HC Deb 08 December 1987 vol 124 cc236-55

8.8 pm

Mr. Andrew Hargreaves (Birmingham, Hall Green)

I have chosen for the subject of my debate the effect of market forces on building design and planning in inner-city, urban and rural areas. I deliberately chose that subject to cover the broad spectrum of concerns in the area of design and planning and to give hon. Members an opportunity to express their views on this important subject from a variety of perspectives.

This debate represents a consistent approach on my part. Indeed, hon. Members may recall that, in my first address to this House, barely a week ago, I made reference to the design defects, particularly prevalent in my constituency, that have caused significant problems to housing, especially the crumbling of the so-called Bison tower blocks on Druids Heath, and Smith houses.

During the late 1950s and the 1960s, demographic, political and financial market forces dictated that design and planning considerations were dominated by the aims of speed of construction and rapid accommodation for the relocation of the largest possible number of people. Much of that resulted in system-built or prefabricated building designs which have since proved disastrous—not only in terms of the buildings' longevity, but in human terms. They have also cost an arm and a leg to maintain, because of the necessary repairs. Those problems have multiplied as councils have striven to meet the costs from within their allocations.

If the House will bear with me, I should like to read out the shameful roll-call of some of the designs now designated under the housing defects legislation. They include Smith, Dyke, Orlit, Schindler Hawksley, Waller, Wessex, Boot, Parkinson, Rema hollow panel, Unity and Buttersiey, Stent, Smith BSC, Underdown, Waites, Wingate, Willoway, Airey, Cornish Unit, Doran, Myton, Newland, Stonecrete, Gregory, Tarmac and Boswell. What an appalling catalogue of design failures.

Design can no longer be treated as an unfettered tool of demographic, political or financial expediency. Design and planning in urban inner cities are human concerns with serious human consequences; thus, they should not be left solely to the expedient vagaries of market forces. Design standards should be continually questioned, uprated, better established and better enforced in future.

We now focus our attention on inner-city urban areas, and we rightly encourage the involvement of private sector developers—in co-operation with the public sector—in rebuilding and rehousing in certain parts of our cities. We therefore have a duty to ensure that the same errors are never repeated. Design quality must be paramount for human, environmental and, in the longer term, financial reasons. Design quality must be improved by market forces, rather than sacrificed to them. Exactly the same strictures may be applied to planning. We as a House should particularly urge planners in the inner-city and urban areas—the urban development corporations and others — to consider carefully the human, social, community-type, security and the environmental aspects so well, developed by, for example, Professor Alice Coleman, and which was sadly so little considered by planners in the past.

I know that hon. Members will wish to expand on this aspect. However, I should naturally like to refer to my own city of Birmingham — part of which I am proud to represent—as representing both the best and the worst examples of how market forces in the past have so influenced design and planning to the detriment of human and environmental elements. Subsequently, that has damaged the city's image, and may consequently pose a challenge to its renewal and future prosperity.

That brings me naturally to the city's exciting initiatives to amend the planning errors of the past and to the designs of the various buildings and projects that are now in hand. It would be inappropriate for me not to mention the interest expressed in the subject by his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. While it may cause something of a stir to imply that designs for the new Birmingham convention centre resemble a concrete rocket silo, or that other buildings' designs look like upturned mirrors, it nevertheless serves an excellent purpose in focusing our attention on whether designers and planners are yet giving sufficient importance to the essential correlation, or relationship, between quality and aesthetics, as well as to the human and environmental aspects of modern building designs.

It is vital in this context, as much with the perhaps more mundane subject of housing design as with the more exotic and expensive projects, that market forces should be harnessed in a positive sense, rather than being allowed to prejudice that essential relationship. For a city such as Birmingham, which is of paramount importance in human terms, as well as in its drive to match its image and appeal to its reborn prosperity. I am sure that His Royal Highness's interest and remarks will contribute greatly to harnessing the market forces in a particularly positive way.

I have deliberately touched on these subjects only to introduce the debate. I shall conclude by saying that there are three important areas for us to examine in an initial spectrum covering the subject: the design defects, the human element in planning, and the central correlation of quality and aesthetics, together with the human and environmental aspects. I know that other hon. Members will wish to speak and to expand on those aspects in a more wide-ranging fashion.

8.15 pm
Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Let me first thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me in this important debate. I was delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves), whose predecessor is well remembered in the House and who specialised in urban problems, was fortunate enough to gain first place in this Consolidated Fund debate. It is equally fortunate that my hon. Friend managed to pick a subject that has the interest and the ear of the country, in the shape of the remarks about architecture made by the Prince of Wales. It is timely and appropriate that, at the earliest opportunity, the House should discuss the matter.

I think that nearly all hon. Members—although the House is rather thinly populated tonight—are concerned about design and architecture. We look foward to hearing what the Minister says when he winds up the debate, for he is well known for making provocative and constructive remarks. [Interruption.] Perhaps I should rephrase that: his remarks are radical and constructive. When the debate is over, he will no doubt make some very helpful suggestions.

I shall be brief, because I know that many hon. Members on both sides of the House wish to participate in this debate. I do not wish to filibuster, or to do anything that might delay our progress.

I have had the good fortune, as a Member of this honourable House, to represent two constituencies. One was a wedge-shaped constituency in Liverpool, which went into the inner city and came out like an orange into the outer city. I have experienced the most deprived housing and the most deprived areas of the inner city. I have had the opportunity to represent people living in the middle and outer city areas, and also those living on the vast, soulless council estates on the edges of the city built in the 1950s and 1960s. There I witnessed the outflow of population, for the constituency was always suffering from population loss, as a result of the redrawing of boundaries to provide a better balance of constituencies in urban areas.

Many of those who left the inner city moved down to the constituency that I now represent, in the rural part of south-west England. There has been a move from the north, the north-east and the north-west to the south-east and south-west over the past 20 years. It is very much like what happened in America—although it is on a smaller scale — when people from the industrial cities in the north-west moved to the sun belt in the south.

I can therefore claim some qualification and experience through having represented two diametrically opposed areas, one with a population outflow and the other with a population inflow. My constituency has experienced a population growth of 14 per cent. in the past 10 years, and it seems to be increasing further.

This debate echoes the concern expressed by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. Much of the architecture in our country, he said, whether in the cities or rural areas, is tasteless. The country is covered with badly designed houses, blocks which are scars on the landscape and do little to enhance the environment. I hope that I do not malign him when I say that that is the gist of what he said.

The real problem now is not simply one of bad design —bad though much of it is—but one of scale. Whereas in the past we had little blocks of three or four houses, we now have these vast blocks of not only public housing but private housing, too. Their size is the cause of the problem. In the 1950s and 1960s, we had major demolition programmes in our industrial cities, resulting, understandably and rightly, in the destruction of our inner-city slums.

Unfortunately, along with the slums went neighbourhoods and communities, and people were put on the outskirts of the cities, in vast, soulless council estates where the design was appalling and the amenities poor. Many of the problems in our urban areas are caused by the inhumane conditions in which many people were forced to live by councils which put them in extremely bad, damp housing, or in high-rise blocks, with few amenities, and in an environment which breeds crime, vandalism and all the problems from which the inner cities suffer. In this respect, the inner city has been replaced by the outer city. That is where the problems are now, because of the transfer of people from the inner to the outer city.

Those blots on the landscape are a thing of the past. No self-respecting council of whatever political complexion now builds similar large housing estates. They were built to satisfy a need, to provide housing for the people of the demolished inner city, who had to be decanted somewhere else. So we need not to concentrate for more than a moment on this kind of public housing, because it is a thing of the past and those vast estates will never be repeated.

Even so, many tens of thousands of people still live in them. Oddly enough, although houses built in earlier centuries have stood for hundreds of years, many council houses which were built 20 or 30 years ago are now being demolished. It is of extreme concern that so much public money has been poured into such vast council estates, which are being pulled down. It is regrettable but understandable.

We tend to believe that all private builders do a marvellous job and all council house builders do a bad job, but that is far too simplistic an assumption. I should like to speak from my experience of what has been happening in a rural part of the country, my constituency of South Hams. We have had a massive growth in population. How are we to stop it? Can we stop it? Should we stop it? Somebody suggested that we should have police blocks on all the roads round my contituency to stop people coming in, or institute a kind of passport control. That is hardly feasible. If people want to move to another area of the country, unless it is somewhere like the Isle of Man or Jersey where there are regulations to prevent people from doing so, they will continue to come. They can be stopped from coming—if indeed we should stop them—only if market forces prevent them.

The only way one can stop them from coming is by allowing no new houses to be built. One would not permit new buildings in green fields. But the result would be scarcity and high prices, and we would have only rich people. I do not know how these rich people would be serviced by electricians and builders and painters, and so on—they would have to be imported from neighbouring areas.

It is totally unrealistic to suppose that one can prevent market forces from working, and that is the first thing to be realised, which I am sure the Minister does. The market wants to live in the south. The retired, the more prosperous, the more mobile are moving south, just as in former days people moved from the inner cities to the suburbs and to new towns. It is the same in the south-east and the south-west; people are more mobile.

So what do we do? We respond to market forces and make land available under the district and structure plans. These, as many hon. Members know, are five-year land banks. Each local authority has to find so much land for this five-year rolling programme to satisfy its own structure or district plan. But this is a self-fulfilling prophecy. Once the local authority locates and permits building on five years' worth of land, it has to find land for another five years. Unless the Minister tells us tonight that it will not be, it must be an endless series of five-year programmes; and if this goes on indefinitely there will be no green fields left. If the job of the Minister is to respond to market forces, it is inevitable that more and more green fields will be lost.

That is what has happened so far in South Hams, because people want to live in this tranquil, beautiful port, which contains areas of outstanding natural beauty, areas of great landscape value, conservation areas, heritage coastlines and a national park. The planners have had to provide land on which to build houses. That is where the problem starts. Former hamlets such as Thurlestone, Loddiswell, Ivybridge, Totnes and Kingsbridge have grown out of all recognition. These and other villages and towns have been swamped by large private estates built on the edges, which completely upset the balance of these beautiful towns built up over hundreds of years and with a mixture of designs, periods, colours and elevations. They have been overwhelmed by housing estates, their streets are inadequate and their periphery goes far beyond the original village curtilage.

The Government have been a party to this development, albeit unwittingly. Circular 22/80 and subsequent circulars, White Papers—notably "Lifting the Burden" — and ministerial speeches on the same subject have resulted in conflict between the way in which the Department of the Environment sees the planning system and the way in which my constituents and the general public perceive planning. Circulars 22/80 and 14/85 both show that the planners' regard for aesthetic control should not be exercised over-fastidiously and that control of external appearance should be exercised only where there is justification for it. As a result, the local authority planners have been powerless to stop the developers from building what they like, in whatever density and in whatever style they wish.

This is our basic problem tonight—the Government's unwitting contribution to the conflict between conservation and development. I am opposed not to development —it is inevitable— but to tasteless development. Most hon. Members will know what I mean — the identical modern houses, the identical modern prefabricated houses, and the use of mass-produced bricks and other materials, which lead to an unrelieved picture and a tasteless and unsympathetic environment.

I recently went to see my planners and they said, "You have difficult decisions to make. If you let the market forces solely apply this place will become overrun. Further, there is pressure to build and build on farming land and to develop it. There is no shortage of people who want to live here or developers who want to put up town houses. Within a short time your constituency could be overrun by identical private housing estates." I understand from a colleague to whom I was speaking last night that he has the same problem in Norfolk, as does a colleague in Suffolk. It is a national problem of land coming on stream and houses being built in the way that they are.

Circular 22/80 exercises detailed control over the external appearances of listed buildings in conservation areas and national parks. Elsewhere, planners are asked not to exercise detailed control to improve a design that conforms to the fashion of the moment.

The villages of Kingsbridge and lvybridge have been engulfed by vast private estates that are monotonous in their use of inappropriate materials — brick and reconstructed stone— and people who see those towns despair at how such development was ever allowed.

Unless planners, local politicians, architects and people who are interested in design are given power by the Government to be involved in the design and the quality of that design, we shall not see any improvement at all. We shall simply see more of the same thing.

I must pay tribute to the South Hams planners, who have been able to wrest some concession from developers. On one estate a developer wanted to use spar chipping finishes, but that was changed for the more traditional render finishes. The developers wanted to put red roofs on the skyline, but that was rejected in favour of grey and brown. That happened only because the planners managed to do a deal with the developer. If the developer had chosen to appeal, he could probably have got away with what he originally wanted.

In Ivybridge, which 10 years ago had a population of 1,400 people but which by 1992 will have a population of 14,000 people, it is not so much the growth as the unrelieved growth and the construction of identical streets that lead to the tasteless growth that planners are powerless to do anything about.

The Spaniards, Germans and French have standards in design and materials. I cannot for the life of me understand why we have been so obsessed by economics and by responding to development wherever people want to live. We have not insisted on the application of certain standards. Somebody said to me recently that in most of our small market villages it looks as though a philistine with no interest in aesthetics or any sympathy for the environment has been involved in designing the modern houses.

The thrust of what I am saying is probably understandable to hon. Members. The Government must place greater emphasis on planning applications to encourage not only employment prospects but the use of redundant barns and other buildings that can be found in our countryside. Further, they must say something about design, and materials and, put limitations on the size of estates.

I suggested to the Minister that every district authority should have a panel of architects so that when an estate of more than 20 houses is being built the architects can be asked to advise on design, preference of materials, the elevation and other matters so that it is consistent with conservation and blends into the environment.

My plea to the Minister is for him to review Government circulars and consider the trend that has allowed these estates to grow up. They are a national blight that he alone can reverse. I am not alone in feeling strongly on this matter; a great many colleagues feel equally strongly about it. We look to him to protect the environment and to say something helpful and constructive to the House tonight.

8.35 pm
Mrs. Llin Golding (Newcastle-under-Lyme)

I shall be very brief, but I must say that I agree with the hon. Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen).

The Minister should introduce an annual national award for the worst designed, most ugly, offensive and tasteless building.

Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

There are too many competitors.

Mrs. Golding

We could have different classes. We could have those that have been built in the past five, 10, 20 or 100 years. I have a winner in my constituency— the worst designed building of the past 800 years. I live in Newcastle-under-Lyme, which is my constituency, and there is a monstrosity in the town centre. The borough of Newcastle-under-Lyme is 800 years old, but I do not think that it has ever seen a worse building. It is built on massive concrete pillars, had an enormous green and orange frontage, and emblazoned across the top in large letters are the words "Fine Fare". The building is completely out of character with the rest of the town, and it is situated alongside an old black and white public house. The centre of the town, on to which it fronts, is Georgian.

Had there been such an award, I am sure that the planning committee that considered and approved the plans for that building would have realised how badly designed many Fine Fare buildings are, with their orange and green frontages. It would have been aware that people were monitoring the type of buildings that were going up and perhaps it would have saved the centre of Newcastle-under-Lyme from being ruined by the Fine Fare building.

It is probably too late to do anything about it, but I should like Fine Fare to take all the orange and green front down. I doubt whether it will, because there is so much of it that it will not know what to do with it.

Mr. Steen

Ask it.

Mrs. Golding

I shall send the company a copy of Hansard and ask it to do so.

If planning committees were made aware that the country is watching and that it is concerned about the designs of buildings in our town centres and other large areas, perhaps something would be done to improve designs.

I hope that the Minister will seriously consider my proposition. I am certain that it would gain much support and I am sure that he would be inundated with entries, but none of them would beat the Fine Fare building.

8.38 pm
Mr. Anthony Beaumont-Dark (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

First, I congratulate my most genuinely hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) on making two speeches in the past week, each of which was commendably brief and very much to the point. I know that already he has learnt that if he is to attract Mr. Speaker's attention, the briefer and more pithy the point, the more likely one is to be called.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Harold Walker)

Hear, hear.

Mr. Beaumont-Dark

It is nice to hear that call from the Chair.

I hope to be commendably brief. This is an important debate, which is why I am so pleased that it should have fallen to a Birmingham Member of Parliament to talk about the problems of people versus planners. My only disappointment is that I have to say to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) that she is braying in the wind in thinking that her monstrosity would win the prize for the worst building. We all have some terrible monstrosities. There are so many of them that it is time that all hon. Members, and our local government colleagues who are also elected, recognise that something has gone terribly wrong.

It is said that I have been a critic of some people up the road of much more distinguished eminence than I. It is said that I have been a critic of the views put forward from Buck House. I believe that a certain distinguished person is quite right to have brought to the fore the problems of planning. In the past few years many building and planning decisions that have affected the lives of many of our people have been monstrosities.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Yardley (Mr. Bevan) and I were both involved in local government in Birmingham. The first decision I made as chairman of the housing and housebuilding committee when we brought them together—my hon. Friend the Member for Yardley will remember that — was to stop the building of monstrosities such as multi-storey blocks of flats. So many people were concerned with housing units rather than homes.

I have had the honour to be in elected public life since the age of 22, and one of the great mistakes that we all made was thinking that it was more important to build units than to provide homes for people. It would have been better if some of those people had waited another six or 12 months and been built homes instead of just units. I always thought, when I look over Aston, which is part of Birmingham, that one of the biggest mistakes ever made was forgetting that people were concerned about living together as people and friends, even if the homes were slovenly. That is better than using people like confetti and spreading them all over the place in what seemed to be better housing units. They were better housing units, but they were not homes. When we look at Chelmsley Wood and Castle Vale in Birmingham and see the great blocks of flats that were built, we can see the great mistakes that were made in forgetting that we were trying to make better homes for people. It may be that we take up more land in building houses rather than flats.

In public life, whether in the House or wearing our council hats — many hon. Members present were councillors before becoming Members of Parliament—we should be more concerned to make life better for people instead of just housing them and getting them out of our hair. If we do not do that we are in a sort of tyranny. It is not simply a matter of us saying, "Let us put people in homes." When I was a councillor in Hall Green, one of my constituents wrote to me and said, "If you will get me a home, I shall be eternally grateful." I got her a home in a block of flats in Castle Vale. She wrote and told me how grateful she was. However, within six months, the lady wrote to me again and said, "This is hell." She said that she was on the eighth floor, had two children, was unable to watch them, and so on. She said, "You put me here." So I did, because I was then chairman of the housing committee. I look back on those days and think that we should not kid ourselves that just by giving someone a housing unit we are giving them a home. It is important to keep people together. It is important to build them homes in which they can be happy.

Because of the slums we all faced in the 1960s in cities such as Birmingham, Leicester and Bradford, we thought the most important thing was to get people out of those slums and into something bright and new. It was not. We should have made sure that when we housed people we put them into homes in which they could be happy.

On planning, I believe that the eminent personage is quite right. Too often today, because of the strictures of cost, many buildings — whether they be multi-storey blocks of flats, multi-storey offices or public buildings—look like the buildings on the wonderful island of Guernsey where the Germans built pill boxes and gun emplacements. The eminent personage is right to point that out. It is not offensive to point it out and it is not going beyond the remit of any of us in public life, who take an interest.

We can look around the great cities of Europe which were pillaged during the war and suffered far more than we did. Dresden was obliterated in the war and 120,000 people died in one night's bombing. In Hamburg 60,000 people died in one night's bombing. However, those cities are far more beautiful than the cities of this country where we suffered, happily, far less than they did. Why were they able to design better things, built better cities and make a better environment? It is no excuse for architects to say, "We could not do it." If those cities suffered so much more than we did, why can they build things that we all go to look at and which give us great pleasure? The eminent person is right to point out that we should build things that people will look at and which are good on the eye.

This debate is properly based. It is based on two things. When we build large buildings, whether offices or other great buildings in our cities, whether council-owned or Government-owned, it is right that we should build something that future generations will think it is good to look upon. It is right that the idea of turning the National Gallery into a latter-day pill box was stopped.

Homes for people are even more important than any public building, and it is right that we should house people not as units but as people. We should build homes in which one generation after another will want to live. If I feel any guilt at all about my 30 years in public life, it is that that was not my main concern. My main concern, rightly in one way but not in another, was to sweep away slums. However, one forgot that when one swept away slums one often swept away family units, friendships and all those wonderful things that make human life worth while. I ask the next generation of planners to learn from the past and not to repeat the same mistakes.

8.50 pm
Mr. Clive Soley (Hammersmith)

I am quite encouraged by the slight change in the philosophy of the Tory party. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves), who opened the debate very effectively, said that these matters should not be left to market forces alone. I could not agree more. Then, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) made a profound plea for more planning and more effective planning. I can only request the hon. Gentlemen to see the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has been busy driving coaches and horses through just about every aspect of planning and giving as free a rein to market forces as ever he could. The Housing Bill states quite openly and clearly, without any attempt at disguise, that the Government want housing left purely to market forces and that they want to take housing out of local authority control. There seems to be something of a dichotomy in the Conservative party.

I apologise to the House for the fact that I shall not be able to stay until the end of the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Houghton and Washington (Mr. Boyes) will stand in for me.

I agree with the hon. Member for Hall Green that these are difficult matters that cannot be left to market forces, and that is particularly true of housing. Housing, by its very nature—involving as it does the supply of land and buildings—does not lend itself to normal market forces in the way the price of packets of tea or biscuits might be left to market forces. I agree, too, that we need more cooperation with the public sector. It would be much easier to get effective co-operation with the public sector if the Government were not busy knocking every local authority employee and civil servant and presenting them as a drain on the economic wealth of the nation. They are not. They form an essential part of the country's economic infrastructure and we would be very much poorer without them. It would help the morale of the public sector—both local authorities and the Civil Service—if Ministers recognised that.

The hon. Member for Selly Oak picked on the mistakes of the 1960s, and I agree with much of what he said. I also remember that period. I was not a member of a council at the time. I was one of those whom we refer to as political activists; one of those who make political democracy work, for all political parties. The hon. Gentleman will agree that at that time we were anxious about what we were doing and that we perhaps yielded too readily to the ideas of experts, particularly architects. I also distinctly remember a tendency to argue about the very question that the hon. Gentleman raised—whether we should go for quality of design. I remember being told—I think by an architect, although I cannot remember for sure as it was some years ago — that corners were being cut for economic reasons in many of the buildings that we were putting up. I can remember a Conservative in my area, which was then east London, saying, "Well, we are not going to give them houses and flats with gold-plated taps, are we?" That was an indication of the problems that would arise.

The hon. Gentleman rightly criticised the priority of building in quantity. One must either go for quality or insist on a minimum quality for the quantity of houses that one puts up. Our minimum standards should have been higher, and that is particularly true of high-rise flats. Although many high-rise flats need to come down, many would he acceptable if more effort had been put into them, if more money were put into them now and if they were slightly better managed. Some high-rise flats in both the public and the private sectors are popular, but they tend to be in blocks that are well-managed, with caretakers on duty and with extra facilities.

In the literature of the 1960s the architects said that buildings with 30 storeys or more ought to have every 10th or 12th floor set aside for leisure and recreation facilities, nurseries and so on. There are some incredibly tall buildings in Hong Kong. One tower block, built in a square with a hollow in the centre, houses 4,000 people — more that are housed on the biggest estates in Hammersmith. That block is popular because it has facilities for the elderly, nurseries, a number of caretakers, shops and leisure facilities. The community has been recreated, rather than simply bulldozed. I am not arguing that some high-rise flats do not need to come down— they do, especially the jerry-built ones—but with good management and extra money some could be used to good effect.

One must be very careful when talking about planning. For a start, I have great sympathy with every councillor who is a member of a planning committee. In planning, as in transport, one cannot make the right decision. Whatever one does, one gets criticised by someone. One cannot please all the people. If one says no to an extra room in someone's loft, that will please all those who want to keep the street as it is, but it will upset all those who want an extra room for members of their family. If one tries to discourage the pebble-dashing of attractive brick buildings one gets all sorts of flak, although pebble-dashing spoils the line and design of houses.

We know, too, that what we think of as ugly or beautiful today may be seen in the opposite way in 50 or 100 years' time. I often wonder what people thought of some of the houses that were built a hundred years ago. Perhaps the rows of houses built in and around London were considered eyesores, although we are now busy protecting them and putting public money into repairing, renovating and maintaining them. One must be careful in talking about planning problems.

I agree with much of what the hon. Member for Selly Oak said, and with Prince Charles. In the housing debate I seem to have God, in the form of the churches, on my side, and now I find the royal family on my side. I cannot help feeling that there must be some anxiety on the Conservative Benches about that. We have built many buildings which have spoilt the skyline and which have been bad to live in, but the Tory party must understand that that is because such buildings are cheap.

If one goes for the attractive buildings described by Conservative Members, one must acknowledge that it would be considerably more expensive to provide the office space needed. When the office space restrictions were reduced in London to allow more offices to be developed, those who wanted to build offices looked to high-rise buildings. Those who build offices do not build replicas of the Tower of London or the Egyptian pyramids. They build rectangular blocks, with variations in the outside decor.

The outside decor lends itself to system-build, which is sometimes very good, but sometimes—as we know from experience — it is disastrous. Some of our worst problems arise from system-build techniques which were not thought out properly and from buildings which were jerry-built by large companies who have left the local authorities, or indeed the Government, to pick up the bill.

Any large building company would provide a more attractive building if that was required. It would provide beautiful Victorian designs, but they would have to be paid for. That is where the market forces argument gets into difficulties. If two people compete to put up an office block, the occupiers of which are interested only in office space and its potential for office technology, they will not look with too much concern at the outside. That is where the role of local authorities becomes so important. Yet the Government have abolished local authorities, such as the metropolitan county councils and the GLC, or are undermining their general day-to-day work, and that is a fundamental mistake.

My final point is extremely important, not only in the general context of this debate, but in terms of the inner cities. It is probably true to say that a far greater force than any political ideology of the day is the demographic movement within a country. The movement from the rural areas into the towns created our towns throughout the Victorian era and made Britain the first industrial power. We have only recently realised that the reverse is happening now. For the past 40 years there has been a dramatic movement from the cities to the country areas. That is producing an acute crisis in the inner cities and a serious crisis in rural areas. Millions of people are involved and London alone will lose another 1 million people by the turn of the century. Those 1 million people are likely to move to rural or semi-rural areas.

Between 1945 and 1950, the Labour Government planned many new houses and towns, and expanded towns. That was a good idea, which worked wonderfully, but it took from the inner cities the generation of people who would now be in their forties and fifties, perhaps at the peak of their earning power in economic terms, leaving the elderly trapped in the inner cities with the new people coming into the areas. In between those come the famous, or should I say infamous, yuppies, who are usually passing through, staying in an area for five or 10 years before moving out, or the very rich, with one home in the city and another, or perhaps more, elsewhere. That has produced the breakdown in the community that was accurately identified by the hon. Member for Selly Oak.

A community that is broken up in that way experiences problems with everyday services and produces a concentration of types of problems. There is a heavy population of the elderly and of young unskilled unemployed people with social problems. There is also a concentration of crime with its related problems, because it is often community links that prevent crime.

The other side of the coin is that in rural areas there are increasing requests for housing developments at the same time as local authorities there are being told either to sell council properties or not to build any more. When, in addition, people are looking for two homes, a housing crisis is created for people in rural areas who are seeking to buy or rent for the first time. Although that crisis is not as severe as in the inner cities, it is severe in personal terms for those concerned.

Mr. Steen

The hon. Gentleman has hit the nail on the head in what he says about design and the outflow of millions of people from the inner cities to the countryside. The issue of this debate is how we can design homes that can be lived in well and which are sympathetic to the environment.

Mr. Soley

I understand that. The hon. Gentleman is right.

Successive Governments have attempted to deal with the inner-city problem before they have understood its full nature and extent. Britain needs a planning structure which allows local authorities to be more innovative; yes, to co-operate with the private sector—no one is arguing against that — and for the Government to have an oversight of its direction and movement.

In that context design becomes important. It puzzles me that nine out of 10 of the Royal Institute of British Architects design awards went to public or housing association housing. Only one out of 10 went to the private sector. Private sector design does not tend to be very good unless it is up market. Somehow or other, we must deal much more effectively with some of the new build in the private sector.

Many Conservative Members have spoken, rightly, about the need to provide good quality homes. The problem is not just a lack of homes, but inappropriate or bad homes lived in by people with above-average health and education problems and several others that go with inadequate or poor housing.

We must consider the way in which we restructure and rebuild communities that are shifting and moving. That movement may be not as great as we think. Although it is great in numbers, it is only a small proportion of the movement that occurred during the last century. Interestingly, in some respects people now have far more problems when they move. It is not easy to sell a house in the north-east and buy one in the south. As a result, one might have to leave one's family down and go into bedand-breakfast accommodation or commute in some way to a job. There are many factors that we should consider more effectively in relation to planning and design, but housing is the major one.

Conservative Members are, to my mind, now moving in the right direction in rejecting the idea that the problems can be dealt with simply by market forces. The approach needs to be thought out. That means the Government, and especially the Secretary of State for the Environment, rethinking some of their ideas about the powers and duties of local authorities.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. Before I call those hon. Members who have been rising, it might help the House if I say that I understand that the Front-Bench spokesman will seek to rise at just after 9.25 pm. I hope that in the time remaining hon. Members will tailor their speeches to about six or seven minutes each.

9.5 pm

Mr. Nicholas Baker (Dorset, North)

I shall be as quick as I can, Mr. Speaker and I am delighted to be able to contribute to this debate. This is not only an occasion for my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves)—although I must congratulate him on the way in which he opened the debate. His predecessor would have been proud of him and of everything that he said. My remarks are directed to the effect of market forces on planning in inner-city, urban and rural areas, rather than to the design aspect which my hon. Friends have covered so well.

Land is a scarce resource. It is not like potatoes, because it cannot be grown or produced. Therefore, it requires special care. If our cities cannot accommodate people and provide homes in which they would wish to live, or be places in which they want to work, the rural areas must provide, in the way which my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) clearly described. Therefore, in one sense urban and rural areas are interdependent.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Hams has a dual career, and I spent five years in an inner-city area, in Peckham in south London, which is why, in a smaller way, I have seen both ends of the spectrum. I must say how much I appreciated the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) who spoke largely and generously, as one would expect of a man who is large and generous. In some ways, he made a moving contribution to our debate and I congratulate him on it.

I see three problems — some of which have been touched on—against which our planning system should be tested. The first is the over-development of the rural areas. I shall not describe that because my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams illustrated that point absolutely rightly. The second is the failure to develop our cities in the way in which all hon. Members would like and the provision of accommodation that is unsatisfactory for many environmental and planning reasons. The third is the drift from the old, mainly manufacturing areas that are mainly, but not exclusively, in the north of the country, to the new mainly rural areas that are mainly in the south.

If our planning system does not attack those problems, we must re-examine that system. I maintain that our planning system is not resolving those three problems. In fact, it is developer-driven. In many respects, it is making the problems worse and needs radical reform. I have neither the time nor the wish to detail the type of reform that I should like, although I wish to make some brief points relating to it.

First, the Department of the Environment's circulars on housing are out of date and need to be completely rewritten. They often refer to demand, which of course is the market aspect of the motion. Demand is not true demand in the parts of the country that suffer from over-development. It is demand that is created by developers. That is why our planning system is developer-driven. The demand for homes is not that of indigenous people but of developers, who wish to build what they think they can sell in the short term. That is not true demand.

Secondly, planning circulars are not only out of date but ambiguous in many respects. Developers will say that the circulars give them the licence to create the kind of developments that destroy communities in the way that has been described.

Thirdly, we under-estimate developers' capabilities. They are some of the most sophisticated and capable businesses. They will work where we ask them to work. They have to work within rules, and they will need to be guided by tough rules, but they are highly able and have every resource and professional expertise that are available to them. We under-estimate the capability of the private sector developer to do something about inner cities in the way we want.

Fourthly, planning rules should enable us to provide local homes for local people, particularly in rural areas where planning restrictions have to be much greater than they are at the moment. Not everyone can be a home owner, and not everyone wishes to be. I am sorry to say that it will take years to recreate the private rented sector. Would that the Government had started much earlier on the task of recreating the private sector. I welcome the fact that we are now taking steps in that direction.

Fifthly, some kinds of development should be shunned altogether. Out-of-town shopping centres, which are out of character with our small towns, cities and villages, drain life from the high streets of our conurbations and are inappropriate in most parts of the country. They may suit the United States of America but they do not suit most of Great Britain.

We need a clear planning strategy that is agreed between national and local government and is enforced by local government, whose decisions will not be overturned by central Government. Central Government should not be in a position to overrule a settled and agreed plan. We have to identify housing growth and housing restraint areas in which development can or cannot take place outside the urban parts of our country. We can aim at only the highest standard of environment for our citizens in urban and rural areas. Because the subject matters to our people much more than any past Government have ever realised, I welcome the debate and urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to take note of the points that have been made to him.

9.13 pm
Mr. David Gilroy Bevan (Birmingham, Yardley)

The theme of the debate has been that of getting the mix right. We have heard excellent contributions by my hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark), and for South Hams (Mr. Steen), as well as by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). I pay a compliment to them. They all contributed something.

Birmingham had to develop dynamically after the bombs finished falling, when books such as "When We Build Again" were produced by the Cadburys and when there were 120,000 applicant families on housing waiting lists. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak was chairman of the city's housing committee. Homeless families had to be accommodated and a formula had to be found. The formula was not always good. Some of the blocks that looked good on paper then proved to be monsters of maintenance and of quality destruction for those who lived in them — monsters that only accommodated three fifths of the people who were displaced from the Victorian artisan buildings left over from the bombs.

Then we got to grips with the beginnings of the new materials — such as the curtain walling which was referred to by the hon. Member for Hammersmith— and things that we did not know about, such as the tensile life of concrete, and the way in which spalling could take place, corroding metal and exploding concrete. All those things were discovered with the tragedy of Ronan Point. On top of all that, we found that the quality of life of the ordinary people who had to reside in those blocks, which in any event were beginning to collapse under certain conditions, was not appreciated. They wanted to be on the ground in their own housing units, with a bit of garden if possible. So we had produced at that time a dynamic city which had no soul. When the residents retreated into the tower blocks and the business did not return to the city centre, there was nothing left.

Beauty lies in the eye—even the royal eye—of the architectural beholder, as it does in any other. Much as I appreciate — as a past local president of the Incorporated Association of Architects and Surveyors, one of the professional bodies to which I belong—the merits of palladian Georgian architecture, sometimes even those masses with their Doric, Corinthian or Ionian columns dressing front or rear do not look good when viewed from Buckingham Palace road. Perhaps the answer is a formulation of planning that we have spurned in this country. We have had the direction of local authority totalitarianism and all the planning that went with it, which was extenuated under Skeffington and went on ad nauseam. We now have the dangers that have been mentioned of market forces operating through UDAs and UDCs, which only produce an economic formula which prohibits beauty.

Perhaps we should try to get the formula right. The planning formula might be a "once-only" type of planning permission—such as the Germans have—which is not in outline or detail, but which has elevational designs accompanying it so that it is final on approval. Perhaps everyone should be able quickly to appreciate whether a building is beautiful or not. When that filter of appreciation is inserted, we might well be able to create the sort of city centres—and middle and outer cities; they must be dealt with after the inner cities — which will grace our heritage, please our people and make for a pleasant centre for years to come.

We are lucky; we are being given a second bite at the cherry. In taking and savouring the fruit, let us ensure that that which we produce is not only in response to what is needed and based on the economically feasible, but is such as to beautify our land for ever.

9.18 pm
Dr. John G. Blackburn (Dudley, West)

I wish to express my congratulations on three counts. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) on his success in being drawn so high in the ballot. He also deserves congratulations on his selection of subject. I do not believe that any hon. Member would fail to join me in congratulating him on his excellent speech, which introduced this important subject.

Having considered the issue of market forces in relation to building design and planning, we should be cautious in our comments about quantity surveyors, architects and town planners. In the final analysis, we have much to thank them for, for the good work that is being done.

We must not be too critical. The city of Birmingham seems to have dominated the debate. Before coming to the House, I spent three years of my professional life in work on the national exhibition centre. With one voice, hon. Members will applaud the excellent design of that centre and the market forces that created it. Eventually it created an airport, which created a station, which created a new environment, which created jobs.

Planners and architects have a responsibility not only for housing design but for jobs. Good design and good planning hold the key to creating good opportunities for increased prosperity in business and in industry and commerce. We are delighted to see those things in the west midlands, which last month had the highest drop in unemployment ever recorded. That shows a fast-moving regeneration of industry in the area.

However, the debate is about much more than that. The most important thing for hon. Members and for those who address themselves to the comments made in this debate is that we must always have a vision of people. If we ever lose that vision, we have lost everything. That vision must be held in connection with market forces and planning matters.

Hon. Members will be aware of my work in and affection for the parliamentary committee for the arts and heritage, of which I am vice-chairman. We must always be careful when we develop an area in the centre of which is a listed building or a building of great historic value. In my tours of the country, I have seen wonderful buildings that are absolute treasures of our history. They are an inheritance and are being marred and scarred by the creation of other buildings that are completely out of touch with the setting. That makes me sad.

Hon. Members have talked about scale in connection with housing. I should like to mention one word that is coming through forcefully and I am confident that the Minister has taken note of it. The word is "quality". It is the quality of housing and design and the quality of life that we are passing on. I am not here just to say nice things. Therefore, I must draw the attention of the Minister to the tragic situation in the constituency which I have the honour to serve, especially the Tiled House lane area, which is disgraceful housing for our people. On a recent visit, the Minister had an opportunity to hear about the problems facing the people in that area.

I draw the attention of hon. Members to the quality of life, design and market forces, but there is something else that is beyond price—the community. We must cater for the work that is done by voluntary organisations, churches, youth clubs and the benefits of music and art. They are catered for, or should be, by those who have the ultimate power of planning. It is tragic to visit a town of 300,000 people that does not have a concert hall, an art gallery or a museum because the planners have not thought about those things. Before we start to talk about the integral parts of a community—the shops and other places where people carry out their interchange of business — such amenities should be provided. Against that background, I ask the Minister to pay special attention to the fabric of society that will be created by the planners to ensure a better quality of life.

Something else gives me particular pleasure this evening. This is the first time that I have had the opportunity in the House of paying a warm and generous tribute to the Minister for his outstanding work in the west midlands, and particularly his work in my constituency. I direct his attention to the events of 19 October this year when I was privileged to receive him in my constituency. Because of the foresight, initiative and involvement of the Government, he was able to announce the first urban regeneration grant awarded in this country, in the sum of £3.5 million. It was to heal the ravages and scars of 200 years of iron and steel production on 36 acres of the Round Oaks works in my constituency. I commend the Minister and the Government on their initiative. I pay a personal tribute to the Minister and, with the gift of prophecy, I ask him to return to my constituency in the near future to see the work and the stewardship of that money.

9.26 pm
Mr. John Bowis (Battersea)

There has been something of a Birmingham male voice choir in this debate, and very sweetly it has sung. I wish to raise a slight note of discord in respect of the consensus with royalty this evening, and issue a small note of warning about views on architecture. I am delighted that one of the favourite pieces of architecture is in my constituency — the excellent Morgan's Walk development. We do well to encourage the private sector to use its imagination in architecture and development and not to stifle it. We need good, beautiful design, but not as a constant and rather boring pattern which could be a danger if one were not careful.

When we consider city design, I hope that we shall be careful not to destroy what is underneath our cities. With modern buildings, particularly in the City of London, all too often we see pile-driving through Roman remains and some of our heritage, which we should encourage our planners to deter.

I am racing through these issues, watching the clock, so I shall be brief. Planners should consider river fronts. In London we have a potentially beautiful river front. Planning authorities should take the responsibility for the facing bank of the river. All too often, they cannot see what it looks like and residents on one side of the river look across to abysmal development on the other.

In my part of London—if I may bring the debate slightly further south— many high-rise blocks were put up as municipal housing in the 1960s and far too many problems have been caused by them. In new developments, we must ensure that crime is prevented by better design. We must have communal and play areas, neighbourhoods and neighbours. We need light, colour and space. We need trees, grass and gardens rather than walkways.

This has brought me to the moment when I must hand over to the Front Bench. However, in this brief message, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister, in rightly encouraging the speeding up of planning procedures, to encourage also the maintenance of standards of architecture and design.

9.29 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. David Trippier)

I am terrified to take up the suggestion of the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Mrs. Golding) that we should have a competition for the worst designed building because the headquarters of the Department of the Environment in Marsham street might just qualify.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. Hargreaves) for giving me an opportunity to speak on a matter that is very dear to me. That is not solely because of my role in the Department of the Environment, but because, like all the people I meet, old and young, and from whatever background, I am deeply concerned about the quality of the environment. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Blackburn).

Perhaps people are concerned in the main not with the quality of the environment, but with the lack of quality. In that respect concern has been echoed in statements made recently by His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales. I doubt that there has been any other occasion this century when there has been such widespread feeling about the need to raise the standard of building design. My hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green referred to the effects of market forces on building design. It will come as no surprise to him that I believe that we can achieve better design only if we give the market the opportunity that it is crying out for to respond to people's wishes and preferences without the constant frustration of control and regulation, with officialdom stating that it knows what is good. That must be the lesson that can be drawn from my hon. Friend's description of Birmingham in the 1960s.

I would not call that the effect of market forces. I call that the imposition of stereotypes of buildings to deal with problems speedily, as my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Beaumont-Dark) said, without consideration for the quality of life, or the lack of it, which the people would then have to suffer as a result. That is what my hon. Friend the Member for Hall Green described as "municipal madness" in his excellent maiden speech last week.

This is the opportunity to refer to the speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen). I want to pick up his points about advisory committees of architects making their advice available at local level. That would not be a precedent. In the past, such bodies have been set up, especially in connection with conservation areas. There is no reason why they should not continue, and I believe that that is a good idea. However, it would be wrong for the Government to stipulate and lay down precise regulations to cover that. Local planning authorities must decide how to organise their development control function in a way that they believe is sensitive to local needs.

My view on the debate is based on simple empirical evidence. When I look round the towns, cities and the countryside, for which I have a great affection, and, whether I see a small market town that has evolved over a period of centuries, a northern city centre with its proud Victorian offices and commercial buildings, leafy arcadian suburbs built by speculative house builders in the 1920s or great landscaped parks, they seem plainly to be the expression of a free market going about its business with enthusiasm and vision. However, when I look around at the ghastly municipal offices, dreary council estates and comprehensive development inflicted on so many towns in the past 40 years, I must conclude that too rigid planning and regulation have reduced building design to a level that we have never experienced before.

Not only are buildings so alien in appearance that they are awarded abusive titles by those who suffer them—and the House is familiar with many of those expressions, such as "Alcatraz", "The Piggeries" and other similarly offensive terms. Many of the buildings are not only aesthetically dreadful; they are falling down. We are faced with an apparently endless catalogue of faults and failures for which in many cases the taxpayer must foot the bill. If they are not falling down, in many cases they are being destroyed by the very people they were planned to serve.

In the 1960s and 1970s mistakes arose out of a generally held but, I suspect, mistaken belief in the virtues of communal living and communal architecture. That is what I would call social architecture. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak. Many of us were members of local authorities at that time and active in those councils. We are all to blame. This is not confined to one political party, and that point was missed by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Mr. Soley). He was not prepared on behalf of the Labour party to accept a share of the blame for what happened during that time. We were all to blame.

The truth is that developments place greater emphasis on shared facilities and less emphasis on opportunities for people to follow their own preferences. There was an idea that forcing people to adopt common values was somehow improving their situation. That attempt to impose communal values rather than private values through changing their environment has failed.

The tide is beginning to turn. I shall give the House a few examples. Not very far from the House of Commons, in docklands, there are numerous examples of high quality architectural design and sensitive refurbishment of 19th century warehouses for residential and commercial uses. Notable refurbishment schemes include the New Concordia wharf residential conversion in Bermondsey, which has just won the RICS/Times conservation award, and the transformation of the grade I listed regency tobacco dock in Wapping as a new speciality shopping centre. Notable modern buildings include South Quay plaza, The Daily Telegraph offices, and LDDC's own offices at 84 St. Katharine's way, which won the 1985 London borough of Tower Hamlets design award.

Across the country, we encourage private sector involvement in refurbishing unpopular local authority estates. Some housing estates which were considerd uninhabitable have been purchased by developers and, in the hands of the private sector, transformed. One example of a successful scheme is in a local authority which adjoins my constituency on an estate in Bolton where 90 appalling flats were modernised by a private developer — 50 for sale and 40 for continuing renting by the local authority. This type of scheme usually brings properties on to the market at prices which are well within the reach of the first-time buyer.

Such schemes help to ensure that people live in the type of homes they want. The success of private house builders depends crucially on their ability to understand public demand. As my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams suggested, the variety within that public demand encourages rather than suppresses individuality.

Even where the private sector is not in the lead, more can be done on local authority estates to make housing provision more sensitive to the needs and wishes of those who live there. This is a key part of my Department's Estate Action programme. Estate Action has successfully begun to tackle some of the worst problems on some of the worst estates in Britain, aiming at more estate-based management, and improvements based on close and effective consultation with tenants. The Estate Action schemes announced today provide examples of what we are seeking to achieve. Tenants in Walsall and Leicester have been particularly closely involved in the development of proposals for their estates, and plans for establishing tenants' management co-operatives are being worked up. Through close consultation with those living in the estates, improvements can be devised which reflect their wishes and preferences.

Finally, in view of the shortage of time, I can only add that I do not believe that all regulation and control should be removed. There will always be the need for the community to set boundaries within which the market can operate, so long as those are clearly expressed.

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