HC Deb 17 December 1968 vol 775 cc1338-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. O'Malley.]

11.45 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

I wish to raise a matter which is of some consequence in my division and has concerned a number of my constituents for a long time. It is that case of Highcliffe Castle, an old and historic building. This case is a test of our determination to stand by the principle of preserving the best of our buildings and countryside. I must pay a tribute to the Ancient Monuments Society and its secretary, Mr. Bulmer Thomas, a former Member of the House. The Society has done much to secure the preservation of this building.

The castle is, by common consent, a building of outstanding architectural interest set in a scene of great natural beauty. It stands on the Hampshire coast, near Christchurch, looking out towards the Isle of Wight. It was built in the 1830's by Lord Stuart of Rothesay, formerly our ambassador in Paris, and, not unnaturally, he built it in the style of a sixteenth century château. The architect was W. J. Donthorne. It is a magnificent conception in itself, and gets additional interest from the fact that it incorporates features from the sixteenth century manor house of Les Andelys at Rouen, from the ruins of the Benedictine abbey of Jumièges near Rouen, and the church of St. Vigor in the same city.

The castle is in Grade 1 on the Statutory List of Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest, and is now in grave danger of being destroyed. This unhappy situation has come about in this way. After a succession of distinguished private owners, the castle became the property of a Roman Catholic missionary order. Finding the house unsuitable for its purposes and too costly to maintain, it was sold by auction on 21st September, 1967. It was bought for £21,000 by a Bournemouth solicitor who, it is generally assumed, was acting not on his own behalf but on behalf of a group of Bournemouth businessmen whose identities have not been disclosed.

The under-bidder, at £25,000, was a Bournemouth art dealer who would have used the castle for exhibitions of pictures, which would have been an eminently suitable purpose. The excellent body known as the Mutual Households Association Ltd., although it did not enter the auction, has at all times been prepared to buy the house by private treaty and would use it in accordance with its aim to provide flats for elderly people, which would have been another thoroughly suitable purpose.

Before the auction, there had been an important development. The Hampshire County Council submitted a building preservation order which, after a local inquiry, was confirmed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The Minister endorsed his inspector's conclusion that the site should not be developed for new housing, even if the castle should by some mischance be destroyed. This accorded with the strongly-held view of the local planning authority. Attention was drawn at the auction to the terms of a building preservation order, so the new owners were well aware that development would not be permitted.

Although they knew the condition of the building when they bought it and that no development would be permitted, they have taken no steps to put the castle in good order beyond a perfunctory and rather impudent request to the amenity societies for contributions towards the cost of repair, which they put at about £250,000. The solicitor acting on their behalf must have known that the societies, even if they had funds of this order, could not use them to help private owners to maintain their property without losing their charitable status, and this request can therefore be treated only as a case of going through the motions of doing something.

No attempt has been made to protect the castle from vandals, and beatniks have been in the habit of camping there and lighting fires. There was one fire in the building between the making of the building preservation order and its confirmation, but the Minister confirmed his inspector's view that the order should still be confirmed. There has since been another fire at the end of last July, but it was quickly brought under control, and though it increases the cost of repair it does not seriously detract from the architectural interest of the building.

Before this fire there had been one further significant development. This was a planning application by the new owners to put 50 chalets, a car park and toilets in the grounds. It was decisively rejected by the planning committee of Christchurch Borough Council last May. It has become clear that the new owners of the castle bought it in the knowledge that they would not be allowed to demolish it and develop the site, but they have no intention of repairing the building, and hope that if they wait long enough persons and policies will change and that they will be permitted to do what is expressly forbidden by the building preservation order—develop the site.

As there is an immense demand for houses on this sought-after stretch of coast, their investment of £21,000 could bring them immense profits if they were allowed to succeed. The speculative stake of £21,000 which they have put down would be well worth while if their gamble succeeded. Highcliffe Castle has, therefore, become a test of the effectiveness of our planning and preservation procedures. If it is allowed to go and the owners are allowed to develop the site, it will demonstrate that a determined owner with sufficient energy can defy the procedures laid down in the town and country planning Acts simply by doing nothing to keep his property in good repair.

The body which I have already mentioned, the Mutual Households Association Limited, is still willing to buy the castle and put it in good order for its excellent purposes if it can be assured of a sufficient grant from public funds towards this end. The Association estimates that £550,000 would be needed to repair and rehabilitate the castle and make it ready for residential occupation. This may seem a large sum, but the castle is a very large and magnificent building. Through its basic policy in raising funds, the Association considers that it can provide £400,000, leaving a balance of £150,000 to be provided from outside sources, but this would not have to be provided all at once. The Association considers that three years would be needed to bring its project to completion, and, therefore, a grant of £50,000 for each of three years from the Minister of Housing and Local Government would solve the problem. Even though this is relatively a large sum, it is surely not too much to ask that the Minister should be prepared to consider setting aside such a grant for three years to save this Grade I building and vindicate the town and country planning legislation.

The Historic Buildings Council demurs at the thought of providing £50,000 for each of three years from its annual grant of £550,000, but I believe that one-eleventh of its annual budget is not disproportionate to the case.

It would be open to the Minister to acquire the building by compulsory means, but I am sure that he would prefer to assist a body such as the Mutual Households Association Limited with a grant rather than take that course. It should be remembered that the Association will be meeting nearly three-quarters of the cost of repairs. The remaining quarter would only have to be found over three years. If the Government are not prepared to provide the full amount, they should at least indicate how much they would be willing to allocate for this purpose. I am sure that the Minister will not plead our grave economic situation as an excuse for doing nothing. First, the necessary grant could come from funds specifically provided for this general purpose. Second, if we are to believe some of his right hon. Friends, including the Chancellor of the Exchequer, our economic prospects are rosy and any suggestion of economic difficulties is only a figment of the imagination.

I hope that the Minister can tell us tonight that some grant will be made. In the early stages of this affair the Minister's attitude was wholly admirable, but in recent months he seems to have been getting cold feet, and there appears to have been a weakening of will on his part. I hope that he will recover his original resolve and assure the House and all who are concerned that steps will be taken to ensure that this Grade I building is repaired for use.

If the Minister should in the last resort find himself unable to take the action which I have requested, I trust nevertheless that he will take effective steps to ensure that his building preservation order is not flouted. I know that he is under pressure to withdraw the order and consent to development. I trust that he will stand firm and see that this blatant attempt to frustrate a building preservation order does not succeed.

11.55 p.m.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

I am happy to support my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) in his plea for constructive action by the Government in this important matter. It is in his constituency that this significant building stands, but he is appealing for help on a national basis. As one who has been much concerned, for nearly 12 years in the House, in the interest of historic buildings from the national point of view, I strongly support my hon. Friend in his efforts to ensure that this is not just another of our fine historic buildings which either moulders away or is wilfully destroyed by the developer.

Highcliffe is a building of considerable architectural importance since it contains some exceptionally fine early French architectural features of such distinction that, were the building to be demolished, they should certainly find their way into one of our great national collections. Indeed, our national collections would like to have them if it were impossible to preserve them, so to speak, in situ, although it must be admitted that our national collections have not the room properly to display them, and the best possible solution is to preserve these features where they now are.

I hope that people who read the report of this debate will refer to Volumes 125–6 of Country Life where an admirably illustrated series of articles appears, and they might also refer to the National Monuments Record of Fielden House, only a stone's throw from this building, where a large and comprehensive series of pictures exists of the building in its present state.

True, the building has been sadly ill used and its surroundings damaged due to development before the planning Acts were sufficiently protective, but by no means are the surroundings quite ruined, and there is a fine open prospect down to the sea, which should certainly be preserved in an area which could well do with such an amenity.

The building could be restored and once more be a home for many people, as my hon. Friend suggested. Moreover, the architecture could be preserved, and preserved not just for the enjoyment of those who live in the building but for those who live around and for the nation in general, because public access could easily be arranged even if the building were occupied as a series of homes.

All this could be achieved in a partnership. The Mutual Households Association Limited, to which my hon. Friend referred, would, no doubt, play a significant part here and could turn the building into homes for many people. The Historic Buildings Council has it within its power to make a grant, though I can appreciate its difficulty here. My hon. Friend is a little optimistic in thinking that it could commit so large a sum—he regards it as small, but it would represent a large part of the Council's limited budget—for such a building. Nevertheless, the Council could contribute.

No doubt, there are other bodies which could help. The local authorities themselves are empowered under the Local Authorities (Historic Buildings) Act, 1962, which we owe to the efforts of my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), to make either a grant or an interest-free loan. So they, too, could help if they really wanted to. There are various charitable bodies which could help. Charitable bodies would not lose their charitable status were they to contribute towards a building where public access could be enjoyed. There is no difficulty there, I believe, provided that the place is not shut away from public enjoyment.

It could, as I say, be a significant and satisfactory partnership if somebody, as well as my hon. Friend, who has a keen interest in the matter, could bring the parties together. It may well be that the Minister could help.

The Civic Amenities Act, which my right hon. Friend the Member for Streatham (Mr. Sandys) managed to get through the House, and which has been endorsed and embraced by the latest Town and Country Planning Act, could protect the surroundings for all time. I find it difficult to understand why a conservation area under that Act has not been designated by the local authority. The power to do so already exists, and it could have been done in a matter of days after that power came into effect. There can be no development value in the surroundings. On the other hand, all these measures are somewhat negative and are intended to prevent people from wrecking the place, and what we want is positive action by a number of people to make sure that a historic building may be preserved for future use and enjoyment, not just a sterile preservation, but used as homes and enjoyed by many people.

I hope that all this will be possible, but, if it fails, what next? Are we to allow these distinguished features to crumble away and be destroyed by vandals, as are so many buildings at the present time? Very little is done until it is far too late to rescue even a part, and I hope that if the worst happens and the building has to be demolished, the parts will be rescued and preserved elsewhere and will not go to the knackers yard of the landscape gardeners, or worse, and be broken up and used as parts of an ornamental rockery. They are far too good for that. I hope that they will be rescued and placed in another building if they cannot be rescued and preserved in situ. After all, they were rescued 130 years ago by the original builder, who rescued them from decay and destruction elsewhere. I hope that they will not be left to rot.

But that is very much a longstop proposal, and I support my hon. Friend in hoping that we can achieve a much more satisfactory solution. There is too little Parliamentary interest in this subject, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend has been able to raise it this evening. Historic buildings are of great importance to the nation, and not just to Britain but to the wide world outside. If we are a nation impoverished and depleted in world influence, at least we have this tremedous interest in historic buildings which many people from all over the world come to see, and I hope that we shall not lose those which remain to us.

This is a matter of some urgency. The Minister has fine new powers, and I hope that he will be able to say something encouraging this evening.

12.2 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Arthur Skeffington)

I should like to begin by thanking the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) and the hon. Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Robert Cooke) for their interesting speeches, which came from the heart, and also for their constructive suggestions. In many ways they are knocking at an open door. We have certainly not lost interest in this or in a whole range of buildings which are mentioned from time to time.

My own personal interest in the matter arises as much as anything from the fact that I know the area quite well. As a boy, I lived for some years in Christ-church, and one of my cherished memories is of walking from Hinton Admiral Station—we went by train in those days—to Highcliffe, which was a good deal more rural then. I shall never forget those happy memories.

I know the castle fairly well, and, by another curious personal quirk, the Claretian Missionary Fathers, who had the building for a time, have a large teaching establishment in my constituency. I have heard about the castle from them and I have heard about their problems and the fact that they eventually had to dispose of it, with results which, from the point of view of the building and its future, have been somewhat unfortunate.

It is a very interesting building and it has a number of curious architectural features, although it was constructed only in 1830. The inspector who took the building preservation order inquiry said that the preservation of a building of special architectural and historical interest, and one which was in Grade I category, as Highcliffe Castle is, is always a desirable objective.

Although, even when that inquiry was being held, there had already been the first fire and some neglect, because of the unique siting of the building and its considerable architectural interest and the beautiful surrounding countryside—there are 4½ acres of trees which are preserved by a tree preservation order—the Minister felt that, despite the risk, he should confirm the order.

I do not want to quarrel with the history which the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch gave, because it seemed to be absolutely accurate, except to differ from him on one point. He mentioned the second fire in June of this year. He tended to minimise the effect of it. I have a detailed report by the local planning authority, and the damage is very extensive. It resulted in the destruction of all the internal panelling and the remaining fittings in the library and main reception rooms; the panelling and ceiling of the Octagonal Room was also severely damaged. The whole of the roof over the southern portion of the library and the reception room has collapsed, and the whole of the state rooms on the ground floor not previously damaged by the first fire have been largely gutted. This is a considerable new factor, which does not help us in our desire to see some useful future for this uniquely sited and very interesting building.

The local authorities have been interested, and as a result of a meeting held by the local planning authority, the Hampshire County Council came to the conclusion that the cost of restoration was far too much for it. The Historic Buildings Council came to the same conclusion. So we start with these two hurdles.

Although I do not want to be too encouraging, there is a new situation as a result of Part V of the new Town and Country Planning Act. The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East and Christ-church suggested that we might be losing interest in preserving historic buildings. I hope that he will look at the new powers given to local authorities and the Minister under Part V.

Under that, while individual preservation orders come to an end on 1st January, 1969, every listed building in the country becomes subject to a building preservation order automatically. Any work which would involve demolition of such a building or would affect its character as a listed building will need specific consent from the local planning authority. If such consent is refused, there can be an appeal to the Minister in the same way as there is an appeal against refusal of ordinary planning consent.

Alternatively, if the local authority proposes to allow demolition of a listed building, it must notify the Minister, who will be able to decide whether to call in the application, after a public inquiry, if necessary. These are new powers.

Mr. Robert Cooke

The hon. Gentleman will agree that the powers are somewhat diffuse. Preservation orders extend over a vastly greater number of buildings now and they have less protective effect. Most of the powers are negative.

Mr. Skeffington

I cannot agree. The fact is that the Minister has powers, which he has not had before, to call in the application and hold a public inquiry. It may be that some appeals will come to the Minister as a result of future actions because of that power. I gather that the authorities had a meeting with the owner yesterday, and it may be that one party or the other will take some action which will give rise to an appeal. I have to be a little careful in what I say and not presume to prejudge any application that comes before us.

As the hon. Member for Bristol, West has said, finance is the dominant question. I would not want to rule out any possibilities of the kinds of scheme which he has in mind. In so far as the Ministry can help in any way—it may not be strictly its business, but, nevertheless, it is the general business of the nation that these great treasures should be preserved—if this can be done not principally at the expense of the public purse, the greater is the obligation on Ministers to see what can be achieved.

There is another power in Section 53 of the Town and Country Planning Act—I mention it not to give great encouragement, but I should put this on record—whereby minimum compensation can be paid where a council proposes to acquire compulsorily a building which has been neglected. The hon. Gentleman mentioned improved economic conditions. Although the economic situation is improving, the great mistake would be to give any idea that we can let up too soon; that is a mistake which Governments have made before.

We shall, no doubt, have a report—if not, I will ask for one—as a result of the meeting with the owners yesterday. I should like to have consultations with all the interested bodies to see whether, with the group which both hon. Members have mentioned, they can put forward a practical proposition, and, in the light of that, see whether it is within our power to take any action which would be helpful.

I agree with the two hon. Members that the site in question is of great significance. It is almost the last piece of coastland which is open. I know that it is the intention of the Hampshire County Council, in its coastal policy, to preserve as much as possible of that which remains unspoilt. Indeed, the county council has dealt firmly with past applications for development. This 850 feet of open coastland is of tremendous importance, and I have considerable faith in the county council's policy. Indeed, the conferences which the Countryside Commission held with the maritime authorities indicates their sincere attempt to preserve what they have.

On that score, and with the activities of the Countryside Commission, the future position concerning development will be zealously safeguarded by the local authorities and by the Government as a whole.

I therefore thank both hon. Members for raising the matter. I should like to consult the parties to see what we can do. I agree that if a scheme emerges, it would be extremely good if we could preserve this unique building for the future of the country.

Mr. Cordle

I should like to understand clearly the position concerning the preservation order. Do I understand that it comes to an end on 1st January and that to have it reinstated the local authority must make a new application to the Ministry?

Mr. Skeffington

From 1st January all the listed buildings will automatically get the new status with all the preservation precautions and the additional consents which will be necessary if demolition or alteration is proposed either by the local authority or by the individual owner concerned.

Question put agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at fourteen minutes past Twelve o'clock.