HC Deb 24 March 1971 vol 814 cc707-16

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

12. 13 a. m.

Mr. Alexander W. Lyon (York)

I am delighted to have such a goodly audience on the subject of conservation. If they would all clear off we could get down to the debate.

It is refreshing to change from the subject we have been discussing over the past few weeks to one of a more civilised nature, namely, the conservation of historic cities. I am only sorry that it has taken so long for this debate to come on. I have been applying for it since 1st January, when the Government announced their decision in relation to the Report of the Preservation Policy Group in response to the studies of four towns. The great regret which I feel about that response is that they declined to make a firm decision at this time about the 50 per cent. conservation grant which was recommended in the Report for conservation in historic towns and which had been accepted by the last Government.

I had some considerable part in persuading the last Government and, through them, the Treasury, to give that promise of a 50 per cent. grant, I am deeply disappointed that the change of Government has robbed us of the immediate implementation of that policy. It is true that the Government have not yet said that they will refuse the grant; they have said that they will await the result of the four towns trial schemes.

The object of the four towns studies, which were initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman), when he was Minister of Housing and Local Government, was to begin to prepare a national policy for the conservation of historic towns as distinct from conservation of particular historic buildings. We have had an historic buildings programme for many years. We have not had the conservation of whole areas. The French have adopted a national policy which is rightly regarded as being the best in the world. What I think my right hon. Friend wanted to do was start us towards a similar national policy and to do it by looking at the problems on the ground through the four towns.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

Does it reinforce the hon. Gentleman's point when I say that the important and historic cathedral town of Peterborough, with its ancient industry of the loco sheds, ought to have a transport and railway museum?

Mr. Lyon

I knew when the hon. Gentleman was sitting on the edge of his seat that it would be a mistake to give way to him. He has now made his point for tomorrow's headline in the Peterborough Echo. He should not get us on to that argument, which he is bound to lose, as he loses every other argument.

If we begin to found a national policy on the results of the four towns tests, and the four towns schemes are not conducted properly, then the national policy which we erect upon them in certain foundations will be a bad policy. I want to get out of the Government an assurance that all the resources required will be made available to the four towns to see that the schemes are implemented properly. I deeply fear, from my experience in the City of York, that what will happen is that the local authority will be made to carry out a trial scheme with such resources as it has in hand itself and with such grants as are now available in the form of dereliction grants and so on, which will be inadequate to carry out a proper scheme.

If the Government will say that in relation to this four towns scheme that they will make up the difference between what the local authority can find from its own resources and from the general grant and what is required to carry out a proper scheme, I for one would be not too unhappy that they have so far put off the implementation of the 50 per cent. conservation grant.

I said, in response to the parsimonious attitude of the Treasury, that we should not even have a decent trial scheme on which to erect a national policy. National policy is of crucial importance. Too many ancient and historic cities are disappearing at too great a rate, precisely because we have no national policy. [HON. MEMBERS: Hear, hear.] I see almost unanimous support in the House for this approach. I hope the Government are recognising this, because this response from all parts of the House is echoed from all parts of the country.

I know that delay in implementing the 50 per cent. conservation grant was met with considerable criticism from many interested bodies throughout the country and I hope the Government will at least give them the encouragement I seek: that they will see that the trial schemes are carried out properly.

In York, Lord Esher proposed a conservation plan which would have cost, on his estimate, £2.1 million for conservation and on the local authority's estimate, £3.3 million, within a total scheme of improvements in the city which would have required something of the order of £27 million. Allowing for Government contribution in grant for roads and so on, this would have been reduced to a net cost for the local authority of about £13 million. The product of a penny rate in York is £15, 000, far lower than many comparable cities of similar size, and this therefore cannot rest solely on the local authority. It cannot shoulder this burden. York is one of the jewels of European civilisation.

It cannot be said that one local authority with these inadequate resources should be left to carry that burden for the whole country. It requires the benefit of the support of the rest of the country, and therefore, when these schemes were propounded, we looked with interest to see what Lord Esher would propose. He has proposed some improvements about the city, but in particular, three study areas which require urgent attention, the first of which the local authority is proposing now to set in motion with Lord Esher as consultant architect and which will cost about £1.5 million, over about four or five years. We simply cannot raise that £1.5 million from our resources. I do not believe it can be raised from the rate and present forms of grant. I want to, know how much of the cost of the whole York scheme the Government are prepared to put up.

This is the crucial question, because if the local authority finds that the Government are not prepared to meet the difference, I know what will happen. The local authority will decide to have a skimped scheme completely inadequate for our needs.

I hope to get a straightforward reply and that the Minister will not rest content on the assertion that the historic buildings grant is going up this year. That was intended by the last Government too and it was their promise that it would go up to £700, 000, but the historic buildings grant relates only to the buildings in the conservation area. Conservation is not simply preservation of existing buildings. Conservation is distraction of what is bad, as well as keeping what is good There is much within the conservation area of York which needs to be torn down, and in order to do that we have to buy existing debilitated housing and factories. That is why we need these resources.

I offered hon. Members opposite a chance to get in on my debate, even though I have waited so long for it, and I therefore now sit down with their approval.

12. 25 a. m.

Mr. David James (Dorset, North)

After what has happened in the last 48 hours, the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) deserves every credit for his stamina in raising this matter. My constituency contains the Saxon town of Shaftesbury which has been in business for 1, 400 years, Wimborne, which has had a minster for 1, 000 years, and Blandford Forum which was burned down in 1332.

I must associate myself with what the hon. Member said, but I should like to go even further because it is germane to the debate to say that Dorset is studded with villages like Child Okeford, Sixpenny Handley, Glanvilles Wootton and Piddletrenthide.

What worries me is the lorries which are slowly destroying these villages by going through at 30 to 40 miles an hour.

12. 27 a. m.

Sir Harmar Nicholls (Peterborough)

I accept the principle of the argument of the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) and I disagree with only one sentence. He said that conservation included the destruction of what was bad. I think that he meant to say that it included the replacement of what was bad rather than its destruction.

In my constituency there is the ancient town of Oundle which has a great reputation and which is in danger of being reduced to rubble because of the heavy traffic of the modern transport age. I hope that my hon. Friend will see that bypasses are built around ancient towns such as Oundle as soon as possible so as to preserve a national heritage in the best national interest.

12. 28 a. m.

Sir John Rodgers (Sevenoaks)

As one who was bred and born in the City of York, I congratulate the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) on the excellent way in which he has put a case for the conservation of that city along the lines recommended by Lord Esher. It is true that there will be no future along the lines of this report unless the Government are prepared to make special grants for the conservation of this great city, which in any other part of Europe would be a city to which pilgrimages would be made; in England we tend not to do that. I hope that the Minister will consider a by-pass around York and similar cities and towns. This would help to preserve the town which should be regarded as the jewel of Europe it undoubtedly is.

Mr. Patrick Cormack (Cannock)

About £700, 000 is given to the conservation of historic buildings and this amount which the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) mentioned is totally derisory. I hope that the Government will realise that the conservation of our heritage is something which we cannot afford to neglect. We have to think in terms of providing realistic sums to assist with the maintenance of buildings, including churches, which need restoring.

12. 30 a. m.

Mr. Norman Atkinson (Tottenham)

In the absence of any other voices on this side of the House I must assure hon. Members opposite that the majority of hon. Members on this side of the House endorse the ideas which have been put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon). They are reinforced by the fact that they are Labour Party policy. All of us support the arguments of my hon. Friend. We hope that the Minister will be able to concede some of Lord Esher's argument on the preservation of this magnificent town.

12. 32 a. m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Michael Heseltine)

Of one thing there can be no doubt. If the House, in the course of the last few weeks, had been able to get through six speeches in ten minutes as we have now we would have made much better progress than we did. There is no doubt in these debates of the general consensus amongst hon. Members who take part in them about the need to take issues seriously, to try to find policies which will achieve the sort of results we all have in mind. There is no doubt that the House is familiar with the four cities and the towns involved with the studies in Bath, Chester, Chichester and York. The consequences of the review of these four centres is again involved in the Preservation Policy Group's report which has been referred to.

The recommendations of the group form the basis of the present Government's policies for the conservation of historic towns. The group originally recommended that pilot schemes should be carried out in the four cities involved and the present situation is to find detailed, specific proposals for the projects in which the Department can participate, if we can select these particular schemes from a general programme of conservation which is being undertaken by the four towns in question.

The group also recommended that legislation should be placed on the Statute Book to enable local authorities which submitted a new type of general conservation scheme to be paid Exchequer grant to meet 50 per cent. of the deficiency on their operation. As the Government have announced, we believe that a decision on this recommendation would be premature until we have looked at these detailed proposals as a result of the further carrying out of the pilot schemes now under way.

Mr. Ernie Money (Ipswich)

Would my hon. Friend bear in mind, on behalf of the Government, that time is not on our side and, over and over again, many of our great cities are dying on their feet through planning blight?

Mr. Heseltine

The question of planning blight is another matter and I would not for a moment disagree with my hon. Member. There are very real difficulties. The whole approach to this problem in-voles meeting difficulties such as derelict land, roads, land usage and other matters so necessary to get the comprehensive legislation we all want to see.

One of the recommendations of the group was that the Historic Building Council annual allocation should be increased and I can confirm on behalf of the Government the present increase from £575, 000 to £700, 000 which is a major increase—

Mr. Money

It is not enough.

Mr. Heseltine

—and there is certainly no question of any reduction being envisaged. I would say to my hon. Friends and hon Members opposite that in these maters it is always fair to say that it is not enough. Broadly speaking in the Department of the Environment we are seeking to find ways of increasing the sums concerned. The fact is that there are constraints on public expenditure and we can only spend what we earn. Increases have to be earned before they can be authorised.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

It is an urgent matter.

Mr. Heseltine

I do not dissent from that. That is why we are all involved in these projects. The Preservation Policy Group recommended two other possibilities that further Government assistance towards local authority expenditure on listed buildings should be encouraged and that there should be Government guarantees of building society advances on historic houses. Again I give the House the assurance we are looking into these.

The group also said that local planning authorities should be given the power to charge the owner when they repair unoccupied listed buildings which need emergency repairs. Hon. Members will be aware that there is a private Members' Bill going through the House dealing with this point, and in an intervention on Second Reading I had the opportunity of expressing the Government's real support for the concept embodied in that Bill.

The next point was that where people are encouraging listed buildings to fall down in order to realise their break-up value, certain powers should be vested in local authorities to move in and prevent this. I confirm what I said earlier—that the Government accept that there must be powers to deal with that situation.

A number of other suggestions included the production of a series of reference books by the English Tourist Board, and I understand that that is in hand. My hon. Friend the Member for Peterborough (Sir Harmar Nicholls) and others asked about roads and the benefits which can flow from bypasses. The Government are reviewing their road programme and we propose the publication of a White Paper in the not-too-distant future. I do not want to anticipate its contents but I will see that the Secretary of State is made fully aware of the valuable points which my hon. Friend made.

I fully accept that the question of the specific funds for the York conservation project is important and the hon. Member for York (Mr. Alexander W. Lyon) will be delighted to know that on 23rd March—which as far as I remember is yesterday or today—officials of the Department were in York for discussions on this complex situation with the local authorities concerned. There is a difficulty which we in no way wish to avoid mentioning: the Government are determined to try to give local authorities the maximum control over their own expenditure and it is therefore for the local authorities to decide how a considerable part of their revenue is spent.

Mr. Lyon

The hon. Member has six Ministers from the Department beside him, so that they could make a decision. All we want is the difference between what the local authority can raise from its own resources and what is necessary to do a good scheme as distinct from a a bad scheme. If the Government will say that they will pay that, whatever it is, we can all go home.

Sir Harmar Nicholls

Where are the hon. Gentleman's Front Bench spokesmen?

Mr. Lyon

I can deal with the case adequately without my Front Bench. Are the Government prepared to make up the difference between what the local authority can raise and what it will cost up to, if need be, 50 per cent. of the total cost?

Mr. Heseltine

Perhaps I should explain that all the Ministers in the Department have spent the last 24 hours trudging through the Division Lobbies. That has precluded us from discussing with the officials what they were talking about in York with the local authorities. I give an assurance that if we get home tonight, we shall discuss that with them tomorrow in order that all the difficulties may be communicated from the officials to my right hon. Friend.

We must also remember the increased attention the Government are paying to the question of derelict land. Many authorities are likely to have derelict land and the Government have made it clear that we want to encourage local authorities to press ahead as fast as possible with schemes to deal with it. That is another contribution which can be made by local authority initiative.

May I conclude with a generalisation which is crucial? The Government have indicated in their policy that they look to the local authorities themselves to take the initiative in these general conservation matters within their own boundaries. It is vital to stress that the Government look to local authorities to take the initiative and then to discuss with the Government the part which the Govern- ment can play. It is not an area in which the Government take the initiative, but the Government will lend what support they can to the local authority initiatives.

Mr. Cormack

We are much heartened by what my hon. Friend has said, but could not the Department produce a blueprint for conservation dealing with all these matters on a comprehensive scale?

Mr. Heseltine

Of course, this is absolutely why the four cities are going ahead with projects and why we are so keen to find out exactly the best way in which the sort of initiatives to which my hon. Friend refers can be taken by the Government.

I would conclude by saying that there is obviously no dissent at all in the House about the vital contribution which all of us want to make to this kind of issue which is so important to amenity. I am most grateful to the hon. Member for York for raising the matter and for the valuable contributions made with such commendable brevity by my hon. Friends.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.