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Heritage is crucial to our future and for job creation

On Thursday last, I met Tony Robinson and his Channel 4 Timewatch team. Where? Dundrum Castle on the spectacular approach to the Mournes. Why? An excavation of the grounds of John de Courcy's 1200 AD castle, possibly revealing a pre-Norman settlement going back to 900 AD.

What does this tell us? Be it Dundrum or Dunluce castles, Titanic or the Thompson dry dock, Derry Walls or Castleward, Christian or archaeological heritage, the scale, wonder and beauty of our historic and natural environment is unsurpassed on any part of these islands.

We have almost 2,000 monuments scheduled or in state care, 8,500 listed historical buildings, 17,000 industrial sites, a stunning 125,000 pre-1919 buildings and 3,000 shipwrecks.

This is a big part of the quality and character of the north. It compels us to cherish our heritage and hold firm to environmental standards. But all of this is an essential element of our economy and jobs. This heritage will be the biggest part of future increases in tourist numbers and spend.

Growing tourism from a £500m to a £1bn-a-year industry will revolve around the positive protection and development of this heritage.

We must do so. More than 60,000 people are out of work and this figure is rising. Heritage is part of the quality of life, but jobs give dignity.

I believe protecting and promoting our heritage can be done successfully and sustainably. But doing so now, in this time of recession and acute need, is a political responsibility that must be grasped.

The longer I am Environment Minister, the more I am convinced that my department has a twin-track purpose: to be the leading environment ministry and a leading economy ministry. My department does not play its full role in government, or reach its full potential, unless it achieves this purpose.

This argument is proven today by the launch of A Study of the Economic Value of Northern Ireland's Historic Environment. The report tells us that our historic environment generates an annual output of £522m, which creates, or sustains, 10,000 jobs.

So where do we go from here? To start, we need to recognise the potential opportunities that exist. The equivalent figures for Wales are £1,837m output and 30,000 jobs. In the Republic, £1.5bn in annual national wealth and 37,000 jobs.

These figures confirm my conviction to develop our heritage and create many more jobs and do so in a way that cherishes and protects.

Today's report leads me to three conclusions. There is, first, a need for a strategic shift in financial baselines, more money to the built and natural heritage, on one hand to protect our assets and on the other to grow jobs. I am writing a paper for my ministerial colleagues and Assembly members to make and win this argument.

Second, we need to be bold: draft and agree challenging new laws that robustly protect our heritage and deepen the green and clean credentials that makes here such a special place. That is what a robust Climate Change Act, a credible Marine Bill, a National Park Act in the image of our needs, an Independent Environment Agency would decisively demonstrate.

Third, at the heart of government policy must be core themes: that renewable electricity and technology is our single biggest economic opportunity; that we aim to be a world leader in carbon reduction; and that the great quality of our heritage can bring dignity to our people - not least through work when so many will be workless.

Today's report can be a springboard to achieve all of this. I know there will be support and there will be resistance. Those who agree with me need to recognise that the stakes are very high and not give to those who resist any reason to do so.

In terms of the strategic leap that is needed, the new laws and the new funding, the next 18 months will tell the tale.