HL Deb 26 April 1982 vol 429 cc722-37

4.6 p.m.

Lord Vaizey

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: the preservation of neglected buildings of special architectural or historic interest, and of certain neglected buildings in conservation areas. The proper upkeep of such buildings has been the subject of increasing concern in recent years. I have a list of those pulled down last year which is staggering: a building of historic interest on the list has been pulled down in every county in the country.

Briefly, the problem is the failure of existing statutory powers to deal adequately with cases where owners deliberately neglect such buildings, often because it is more profitable for them to redevelop the site. Eventually, buildings become so neglected that there is little option but to demolish them. As I say, this has happened in every county in the Kingdom in the year 1981. There have been many instances of deliberate neglect cited in the press, and presumably from the lists there are many more. Alas! at present there are only two courses open to a local authority where such neglect occurs: if the building is unoccupied, they may carry out emergency repairs under Section 101 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 (as amended), but such repairs have to be very limited, as paragraph 99 of the Department of the Environment Circular 23/77 makes clear. They do not begin to tackle the job of properly preserving a building, and inevitably it continues to deteriorate, though more slowly.

If permanent repairs, aimed at the proper long-term preservation of a building are desired, a local authority or the Secretary of State must first serve a repairs notice under Section 115 of the Act of 1971, and then take compulsory purchase action under Section 114. In practice, an owner may well spin out the procedure for so long that, by the time it is completed and a decision reached, the building is too far gone to save and compulsory purchase is a violent weapon—a Trident. I prefer a marine commando unit, which is what this Bill prepares the local authority to have. It is not surprising, therefore, that the procedure appears to be discredited and is hardly ever used, with the result that virtually no effective protection is being afforded by existing legislation to deliberately neglected buildings.

The purpose of this Bill is to supplement and partly replace the provisions I have described. It is a logical successor to a Private Member's measure introduced in another place by Mr. Michael Shersby, the Member for Uxbridge, which, in turn, supplemented provisions in the Civic Amenities Act 1967—a pioneering Act sponsored by my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys. I should like to pay trubute to Mr. G. E. Allan, a lawyer practising in the planning field, whose article, "Conservation of buildings of merit", in The Journal of Planning and Environment Law (1977), pointed the way ahead.

I am glad to inform the House that consultations have taken place with the major national amenity societies, and almost all have written to me indicating support for the measure. I have written to the local authority associations, and I think it is fair to say that there seems to be a reasonable prospect that they will support the principles of the Bill. From the nature of the Bill, I hope that it will, like its predecessors, receive all-party backing. I know that it does not have Government support, on the grounds that eventually they will get around to doing it themselves. Therefore, I hope that my introduction of this Bill will help them loang that way. Noble Lords may be interested to know that I shall deposit later today in the Library a copy of my notes on the clauses of the Bill.

I now turn to describe, quite briefly, the Bill's main provisions. Clause 1 supplements Section 101 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. It extends the section to buildings which are not necessarily unoccupied—that is to say, they may well have squatters—and provides that notice of works to be undertaken by a local authority, or the Secretary of State, shall be given to occupiers as well as to owners. Subsections (6) to (9) of Section 101 are repealed and replaced under Clause 2 by Sections 101D and 101E. Clause 2, which deals with the proper long-term repair of neglected buildings, inserts Sections 101A to 101E in the Act of 1971. Section 101A is, in many respects, the crucial point. It enables a local authority to serve a notice—a listed building preservation notice—requiring an owner to carry out works which are considered necessary for the proper preservation of a neglected building. An authority must first be satisfied that the works are capable of being executed at reasonable cost. Section 101B enables an authority to enforce the notice by undertaking the work themselves, if the owner fails to comply. That is the marine commando unit, if I may use a topical analogy. Section 101C confers like powers on the Secretary of State, though I suppose that he would wish to use them only very sparingly. Section 101D empowers a local authority or the Secretary or State to recover their expenses, plus interest, from the owner. Recovery is by action—namely, in a county court or the High Court or, summarily, in a magistrates' court.

The clause charges the authority's or the Secretary of State's expenses, plus interest, on the premises and confers on them, for the purpose of enforcing the charge, many of the powers of mortgagees under the Law of Property Act 1925. The right to impose a charge on property and to sell it to realise sums outstanding is long overdue, and greatly reduces the need for compulsory purchase. Section 101E enables the owner to make representations to the Secretary of State against the recovery of expenses, on the grounds that the works were unnecessary, that the demand was unreasonable or that there would be undue hardship. No proceedings for recovery may be taken until the representations are determined.

I now turn to Clause 3. I am sure that the House will recognise that it would be inequitable for listed building preservation notices to be served under Clause 2 in respect of neglected buildings that cannot be properly preserved at reasonable expense. In these restricted circumstances, there is a continuing need for a compulsory purchase procedure along the lines provided by Sections 114 and 115 of the Act of 1971, both in relation to listed buildings and to certain unlisted buildings which are in conservation areas. Clause 3 therefore amends and applies Sections 114 and 115, which are otherwise superseded by the Bill, to these very restricted circumstances.

Clause 4 extends Section 280(4) of the Act of 1971 to Sections 101A to 101C. This section, which applies, among others, to Section 101, enables a person duly authorised by a local authority or the Secretary of State to enter any land for the purpose of ascertaining whether any of the functions conferred by Section 101 should be exercised, or for the purpose of actually exercising those functions.

Clause 5 increases various penalties. The maximum penalty which may be imposed on summary conviction for unauthorised works to listed buildings, or unlisted buildings in conservation areas, is currently £1,000. This is clearly insufficient. In many instances, developers owning what would otherwise be valuable sites if protected buildings were altered, extended or demolished, are unlikely to be deterred from acting unlawfully by maximum penalties at this level. The clause therefore raises the maximum penalties for these offences to £5,000, or to such other sum as may be substituted by order to reflect inflation. Clause 6 enables the provisions of the Bill to be extended to Scotland, and Clause 7 deals with the citation and commencement.

I have briefly outlined the purposes of this Bill which, as I said, has the support of all the major amenity societies in the country, and I hope that it will commend itself to your Lordships for Second Reading. I believe that there is a great public interest today in preservation, as evinced by the rapid growth of amenity societies, and nowhere is the feeling greater than among young people. I believe that this Bill is the next step on the way to meeting this interest, and that it is a Bill which future generations will welcome. Such deficiencies as it may contain can no doubt be adequately dealt with in Committee and in another place. Therefore, I hope that the House will give the Bill a Second Reading. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Lord Vaizey.)

Lord Kennet

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, I wonder whether he can clarify one point? On my reading of the Bill, I thought it abolished the right of compulsory purchase for a neglected listed building in all circumstances, or in some circumstances. But from his speech, it sounded as though it did not abolish the right of compulsory purchase in the case of a neglected listed building in any circumstance. Can the noble Lord just clarify that?

Lord Vaizey

Yes, my Lords. I am grateful to the noble Lord for enabling me to clarify that point. It abolishes the power of compulsory purchase, save in one instance. That instance is a very limited one, where it is not possible to preserve a building at reasonable expense. That is really a listed building which is in a state of terrible dereliction and where a major operation is needed to restore it, in which case there is power of compulsory purchase for the local authority or the Secretary of State to undertake a major restoration.

4.17 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, may I first congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, on bringing forward to this House a Bill on such a very important subject? It is something which has been going on over many years—I suppose one could say decades—and which still urgently needs attention. The Bill's objectives are not only admirable, but absolutely necessary. I know from personal experience, from having been a Minister at the Department of the Environment and responsible for this whole area of conservation and listed buildings, how long we were trying to find some way of dealing with this matter. I know how difficult it was then and how difficult it will appear even now, when we hear the noble Earl's reply, to get Governments to take a line soon enough, or to do anything except to mouth nice phrases and give verbal support, but not to put it into legislative action.

One of the main troubles is that, politically, it is not a very attractive cause. Therefore, whenever a piece of legislation comes along in which it could quite easily be neatly embedded, there are always reasons given why there is no time to do it, or why there are other priority matters, so it always gets left and is pushed under the carpet for another time. The noble Lord was absolutely right when he said that, while this delay is going on and on, buildings are being demolished or are not being cared for, and one cannot put these right at the end of the day. Even if something is done, buildings that are lost will have been lost for ever. This is the terrible trouble about lack of conservation in any field.

The last occasion when I certainly hoped that something would be done about this was the Committee stage of the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill. I then moved an amendment—admittedly it was very late at night so it probably did not get the attention or support I thought it deserved—which was quite simply to delete the word "unoccupied" from Section 101 of the Act. I did not think at that time it was necessarily the final or definitive way of dealing with the matter, but that there was a place for it to be done in this Bill I think went without question. Further, if the Government had been willing to do so, an amendment could have been moved on Report stage in order to do something about it.

I think the following is a very important and relevant quotation from what the noble Lord, Lord Bellwin, said on that occasion when I moved my amendment at Committee stage. He said, at column 1046 of the Official Report, on 13th October 1980; We share the noble Baroness's concern to strengthen the local authorities' power to require repairs to a listed building, but I fear the proposal in its present form is not acceptable. Entering occupied premises against the wishes of the owner to carry out work is always open to very real objections of the invasion of privacy and rights of property". I will come back to that in a moment, but this is the important point: Nevertheless, we accept that there is a case for strengthening the powers currently available and have in fact completed a considerable amount of preliminary work aimed at augmenting the present powers by introducing an alternative to compulsory purchase under Section 114 "— —that is Section 114 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, to which the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, has referred and with which his Bill is intertwined. The noble Lord went on: This would involve seeking a court order to carry out the repairs specified under a notice served under Section 115 if they have not been carried out within the statutory two-month period. If the order were granted, the authority or the Secretary of State could also seek to recover the cost of the work. The procedure would be complicated by the fact that there is a limit of £2,000 on the amount that can be recovered in the county court". Since then the limit in the county court has been raised to £5,000, so that is no longer a barrier. He went on to say: Unfortunately, there simply has not been time to work out the details of this procedure or to consult the local authority associations in time for their inclusion in this Bill. I am sure the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, will agree that it is important to get any amended procedure right and I hope, therefore, that with the assurance that the department have proposals in mind which they will discuss in due course, she may feel able to withdraw the amendment". With that assurance, I did withdraw my amendment, and, let us be quite frank, I would not in any event have got it through at that time of night and with empty Benches. But that was in October 1980, 18 months ago, and we have heard nothing of it at all.

There is no proposal, so far as I can see, to include it in the Local Government (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill, which is proceeding in a rather stately and slow manner through Parliament. I would hasten to say that I am not asking for it to go faster, because we have enough on our plate with the other Local Government Bills at present. Nevertheless, it is miscellaneous and covers a wide range—almost everything under the sun—so that a niche could be found for it perhaps in this Bill if the noble Lord's Bill does not manage to progress as I know he hopes it will.

I have one or two reservations about it, but I think the noble Lord would be the first to agree that if one can get this kind of change made in a Government measure it is much better as it would then almost certainly go through. But this Bill will at least put some pressure on the Ministers. I think it is only fair to say that the department itself is well aware of the need for this provision, as it has always been in the past. I spent many hours in discussion with officials in the department and we were always ready to pounce if a suitable piece of legislation which could take it in happily enabled us to try to include something of this kind. Unfortunately we were not able to do so.

Turning now to the Bill itself, the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, gave an extremely lucid explanation of something which is really quite complicated because one has to keep referring to the original legislation, and most of the town and country planning Bills seem to be fairly complex. This is no different from the others. I am not blaming the noble Lord for that, but it is a problem with this type of legislation.

One thing I am concerned about is the weakening of the compulsory purchase procedure. I am glad that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, obtained an explanation from the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, of what he meant by that. He said that under his Bill it would not be possible to use that procedure except where, as I understand it, the cost of the repairs was considered to be unreasonable. I feel this is a mistake. Up to now experience has shown that the threat of a compulsory purchase order has often had a very healthy result in that it gets many owners to undertake repairs when otherwise they would not do so. I know that the Historic Buildings Council would be very unhappy to see the old Section 114 weakened in this way. If the Bill is to proceed that would certainly be one of the amendments I would be anxious to see, because if the provision is not weakened it does not mean to say that local authorities have to use it any more than they do at present. It is not used that much, but what is used is the threat of it; and that really acts as a healthy deterrent. Many owners either then do the repairs or sell the property under Section 115. Today there are more building preservation trusts than there were when I was at the department, two of which stand out in Hampshire and Derbyshire. Many other districts also have preservation trusts. They back up repairs notices and are able to achieve results by pressing very hard.

My second reservation concerns the lack of any appeals procedure in the Bill. It is the custom, I think, and it is right in this country that where we are going to take some quite draconian action, even where it is much needed and well merited, a person on whom a notice is served should be able to appeal. The only appeal provided for in the Bill as it stands refers to the question of recovery of expenses where, within 28 days, a person may make representations to the Secretary of State. That is rather different.

Under this Bill, after two months' notice the local authority goes straight in, does the repairs and presents the owner or occupier with the account for the work done. I think there could be cases where, for example, somebody in the house is very ill, but after two months the authority just go in and do it because they are entitled to. It would almost be their duty to do so under the Bill as it stands. It seems to me that one must make provisions for certain cases, and either one should go to the Secretary of State—people might possibly feel that that is generally not as good a way as going to a court, which they would feel is rather more objective and judicial in its findings—or go to a court. If the court does not accept the representations—if one does not make out an acceptable case against the notice being served—then it goes ahead and the local authority does not have to do anything about it. I am not suggesting that the local authority should go to the court to get an order. It ought to be the other way round.

The fact that the owner has the right of appeal to the court does not necessarily mean that this right would always be used and would cause undue delay. Most people in their senses do not want to be put to the trouble and expense of court actions. A requirement that if, after two months' notice, they were not prepared to accept people coming in to do the repairs there should be a court application would probably mean that owners would be prepared to go ahead and have the repairs carried out.

There are other points which I could make. However, I have to leave fairly early, and as I should like to hear the other speeches in this debate I must try to keep my own as short as possible. At the same time one ought to build up more interest on the part of the local authorities. There has been a great improvement in many areas, but a number of local authorities are not interested in conservation of this kind or in keeping their listed buildings in repair. I tried to promote the idea of conservation advisory committees, and a number of such committees were set up. However, a great many more are needed. My idea was that there should be a combination of members of the local authority and of local heritage and other amenity societies, as well as other local people. They would then advise the authority. Because the authority had people on the advisory committee they would have very much more clout and influence. Where these committees are working successfully they are able, not only in this area but in all the other areas of conservation, to do a very good job.

One needs the support of the local authorities. I do not know whether the noble Lord will be able to give us the views of the local authority associations or of local authorities generally on the Bill as it stands. I am not referring to the general point, because that is supported by many of them. However, I suspect that they would not be very happy about the weakening of the compulsory purchase procedure.

Money is a very great problem. For this Bill to be successful, local authorities must be prepared to spend more money. Their cash flow will be engaged in the first instance. Where they are unable to recover the money from the owner they will be landed with the bill. Because of the very severe cuts in local authority expenditure, there must be an acknowledgment by central Government of the importance of this problem. They must make available to local authorities contingency funds with which to carry out this work so that authorities are not put in the position of having to cut down on services, which many authorities may feel are more vital than conservation, because they have a different approach. Therefore, resources are a very important part of the problem. Whether one can put this into legislation I do not know, but central Government must give this a much higher order of priority.

At a time when more interest is being shown in the way our cities, our countryside and other places look, at a time when there is an outcry (this has been going on now for many years) against certain architectural plans for buildings—as we saw recently in the case of the Green Giant—we should build on this concern. Concern, though, is not sufficient. Resources go with it. Education is important. However, a great deal of education is being done through the heritage education group. So we come back to money. The bare bones of this Bill are absolutely essential. It is vital for us to deal with occupied buildings. It is also essential for us to remember that in October 1980 we were told that procedures were in hand. My impression then was that those procedures were almost ripe to be dropped into a legislative niche. On that account, therefore, it is fair to hurry the Government along and to ask for something more specific.

Finally, may I ask the Minister when he replies to indicate whether he would be agreeable to changes in the Bill regarding the compulsory purchase procedure. There may be others as well. I should like to know. This is very important not only from the practical point of view but from the point of view of justice—whether there could be some form of appeals procedure: an interim stage during which people would have an opportunity to object to what had been decided. With the best will in the world, one is not always right about decisions which are made. People will want to feel that they have recourse to a court which will enable them to obtain justice. Furthermore, if they believed that a local authority was getting at them but the local authority's view was upheld by the court, that would be very helpful and would strengthen the hand of the local authority.

If the Government do not like the Bill as it stands and have objections to it other than the ones which I have made, I hope they will be able to tell us that they will come forward with other proposals and that they are prepared to go faster than they have with the promise which was made about 18 months ago. If they are not able to do so, I hope they will be able to help along the noble Lord's Bill so that, apart from the points which I have made and the points which no doubt others including the noble Earl will make, the Bill can be put right and, at last, something can be done about a subject which has been hanging around for years and years. Alas! the buildings themselves do not hang around.

4.39 p.m.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, we have to take the Bills which come before the House, not the Bills or clauses which do not. Much though we may wish that the contents of this Bill had come from the Government, they do not. The Bill comes as a Private Member's Bill. Consequently, we have to realise the Bill is less likely to become law. But it is up to us to treat it as though it were to become law, in case it does, which I think the House should desire. The Bill ought to be welcomed by the House as a whole. Everything in it is clearly a move in the right direction if one desires to stop the renewed increase, which I understand is occurring, in the loss of listed buildings. The number of such losses dropped for a number of years but the fact is that recently it has begun to increase again.

The provision that a neglected listed building need not be unoccupied if it is to be permissible for the local authority to repair it and to charge the neglectful owner is clearly right. All the clarification of the procedures for direct repair by local authority and charge on the owner is desirable. The powers of entry, though no doubt alarming, are, I think, upon reflection, desirable—that is, powers of entry on the part of the local authority—and the "upping" of the penalty for unauthorised works and unauthorised demolition is clearly in the right direction, though I am not sure that it goes far enough.

I believe the House need not worry, either, about the introduction of a sliding scale, or rising scale, as I understand it, which may be applied by the Secretary of State by order to meet inflation, so that (I hope I have this right) what is £5,000 today will, if inflation halves the value of the currency in 10 years, be £10,000 in 10 years' time. This is obviously a wise provision and I think something which might be followed in many other Acts of Parliament which contain penal provisions; and if ever the value of our currency goes up, then we shall look to the Minister to come to Parliament and reduce the maximum penalties for various offences. This is all perfectly logical.

I come now to my only objection to the Bill, which is the same as the principal objection of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk. It concerns the virtual abolition of the existing local authority power of compulsory purchase in the case of a severely neglected listed building. Fifteen years ago, in 1967, when I was the junior Minister responsible for this side of things in the old Ministry of Housing and Local Government, I was preparing the 1968 Town and Country Planning Bill which introduced this power for the first time.

I remember quite clearly that my intention and wish and hope was to get an unconditional and absolutely clear power of compulsory purchase for local authorities at existing use value—this was the point. If a local authority had to purchase a listed building in, say, the centre of a city at development value, they would never do it because the value would be so high; and that would be precisely why the owner was allowing the building to decay. I wanted them to get the right to purchase it at existing use value, whatever it was—a house or a pub, a Georgian terrace house, a half-timbered house in a town or whatever it was. But owing to my own inexperience or to my faint-heartedness, I allowed the procedure to be so wrapped up in "ifs" and "buts", proofs and counter-proofs, questions and counter-questions, with appeal to the higher tier of local authority, to the Secretary of State, to the courts, to the valuer, at every stage by all parties, that I was not surprised to learn when inquiring a few years afterwards that the provision had hardly ever been used. It is a great pity; it was my fault. I should have known better and either insisted on getting it right and straight and clear in one move or dropped the whole thing.

There it stands, my Lords—an inefficacious power. I very much regret that the noble Lord has decided to abolish all this, except that part which applies to circumstances where nobody could possibly ever want to use it, because if it is to apply only where a building cannot be restored except at unreasonable cost, what can a local authority be supposed to wish to do with that site except to demolish the building and grant itself full development value, even if it had not paid it, which it probably had? No, my Lords; I do not think this is a sensible way to act at all. If I have understood it correctly, this is not a conservation or preservation measure. The survival of that one version of the power might be looked upon as a measure to allow or even encourage local authorities to swipe a bit of development value and still sacrifice a listed building to the community.

So what I hope the House may agree to do in Committee—and I hope the noble Lord, Lord Vaizey, may agree, on reflection, and after careful discussion, that this is the right thing to do—is not to abolish part of that power but, on the contrary, to confirm it and to make it perfectly clear that the power is to be exercised at existing use value; that is to say, that a local authority, if it cannot persuade the owner of a listed building to restore it, and if it is incovenient to the local authority to go in and restore it itself, whether because it just happens to be inconvenient or because it appears that it will never get the money back from the owner (which is the more likely case), should be perfectly free to purchase that building at its market value for the use to which it is at that time put—namely, as a house, as a pub, as a small shop or whatever it may be.

Then, of course, the local authority would be bound by preservation law—including this Bill, if it goes through; and if the local authority itself were to neglect to keep that building up, perhaps in some secret hope of being able to obtain the development value later, after it has fallen down, then the Secretary of State would be able to step in and exert the full battery of these powers against the local authority. We would then have a logical and justifiable system which I believe really would stop the loss of listed buildings throughout the country. With that single exception, which I hope your Lordships will put right in Committee or at Report stage, I think the House ought to welcome a Second Reading for this Bill.

4.46 p.m.

The Marquess of Linlithgow

My Lords, I would really like to put a question, if I may, to my noble friend Lord Vaizey, because there are many of us extremely interested in this problem and it has never been entirely clear how it works. The question I want to ask is this. We have been discussing mostly houses, pubs and shops which might or might not be made available for accommodation. But, of course, the preservation orders cover a much wider range of buildings. Though your Lordships may well suppose that what I am going to say is not intended to be taken seriously, I can assure your Lordships that in terms of finance and money it is so.

There are some estates which contain quite a number of these listed buildings. Many of them have gone too far to be restored except at vast cost. But there also exist a number of smaller buildings. Although we do not have them in Scotland, in England there are windmills, which, of course, can be turned into dwellings. Curiously enough, in Scotland there are a whole number of dovecotes. These are very large buildings. There are many of them, and they in fact go way back into the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The reason for building them was that the pigeons, regarding them as their home, laid their eggs there; the young were taken, and made a very succulent addition to the local diet.

I know of one case where there are two dovecotes in a small area. There is a preservation order on both, and an approach has been made by the local authority to discover whether or not the owner is prepared to renovate them. The smaller of the two would represent a renovation cost of £800 or £1,000. The other is a very different matter indeed. It is a very much larger affair, and the repair bill could run to £10,000 or £12,000.

I should like to be told—and I should like my mind to be clear on this—where anybody stands who has that kind of problem. He is approached by, say, the local authority, or, curiously enough, he may be approached by the Historic Buildings Council, or he may well be living in the house for which he applies for, and often will get, a grant, particularly if the house is open to the public. The Historic Buildings Council may well say to him, "You are not being very co-operative about this £20,000 or £30,000 which we think you should spend on these buildings". The local authority may say, We should like you to repair these buildings". The owner perhaps says, "I am sorry; but I would rather spend the £10,000, £20,000 or £30,000 on the building in which I live (which is also listed) than spend the money on building up something which looks very nice but is not particularly useful".

What I am not clear about is the next step. Can the local authority move in and spend the money on repairing? If the local authority cannot do so, who else can do so? Thirdly, is it absolutely certain that whoever spends the money can then apply to the owner of the buildings to recover the money? Finally, I understand from what I have heard most clearly put—and there seems little doubt—that the final sanction is compulsory purchase, which may or may not be changed if this Bill goes through. I hope I have made my question clear. I think my main question is: Can an owner of these places literally say, "I cannot afford it; I cannot pay it, I am going to spend the money on a farm or anyhow on putting a farm on to a satisfactory basis by my standards"? Where does he stand? I support the Bill because I believe in preservation and this Bill sounds to me to be a very good one. I merely state my query in order to clear my own mind before Committee stage.

4.51 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Vaizey both for introducing this Bill and for the way in which he explained it. He lavished quite a number of military examples in his opening remarks and I hope that he will not find my own speech too much of an old-fashioned pillbox. I do not intend to take up the point raised by my noble friend Lord Linlithgow as I believe it was really addressed to my noble friend Lord Vaizey.

The Government share the noble Lord's concern to strengthen local authorities' powers to require repairs to listed buildings. We also wish to introduce changes to the penalties for the more serious offences under Sections 55 and 57(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, but, however much we appreciate the thought behind the Bill, we do not believe that this is the right way to proceed. The noble Baroness, Lady Birk, made some comments about an earlier amendment which she raised and which indeed I have read—and I have also read my noble friend Lord Bellwin's reply. I hope that the noble Baroness will find some positive ideas in what I have to say. So far as the timing is concerned, I have to say that we are still looking for the "legislative dish" which I believe she herself also searched for when she was in my position.

Clause 1 would give local authorities the power to carry out urgent works for the preservation of a listed building after giving not less than seven days' notice to the owner and occupier. The existing legislation restricts these powers to unoccupied buildings and to service of notices on the owner. A power to enter occupied premises against the wishes of the owner to carry out work in the way proposed is open to objections on the grounds of the invasion of privacy and rights of property. It could also be difficult to execute the works if the building is occupied. The type of work which can be carried out under the existing legislation, as the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill points out, is limited to what is necessary to make a building wind, weather and vandal-proof. This is a very limiting factor, although useful in the right cases. For example, a tarpaulin or other form of temporary roofing can be put on a roof to prevent rainwater entering. This sort of temporary repair is unlikely to be necessary in an occupied building because most occupants, even if not particularly interested in the architectural or historic interest of the building, usually want to keep dry, warm and reasonably secure.

Clause 2 of the Bill, which is intended to replace Section 115 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, would permit much more extensive repairs to listed buildings and the recovery of expenses incurred from the owner. Currently under Section 115, local authorities are empowered to serve a repairs notice on any listed building requiring works to be carried out for the proper preservation of the building within two months. But Section 115 has no teeth unless an authority is prepared to follow up the repairs notice with compulsory acquisition under Section 114. Understandably, many authorities are reluctant to make a compulsory purchase order, although some do. Many more find the mere existence of the power useful in discussions with owners and persuade them to carry out works voluntarily or to sell the building, perhaps to a local preservation trust who are willing to take it on and repair it.

The Government accept that there is a real case for strengthening the powers currently available and have carried out preliminary work aimed at augmenting the present powers. When a repairs notice under Section 115 has not been complied with within the statutory two months, we are thinking of introducing an alternative procedure to compulsory purchase under Section 114. Any legislation which confers on local authorities a power to enter premises and carry out substantial reinstatement work must, surely at some point, be subject to control by the courts. The details of how this control should be exercised are still being considered and I am sure noble Lords will agree that it is important to get any amended procedure absolutely correct.

Like the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, and the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, we too have doubts about Clause 3 of the Bill, which would restrict the current powers of compulsory acquisition under Section 114 to properties which are incapable of repair at reasonable expense. First, there will be no incentive for a local authority to acquire a property which cannot be repaired at reasonable expense; secondly, cases can arise where purchase by a local authority is the only way of saving an important building even though the cost of repair is considerable.

Finally, I should like to turn to the increased penalties proposed in Clause 5. The proposal for a maximum fine of a prescribed sum of £5,000 on summary conviction for an offence under Sections 55 or 57(1) of the 1971 Act is far higher than the present maximum fines of £1,000 for an offence under Section 55 and £100 for an offence under Section 57(1). What is more important, it is out of line with Home Office penalties for similar offences, as well as being above the general limits for penalties in the courts which govern fines imposed in magistrates' courts—at present £1,000 and six months' imprisonment. The Government are aware, however, of the need to revise the penalties for listed building offences and wish to introduce changes which go further than the proposals in this Bill by introducing a separate offence for the unlawful total demolition of a listed building. I have indeed taken note of the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, which I thought was of interest.

The Bill of my noble friend Lord Vaizey has, as all noble Lords have said, commendable objectives, but for reasons which I have explained it is not a good Bill that the Government feel they can support. I hope, however, that with the assurance that the department have proposals in mind which go quite a long way towards meeting some of these objectives, my noble friend may feel that he need take this Bill no further.

4.58 p.m.

Lord Vaizey

My Lords, I should like to thank all Members of the House who have taken part in this short but interesting Second Reading debate. I should particularly like to thank the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, for her contribution, and also the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. Both had extremely distinguished records at what is now the Department of the Environment and their interest is both an informed and important one.

Perhaps I may deal first with the substantial questions which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, addressed to me. The first question was a general one, which she shares with the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and, somewhat to my surprise, with my noble friend Lord Avon; it concerned the weakening of compulsory purchase powers. The compulsory purchase power is in fact hardly ever used in these circumstances. In Mr. Allan's original article, which was the original point from which this Bill has sprung, it was pointed out that the procedure is inevitably slow and cumbersome and, above all, it is expensive; many councils baulk at the prosect of spending large sums on the purchase and repair of decaying buildings, often large and remote, with limited public utility. The power, therefore, is rarely used, and it is chiefly used as a threat before negotiation. What this Bill does is not to abolish that power but to limit it. Of course it remains for other purposes in the general legislation, but it adds to that power the more realistic threat—namely, if you do not repair your own building, the local authority will repair it for you and send you the bill.

That then raises the question which the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, raised, which I think is an important and interesting one—namely, whether or not this imposes financial liabilities on the local authorities which will increase their use of public funds. I can see circumstances in which that is so, but the Bill not only gives the authority the right to recover the expenditure with interest at the prevailing rate, but of course it enables it to proceed by the normal procedure of getting hold of the assets and selling them. So, apart from the administrative costs of the procedure, which surely must be more limited than those of the compulsory purchase power procedure, I should have thought that this would not be a net addition to the burden on public funds, though that is something that my advisers and I will wish to look at with great care.

I can assure the noble Baroness that the local authority associations are being consulted, and that all the amenity societies have been consulted and have expressed their support. On the question of the appeals procedure, my understanding in bringing the Bill before your Lordships was that it did not necessarily override the appeals procedure which already exists in the legislation. As the noble Baroness correctly pointed out, this area of legislation, town and country planning, is indeed a minefield. If for any reason my friends and I have got it wrong, we should hope very much to look at it again. I hope that in those respects I have been able to satisfy the noble Baroness that we shall be able to take on board the points she has so tellingly raised.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, before the noble Lord leaves that, may I just say that in Clause 2 of the Bill where it lists the cases of expenses, it includes the right of the owner to make representations, in a case where those expenses have been incurred under section 101 … that recovery of the amount would cause him undue hardship". I think this was touched on by the noble Marquess. If the owner can prove that it will cause hardship and it is impossible for him to pay—I am not suggesting the repairs should not be done—will that amount fall on the local authority or on central Government? I think this is extremely important, and the co-operation of local authorities will depend on where the money is to come from.

Lord Vaizey

My Lords, I think the answer is that it depends on who issues the order in the first place—on whether it is the local authority or the Department of the Environment.

Before coming to the Lord Kennet's points, I want to thank my noble friend Lord Linlithgow for his most helpful speech. May I say that, in these particular instances where you have a penurious owner of an historic monument which is falling down, I think there is a genuine problem? I must say that the dovecotes to which the noble Marquess referred—there is a very beautiful one at Gordonstoun School—are some of Scotland's most historic and important buildings. But, as he pointed out, they are very expensive to maintain, you cannot use them live in them, and, if you cannot afford to maintain them, what do you do? I think the answer to that must ultimately be compulsory purchase powers, because I see no conceivable way of recovering the money from somebody who has not got the money. So that would be in the mind of the local authority in choosing which particular power to exercise. But I can see from the noble Baroness's face that I have not totally satisfied her on that point.

I turn to the points the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, raised, some of which overlapped with those of the noble Baroness. The number of listed buildings falling down is, alas, rising. I have here a list of those in 1981; it runs to 13 closely typed foolscap pages of buildings already listed as of historic importance which have actually fallen down. That it seems to me is something which no person concerned with the history of these islands could for one minute countenance without trying to do something about it.

I am sorry that I appear to be intending to abolish the compulsory purchase powers. I am not abolishing them; I am limiting them and trying to keep them for a safe target, the target at which they are actually directed, rather than that they should be used as a threat. There, of course, speaking from these Benches, one is in a cleft stick, since my noble friend on the Front Bench first of all appeals to the sacred rights of property, saying that that must not be limited in any respect, and condemns the invasion of privacy. Of course, the purpose of listing buildings is to limit the law of privacy and the rights of property. These buildings have been declared under statutory authority to be matters of national interest and concern so that the power of the individual is limited. In the later stages of his speech, my noble friend deeply regretted that the power of compulsory purchase was being limited by my Bill. He can have it one way but he cannot have it both ways—not simultaneously in one speech.

What I am trying to do is to make the law more effective and more important. I am very glad indeed to learn that the Government are thinking of strengthening the powers by an alternative procedure, and I am also glad that this alternative procedure will be subject to control by the courts when it finally emerges. I am also interested to discover that £5,000 is regarded as too high a figure for a fine to be imposed on a property developer who has deliberately allowed an Elizabethan building in the centre of a town to collapse because the site when cleared by a bulldozer is worth something in the neighbourhood of £2 million. I personally think £5,000 is too moderate in such circumstances, and therefore I do not agree with my noble friend.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I did go on to say that we are considering introducing a separate offence of unlawful total demolition of a listed building, which would take care of that case.

Lord Vaizey

My Lords, I am delighted to hear we are in agreement on this side on that particular point. My Lords, as I have lost the bit of paper which tells me what to do next, what I intend to do is not to withdraw the Bill but to ask your Lordships' House to give it a Second Reading, so that, if the opportunity arises through the usual channels, we may look at it in much greater detail, because I think sufficient interest has been shown on all sides to indicate that there are matters in it which are worthy of consideration.

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