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Chief Executive welcomes conservation of Chapter House

On Tuesday, 26 May 2010 a reception was held at Westminster Abbey to mark the completion of the repair and conservation of the exterior of the Chapter House. English Heritage's Chief Executive Dr Simon Thurley delivered the following speech, touching on the significance of the building, the craftsmanship involved in the project, the publication of a new book on the Chapter House as well as the current economic climate and as announced recently by the Government, the cuts to the public sector.


We are so grateful for the patience that you and everyone at the Abbey have shown over the last 18 months while a small army of stonemasons and a large forest of scaffolding occupied a corner of your abbey.
We are here to celebrate the completion of £3.1m project to repair and conserve the exterior of Chapter House. For those here who look after historic buildings you know that once in a generation you have to do a big job to give a monument such as this a secure future. It fell to us, in our time, to do that here and I’m really proud of the result. We have some of the stonemasons with us this evening, can I thank them and our own team for the work they have done.
We are also here to celebrate the new book, Westminster Abbey Chapter: The history, art and architecture of a chapter house ‘beyond compare’ – supported by English Heritage and written by a galaxy of talent, an Oscar-winning array of scholars. I read it this weekend and David Carpenter reminds us how this building always had a secular purpose, was designed as a space for the monarchy to communicate with its subjects, while other contributors discuss the extraordinary decoration of this space, its tiles, paintings and sculpture.
It also explains why English Heritage looks after it, not the Dean and Chapter. Jeremy Ashbee and Liz Hallam-Smith link the medieval buildings with what became an office of state inside the Abbey enclave. And now, by descent, together with dozens of other former government buildings, from Dover Castle to the Jewel Tower are part of the national collection of monuments cared for by English Heritage.
Of course English Heritage, together with the rest of the public sector is now making its contribution to cutting the £156 billion public debt. Our share is just over £4m - a figure that we had successfully guessed some months ago and for which we have carefully laid plans. No one likes to be cut, but English Heritage is no stranger to efficiency measures and we will deal with this quickly and continue to provide a first class expert service to all those who we deal with.
We also know that the new government has placed heritage and tourism together in a single ministerial portfolio. This is good news, emphasising the absolutely central role that heritage plays in the tourist economy of Britain. Here in the Abbey it is impossible to doubt that fact.
While this building saw some of the earliest meetings of parliament the habitual meeting place soon became St. Stephen’s chapel just over the road. A long narrow building where politicians faced each other as in opposing choir stalls, it influenced, as Churchill pointed out, the development of the two party system.  In these days of coalition it makes one wonder what would have happened if parliament had continued to meet in this octagonal hall. And perhaps shows that Henry III had thought through rather carefully about the sort of building in which he wanted his parliament to meet