Speech to Historic Houses Association AGM

This speech was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Queen Elizabeth II Conference Centre, London

Heritage is an economic asset as well as cultural

Our heritage is spectacular.  It takes in iconic prehistoric sites and imposing structures from our industrial past. Medieval cottages, graceful country homes and mighty castles.  You can see it as a three dimensional picture book of the history of our nation.  And as you travel around the county you see the extraordinary rich variety of landscapes and distinct architectural styles: stone and thatch; brick and tile, concrete and glass. 

And this picture book is immensely popular.  Eight out of ten people who come to the UK from overseas say that the main purpose of their trip is to visit cultural or heritage attractions.  Best of all, they pump money into the economy - £4.3 billion in GDP each year, as a matter of fact - and create employment for thousands of people in the UK. 

And the historic houses, castles, parks and gardens like the ones owned by HHA members such as yourselves are a really big part of that draw, attracting millions of people from home and abroad.  And what magnificent sights they experience.  From the award winning gardens at Castle Howard [won 2011 HHA/Christies gardens award] to Doddington Hall with its superb facilities for visually impaired visitors [funded by HLF in 2008].

All this is good news for HHA members and others who own the attractions that draw people in, as well as the Treasury, who need no persuading that the tourist industry - for that, in the end, is what we’re talking about here - is an absolutely essential part of the growth strategy that we in Government (and all of you, I know) have to bring about.

And we’re helped, in no small part, by a rather glorious coincidence of events coming our way.  I’m talking, of course, about the Olympics and Her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee, both of which take place here in the UK next year.

We talk airily sometimes about things being ‘the greatest show on earth’.  I’ve heard it applied to rock festivals, TV shows and even, once upon a time, about the Millennium Dome.  But next year - here - it will be the real deal.  And to prepare for this unique opportunity, my department is leading something called the ‘GREAT’ campaign.  The idea is simple enough.  Promoting the UK as one of the very best places to visit, study, work, invest and do business.   It will centre on ten key areas of British excellence: including heritage and the countryside along with others such as technology and innovation; entrepreneurship and creativity.

And we’ve made sure that heritage and countryside are front and centre in this campaign because this Government has absolutely no truck with the idea that our history and heritage is something to be embarrassed about. Something that is somehow ‘not cool’.

So we’ve put VisitBritain in harness with some of the really big private sector players in the tourism and leisure sectors to create and fund a £100 million publicity campaign to attract more overseas visitors to the UK.  It should result in four million extra international visitors over the next four years and £2 billion extra spend.

But as we all know, the overseas visitor is not the beginning and end of the tourist market.  There is also much untapped potential closer to home.  We have seen the increasing rise in popularity of the staycation, for example.  And we’re committed to boosting domestic tourism in 2012 and beyond, maximising the economic legacy of the London’s Games for the whole country.  A major three year domestic tourism campaign will make the most of the Torch Relay, Diamond Jubilee and the Cultural Olympiad to showcase not just London, but the whole country.  It is expected to deliver £500 million extra tourist spending, creating an extra 5.3 million short break nights.  So the challenge to you in the HHA - and the rest of the sector - is to maximise these opportunities.

As you know, the government is not big on spending public money these days so, when we do, it’s a good idea to make the most of it.

Faster, clearer, simpler

But alongside stimulating tourism growth, we need to make it easier for heritage organisations to thrive.  And we can start by putting a match to the bulging pile of dead wood regulation and suffocating red tape which, over the years, has grown out of all control in business.  Unnecessary bureaucracy is a drain on finance, resources and often on enthusiasm too.  In such economically constrained times we can no longer afford to waste time, money and effort.
So last September I launched a consultation looking at the deregulation of events classed as “regulated entertainment” under the Licensing Act 2003.  It covers things like performances of live and recorded music, plays, dance, film exhibition and indoor sport - all things that I think may interest you.  Overwhelmingly, these are good things and our starting point is that they shouldn’t be prevented by jobsworth administrative burdens and needless costs. 

For me, when a stock car rally or a huge village fete doesn’t need a license, why on earth should a performance of “La Traviata” or “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in the grounds of one of your wonderful houses?  It’s bonkers, ladies and gentlemen, and we want to do away with it.  So I encourage you [and your members] most warmly to respond to the consultation.  It closes on 3 December, so get cracking.

I also know that many of you will often have been tied in knots by the Temporary Event Notice system.  So I hope you will find it helpful that Ministerial colleagues at the Home Office have shortened the minimum notice period for Temporary Event Notices from 10 to 5 working days, and that permissions that once had to stop at 98 hours can now continue up to 168 hours.  Similarly, whilst the Home Office have been busy cracking down on problem alcohol, the Government’s Red Tape challenge has examined areas where local decision making or de minimis levels may be appropriate for alcohol sales.

I know as well that inconsistency over Brown tourism signs frustrates many of you.  The disappearance of signs such as at Holme Pierrepont Hall or Rokeby Park without warning and the problems of other attractions in obtaining them such as Scampston Hall, has implications for all of our tourism industry. And that is why DCMS is working with the Highways Agency and DfT to establish a more coherent and attractive approach which balances the need for tourism against road safety.  We aren’t there yet but, believe me, we’re further along the process than ever before.

I also want to provide more speed and certainty for owners like yourselves, who are maintaining and developing heritage assets.  I know how frustrating it can sometimes be, for example, working out where the special interest in a building lies and whether listed building consent is necessary for particular works.  And similarly it can be a real pain having to apply time and again for consent for regular maintenance works, or for works where it’s obvious that consent will be granted if they are carried out in a particular way. We need to improve the listed building consent system, so owners have much more clarity and certainty about what they can and cannot do, and so the entire process becomes quicker, clearer and simpler to use without weakening the overall levels of protection which our heritage buildings and sites will need.

So I’m happy to tell you we’ve started work on a long list of improvements to the process, but it’s still grinding through the bowels of the Whitehall machine. I’m afraid I can’t say much more at this stage, because it’s still a work in progress, but I hope to be able to announce more details once we’ve got a little further. In the meantime, I’m afraid you’ll have to put up with me teasing you without providing any details instead.

A word now about the National Planning Policy Framework.  Anyone reading The Daily Telegraph over the last few months might have been forgiven for thinking that the Government was about to introduce the ‘Paving over of the Countryside (Abolition of our Heritage) Bill’.  So let me repeat what I have said before:  I am committed to there being no reductions in standards and levels of protection for our listed heritage. And I expect to achieve it. This has been a critical point for the negotiation of the NPPF and we are working with colleagues at CLG and heritage organisations to ensure the detail protects heritage with the same standards as PPS5. As I speak we still have a few important details to iron out before we’ve achieved it, but I’m happy to confirm that Ministers at CLG have consistently accepted this principle throughout the Bill’s progress, and have also accepted all sorts of suggestions and proposals from my team to ensure we deliver it in practice.

Involvement and transparency

But one thing that came through loud and clear in all this - and I’m not reproaching the Telegraph over all this, by the way: debate is the lifeblood of democracy - is that heritage is deeply loved by individuals and by communities up and down the county.  And this is something we need to harness and grow.  I want more people to have access to more information and to get more involved.

Because better information is key to getting involved. Being able to research and understand the story of our Nation, or of your own particular local community is an essential first step for the vast majority of history enthusiasts who start small and quickly get immersed in the rich tapestry of our heritage. Great steps have been made to improve access to this kind of information with the launch of the National Heritage List; an easily searchable database of nationally designated assets.  And as well as this, Historic Environment Records are becoming increasingly accessible on line for individuals, local communities, historical and archaeological groups to explore.

But involvement and transparency don’t stop there. We should, amongst other things, be harnessing the heritage knowledge and expertise of local heritage societies, archaeology groups, civic societies and the like to improve the quality and coverage of our listed buildings register. In many areas these groups have deep reserves of detailed understanding about local heritage assets, which can broaden and enrich English Heritage or local authority lists. By involving them we can move much faster to fill in gaps on our lists of heritage buildings, sites and monuments, and dramatically widen participation too. And it will give many of you an opportunity for targeted input to help English Heritage deliver the protection outcomes of the National Heritage Protection Plan as well.

On the same basis, I have also agreed with English Heritage that their listing activities should be refocused away from responding to spot listing applications, and towards strategic designation, where neighbourhoods where the list is particularly threadbare are targeted to ensure that heritage gems that have never been considered before  - yes, incredibly, after 40 or so years of occasionally rather haphazard listing work, there are still a fair few of them - get the protection we all know they need and deserve.

Equally, we still waste a lot of time when people nominate the same building for listing multiple times, because they don’t know it’s already been turned down before. That’s not fair to owners, and it’s not fair to local heritage enthusiasts either. So decisions not to designate are just as important as decisions to add something to the list.  I have therefore asked English Heritage to work out how to make available the data about decisions not to designate assets and my officials are working with them to take this forward.  As with so much else, our starting point is that being transparent open and helpful is a good thing and will help to involve local energy and expertise rather than marginalising or excluding it in future.  I hope you agree.

In addition to improving the designation process, I also want to address the problem of buildings that have been on the Heritage at Risk Register for many years.   I was delighted to attend the recent English Heritage Angel Awards, generously co-funded by the Andrew Lloyd Webber Foundation.  We heard about inspirational transformations: an overgrown cemetery under threat of development, a neglected orangery, a rotting Tudor barn, a rusting icon of our industrial past and crumbling churches whose fortunes were all changed by the intense passion, steely determination and sheer hard graft of dedicated volunteers over many, many years.  And these were just the winners.  There were many other examples of ‘up against the odds’ stories of volunteers who had, in spite of what must seem at times to be insurmountable difficulties, brought sites back from the brink of permanent dereliction.  
Addressing the problem of long term buildings at risk is a particular priority for me.  I’ve been working with English Heritage on a suite of measures to get buildings that have been languishing on the heritage at risk register for a long time back into habitable or productive use.  These range from prioritising ‘at risk’ sites within each region, to providing better information for developers and owners.  English Heritage and the Architectural Heritage Fund are also part funding four heritage at risk officers to match-make voluntary heritage groups with heritage buildings needing rescue. 

And English Heritage, together with the Pilgrim Trust and the J Paul Getty Junior Foundation is putting £180,000 into a three-year industrial “cold spot” grant scheme to kick start rescue projects in places where few are going on.  On top of this, the Localism Bill plans to give Local Authorities discretion over business rates, and local authorities may wish to consider giving business rates discounts to make Buildings At Risk projects more attractive. After all, they will be getting very little income from most of these sites at the moment, so offering a discount or a holiday to an owner who’s willing to invest large amounts of time and money to bring them back into use could be an inspired investment.

But as well as carrots, there need to be a few sticks as well.  English Heritage has updated its advice to Local Authorities on enforcement measures and will be running training sessions for Local Authority staff. I am also considering possible legislative changes to improve the effectiveness of enforcement mechanisms. Wilful neglect of heritage gems should never be an option.

I began this speech suggesting that our heritage was something of a picture book.  And so it is.  But it’s many other things as well, as I hope I have suggested.  But if there’s one thing I would like you to take away from this speech, it is this.  The days when heritage - and its absolutely vital place in our tourist economy - was on the side-lines of Government thinking and priorities, are over.  Next year offers a heaven sent opportunity to promote Britain to the world, and get us as a nation back on our feet, and our heritage - built, natural and cultural - will be at the very heart of our offer to the world.

I know that we in Government - and all of you - will make the very most of this.