HC Deb 14 February 2002 vol 380 cc414-22

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

7 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester)

Every week the Planning Inspectorate based in Bristol authorises the demolition or disfigurement of three listed buildings, contrary to the wishes of the local communities where those historic buildings are located. Sometimes those decisions, which are taken by a single inspector, are also against the recommendation of English Heritage, which is the official body appointed by the Government to safeguard our nation's historic built environment.

The loss of historic buildings and damage to others, allowed on appeal, are in addition to those authorised by local councils. A large part of our country's built heritage is being irretrievably destroyed. That loss is bad enough, but I submit that it is worse when the decision is taken contrary to the views of the local council. Today's custodians must have respect not only for the past but, perhaps more important, for future generations. It seems that the Planning Inspectorate pays scant regard to that.

Every decision to approve a planning appeal, made by a single person with no personal knowledge of the area, is done against the express wishes of that community as determined by locally elected councillors who are answerable to their electors. Planning inspectors are not elected. They are not accountable to the communities against whom they pass judgment. Local councillors on planning committees, taking account of all the facts before them, come to a decision. It is called democracy.

An applicant, unhappy with a decision, has the right to go to appeal. It is not unknown for wealthy owners to employ highly paid lawyers and so-called "experts" prepared to prostitute themselves for payment and to give evidence to suit the case and pocket of the owner. An easily swayed inspector—making a fleeting visit to a town which perhaps he has never been to before—overturns a decision that has been carefully arrived at by locally elected councillors. That is not democracy.

There is little point in Government complaining about people not voting in local elections when town halls increasingly have less power and influence over what happens in their community. When residents see planning decisions affecting their town or village reversed by anonymous inspectors from hundreds of miles away, the democratic process is brought further into contempt.

I should like to draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion 564, which I tabled on 12 December 2001. Headed "English Heritage", it states: That this House expresses its appreciation to English Heritage for the vital work which it undertakes in seeking to preserve the best of our national heritage; believes that the views of English Heritage should not be overturned by a single Planning Inspector, and that in such instances where a contrary view is taken then the final decision should be referred to the Secretary of State for a second opinion to be sought; regrets that too many of the nation's historic and listed buildings have already been lost; and therefore urges the Secretary of State to investigate and take all the steps available to him to reverse the outcome of the planning appeal in respect of the Grade II Listed Jumbo Water Tower in Colchester, the largest surviving Victorian water tower in Britain, which a Planning Inspector has ruled can be destroyed, contrary to the wishes of the democratically elected local councillors.

I am grateful to hon. Members, from different parties and from different parts of the country, who have signed that early-day motion. I suspect that they have knowledge of similar planning outrages in their areas.

The Library has kindly provided me with background information which states: English Heritage is the Government's statutory adviser on the historic environment. The work of English Heritage is overseen by a board of up to 16 commissioners, selected by the Government.

English Heritage has powers set out in the National Heritage Act 1983, section 33 of which lays down its general functions, including a declaration that It shall be the duty of the Commission to undertake such tasks as to secure the preservation of ancient monuments and historic buildings and to promote the public's enjoyment of, and advance their knowledge of, ancient monuments and historic buildings situated in England and their preservation". I can only conclude that the Planning Inspectorate at Bristol is oblivious to what is contained in the National Heritage Act 1983.

The debate is of national significance. By focusing on a controversial decision in my constituency, I want to illustrate something that happens throughout the country. By tabling parliamentary questions, I have discovered that planning inspectors reject the carefully considered decisions of local councillors every week. In many cases, such as the jumbo water tower in Colchester, those decisions are also contrary to the detailed consideration, conclusions and recommendations of English Heritage. What vote of confidence is it in English Heritage when a planning inspector, without the knowledge and background of the case in point, can breeze in and disregard the expert opinions of the Government's own watchdog for historic buildings?

Fortunately, the Minister has seen the jumbo water tower before it is destroyed. I pointed it out to her from the high street and on the returning train to London when she made a ministerial visit to Colchester last year on matters that had nothing to do with this planning issue. She is aware of the significant impact that the historic tower has on the skyline. It is on top of a hill in the centre of Britain's oldest recorded town, next to the ancient monument of the Roman wall and within a conservation area.

I do not hold the Minister or her Department responsible for the planning disaster that confronts us; I only wish that they had been part of the decision-making process, in which case I believe that the wrong decision would not have been made. After all, the Department's own buildings watchdog, English Heritage, made it clear that the proposals, which will destroy the architectural integrity of the tower by removing its cast-iron tank, should be refused.

Regrettably, the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol decided that a single planning inspector should be given delegated powers to determine the appeal. The fact that English Heritage opposed the proposal should have given a warning signal that the decision was too serious to be left to one individual if he had a different view. There is no equivalent of a court of appeal when an inspector finds against a local council and English Heritage on planning matters. The owner of a property, however, can have as many goes as he likes using—some would say abusing and misusing—the planning system to get his way. If an application is refused, he can try again; if he is unhappy with the decision, he can go to appeal; if he loses that, he can start all over again.

In contrast, however, those who truly cherish our historic past have to win every time: if a council says "yes", then that is it; if a council says "no" but an inspector at a planning appeal says "yes", then that is it. The system is clearly loaded in favour of those who have the time and money to try and try again until they get their own way. As my early-day motion proposes, there should be a mechanism for a Minister to call for a second opinion to be sought when English Heritage opposes a proposal and an inspector thinks differently.

I recognise that in the case of the jumbo water tower the decision—a very bad one at that, with national ramifications—has been made. The only hope is that the owner will realise that his eccentric desire to spend the best part of £2 million to build a glazed residential box high in the sky is a folly—as in a foolish act, not an ornamental building. The house will be a goldfish bowl by day and a Chinese lantern by night. If the owner wishes to be remembered with gratitude by present and future generations he will, even at this stage, acknowledge that retaining all the features of the largest surviving Victorian water tower in Britain is more important to our national heritage than disfigurement.

It would be nice if the Government acknowledged that the planning inspector has blundered and that ways should be found to accommodate the recommendations of English Heritage. I invite the Minister to see what she, her ministerial colleagues and English Heritage can collectively do to retrieve the situation.

I am sure that the highly respected "Piloti" of Private Eye fame, who has twice in that esteemed organ featured the jumbo water tower controversy and regularly exposed the fate of so many of our nation's historic buildings, would welcome—along with many others—greater protection.

I also invite the Minister to give an assurance that, if the owner of the jumbo water tower seeks to undo the conditions that have been imposed by the inspector, that will not be permitted, and that any future planning applications will be called in for determination. In granting the appeal, the inspector did not give the owner all that he wanted—perhaps 75 per cent. of the loaf, but by no means all of it.

It should be remembered that we are dealing with an owner and his paid professionals who have used every means that they can think of to secure a planning consent that had been denied them by councillors. In total, over several years, they rejected 16 applications to remove the tank and replace it with a 100 per cent. glazed residential box, towering 100 feet or so above the town centre.

It is to the credit of Colchester borough councillors—the majority of them at any rate—that they refused to buckle. That is more than can be said of council planning officers, who were such enthusiastic supporters of what the owner and previous owners wanted that the views of councillors and English Heritage were brushed aside. Fortunately, English Heritage was made of sterner stuff and refused to budge, unlike the Victorian Society, which was initially opposed to the loss of the tank, but which, in due course, demonstrated what a spineless organisation it is by caving in and meekly agreeing to what the owner wanted to do. Why did it do that, I wonder?

An attempt was also made to get English Heritage to drop its opposition. The owner wrote to the then chief executive in a manner that was clearly designed to put pressure on officers further down the line. I am relieved to say that that tactic did not work.

The Minister may care to observe that party politics became involved. Councillors in all parties were initially opposed to what the owner wanted, but an astonishing about-turn then occurred, when Conservative councillors on the planning committee switched to supporting the owner. Later, in what I am sure was purely an amazing coincidence, in the opening leaflet of the general election campaign, the Conservative candidate made the jumbo water tower an election issue, supporting what the owner wanted. Any suggestion of financial support by the owner in return would, of course, be unthinkable in a democracy, particularly when planning applications are involved. It is certainly the case, however, that the owner's plan for the jumbo water tower was the subject of vocal support by the Conservative party's then shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) on a visit to Colchester.

The Labour candidate and I supported the borough council's opposition to the owner's plans. On polling day, our combined votes were two to one to the Conservative candidate, whose share of the vote fell, while my majority was trebled. The people of Colchester spoke. Alas, the planning inspector subsequently approved what the defeated Conservative candidate wanted—another bad day for democracy.

As an aside, the Minister may care to ponder the fact that the jumbo water tower was built by the visionary city fathers of Colchester corporation in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was funded by local ratepayers. In 1974, as a result of local government reorganisation, the tower and all other water assets were taken from the borough council and handed to the new publicly owned Anglian water authority.

Years later, the water industry was privatised by the Conservative Government and, in due course, the now redundant jumbo water tower was sold to property speculators. At no time did the people of Colchester receive a single penny in compensation for the public asset that was taken from them. It would be justice if the building was returned to public ownership, restored as a monument to Victorian civic pride and civil engineering excellence and turned into a tourist attraction and viewing platform, which is what local campaigners advocate.

The Minister will, of course, be aware of the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers. Its chairman wrote to me last month and said that the association's strategy, endorsed by the Local Government Association, had among its specific objectives the need to raise awareness of the value of the historic environment and the role of local authorities in its management, and improving access to the historic environment for the general public. In its "Strategy 2001–2006", in the section headed "Historic Buildings", the association states: ALGAO promotes the understanding and the conservation of all built historic structures. Historic landscape characterisation provides the broad context for individual buildings, establishing their contribution to local distinctiveness and supporting the sustainable management of all historic structures. ALGAO also calls for an extension of control over the demolition of historic structures and seeks to promote conservation of the built heritage in the context of sustainable development through retention and sympathetic adaptation. The ALGAO historic buildings committee says that it is working in partnership with English Heritage, the Institute of Historic Buildings Conservation, the Royal Town Planning Institute and others to achieve these objectives. Perhaps the Minister can state whether the Government also are seeking to achieve the objectives of conserving our built heritage. In my opinion, the Planning Inspectorate is not.

I sought this debate because I feel that the House should be made aware of the inadequacies of the present planning appeal system and, in particular, how even the excellent work of English Heritage can be dismissed by a single planning inspector. There must be a better system for determining cases when the overwhelming evidence of opponents of a development, the local democratically elected councillors and the expert recommendations of English Heritage all come to one conclusion only for a single inspector to overturn that conclusion in favour of an appellant who has, in effect, bought a permission through buying a listed building at a cost that reflects the planning constraints on it and then uses the planning system to obtain a consent against all the informed evidence and opinion.

I invite the Minister to consider carefully the need to improve the planning appeal system, particularly where it relates to listed buildings on which English Heritage has expressed views. Existing legislation is weak. It needs strengthening, otherwise even more of our nation's historic buildings will be lost.

7.16 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on his success in securing this debate on an important aspect of the Government's planning policy. I also congratulate him on the way in which he has presented his case. He has given a clear impression to the House of the importance of the preservation of historic buildings and of the strength of views in Colchester about this particular building. He is right: I have seen the water tower and remember it well as an outstanding and notable building.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot comment on the merits of this specific case because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has a formal role and responsibilities in the planning appeals process. However, it might be helpful if I set out the general legislative position and describe the policy pressures that come to bear on such matters. I shall also try to deal with some of the more general points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. He referred to the different positions that the political parties on the local authority took, and he will know that such decisions are bound by codes of conduct and suchlike.

I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about the important role played by the historic environment in so many areas of our lives and about the importance of protecting our built environment and heritage buildings. There are about 500,000 listed buildings in this country and we are incredibly lucky to have some of the most beautiful historic buildings in the world. From the Royal crescent in Bath to Liverpool's Liver building, from St Paul's cathedral in London to towns such as St. Albans and Saffron Walden, we have an architectural heritage of which we can be proud. Indeed, people from all round the world come to see it.

In Colchester, the community has its fair share of excellent buildings, with fine examples from Roman times through to the present day. The hon. Gentleman represents the town that can make the enviable claim to be Britain's oldest, so I need hardly tell him how important historic buildings are to the quality of our national life and to our sense of identity as a nation. In Colchester, they form part of its sense of being an important and thriving town. They also play a vital part in helping to make our towns and cities more vibrant and successful places in which to work and live.

"A Force for Our Future", which the Government published in December, sets out a wide-ranging vision that shows how we recognise fully the importance of the built heritage in our national life and the obligation to care for it for our own benefit and that of future generations. It stresses that the historic environment can improve the quality of life for all of us through the regeneration of our towns, cities and countryside, encouraging a greater sense of community and greater prosperity.

However, preservation need not mean fossilising buildings. Our planning policy guidance note 15, "Planning and the historic environment", recognises that generally the best way to secure the upkeep of historic buildings and areas is to keep them in active use. The restoration of historic buildings can play a major role in urban renewal by promoting confidence in the future of an area and by serving as a catalyst for stimulating regeneration, bringing together communities and tackling social exclusion.

In recent years we have seen the practice of adapting old buildings to make them available for the way we live now become more widespread, with loft apartments in warehouses, fashion designers working in old textile mills, offices in former factories, and shops and bars on canal wharves. I noted with some amusement the hon. Gentleman's description of what the building concerned would look like afterwards, but it is an example of another way in which a beautiful historic building can be preserved, and illustrates what can be achieved through a combination of innovation, commitment and enthusiasm.

At the same time, judging the best use for an historic building is one of the most important and sensitive assessments that local planning authorities and other bodies involved in conservation have to make. That is the nub of the hon. Gentleman's argument, and it might help if I broadly describe the planning system—not only what happens, but why it happens.

We need to have an effective framework of statutory protection for all elements of the historic environment. That is where the planning system has a key part to play. When applications involve works to listed buildings, decision makers must have special regard to the desirability of preserving the building, or its setting, or any features of special architectural or historic interest that the building possesses.

Central to the decision-making process are our planning policy guidance notes, which must be taken into account where relevant in decisions on planning and listed building consent applications. PPG 15 provides a full statement of Government policies for the identification and protection of historic buildings, conservation areas and other elements of the historic environment. It complements the guidance on archaeology and planning given in PPG 16.

It is important that those with particular expertise have their say before decisions are made, and it is clear that the process of consultation can enhance the quality of the end product. However, planning is not an exact science and cases vary widely. Decision makers are required to balance a range of factors—social, economic and environmental—when deciding whether or not to grant planning permission. Similarly, the weight that should be attached to the views of consultees and to other material considerations will vary according to the circumstances of the particular case.

I recognise that some people—the hon. Gentleman puts himself fair and square among them—are not happy that developers can appeal against a local council planning decision. However, that right of appeal is a long-established part of the planning system. When comprehensive planning controls were first introduced in 1947, Parliament decided that developers should have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State against a decision that prevented them from developing their land and property as they wished. That right has remained an integral part of the system. More recently, a review in 2000 of the Planning Inspectorate executive agency concluded that it remained the right body to handle appeals cases.

The hon. Gentleman will know that a review of the planning process is ongoing. I am sure that he will take the opportunity to make his views known. I assure him that no decision to overrule the judgment of a local planning authority is ever taken lightly. In all cases planning inspectors are fully briefed on the circumstances of the appeal proposal, and they will visit the site to familiarise themselves with its location and surroundings. The Planning Inspectorate has an impressive reputation in its handling of planning appeals. Each planning inspector acts in a quasi-judicial role as a mini-tribunal. The integrity, impartiality and fairness with which each appeal is handled is widely acknowledged. I am satisfied that inspectors are equipped to consider all relevant aspects of appeal cases.

The new appeals procedures that we introduced in 2000 are designed to balance the desire for timely decisions with the need to ensure that the public have sufficient time to participate fully in the appeals process.

Under the new rules, the local planning authority must notify people that an appeal has been made within two weeks from the starting date. Everyone consulted on the original application and anyone else who made representations at the application stage should be included. The process ensures that people have at least four weeks in which to make their comments known.

The vast majority of planning appeals in England are determined by planning inspectors. Typically, out of around 14,000 planning appeals each year, between 100 and 150 cases have been recovered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his own determination. We have set out guidelines for recovering cases. These include appeals involving proposals for large-scale retail or leisure development, significant development in the green belt and major proposals of more than local significance.

However, in recognition of their outstanding architectural or historic interest, my right hon. Friend automatically recovers appeals concerned with grade I and grade II* listed buildings. He may also recover other appeals involving listed buildings at his own discretion. The figure of 100 to 150 cases that I mentioned includes around 40 recovered appeals concerning listed buildings. That gives an indication of the thorough and detailed care and attention that is given to decisions on appeals.

If the hon. Gentleman would like some more information about the review of the planning process, I should be happy to ensure that he receives it, so that he can have an input. There is not enough time in the debate to go through all of that process.

Our historic buildings and sites are a great source of pleasure, as the hon. Gentleman said. They stand as a record of artistic and technical achievement and are an inspiration for creativity in our own age and for the future. They are a highly regarded and valuable focus for the life of many communities, as indeed is the building in Colchester to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As we said in "A Force for Our Future", there are already many good things happening, including greater access and more community involvement, but a great deal more remains to be done if the historic environment's full potential is to be realised. Good planning provides an essential underpinning to the success of our economy, our communities and our environment, not least our historic environment.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall take into account the views that he has expressed today in taking forward the various initiatives arising from "A Force for Our Future" and the planning Green Paper. I am grateful to him for bringing these issues to my attention today, and I am sure that he will continue vigorously to represent the views of his constituents on these matters.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Seven o'clock.