HL Deb 15 July 1974 vol 353 cc864-73

Second Reading debate resumed.

3.58 p.m.


My Lords, to continue with the Town and Country Amenities Bill I wish first to add my congratulations to those of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London and to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan Sandys, on his excellent maiden speech. I know that all of us here look forward to many more valuable and similarly erudite contributions from him in the future.

I have to declare an interest as a member of that body mentioned by the noble Baroness, Lady Young, the Scottish Landowners' Federation who, as we have heard from the noble Baroness, have some reservations about one or two aspects of the Bill. It seems to me the main point of the Bill is to conserve all the countryside and to preserve old, valuable and historic buildings. I believe that aim is to be encouraged and fostered; it is absolutely praiseworthy, as is any measure which seeks to make the lives of all of us more restful, peaceful and enjoyable. But can any measure be absolutely perfect to start with?

Many of us in Scotland and, I understand, some members of the Country Landowners' Association in England, have one point which we would seek to have further cleared up by the noble Baroness. It naturally concerns Clause 5 of the Bill dealing with listed buildings of architectural or historic interest. There is no doubt that these buildings give a great deal of pleasure to thousands of visitors, many of them from abroad. Indeed, many organisations do valuable service to the community by identifying these buildings and wherever possible assisting the owner to repair, renew or possibly even restore the whole building. The greatest among these bodies, certainly in Scotland, is the National Trust for Scotland; but there are countless other preservation societies which do valuable work in their own areas. For myself, I have noticed a remarkable upswing of interest in all kinds of buildings and houses. Some of these places could not be considered as being really classic, yet large numbers of people gain pleasure from walking around and learning about local history, or from studying particular architecture. In many cases pleasure is mutual, both as regards the owners, who take great pride in showing their homes, and also as regards the general public.

But I think that all is not well when we take a close look at this Bill and at Clause 5, because certainly in one subsection it seeks to amend the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972, which already gives local authorities power to survey and to carry out building repairs or restoration on any building which comes within the scope of the approved historical or achitectural category. It would appear that Clause 5 of this Bill is designed to amend Section 97 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act to empower local authorities to recover from the owner of the land the expenses of any work on repairs or restoration. The noble Baroness sought to allay some of our fears, but in my own mind I am just not so confident as she is of the kindness of many of the local authorities. As I am sure she is aware, we are getting our new local authorities in Scotland on May 1 (I think it is) next year, but many of these authorities will be of a considerable size, and some members of the Landowners' Federation and of other bodies are a little concerned that the responsibilities of the local authorities, and in particular of the preservation sections of those authorities, may be a trifle large, and that they may get a little out of touch with what is and what is not of architectural or historical importance in a particular locality. What seems to be of interest in, say, Edinburgh or in Glasgow may not really be of such interest in the locality itself, in that there may be other and more worth while buildings which could be better and more cheaply restored.

I feel that there is a danger that local authorities may seek to push ahead and to restore some buildings, and may thereby cause an owner a certain amount of financial embarrassment and difficulty. Certainly in this Bill, in Clause 5, we find subsection (6) of the new section, which gives the Secretary of State or the local authority the power to require the owner to pay the costs of all works of restoration or renewal. Apparently an owner may appeal within 28 days either that the amount of the cost is unreasonable or that he will suffer hardship in meeting the cost, or that some or even all of the work is unnecessary for the preservation of the building.

I believe there is an appeal procedure, but the appeal must be directed to the Secretary of State who, certainly under the Scottish Act, has the power to initiate these repairs; so it does not seem that there is a very reasonable appeal machinery. Nevertheless, I wonder whether it is the intention of the noble Baroness or of the Government to allow local authorities to carry out work on listed monuments or buildings and to oblige the owner to meet these costs however large they might be, because I believe this is tantamount to an unlimited liability upon the owner; and, in spite of the noble Baroness's assurances that they will be just emergency repairs, for the owners of some land in Scotland these emergency repairs could be fairly hefty.

My Lords, if local authorities wish to carry out such preservation work, then I understand that they already have power to enter upon someone's land and to carry out the repairs, but that under the present regulations—I believe it is Section 97—the local authority is responsible for the cost; and I would think that it is not altogether reasonable that we should change now, at this stage, to requiring the owner to meet these costs. In the Bill there does not seem to be adequate criteria as to what is or what is not a building falling within the category of "historical or architectural interest". So far as I can see, the Bill gives local authorities the power to decide this, and I think this puts the landowner in a somewhat invidious position. In sub-section (8) of the new section in Clause 5 of the Bill there is this form of appeal, but only to the Secretary of State. It is he who has the power to initiate these works, and this, I feel, is not a totally satisfactory position. So far as the rest of the Bill is concerned, I think it is an admirable Bill because it seeks to maintain the preservation and the conservation of the country, and in every respect to make our lives better.

4.6 p.m.


My Lords, I must add my congratulations to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan Sandys, on his maiden speech, even though I feel I am far more of a maiden speaker than he is. Being a farmer, I presume I am part of the environmental scene, and as such I offer him my thanks for the work he has done in the past, in particular with the Civic Amenities Act 1967. It is as a farmer that I look at this Bill, and I must therefore declare an interest in that way.

I regret to cast myself in the usual agricultural role of being a misery man. Obviously, I approve of this Bill in principle, although your Lordships have not convinced me that it is necessary to make it a duty rather than a power to review the setting up of these conservation areas. I understand we already have 3,000 of these conservation areas. Do we really need to speed up this process any more? Of course, anything that preserves the countryside must meet with my approval, but it is really a question of what we mean by the word "preserve". As we all know, the problem in conservation is one of balance, and I fear that this Bill could further restrict agricultural production. There is also a danger that this Bill will put more farmers in glass cases, and I am sure we do not want to do that. I am sure the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London had enough experience in his last diocese of not wanting to do that.

My Lords, the problem, as I see it as a farmer, is quite simply this. There are many possible conservation areas that will be in the middle of villages. I think of my own village outside Oxford as a typical example. Many farm buildings are situated in the middle of villages—they are usually next to the church, which is the centre of the village—and they will therefore come into these conservation areas. If this happens it will delay planning, because you cannot knock a building down and put up another without permission. I know it will be said that it can be done in one application, but it means extra work, not only on the part of the owner but also on the part of the planning officer, to approve both.

But perhaps the main problem that I see is what happens when, in the centre of a farm, there is a building for which permission to abolish it is refused by the Secretary of State. First of all, who will keep it up? Practical enforcement, as we have already said and as the noble Baroness admits, is a far different question from what the law dictates. Will the farmer be compensated should the retention of this building in the middle of his farm sterilise the rest of his buildings?—and it could. Finally—and this is really the point I am trying to make—unless somebody works at some time, nobody will get any of these social benefits at all. Particularly at this time I should like the Government to look at the problem of the odd person who wants to work and to give him some encouragement, and not to make these conservation areas two a penny. Making it a duty instead of a power to review may make this happen.

My Lords, in the last three days I have had three bits of paper on my desk which seem to me to be relevant to this point. They are the Health and Safety at Work etc. Bill, the Mines (Working Facilities and Support) (Amendment) Bill and the Town and Country Amenities Bill. All these Bills, so excellent in themselves, make it more difficult for the farmer to work, and unless he is allowed the right to use his buildings and to work, and to get on with his job, there will be no country-side worth the time of the townsman to come to look at. Not only will there be no countryside, but there will be no money to pay for these amenities which we all want. Taken to their illogical conclusions, these three Bills could appear to the farmer in the following light. He tries to start work in the morning but is stopped by the Safety Inspector because he has broken some guard; when he gets to his buildings they are all redundant due to a preservation order; and when he reaches his field he finds it is a mine or, worse still, a swimming pool and not returned to agricultural use despite a recommendation by the ADAS that it should be.

There is a hackneyed phrase "quality of life" which we hear a lot of to-day, and of course it is important, but I hope that the right reverend Prelate will confirm that there is also an old-fashioned principle regarding the sanctity of work. I trust that the noble Baroness, Lady Young, will be able to assure me that the Bill will not be interpreted in such a manner as to make it more difficult for me as a farmer to work. Although I can see that I have not entirely convinced your Lordships, and though I am about to run off quickly before your Lordships murder me, I hope you will agree that before an agricultural area is scheduled, particularly if that area contains farm buildings, the Ministry of Agriculture should be asked to advise the planning authority. I should like this to be a statutory power of the Ministry of Agriculture, but I fear that even if I give my best smile to the noble Baroness I may not obtain your Lordships' approval.

4.13 p.m.


My Lords, I wonder whether I may intervene very briefly before the noble Baroness replies, although I have not put down my name. I have two objects for doing so. First, I should like to add my congratulations to those which have been addressed to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan Sandys, on this very appropriate occasion for his maiden speech. I suppose that nobody living has done more for the preservation of the buildings and the urban environment of this country than has the noble Lord, and I should like to add my acknowledgment and congratulations to those which have been expressed. My second reason for rising is that as I listened to the debate I began to be filled with some anxiety as to the situation which we have got ourselves into, because it was indicated by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan Sandys, that, although he might have some reservations about whether some parts of the Bill were really quite right, he would not on any account move any Amendments in Committee because that would endanger the Bill as a whole.

Then we heard the reservations and alarm—if that is not putting it too strongly—of the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London, and it seemed to me that he had every cause for concern as to whether Clause 6 had serious implications for churches and, indeed, for listed buildings generally. Whether the difficulties that the provision raises can be met by some Circular or administrative action by the Secretary of State, I am very doubtful. Then we heard the reservations and anxieties expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, about Clause 5 and I should like to say something more about that in a moment. Finally, we heard the anxieties expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, about the agricultural implications of the Bill. Yet we appeared to be told by the right reverend Prelate that if we moved a single Amendment and carried a single Amendment at any stage of the Bill, particularly in Committee—I do not know when that will be, but I suppose that it will be very soon—it would mean the end of the Bill.

Are we to be confronted with this challenge and threat not only with the present Bill, but with all the other Bills which are to come up to us before the Recess? I have always understood that the function of this House was to revise in Committee and that we were to apply our minds to the detail of matters. But if this is to happen that function will be abrogated and we shall be performing no useful service. I suggest that this is really much more a matter for the Government than for the noble Baroness. But I should like to know whether it is a fact that we have to pass the Bill just as it stands, and that if we seek to improve or amend it that means that we are killing it, because I do not think that that is a position into which this House ought to be put. I do not know how it can be overcome but, if it be the fact that there are faults in the Bill—though I am generally sympathetic to it—they ought surely to be put right and ought to be properly attended to in this House.

My Lords, I should like to make one comment on Clause 5, which is the clause to which the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, referred. Section 101 of the Act of 1971 provided that in the case of unoccupied listed buildings a local authority, if it thought that a building was in urgent need of repair, could serve on the owner a seven-day notice of its intention to go in and do repairs—and there the section ended. What the new Clause 5 does is to amend Section 101 of the 1971 Act. t retains the power of the local authority in the case of an unoccupied listed building to give seven-days' notice to the owner of its intention to move in and carry out the urgent repairs itself, but it then goes on to extend the powers of the local authority and authorises the local authority or the Secretary of State to charge the owner the cost of the work which has been done, and gives the owner a right of appeal to the Secretary of State upon certain limited grounds to escape the obligation of paying for those repairs.

I ask your Lordships to consider for a moment how this will operate in practice. Let us suppose that the local authority thinks that there is a need for urgent repair to an unoccupied listed building. It has only to give seven days' notice of its intention to carry out the work, but if, as may be possible, the owner is away and never receives the notice and, meanwhile, the local authority moves in and starts upon the repairs, they may be very substantial indeed, but the owner will have had no opportunity of making representations, or of saying that he will do the work himself. He will have had no opportunity for anything of that kind. Then, some time later, he will receive a notice from the local authority saying, "This is the bill and if you do not like it you can appeal to the Secretary of State on the grounds of hardship, or because the cost is too much, or because it is not reasonable."

My Lords, this may appear to be a trifling matter, but I suggest that it is important, because if it is intended to make the owners of listed buildings liable to problems and difficulties of this kind, will not the owners of buildings which it is proposed to list take steps in the future to try to resist the listing of their buildings owing to the fact that as soon as the building is listed by the Secretary of State the owner will immediately become liable to this procedure under Clause 5? It would be very simple, I believe, to put this right. All that has to be done is to provide in Clause 5 that the notice to be given by the local authority shall be greater than seven days—perhaps a month or two months. What harm would be done? That might go a long way to meeting the problem.

But we are being told here to-day, "Oh, no! You cannot do that. You cannot pass a perfectly simply and reasonable Amendment of that kind which would meet the difficulties that I have been talking about. Also, you cannot pass any Amendment to meet the much graver difficulties about which the right reverend Prelate was speaking, because otherwise you will kill the Bill." It is entirely wrong that we should be put in this position and I should like to know from the Government what proposal they have to make to get us out of this difficulty.

4.20 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank all those noble Lords who have taken part in this debate, in particular the noble Lord, Lord Duncan- Sandys, whom I should like to congratulate on his maiden speech and say how very nice it is that we have another expert on the environment to take part in these debates in this House. I should also like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Garnsworthy, for his help and for the help of officials from the Department of the Environment.

As I thought, the difficulties in this debate have centred around Clauses 5 and 6 and I should like to thank the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of London not only for accepting the Government's assurances on Clause 5 that they will try to meet, in a circular so far as they can, the fears expressed by the Churches, but also that he has withdrawn his Amendments on Clause 6. I do not know that I can again allay his fears, because he has identified the anomaly in the present law that this Bill seeks to remove. But it is true that valuers must consider each case on its merits and the Churches must not assume that consent for demolition will never be given. It would be as wrong to assume that as to assume that it would always be given.

On the point raised on Clause 5 by the noble Lord, Lord Lyell, and the noble Lord, Lord Foot, may I say that this clause is designed particularly to meet the case (which is very familiar to anybody who has served on a planning committee) of a listed building which is allowed to deteriorate year by year and appears to be nobody's responsibility at all. The present law, as the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has quite rightly said, allows a local authority to move in and carry out emergency repairs. The provision under Clause 5 would allow them to charge the owner for those emergency repairs. But although he has instanced how this might well work, it seems to me that it is unlikely that emergency repairs would be required, unless something had happened in a thunder storm, and that the building would have deteriorated over a prolonged period of time to have reached that stage, in the course of which it would have been perfectly possible for there to have been negotiations between the local authority and the owner.

I can only reiterate what I said in moving the Second Reading of this Bill; that is, that I believe local authorities would be very reluctant to use this power because in the first instance they would have to bear the costs and then, having borne the costs, they would have to try to get them out of the owner who, as the Bill stands, has the right of appeal to the Secretary of State on these three grounds. The noble Lord, Lord Stanley of Alderley, raised a point about agriculture, but so far as farm buildings are concerned either they are already in an existing conservation area, in which case they would be affected only if they are not listed buildings, or they might be in a proposed conservation area, in which case they would be included only after discussion with all the residents because a local authority is most unlikely to designate a conservation area without discussion with all those concerned.

The noble Lord, Lord Foot, has expressed anxieties about the Bill. It is true that if an Amendment is carried there is no time for the Government to take the Bill back to another place. I can only say that I believe the situation to arise out of the unusualness of the present political and Parliamentary situation. I believe we should all like more time, but the facts of life at this moment are against us and because everybody who has spoken has said that they support the principle of this Bill, and because it is something which I believe meets the wish of many members of the public, I hope that despite any anxieties that may have been expressed the House will give it a Second Reading and a swift passage on to the Statute Book.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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