HL Deb 15 July 1974 vol 353 cc844-58

3.0 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This is a Bill entirely concerned with the environment, and with only one aspect of the environment—conservation. But this is an aspect which has been growing in public interest. There are several reasons for this interest. Partly it is because of the pace of development, which means that familiar buildings and landmarks suddenly disappear and are replaced by modern buildings which often seem out of scale with the rest of the townscape or landscape, and partly it is because we recognise the importance of our architectural heritage, not just as something that we enjoy to-day but as something that we wish to pass on to our children.

This interest in the subject of conservation is reflected in the legislation of past years, which in its turn reflects the change in the thinking of town and country planners. We are moving away from the concept of the listed building by itself—immensely valuable as this is—for this can mean that the building stands alone, beautiful but out of character with those that surround it, and we are moving towards the concept of a conservation area. A conservation area is a small area or group of buildings which, taken together and in relation to each other, make up an area of special architectural interest which ought to be conserved as a whole, and any additions or infilling must be in character with the rest of the area.

The Civic Amenities Act 1967 established conservation areas and was sponsored by my noble friend Lord Duncan Sandys, who we are delighted to see will be making his maiden speech on this Bill to-day. I know we shall all listen with great interest to what he has to say, not only because of his great work for conservation but also because he is President of the Civic Trust which has done so much to encourage the sponsors of this Bill. It is indeed a tribute to the work of my noble friend Lord Duncan Sandys that there are now some 3,000 conservation areas in the country. I should also like to pay tribute to the work of Mrs. Jennifer Jenkins who, besides being the wife of the present Home Secretary, is Secretary of the Ancient Monuments Society and has also done much to encourage the sponsors of this Bill.

This Bill has all-Party support. It was originally introduced by a private Member in another place, Sir John Rodgers, in the last Parliament when it had Government support. It has been sponsored in this Parliament by my honourable friend Mr. Michael Shersby, and, again, it has Government support. The Bill has been discussed with the local authority associations and I think it is fair to say that they support the principles of (he Bill, as does the Civic Trust, whose Secretary, Mr. Peter Robshaw, has acted as adviser not only on the drafting of the Bill but to all those who are seeking to promote it in Parliament. The Bill comes at an opportune time. The new local authorities came into being on April 1, and both the county councils and the district councils have concurrent powers for the designation of conservation areas.

Clause 1 of the Bill requires local planning authorities to consider within a given period the conservation areas already designated within their boundaries, and whether they should designate any more. Secondly, it empowers the Secretary of State to designate conservation areas himself, but only after consultation with the local planning authority concerned. It introduces a new principle in that it brings within a conservation area buildings which are not listed within the scope of local planning authorities. Thus local planning authorities can cither give or withhold consent for demolition on any building, whether or not it is listed, which is within a conservation area. At the same time, it contains powers to enable the Secretary of State to make directions excluding buildings from the scope of Clause 1, because although nearly all the buildings in a conservation area will be of architectural merit it is easy to see that some may not, and should rightly be excluded.

Clause 2 makes the same provisions for Scotland as for England and Wales. Clause 3 makes special provisions for controlling the display of advertisements in conservation areas, which will be an additional safeguard. May I add a plea of my own on this clause? Although the Bill makes no mention of street furniture or traffic signs, I believe that these should be of a scale in keeping with the conservation area where they are placed. Clause 4 is concerned with the setting of a listed building. As I indicated at the beginning of my remarks, it is not enough simply to list a building if it is soon surrounded by totally incongruous buildings. The clause requires a local planning authority to advertise by public notice and in the Press, and to have the plans open for public inspection where, in the opinion of the local planning authority, any proposal would affect the setting of a listed building.

I turn now to Clauses 5 and 6, because both these clauses have caused concern to your Lordships. Clause 5 enables local authorities to recover the cost they incur in carrying out urgent works to unoccupied listed buildings. The Civic Amenities Act 1967 first gave local authorities power to do so; this Bill enables them to recover the cost. Perhaps I may add—because I hope it will help to alleviate the fears of some who are concerned about this clause—that it is not envisaged that such repairs would be other than emergency repairs to keep a building wind and weather proof. Also, it would be open to the owner, under subsection (2) of this clause, to have the right to make representations to the Secretary of State on the grounds that the demand was unreasonable, or that the works were unnecessary, or that there would be hardship to the owners.

Many representations have been made to me about this clause, including representations from the Scottish Landowners Federation and the County Landowners. I have considered this clause in the light of the fears that have been put to me about the additional costs that this could put on owners of listed buildings. Being a practically-minded person, I like to think of what is likely to happen. First, the local authority having tried to get the owner to do the necessary repairs and having failed to achieve this by negotiation, might decide to do them itself. Having taken this decision, the local authority would of course have to bear the cost in the first instance, and would then have to set about recovering the costs under Clause 5. Even then the owner can appeal, using one of the three grounds that I have already indicated. He can appeal to the Secretary of State and can argue that the work was unnecessary, or that the demand being made was unreasonable or—even if the work was necessary and the demand was reasonable—that it would cause hardship.

I feel that if we consider the practicalities of the situation some of the fears will be alleviated. Furthermore, an undertaking was given in Committee in another place that the Department of the Environment would issue a Circular on the Bill, which among other things explained how the Department would expect local authorities to interpret this Part of the Bill. And, as is usual before issuing a Circular, its contents would be discussed with the local authorities themselves and with the amenity groups.

Clause 6 has also caused concern, particularly to the Churches. As the law stands, if an owner of a listed building fails to keep it in good repair and a local authority wants to acquire it in order to preserve it, the compensation must be assessed on the assumption that consent would be given for its demolition. This means, in fact, that a local authority can find itself paying the full redevelopment value as if the site were cleared of the listed building, when it wishes only to preserve the building. The compensation could, therefore, be more than would be paid on the open market where any potential buyer would take account of the fact that the building was listed. This clause removes the anomaly by amending Section 116 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. Clause 7 requires any application by a local authority for listed building consent to demolish a building to be made to the Secretary of State, whether or not the local planning authority owns the building.

I turn now to Clauses 8 to 12. Clause 12 was in the original Bill, and on the advice of the Historic Buildings Council it makes it possible to pay a grant towards the upkeep of gardens or land of outstanding historic interest which are not adjacent to an historic building. This provision is new in conservation law, but it is important and is surely a protection for some of our fine gardens. Clauses 8 to 11 were added during the Committee stage of the Bill in another place and give added protection to trees in conservation areas. This surely derives naturally from the great interest in trees following upon Tree Planting Year 1973.

My Lords, I have outlined, albeit briefly, the main purpose of the Bill and I hope that it will commend itself to your Lordships. I believe that there is great public interest to-day in conservation, as witness the rapid growth of amenity societies, and nowhere is the feeling greater than among the young. I believe that the Bill will go some way to meeting this interest and will be a Bill which future generations will be glad that we passed. Alas! at this time of year the Parliamentary timetable is tight, so I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading and a speedy passage. I can conclude my remarks in no better way than by echoing the words of my honourable friend Mr. Michael Shersby when he introduced the Bill in another place and said that the Bill could be Parliament's contribution to European Architectural Heritage Year. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Baroness Young.)

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Young, has explained very clearly the purpose of the Bill and I am happy to say that it is a measure which the Government are pleased to give support. In view of the great interest and the activities which he has undertaken, I think it is very fitting that the noble Lord, Lord Duncan Sandys, should be making his maiden speech on it. I am sure that the whole House looks forward with keen anticipation to what he will have to say. The noble Baroness has explained the changes which the Bill proposes, particularly with regard to conservation areas. For my part I welcome the proposal to bring within control all demolition and conservation areas and to require local authorities to formulate and publicise schemes which will enhance the areas they have designated. This will ensure an increased role for local authorities and, we trust, encourage public participation in this increasingly important activity. While Central Government must play their part in providing effective legislation, it is at the level where local knowledge and expertise are readily available that effective conservation must begin. I congratulate the noble Baroness on her sponsorship of the Bill and I commend it to your Lordships. I hope that it will have a very speedy passage.

3.14 p.m.


My Lords, since this is the first occasion on which I have had the honour to address your Lordships' House I hope that I shall receive the indulgence which is customarily accorded to newcomers. I wish wholeheartedly to support this Bill which, among other things, Will help, as has been said, to strengthen the provision of the Civic Amenities Act 1967. Up till that time the laws relating to architectural conservation had concentrated on the protection of individual buildings of outstanding interest. As was said by my noble friend Lady Young—and I thank her for her generous remarks with regard to myself—the Act of 1967 introduced the wider concept of the conservation area. Since then, the principle of conserving entire areas has been adopted more and more widely throughout Europe. In fact, it has been made the central theme of the European Architectural Heritage Year of 1975.

There is no doubt that our laws on this subject are considerably more effective than those of most other countries. Nevertheless, experience has shown us certain weaknesses which the Bill seeks to rectify. As the law now stands, the responsibility for designating conservation areas rests with the local authorities concerned. On the whole, they have responded very well indeed. As has been said, over 3,000 conservation areas have already been designated, but these, one must say, are very unevenly spread and there are many notable and regrettable omissions. I therefore fully support the proposal to give to the Secretary of State the right to take the initiative himself and, where necessary, designate additional conservation areas, naturally after due consultation with the local authority.

As I have said, I warmly welcome the Bill as a whole, but there are two points on which I should like to comment. One of the most important provisions of the Bill is the one which makes it obligatory to obtain permission to demolish any building in a conservation area even if it is not a listed building. There are many buildings in conservation areas which individually may be of no special interest, but which fit quite unobtrusively into their surroundings. The demolition of such a building and its replacement by some other building of incongruous design or excessive size can all too easily destroy the unity and character of the entire scene. Of course, the planning authority already has the power to refuse permission for the construction of a new building of which it does not approve, but that power is not as effective as it might seem. Once a building has been demolished the yawning gap which it leaves is in itself an eyesore. The site cannot therefore be allowed to remain indefinitely vacant. Consequently, the authority may sooner or later find itself obliged to give permission for the construction of some new building which shows scant respect for the character of its older neighbours. If, as the Bill provides, permission has to be obtained to demolish any building in a conservation area, the local authority will be in a position to ask the developer to give some indication of what he proposes to construct in its place. But—and I think this must be pointed out—there is nothing to prevent the developer from subsequently changing his mind. Therefore, I consider that, in a conservation area, permission to demolish a building should be granted only in conjunction with full planning consent for the new building which is to replace it.

The Bill also authorises the Secretary of State to make special regulations for the control of advertising in conservation areas, but this does not seem, so far as I can see, to add anything to his existing powers. Under the Town and Country Planning Act of 1971 he already has the power to make: different regulations in respect of different areas. However, that Act provides for stricter regulations in what are called "areas of special control", which are defined as areas which require special protection on grounds of amenity". That definition, surely, exactly describes the nature and purpose of a conservation area. In my opinion, it would therefore have been better and simpler to declare that all conservation areas will automatically be deemed to be areas of special control, except in so far as they may be decontrolled by the Secretary of State.

My Lords, having said that, I recognise that the specific mention of conservation areas in the Bill, although it may not add any powers which do not already exist, will emphasise the duty of the Secretary of State to pay special attention to the control of advertising in these areas. That is particularly important since there is nothing which more completely destroys the dignity and quality of beautiful towns and villages than excessive and garish advertisements, by day or by night. Moreover, while most other improvements cost money, the restriction of advertising costs nothing at all. It requires only a little firmness and courage on the part of the Minister, who can, I am sure, count on the wholehearted support of Parliament and the public.

The Bill also gives much needed additional protection to listed buildings, trees and to historic gardens, which have received insufficient attention in previous legislation. The Bill, therefore, represents a further major step forward which will be widely welcomed. I have explained that there are two points on which the Bill does not go as far as I should like, but I hasten to say that I have no intention whatsoever of tabling any Amendments which would delay its progress. This Bill has been lost once already as a result of the Dissolution last February. Since there seems to be some possibility of another General Election before long, we must not risk losing the Bill a second time. Therefore, while warmly congratulating its sponsor, Mr. Michael Shersby, may I express the hope that your Lordships will make sure that this valuable Measure gets safely on to the Statute Book before the Recess.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, it is my privilege to extend to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan Sandys, the congratulations of the House on the notable maiden speech he has just delivered. He is no stranger to Parliamentary oratory, and in another place has delivered many notable speeches. It is good to know that we shall be able to look forward to the help of his eloquence and knowledge. There is no Bill upon which he could more suitably have made his maiden speech, since everyone knows his great concern and expertise in matters of conservation. We extend to him our most warm congratulations, and look forward to hearing him on many occasions in the future.

My Lords, I speak to-day in this debate in my capacity as Chairman of the Churches Main Committee, which is a body which represents all the main religious denominations in this country, so your Lordships will appreciate that I shall be speaking mainly about the position of the Churches in relation to this Bill. I should like to make it clear, however, that I am not seeking any special exemptions or concessions for the Churches. Most of what I have to say could equally be said by any owner of a listed building. The reason the Churches are especially concerned is because probably they own more listed buildings than any other group in this country.

The market value of a listed redundant church restricted to its existing use is probably less than any other comparable piece of property. These buildings usually represent about the only material asset which a Church may possess. If I may give your Lordships some figures, the Church of England owns at least 11,000 listed buildings, the Church of Wales some 600, the Baptist Union probably some 400, and the Methodist Church some 350. Of course, the Churches have not themselves bought or acquired these buildings. For the most part they have inherited from the past and often, especially as regards our Victorian heritage, they are a considerable embarrassment. May I remind your Lordships that these are for the most part owned and maintained by bodies or individuals with very few resources. In the case of the Church of England, ownership is vested in the incumbent of a parish. In the case of most of the other Christian denominations, ownership is usually vested in local trustees or stewards who represent the local congregation. In the Church of England, repairs and maintenance are the responsibility of the parochial church council, and in most of the other Churches, of the local congregation.

So long as a church remains in use for Church purposes those responsible struggle to maintain it despite all the difficulties of escalating costs, costs to which must now be added 10 per cent. for V.A.T. Of course, these people do not receive a penny piece of State aid. Churches are not in business to preserve buildings, however desirable that may be, but to do the work of the Church. If a building ceases to be used for Church purposes, it is essential that the owners should be able to divest themselves as soon as possible of the burden of maintaining it. They need to realise the capital value which it represents, so that they can carry on the work of the Church elsewhere. Some Churches are already in great difficulty over the maintenance of redundant churches for which they are unfortunate enough to have responsibility. For instance, I am thinking of the case of the Brunswick Chapel in Leeds, a building for which the Methodist Church now has no use, which has cost hundreds of pounds in the last six years to supervise and protect, which needs thousands of pounds spending on it to repair the roof and the ceiling, and which has limited use to which it can be put by other purchasers because of its listing; also, it has a graveyard round it.

My Lords, it is for this reason that the Churches were at first much dismayed when they saw Clause 5 of the Bill and the power it gives to local authorities to charge owners with the cost of repairing unoccupied listed buildings. The noble Baroness said this would be only emergency work, but with a church, even putting up the scaffolding can be an extremely expensive operation. At any rate, at first sight this clause seemed to be a very serious threat. However, the Churches are now prepared to withdraw their opposition to this clause because assurances have been given by the Government that a circular will be sent to local authorities drawing their attention to the special problems which confront the Churches, and also because we now think it unlikely that in practice this clause will be used where churches are concerned. The local authority has to carry out the repairs in the first instance, and is unlikely to be very successful in recovering money from owners who have no money to provide. Therefore, we think and hope that this clause will remain a dead letter so far as the church buildings are concerned.

Clause 6, however, dealing as it does with capital values, is a different matter, and here I must ask your Lordships' patience in drawing attention to the disastrous effect which listing can have on the value of a building and the problems which it can create for its owner. An example of the effect on values is shown by a recent court case in which the value of a listed church in Rochester which would cost £35,000 to replace was given as only £4,300, if the church was restricted to its existing use. In another current case, that of a listed Methodist church in Leeds, the value if it could be demolished and sold for redevelopment might be a quarter of a million pounds. The value restricted to current use is nominal, since the building is a liability rather than an asset. Thirdly, there is the case of a United Reformed church in Croydon which stands between two office blocks. Its value for existing use is no more than some £10,000, but if it could be demolished and the site redeveloped it might be worth some half million pounds.

Apart from its effect on values, listing can also have a serious effect on the arrangements for the future of the building and the site. May I quote another current case in Keighley, that of the Temple Street Methodist Church. Here practically all the arrangements had been completed for the church to be sold to the Keighley Corporation when it became known that the building had been listed. The Bradford Metropolitan District immediately intimated that they did not wish to purchase the building if there was a listing order on it. The result has been that instead of the Methodist Trustees being able to proceed with plans for the development of their church work elsewhere they now have on their hands a useless building, which may cost them just as much to maintain as those in the other cases I have mentioned. Your Lord-ships will, therefore, not be surprised that the Church authorities, and for all I know other owners, learn with great concern of the listing of their buildings, particularly as, may I remind your Lordships, an owner is not necessarily consulted about the listing of his building, has no appeal against it, and very often does not even become aware that his building has been listed until months after the event.

This brings me to Clause 6 of the Bill. Here again I must ask your Lordships to bear with me, in a particularly treacherous field, while I try to explain as best I can what we interpret Clause 6 as attempting to do, and why the Churches feel very anxious about it. At first sight Clause 6 appears to mean that in assessing the compensation no regard is to be paid to any value which could be realised by demolishing the building, and so the compensation would be based on the value of the land for its existing use. What this may mean is illustrated by the hypothetical case of two buildings side by side in an area which has been compulsorily acquired for redevelopment. One building is listed and the other is not. Under Section 116 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, as it stands at present, both owners get identical treatment. In the case of the unlisted building no listed building consent is needed for demolition, and so automatically the owner gets the development value of the site. In the case of the listed building the valuer is directed by Section 116 to assume that listed building consent will be forthcoming for demolition, and so the owner, too, gets his development value. Both owners are thus put on an equal footing. Indeed Section 116 seems to have been intended to ensure just that; namely, that the owner of a listed building receives the same terms as the owner of an unlisted building, a position which most people might regard as no more than just.

However, it seems that this situation is thought to have led to abuse, since it may enable the owner of a listed building to realise development value which he could have realised in no other way, because in practice he would never have obtained consent for the building to be demolished. There is thus an opportunity, it is argued, to buy a listed building and to unload it on to the acquiring authority for the full development value. I have reason to suppose that this was the abuse which the Promoters of this Bill were concerned to stop. But by making Clause 6 amend Section 116 of the 1971 Act, which applies over the whole field of compulsory acquisition, the Government have made it the opportunity, rightly or wrongly, to make a change in the code of compensation for compulsory acquisition. What the result appears to be is that instead of the two owners of the two buildings side by side receiving equal compensation the owner of the listed building will now receive less, if this amendment goes through, because what he will receive is the market value of a listed building, and that, as I have shown, is less, and often considerably less, than the market value of an unlisted building.

We are assured by the Department that although the valuer will no longer be directed to assume that listed building consent will be given for the demolition of the building, he will be entitled to consider the prospects of obtaining that consent in the particular circumstances, and so the compensation received by the owner may not be as low as might have originally been feared. That may or may not be so. All I can say at present, without going into a very long and technical explanation, is that the lawyers and valuers who advise the Churches are not quite sure that this will in fact be the result in every case. Accordingly, had time permitted I would have wished to move an Amendment in Committee which would have confined the operation of Clause 6 to cases where a building is being listed for preservation, to the sort of cases which the Promoters of the Bill have in mind, and would have left unaffected the position where the listed building is acquired for demolition. Unfortunately, time does not so permit. I have also been told that the Government are not prepared to accept any Amendment, so that if one were successfully moved they woud not be prepared to give it time to be discussed in another place and the Bill would therefore be lost. In these circumstances, and rather than risk the loss of the Bill, most of which everyone would support, I shall not now be moving any Amendment, although I may have to ask the noble Lord who will be speaking on the Committee stage one or two questions designed to elucidate just what compensation a Church might expect in various circumstances if Clause 6 goes through in its present form.

In a debate about preservation, however, I could not let the opportunity pass of drawing attention publicly to the other side of the coin, and to the very real problems, financial and otherwise, which may be caused to those who are unfortunate enough, if you call it that, to own a building that is to be preserved. The Churches are perhaps more fortunate than some other owners, in this respect, that if a church is a going concern and if its work is to be carried on somewhere else then it may be entitled to claim compensation based on equivalent reinstatement. But if a church is redundant, or if for one reason or another equivalent reinstatement is not appropriate, the Church may well be worse off than another owner of a listed building, since the latter, if it is a house, for example, usually has at least some existing use value as a house, whereas a church very often has no value apart from any development value that remains in the site. In that case the loss of value on listing can be enormous, especially as so many of the redundant Victorian churches I have mentioned are in High Streets and city centres where the rich merchants and industrialists who built them had their personal interests.

Clause 6 will make the matter worse by ensuring that owners receive only their low existing use value as listed buildings when they are compulsorily acquired for preservation. When the results of listing are pointed out to Ministers, they are apt to say that under the rules the consequences of planning decisions lie where they fall, and that owners must expect some limitation on their freedom in the interests of the community. The first argument might be a little more acceptable if listing followed consultation and could be the subject of appeal, but it cannot. As for the second argument, owners of listed buildings may well wonder why they are singled out for financial burdens from which those fortunate enough to own unlisted buildings are free.

However, there is nothing that we can do about it in the Bill, most of which, as I have said, the Churches would warmly support. I can only hope that the Minister, in the Circular to the local authorities that he has promised, will draw special attention to the difficulties of the Churches and urge that everything possible be done to alleviate them. I also hope that the Board of Inland Revenue, in their Circular to district valuers, will urge them, in assessing the compensation when listed buildings are compulsorily acquired, not to lay too much stress on the effect of Clause 6 in removing the automatic assumption as to demolition, but to accept the pos- sibility that the building may otherwise have been demolished in every case in which that can reasonably be done.

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