HC Deb 04 December 1990 vol 182 cc280-6

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

11.26 pm
Mr. John P. Smith (Vale of Glamorgan)

I am grateful and pleased that I was successful in the ballot for an Adjournment debate, because it gives me a chance to raise a matter of considerable importance not only to my constituents but nationally, and which has national implications.

I have just returned from making a site visit to St. Quentin's castle at Llanblethian, near Cowbridge, in my constituency, where I discussed with local residents, members of the history society, and other eminent individuals the threat under which that historic monument has been for many years. They are all gravely concerned about the castle's future, because its features include what is probably the only surviving gatehouse of its type. Comprising three storeys and underground vaults, it was built in the early 14th century, but still has two complete rooms.

The gatehouse is threatened by overgrowth, exposure to the elements, and because for no fewer than 30 years nothing has been done to protect or restore that important monument. It is a unique architectural example, and has a commanding view over the ancient borough of Cowbridge and the village of Llanblethian. It was built by Gilbert de Clare in the early 14th century, but sadly not finished because he fell at Bannockburn before construction of the castle was completed. It was inherited by the Lord of Glamorgan, who was the keeper of the realm in the actions of Edward II. That would, in common parlance, classify him as the deputy Prime Minister of his day. The castle was then taken over by a distinguished Glamorganshire family of French origin, the de Spensers, and has a fine tradition. It was lived in for hundreds of years before becoming a prison, and then served as a local amenity and open space for the people of Llanblethian until the 1960s.

So distinguished is the castle's history that we have managed to collect considerable support for its protection—not least from the recently deposed deputy Prime Minister, the right hon. and learned Member for Surrey, East (Sir G. Howe), once Member of Parliament from Port Talbot, whose family emanates from that part of the world. The campaign has also been supported by Lord Parry of Neyland, my predecessor Sir Raymond Gower, and most Members of Parliament whose constituences are adjacent to mine. That shows that this issue is not only important but all-party and, indeed, non-political. I hope that the Minister will be able to give me some good news tonight, and tell me exactly what he and the Welsh Office intend to do. We have waited too long to find out.

It was 30 years ago that the Llanblethian community council first raised the matter with the Ministry of Works. The council was worried about the deterioration of this fine castle as a result of decades of neglect. Since then, the local history society, the borough council, the Women's Institute, the old Cowbridge borough council and Vale of Glamorgan borough council—and local residents, in a voluntary capacity—have all striven in their turn, and have used every official channel and every proper means available to them to ensure that works were carried out. Nevertheless, they failed.

One of the reasons for that failure was the fact that the land was acquired, in or around 1964, by a new owner who took over from the old family of Mansell Evan Edwards. In my view—and in that of most of the people who have tried to protect the monument—the landowner has deliberately obstructed their efforts. He has not co-operated with the bodies, both Government and voluntary, which have tried to get something done on the site, and despite every encouragement and inducement over a considerable period, not one piece of work has been carried out to protect, restore or renovate the building.

That is formidable record, and a disgraceful one; so disgraceful, indeed, that, in November 1983, the Minister himself, when he was Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Wales, informed my predecessor that the Welsh Office had decided—presumably as a last resort—to acquire the castle and the site by compulsory purchase, with a view to carrying out immediate repair and renovation to protect the building. I stress the word "decided"—it was not a question of consideration. Now, almost exactly seven years later, not a thing has been done to protect the castle. We face the onset of winter, with frost, wind and rain, all of which will damage the fabric and structure of the building; yet it seems that, once again, nothing will be done.

In the past 15 months, I have involved myself in the campaign. In view of his early involvement in the matter, I wrote to the Minister of State to find out why the land had not been acquired, and what the Welsh Office intended to do about carrying out works and gaining access to the site. In April this year, the Minister wrote to me saying that the agents of the current landowner appeared to be very co-operative—or words to that effect—and seemed to have every intention of doing something; the Welsh Office therefore wished to give them the opportunity.

That will not wash. I believe that there have been at least seven efforts at drawing up programmes of repair in conjunction with the landowner, but he has no intention of carrying out any such work. Indeed, he is making a fool of the Welsh Office and running rings around Ministers—I could cite several examples to prove that.

Following the letter of 1983 to which I referred, Cadw said that the owner could not be traced or contacted. In 1976 the Department of the Environment referred to not being able to get access to the site. The minutes of a meeting of the Vale of Glamorgan borough council in 1983 recorded that it appeared that the landowner had no intention of co-operating with the Welsh Office to restore the building.

It seems that the landowner in question acquired a number of sites in the area—probably cheaply, considering the price of agricultural land in the mid-1960s—with a view to developing, and I believe that that is his view to this day. He is prepared to see that great monument deteriorate, and even be destroyed, so that he can develop there, as he has tried to do on land which he owns in the area and which, if it was deemed housing rather than agricultural land, would be worth a great deal of money.

Lest the Minister and his officials at the Welsh Office have any doubts about the landowner in question, we have a duty to draw attention to some of his activities and some of those of his family. They represent what I consider 'to be the unacceptable face of property developers, using tactics that we thought were well behind us and would not be considered acceptable in this day and age.

The brother of the chap about whom I am talking has a well known reputation in the nearby town of Penarth for openly destroying classic pieces of Edwardian architecture. He knew that what he had done was illegal and that he would be fined, but the fine bore no relation to the crime committed, so he was happy to destroy two buildings. He was the owner of a hotel of international acclaim in the same area, but some years ago it mysteriously burned down, much to the horror of the people of the area. I understand that he is currently facing action in the courts for committing an act of vandalism to part of our heritage—another unique piece of architecture.

The owner of the site to which I am drawing attention has a reputation such that local residents and activists are afraid to approach him. He is known for threats and strong-arm tactics. It is a sad and disgraceful record. They do not appear to me to be the sort of people with whom Ministers and the Welsh Office should be seeking to co-operate. As I said, they are running rings around Ministers and functionaries at the Welsh Office. The members of Cadw are also being made to look absolute fools.

I am not here tonight to castigate individuals, although in the last Session I tabled early-day motion 1007 which, being supported by some of my hon. Friends, criticised the Minister. I did so with some regret because, as he knows, I have much respect for the Minister, but I felt that we could not allow the situation to continue. It makes a mockery of the role of Government and of attempts to try to protect our heritage. I did that with a heavy heart, but I felt that it had to be done to continue to draw attention to this serious matter.

We must act quickly. The state of the castle, which I visited today, is worrying. Foliage and trees are growing from the structure of the building, and although it is a three-storey monument one can hardly see it because of the overgrowth. There is no fence to stop young children entering, so I presume that it is a dangerous site and that a serious accident could be caused. However, I do not want to give the landowner the excuse of allowing it to reach such a state that it has to be demolished and lost for ever. If we do not act quickly, we shall lose this fine monument, its architecture and its history. I do not think that the people of my constituency and of Wales would forgive the Welsh Office if it allowed that to happen.

Finally, I shall highlight what we are up against. I was recently in the area and, quite by coincidence, bumped into some American tourists who were, I am glad to say, staying there. The castle, of which they were aware, is a tourist attraction, but if it were restored it would be a far better tourist attraction. In discussing the problems that we face in trying to protect the monument, they could not believe that we could allow our heritage and our children's heritage to be threatened in this way. They have seen part of their heritage and indigenous culture destroyed. Many of the pioneers of north America left their heritage and history behind them. What would they give to have a castle 800 or more years old, built on original remains and with a history to be proud of oozing from it?

The castle has stood in that community for 700 or 800 years, but seven or eight years of inactivity, red tape and bureaucracy in the Welsh Office has allowed this unscrupulous landowner to get away with what he has been getting away with for the past 26 years. It is an outrage that a building which has stood for so long may be destroyed in such a short time.

I make a plea for the Minister to act, to acquire the site and the castle compulsorily and to undertaken the necessary repairs immediately.

11.43 pm
The Minister of State, Welsh Office (Sir Wyn Roberts)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan (Mr. Smith) for raising this issue and for giving me the opportunity to set out the facts in this far from straightforward case. I have some news for him this evening.

St. Quentin's castle, on the outskirts of Cowbridge in South Glamorgan, is a scheduled ancient monument within the terms of the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. As such, it enjoys statutory protection and, as with all scheduled monuments, work on it cannot be carried out without special permission from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales. St. Quentin's castle is in private ownership.

St. Quentin's is a quadrilateral castle with a fine central gatehouse built in the 14th century for Gilbert de Clare, who was killed at the battle of Bannockburn in 1314. Typically of many monuments of that period, which have not benefited from a strategy for conservation, its general condition is poor. Tree growth and ivy have taken their toll.

The condition and custody of St. Quentin's castle have been a source of local concern for some 30 years. Nearly 10 years ago, particular concerns were expressed that the monument was deteriorating and in response to local anxieties, including representations from the late hon. Member for Vale of Glamorgan, Sir Raymond Gower, we looked very carefully at what might be done to safeguard its future. In 1983, I wrote to Sir Raymond and told him that my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State had decided to seek the compulsory acquisition of the monument to ensure its long-term preservation.

Such action would have been a drastic step in that it would have involved denying the rights of a private owner. Indeed, during the passage of the 1979 Act, an undertaking was given to the House by the then Labour Administration. During the Bill's Second Reading, Mr. Kenneth Marks assured the House that powers of compulsory acquisition would never be used except when it was the only way of securing the preservation of a monument. That has seemed to us a sensible test and it is an undertaking that we have been happy to honour. The circumstances in which the powers to which I refer are used should be rare and the arguments for doing so must be fully tested. I think it would clearly be wrong to take action before other options had been exhausted.

At that time, we judged that the action referred to in my letter to Sir Raymond was appropriate. Restoration works had not been undertaken for many years and there seemed little likelihood that they would be. As a result, we had first to identify the legal owners—which was not without its difficulties—and secondly, to put it to them that they should carry out repairs. The owners' response was to tell us of their wish to take forward restoration—to a high standard—of the castle in their stewardship. Those assurances were renewed periodically as we went back to ask why action had not been taken. That work of any consequence has not been carried out is a great disappointment and, in that, I share the frustrations of local people who value St. Quentin's.

During this year, there have been extensive discussions with the owners' agent. They culminated in an application for consent to undertake a programme of restoration work. That was received in early April and our formal consent was issued on 5 July 1990. The Vale of Glamorgan borough council has, we are told, been consulted on public safety and on the force of tree preservation notices. Those matters are very much for it and for the owners. A tree surgeon has provided advice on clearance of ivy and other vegetation that covers the castle. Regrettably, work has yet to start and, despite promises from the owners' agent that a programme of works would be shared with Cadw, no action has been taken. Our offers of grant assistance have not been taken up. In view of that, we have had to consider what further measures we might take to deal with the castle's plight.

The House will wish to be assured that officials from Cadw have met local people with a special interest in the site to advise them of our actions. The matter has also been considered by the Ancient Monuments Board for Wales at its summer meeting. Hon. Members will know that the board is our independent statutory advisory body on such matters.

To guide our deliberations, we asked for an up-to-date and detailed survey of the monument by the Department's specialists. The survey revealed that, while the structure of the gatehouse was generally sound, there were loose joints in the masonry at high level that required attention. Following a site meeting in October with the owners' agents, officials reported to us that there was no immediate prospect of an early start on the site and that with the approach of winter there were parts of the monument's fabric that needed to be dealt with more urgently.

As a result, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has decided that, in the absence of works carried out by the owners, it was essential to use his statutory powers to undertake urgent repair works to St. Quentin's. The necessary legal notices have been dispatched. The hon. Gentleman will know that I have been closely in touch with the matter for some years and have kept him informed of all but those very latest developments. I have corresponded with him and, most recently, copied to him my letter of 21 November 1990 to Mr. Wayne David MEP.

The House will recognise from what I have reported that the welfare of an ancient monument cannot be safeguarded without due regard being paid to the interests of private owners. In considering this case, we have had to keep in view the physical condition of the monument. That we have done throughout the period since I wrote to Sir Raymond. We are satisfied that the owners have had every opportunity to carry out the urgent works for which our consent has been granted.

We are also satisfied that, unless action is taken now, the integrity of the monument will be threatened. That is why staff from Cadw's directly employed labour force will enter the site to undertake a programme of urgent works. Those works will comprise the removal of tree growth and ivy at the upper levels to the gatehouse and treatment of masonry to prevent its collapse. It will take about two weeks to complete. The cost of that work will be met by the Welsh Office.

That action is evidence of our regard for St. Quentin's castle. Once completed, the works will prevent further deterioration of the monument for sufficient time for its future to be further considered with the owners. I do not rule out the use of compulsory purchase powers if that proves to be the only way to safeguard the monument. There remains, however, a range of options open to us short of that and we shall be exploring those further. It would be our preference to secure the monument's future through a voluntary arrangement, possibly through a guardianship arrangement, but the option of compulsory purchase will remain closely in view.

The Government are firmly committed to the protection of the built heritage. We attach considerable importance to the protection of sites such as St. Quentin's castle. Our action in carrying out repairs to that monument using Cadw's staff is clear evidence of that commitment.

We sometimes share the frustration of those who wish to see action taken without any delay, but we in Government cannot ride roughshod over the interests of the private owner. That is why we have been extremely patient in the case of St. Quentin's. We have afforded every opportunity for the owners to take forward the good intentions that they have consistently expressed. Indeed., I am convinced that the undertakings given to the House during the passage of the legislation required nothing less. We have allowed that opportunity and we are now taking action, which I believe the hon. Gentleman will welcome.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Twelve o'clock.