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  1. Election 2024
10 February 2015

Why the government should restore the Ministry for Tourism and Heritage

As the UK tourism industry meets this week, William Cash says the coalition has failed the tourism sector which is the envy of the world.

By William Cash

This Thursday will see Nicky Morgan, the Secretary of State for
Education, travel to Leicester to participate in a Question Time
Election special political debate state on the British tourism
industry at the annual UK InBound convention which is one of the UK
tourism sector’s largest annual conferences.  Anybody wanting an idea
of what a six party political TV debate could be like might like to
attend this pre-Election smorgasbord. Others on the panel, chaired by
BBC Breakfast Time presenter Bill Turnbull, include Labour MP Gerry
Sutcliffe, the former Minister of Sport and Tourism in the Brown
government, Nigel Huddleston, the UK head of travel at Google (and
also the Conservative Candidate for Mid-Worcestershire), Patrick
Robinson, head of Public Policy at Airbnb and Maria Macken, head of
marketing for Ryanair; and myself, the UKIP Heritage and Tourism

Judging by the number of delegates – around 250 – rushing to buy
tickets, which includes a futuristic, Sci-Fi themed gala dinner (with
a prize for Best Dressed) you might have thought the UK tourism sector
was flourishing. Which it is, but not thanks to the government, nor
the last government. In 2013, the number of visitors coming to the UK
was a record 32.8m, spending over £21bn. The conference
is likely to confirm that 2014 saw a 5 per cent increase in visitor numbers
but even so the industry is still a long way from the coalition target
of 40 million visitors announced in 2010.

Politicians tend to take our tourism  – the envy of the world – for
granted and hardly talk about the industry. Yet talk to senior figures
in the industry and they all say the same thing. As one former head of
The Tourism Alliance – the principal political lobby group of the
tourism industry – said to me recently: ‘There’s apathy and a lot of
talk but the industry is spread over so many ministries that everybody
passes the buck and nothing happens. There is a lot of talk about
tourism task forces and de-regulation but the truth is if it we depend
a lot on the success of the independent tourism and hospitality
sector, who punch above their weight. There is too much ‘scatter gun’
thinking. Tourism is much bigger than both the automative and
pharmaceutical industries but we are given little support. Tourism
could be contributing so much more to the economy’.

How did this happen? Why have successive governments allowed such an
economic opportunity to be squandered? A clue comes in one of the most
frequently asked questions I get from my friends abroad is “Whatever
ever happened to Britain’s Department of Heritage?” “It was abolished
by Tony Blair in 1997,” I reply. ‘The word ‘Heritage’ was not in tune
with Cool Britannia”. The portfolio did actually stagger on in the
guise of the Ministry for Heritage and Tourism which was a junior
Minister of State role. It was not until the reshuffle of September
2012 that the problems really began when Heritage and Tourism was axed
into two separate ministries, with “tourism” being demoted to sitting
under the unlikely partnering of Sports and Equalities.

What you may ask has “Equalities” got to do with a sector that brings
in over £126 billion to the economy thanks to our historic castles,
Stonehenge, ‘matchless countryside’ (in the words of the NPPF) and
cities including Oxford, Cambridge, Bath, and Stratford? Yet if you
ask most Westminster pundits who the current tourism minister is, most
will struggle to tell you that it is the Tory MP Helen Grant who
famously was herself unable to name the current Wimbledon tennis
women’s winner as the minister of sport in 2013, nor the FA Cup winner
or the English Rugby Captain.

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Ever since then, tourism has been politically downgraded and has
struggled to find much government support, and certainly not from the
Treasury. The same apples to heritage, which used to be one of the
great departments of state. But as Loyd Grossman, the chairman of the
Heritage Alliance, says, ‘it can frustrating that there is nobody
sitting on the top table’. Whilst the Notting Hill Cameroon Ed Vaizey
is the media savvy and affable Minister of State who has technical
responsibility for the heritage brief, his job titles at both the DCMS
and the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, with
responsibility for digital industries, makes no reference at all to
‘heritage’. If Blair merely abolished Heritage as a state department,
Cameron has wiped away all traces of it.

Part of the problem is that tourism is being allowed to rest on its
Olympic laurels. Since tourism is doing well enough without much
support, let alone a Minister of State – largely thanks to private
enterprise and independent heritage sector – the Government thinks
that is enough. But this is a mistake. As Dr Grossman warned in his
key note speech at the Heritage Alliance AGM at Glazer’s Hall in
December: ‘The Government might think we are doing OK despite the
disproportionate cuts and a virulent fiscal policy. But Laissez faire
is not the answer. It takes positive measures by government to improve
the operating environment so that the benefits of heritage – social,
economic, educational and environmental – are realised by Government,
communities and individuals’

He then flashed up a slide image from the Britain is GREAT campaign
which he pointed out was a multi-million pound “image campaign” to
boost Britain’s image overseas, not drive domestic tourism in the UK.
“So government isn’t shy about using heritage, they just don’t like
paying for it,” he added.

The main reason that tourism has been so politically abandoned and
marginalised is that the industry – promoted by the flagship Britain
is GREAT campaign – has been hi-jacked by Cameron for UK Inc. global
image PR and marketing purposes whilst there has been a disconnect
between the amount of money, resources and support the actual tourism
industry has received on the all important domestic front. When
Cameron was recently in Washington to hang with “bro” Obama, he made
sure that he was photographed at the press conference afterwards
standing beside posters from the Britain is GREAT campaign – featuring
“Countryside is GREAT” and a poster of Henry VIII with the strapline
“Heritage is GREAT”.

Shortly before the the 2012 Olympics, I reported for the New Statesman
from Davos when Cameron and Osborne unveiled – in a Davos tearoom –
they were going to be spending £27m promoting Britain’s great
tourism around the world on bill boards that would be plastered in
airports and major global cities, from Rio to New York and Tokyo. The
idea was to promote Britain as the host of the Olympics, and the idea
was to attract record numbers of investment and visitors. A similar
campaign – using the same bill-board posters – ran in Britain for a
short time. And then suddenly stopped.

The reason was that the Britain is GREAT campaign was never intended
to boost or help domestic tourism, it was just an expensive national
vanity PR project which made Cameron and Britain look good in a
chocolate box and Disney-theme park and patriotic sort of way abroad.
Its a good campaign. But why cant we have some more of it at home?
Tourism may be under the portfolio of the ministry for “Equalities”
but the great irony is that the word ‘inequality’ is the word that
industry leaders use to describe the discrepancy between the way the
government promotes Britain abroad as a land of Downton Abbey, Henry
VIII, beautiful abbeys and ‘matchless’ unspoilt countryside, and the
way that the government actually undermines heritage and tourism on
the domestic front.

As somebody whose family has run a tourism property since the 1970s in
the West Midlands – which used to be marketed as The Heart of England
– I have seen and experienced how the lack of government support for
regional tourism, which typically contributes around 9 per cent of the local
economies of counties like Warwickshire and Shropshire has impacted
the way that the region presents themselves to visitors and holiday
makers. The Visit Heart of England website (
is frankly an embarrassment. It refers to itself as the ‘official
website for the Heart of England’ but a more accurate description
would be Voucher England.

There is almost no promotion of genuine historic attractions or any
colourful editorial content. The entire site is a messy marketing
cross between an eBay discount travel store and a TV shopping channel
as visitors to the site are subjected to endless “two for one” paid
voucher ads that promote not the sort of genuine Heart of England
tourist attractions that makes our tourism the envy of the world but
paid for “two for one” online discount vouchers for visits to luxury spas
and hotels like Haughton Hall in Shifnal where you get “15 per cent off the
Lounge restaurant” (food only) or huge ads for BBC Tours although
most of these tours have nothing – with the exception of a small
studio in Birmingham – to do with the West Midlands.

Too much tourism marketing by the government is geared around
‘in-bound’ tourism to London, and cities like Oxford and coach tours
to huge stately homes like Blenheim which have become the modern
equivalent of the old Victorian seaside resorts. There is so much more
to UK tourism and the government should be supporting the long-term
economic interests of cathedral cities, market towns and scenic
villages in the regions, especially counties like Warwickshire with
its rich range of heritage and tourism interests that are so critical
for regional jobs and growth. The VisitEngland website – the official
tourist board website – is better but it is difficult to navigate and
describing the Midlands as ‘Central England’ hardly catches the charm
of  the old Heart of England idea. I am not sure lumping Shakespeare’s England with Birmingham is also such a good idea. It
is like offering a tour of Wolf Hall locations and the coach showing
up at the Bull Ring Shopping Centre.

Cameron said last week on a flying visit to Warwickshire that that he
expects the election to be won or lost in the Midlands, in
constituencies such as North Warwickshire and Bedworth, which is the
most ultra-marginal seat in the country with a Tory majority of just
54. But every time he or Osborne comes to Warwickshire or Coventry –
which is frequently –  it is invariably to announce new staff jobs at
Aldi’s corporate HQ in Atherstone or to wear a hard hat visiting the
Jaguar factory in Coventry rather than promoting the success story of
tourism in the area.

A publication called Tourism Intelligence monitors visitor numbers
across England and trends. The latest published figures from 2014
reveal that trips and expenditure increased in the West Midlands (by
6 per cent and 7 per cent respectively), while trips to London were only up 1 per cent up,
with visitor spend unchanged. Numbers remained flat in the South East,
though spending fell back by 10 per cent. There were declines in trip volumes
in “all other regions”, including Yorkshire & the Humber (trips down
-11 per cent),  the North East (-10 per cent), the East (-9 per cent) and the East Midlands
(-7 per cent).

Why is the government’s tourism spokesperson Helen Grant not standing
by Cameron’s side as he announces a new West Midlands tourism boom
with new records being set in both and Birmingham and Coventry for
hotel occupancy rates and visitor numbers? Birmingham is on a record
high with almost nine out of 10 hotel rooms taken on an average night.
A similar story is being repeated in Coventry where the city is now
ranked as one of the most popular European visitors for tourists.
Recent Visit England figures show that Coventry (home of Lady Godiva)
is the fastest-growing holiday destination in the West Midlands,
rising by 37.2 per cent in the last five years. Popular events have
included the BBC Good Food Show and the Classic Motor Show confirming
that tourism is a key driver of economic growth in the regions.

Instead of dumping unwanted and unnecessary amounts of Lego-Land
housing on the region which threaten to destroy the very historic
character of the region’s market towns like Atherstone or Stratford,
or cathedral cities like Coventry and Lichfield, the government should
be making tourism growth a priority in parts of the West Midlands. A
senior West Midlands tourism chief says the latest record hotel
occupancy figures are ‘incredibly positive for the region’s economy…
we are confident the region will attract more national and
international visitors than ever before, providing our tourism
business with a very real boost’.

Visitor numbers in the West Midlands region will benefit this year
from so many different cultural, anniversary and sporting events,
ranging from sporting fixtures like the Rugby World Cup at Villa Park
to the Ashes Test at Edgbaston. Following its £26m renovation,
transforming it into one of the great five star golfing and holiday
resorts in the country, the famous Belfy golf course and resort at
Wishaw, Sutton Coldfield – the spiritual home of the Ryder Cup – looks
set to soon be hosting major international championships again.

On the cultural front, Turner Prize winning sculpture Anthony Gormley
is installing a new life-size work at a former canal worker’s cottage
in Warwickshire . The 2m-high (6ft 6ins) iron human figure will stand
by the South Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal from mid May for a year as part
of the 50th celebrations of the Landmark Trust. The new Warwickshire
human sculpture project is just one of five new sculptures being
erected across the country called Land. The cottage, in Lowsonford,
near Henley-in-Arden, was built in 1812 for a canal worker. It will be
free for all to visit.

Gormley says he was drawn to the low key Warwickshire canal spot as he
wanted to choose locations “on the edge” and where ‘a particular human
body once stood and anyone could stand’. By being positioned next to
Lengthsman’s Cottage on the Stratford-Upon-Avon Canal the sculpture
would “look down at the water in the lock” and reflect on the idea of
water as a metaphor for change and travel.

Despite tourism being the country’s fifth largest sector, supporting 3m jobs, and typically 8-10 per cent of regional economies in the West
Midlands, the heritage and tourism sector have been increasingly
marginalised. Tourism – not short term jobs created by volume housing
and HS2 – must be supported just as much as other industries, such as
manufacturing, haulage, digital economy and housing construction, as
key driver of regional growth in regions like the West Midlands.

The Coalition have seriously cut back financial support for the
domestic tourism sector, spending £27m instead on promoting the
image of Britain abroad through the Britain is GREAT campaign.
But these posters promoting Henry VIII, Buckingham Palace and ruined
abbeys abroad does not do anything to help regions like the Heart of
England, and especially Warwickshire which is where the last and

oldest part of Shakespeare’s Forest of Arden still survives – around
Packington. In many ways, North Warwickshire is just as much true
Shakespeare country – rather than across the River Avon closer toStratford where Shakespeare later lived. Shakespeare’s family came from Balsall in North Warwickshire and expanded to villages like Lapworth, Wroxall, Knowle and Packwood.

With such close links to Birmingham airport, and the NEC, Coventry and
Birmingham – and trains taking just one hour 16 minutes from London,
towns like Atherstone – the former Millinery capital of England – is
ideally positioned to benefit from the UK tourism boom. When you drive
into Atherstone, a Brown sign welcomes you to the ‘Town of Hatters’
but once you are there, there is no fun, educative and colourful
millinery museum that enthralls visitors of all ages like like the
Cadbury World does for English chocolate history. It’s like driving
into Detroit and finding no car museum.

 My own favourite “hidden gem” in Warwickshire includes such secret
county jewels as Astley church which was once the size of a cathedral.
Elizabethan travellers and religious monks were guided to the
beautiful church from within the darkness of the Forest of Arden by a
flame torch that was fixed to the towering spire. The church is next
to Astley Castle now an award winning Landmark Trust holiday property
and winner of the RIBA Stirling Award for architecture.

Once home to three English Queens, before it was almost destroyed by a
fire in 1978, Astley Castle is now one of the most booked out holiday
properties in Britain for ordinary people wanting to enjoy a heritage
rich part of Warwickshire where aesthetic beauty combined with bold
contemporary design are its own reward. Such a project is a poster for
the public appetite for ‘hidden gems’ in the depths of the English
countryside which receive little or no government support and do not
feature in the coach tour schedules.

One essential of a successful tourism industry is good tourism
signage. Many of our best tourist attractions – like Astley church –
are hidden away in the depths of nowhere. Brown signs were introduced
in Britain in the Seventies after they proved so successful in
rejuvenating tourism across France, where the visitor is presented
with a menu of local attractions as they enter a town or drive past on
the auto-route. So a similar system was introduced in Britain –
starting with a pilot project in Kent – which was soon expanded across
the country as it boosted visitor numbers.

Yet now the Brown sign system is in chaos with it being easier for a
McDonalds restaurant (such as at Carmathen in Wales) to get a Brown
Tourist sign today than actual visitor attractions like Sudeley
Castle, a former royal castle where Catherine Parr is buried. This is
because of absurd criteria (toilets, parking, numbers of days open
for public rooms and visitor numbers) set down by local Highways.

Only proper tourist attractions should be eligible for the iconic
Brown signs. In particular there should be new criteria that make it
easier to find Bed and Breakfasts and hotels in rural areas.The lack
of any sense of government priority for heritage can be gauged by the
fact that although a Brown Sign Task Force was set up back in 2011 to
rectify the absurdities of the government promoting visiting McDonalds
over actual heritage attractions -recommending a new definition of
tourism that separates genuine tourist attractions from those with a purely commercial interest – there has yet to be any action taken by any government ministers despite the Task Force being set up in 2011.

As the Historic Houses Association policy director Frances Garnham
says: ‘The recommendations have still not been translated into an
official response from the respective ministers”. Brown Tourist signs
should be relevant to genuine tourism as opposed to just commercial
shops and retail concerns. People do not visit Britain to be directed
to the nearest American burger joint. They want historic local pubs
and directions to the historic sites and the Great British Bed &
Breakfast that make English tourism so unique.

Despite the success story of regions like the West Midlands, the
reality of the in-bound visitor experience remains a subject of deep
concern within the industry. As this week’s InBound conference
delegate notes admit, these concerns include the actual physical
“welcome” visitors receive when they arrive in Britain, along with a
current tourist visa regime which puts off many wealthy Indians,
Russians and Chinese (UK visas are one of the most expensive in the
world, meaning that many foreign wealthy holiday makers choose to tour
the expensive hotels of Europe but skip London), a crowded global
marketplace, poor transport infrastructure (in particular the lack of
airport capacity) and a ‘lack of awareness’ of attractions outside
London and, if they do make it out, poor signage with many smaller
attractions impossible to find.

Too much tourism is certainly geared around London, cities like Oxford
and coach tours to huge stately homes like Blenheim which have become
the modern equivalent of the old Victorian seaside resorts. There is
so much more to UK tourism and the government should be supporting the
long-term economic interests of cathedral cities, market towns and
scenic villages in the regions, especially their heritage and tourism
interests that are so critical for regional jobs and growth. The
Coalition and Westminster political class are not especially
interested in preserving or promoting Britain’s ‘built heritage’. They
are more interested in trying to win votes by building, roads and
infrastructure projects.

The truth is that the Coalition ministers and Whitehall have regarded
our ‘built environment’ as a stumbling block to the execution of
infrastructure (such as HS2) and building growth – with construction
firms often using unskilled labourers rather than skilled British
local builders and traditional labourers whose skills are the
lifeblood of local communities. Having to move HS2 routes and roads to
avoid heritage sites is expensive.

The true colours of the coalition’s pro-development “priorities” –
over tourism and maintaining the architectural heritage of the UK’s
tourist environment – were revealed back in 2011 when the NPPF
planning minister Rt Hon Greg Clark attempted to remove almost all
heritage protection clauses (including the former Planning Policy
Statement 5 which protected ‘historic setting’) from the first draft
of the National Planning Policy Framework – with its ‘presumption in
favour of development’. Our National Heritage List ranges from Norman
castles to Battersea Power Station, which tell the story of Britain.
The heritage tourism sector alone contributes £26bn to the UK

That is why it was so invidious of Osborne to introduce the
discriminatory 20 per cent VAT rate on listed buildings repair in 2012 Budget
– calling it the ‘Swimming Pool Tax’ – whist allowing all developers
and construction firms to pay no VAT on new builds and new
construction on green belt land. The reason it was called the Swimming
Pool Tax was that when Osborne introduced the VAT on heritage repairs
in 2012, one reason given by the government was to ‘close a loophole
that allowed millionaires to build tax free swimming pools’, according
to Mark Hoban, Financial Secretary to the Treasury, Mark Hoban (14th
April 2012).

Yet this distortion of the facts simply shows how heritage and tourism
has been targeted by Osborne for punitive tax raids and shows how out
of touch the metropolitan Westminster political classes are about the
challenges facing those who are the custodians of Britain’s heritage,
from small hotel owners to pub owners. A study by the Listed Owners Property Club (LOPC) of 12,049 planning applications prior to the 2012 Budget found only 34 references to swimming pools of which less than half may have qualified for VAT relief, according to the LOPC.

Osborne’s develop-and-be damned building revolution which is
threatening to alter the identity of historic market towns and
cathedral cities may provide short term growth and jobs but the cost to the UK’s long-term economic interests – especially rural, countryside, heritage and tourism interests that are so critical for regional jobs and growth – is beyond price.  Our planning and tax policies should support – not discriminate against – the rich heritage of our built inheritance and the efforts of those who enjoy preserving it and sharing its custody with others and for future generations to also enjoy. The planning system should should be a fair balancing act between old and new.

As the award winning success of the Astley Castle renovation has
shown, combining both can provide an exhilarating aesthetic holiday
environment for “chillaxing”. Instead of holidaying in Tuscany, the
Algarve or Cornwall, Cameron may have actually picked up a few votes
if he had chosen to take a family holiday – Astley sleeps eight – in
such a pathbreaking Landmark Trust holiday property that shows what is
possible when vision and imagination is applied.  Such is demand that
the Landmark Trust have had to announce that they will open bookings
for 2017 in September 2015 – as if releasing tickets for an Ashes Test
or Royal Opera production. All for just £871 for four nights,
amounting to £27.22 per person per night. No wonder Astley is ‘solidly
booked’ until the end of 2016.

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