HL Deb 27 July 1967 vol 285 cc1325-8

7.47 p.m.

BARONESS PLUMMER rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are yet in a position to say what provision will be made in the Town and Country Planning Bill for the preservation of places of historic or architectural interest, and whether they will make a Statement. The noble Baroness said: My Lords, I beg to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. Would my noble friend agree how real is the importance and beauty of our historic town and countryside houses and the part they play in tourist attraction? Is he also aware of the growing concern over the loss of listed buildings every year?—reminding him of his statement last summer that listed buildings were being lost at the rate of 400 a year. The recent Civic Amenities Bill binds local authorities to designate conservation areas and attend to the preservation and enhancement of their character in exercising their planning functions, and it also gives local authorities power to purchase a house for preservation purposes and to carry out emergency repairs at their own expense to unoccupied houses.

I see from the recent White Paper on Town and Country Planning that further provisions for the protection of buildings of historic and architectural interest will be announced later and will be included in the Town and Country Planning Bill. Has my noble friend any news of these? Much has already been done, and this country, happily, is not among the laggards in protecting its architectural heritage; but we are still very conscious of the fact that fine old houses and fine old towns are going all the time and that so much more remains to be done.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for asking this Question at this moment—the very last item of business, not on the last day of the Session but on the last day before the holidays. I entirely agree with the noble Lady about the importance of the matters comprehended in her Question and would confirm that the Government welcome the changes proposed in Part I of the Civic Amenities Act which was recently before your Lordships' House and has received the Royal Assent, as my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor has just told us, to-day. My right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government, in conjunction with the Secretary of State for Wales, will shortly be communicating with local authorities about the implementation of the Bill, and I hope that the Government and local authorities will, together, be able to move in this way towards a steady improvement in the arrangements for preserving this part of our heritage.

At the same time, as the White Paper on Town and Country Planning indicated, we believe that some further strengthening is needed in the law. The basis on which the protection of historic buildings rests is, of course, the statutory lists prepared by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government of buildings of special architectural or historic interest. It has been, as your Lordships know, an immense task which has taken very many years to complete, but we have recently made a great effort to speed things up—and with some success. At the end of 1964 25 per cent. of the local authority areas had not got their statutory lists. To-day there are fewer than 4 per cent. who have not, and I am able to say with some confidence that the issue of statutory lists covering the whole of England will have been virtually completed by the end of this year. The lists include more than 100,000 buldings, apart from the supplementary lists, which do not have statutory force but cover approximately another 100,000. The process of listing can, however, never be finished because we must constantly be revising the lists to keep them up to date with physical changes and changes in public taste.

My Lords, the noble Baroness asked specifically whether there was yet news of the Planning Bill, as the White Paper on Town and Country Planning said there would be. I am now in a position to announce that the Government intend to make five changes in the law concerning the preservation of listed buildings. They are as follows. First: At present, anyone who wants to demolish or alter a listed building has to give six months' notice of his intention to the local authority. If the local authority does not put on a building preservation order and get it confirmed by the Minister in that time, he is free to go ahead. If the local authority does put on a building preservation order, the owner of the building may appeal against it to the Minister; and even if he does not appeal against it to the Minister the latter must specifically confirm it. In either of these cases the Minister often has to set up a local inquiry to go into objections. When a building preservation order is confirmed it does not mean that it is impossible to demolish or alter that building; it simply means that the owner must have express permission to do so. For this permission he can apply to the local authority, and, if it is refused he can again appeal to the Minister, in which case there may be a second local inquiry. So it can happen that there are two local inquiries going into exactly the same case.

This is a cumbrous procedure and the Government propose to simplify it by running the two stages into one. The Town and Country Planning Bill, which it is my right honourable friend's intention to introduce, will provide that the mere fact of listing will have the same effect as a building preservation order does at present; that is to say, anyone wishing to demolish or alter a listed building must apply to the local authority for express permission to do so, and, if he is refused it, may appeal to the Minister. This reform will eliminate a great deal of time-wasting, expense and confusion, and will provide more effective control.

Second: The main cause of the loss of listed buildings is decay, and in some cases (about which there has been publicity recently) the decay has been not unwelcome to the owner of the listed building, who wanted nothing so much as to demolish it and develop the site. At present, if the owner of a listed building wilfully damages it in such a way as to accelerate decay—for instance by removing a tile from the roof, so letting the rain in—local authorities already have the power to make him reinstate the damage. But if he just stands aside and lets the wind blow the tile off, the local authority has no power to make him replace it. Subject to detailed consultations which are still going on, it is my right honourable friend's intention to give local authorities that power. It will enable them to require the owner of a listed building to carry out specified repair works within a specified time, and if he does not, to do the work themselves and recover the cost from the owner. There will be provisions for appeal against the exercise of these powers—for instance, if the owner claims that he cannot afford it, or that the works required go beyond the simple purpose of preserving the building.

Third: At present it is possible for local opinion to be unaware, until it is too late to make representations, that there is a proposal to demolish, or alter, a listed building. This may be preventing the growth of an informed interest in the amenities of our towns and villages so the Government will provide that a local authority which receives such a proposal must advertise it in the local Press.

Fourth: Is an administrative reform to speed up the listing process itself. It is that the responsibility for transmitting the notice of listing to the owner of a property should be transferred from the Minister to the local authority.

Fifth: For unavoidable reasons a few listed buildings must continue to be demolished, and it is proposed to provide that the owner in such cases must allow the recording of the building before it is demolished.

My Lords, the Government have had evidence that willing buyers of listed buildings sometimes arrive just too late to save them. We are therefore considering what machinery can best be provided to remedy this situation. My right honourable friend, the Secretary of State for Scotland will be consulting in due course the local authority associations and other bodies concerned in Scotland, with a view to including similar provisions in the new Scottish planning legislation foreshadowed in the White Paper.