appearance of nothing but charity shops on our high streets, except in Henley where they are matched by the number of coffee shops —it is always possible to get a decent cup of coffee in Henley. However, they will go a long way towards helping overcome some of those issues and talking about the pride of the place, making that town’s heritage part of its future. For that reason, I urge the Minister to look carefully at those issues when he comes to the next list of heritage zone areas that he will bring into force, or rather that English Heritage—sorry, Heritage England; I am falling back into old money—will bring into force when it next thinks about this.

I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on highlighting the opportunities that town centre heritage action zones offer to towns such as Congleton, which I have the privilege of representing. Indeed, I believe that Congleton would be an ideal candidate for such a scheme, because the funding and support provided would add real value to the energy that is already demonstrated in the town by volunteers, councillors, council staff and local businesspeople. That energy already makes Congleton a pleasant and enjoyable place to live, work and visit. However, the heritage action zone scheme—£40 million announced this autumn to improve up to 60 historic high streets, over a four-year programme of high street improvements and cultural activities—could, I believe, add an extra bonus to the work that is already being done locally.

Congleton has a strong community life. Only recently, the pedestrian area of the town centre has been beautifully improved, which has added much to the enjoyment of shopping within the town and the opportunities that local retailers have to promote their produce. In addition, there are many activities in Congleton throughout the year, a few of which I will touch on in a moment. Congleton town centre itself, opposite the historic town hall, has a number of buildings in the Lawton Street conservation area that would benefit from the support that the town centre action zone could provide.

Congleton is of real historic interest, and there are many towns across the country like it: places that local people know are enormously interesting and attractive, but people outside those towns are often unaware of. They are places where people who live within a short distance—an hour or so—could come to spend a pleasant day out, or even a weekend. My belief is that some added investment in the town centre would act as a catalyst to providing additional tourism opportunities at the weekends. For example, just a few minutes out of town, we have Brereton Heath country park; Little Moreton Hall, the black and white timbered National Trust property; and Astbury Mere, where young people go sailing and there is a beautiful park for dog walking. All of these areas, combined with greater interest and support in the town centre itself, would mean that we would attract visitors not only for a day, but for a weekend. Why travel long distances to enjoy a break away when often, within a short distance of where we live, there are some really interesting historic towns? However, as Heritage England has said, those towns are often unsung outside of their immediate area.

Congleton has a great history. It was a mill town in the 1700s, and as well as making silk, it was almost unique in producing a material called fustian, linked with velvet cutting. Ribbon weaving started in Congleton in the 1750s, and continues to this day with Berisfords Ribbons, which is a key business in the town and a member of the very active East Cheshire chamber of commerce, based in Congleton. I hope that the Minister will visit Congleton to see what an ideal candidate it would be for a town heritage action zone. Jackie MacArthur, the town centre marketing manager for Congleton, is based at the town hall, and like her colleagues, she does a tremendous amount to support the life of the town. She has said:

“Congleton is very proud of its heritage and is getting geared up to celebrate 750 years of its charter (2022)”—

in fact, it is in its 750th year since the mayor was established as we speak.

“The town held its first heritage and antiques festival this year. The town has a fine Grade 1 listed Georgian Church…built between 1740 and 1742…one of the finest examples of a Georgian church interior in the country.”

I am pleased to say that that is currently undergoing major restoration work, costing over £350,000, which underlines the historic value of the property.

The town has aspirations to improve other buildings in the town centre area, including the cenotaph and Bradshaw House, built in the 1820s, which I have spoken about before in this place. It would make an ideal location for Congleton Museum, but it is currently unoccupied, and has been for some time. It is a historic grade 2 listed Georgian building; it is a few yards from the town hall, so it is right in the centre of the Lawton Street conservation area. It is currently owned by Cheshire East Council, and it would enable Congleton Museum, which has now been in existence for 17 years, to expand.

Congleton Museum, a charitable trust run entirely by volunteers, is now the area’s leading museum in collecting and analysing archaeological finds. It has been entrusted with the care of important hoards from wider afield, but it simply has inadequate room to display them. Its status has brought about many partnerships with the national museum community, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. However, it desperately needs to move from its current cramped premises at the back of Congleton town hall into new premises, and as I say, Bradshaw House would be an ideal building for it to move into. That would provide not only museum space, but a café and plenty of room for school visits, which the museum currently hosts but could offer much more of if that move could be made. If Bradshaw House could be renovated, that would be an important and practical way in which a town centre heritage action zone could make a difference for the people of Congleton. The local energy that exists needs that additional national support to make it happen.

I want to touch on two or three of the events that Congleton holds to give a flavour of what happens throughout the year. On 24 November we had our Christmas lights switch-on. It was a whole day of organised events and thousands of people came to the town centre of Congleton. We had a Christmas market in the streets and the town hall full of charity and school stalls. We had a lantern parade, the lights switch-on and fireworks. I pay tribute to the town hall centre staff and all the volunteers who made it happen.

As another example of the rich depth of cultural activities, on Saturday I will be at the Congleton Choral Society’s Christmas concert with the philharmonic brass ensemble in the town hall. It has several concerts a year, and I am privileged and honoured to be president of the choral society. Its performances really are of an exceptionally high quality. Any visitor who wants to spend a weekend in Congleton and its surroundings would enjoy visiting the buildings and the more recognised tourist attractions, and almost every weekend there is a concert or a show at the Daneside theatre, which is a very active local theatre in walking distance of the town hall.

Visitors during much of the year can enjoy the incredible floral displays across the town. Council staff, councillors and volunteers are tremendously committed to putting in hours of time over the year to create an attractive town for people to live in and visit. I commend the town because last month for the eighth consecutive time we won the gold large town award at the North West in Bloom awards ceremony. Also, the town was overall champion at the Cheshire Community Pride awards, and at the end of October achieved a gold award at the national Britain in Bloom awards in Belfast: a real accolade for the townspeople of Congleton.

As a historic town, Congleton could not be a more appropriate place for a town centre heritage action zone. I unashamedly invite the Minister to visit. I look forward to meeting English Heritage representatives to discuss how the town could benefit. Its website states:

“Working with local people and partners, including local authorities, Historic England is helping to breathe new life into old places that are rich in heritage and full of promise—unlocking their potential and making them more attractive to residents, businesses, tourists and investors...through joint-working, grant funding and sharing skills...places will be recognised and celebrated for their unique character and heritage”.

I do not think there is a better place than Congleton for that to happen.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir David. I do not intend to distract the House for very long because we have had a good and thorough debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) on securing it. We did not hear much about Wedgwood in his 23-minute speech, but it is entirely appropriate that a representative from Wedgwood’s hometown secured this debate.

As we know, Wedgwood was one of the great pioneers and entrepreneurs of the industrial revolution, but his field of interest extended far wider than simply the business of pottery. He was a great civic entrepreneur. What he created in Etruria was a model not only of modern factories, but of modern communities. He was a civic entrepreneur with a great interest in civil engineering, so his great push behind the Grand Union canal literally changed the economic geography of our country by providing the crucible of the industrial revolution in the west midlands, with new access to the ports, particularly the ports of Liverpool.

This debate needs the inspiration of great forebears such as Wedgwood. That is a long way of saying that I think the starting point for this debate and the consensus on which I want to start is the idea that our heritage and history bring us together. A deepening understanding of the place around us helps us to develop a sense of our own place in the world around us. That is why heritage action zones are such a good idea and I, too, add my congratulations to Historic England and its partners in local authorities and elsewhere on introducing and developing the initiative. We can learn a great deal from it.

Heritage action zones are particularly important for the Opposition, because we know now that culture is an important driver of modern economic development. We have seen it in towns and cities around the world. We saw it in spades in the extraordinary year of culture in Hull and we are now seeing it in the great city of Coventry, superbly led by my friend, the leader of Coventry Council, George Duggins. Many of us relish what will go on in Coventry. I hope the Minister will have the opportunity to spend some time there and draw out some of the lessons from that successful council’s leadership to inform others.

I want to add a particular note about industrial heritage and its role in town centre action zones. I agreed very much with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South when he underlined the importance of that particular aspect of town centre heritage. I commend the superb report written and presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen (Nick Thomas-Symonds), who chairs the all-party group on industrial heritage. He underlines the way in which industrial heritage can often be better protected and celebrated by ensuring that there are good development plans for town centres. The history that we find in our town centres is often one of the big magnets—one of the big draws—and therefore one of the secrets to economic development in the years to come. My hon. Friend the Member for Torfaen wrote:

“Industrial heritage has to be accessible: both physically, and to our modern, diverse communities.”

That is a lesson that we are now seeing incorporated in some action zone plans.

However, we have to be honest about the challenges. The scale of the fund, £55 million, comes nowhere near close to filling in the gap carved out by a 32% cut in council funding over the past few years. As the son of a planner, I feel quite strongly—this will echo some of the comments that we have heard this afternoon—about bad planning decisions scarring the urban landscape taking shape around us. Very often, such decisions are made these days because there are no planners left. In the great city of Birmingham, for example, very few people are left in the planning department. As for the number of architects now employed by local authorities, once upon a time I think half the country’s architects were employed by councils, but now there are very few left. I am afraid that that has implications for the quality of planning decisions and the urban environment that we will leave to the people who take our place.

Equally, we have to be realistic about the economic pressure that now weighs heavily on our high streets. That is of enormous importance to this House. Our high streets contribute some £100 billion to our economy and employ some 21,000 people. It is not a marginal issue in the debates that we have about the future of our economy; it is of critical importance.

The Heritage Lottery Fund, through its programme, “New ideas need old buildings”, made the point that our historic quarters are very often the crucibles of new ideas, new businesses, new jobs, new potential and new opportunities, which is something that we see in my home city of Birmingham. In the jewellery quarter, for example, ably represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Ladywood (Shabana Mahmood), we see a flourishing of small business that has helped to ensure our city is now the second biggest home for start-ups outside London. If we wander around the jewellery quarter, we see a lively amount of economic activity as new businesses begin to flourish.

In conclusion, I want to make three points to the Minister—advice, perhaps, from the Opposition. I have two general points and one specific point. I will follow others in adding to his list of good ideas that need much closer attention. The first is that, given the economic pressure on high streets and the scale of cuts that have been made in local authorities, the Minister and those of his poor officials not currently engaged in no-deal planning in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport would do well to look at Labour’s idea for a £1 billion cultural capital fund to put in their bid to the comprehensive spending review next year. If the House believes that culture has a critical role to play, not just in equipping the country for the digital economy, but in making sure that we put the requisite level of investment into the ideas we have discussed this afternoon, it will not happen for free. Local authorities are not geared up to supply the funds that are needed. Therefore, it is important that a good strong culture bid goes to the Treasury from the Department next year.

The second idea that I urge the Minister to look at is the Daily Mirror’s high street fightback campaign. The Daily Mirror has done a good job, zeroing in on a concern that is of huge interest around the country. It has been well backed by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers and its general secretary Paddy Lillis, and it has developed a common-sense manifesto of ideas, such as free bus travel for young people, free wi-fi, good bus routes, a register of landlords for empty shops, and regular reviews of business rates. Those are good ideas, which the Department should champion if it wants to advance the agenda set out by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent South.

I want, finally, to make a point about Birmingham. As the Minister will know, the second biggest civic collection outside London is in Birmingham. The civic collection of art and historic artefacts is worth something like £2 billion—there are about £1 billion-worth of paintings, and about £1 billion-worth of objects. Many of the objects are now languishing in a warehouse in Nechells that has a leaky roof and is prone to floods.

Why on earth are we allowing High Speed 2 to develop, in the middle of our city, something that looks like a shed, with limited design and cultural potential? Why are we not using that massive-scale investment in a brand new High Speed 2 station, at the heart of the industrial revolution, to create the greatest science museum in the country? Why do we not designate the area around Curzon Street a heritage action zone? Why do we not use the hundreds of millions of pounds of new investment to create a space enabling us to take the objects out of the warehouse—artefacts going back to the days of Boulton and Watt—and build a facility that means that anyone who arrives on the high-speed train in Birmingham knows they are arriving at the home of the industrial revolution? The director general of the Science Museum and others from our home city will lobby the Minister about that in the coming months. However, some positive vibrations from the Minister about the notion would be welcome this afternoon.

It is a pleasure, as Heritage Minister, to respond to the debate on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government. I offer my sincere thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South (Jack Brereton) for securing the debate, and to all the hon. Members who have given their valuable input.

Our heritage is a vital resource for this country. It gives places their character and individuality. We know from research that the density of heritage assets is highly and positively related to the concentration of firms in a local economy, and that distinctive and characterful working spaces are a pull factor for businesses. It seems counter-intuitive to some people, but high-tech modern businesses function well, and their staff enjoy working, in heritage buildings. Those buildings are a tremendous draw to any area. It is estimated that creative and cultural industries are 29% more likely to be found in a listed building than in a non-listed building in England, so we should look after and value our listed buildings, and recognise them for the assets that they are. In 2017, the heritage sector alone provided estimated total gross value added of £29 billion, which is equivalent to 2% of national GVA.

I used to run a film production company and we chose to locate it in the Temple. The people who came to visit us were most impressed because we were the only film production company there, and there was all the surrounding heritage to see and enjoy.

We see that in many cases. Heritage buildings are an attraction to all types of business, including high-tech ones. The importance of our heritage was fully recognised in “The Culture White Paper”, published by my Department in 2016. It was the first White Paper on culture to be published by any Government since 1965. It made commitments to several new schemes, including Historic England’s heritage action zones, which several Members have spoken about today. As colleagues know, the zones are a flagship scheme to target areas of untapped potential, bringing historic places back to life to attract residents, tourists, businesses and investors, and to create economic growth in villages, towns and cities across England.

The scheme, like many of the schemes in the White Paper, champions a joined-up approach whereby Historic England works in partnership alongside local partners such as local authorities and local businesses. A first round of 10 heritage action zones was announced in March 2017. They included Sunderland, Nottingham, Hull and Coventry—the latter two were of course selected as the UK city of culture for 2017 and 2021 respectively—and Walworth in London, which was one of my first visits when I took my present ministerial post in January. I also enjoyed a visit to Coventry this year.

A further eight heritage action zones were announced as part of my Department’s heritage statement, which was published this time last year. The second round included Stoke-on-Trent, where, of course, my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South has his constituency. I congratulate him again: I understand that he is the youngest MP of his intake—I am sometimes mistakenly seen in the same way. [Laughter.] I do not know why everyone is laughing.

My hon. Friend is a heritage star, who cares very much about heritage and his constituency, which is reflected in the fact that he secured the debate, and in the speech he made. I understand that Stoke-on-Trent City Council is due to refurbish Gladstone Pottery Museum as part of the heritage action zone. That will of course help to attract further visitors. I recommend that if it has not already done so, the pottery museum should contact Arts Council England about eligibility for the museum development grant programme, which provides a network of advice and support for all accredited museums. There could be some suggestions for increasing visitor numbers, and for financial sustainability.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent South mentioned VisitEngland and VisitBritain. VisitEngland’s role is primarily about developing tourism products, as in the successful £40-million Discover England fund. That £40 million is put into a fund by the Government to encourage tourism outside the London area. Domestic marketing is not part of its current remit, although I am considering that at the moment. Tourism to the area is not one of the primary focuses of the heritage action zone initiative. It is a secondary focus; we obviously want tourists to visit. When the projects within heritage action zones start to become more public facing, Historic England will work with local and national organisations including VisitEngland to encourage tourism. We very much want that. Tourism is doing well in this country and numbers are healthy and increasing, but we always want more. Historic England is monitoring the outputs of the heritage action zone programme against a set of programme indicators and surveys.

Historic England has completed a full year of data collection for the first 10 heritage action zones. I believe that monitoring data for round 2, which includes Stoke, is currently being collected by Historic England, so it is still a bit early to evaluate the impact on visitor numbers in those areas. I applaud the work of my hon. Friend in supporting the heritage action zone in his area, and the work he has done to support that growing industry in his constituency.

Officials from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and from my Department are currently working with the ceramics sector to explore how they can support the industry. I was delighted that last month the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport announced the Government’s intention to deliver a sector deal with the tourism industry. We have entered into negotiations with the industry about what precisely that will look like, and we have asked it to come to us soon with a strong offer to help increase skills, accessibility and data sharing. When that sector deal is concluded, I am convinced that the tourism industry across the country will benefit. Potential rail improvements to aid tourism are a matter for Network Rail rather than my Department, but we work closely with the Rail Delivery Group—I think I met it earlier in the year—and I will ask my officials to discuss the matter further.

Historic England welcomes the Building Better, Building Beautiful commission as an addition to the range of initiatives taken in recent years to improve the quality of design across England—something I think we all want. That will help to raise awareness of the importance of design in regeneration, and support a sense of community and place. His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has done a lot and encouraged a great deal in that area, and the commission is a very good thing.

I was pleased this year when the impact of heritage-led regeneration through the heritage action zones scheme was recognised in the Grimsby town deal. Indeed, the Greater Grimsby heritage action zone was announced as part of that town deal, highlighting the many links between heritage and this Government’s industrial strategy. I am sure there is more to be done in other areas.

Hon. Members can imagine my delight when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced in the Budget £55 million of funding for my Department for heritage high streets. The Government are working in many ways, and in many different shapes and forms, to help the high street and deal with the issues raised by internet shopping. That £55 million for heritage high streets was very positive and, as hon. Members will know, part of a wider £675 million future high streets fund—a very large sum. Some £40 million of that fund will provide a most welcome boost to Historic England, an arm’s length body, to run a purely high streets-focused heritage action zone programme, beginning in 2019. I see that as a major success of which I am very proud, and that Budget commitment from Her Majesty’s Treasury shows just how much the Government recognise the importance of the country’s heritage. It is a major investment.

Since 1998, the Heritage Lottery Fund has invested significant amounts of national lottery funding in townscapes. I encourage everyone to participate in the national lottery because those good causes, including the Heritage Lottery Fund, are a positive thing. Since 1998, a minimum of around £300 million has gone mainly, but not exclusively, to townscape heritage and townscape initiative programmes. HLF decisions are taken at arm’s length from Government. A couple of colleagues mentioned my input and offered me very generous invitations to visit various parts of the country, but such decisions are taken at arm’s length from Government—perhaps that is just as well when my hon. Friends ask me these things—and we are, quite rightly, not involved in the grant-making process, which is done independently.

The heritage action zone scheme aims to bring in funding from across the sector, and others, for local benefit both economically and—just as importantly from my perspective—for the historic environment. A heritage action zone can apply for funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, although not for a part of a project that is already being funded as part of the heritage action zone initiative. Therefore, Historic England could fund one part of a project, and the Heritage Lottery Fund another. There is nothing to stop that happening. Indeed, round 1 heritage action zones are sharing Historic England funding of £6 million, and benefiting from a further £18 million secured in match funding. About £1 of investment from Historic England generates further investment from the public and private sectors of £3.10—more than triple—so it is worth doing.

We must have regard to the public purse and—unlike previous Governments—to spending within our means in all the things we do. However, we must certainly have a very special regard for heritage, and I thank again all hon. Members who have contributed to today’s debate. I would be delighted to visit the Stoke-on-Trent heritage action zone, and indeed Henley and Congleton if the diary allows. My Department is looking at some possible dates next year for either the Secretary of State or me to visit Stoke-on-Trent.

I thank the Minister for his kind and helpful comments. He recognised how important heritage and heritage buildings are to our economy, as well as the wider value of investing in our heritage. I am pleased that he mentioned the White Paper and the support given by the Department for that agenda. I thank him for his suggestions, particularly those on Gladstone Pottery Museum and the help that could be given to its programme of improvements.

I thank the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Liam Byrne) for his comments. I did not agree with everything, and I hope he will not mind if I correct him on one thing. Although the modern-day factory and museum are in my constituency, Wedgwood was born in the constituency of the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent North (Ruth Smeeth) in Burslem, which is one of the other five towns that make up the six towns of Stoke-on-Trent. He was not born in Longton, I am afraid.

I thank my hon. Friends the Members for Henley (John Howell) and for Congleton (Fiona Bruce) for their contributions, and particularly for sharing their knowledge of their constituencies and the importance of that heritage. Finally, I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (David Morris), who mentioned the importance of converting properties.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered town centre heritage action zones.

Sitting suspended.