I discovered a week or so ago that I am the 65th government minister to have responsibility for our built heritage, since 1882, which is when the first ‘inspector of ancient monuments’ came into being.
This came to light at an event to mark the centenary of heritage protection in England. The actual event that had happened one hundred years previously was something called the 1913 Ancient Monuments Act. This is not to say that our forebears were entirely oblivious to the value of historic buildings before that time, but the 1913 Act set up a system of protection for the first time. Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island [left] was one of the first historic sites to be acquired under the Act.
And this was itself based around the idea of getting these inspectors to create a ‘list’ of ancient monuments of national importance. And that, in turn, led to the possibility of invoking what I understand were amazingly complicated ‘emergency stop notices’ or Preservation Orders which would help protect a sufficiently important historic, ‘listed’, building, if the bulldozer (or early 20th century equivalent) hove into view.
Simon Thurley, the current chief executive of English Heritage, the body which is directly descended from those pioneers, is rightly proud of what has been achieved in this time. And I’m proud to be number 65 in a procession of ministers supervising and sponsoring the whole process.
For me, it’s also reassuring that heritage protection has been a Government concern throughout, and that these days it’s a topic that is represented around the cabinet table. And it’s not hard to see why. Today our heritage is an essential part of our tourism ‘offer’, with four out of ten ‘leisure’ visitors to the UK citing it as their primary reason for choosing us over other, shall we say, ‘warmer’ destinations. It’s worth £12.4 billion to the economy (£20 billion if you include the extras like catering, transport and souvenirs that go along with a heritage visit), and employs a tidy 200,000 full time equivalents. Oh, and its forecast growth between 2009 and 2018 is 2.6 per cent, a lot higher than some of the other sectors which are commonly thought to underpin our economy.
Most of all though, we as a nation are proud and excited by it, and it’s a really big part of what defines us as what we are. And that’s as true for school children as it is for pensioners. And may I, while this is on my mind, also give a plug for a fascinating series starting next week on BBC4: Heritage! The Battle for Britain’s Past looks at how the heritage movement was born and how it has grown to become what it is today.
So let’s salute English Heritage, The National Trust, and all the other organisations with their tens of thousands of volunteers that help to keep our heritage beautifully maintained, fresh and interesting for each new generation that discovers it.
Photos courtesy of English Heritage.