HC Deb 06 February 1997 vol 289 cc1237-44

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

9.53 pm
Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South)

I suppose I should apologise to my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, North (Dr. Reid), for not participating in the debate on the Royal Air Force but, for the moment, the defence of the realm takes second place to the defence of the green belt in my constituency.

It is with considerable pleasure, and relief, that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Sir P. Beresford), is responding to this short debate. Books are prefaced by acknowledgements and dedications; speeches in this place are unfortunately not. If they were, I would like Hansard to record a subtitle to this debate: "St. Margaret's hospital: the continuing fight to preserve our heritage and the green belt". If it were possible further to dedicate a speech, I would dedicate it to those fighting for that just cause.

I am pleased that the Under-Secretary is responding for two, or perhaps three, reasons. First, he responded very sympathetically to an Adjournment debate on the same subject two years and one week ago, so I have a sense of deja vu. Secondly. I do not want to damage his political reputation, but he is a decent guy. Thirdly, he speaks with knowledge not only of planning law in relation to the green belt, but of the site in question.

I did not take umbrage when, during our previous debate on the subject, the Under-Secretary said: It is no exaggeration to say that Walsall is not over-endowed with properties and parklands of great historical and architectural interest."—[Official Report, 26 January 1995; Vol. 253. c. 586.] He was right. This may be a military analogy but what you have, you hold, and I do not want to see the six grade II* listed buildings in the borough of Walsall reduced to five, which is a real possibility—indeed, a probability unless something is done quickly.

Unfortunately, despite the Minister's and my best efforts in early 1995, no one appears to have paid a blind bit of notice. Great Barr hall continues to deteriorate, and that predatory body—the former West Midlands regional health authority—slapped in a planning application for the so-called Male Homes site. When it has kicked out the last patients from St. Margaret's hospital in a few weeks' time, no doubt another planning application will be made, perhaps for high-class housing, on what is called the "horseshoe" site.

I desperately hope that the Department of the Environment will try again to protect the estate, which encompasses almost 313 acres and Great Barr hall, the jewel in the crown. The hall and the estate are far too valuable in terms of heritage and potential suitable uses to be seen as mere plots of land for the building of houses and the making of big bucks.

I will not describe the site or Great Barr hall nor eulogise them because that was done in a previous debate, but I visited the site as recently as last Friday. Having seen the photograph that I gave him, I am sure that the Minister will understand why I am so concerned. He will have seen a security wire about as defensively secure as the England batsmen on tour—I was going to say even against such weak opposition but, given the Minister's antipodean background, I thought that might offend him.

The Minister will have seen from the photograph the dilapidated state of Great Barr hall. Despite some remedial patchwork, it is still vulnerable to the elements and the vandals, but the biggest threat to the future—such as it is—of this grade II* listed building comes from those who would see it deteriorate to such an extent that the bulldozers roll in—and there would go the building and perhaps the beautiful surrounding parkland and lake, whose construction and design involved some of the great men of the past such as Sir Gilbert Scott, Humphrey Repton, Shenstone and Nash.

I can never forgive those responsible in the regional health authority for selling the hall and surrounding land to a man like David Worth whose name mockingly adorns the vandalised temporary building in the photograph which I have given the Minister. The land and property that he bought for speculative purposes—he is now bankrupt—is now owned by Midland bank and the receivers are Coopers and Lybrand. The bank lost a lot of money, as did many of my constituents. Not only did the bank lose money, but it cannot sell the property. Indeed, it may cost the bank more money to repair the buildings. Nobody is interested in buying the deteriorating building as it is seen as a financial liability.

I look to the Minister and the Department of the Environment to protect the public interest against the goths at the gate who pose a continuing threat to the hall and estate. Some might ask why the estate needs further ministerial protection. Why am I asking the Minister for help again? Why did I request an Adjournment debate? Is not there enough protection for Great Barr hall and the estate? People might suggest that the property is protected as a green-belt site. Is it not in the Beacon regional park? Is it not part of the Great Barr conservation area? Is it not in the Forest of Mercia forest plan?

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

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

Mr. George

I had forgotten that procedure, Madam Deputy Speaker, and I was temporarily embarrassed at the prospect of having to finish half-way through my speech.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

It does seem somewhat excessive, but it is the present rule.

Mr. George

I cannot duck history.

Are not the duckery and the lakes a site of importance for nature conservation? Are not three areas of the estate protected as ancient woodland? Is not the hall a grade II* listed building that occupies land included on English Heritage's "Register of Parks and Gardens of Special Historic Interest"?

People might also ask whether the Great Barr hall and estate have the protection of Walsall council's urban development plan, which was approved by the Secretary of State. Did not English Heritage, in a recent "Building at Risk" survey, conclude that the building was derelict and at risk? The building also falls into English Heritage's category 1—the highest risk—because it is empty, with temporary roofing, is subject to vandalism, theft, dry rot and rain, and has zero security. Is not the site protected as a site of importance for nature conservation? Is there not a Great Barr Hall action group founded to give public support to the future of the hall?

Some might even ask, "Did not that nice Sir Paul Beresford give his support to the property in a parliamentary debate?" He said to me during the previous debate: I assure the hon. Gentleman that, while he is watching closely over one shoulder of those responsible, the Government, conscious of their responsibilities for the green belt, for historic buildings and the historic parkland and for the overall situation, are looking closely over the other."—[Official Report, 26 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 588.] Do not the recent planning policy guidance documents—PPG 2 annex C, "Future of major developed sites in the Green Belt" and PPG 15—warn off potential developers and destroyers of the green belt? Did not the West Midlands regional forum of local authorities say that there was no need to build houses in the green belt to meet housing requirements for the next century, confirming the joint housing land study for Walsall, which identified sufficient land for building houses for nearly 15 years? Does not section 54A of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 lay down specific protection? Have not inspectors visited Walsall and confirmed the need to retain the area as a green belt site?

With all that protection in place, some might ask why I want to raise the subject in an Adjournment debate this evening. Regrettably, as I said in the previous debate Walsall council's record with regard to defending the green belt is far from scintillating, but it is not one of total indifference."—[Official Report, 26 January 1995; Vol. 253, c. 585.] I am afraid that that relative optimism was misplaced. The local appeals committee of the main planning committee met last week and gave the green light to a developer, E. and K. Hill, to build houses on green belt land off Skip lane. I do not expect the Minister to respond to this point, but that decision was bizarre, contrary to professional advice, in direct contradiction of the council's unitary development plan and strategic policy statement. It is against all opposition and against the interests of the green belt.

The solicitors representing the builders argued that the green belt land was needed to build on. As I said earlier, that is not true. I hope that eventually the Department of the Environment will knock on the head those who argue that the green belt land is needed for housing. I refer the Minister to a letter that I received a few years ago from the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), when he was at the Department of the Environment. He gave me an unequivocal assurance that the Government are committed to a strong green belt policy that allows development only in special circumstances. These are not special circumstances.

I am worried that the green light given to development on the land off Skip lane could be used as a precedent for developing land at Great Barr hall and the surrounding area. I have little faith in the planning committee. How can I be sure that it will not succumb to pressure from the former regional health authority, which has applied to build on the Male Homes site? No doubt another application will be submitted in the not too distant future to make use of the redundant hospital buildings on the so-called "horseshoe" site.

The Skip lane decision is so contrary to what the Department of the Environment stands for that at the end of the debate I shall hand formally to the Minister a letter to the Secretary of State asking him to use his legal power to review the decision, which contravenes the urban development plan. The Department of the Environment must be informed. I am informing the Department, perhaps before Walsall council does. I am telling the Minister publicly about the outrageous decision that I hope will be reversed.

I desperately hope that there is still a majority on the planning committee prepared to undo the potential damage to the environment. If the proposals to build on the green belt go through, E. and K. Hill will no doubt put in a further planning application for building work on a similar site that it has. A precedent will have been established. Those who live in the green belt and have put up unauthorised buildings will seek to have that act legitimised, and may put up more buildings. No doubt the NHS executive will pick up the tarnished mantle of the regional health authority and resume the charge on the St. Margaret's hospital site in a few years. Our predecessors, in their wisdom, divided the urban sprawl that is Birmingham, Walsall and Sandwell with a green belt. That protection could be destroyed and the area could be swamped by houses, leaving no discernible boundary between the three authorities.

What is to be done? Great Barr hall, the apex of the site, must be made secure and the decline stabilised. The owners should be billed for the appropriate remedial work. I am told that the building is deteriorating. It is restorable, but for how long? Current estimates set the cost of minimal essential works at £20,000. Those works would make the shell sound, keep out the elements and make it more attractive to a potential buyer. As I said earlier, some work has been done, but it has not been done to a sufficiently high standard. The council should get much tougher. If the Midland bank does not agree to make the necessary repairs, I shall ask the Secretary of State to intervene and serve a repairs notice under section 48 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. Failing that, I shall call on the Secretary of State to acquire the building and land compulsorily under section 47 of that Act.

Walsall council has tried to bring about a comprehensive approach to the estate so that it can be treated as a single entity. The NHS executive owns two large sections and the Midland bank owns the historic buildings and 156 acres. Could not the Department of the Environment act as honest broker, inviting all the interested parties to a meeting? That would include the Government, Walsall council, the NHS executive, the Midland bank—the listening bank; I hope that it listens—Coopers and Lybrand, working on behalf of the bank, local, regional and national environmental groups, such as the Great Barr action group, which I founded, and English Heritage. They should bring all those people together for a brainstorming session under the auspices of the Minister or his representative. That could well lead to progress. As part of the process, an intermediary—perhaps someone in authority who is familiar with all the documentation and feasibility studies—could provide some guidance as to what would be feasible in respect of such a large site and what is in the public interest.

Thirdly, I urge Walsall council to consider investing a little money in conducting its own feasibility study on how the site might best be developed. Having done that, perhaps the council should approach the heritage fund. I can think of few more worthy recipients of such funding.

I am not inflexible—there has to be some give and take—but I cannot acquiesce to a series of buildings on a green-belt site. Let us put this treasure to an appropriate use. I trust that the Department of the Environment will reassure the public that the Government have the best interests of the site at heart.

Before I conclude, I wish to place on record my unhappiness with the treatment of one patient, John Mayes, a convicted child offender, who absconded on 25 September 1996. The police caught him and returned him to his previous accommodation. He has not done a runner subsequently, nor has the community health trust been able to find him suitable secure accommodation. There must therefore be a shortage of such accommodation in the west midlands. As the hospital is closing fairly soon, I hope that he will be found somewhere suitable. I have discussed my remarks with my hon. Friends the Members for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape) and for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker) who are in agreement.

Finally, I appeal again to the Department of the Environment to facilitate the reconciliation of all affected parties to bring about the necessary change to achieve the best solution for the public, for Great Barr hall and for the estate.

10.11 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford)

First, I thank the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George) for his kind remarks at the beginning of his speech. I was intrigued by his reference to cricket. As hon. Members may know, a cricket match is currently being played in the Antipodes. I understand that the score is 87 for seven, which looks quite good for the English team. The last man is not in yet, however, and as those who follow cricket know, that could be significant. I have always felt that New Zealand sports teams were charitable and this could be a charitable show.

It is usual to congratulate hon. Members on raising an Adjournment debate, but today's subject is very sad. The hon. Member and I would have preferred not to have had the debate and for the problem to have been sorted out.

As the hon. Gentleman said, the whole estate under discussion is designated green belt. Planning policy guidance 2—the relevant guidance—has been tightened up and emphasises its special characteristics and its need for protection. That is recognised in the unitary development plan for Walsall, which provides considerable protection. However, as the hon. Gentleman is aware, I must be cautious.

There has been some progress. Development plan policies require only that the site of St. Margaret's hospital building should have a planning brief of the proposed variety. However—this needs careful consideration—there is nothing to stop the local authority carrying out a full-scale study on the protection of the building.

Great Barr hall is a grade II* listed building. It is situated very close to the parts of the hospital that are subject to redevelopment proposals. It is important that the proposals protect the building from harm. Likewise, the effect on the very fine parkland has to be taken into careful account.

Progress depends on having the right sort of developer, with the right sort of backing to develop that which should be developed, sympathetically, with some give and take, as the hon. Gentleman has said. It is sad that, so far, no buyer has come forward for the hall and the park. However, I understand that considerable interest is still being shown by developers and others. We must hope, anticipate, and try to ensure, that a sympathetic application for offices, leisure facilities and a golf course is submitted. Such a proposal was looked at before but has unfortunately been withdrawn without any further progress. As the hon. Gentleman has said, no proposal has at the moment reached the planning application stage.

The Government's advisers have been trying to work closely with the owner, the official receiver and the local authority to resolve some of the problems. The photograph of the protection—or lack of protection—of Great Barr hall calls into question the local authority's behaviour. The hon. Gentleman's description is an under-estimate of the lack of protection. Looking at the photograph, one can see that the protection consists of one high barbed wire, which would not stop anything progressing under it. I cannot think of anything at all that would be stopped by it.

Since the last debate, there has been some progress, which the hon. Gentleman mentioned. I am advised that, in conjunction with the local authority and English Heritage, the present owner, through the official receiver, has arranged for some work to be carried out that has arrested the rate of structural decline. "Arrested the rate"—the speed—at which the structure of the building is declining is a sad way of putting it. I have clearly carefully chosen those words, and I hope that the local authority recognises that. We ought to consider it carefully.

In addition, the problems of the deterioration of the interior remain. I think that the hon. Gentleman and I agree that a long-term solution needs not only to be found, but to be found fairly promptly. A number of potential buyers have been in discussion with the local authority and English Heritage, and I understand that further meetings are arranged for the near future.

Reference was made to the quaintly named Male Homes site to the north of the hall. As the hon. Gentleman knows, it is the subject of a detailed planning application for housing development. I am surprised that it has taken Walsall borough council quite so long to determine the application. Discussions seem to be extremely protracted, which could be a reflection on either the sensitivity of the location or the local authority. I shall leave the hon. Gentleman to put quietly his point on that, but I rather suspect that he and I are in agreement.

The Government's adviser, English Heritage, has been consulted and I understand that it has some remaining concerns about the proposal, which means that I cannot progress with further discussion on it, as the hon. Gentleman will be aware. The decision on the application is for the local planning authority. The applicant has the right of appeal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment should the permission be refused. I therefore need to be mindful of any further comments on the application.

The national health service executive, the owners of the St. Margaret's site—the so-called "Horseshoe"—has commissioned a consultants' report for development of the whole site. It has been submitted to the local authority, which is considering it. Hopefully, it will consider it constructively and move promptly. I hope that that is not a vain hope and that we can get some action. The hospital is of course closing this year, the Great Barr hall is deteriorating and the interior needs protection. We are looking forward to the consultants' report to the NHS, which is expected to lead to a planning application.

At this stage, I cannot say more except that I am attracted to the hon. Gentleman's suggestion that we should look towards progressing, with the Department acting as an honest broker, as he put it. I shall ensure through the Department that the Government, through the regional office in Birmingham, along with English Heritage, do what they can to bring the parties together and get a move on.

I half-facetiously made a comment about the number of listed buildings, grade II or otherwise, in the Walsall area. We must accept the idea that the site is an oasis—an area that needs to be kept and looked after. It is certainly not being looked after at present.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nineteen minutes past Ten o'clock.