2012 will be a landmark year for Britain. Over the next six months, we will play host to the biggest sporting event on the planet, and will celebrate Queen Elizabeth’s sixty years on the throne. These events will give us an opportunity to reflect on landmark moments in our history – reminding people, at home and abroad, of all that still makes Britain great.
And this year millions of people will visit our country, pumping money into the economy. The most-cited reason given for visiting Britain is our world-famous heritage. From Chatsworth House to Canterbury Cathedral – heritage is central to our cultural offer and to our local, regional and national identities. It’s also important for our economy, with every pound invested in the historic environment directly contributing an additional £1.60 to the local economy.
All over the country, people care passionately about their everyday historic environment – 93% agree that 'when trying to improve local places it is worth saving their historic features' and 71% agree that they are 'interested in the history of the place' where they live.
After the last general election, a poll revealed that 70% of us visit one or more UK heritage site every year. And Visit Britain’s statistics show that every year Britons make 42.8 million trips to visit friends and family across the UK – visiting many heritage sites along the way. Cumulatively, there are more people visiting Stonehenge and the Yorkshire Sculpture Park each year than Old Trafford, the Emirates or any other football ground in the country.
The government’s own evidence shows that the sector is ready to succeed. Heritage is on course to be one of the nation’s fastest growing industries and the sector is set to increase by 3.5% over the period between 2009 and 2018.
This success is boosted by the increase in those enjoying a ‘staycation’. As a result of economic uncertainty and the tightening of household budgets, more families have chosen to holiday in Britain. Recent figures from the ONS suggest that the number of people visiting Scotland for one or more nights has risen by 15.7 million in the last year; and in Wales the figure for the last twelve months stands at around 9.7 million visitors, with an estimated spend of £1.7bn in the Welsh economy alone – further evidence of the critical importance of the heritage sector’s appeal to the indigenous tourist.
Regional tourism programmes such as “Welcome to Yorkshire”, “Passionate People, Passionate Places” in the North East and “Visit the Heart” in the Midlands, place heritage attractions at the heart of their tourist offers. At a time when the government have been short-sighted in slashing the culture department’s budget by 25%, they should be doing all they can to support, not hinder, heritage sites and the organisations – often voluntary and community-led – which support them.
Five years before the Queen ascended to the throne, the then Labour government passed The Town and Country Planning Act of 1947, which paved the way toward the establishment of the system of listing buildings. Sixty five years on, we are continuing the debate to reform and refine it.
We are right to oppose the government’s VAT raid on listed buildings. The alternative is to watch as generations of irreplaceable British history, quite literally crumbles before our eyes. In recent weeks, the heritage sector – alongside voluntary and community sectors, and charitable bodies – have been making headlines as they mobilise in opposition to the Tories’ decision to levy VAT on approved alterations to listed buildings. This ill-considered proposal is already threatening to derail many scheduled projects that would enable wonderful listed buildings to continue to be used for community purposes – the refurbishment works at Wakefield Cathedral is a classic example. This will undoubtedly have a knock-on effect for local construction industries and local economies, as planned projects are inevitably shelved.
This proposal comes on top of the philanthropy tax which will deter many people from supporting the Heritage sector in a way that they have previously sought to.
When the government proposes such a short-sighted policies, apparently disconnected from its warm words on the importance of community-led asset transfer and re-use of the existing building stock, one wonders whether George Osborne truly realises the impact that the historic environment and regional tourism has on local economies across Britain.
I am determined to ensure that this government demonstrates an appreciation for the heritage sector in deeds as well as words, and that this is reflected in a strong heritage policy. Only then can we be assured that the coalition recognises the pivotal role that heritage plays in building economic prosperity, regenerating our towns and cities, and enhancing wellbeing.
I want future generations of Britons to draw inspiration from our heritage sites and know what went before, but, crucially, know what is achievable again. I am determined to ensure that they have this opportunity, and that Britain has a heritage industry that we can be proud of for generations to come.
Dan Jarvis is Labour MP for Barnsley Central and is shadow minister for culture, media and sport