Julia Lopez – 2023 Speech on Heritage Assets in London

The speech made by Julia Lopez, the Minister of State at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, in the House of Commons on 23 March 2023.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Nickie Aiken) for securing a wonderful debate and for superbly highlighting London’s great and rich heritage, its wonderful villages and, of course, the importance of protecting historic assets for the benefit of present and future generations.

Like her, I absolutely adore London’s history. It is a pleasure to see her passion for her constituency again, after her contribution to last week’s debate on the lease of London zoo. I responded to that debate, and am responding to this one, on behalf of Lord Parkinson, who covers the arts and heritage portfolio for the Department. These are all fascinating diversions from my portfolio on data and digital infrastructure, and I am glad to say I have now taken on the tourism brief for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. With the creation of the new Department, tourism will play an increasingly important role within the work of DCMS.

As my hon. Friend said, our heritage is an essential part of our cultural landscape, our economy and our country. It is both globally renowned and world leading, playing a vital role in communities across the UK, making our places great to live in, work in and visit. She has a significant number of impressive heritage sites in her constituency, including the beautiful Westminster Abbey and the building in which we stand today. Her constituency contains more than 3,900 listed buildings, scheduled monuments and registered parks and gardens combined.

It is a fun coincidence, as my hon. Friend said, that the debate takes place during English Tourism Week. I hope she will agree that the UK’s tourism offer is truly world class. I had the pleasure of visiting the Goring Hotel, in her constituency; the staff were complimentary about her efforts to champion the hotel sector and they are doing fantastic work supporting young people into hospitality jobs. As she highlighted, the sector has been tremendously resilient after some difficult years. As it is English Tourism Week, I pay tribute to everybody in that sector who has done such incredibly demanding work throughout the last three years.

Our tourism landscape is iconic, from historic buildings and incredible scenery to culturally vibrant cities and world-leading hospitality, and that is not just here in Westminster. I loved the earlier plug for Strangford by the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I hope he will not mind if I encourage hon. Members to sample the delights of my own constituency of Hornchurch and Upminster, including the vibrant Queen’s theatre. I note what my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster said about levelling up, but I am pleased to say that the Queen’s theatre was a beneficiary of levelling up within London, with a great grant from the Arts Council of England. We also have a wonderful green space in Dagnam Park, the Manor, as well as Thames Chase forest and heritage assets such as Upminster Tithe Barn and its windmill.

It is undeniable that heritage sites are vital to our tourism industry and a tangible way to showcase our rich history. Of course, we want these sites to be around in the future for our children and grandchildren to learn from and be inspired by.

Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)

It seems the theatre in the Minister’s constituency was drawn out of the Arts Council lottery and won a prize. I am pleased to say that the theatres in my constituency also did not have their grants cut, but the loss of the London Coliseum and the English National Opera is a grave blow to London, and indeed to the whole country. Will the Government use their best endeavours to ensure that very misguided decision by the Arts Council is reconsidered?

Julia Lopez

I understand that hon. Members have made their feelings clearly known about ACE’s decision on the ENO. I know that a number of meetings have taken place, and I believe that some transitional funding is there, but I believe that this will continue to be a subject of ongoing discussion between the two organisations. I know that Lord Parkinson has been engaging with the issue.

We want to make sure we are protecting our historic buildings, statues and memorials. Local planning authorities are required to

“have regard to the desirability of preserving features of special architectural or historic interest”

in any building. Buildings, statues and memorials of more modest interest can also be locally listed by local planning authorities. We want to make sure that developers and local authorities take into account the integrity and preservation of heritage sites and the local area. When considering applications for planning permission, local authorities are required to take into account national policy. That includes a clear framework on proposals that are liable to result in substantial harm to, or loss of, a grade I or grade II listed building.

In some cases, the Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, who retains the power to take over planning applications rather than letting the local authority take over, can take the final decision. That is done only in exceptional circumstances, but my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster will have seen a number of such cases in her constituency over the years.

I enjoyed my hon. Friend’s reference to the Gasketeers campaign. As she set out, there is often a tension between development and heritage. That is brought into sharp relief by examples in her constituency, including the planned redevelopment of the City of London and of Liverpool Street station. As she articulately set out, there are also proposals to replace gas-powered lamps in Westminster with modern LED lighting. Just before this debate, I was at a tourism reception in this House at which a lady thrust into my hand a little card telling me that Beverley in the East Riding also has some of the oldest gas streetlamps still in situ. I give a shout-out to them—it seems that Westminster has a level of competition when it comes to heritage.

There are tensions between conserving the significance of historic buildings and modernising them to be fit for purpose for future generations. It is therefore vital that Historic England, which is our expert heritage adviser, and planning authorities work constructively with development teams to facilitate creative solutions to resolve some of those tensions.

I would like to name-check Tim Bryars, a key member of the Gasketeers campaign. I first came across Tim, who is a map and book seller in Cecil Court, during a campaign to save that gloriously unique street in Westminster; he then went on to sell me a beautiful silk pocket map of London in the 1800s, which I very much treasure. I commend him for his enthusiasm and for all the work of the Gasketeers’ campaign. [Interruption.] Ah—hello, Tim.

I understand that, after concerted campaigning, pressure and support from my hon. Friend, the council has seen the light, or the gaslight, and has paused what it was doing. Heritage England has now offered to identify a way forward and is encouraging listing applications, which it will be prioritising. I understand that a site visit is being undertaken. It will also be engaging on the redevelopment plans for Liverpool Street station in my hon. Friend’s constituency; it will look especially at the station, but also at the Great Eastern Hotel. Having sat on the planning committee for the neighbouring borough of Tower Hamlets, I fully understand some of the tensions.

We have managed to save some parts of London’s historic fabric from rather ugly and unpleasant development over the years. I am thinking of the campaigns on the Fruit and Wool Exchange. My hon. Friend also cited campaigns relating to Smithfield; I think back with some concern to some of the original proposals for Smithfield, which were not sympathetic. I genuinely believe that preserving that historic fabric can really enhance, and no doubt increase the value of, some developments. If a sensitive approach is taken, the protection of heritage and a developer’s ability to make a profit should not need to be an either/or.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, it is a criminal offence to demolish a listed building or to carry out works of alteration or extension that affect its character without the permission of the local council. A recent example in which a local authority played a critical role was the reopening of the Tavern Inn, a London grade II listed pub, six years after its illegal demolition: the owners were ordered to rebuild it brick for brick following a planning enforcement ruling. It is hoped that such cases will prevent developers from demolishing other sites without the relevant permissions.

My hon. Friend will also be aware of Historic England’s Heritage at Risk programme, which gives our Department a strategic, overarching view of the overall state of England’s historic sites. It identifies the sites that are most at risk of being lost as a result of neglect, decay or inappropriate development. Historic England updates the Heritage at Risk register every year, and the end result is a dynamic picture of the sites most at risk and most in need of safeguarding for the future. As my hon. Friend said, there are 16 at-risk sites in her constituency, and Historic England is actively engaged with owners and local authorities to find solutions and ensure that repairs are made. I know that she will be watching those 16 sites like a hawk.

The protection of London’s great heritage also extends to supporting the capital’s vibrant theatre scene and cultural offerings. Recent Government funding has ensured that access to arts and culture is not limited to the bright lights of the west end, but can be experienced by everyone. Investment in theatres across the country has increased through the latest Arts Council England investment programme, in terms of both the number of organisations supported and the volume of funding, which is now more than £110 million each year for nearly 200 organisations. There were also some positive announcements in the Budget about the extension of tax reliefs. That is on top of the unprecedented £1.5 billion culture recovery fund, through which more than £270 million was given to support nearly 700 theatre organisations across England during the pandemic.

It goes without saying that the protection of heritage and cultural assets for the benefit of future generations requires people to work in those places, and for children to learn about and understand their heritage. We recognise the importance of cultural education for the future of our world-leading arts and culture sectors in the UK, and we think that all children should be entitled to take advantage of those enriching cultural opportunities. We consider them to be an essential part of a broad and balanced education, supporting children’s health, wellbeing and wider development. This is something about which I am particularly passionate, and I am working closely with Lord Parkinson in my Department and with the Department for Education to publish a cultural education plan later this year. The aim of the plan is to highlight the importance of high-quality cultural education in schools around the country, promoting its social value. As Minister for the creative industries, I also see it as critical to building our pipeline of talent into those industries, which suffer from skill shortages—as does the tourism industry.

We are committed to ensuring that our historic environment is properly protected, promoted and conserved for the benefit of present and future generations, but also because it is that heritage that draws visitors from every corner of the world. Whether through the statutory functions that protect our most special historic buildings and ancient monuments or through the public bodies that it funds, such as Historic England, my Department seeks to protect and promote understanding of and access to our glorious historic environment.

Let me once again thank my hon. Friend for bringing the House’s attention to this issue and for, as ever, being a truly passionate advocate for London’s heritage.

Question put and agreed to.