HC Deb 27 January 1981 vol 997 cc775-9 3.31 pm
Mr. John Heddle (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to increase the penalties for unauthorised works to buildings of historical or architectural interest; to make further provision for the repair and maintenance of such buildings; and for related purposes. The purpose of the Bill is simple and twofold. First, it is to increase the penalties available to the courts under sections 55 and 57 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, where owners of properties are found guilty of wilful destruction of listed buildings without the consent of the local planning authority. Secondly, it is to impose upon local authorities the duty to explore every possible avenue to see precisely how those listed buildings can be used to their best advantage and so ensure that they are maintained to an adequate standard of repair.

I have been encouraged to introduce this Bill because of nationwide concern at the growing number of cases involving the sudden demolition of listed buildings, both large and small, urban and rural. I refer not simply to those mansions and large country houses that make the national headlines, but to cottages and farm buildings that are torn down but find themselves without an obituary in the national press. Either by design or ignorance, at least five buildings of architectural or historic interest have met such a fate since September. There is serious, nationwide concern about the effectiveness of the legal penalties available. The purpose of the Bill is to strengthen those penalties in order to ensure that the situation is not aggravated.

Perhaps the problem is best illustrated by an event that occurred in the West Midlands just before the House rose for the Christmas Recess. Hon. Members from all parties will understand if I do not go into the details of the case. The house was of seventeenth century origin and was listed. It stood in its own grounds. One Sunday a demolition contractor's bulldozer found itself in the garden. It razed the property to the ground, although the demolition contractor's employer had given instructions that the bulldozer should find its way across the road to a set of redundant outbuildings and farms in order to provide access to a factory and warehouse estate.

Hon. Members will no doubt be able to recall similar cases—not I hope, such drastic cases—involving perhaps less noteworthy properties in their constituencies. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State was asked to ensure that the unlawful demolition of listed buildings would never occur at the profit of the owner. He said: An amendment of the kind proposed would be, in practice, extremely difficult to devise. However, the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 provides for fines and imprisonment, on conviction, if a listed building is demolished without consent … I would, nevertheless, consider legislation if I became convinced of growing abuse."—[Official Report, 15 December 1980; Vol. 996, c. 82.] It is in the context of growing abuse that I seek leave to bring in a Bill to amend the present penalties, which are, for the demolition or alteration of a listed building without consent, on summary conviction in a magistrates' court, a tine not exceeding £1,000 and/or a term of imprisonment not exceeding three months; on indictment in the Crown court, an unlimited fine or imprisonment up to a maximum period of 12 months, or both. As regards offences tried in the Crown court on indictment, there would be a valuable consequence if that fine were raised to a minimum that had a specific bearing and relevance to the enhanced value of the site without the demolished building. It would, therefore, be directly related to the speculative profit that the vandal would make. An additional fine should be levied to compensate the local authority, which would, one hopes, rebuild a facsimile—if practical—on the site.

In addition, there would be a valuable consequence if the penalty were raised from one year's imprisonment to five years' imprisonment. Of course, it would not be necessary to impose such a term in every case. In that event, the action would become an arrestable offence and the police would be empowered to arrest anyone who was reasonably suspected of lurking within the curtilage of that building with intent to demolish. In these circumstances, a citizen's arrest would also be possible, but after an offence had taken place. Therefore, if a policeman saw a bulldozer within the curtilage of an existing building he would realise that the bulldozer driver was probably not out walking his dog on a Sunday afternoon.

I submit that if such legislation had been in force when the demolition contractor demolished the seventeenth century building to which I have referred the West Midlands—and, no doubt, other areas—would be better blessed with buildings today. In addition, these measures would prevent speculators from committing such irresponsible acts of illegal vandalism. Speculators are quite happy to convert our heritage into a pile of rubble by using their bulldozers as vehicles for ill-gotten gains.

I suggest that repairs powers should go hand-in-hand with repairs grants. It is beyond the scope of a Bill of this nature to propose an increase in grants or loans for the repair and maintenance of listed buildings which, sadly, as a result of changed circumstances, have become redundant. The majority of owners of listed buildings have to bear an unenviable and costly burden and have to maintain properties to the standards that local authorities think fit under sections 111 and 115 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. They have to maintain properties long after they have outlived their useful lives and the purposes for which they were designed and built.

Local authorities have two principal roles to play, I am not sure whether as judge and jury or gamekeeper and poacher. Nevertheless, that level of government is primarily responsible for protecting listed buildings. For various reasons, they are the owners of listed buildings which, in many instances, have fallen into disrepair. As guardians and owners local authorities' performances—with a few notable exceptions—have been abysmal. The Bill seeks to introduce measures that will place direct responsibility on local authorities to explore every avenue in order to help the owners of such buildings to find other uses for them before repairs notices are issued. In this way will redundant barns become suitable for nursery units and light industrial units, and will be the seedcorn for small businesses. In this way will a new lease of commercial life be breathed through the corridors of rambling, redundant country mansions where once fun and laughter abounded. In this way will the owners of those fine buildings be able to afford to repair and maintain them in the manner which they and the community would wish.

The Bill is designed to discourage the cold, calculated and illegal demolition of listed buildings for pure capital gain to encourage local authorities to understand and appreciate the financial burdens facing owners of such buildings, and to treat positively and with sympathy planning applications for a change of use.

For these reasons, my right hon. and hon. Friends hope that the Bill will command the support of the House today.

Mr. Arthur Lewis (Newham, North-West)


Mr. Speaker

Does the hon. Gentleman wish to oppose the motion?

Mr. Lewis

Yes, Mr. Speaker, but I shall not force it to a vote. It may be laughable for Conservative Members, but some of my constituents have no homes; some have no bathrooms and no toilets inside their homes. When they ask for grants to carry out improvements, the Government say that they cannot have them. In fact, Governments of both parties have refused them.

I am opposed to the Bill because more cost would be put upon local authorities. They would be compelled to spend more money. Once the Bill is passed, the Government will say that grants may be made, but because of the economic situation, which they have created, they will not be able to give such grants. They will not help the local authorities. That is happening in my constituency. My council has tried and is trying to build houses.

It is all right for hon. Members on both sides of the House who are adequately housed, and probably have two houses, to say that help should be given to maintain designated houses. I read in the press recently that the Leader of the House, who is living in a big country mansion, has a designated house which he and his forebears have allowed almost to rot. I am told that he will receive grants to enable him to repair it. Why should the taxpayer give him money to restore it? Why should the taxpayer give money to restore such places when people cannot have the money for an inside toilet, a bathroom or hot and cold running water? Conservative Members who are sneering should not think that this applies only to areas such as mine, because thousands upon thousands of men, women and children living throughout—

Mr. Cranley Onslow (Woking)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Lewis

I shall give way to a point of order.

Mr. Speaker

It is customary to allow 10-minute speeches for and against the motion without interruption. I should be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would keep his point of order for another time.

Mr. Lewis

I am putting forward reasons why I believe that there should be some doubt about giving leave to introduce the Bill. I have given reasons why I am opposed to it, because the hon. Gentleman suggests that public funds should be drawn upon. He mentioned that local authorities should be called upon to give aid. From where will the local authorities obtain those funds? Perhaps they will raise them from the owners of the property. If the owners of the property cannot do the job now, how will those funds be raised—through tax rebates?

I am more concerned for the living, for the children who have no roofs over their heads and for people who live in rooms with the water pouring through the ceiling. Even if they go to the local authority, they do not get anywhere. If they appeal to the local authority to help them as they have no roof over their heads, the local authority replies that they are not in a designated house but in a house which was built 150 years ago by a private landlord, who has milked it dry over the years. The landlord gets more back in one year than the house cost when it was built. Hundreds of pounds may have been spent on the house and it is now worth more—£30,000, £40,000 or £50,000 on the present inflated market—than when it was built 150 years ago for £100. There are such houses in all hon. Members' constituencies. How many places are there in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson) which he would like to see renovated and improved?

Therefore, I hope that we shall give serious consideration to the motion. If the Bill receives a Second Reading, and if it goes into Committee, I hope that some of the points which I have raised will be considered.

Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 13 (Motions for leave to bring in Bills and nomination of Select Committees at commencement of public business) and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Heddle, Sir Derek Walker-Smith, Sir Graham Page, Mr. Percy Grieve, Mr. Patrick Cormack, Mr. Michael Morris, Mr. Tony Durant, Mr. Sydney Chapman, Mr. John Major, Mr. Stephen Ross, Mr. Bruce Douglas-Mann and Mr. Peter Hardy.