HC Deb 30 April 2004 vol 420 cc1111-9

'After section 1 of the Building Act 1984 (c. 55) insert—

"1A Buildings of special historical or architectural interest

(1) In making building regulations the Secretary of State shall have regard, in particular, to the desirability of preserving the character of protected buildings that are of special historical or architectural interest.

(2) In this section 'protected buildings' means—

  1. listed buildings within the meaning of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (see section 1(5) of that Act); and
  2. buildings situated in areas designated as conservation areas under section 69 of that Act.".'.—[Mr. Stunell.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

9.34 am
Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Bill spent two days in Committee. There was a broad consensus on its aims. Perhaps the consensus on its contents was not quite so complete, and one or two of my proposals that went into Committee bit the dust on the way through. The liveliest debate was on the subject of how my Bill might affect historic buildings. The hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) moved an amendment in Committee that secured support from all sides, but after debate she helpfully withdrew it, which allowed further consideration of how we might proceed to deal with the concerns that were raised.

New clause 1 is the outcome of that further consideration. It follows a round of meetings with the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North and English Heritage, the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister and other organisations interested in heritage matters. Earlier this week I attended a meeting with representatives of English Heritage, who tell me that they strongly support the new clause and the Bill as a whole, with its general intentions of improving the security of the building stock, its crime resistance and its environmental sustainability.

The clause requires the Secretary of State to have regard to the need to preserve the character of protected buildings when making regulations. Of course, he already does. In part L of the building regulations there are already specific solutions to some of the issues presented by the need to preserve the character of buildings while still allowing them to be fit for purpose, safe to use and, in the context of the Bill, sustainable. In any case, before any regulations came into force, there would be a round of consultations, and organisations and bodies with concerns about heritage buildings would be in a good position to make their concerns known. The clause gives a statutory basis for organisations such as English Heritage and others with a legitimate concern to have their views heard.

The clause requires the Minister to have regard to protected buildings, which it defines as those that are listed, in what one might call the anorak's jargon, and those that are in conservation areas. I have been told that there are about 370,000 listed buildings in England and Wales, although that includes some rather odd animals such as telephone kiosks and grottos in ornamental parks. However, as we discussed on Second Reading, there is considerable difficulty in this country in knowing what a building is and how many we have. That was also the subject of discussion in Committee.

The figure of 370,000 is at the top end. In reality, there are probably about 350,000 listed buildings, as might be commonly understood in the Chamber. Of those, about 9,000 are listed as grade I—that is, of the very highest quality both inside and outside. About 20,000 are listed as grade II*, which means they are of good quality outside, with some interesting features inside. More than 300,000 others are listed as grade II, which is what the man in the street would recognise as a listed building—one which, looked at from the outside, has a bit of character and history. That is one category that would be included in the clause.

Secondly, the clause covers buildings in conservation areas. There are about 9,000 conservation areas in this country, though interestingly enough, there is no requirement for local authorities to notify anybody when they designate conservation areas. That is probably a good thing, but it makes it hard to be sure how many there are and what is inside them.

Many of the listed buildings in the first category are, of course, in conservation areas, and the overlap between the two categories is large.

By definition, listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas form a unique part of our country's environment, and in many cases they are cultural cornerstones—one has only to examine parts of London to see their impact on our national identity and sense of Britishness, or maybe Englishness.

Historic buildings also produce economic benefits because they generate tourism and travel. There were 63 million visits to historic visitor attractions last year, plus many more visits to picturesque villages and ancient town centres, so buildings have a significant employment and economic value.

My Bill properly takes account of the special needs and concerns of those who manage historic buildings. I want to make it clear that the new clause will not exempt such buildings from building regulations, but it will ensure that when the building regulations emerge, they must take account of special needs and characteristics. That might be in the form of approved documents, of which there are already examples, containing standard solutions that can be taken off the shelf and adapted so that they work unobtrusively, even on sensitive historic buildings. Alternatively, regulations might be drawn up to permit flexibility, perhaps taking a whole building approach to compliance rather than requiring specific elements of the building to comply. The objective that the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) sought in Committee can clearly be achieved and in a straightforward and simple way, and the new clause provides the foundations for that.

Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe) (Lab)

I apologise for missing the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks. Will regulations produced under the new clause exempt specific buildings, or will the procedure be more flexible than that? Will buildings such as telephone kiosks be ignored because they cannot be brought into line?

Mr. Stunell

The hon. Gentleman's question is on the second or third tier of decision taking. I appreciate that he was not privy to our discussions on Second Reading and in Committee. My Bill enables regulations to be made in the future, but it does not prescribe them. The new clause does not prescribe regulations, but it states that the Secretary of State shall have regard to the particular needs of historic buildings when he considers regulations. The example raised by the hon. Gentleman is precisely the kind of issue that must be weighed up when a specific regulation is considered.

Approved documents are one of the two routes on regulations. They are on-the-shelf solutions that somebody can take down and use, and they might need to include one or two models that are suitable for historic buildings. The other route is to say, "You do not have to comply with any specific set of proposals as long as at the end of it you have got a building that does not leak heat, that stands up and from which people can escape in the case of fire." I hope that I have reassured the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer), but if not, I am sure that he will come back to me.

The new clause is a useful safeguard, although I have seen little evidence that it will be needed, because all the signs are that that point is taken into account when regulations are drawn up, regardless of the Government or the individual Minister. I have responded to the points made in Committee, and I hope that the new clause will reassure not only hon. Members, but organisations such as English Heritage, which were keen to see it. Bearing in mind the all-party support in Committee, I hope that the new clause is an uncontroversial addition to my Bill, which is now in a form approved by parliamentary counsel, and I hope that the House will agree it rapidly today.

9.45 pm
Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings) (Con)

I do not intend to detain the House for long, because we have a lot of business, all of which is of great significance. It is worth having a word, however, given that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) properly said that the Bill received all-party support in Committee, where I was able to wax lyrical at considerable length about the Bill's importance in relation to the marvellous work done by the Prince of Wales on this subject.

I shall make three points. First, I shall amplify the point about enabling legislation. The new clause enables and does not oblige, and in that sense it is a helpful and measured addition to the Bill, given that it does not necessarily create a great deal more regulation, which is always an issue with this kind of private Member's Bill. There has ever beer a certain tension between the desire to protect and the problem of over-regulation, and I must say that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove has recognised that tension in much of what he has said and written about his Bill.

Secondly, the new clause is consistent with the rest of the Bill. Sustainability is about having proper concern for the desirability of preserving the character of protected buildings that are of special or architectural interest. It would be quite wrong to see the thrust of the rest of Bill outside the context, which the hon. Member for Hazel Grove has set out today, of the footprint that buildings make upon the landscape; of their relationship with the history of the communities in which they sit; and of their balance with other structures around them. It is important that we use this opportunity to reinforce the significance of buildings of historical importance.

Thirdly, the objective is achievable. The Bill is in line with best practice, which, as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove properly we often enjoy owing to the good work of organisations such as English Heritage. However, I shall sound a warning note: he was, as ever, measured, but concerns have been raised in my constituency and elsewhere that the prospective changes to how buildings are identified, which he did not mention, may put more buildings at risk. I am not making a judgment on that point, but that view has been expressed.

I ought to have declared this interest at the beginning of my contribution I live in a listed building. I must say that it is not one of the first 9,000 listed buildings, and it is not even one of the next 20,000 listed buildings—I may be a star, but my home is not starred—but it is one of the 300,0000 ordinary listed buildings. I have a personal interest in the matter, which I care about for that reason and for many others. There is concern that our system of listing might be diluted by some of the changes that have been mentioned. As in Committee, I draw the attention of the Minister and the hon. Member for Hazel Grove to the at-risk registers, and to the large number of buildings that have sadly been added to those registers and which remain of considerable concern. The hon. Gentleman will have watched assiduously—because he is the sort of man who would—the programme "Restoration", which highlighted many interesting buildings that were at risk. I understand that there is to be a new series. That exercise provided a small illustration of a much bigger problem. In most of our constituencies, there will be an interesting building that is of architectural significance and adds to the landscape, but is at risk. I mention that as a caveat to the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

I am glad to associate myself with the new clause, and I am confident that this particular Minister will take it on board with relish.

Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD)

I, too, strongly support the new clause, which is intended to remove a potential barrier in the Bill in relation to environmental issues such as fuel poverty and climate change.

Historical properties and conservation areas account for an enormous amount of domestic tourism, and it is important that they be allowed to thrive. Guildford has a conservation area in its centre. Other cities, such as Bath and York, are able to offer tourism to people with a wide variety of interests. For example, one family member may want to look at the architecture while another wants to go shopping. Such dual-purpose visits bring money into the economy of an area and the UK as a whole. It is important that those high-quality buildings attract investment when renovation is needed. There are a plethora of small properties in conservation areas such as the Cotswolds and the Yorkshire moors. Together, they contribute a great deal to the cultural wealth of the area, as well as to its economy.

I hope that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) suggested, we will be able to find a range of standard solutions. For example, if the roof of a building is being renovated, that offers an opportunity to increase insulation. Businesses could specialise in solutions that consider the building its a whole, to ensure that it plays its part in reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

That is particularly applicable to smaller buildings. I am thinking about a row of shops in Guildford—delightful buildings. If one shop needs renovating, those on either side are also hidden by bulky scaffolding and often passers-by cannot see whether they are in business. They are not chain stores, but individual craftspeople. There is a hat shop next door to an absolutely delightful cake-decorating shop—that is where the bride's mother goes when she is planning a wedding. Lengthy renovations with scaffolding everywhere can detract from the vibrancy of the area.

That is why I am keen to have standard solutions to ensure that when renovations take place, people know what work they will be doing before the scaffolding goes up. Then, the work can be done quickly and effectively while retaining the character and charm of such areas, which we all want to enjoy.

I will be delighted if this thoughtful and sensible new clause goes forward with the rest of the Bill to become a helpful change in the building regulations.

Dr. Palmer

I, too, support the Bill and the principle of the new clause. I am particularly enticed by the vision of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) living in his historical grotto: we would not wish to disturb his lair.

My only reservation is that, as the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) said, listed buildings are a very varied collection of animals. Often, the owner of a listed building finds himself in a catch-22 situation whereby he is forbidden to make the changes that are needed to make it economical to run, or to knock it down, but unable to maintain it in its present state. I hope that the new regulations are not applied in such a way as to make that dilemma worse.

Conversely, though, we need to ensure that we do not create a large loophole in the Bill by having a vast category of buildings for which it becomes the normal practice that we do not bother to try to improve insulation and take the other desirable measures mentioned in the Bill.

The new clause strikes a reasonable balance by allowing for special considerations for such buildings. but not insisting on their application in every case. Despite the hon. Gentleman's clarification, I think that he would agree that cases will arise in which a local authority would, as with other buildings, feel it open to it not to press for any particular modifications. The whole Bill is about giving an authority the option to do so, rather than requiring it to do so. For some buildings—and perhaps grottoes—the necessary modifications will not be practical.

With that qualification, I warmly support the new clause.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope)

It is good to be here to debate the Bill on Report, and I hope that it will be successful in receiving its Third Reading. I will say more about the Bill overall when we reach that stage, but for now I shall address my remarks specifically to the new clause.

An amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, North (Ms Walley) in Committee regarding the desirability of preserving the historic or architectural interest of certain buildings was withdrawn for further consideration because it was felt that its scope was too wide, although the principle behind it received general support. That is reflected in what hon. Members have said this morning. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) for tabling the new clause, which the Government consider honours the principle that received cross-party support in Committee.

The new clause says that the special character of listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas should be taken into account by the Secretary of State in making building regulations. The difficulty that we had with the amendment in Committee was that its definition of protected buildings included those in national parks and in areas of outstanding beauty. That remit was regarded as too wide, as it took no account of the character of the buildings themselves, only of their location.

The new clause recognises current practice in proposing new or amended building regulations. In doing so, we do not consider general exemptions for historic buildings. I want to say to my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) that a general exemption is precisely the kind of loophole that we do not want. That is why the enabling power is worded as it is; the regulations resulting from it will deal with the matter.

10 am

Where appropriate, the approved documents that support the regulations, which will be drawn up and published at the same time as the draft regulations, will give guidance on how the requirements should be applied to such buildings. For example, the current documents for part L, which deals with conservation of fuel and power, and part M, which covers access to and use of buildings, both contain guidance on how the requirements in those parts should be applied to historic buildings or those in conservation areas. As I said in Committee, in relation to individual buildings, local authority conservation officers and local authority building control officers will discuss how best the requirements might be applied to historic buildings or those in conservation areas.

It is widely felt that this pragmatic approach works well both in achieving compliance with the building regulations and in preserving the historic or architectural interest of protected buildings. The new clause will not disturb those arrangements. I am delighted that the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes), living in whatever folly or grotto he lives in, is able to support the Bill. He reminded us in Committee of his concern for beauty, saying: I, too, am sympathetic to the amendment. It is vital that we strike the balance that my hon. Friend described, but I err towards that balance being struck in favour of beauty."—[Official Report, Standing Committee C, 3 March 2004; c. 21.] He then gave us a very good description of what he meant by beauty, which impressed us all, even though it was slightly irrelevant to the Bill. The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) also served on the Committee, and she made an important point today about tourism in conservation areas. The detailed points that she made about the regulations are obviously not a matter for the Bill at this stage, but will be a matter for consideration under the building regulations. No doubt when we go out to consultation on any new regulations resulting from the Bill, those points will be taken into account.

Mr. Hayes

I had not been aware until this morning that the Minister had become such an aficionado of my Tory aestheticism. The hon. Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) made a good point about tourism, but we must never assume that purely utilitarian justifications have to be made for aesthetic value. It is for the love of beauty, and perhaps for the beauty of art, that we should endorse the desire of the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) to put this clause into the Bill.

Phil Hope

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I think that we both have a similar vision of the kind of beauty that we wish to see retained in our historic buildings and conservation areas.

Concern has been expressed that the new clause might affect compliance with the requirements of the Disability Discrimination Act 1995. That was not raised in Committee, but I want to put on record that that is certainly not the Government's view of the intention of the new clause, and I can assure the House that we would not propose regulations that had that affect. As the Minister responsible for building regulations, one of the interesting requirements of the job is the need to reach a balance between various dilemmas. Later clauses in the Bill cover secure buildings, and on Second Reading we discussed how that security needed to be reconciled with ensuring that people could get out of a building easily if it were to catch fire. We have to reconcile different kinds of regulations for different purposes.

We certainly do not want the regulations that we would be empowered to make under the Bill to have a negative effect in regard to the Disability Discrimination Act. Building regulations are goal-based and, within the goals, there will be sufficient flexibility both to ensure that the requirements of the Act are satisfied and to preserve the historic character of buildings.

I am happy to say that the Government welcome the new clause, and support its standing part of the Bill.

Mr. Stunell

I should like to the thank hon. Members who have supported the new clause for the kind words that they have uttered on its behalf. I do not want to waste the time of the House this morning.

I very much enjoyed what the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) had to say in Committee. I did point out to him that the Prince of Wales actually did not like some of the buildings now being listed, but there we go. That is how it is. My hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Sue Doughty) made an important point about the value of our historic heritage in many different dimensions. She then put her finger on another problem, which was also raised by the hon. Member for south Holland and The Deepings, which I would describe as that of regeneration. Practically everyone knows examples of buildings that are falling into disuse or decay because of a lack of investment possibilities. The new clause will minimise the number of occasions on which that problem might arise. It will not generate any funds, but it represents an improvement on the current situation, which I hope will give some reassurance to those two hon. Members.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) made an interesting point about the way in which the regulations might inhibit investment in listed buildings. I believe that planning regulations will be the more likely barrier than building regulations. I honestly cannot see that this is likely to be an issue in relation to building regulations.

A point that has not been raised in the debate so far, but which is nevertheless relevant, relates to what is called embedded energy. Demolishing and rebuilding might seem an easy option for a dilapidated and decaying historic building, but it represents a very poor deal in terms of carbon emissions. It is possible to spend quite a lot on refurbishment to produce a building with very respectable qualities of sustainability, and still to have spent less than it would have cost to demolish and rebuild. That would also produce a more sustainable outcome than building something brand new, whatever its standard. So a proper understanding of sustainability, which is now beginning to grow, suggests that refurbishment and regeneration often represent a better way of improving sustainability than demolition and rebuilding to a completely new standard.

The Minister was reassuring when he confirmed that this measure does not provide a loophole; it does not exempt any building from any building regulation. It only requires those regulations to heed the circumstances of listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas. At present, building regulations apply to approximately 1 per cent. of the building stock that is built or significantly altered each year. They do not touch the other 99 per cent. My Bill makes it possible, in certain circumstances, for the other 99 per cent. to come within the remit of building regulations, in terms of sustainability. The new clause gives special consideration to 5 per cent. of that 99 per cent., so the Bill will still capture, with full force, more than 90 per cent. of this country's building stock. It will give some limited special consideration to buildings of historic and architectural interest, amounting to bout 5 per cent. of our building stock, and I strongly commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

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