Ed Vaizey – 2014 Speech on Treasure Houses of England

The speech made by Ed Vaizey, the then Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, on 29 October 2014.

My Lords, Ladies and Gentlemen. Thank you very much for letting me come along this evening to say a few words to this most distinguished gathering.

It would not be right to start without expressing my great sadness that we are all here together at Blenheim in such unfortunate circumstances, and I must extend my deepest sympathy to the late Duke’s family at this sad time.

The spirit and achievement of the 11th Duke is, of course, to be seen here at Blenheim. And it’s not just in these magnificent surroundings, but also in the very ethos of the group which together you comprise: the idea that a glorious stately home can become a successful business without losing either its historical integrity or the character that only a genuine family home can have. “My famous ancestor won the Battle of Blenheim in one day—but his descendants have been fighting it ever since,” His Grace the late Duke said just three years ago, and I very much hope that, if he were with us tonight, he would concede that it was a battle he had been winning. The evidence of that, I think, is all around us.

I should also say in passing that Blenheim itself has a personal fascination for me, and one that that makes coming here this evening particularly special. As an undergraduate studying the history of architecture, I studied Blenheim and many other similar buildings. A fellow student boasted that he stayed most weekends at each of the houses we were studying. The closest I came was driving into the grounds of Heythrop Park, then a NatWest training centre, before being chased away by a security official. Needless to say Ted Clive now lives in a stately home of his own, and I . . er . . do not.

Now I completely understand that there are some specific issues you’d like me to address this evening: the difficulties of running a successful tourist business in the current economic climate for one thing.

What the new structure we’re proposing for English Heritage might mean for you, if it has the effect of giving their properties an unfair advantage in the visitor attraction market, for another.

Allied to this, I know that many of you are reflecting on the broader question of how the magnificent houses you own can survive, not simply as going commercial concerns but as plain bricks and mortar, as years go by. You might also, reasonably enough, ask me – as Minister for Telecoms, as well as Culture and Heritage – what I am doing about ensuring that the revolution in digital communication and the advent of super-fast broadband reaches the rural communities of which you are all a part.

I hope to say a little bit about all these things, and I think some time has also been set aside for questions at the end, so I very much look forward to picking up on anything you think I’ve missed at that point.

But I should say, straight from the off, that I am not going to be able to offer any promises, nods or winks about the tax breaks that I know you all are lobbying for. The Chancellor and his team at the Treasury make those decisions and, as you’ve probably already heard, they play their cards very close to their chest. We in the outlying departments can – and we do – make the case for our respective sectors but we get absolutely no hints on what has been decided until pretty much the same time as you do. So forgive me, but I am simply unable to be the bearer of good, bad or indifferent news on that front this evening.

None of you, of course, need any persuading that the houses, gardens and other attractions you are helping the public to enjoy offer an experience for the visitor that is anything short of exceptional. But one thing I have noticed as a minister over the last four and a half years – and for many years before – is there are certain things that hugely improve a place’s chances of success in attracting people to visit.

It’s not so long ago that the ‘added value’ a visitor attraction had to offer the weary visitor was little more than a cup of tea so stewed it could have passed for creosote and a rock cake that put one more in mind of rock than cake. Times have changed and, thanks to Trip Advisor, standards have changed too.

Now I know there’s a whole speech to be made on the rights and wrongs of Trip Advisor and the potential it offers one’s competitors to – shall we say – massage the truth about a place. But at the same time we’re also perhaps aware of a current business belief called the ‘wisdom of crowds’, and the idea that ‘the many are smarter than the few.’

And so with that in mind, I popped the ten ‘Treasure Houses of England’ into that website to see how all of you fare in the court of public opinion. Thankfully, each one of you have earned an abundance of four or five star reviews.

Does this tell us anything? Are there any lessons here? Well, one immediately springs to mind. And that is that there’s something to be said for actively encouraging your visitors – or at least the ones who seem to have had a good time – to go on Trip Advisor straight away and share their thoughts with the online world? Cynical, yes, but surprising how many places do just that – and how many don’t. But the real lesson we learn from this kind of thing, I think, is the importance of two things: customer care and added value. And those two things are what the Treasure Houses do really well.

But for all that, when it comes to customer care, there will always be one or two that are harder to please than others. Before leaving the Trip Advisor site I had a quick look at some of our other national institutions.

Take the National Gallery in London, for example. For my part, I think it’s the most wonderful collection and one of which we in the UK should be really proud. Not so, however, for one ‘reviewer’ from Yorkshire who reported that ‘This was really boring – why can’t they get some new stuff in?

But the last word on this has to go to one visitor to Stonehenge from Salisbury who titled her review ‘Yawn.’ She went on to say, and I quote: ‘it was the biggest waste of time I’ve ever experienced. Why people come from all around the world to see a pile of stones, I will never understand.’

So some things, however magnificent, do indeed ‘fall on stony ground.’

Let’s look for a moment at the other half of my suggested recipe for success in this business: added value.

Here at Blenheim, the added value comes from the temporary shows like the current exhibition from the internationally acclaimed artist Ai Weiwei – his largest ever in this country. Add to this the flower show, the circus, the antiques fair, the concerts and the food festival, and you get a sense of the depth and quality of what Blenheim has to offer.

Leeds Castle, as well as boasting that it is ‘The Loveliest Castle in the World’ has also been offering an exhibition of Henry VIII’s armour, on loan from the Royal Armouries, and next summer there’s a Triathalon with the swimming leg taking place, inevitably, in the moat.

Chatsworth has its dazzling annual sculpture show, ‘Beyond Limits.’ In recent years it has displayed monumental pieces by some of the most outstanding contemporary sculptors working today – Damien Hirst, Marc Quinn, Manolo Valdés and Thomas Heatherwick (designer of London’s Olympic Cauldron), to name but four. Burghley has been staging its horse trials for more than 50 years, attracting north of 160,000 visitors this year.

Beaulieu has its National Motor Museum where around half a million visitors each year can marvel at a 250-strong collection which includes Bluebird and Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang among its number. Holkham puts on open air plays and concerts, and at Harewood there‘s daily penguin feeding – or at least there is until the end of this week. All of the Treasure Houses are adding value by using their imagination: going further than before, but never so much as ruffling the feathers of the goose that lays the golden egg – the Treasure House itself.

I could go on. The point is, however, that delighting your customers is the key to success.

So do you have anything to fear from the new English Heritage, the free-standing body we are creating as a trust, with a dowry to ensure that it can stand on its own feet without the benefit of public subsidy? The answer, I believe, is no.

Our historic buildings, ancient monuments and country houses are all part of the same thing: our heritage. And it’s something that’s very popular indeed with people from this country and overseas, looking for an interesting day out, with or without penguin feeding. The London family that spends the day on a trip to the English Heritage owned Dover Castle is not declaring they will never go to the National Trust owned Bodiam Castle, or to the ‘Treasure House’ Leeds Castle.

The truth is they are making a choice, probably based on word-of-mouth recommendation or marketing of one sort or another. And in all probability they’ll take in the other two at another time, because heritage visits for many people are a regular thing, not once-in-a-blue-moon leisure choices.

What’s more, the funding for the new model English Heritage will also pay for young apprentices to develop heritage skills, and that too will be for the greater good of the whole sector in time.

But as I said a moment ago, marketing is so important. Common sense tells us that the personal recommendation of a friend or relative – or any disinterested individual, come to that – is the most effective recommendation of all. And more and more people are going online to find it. I’ve mentioned Trip Advisor but there are countless other online sources of comment and that’s before we get to your own websites. Not disinterested, of course, but a primary source of information for opening times, special events (those penguins again) and how best to get to you.

So for you as ‘businesses’ and your visitors as ‘customers’, we are now making it an absolute priority to ensure reliable, superfast broadband, with an investment of over £1 billion, half of which – £530 million – is focused on rural areas.

And I’m pleased to report that a great deal of progress has been achieved. In the rural areas where the Treasure Houses are to be found, customers have experienced a bigger increase in average speeds than in urban areas. The unobtrusive yet sturdy green cabinets that help make this happen are springing up all over the countryside. Superfast coverage here in the UK is higher than in Germany and Spain, and three times higher than in France.

Our overall aim is for the UK to be a leading digital economy, with 88 per cent of the whole country having access to superfast broadband by the end of next year.

The future for pretty well all businesses – and yours certainly – is digital, and we are making its realisation an absolute priority. I’d like to draw my remarks to you this evening to a close with a few words on the current state of country houses generally here in the UK. A book was published just last week by SAVE Britain’s Heritage. Written by the estimable Marcus Binney and with contributions from John Harris, it has been published almost exactly 40 years to the day after Roy Strong’s exhibition at the V&A entitled The Destruction of the Country House opened.

The book looks at what’s happened since 1974 and also sets that progress in the context of what had inspired Roy Strong to organise the exhibition.

In some ways it’s a pretty depressing account, with page after page of photographs showing fine houses that were ‘lost’ in the 100 years running up to 1974. Happily though there are also a host of examples of houses that have been ‘saved’, very often thanks to the determination and courage of organisations like SAVE, and the funding that the National Trust and the National Heritage Memorial Fund have been able to provide.

Another common factor in the successes has been the presence of an army of local groups and individuals who, to put it crudely, saw a bad thing about to happen and got off their backsides to do something about it.

Tyntesfield in Somerset, Seaton Delavel in Northumberland, Dumfries House in Ayrshire, are but three examples of heroic campaigning and hard work delivering a happy ending.

And speaking as a Government Minister, I can tell you that the power of a well-organised campaign, when it’s married to genuine passion for a cause, is a thing to behold. So the message of this book, which I commend to you all, is in the end a reasonably optimistic one. Not trite or self-satisfied, but certainly quietly encouraging.

So for me, the country house glass is by no means half empty. But it is, for all that, essential that owners, campaigners and government remain constantly vigilant. The buildings we’ve been talking about this evening – and your houses in particular – are quite literally irreplaceable.

We must never take them for granted and I can promise you that the Government, for its part, never will.