HC Deb 06 June 1972 vol 838 cc411-22

11.13 p.m.

Mr. John E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)

I am grateful for the opportunity tonight, the first occasion during my time in the House that I have sought to raise a matter on the Adjournment, to draw attention to the consequences of the refusal of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment to accept the recommendations of his inspector that consent should be given to the demolition and redevelopment of the house Grey Gables, The ford, following a public inquiry held on 12th May of last year. In my view such a decision has inflicted undeserved and unnecessary loss and hardship on my constituents, especially the owner.

This is a complicated case but it is extremely well set out and argued in the inspector's report dated 6th August 1971. Grey Gables is a large, rambling house, mainly the Victorian redevelopment of an earlier site but including some old flint work, and seventeenth century cottages in its back premises which now, front the inner relief road. It was purchased in 1940 by the present owner, Mr. Arthur Bagshaw, as a home and premises for his professional practiceas a dental surgeon. He has served the people of The ford for 37 years and now, living on the Norfolk coast, away from The ford, as a new constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Brocklebank-Fowler), wishes to retire completely, which he cannot do unless and until he can sell his main asset—Grey Gables.

Incidentally, although he purchased his practice before the war there is no longer any sale for his professional goodwill because of the way the dental services have developed under the National Health Service. So Grey Gables is simply a piece of property unoccupied since December, 1970. However, it is no ordinary house. Some time after 1947 it became a Grade II listed building presumably for a mixture of architectural and historical interest—architectural mainly because of the old flint work, which is interesting but which has no unity to it, and historical because of associations with Thomas Paine, the author of "The Rights of Man," who was born in 1937 near Grey Gables. I say "near" advisedly, and refer to the plaque put on Grey Gables during the war by the American Air Force, several of whose members became Mr. Bagshaw's patients, because considerable controversy exists as to whether Thomas Paine was born in a cottage which was demolished to make way for the Victorian redevelopment or, on the evidence, less probably, in one of the oldest cottage elements in the house.

In 1966 Mr. Bagshaw started to try to sell the property as a residence, with or without the benefit of his dental practice. But such a rabbit warren of a house—and it is no less—and one so obviously expensive to maintain attracted no purchasers. However, in the summer of 1970 a local firm of solicitors in The ford urgently seeking new office accommodation, partly because their business was greatly expanding and also because they themselves were in premises which were scheduled for redevelopment, made a genuine offer to purchase provided they could get planning permission to redevelop the siteas professional office accommodation, of which there is a marked shortage in Thetford, for which the town expansion schemes are creating an additional demand.

Application for listed building consent was made first to the The ford Borough Council, which had delegated powers from the county, and then, after satisfying the The ford Borough Council, to the county planning authority of Norfolk. In both cases, after a most detailed examination and no little argument from objectors, because of the architectural interest and the connection with Thomas Paine, both authorities in turn recommended demolition and redevelopment as there was really no practicable alternative.

At that stage both I and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hawkins)—who in his professional capacity is a surveyor and estate agent and whose practice extends to Thetford—separately examined Grey Gables, and each independently thought that it was a hopeless proposition to renovate and came to the conclusion that it was not really worth all the trouble and delay of a full-scale public inquiry. However, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State called the application in and the result of the public inquiry was to confirm all that had gone before. But instead of accepting these results the Minister, in his decision letter of 14th October, 1971, imposed a condition that all the old flint work part—that which was in the worst state of decay—should be preserved and incorporated in any new building, this apparently because of the possibility that Thomas Paine was born in one of the cottages comprising the northern wing". and of the importance of the eastern and northern wings"— containing the old flintwork— to the street scene. The Secretary of State did not feel justified in granting consent to the demolition of Grey Gables except for that part comprised in the southern wing—the Victorian part. That was precisely what the inquiry and all the previous examinations inquired into, and they found that the practical reasons for demolition were overwhelming. This decision in effect operated as a complete refusal since no one would rebuild subject to that restriction.

What is the present position? The applicant developers, the only firm purchasers for three years, have had to drop out and look elsewhere for new offices. Their principals have lost much time themselves; their staff have been occupied to no purpose; and they have incurred considerable out-of-pocket costs. Above all they have lost two years of time, with the consequent increases in building costs of new premises.

The Thetford Borough Council is left with a deteriorating building when the town might have had a properly designed office building, efficiently housing much-needed professional services, and of course paying rates. The council has firmly refused to purchase Grey Gables because it would not spend £30,000 of the ratepayers' money, which is the minimum amount required to restore the existing building, even though its layout has no useful purpose. There are over 350 listed buildings in the town and the borough council has made grants and used its resources to look after some of these.

Thirdly, the status of the public in quiry has been greatly devalued by the decision. I quote a paragraph from the letter of the applicant solicitors: Here we have a quasi judicial proceeding at which evidence is called and cross-examined and in due course the Inspector, who has seen the property or heard the witnesses, produces his Report and then the Minister—who as far as we know has never seen the property or heard the witnesses, but undoubtedly influenced by letters whose writers have never been properly cross-examined—rejects the Inspector's findings. One might just as well never have a Public Inquiry and as solicitors…this is something we must bear in mind in future both in planning appeals and in applications to demolish listed buildings. Inevitably my right hon. Friend's own reputation and that of the Department have been considerably damaged locally. It is conceded that a Minister must have power to overrule his inspector's recommendations, but it is also thought that where the same conclusions and decisions have come up through three stages there must be some fairly dominant new factors to justify the Minister's refusal. It makes it much harder for the local planning authorities to do their job if they feel they are to be subject to be overruled even when their views have been vindicated by a public inquiry.

Most damaging of all is the loss inflicted upon the luckless owner applicant He cannot realise his main asset, invest the proceeds and complete his retirement. He loses income and is saddled with an open-ended liability. The Secretary of State recommended him to apply to the Historic Buildings Council for a grant. It, as was to be expected, turned Grey Gables down flat as being of insufficient architectural merit. Thus the owner has to meet all the expenses of the application, of the public inquiry and now of maintaining the building with diminished cash resources.

Where do we go from here? In my view, circumstances have changed. The rot that the applicants foresaw has set in. The conditions imposed by the Secretary of State have deferred any serious purchasers since the present condition of the house makes restoration even more uneconomic than it was a year ago. No Government grant is available. It is not even possible to get a mortgage. Vandals have now attacked the house, as was predicted by the applicants at the public inquiry, and have smashed the windows and stolen lead from the roof and all the door furniture. The damage is estimated at £650.

There is no sign that any of those who might wish to preserve the building, notably the Thomas Paine Society, have any serious hope of raising the necessary funds or indeed, if miraculously the money suddenly became available, that attempted restoration of Grey Gables would be chosen as the most appropriate way of further honouring the memory of Thomas Paine.

There is in Thetford a fine gilt statue opposite the borough council offices presented by the Thomas Paine Society of America, and more recently a new public house attached to the town expansion estate has been aptly named the "Rights of Man".

I remind my hon. Friend the Under-secretary of the last sentence of the Secretary of State's letter to me of 13th December, 1971. In saying that he could not comment on something done in his quasi judicial capacity, he said: I should add that if there were to be fresh evidence or a change of circumstances, it would always be open to the owner to make a new application, which would be considered on its merits in the light of factors prevailing at the time. In view of that statement, Mr. Bagshaw was advised to submit a fresh application, which he did on 24th May—coincidentally the same day as I was lucky in the Ballot.

I have no reason to suppose that the local planning authorities will not adhere to their earlier very firm conviction that consent should be given. Again, I realise that the Minister cannot comment on what may become another quasi-judicial activity for him, but I ask all those concerned, whether as Ministers, councillors, civil servants, members of conservation, literary and historical societies or the general public, to bear in mind the loss and hardship that this long delay in fighting a physically lost cause has inflicted upon the innocent owner, who has served the people of The ford for a professional lifetime.

I hope, therefore, that the new application will be allowed to go through unopposed and that this important site will be redeveloped for a building worthy of The ford and of the memory of Thomas Paine. This would relieve the borough council of a growing eyesore and enable Mr.Bagshaw to retire without constant further anxiety. Anything less would seem to me to be inconsistent with any reasonable view of the rights of man.

11.28 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

Having listened carefully to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. John E. B. Hill), I fully understand his concern for the position of his constituent Mr. Bagshaw in the circumstances which he has described. I have, however, to emphasise, as my hon. Friend understands, that once the Secretary of State has given his decision on a listed building consent application he has no further jurisdiction in the matter. Only the validity of the decision can be challenged by the making of an application to the High Court within six weeks of the issue of the decision, which period has now passed.

It is not therefore possible to argue the reasons for the Secretary of State's decision beyond those already given in the decision letter. These were given in paragraph 3 of the letter, from which I quote: The Secretary of State accepts that the structural condition and state of repair of the building, particularly in the older parts, is generally poor and that the cost of repair and restoration would be very high in relation to the value of the property for residential or office use, and that although the property has been in the market for over four years the only firm offer has come from the firm of solicitors who now wish to demolish it and build offices for their own use. Nevertheless he sees the importance of Grey Gables's main architectural features which are the late 18th century facade fronting White hart Street which retains its original details and the northern wing fronting Inner Circle Relief Road which was originally a row of two or three cottages of the 17th or early 18th century. Moreover he notes that these eastern and northern sides of the property are in a prominent position fronting a road junction on the outskirts of the old central area of The ford and that they make a positive contribution to the street scene at this threshold to The ford. He accepts that the southern wing of Grey Gables, which is larger than either of the other two wings, was erected towards the end of the 19th century and appears to have no particular architectural or historic significance. On the question of Thomas Paine's association with Grey Gables, the Secretary of State notes that the evidence given at the inquiry suggests that Thomas Paine was born in or near Grey Gables, but it was not such as to be conclusive that he was born in a cottage since demolished on the White hart Street frontage, or in one of the cottages now forming the northern wing of the house. There is, nevertheless, the possibility that Thomas Paine was born in one of the cottages comprising the northern wing, and in view of this and the importance of the eastern and northern wings to the street scene the Secretary of State did not feel that he would be justified in granting consent for the demolition of Grey Gables other than in relation to the part comprised in the southern wing. It is however possible to draw attention to one or two points in the decision. One is that the decision was not given merely on the ground of Tom Paine's association with the site. Arguments about whether Paine was born in the surviving building or merely on the site are not relevant because the Secretary of State's decision was also based on the contribution which these buildings made to the townscape and the historic character of part of a historic town which is on the list of the Council for British Archaeology of historic towns. We must be especially careful before allowing demolition of listed buildings in such areas.

Second, the decision did not require the retention of the whole building but allowed demolition of the southern wing, more than half of the total area of the building. If the owner's object is redevelopment, there is scope for it here.

Referring to the qualifications in the solicitor's letter, it is perfectly proper for the Secretary of State, while accepting the inspector's facts, to put a rather different weight on some of them and to arrive at conclusions other than those of the inspector. Where the decision has not been delegated to the inspector, it is the Secretary of State's decision and he is obviously entitled to form a different view, even on the same facts.

As for the Government grant application, under the Historic Buildings and Ancient Monuments Act, 1953, Section 4 of the Act empowers the Secretary of State on the advice of the Historic Buildings Council, which was set up under Section 1, to make grants towards the cost of repairs to buildings of outstanding historic or architectural interest. The Chairman is Lord Hailes and the 15 members include Lord Holford, Professor Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, Sir John Summerson and Mr. Howard Colvin the well-known architectural historian. Only the most important buildings qualify.

The council in its report for 1970–71 commented on this fact as follows: We wish to reiterate the point made in our last Report, that refusal of a grant does not imply that we do not consider the building to be worth preserving. All it means is that the building is not of outstanding architectural or historic interest, that is, it is not of such importance in the national context that the taxpayer ought to contribute towards the cost of repair if the owner cannot meet the whole of it unaided. But all listed buildings whether outstanding or not, should by definition be preserved if possible. Applicants often plead that a grant ought to be given even if the building is not of outstanding interest, because its use or the user deserves sympathy and help. In such cases we have to harden our hearts since under the Act the only criterion for judging the eligibility of a building for grant is its outstanding historic and architectural interest either alone or as part of a group. The funds available for the council's formidable task are in any case strictly limited.

Mr. Robert Cooke (Bristol, West)

My hon. Friend has mentioned the very point which concerned me. He said that the council could deal with a building if it was part of a group even if it was not particularly outstanding. The Minister has himself already said that this building is part of an important group. How does my hon. Friend reconcile these two points?

Mr. Eyre

It is a matter for the judgment of the council, which carefully considered the matter against this background. It decided that it was not of such outstanding interest as to merit a grant. I am sorry, but in the circumstances that was its decision.

As I was saying, the council's funds are strictly limited. They were £1 million in 1971–72 and this sum was increased in 1972–73 by £500,000 in view of the proposals for conservation grants.

There is, therefore, no inconsistency in the refusal of listed building consent for the demolition of all but the more recent addition to Grey Gables and the refusal of an Historic Buildings Council grant towards the cost of repairs. The council, after considering all the evidence, considered that the connection of the building with Thomas Paine was too tenuous for it to make it outstanding on historic grounds, and from the architectural point of view it was of local, not national, importance.

Mr. Bagshaw claims that the decision to refuse consent to demolish all but the Victorian wing of Grey Gables has cost him the sale of his property and that he accordingly has an unsaleable property which he has nevertheless to preserve. He also reported in March that the house had been broken into and much interior damage had been done and a considerable amount of lead stripped from the roof. He claims he is suffering severe financial hardship and mental strain at a time when he had planned to retire.

It is necessary in these circumstances to examine the chances open to the owner. One possibility has already been mentioned: to sell the part of the site for which consent to demolish has been given, with a view to its redevelopment. Another possibility is to try to dispose of the house, or that part of it claimed to be associated with Thamas Paine, to some organisation representing those who urged the retention of the building either by appearing at the inquiry or by letter. If the building were offered, for instance, to the bodies which appeared at the inquiry or sent representatives, and time was given to them to raise the funds for purchase but this proved unsuccessful, this would be a factor that could be relevant to the future of the house.

Second, while the decision took account of the condition of the property, it is said it has deteriorated further since. Nothing should be said which could encourage owners to neglect listed buildings to justify demolition for redevelopment. But there will always be cases where an owner, with the best will in the world, cannot prevent deterioration, and this deterioration must impair the value of the property as a building of architectural or historic interest.

If there is a change of circumstances, the owner could make a fresh application for consent to demolish the building. This is something which the Secretary of State would have to consider in due course and it is not therefore possible to say what would justify such an applica- tion; but obviously the condition of the building and the attempts made to dispose of it to possible purchasers, and also what had been done to try to realise the value of the part of which demolition is permitted, could all be relevant factors.

I an application were made—I note from what my hon. Friend said that such an application has been made—it would have to be considered by the local planning authority. If the authority was disposed to allow it, my right hon. Friend would have to be notified and would again have to decide whether to leave the decision to the local planning authority or not. It is obviously not possible, as my hon. Friend will understand, to comment at this stage.

It has been said that if an owner is refused consent to demolish a building he should be compensated. In fact, however, the law is based on the assumption that the building that has to be retained still has a reasonably beneficial use. It is, however, open to an owner to serve a listed building purchase notice on the local authority under Section 190 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1971, providing he can show that in its existing state it is incapable of reasonably beneficial use. The remedy by way of purchase notice is not intended for the case where an owner shows merely that he is unable to realise the full development value of his land.

It would then be for the local authority, if it wished, to transmit the notice to the Secretary of State who, if he is not satisfied that the building has become incapable of reasonably beneficial use in its existing state, can refuse to confirm the order. Otherwise he can either confirm the notice on one of the local authorities or grant listed building consent. Again, since these matters would come before the Secretary of State it is not possible to comment further at this stage.

To sum up, the decision in this case was one taken after full consideration of the circumstances as shown at the inquiry. It was, in effect, a compromise, allowing demolition of one part of the building and retention of the other. It cannot be altered unless there is a change of circumstances: but if the owner can show that there is such a change, there is more than one course open to him to adopt.

I hope that my hon. Friend and his constituent will carefully examine the words I have used and that some further step will now be considered by Mr. Bagshaw from which I hope a satisfactory outcome will result.

Mr. Cooke

Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister may care to comment upon one other thing. The HBC has said "No" to a grant on this property, either on its own merits or on group value merits. But I believe that the local authority has power to make a grant under a consolidated Act of Parliament. It would be interesting to know whether it was ever asked to make a grant for repair, which I believe would be a grant or a loan. Perhaps that has a bearing on the case. If it was asked to make a grant but this was turned down, that is probably another argument for letting the local authority have its way. If the local authority has not been asked, that is a new factor.

Mr. Eyre

I have noted what my hon. Friend says. I cannot answer for the local authority and one would have to await the outcome of its view. But what my hon. Friend has said may be helpful to Mr. Bagshaw, and my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South will no doubt have taken notice of it.

Mr. Hill

Is my hon. Friend aware that The ford Borough Council makes grants? The council has a great many listed buildings, but in this particular case it is not willing to find about £30,000 from the ratepayers for a building which it thinks of very minor interest.

Mr. Eyre

Clearly that illustrates again the difficulty of allocating resources to ends of this kind.

Returning to my main argument, I have tried to set out the courses available to Mr. Bagshaw and I hope that some satisfactory outcome will be found.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes to Twelve o'clock