HC Deb 14 April 1967 vol 744 cc1524-33
Dr. Dickson Mabon

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, in page 5, line 41, to leave out Clause 8.

I am sure that my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government would like to be here today. He has been delayed, but I am certain that he would want to have spoken on this matter, because we all recognise how deeply he felt in Committee about Clause 8.

In moving the Amendment—I have consulted my hon. Friend about this, and a number of the words which I shall use are indeed his words—I should like to say, on behalf of both myself and my hon. Friend, that we have great sympathy with the object behind the Clause and we would be the first to agree that the position of Grade III buildings is not at present satisfactory.

The Amendment to delete the Clause, which seeks to tackle the problem, is not, therefore, in any way indicative of our opposition to the objective, but arises simply because we do not believe that the method proposed would be workable in practice.

Since the matter was discussed in Committee, we have had further consultation with the sponsors of the Bill and we are grateful for their reasonable attitude towards this matter. I think that in those discussions we have been able to demonstrate to them why we regard the Clause as unsatisfactory and that the Government are anxious to achieve what is our joint objective.

11.30 a.m.

The fundamental difficulty is that the present lists of Grade III buildings are a quite inadequate basis for statutory control and the penal provisions attaching to it. There is no one list of Grade III buildings. They have been notified to local authorities in all manner of different ways; by inclusion in supplementary lists issued with the statutory lists, by inclusion in provisional lists, alongside the Grade I and Grade II buildings, by adding individual buildings to existing lists either by letter or by addenda notes and by giving notice of intention to list. The notifications are of ten strictly provisional and liable to correction; not definitive. There would often be great uncertainty about whether or not particular buildings were listed for the purpose of Clause 8.

An essential feature of the listing system and the controls and penalties attached to it, is that the lists have to be registered in the local land charges registers—in Scotland in the Register of Sasines—because that is the only way of bringing the fact of listing to the notice of subsequent owners. The Grade III lists, if they were to have the effect intended by Clause 8, would also have to be registered. It is difficult to see how all the different kinds of notification could be entered in the registers in any intelligible way.

One is therefore forced to the conclusion that the Clause would be unworkable in practice. But even if the practical difficulties could be overcome, little or no advantage would be gained. Even when they got notice of proposals to alter or demolish Grade III buildings under the Clause, local authorities would have no more power to take action than they have now. Building preservation orders can be made only for buildings of special architectural or historic interest, and it is immaterial for this purpose whether or not they are listed. Many Grade III buildings are of special interest, but many are not, and the Clause would not make them so.

The proper way to achieve the desired result is by adding to the statutory lists all the Grade III buildings that merit upgrading and any others that may qualify. The sooner this can be done the better. The process is already in train and will be accelerated in future. The listing process has already been very considerably speeded up: last year's output of statutory lists for 139 local authority areas in England was more than five times greater than in any previous year.

It will, of course, take several years to resurvey the whole country in detail, but the historic towns could be done more speedily and they are where the lists most need to be revised and brought up to date. They will, therefore, have priority. My right hon. Friend hopes that it will be possible to complete the surveys of all the more important historic towns within three to five years and, thereafter, to complete the lists for the rest of the country.

In Scotland, we are also doing everything we can to expedite the issue of statutory lists. In answer to a Question put by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Hillhead (Mr. Galbraith), on 22nd February last, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland explained some of the difficulties involved in the lengthy recording process necessary for the Register of Sasines. Despite this, hon. Members will appreciate that we wish to be as well advanced in this matter as our English friends.

I emphasise that the Government are anxious to complete these surveys as soon as possible and, as I have said, we want to try to complete them for the more historic towns within three to five years. We hope that it will not be long thereafter that we can finish off the lists for the rest of the country. That is our hope, not only for England, but for Scotland as well.

I am aware how anxious are the sponsors of the Bill about this matter and I am grateful to them for the realistic and fair way in which they have approached the problems that is faced by the Government. I also appreciate that it is a sacrifice for them to accept the Amendment, but I am sure that they will not only be willing to accept the assurances I have given but will wish to test the Government from time to time on the faithfulness with which they are carrying out those assurances. I am sincere in making this point on behalf of the Government and I hope that the sponsors of the Bill will, therefore, accept the Amendment.

Mr. Robert Cooke

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he said and the sponsors of the Bill appreciate that the Government are determined to get this job done properly. We will endeavour, should we remain in opposition for a little longer—

Mr. Sandys

That is unlikely.

Mr. Cooke

—and, as my right hon. Friend says, that does not appear likely—to continue to press the Government to proceed with all speed.

I hope that the Minister will give an assurance on a related matter; the question of grading. I do not like the word "grade" used in this context. "Classification" might be a better description of the statutory list. The right hon. Gentleman kept talking about Grade I and Grade II buildings. He will concede that such a grade of building does not exist in law because when buildings come on to the statutory list there is no grading at all. One of the great palladian mansions in the countryside could be on the same list as an early Victorian public convenience in one of our great cities.

I want an undertaking that the Government will explore the possibility of hav- ing a statutory list embracing buildings of the first, second and third classes as well as buildings which, on their own, are not of special significance but which, as a group, have considerable significance. If the right hon. Gentleman will give that undertaking here and now I am sure that hon. Members will be happy to agree to the Amendment.

Mr. H. P. G. Channon (Southend, West)

Although not a sponsor, I hope that I may be considered a friend of the Bill. I join my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) in hoping that the Government will give an assurance, preferably this morning but in any case in the near future, about the whole grading system. The present position is anomalous and, as a friend of the Bill, I am reluctant to see Clause 8 go without such an assurance. However, I suppose that we must bow to the Government's wishes in this matter. I was glad to hear the assurance which the Minister was able to give and I hope that he will go a little further, as my hon. Friend requested, about the future of the grading of buildings, remembering that the present position is unsatisfactory. I hope that the Government will take early action to remedy this anomalous position.

Mr. Sandys

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friends on this issue. I appreciate the helpfulness of the Government in this matter. The Minister will be aware that my cosponsors and I, with other hon. Members, expressed strong views on this subject in Committee. Although the right hon. Gentleman and his colleague, the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, made the most eloquent speeches—explaining how difficult this was and how unworkable was our proposal—hon. Members of all parties felt so strongly that they voted against the Government and secured a record defeat for the Government in this Parliament. With two Ministers present, the vote went against them by 17 to three.

Nevertheless, we do not wish to exploit our victory and throughout our discussion of the Bill we have wanted to work as closely as possible with the Government. That has been one of the joys of considering this Measure. Although many of us were aware of the position, the Minister explained the practical difficulties of the proposal made in Clause 8. At the same time, however, he recognised that there is an important and real problem.

What has worried us throughout has been the feeling that although buildings which were in the supplementary list—or, if the term is preferred, Grade III buildings—were in theory given special attention, they at present in fact get no protection, beyond the protection that a building secures that is not on one of these lists. We are therefore reassured, or I am, by the Minister's speech. He has recognised the existence of the problem, and also its urgency. I believe that his approach is the correct one, namely, to enlarge the statutory list and make sure that it includes all those buildings which really merit special attention and special preservation. If the hon. Gentleman has anything further to say in reply to my two hon. Friends, I am sure that it will be appreciated.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I am much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman and to the hon. Gentlemen who have spoken in response to the Government's proposition that we should not proceed with Clause 8. The words I have used, and which I repeated towards the end of my speech, were deliberately chosen. They were not used as a simple argument in support of the Amendment, but to give a pledge. I take the point raised by the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke), and I am perfectly willing, on behalf of my right hon. Friends, to look into the matter. In particular, I will promise to consider, with every hope of implementation, the proposed introduction into the additional lists.

I do not know whether it would benefit us now to revise all the previous lists, but I am willing to look into that also. I believe that we should do this in relation to the additional lists, but I am not sure about revising the previous lists. We do not want to spend a lot of time at this stage, when there is priority here, particularly in the historic towns. One of the great problems is that we do not have a comprehensive and final list, so we cannot select our priorities. We know roughly where we should proceed and it is clear that the historic towns should be dealt with first.

I have referred deliberately to completing the conservation in the more im- portant historic towns, so we are having a priority within this priority, and thereafter we want to deal with the rest of the list—

Mr. Robert Cooke

What difficulty would there be in producing a graded—if we must have that word, or a classified, or whatever word we may use—statutory list based on the grades which were given to the buildings when the provisional lists were made? Those lists have been made now for a considerable number of years, and there were Grade I, Grade II, Grade II starred, in various parts. It would therefore seem very easy to single out at least the Grade I buildings and give them special distinction on a statutory list.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

That is a very fair point, and I think that what the hon. Gentleman said earlier about the grades is quite right. The problem is not one of getting a comprehensive list right and in proper order. The hon. Gentleman would be at one with me in saying that what we are primarily interested in is not a complete administrative exercise but the saving and safeguarding of as many of these buildings as we quickly can. This is the choice the Government have to make, and those concerned readily grasp that we are anxious to have something done rather than to have a complete list. I would hope that we would be able to deal with that matter soon after the two to five years period. It is difficult to say how long without knowing the full extent of the problem.

I agree that we had a very efficient Standing Committee in which, I concede, the right hon. Gentleman and his friends had a glorious victory, after a debate in which the English Minister was buttressed by two Scots—a Scots Minister and a Scots back bencher not renowned for his slavish adherence to party lines. I am sorry that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Govan (Mr. Rankin) is not here at present, because I was full of admiration for him when he stayed with the Government, unlike anyone else in the Committee. He is a profoundly practical man, and grasped that it is very important that we should have the practical problems thought out. The right hon. Gentleman has been very good in seeing that, as a Minister, the clear choice is between what we propose and doing something which is administratively sensible but which, at the same time, might stand in the way of the priorities we all accept are necessary.

The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) associated himself with the Bill in the earlier stages, and has spoken in relation to this Clause, and since he is willing to accept the same—

11.45 a.m.

Miss Harvie Anderson (Renfrew, East)

The Minister has referred to the survey being made of towns. Is he able to tell the House that a high priority is being given to the capital city of Edinburgh, where many buildings are in grave danger right now?

Dr. Mabon

One of the principal purposes of the Bill is contained in the early Clauses, and I hope that their impact will be such that we can do a lot of work on buildings that we might be in danger of losing if we were to incorporate Clause 8. This is the essence of the Government's argument. I hope that the early Clauses, particularly those relating to conservation areas, will have a major impact on local authorities. I therefore imagine that one of the problems facing Edinburgh will be whether or not the new town should qualify for this category or should be dealt with by the present statutory powers and the additional ones that are sought. This is the centenary year of the new town. The Royal Fine Art Commission for Scotland has been in discussion with the Edinburgh planning committee. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland regards it as a very important matter. The Bill, if enacted, will help us to see that the right method is adopted.

I put it to the hon. Lady and to other hon. Members who have asked questions that the Government have given a very firm pledge of what they mean to do. The debate in the Committee was worth while; in fact, the Government's reverse stirred things up quite considerably in both the Ministry of Housing and the Scottish Office. We want to proceed in the right way. We want to make sure that the Bill has its proper impact. I hope that with the assurance I have given, the sponsors of the Bill will, how- ever reluctantly, agree to the deletion of the Clause.

Dr. Hugh Gray (Yarmouth) Before my hon. Friend sits down—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am allowing the hon. Gentleman to intervene before the Minister sat down, although I think that, in fact, the Minister had sat down.

Dr. Gray

Will my hon. Friend make quite clear why there are so many administrative difficulties preventing a list being compiled on qualitative assessment of all buildings?

Dr. Mabon

If my hon. Friend is kind enough to read my remarks, which were prepared in complete association with my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—who spoke very well in Committee—he will appreciate that the essential point is that the present lists of Grade III buildings are a quite inadequate basis for statutory control, as the hon. Member for Bristol, West emphasised. There is no one list of these buildings. They have been notified to local authorities in all manner of ways for inclusion in the lists. They have been notified for inclusion in supplementary lists, and in provisional lists alongside Grade I and Grade II buildings. There has been notification to add individual buildings to existing lists, by letter, by addenda, by notes, and finally by notice of intention. It is therefore obvious that, in the strictly administrative concept, this is not a definitive list, and it is not even an exhaustive list of all the buildings added in their different ways, the half-baked intentions, and so on. That is not a proper way to proceed at all.

We hope that we can make a great deal of change here, but I think that everyone is agreed that we must go to the important points first, and that the buildings in the more historic cities should be taken first. In England we hope to do it in from three to five years and in Scotland we hope to match that progress. In a few years thereafter we hope to deal with the other problem, and if we manage to do that in from five to seven years in both countries it will have been quite a remarkable exercise, and it will have been done with due regard to the proper priorities.

Amendment agreed to.