The death of Peter Ainsworth in April this year was a great loss to the heritage sector in England.
Peter had given over 30 years of commitment to public life, and his contribution to the heritage and the environment was significant. He served as MP for East Surrey from 1992 to 2010, when he stood down. During this time, Peter was appointed Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Secretary of State for National Heritage in 1995 and entered the Shadow Cabinet in 1998 as Shadow Secretary of State for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. He also served as Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs– once under Iain Duncan Smith and again under David Cameron from 2005-09.
Following a career as an investment banker, Peter was a founding partner of sustainability consultancy the Robertsbridge Group and was also a Patron of the College of St Barnabas, a residential community of retired Anglican clergy in Lingfield, Surrey.
Peter was UK Chair of the Big Lottery Fund (Now National Lottery Community Fund) from 2011 to 2019 and was a Board member of the Environment Agency. He was also Chairman of Plantlife International and the Elgar Foundation.
Appointed Chairman of the Churches Conservation Trust (CCT) in July 2016, he was made Chair of the Heritage Alliance in 2018. At the Heritage Alliance, Peter chaired the organisation through Covid-19. Its members, greatly affected by the pandemic, are extremely grateful for the way in which he both supported the Alliance’s growth and tirelessly championed these 150+ organisations in a time of great need.
Latterly he also sat on the Rhodes Commission.
Peter was an inspired choice for Chair of the CCT as his personality, experience and connections allowed him to steer the organisation, with its’ complex governance involving church, state, communities and the Royal Family, through funding rounds and several changes of minister. In his understated way, he had a great network of contacts and built lasting relationships with many people. The Prime Minister led the tributes on the announcement of his very sudden death along with Oliver Dowden, Secretary of State for DCMS.
Peter really appreciated historic church buildings –their architecture, the music and the sense of place they provide. He joyed in beauty and loved poetry.
When the CCT reopened their church buildings after the first lockdown, a copy of Peter’s “Defeated? A Sonnet to empty churches”* was placed in each one giving ‘Anon’ as the author in his typically understated way.
He was a genuine support to staff and volunteers and would go out of his way to show his appreciation for everything they did. This was coupled with his great sense of fun – with him in the room, laughter was never far away.
Peter believed that the future management of historic places of worship was the biggest heritage challenge to be faced by the country over the coming decade and that Covid has speeded up its’ arrival. In a speech given to CCT volunteers in 2020 at the National Volunteer and Community Conference, Peter said:
“What happens next to the historic Parish church is probably the biggest single question facing anyone charged with a duty to protect our national heritage. It’s not just a problem for the Church of England or the Government. Our historic churches are an emblem of what and who we are in our own eyes, in our own communities and in the eyes of the world.”
He believed that the CCT’s role was to support communities in caring for this most precious of cultural resources – offering people,skills and knowledge.
Peter was passionate about effecting positive change and ensuring heritage is understood as a public good. A true heritage hero.
Peter married Claire in 1981 and they have three children and one grandchild.
*Come on. You lot have survived worse things:
Black Death, Plague and two World wars,
The Reformation (Cromwell clipped the wings
Of angels in the roof); and there are scars
On ancient faces, marble noses cropped
And poppy heads beheaded like the King;
And modern vandals too. But you’ve not stopped
Your ageless plain ability to sing
Of something quite indifferent to the now;
Built with a trusting love and potent faith
You stand there still in testament to how
Beauty is not a wafted fleeting wraith,
A ghost which chance can whimsically destroy;
You can be filled, if not by faith, with joy.
Peter Aiers is Chief Executive of the Churches Conservation Trust
This article appears in the June issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe now.