HC Deb 24 February 1961 vol 635 cc1156-64

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

4.2 p.m.

Mr. W. F. Deedes (Ashford)

I want to talk for a short time about the appearance of farm buildings. This is a modest subject, but it has its place—a not negligible place, as I shall hope to show—in this country's physical development. It merits the brief and friendly discussion which I anticipate having with my hon. Friend. I apologise to him for detaining him here on a Friday afternoon when he should be restoring his tissues elsewhere.

About a year ago, speaking on the rather wider subject of surroundings and landscape, I mentioned this subject and expressed the hope that with a little more consultation and foresight between the interested parties we might get better results. I did not know, then, as I know now, that other and weightier influences —the Council of Industrial Design, the Country Landowners' Association, the National Farmers Union and, indeed, my hon. Friend's Department—were already giving the matter attention. I thought it might be useful to have a little discussion today to see where it has got us.

I will say something about the background. The Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, and its successors exempt all farm buildings from comprehensive planning control. I have no doubt that is right. There are valid reasons for it, with one exception which I shall mention later. The period since the Act has coincided with a period of rapid, indeed revolutionary, development of land and food production. In particular, the growth of the broiler industry caused second thoughts a year or more ago. It then became apparent that very large and obtrusive developments related to agriculture—I hesitate to define the exact relationship could not pass unobserved and without arousing a great deal of resentment from those in residential areas who were confronted by structures quite unlike anything which had appeared in agriculture before and whose own developments were being rather strictly controlled.

From February, 1960, all farm buildings of 5,000 square feet and over have been decreed to require planning permission, with certain refinements. I think that has proved a reasonable solution to the immediate problem, but I have always doubted whether the whole answer to the wider problem created by modern extension of agricultural development would be provided by that control. I think that it is increasingly important that agriculture should appreciate that it has, quite outside the broiler industry, created a problem that it is tactful to consider; that is to say, agriculture's physical developments in relation to the physical developments of other people's property. I want to stress that aspect.

My hon. Friend well knows that since the war the pressures on the open spaces, or what is left of them, have been very formidable. Under the Town and Country Planning Acts those who wish to develop are normally subject to the sharpest scrutiny. I believe that an increasing proportion of domestic designs for the countryside are being rejected, and perhaps my hon. Friend will be able to tell us what proportion of appeals to his Ministry are in respect of designs for buildings in the country. My belief is that that proportion is higher than ever before.

It is right to differentiate between bread-and-butter development—among which one would class the farm building—and private development, the cottage or the dwelling house, but they cannot be entirely separated. Both impinge on the landscape, and both raise planning considerations.

My principal reason for raising this subject today is not entirely an aesthetic one; it is a desire to avoid agriculture arousing an anger, an opposition, among those who, for less persuasive reasons, are refused building permission. Of course, the farmer who wants to build a milking parlour, a dutch barn or a new pig house has a stronger case than the man who wants to build a dwelling-house for his retirement, but if the farmer appears to get—as it were, "on the nod"—permission for a vast, white asbestos structure on the crest of the Downs, and his neighbour is refused permission to build—as he sees it—a discreet, architect-designed bungalow on the fringe of a village, a difficult situation arises, and it is arising more particularly in the Home Counties, where competition for space is a little hotter than elsewhere. That can cause bad blood between one set of people and others in agriculture, and it could lead to a demand from the majority for intolerable restriction on agriculture. That, really, is my main interest in the subject.

Short of reaching that pass, there is much more that we can do, with a little imagination, forethought and consultation about agricultural buildings. I do not say that more money should be spent. As I see it, even with political and social, as well as aesthetic considerations at stake, it is not sensible to press forward ideas that will cost a farmer more. Some mention has been made of special financial provisions for the National Parks, areas of outstanding beauty where, perhaps, some money might be spent on using materials of traditional nature. I am not sure about that; I think that it is arguable whether it should be done.

I think that agricultural England is best regarded, not as a park but as a workshop. In that workshop, the majority of farmers are working on very close margins, and it is quite futile to expect them to expend extra money on what they would see as the bows and ribbons of their farm buildings, but I think that, given foresight, we can do a lot more with practically no extra charge on the industry as such. The roof of a Dutch barn or a milking parlour or a pig house costs no more when it is at the right pitch than when it is at the wrong pitch. It costs no more when it is well-sited than when it has been ill-sited, but it may cost a lot more if it has been ill-sited, in terms of day-to-day use, than if it had been put in the right place.

I am not asking that traditional materials should be used, like Kentish flag or weathered oak beams and similar things of which we have all become fond and which we connect with the traditional English farmhouse. These are extravagances which no one in his senses could expect. I prefer to accept the simplest and most economical product, made from the most modern materials, from the factory—for example, Messrs. Silcock—provided that it has had thought and the hand of an architect who has the right considerations in mind.

A little more thought in the factory would produce enormous differences on the rural skyline. Indeed, an acknowledgment of this need to conform to the rural landscape would go a long way to help. I do not want more restriction, and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary accepts that. That is the one thing that we have got to avoid. I hope that we have heard the last of Article 4 and all that, which is an admission of failure.

I want to see a clearer standard which can be followed. I want people to be induced to regard that as the best and to aim at it as something which creates no hardship and no extra expense. If we get this right at the point of origin, it will cost no more; indeed, it will save expense.

At least two bodies have illustrated in a practical way what I am theorising about. The Country Landowners' Association last year held a successful farm buildings competition in which 123 people entered. The entries were judged on general practicability, lay-out, value for money, efficiency and appearance. That is exactly the sort of thing that I have in mind. This Association recognises the tradition of good design and sensibly it wants to foster this tradition.

Another leading practical body is the Council of Industrial Design. That body has sensible ideas not only on how to achieve good design but on how to persuade other people to adopt its ideas. I acknowledge the work that the Council of Industrial Design has done in various regions to stimulate interest on this subject.

Not the weakest of the Council's arguments is that good design can be the most efficient and economical thing in the long run. It is true to say that there is no problem of good will on the part of the National Farmers Union, the manufacturers, the local authorities, my hon. Friend's Department and the Ministry of Agriculture. All are well disposed towards the idea of better design. But at the moment I think we lack the right degree of inducement to give it impetus.

I think that my right hon. Friend's Department could give a stout hand here. I believe he accepts the modest rôle that this idea plays in the English landscape. I am sure that his own role lies in stimulating good ideas, encouraging competition, treating design and siting of farm buildings intelligently and not following restriction, control or any of the roads that lie in that direction. I invite my hon. Friend to enlarge on the contribution which his Ministry has played and hopes to play in this expanding aspect of our surroundings.

4.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) never fails when he speaks to make a constructive, civilised and realistic contribution, but he does more than that, because he always seems to be sensitive to the deepest sort of trends running through our society. He realises, as his whole speech shows, that the nation is opening its eyes more and more and that this trend will increase as leisure and education grow.

Already urban developers are recognising that there is a critical public for what they do in the towns, and the same is becoming the case in the country. That trend will grow. Everyone realises, as my hon. Friend the Member for Ashford has stressed, that farmers are facing nothing short of a revolution in their industry. They are modernising and intensifying their productive processes, and the busier and more prosperous they are the better pleased the nation must be. It is true, as my hon. Friend has emphasised, that while all the rest of the community have to submit to planning control for practically every development that they may wish to carry out, farmers are almost entirely exempt.

My hon. Friend was correct in saying that the number of appeals to my right hon. Friend from planning decisions is increasing. They are running at a far higher rate than a year ago, which was higher than the year before. At the moment, the rate of appeals is well in excess of 12,000 a year and a substantial number of those appeals, in fact, the largest single class of appeal, are by people who have been denied their wish to build a house in the country.

I am sure that my hon. Friend is absolutely right in stressing that as a result of their exemption from planning control farmers bear a very special responsibility to the community to carry out their development in as seemly a way as possible. My right hon. Friend has the power, under Article 4 of the General Development Order, 1950, to withdraw for limited areas, if he thinks fit, the exemption from planning control of agriculture and it is true that agriculture is not wholly exempt from planning control in certain national parks and areas of outstanding beauty. It is also true that as a result of the introduction of intensive agricultural production techniques my right hon. Friend last year brought under control agricultural buildings in excess of 5,000 sq. ft. in area. Of course, that was done without any intent to hinder new and efficient methods of agriculture.

If it is agreed that agriculture has a special responsibility because of its exemption from planning control, what is it which is mainly thought to be wrong in its development already? Before dealing with this question, may I say that no one should forget the particular position in which the farmer finds himself. There is a large number of relatively small farms the owners of which are preoccupied with highly technical problems and are in the midst of adjusting their techniques to new discoveries and methods. They are being offered a range of new materials, which are not at all traditional, with which to satisfy their requirements for buildings and other structures. It is not surprising if they need help, advice, guidance and, indeed, pressure, to put up their buildings and structures with the maximum practicable attention to design and siting.

My hon. Friend has referred to the Council for Industrial Design. I wish to quote from an article by the Deputy-Director of the Council, Mr. J. Noel White, in Design of November, 1959, where there is a reference to the sort of objection that is made to so many agricultural buildings. Architecturally most of the designs suffer from the same faults: an unsatisfactory relationship between the roof and elevations, an unattractive pitch of roof in the smaller spans. a discord between the structural members and the cladding, and a coarseness of detailing. Frequently, these prefabricated buildings are visually satisfactory as a structural skeleton supporting a roof, but ill-considered cladding reduces th2m to clumsy boxes". Very often, the position is made worse because no one carefully studies siting. As we all know, the landscape requires consideration not only in what is put there but in where whatever has to be put there is placed. These are the sort of complaints which can be made against agricultural buildings.

What can be done? My hon. Friend has himself referred to some of the interests which are trying to help. There is, first of all, the course of consultation very much encouraged by my right hon. Friend who has urged local planning authorities in a recent Circular to seek meetings with the National Farmers' Union and the Country Landowners' Association, those meetings to be attended by the lands commissioner of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. These are the sort of meetings which might explain to farmers through their representatives in the National Farmers' Union how important the subject is, where they can obtain advice, and what the objective is that they should set themselves.

Then there is the Agricultural Research Council of the Ministry of Agriculture. This Council has set up a farm buildings unit which is conducting research which, I am sure, wild make a great contribution to improving the materials and designs available to farmers. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has encouraged his officers to pay as much attention as is practicable to siting and design when advising farmers on farm improvements Also, he has pursued several opportunities to collaborate with the Council of Industrial Design and has arranged for its officers to address his own lands commissioners. There have been discussions between officials of the Ministry of Agriculture and the manufacturers of the prefabricated buildings which farmers have more and more tended to use. In fact, his exhibit "Looking Ahead" at last year's Royal Show contained three buildings which received a certain amount of praise as showing the right sort of trend in the design of agricultural buildings.

What is even more interesting is that all those whose services are necessary to improve the situation are beginning to some together. I make no apology for again referring to the Council of Industrial Design. In the Council's publication Design of August, 1960, there was a report of a discussion between a farmer, a member of the Council, the chief architect of the Ministry of Agriculture, a journalist from the Farmer's Weekly, two people from the manufacturing companies which make the prefabricated buildings, an architect, and two officials of the Council of Industrial Design, who met to consider the problem of how prefabricated buildings could be improved in both design and siting.

Anyone who reads the report of that discussion will begin to understand that, although everyone is agreed on what we want, the solution is not all that easy to find. However, I regard the getting together of all the people concerned as extremely helpful.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government is himself considering whether there would be a useful purpose served by trying to produce, with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and with the Council of Industrial Design, a technical publication about the design of farm buildings. That is under consideration now.

The public does expect that there shall be progress and development in the country as well as in the towns but that the progress shall be without ugliness, shall be seemly and shall pay attention to both design and the landscape. But here, where so many users and developers are farmers in a comparatively small way of business, responsible though they and their organisations are in trying to improve things, a big responsibility rests on the manufacturers of prefabricated buildings. These manufacturers are fewer but larger than most of their customers, and if they can pay a little more attention to architecture as well as to engineering they will do a great service to their customers and to the community.

Of course, farmers want the minimum of cost, maintenance and expense, but what they do not perhaps always realise is that a well designed building does not necessarily cost any more—in fact, it can often cost less—than a badly designed building. This is even more true of good siting, which should cost no more than bad siting. If there are cases in which a badly designed building costs less than a well designed building, here is an opportunity for the manufacturer to see whether he can possibly improve the situation by attention to detail in his designing.

The farming community and the community as a whole should be most grateful to my hon. Friend for the light which he has thrown on this subject, because what is vital is public opinion which we are so glad to see is getting more critical about design and siting in the towns. This criticism will certainly be directed also to development in the country. I hope that, without exaggerating the problem, the farmers themselves will recognise more and more the responsibility which exemption from planning imposes on them. I trust that the debate will show that the manufacturers have an equally great and, perhaps, even more immediately constructive part to play in improving the design of farm buildings. I assure my hon. Friend that the Government are aware that, by encouragement and example, they must also play their part.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Four o'clock.