HL Deb 13 February 1989 vol 504 cc42-58

5.12 p.m.

Lord Kennet rose To ask Her Majesty's Government how they propose to protect the World Heritage site at Avebury, and whether they will arrange for the three major planning applications there to be considered together by a planning inquiry commission or other procedure having the same effect.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the Question concerns a World Heritage site; rather, it concerns half of the World Heritage site which consists of Stonehenge and Avebury. My Question relates only to Avebury.

World heritage sites receive no special protection in law in this country. The question that we have to address is, if that is the case what is the point of the special status? In a recent answer to the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, the Government have said that they believe that such sites are adequately protected by present planning law. However, given the present wave of prosperity and, in its wake, the movement of capital from here to there seeking ever new opportunities of a quick return, there is probably a need for special protection for those sites; also because they have recently received that extremely grand name of World Heritage sites. It has proved a magnet, and the foxes of instant greed are coming down. Small local authorities inexperienced in the lore of foxes are at immediate risk from developers with their tempting offers of "social gain". They need help.

Avebury is many things. It is a majestic neolithic site: a very large stone circle with smaller ones inside it, all still standing, inside gigantic banks from which radiate avenues (one of which is still in a very fine state of preservation) to other extremely important sites. Those include Silbury Hill, which is the largest and perhaps most mysterious neolithic monument in the whole of Europe. They also include the West Kennet long barrow, a large masonry tomb with a thing like a small piazza of St Peter's in front, with arms to welcome the dead and a wall across to keep them in. The fourth is the Sanctuary. There are three major sites above ground.

There is probably a connection with the four seasons. In the 26th century B.C., which is the century concerned, we are in the age of the Great White Goddess. She is presumed to have become pregnant in the great circle itself at the fertility rites of midsummer, to have proceeded to the mound of Silbury—which is like the belly of a pregnant woman—and to have given birth there. She is then thought to have repaired to the tomb at West Kennet long barrow, where she lay dead for three months. She then went to the Sanctuary, the round place of initiation, for the spring ceremonies where the youth went through initiation rites into maturity. That is as good a guess as any that I have read, and I think that I have read them all. I like to think that it is true.

Within the great circle itself there is a textbook, picture postcard village. Its main features are a very fine Saxon and 13th century church and a manor house, part Elizabethan and part 17th century, which is also very fine. As manors go it is tiny, it is a case of minute perfection. It has perfect 17th century gardens round it.

Above Avebury runs the Ridgeway, which was the M.1 of the 26th century B.C. Not far away is the Roman road—and here we are coming to quite modern events. Beyond that is the Wansdyke. Elsewhere there are the newly discovered remains—the holes—of a very large stone circle. Three recent planning applications threaten to disrupt completely the sensitive event which is Avebury. The first is for a development on the Ridgeway itself, right on the skyline above the village. It is a proposal for a hotel and conference centre with very tall buildings of an extremely silly design. They would dominate the site. The application has been refused, an inquiry has been held and the report is awaited.

At the end of the Kennet Avenue is the West Kennet Farmhouse site. It is a not particularly distinguished but nice 17th century farm building, with very fine rows of early 18th century classical farm buildings around it. They include solid stone and brick buildings. The application is for a 90 bed hotel, and sport and leisure complex, with 200-odd parking places. It would double the built-on area on the site. That is where the new circle has been discovered and the complex would obliterate part of that circle.

A very poor feasibility study was carried out by the English Tourist Board at the expense of the applicants. It showed extremely defective local knowledge. The English Tourist Board had taken its demand assessment from the personal assistants of general managers of companies in Swindon. They rang up and asked if the companies had difficulties putting up foreign guests, and the answer was: yes. Swindon is 12 or 13 miles away.

The hotel is to be four-star. To the English Tourist Board the important thing is that it should have trouser-presses and hairdryers in every room. In the opinion of most people in the area what is needed is a 20 or 30 bed hostel or one-star hotel of a standard which pleases walkers and archaeologists. It is a pity that the tourist board did not apparently consult the National Trust or English Heritage in preparing its report. It is no disgrace to seek expert advice. As to what is offered now; it will be an ace car park with a neolithic temple underneath.

The church is safe for the moment. The manor has recently been bought by a successful developer from way outside the area. He is planning a theme park which will contain not only the standard old car museum—and no slur is intended on the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, who I am pleased will speak later in this debate. Since the noble Lord started his own wonderful museum such museums have become numerous and have gone down hill. A plant shop is also planned, as are licensed bars, tat shops, the sale of craft work—which we know all too well means more tat, only brought in from Hong Kong—and also a torture dungeon. The whole has already been advertised for conferences, banquets, wedding receptions, corporate hospitality and private parties.

No doubt like other councils, Kennet district council has a tourism development manager. He submitted a report on the Avebury Manor application to the planning committee, giving it his full and enthusiastic backing. I understand that the officer's wife is, or has been, on the payroll of the applicant, as his "administrative consultant". The tourism manager did not declare any interest to the planning committee. I expect that the Government will agree with me that this arrangement is improper—certainly, it looks improper—and that it should have been avoided. Perhaps it has already ceased; I hope so. I am not surprised that the applicant thought it a good idea. But I would be surprised if the Government continue to think it all right to leave the planning of these world sites to rural councils which are not yet versed in the lore of urban foxes. Despite all this, however, the council was wise enough to refuse most of the applications for the manor and to decide, after many months of dithering, to prosecute the developer for the work that he had done without planning permission.

For the future, we must get certain principles right. We must get them accepted in all our minds. The main principle is that these places can only be spoilt once. If excessive visiting will spoil the place, then visiting must be limited. No planning decision should therefore be taken which will attract more visitors than the place can presently deal with. For instance, if the place is too small for coach trips, there should be no coach parking other than for school trips putting down for educational purposes.

The second principle is that we should never entice idle curiosity. No people should be enticed to these places who do not particularly want to see whatever it is and would be happy to go somewhere else. We should not entice businessmen visiting Swindon or "magical mystery tour" coach trips.

The third principle is that there should be no irrelevant building. No buildings should be built which would change the particular character of the place. We should note that those characters vary widely between sites. The Giant's Causeway and Hadrian's Wall are wild; Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, which constitute one group, are formally perfect and in one place holy; Durham is urban, vertical and in one place holy; Stonehenge is rural, open and in one very small place holy; and Avebury is rural, open and holy over two or three square miles.

The fourth principle is enforcement. Enforcement must be serious. Penalties for ignoring enforcement and stop notices must be adequate to the case. In a recent case, an owner quite near to Avebury was fined £20,000. That sounds a large sum to most of us, but it so happened that it was tuppence ha'penny to him. The law must be changed.

In addition, enforcement must mean that the building comes down, not that the fine is a fee for letting it stay up. For that, only a small change in the law is required to make it clear to councils that, so long as their judgments are sane, they will not be stung for compensation by the foxes. Furthermore, unauthorised change of use must not be allowed to continue on the grounds that it is not all that important. It is always important because it is the thin end of a dangerous weapon.

The Government must find ways—perhaps the House can help them—to obtain a system that embodies those principles by means of which the Government could fulfil what they are already committed to by their adherence not only to the World Convention under which these sites are designated but also to the Convention for the Protection of the Architectural Heritage of Europe, which entered into force for us in March last year.

Rural World Heritage sites could automatically be made environmentally sensitive areas under European Community laws. That would allow the recently broken open downland to be properly managed, especially by the National Trust if it is there, and to be returned to the permanent pasture that it was and should be, instead of being left to moulder under set-aside.

Planning applications should be dealt with in a manner which ensures that the special nature of the site is fully taken into account and that, when there are batches of applications—hailstorms of applications, like those at Avebury—they are considered together in their relationship to one another. I believe that a good way would be through the planning inquiry commission which was put on the statute book in 1968 by a Labour Government, and continued in 1971 by a Conservative Government. It is there to deal with complicated new applications or groups of applications and can be effectively used, I should think, for cases where it is important to set the right precedent for a new sort of case.

We must also remember that the operational guidelines for the implementation of the World Heritage Convention state that a site is struck off the world list if it, deteriorates to the extent that it has lost those characteristics which determine its inclusion". Any of those three big applications at Avebury could, if permitted, lose Avebury those characteristics and thus cause it to be struck off the list.

I repeat: places like Avebury can only be spoilt once. At the very least, the Government should issue a circular to local authorities; better would be automatic application to these sites of all the special planning and conservation statuses that already exist. They could be repealed later if it looked safe to do so, but at the moment we should allow very little indeed. I doubt whether Avebury can afford any more tourists than it now has. I hope that the Minister can tell us what is the annual number: I believe that it is probably 150,000 to 200,000 per year.

Perhaps the best starting point of all this might be the planning inquiry commission for which my Question calls. The fact that an inspector has already held an ordinary inquiry into one of these three applications—the Ridgeway Hotel—should not stand in the way. The planning inquiry commission could simply welcome his report as having done part of its work and it could then get on with the rest and deliver a global and inclusive report to the Secretary of State.

5.26 p.m.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu

My Lords, many in this House, and many more outside, will welcome the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, this afternoon. It is very timely and touches on a matter of some importance. The House also acknowledges his expertise in this matter. He is not only a most knowledgeable and lifetime local resident but he is a former Minister for the environment with a particular interest in all aspects of conservation.

I speak as chairman of English Heritage. I do not wish to comment in detail on the current planning applications at Avebury. It would be invidious if I were to do so as, at any forthcoming planning inquiry, we might wish to give expert evidence, and in any case we have the monument at Avebury in our care.

However, I should like to take this opportunity to raise some wider issues concerning World Heritage sites, Avebury being one of them. Your Lordships may be rather hazy as to what a World Heritage site is, so perhaps I should explain that, under the terms of the convention concerning the protection of the world cultural and natural heritage adopted by the general conference of UNESCO in 1972, it was decided that the World Heritage Committee should establish, under the title of World Heritage list, a list of the unique properties forming an essential part of the world's cultural and natural heritage which the committee considered as having outstanding universal value.

The United Kingdom became party to this convention in May 1984 and thus became party to the main purposes of the convention, which are, first, to draw up a list of World Heritage sites, which member states pledge to protect; and, secondly, to operate a World Heritage fund to give practical support to conservation projects at threatened sites on the list. I do not think that the latter has yet come about.

There are now 11 sites in the United Kingdom inscribed on the list and a further 18 submissions have been made for consideration. The A vebury area was one of the first to be inscribed in 1986, a judgment with which we at English Heritage were in entire agreement. Its qualities are indeed of outstanding universal value. Other examples for your Lordships' interest include Stonehenge, Ironbridge Gorge, Durham, Blenheim Palace, Bath and even St. Kilda's archipelago and the Giant's Causeway. The nearest are this Palace of Westminster and St. Margaret's. They were all chosen because they are unique and outstanding examples of world cultural and natural heritage. At English Heritage we were happy freely to submit our advice in their selection. But these sites need special treatment.

Avebury is under threat. There is not yet a local plan for Avebury and it is difficult to see how there can be proper co-ordination of the various statutory controls (which may be relevant to such an area) without clear guidance based on a master conservation plan. It is not just a question of protection. Their management as World Heritage sites is needed because sadly their designation often attracts leisure entrepreneurs to cash in, like bees round a new honey pot, on what they see as a dramatically increasing number of potential visitors. They then create ever more attractions, some of them quite incompatible and out of sympathy with the uniqueness of the site.

Too many visitors, as we well know, may spoil what they come to see. We need a policy, we need a plan, we need a programme and we need management. But what controls are there? Local authorities have certain powers on planning matters, but they do not have powers over taste. They can restrict numbers of visitors where desirable by regulating the number and size of car parks, by controlling opening hours and what days to open. They can restrict if necessary the size and nature of tourist facilities. They can control signposting and impose a degree of traffic management. Of course all these matters are fully considered in the case of any individual application, or certainly should be. But what happens when, as at Avebury, there is a succession of applications from different applicants within the area, not even all on the same site? Are there to be individual consents without reference to any planning or policy or government guidance, or appeals leading to separate public local inquiries? How can the aggregate effect of these applications be gauged or a fair judgment arrived at?

English Heritage has decided to take the initiative and will be submitting such a master plan. It will consult widely in setting up and financing such a study of the Avebury World Heritage site and its future, in co-operation with the local authorities, the National Trust and others. Apart from informing the present public debate, it is hoped that this study will act as an exemplar for other World Heritage sites. We wish to seek to weigh the balance in terms of both archaeological management and tourist management. That will be our contribution, but we intend to publish it and if necessary offer our findings as evidence to any inquiry that the Government accede to as the result of the request of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet.

5.34 p.m.

The Viscount of Falkland

My Lords, I am aware of my inadequacy in this debate compared with the two distinguished speakers: the noble Lord who preceded me and to whom we are grateful for introducing a chance to discuss Avebury, my noble friend, if I may continue to call him that, Lord Kennet; and the distinguished chairman of National Heritage, the noble Lord, Lord Montagu. I should like to try to bring to this short debate the ideas and disquiet of the ordinary man. It seems that in Avebury, in the application for planning permissions and in some of the breaking of the planning laws, into which I shall briefly go later, we have subjects which are of some disquiet in the country. These disquiets are growing and people are becoming increasingly worried about the possibility of loopholes in the planning laws or the inadequacies of the planning laws which enable—and I would not put it so strongly as to call them the urban foxes—those who see the opportunities, perhaps short-term opportunities, to make money in areas which are of cultural, historical and archaeological interest, which touches on the subject of this debate.

As has been graphically described by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, it seems that we have here one of the unique sites in Britain, indeed one of the unique sites in the world, otherwise it would not have the designation of a World Heritage site. I read in one newspaper article that it has been considered by some experts to exceed in importance the remains to be found at Luxor. It is quite clear that as these stones in the unique ring at Avebury go back some 5,000 years and throw light on previous civilisations and people who inhabited these islands, it is of extreme interest and importance that we should make every effort to protect them not only for those who have an interest in them now, but for those who succeed us. That is an aspect of the protection of sites and houses of historical interest which does not get enough emphasis.

We may today have ideas about the importance of historical sites and the balance between conservation and tourism, but what will our descendants think of our approach to these matters? If we do not consider such things carefully and take the right action to protect them, we may be gravely letting down ourselves and our responsibilities to our descendants who may be more numerous than us. There may be disasters that may decrease the world population. Nevertheless we should recognise that there may be different interests and views about the culture of our islands and the monuments and remains which represent them. We have a responsibility to whoever succeeds us in following centuries. I wonder whether that is something which the Government are taking into account. I am sure that the National Trust and pressure groups will take that into account, as does also the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, but I am wondering whether in our planning laws and the possibilities for developers to ride roughshod over them we may be letting down not only the people who live now but those who will live in the future.

I shall welcome the reply from the noble Lord who is answering this subject. However, I wonder whether the present planning laws do not have too much of an emphasis in terms of retribution for breaking them. Is there a strong enough disincentive for those who would break the planning laws; for those who seek to erect new buildings; for those who destroy old buildings and despoil old sites? Is there enough disincentive to make them consider matters more carefully and to desist?

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, mentioned a neighbouring house where a rich developer had carefully calculated what would be the penalties for breaking the planning laws. I believe he was fined a sum which may seem large—some thousands or perhaps tens of thousands of pounds—and he was prepared to accept that penalty. Presumably he is now enjoying the increased value, in his eyes, of the development and possibly has set the penalties against his tax bill. This seems to me to be an area which should be considered most carefully because in recent times we have seen legislation to make drug dealers pay for their misdeeds from the benefits received from their dealing.

In cases where developers have broken the law and changed a site, and where authorities have deemed it pointless to order that he pull down the buildings, is there a way in which penalities can be imposed on those people who enjoy the increased value of their development? There is a particular weakness in the planning laws because there is insufficient sanction against those who break them.

That issue is of particular concern to the Council for the Preservation of Rural England. I spoke to a representative on the telephone this afternoon and was informed that it would like to see the Government taking a stronger line and a closer look at the need for a change in the law. One must always bear in mind that, because of the amount of money available to developers, the incentive to break the law is becoming stronger.

I should like the Minister to comment on the fact that in other countries which have sites of national or world interest and where there is an increasing amount of tourism, the idea has been put forward that it may be in our best interests to take away from the sites the organisation of the infrastructure needed to develop tourism.

If a theme park were developed at Avebury there would be an enormous increase in the number of visitors and the area would be unable to sustain that. Is it not possible to develop areas away from such sites but within reasonable distance of transport? Perhaps arrangements could be made to monitor the number of visitors, the development of theme parks, the location of museums and a centre for policing such areas. I think of the problems which occur at Stonehenge.

There are ideal sites for development around Reading where one could construct centres to cover the culture and history of a particular area. Tourists could stay in hotels and be well fed. They could visit museums, attend lectures and then in controlled numbers, could visit sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury in a more organised way, being better informed. In that way they would not damage the site. That is linked with ideas put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, for the protection of World Heritage sites. It would provide a cushion between the tourist and the site, and tourism in the area could be controlled and developed sensibly.

It is a balance between the understanding of the past and the needs of the present. It must be acknowledged that we have a duty towards our successors to develop tourism sensibly. The freedom to make money is all very well for the developer. I encourage that, as would all noble Lords. However, there is also the freedom of those who wish to enjoy visiting sites in which there is a minority interest. One must acknowledge the freedom of our successors in future generations to enjoy the sites. We must not spoil them so as to prevent them from reflecting the past, as they do at present.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I welcome the Question tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, because it deals with matters which should concern us all, but it is specific in its application to Avebury.

Since the UK Government ratified the World Heritage Convention in 1984 they have demonstrated their support for the principles enshrined in the convention by nominating a number of sites and monuments each year. As has been pointed out, 11 have so far been accepted for inclusion on the World Heritage list.

Ratification of the convention implies acceptance on the part of the UK Government of a special level of stewardship in respect of those sites and monuments which are acknowledged to be of special significance as supreme examples of human imagination and achievement. They are now explicitly recognised as being of international importance. In this context, the use of the word "international" is comparatively new.

The UK Government have a distinguished record in the protection of archaeological heritage. There is a series of statutes beginning with the Ancient Monuments Protection Act 1882 and culminating in the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979. Between 1974 and 1979 I was the Minister in the Department of the Environment responsible for this area of government and therefore able to play a part in events.

I should like to point out to the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, that at that time one constantly found tensions between development planning on the one hand and the interests of conservation on the other. Although over the years the conservation and preservation interests have gained a great deal, I fear that there will always be tension. Our job is to discover a way in which it can be translated into cons)ructive work so that our heritage is properly protected.

The criterion for protection of monuments has always been that of national importance. The legislation gives the Secretary of State for the Environment wide powers to prevent damage to protected monuments. Recent policy has been to extend protection beyond individual monuments to entire ancient landscapes which embrace a complex of individual monuments. That extension of policy to landscapes has been an important development in recent years.

The areas around Avebury and Stonehenge, included in the World Heritage list in 1986, have the finest examples of such ancient landscapes in Britain or indeed anywhere in Europe. That fact had been acknowledged by their inclusion in the list and was pointed out by the noble Lords, Lord Kennet and Montagu.

The Government accept responsibility to afford protection to sites of national importance. Therefore it would appear to be axiomatic that they should demonstrate even greater zeal in assuring the longterm protection of sites of international importance. To do otherwise would be to call into question the UK's sincerity in its support for the World Heritage Convention.

The area within and around the great stone circle at Avebury is a complex of monuments dating from the neolithic period, set within a landscape which has evolved gradually and organically. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, pointed out, the village consists of buildings from every period from the early Middle Ages to the recent past. Similarly, the pattern of fields and roads reflects the evolution of the landscape.

Now the area is suddenly threatened by three major projects and all are based upon the commercial exploitation of that great complex of monuments. It is sad and ironic that, in spite of all that has been done and the precautions that have been taken, it is still possible for someone to attempt what is being proposed at Avebury. They represent abrupt and discordant intrusions into an harmonious landscape which will detract from its fundamental quality and may even call into question the validity of Avebury continuing to qualify as a World Heritage site.

I fear that I must quote a passage from a letter from Professor Leon Pressouyre, who is the archaeological adviser to the World Heritage Committee and is the Director of the Institut d'Art et d'Archéologie, at the Sorbonne—a very distinguished man on the world heritage scene. In a letter dated 31st August of last year he wrote to ICOMOS: Article 4 in the convention runs: 'Each State Party to this convention recognises that the duty of ensuring the identification, protection, conservation presentation and transmission to the future generations of the cultural and natural heritage (…) situated on its territory, belongs primarily to this state'.

Furthermore, the adequate procedure for the eventual deletion of properties from the World Heritage List (Operational Guidelines for the Implementation of the World Heritage Convention) clearly states what occurs 'when the property has deteriorated to the extent that it has lost those characteristics which determined its inclusion on the world heritage list'.

"This would be, without a shadow of a doubt, the case of Avebury if a large hotel, conference centre and car park was built within the boundaries of the site, being the cause of unacceptable visual and archaeological damage in a cultural ensemble which was considered as safely managed by the National Trust, English Heritage and other responsible bodies.

"The World Heritage Committee, which is very concerned by the management of archaelogical sites already inscribed on the World Heritage List, would probably react very strongly to the news of the threat to the archaeological site of Avebury. One problem which we have in this country is that we are sometimes in an almost schizophrenic situation of still subscribing to and believing very strongly in the whole concept of international sites but, at the same time, probably due to the fact that this is an island, we too often look at matters only in national terms.

It is accepted that cultural tourism is an important component in the economic structure of modern Britain. If the development of this industry is not carefully controlled, however, as has been pointed out by all noble Lords who have spoken before me, the very characteristics that make our heritage sites and monuments attractive to visitors may be destroyed or degraded with the inevitable corollary that the more discerning visitors will omit them from their itineraries.

The answer is for facilities for the more than 150,000 visitors annually to Avebury—which I now believe is the accepted number—of the sort proposed in the three planning applications at present under consideration to be located outside the protected site itself. The visitor who is resolved upon a visit to Avebury will no doubt welcome the provision of hotel accommodation, restaurants and other services but will surely be prepared to travel some distance to reach the site so as to be able to see it in its natural state. The anticipated extra 70,000 visitors to the proposed theme park would be quite unacceptable.

I wholeheartedly support the concern of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, as to the immediate problem of Avebury. However, I must again emphasise the need for that to be seen in the broader context. For that reason, it is essential that the Secretary of State should take immediate action to consider the special case of World Heritage monuments. There is a pressing need for a policy which will ensure that they are given protection consonant with their special status as sites of international importance. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, pointed out, it lies within the power of the Secretary of State to deal with the specific case of Avebury by ensuring that planning consent is not given for the three projects currently the subject of applications. However, what is just as important is that at the same time and with the minimum of delay he should ensure that the sad case of Avebury is not repeated.

As regards Avebury, I believe that the inquiry should be speeded up. There is a public inquiry which will entail the usual amount of delay. I fear that that has always been the same. One always tries to push matters along but the wheels of government and certainly the wheels of the Department of the Environment wax very, very slow and creakily. The speed at which these matters can be, as one hopes, turned down is tremendously important.

If we move further afield and look beyond Avebury, it is just as important that the Secretary of State can, by introducing regulations and if necessary by legislation, amend and extend the Ancient Monuments and Archaeological Areas Act 1979, which we should remember was enacted before we ratified the Convention on World Heritage Sites, so as to ensure that those unique sites receive the respect which they and the people of this country and the world deserve.

5.56 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I can assure your Lordships that the Government fully appreciate the importance of the World Heritage site at Avebury. The considerable concern which has been shown far and wide about the three developments currently proposed there is well understood.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has eloquently described the precious environment at Avebury. It is a site of unique importance visited by over 200,000 people which lies in a part of Wiltshire renowned for its prehistoric monuments. As the noble Lord drew to our attention, the Ridgeway is described as an ancient M.1. I question whether in 26 centuries' time there will be the same passions expressed in your Lordships' House for preserving the current M.1. Avebury, along with Stonehenge and associated sites, is one of 11 sites in the United Kingdom which has been accorded the honour of inclusion in the World Heritage list. It was indeed one of the first sites to be so designated.

Apart from being within the World Heritage site, the three proposed developments in and near Avebury which have caused such concern lie within the North Wessex Downs area of outstanding beauty. They are also within an area of special archaeological significance which Wiltshire County Council has designated in its development plan. Those designations provide additional control and restrictions over inappropriate development to that which applies elsewhere.

The first of the three proposed developments is an hotel and tourist centre at the Ridgeway Cafe on Overton Hill, where the prehistoric Ridgeway crosses the modern road, A.4. The present transport café would be replaced by three conical shaped buildings. The application was called in by the Secretary of State for the Environment last March because of its effects on the archaeological and landscape features of the area. A public local inquiry was held last September and the inspector's report is now with the Secretary of State for his consideration and decision.

The second proposal is also for an hotel and tourist centre. It is at the disused West Kennet Farm, some half a mile west of the Ridgeway Café along the A.4. Many of the farm buildings are Grade II listed buildings. The proposal involves the conversion of some buildings, the demolition of others, and some new building. Two applications have been submitted to Kennet District Council, the local planning authority, one for planning permission, the other for listed building consent for the demolition, re-erection, restoration and conversion of the listed farm buildings.

These applications were considered by the District Council on 9th February when they resolved in their favour. In view of the council's resolution, the Secretary of State decided to call-in both of these applications on 10th February so that he could determine them himself. Such action was taken because of the development's possible effects on the landscape and archaeological features of the area, and on the character and appearance of the listed buildings.

The third proposal concerns Avebury Manor, a Grade I listed building with several Grade II listed buildings within its grounds. It is situated in the village of Avebury itself. Seven planning applications and one listed building consent application have been submitted to Kennet District Council.

I understand the owner began works before the applications were submitted. Kennet District Council warned him of the likelihood of enforcement action and as a result an undertaking was secured that no further unauthorised work would be carried out and the necessary planning and listed building consent applications were submitted to the council. The owner also applied for listed building consent to convert a Grade II dovecot to an information kiosk and a similarly listed recquets court to a visitors' restaurant. The council was prepared to grant consent to these applications and the owner commenced work before the council had been notified of the Secretary of State's authorisation.

The seven planning applications and the one listed building consent application were considered by Kennet District Council on 9th February when the planning applications were all refused. The council resolved to grant consent to the listed buildings applications to demolish the outbuildings, which has apparently already taken place.

The district council further resolved to take enforcement action against the owner for the works he commenced without planning permission as well as prosecuting him for the premature demolition of the outbuildings and other unauthorised work he had undertaken on a gazebo and garden walls.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and the noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, both referred to enforcement. I am sure your Lordships will wish to know that last July my right honourable friend the Secretary of State appointed Mr. Robert Carnwath, QC, to examine the scope and effectiveness of the enforcement of planning control. I understand that his report is expected shortly. Furthermore, noncompliance with an enforcement notice can bring about a fine on summary conviction not exceeding £2,000 or an unlimited fine on conviction.

The Secretary of State has no standing in respect of the applications that were refused unless the applicant should appeal. With regard to the listed building application for which the council has resolved in favour, the council is required lo refer this to the Secretary of State so he can consider calling it in for his decision. I will write to the noble Lord as soon as it is decided what action to take. If the application is called in, a public inquiry will be held and this may be a joint inquiry if the owner appeals against the refusal of the planning applications. The owner has six months to appeal to the Secretary of State against the council's refusals of planning permission. If appeals are lodged, a public local inquiry will be held and the appeals will be recovered for the Secretary of State's decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, also asked whether the three schemes could be considered together by a planning inquiry commission or other similar procedure. Provision for planning inquiry commissions was made by the Town and Country Planning Act 1968 (as subsequently re-enacted in 1971), as the noble Lord pointed out, to inquire into and report on development proposals which raise considerations of national or regional importance or present unfamiliar technical or scientific aspects. A two stage process was envisaged: the first to identify and investigate all the considerations relevant to the proposal, such as national policy matters, and the second entailing a public local inquiry or inquiries into the specific application or applications before the commission.

Despite occasional requests that planning inquiry commissions should be used for various major development proposals—such as the oxide fuel reprocessing plant at Windscale in 1977 and the third London airport at Stansted in 1980—successive governments have not used these procedures because they are thought to be seriously flawed. Instead, the ordinary public inquiry system has evolved in response to increasing pressures placed on it by major developments and is now coping well with all the demands put on it.

The proposed developments at Avebury, either individually or collectively, are not of a kind suitable for consideration by a planning inquiry commission even if the Government were satisfied that these procedures were satisfactory. The normal planning procedures are quite adequate to ensure that they are fully and carefully examined.

As I said earlier, the Secretary of State has called in for his own decision the planning application and application for listed building consent at West Kennet Farm and an inquiry will be held. I will ensure that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is informed of the arrangements when they are made. I will also ensure that the noble Lord is informed what action the Secretary of State decides to take on the listed building consent application for the demolition of the outbuildings of Avebury Manor.

As regards the Avebury planning applications, the Government recognise the concern that inappropriate development should not take place at World Heritage sites and will listen closely to what has been said today. I know noble Lords will not expect me to comment on the three major planning proposals in and around Avebury. Two of them—the proposed hostel-cum-hotel at Overton Hill and the hotel at West Kennet Farm—are already before the Secretary of State. The third, the applications at Avebury Manor, and the alleged works carried out without consent, may come before him shortly on appeal. Your Lordships will appreciate that the Secretary of State's position in these matters must not be prejudiced.

My noble friend Lord Montagu said that there is no local plan for Avebury. While there is no comprehensive local plan, Wiltshire County Council adopted a landscape policy local plan in 1986. This plan accords special importance to the areas of outstanding natural beauty and areas of special archaeological significance. The Government encourage district councils to prepare comprehensive local plans for their whole areas, and in a recent White Paper on the future of development plans it is proposed that a district development plan will become obligatory.

The noble Viscount, Lord Falkland, introduced the novel suggestion of what I could possibly describe as a cultural special development area. I shall draw that suggestion to the attention of my right honourable friend.

Some noble Lords questioned whether local authorities are the best people to start with matters of planning. This Government, or any government, would get very short shrift from all Benches in this House if we tried to deny local authorities the starting stones in the process of these imporant matters. I am extremely pleased with the news that my noble friend Lord Montague has already opened discussions with local interests and other national conservation bodies. I look forward to hearing his report on those discussions which will no doubt contain views on the planning system as they proceed.

My noble friend Lord Montagu rightly spoke of the importance of Avebury in terms of the international heritage. Noble Lords emphasised the need for decisions on planning and listed building applications to be taken against the background of a proper assessment of that importance, and that this applied equally to other World Heritage sites like Durham or Bath. My noble friend suggested that local planning authorities needed more guidance on how they should handle applications affecting such particularly sensitive sites.

The Government do not consider that there is a need for special guidance for local planning authorities. We believe that the natural and cultural heritage of World Heritage sites is adequately protected by the statutory provisions relating to development control and the additional safeguards in respect of the built and natural heritage. There are no specific additional restrictions associated with developments in or near World Heritage sites.

By definition, the sites and monuments justifying World Heritage status will enjoy special protection as Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, Sites of Special Scientific Interest, Grade I or II-star listed buildings, scheduled monuments, or conservation areas. As far as buildings, monuments and conservation areas are concerned English Heritage is, as my noble friend Lord Montague said, well placed to offer expert advice. English Heritage is my right honourable friend's statutory adviser on all matters to do with the conservation of historic buildings and ancient monuments and we have a very high regard for the quality of that advice.

English Heritage is automatically notified by local planning authorities of all listed building consent applications affecting Grade I or II-star buildings; all planning applications which affect the setting of such buildings; and of certain categories of major planning applications in conservation areas. This gives them the opportunity to offer advice to the local planning authorities considering the applications, and to advise my right honourable friend on those applications which it considers he should call in for decision.

Local planning authorities are required to consult English Heritage on planning applications which affect scheduled ancient monuments; and all applications to my right honourable friend for consent to carry out works on scheduled monuments are referred to English Heritage for advice.

Thus English Heritage is well placed, in giving advice, to take into account the special features of World Heritage sites, and I welcome the positive proposals by my noble friend for handling these cases in future. I must stress however that inclusion of a site on the World Heritage list is not of itself an instrument of control. It merely signals the particular importance of that site as a material factor to be taken into account by a local planning authority in determining an application or by my right honourable friend in determining a case on appeal or following a call-in.

All World Heritage sites are different and for this reason, as well as the ones I have already given, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State does not consider it appropriate to offer general guidance on their management and conservation. I have, however, taken note of your Lordships most interesting comments this evening.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, before the Minister sits down, he did not comment upon what I said regarding the importance of the World Heritage sites. I believe that they need treating differently even from our very highly regarded national sites. There needs to be some criteria, and there is a need for greater co-ordination. The Government do not appear to be dealing with any of these factors; and that is not to overlook the local planning authorities. I consider the matter to be very important. I realise the difficulty the Minister was in regarding a short debate of this kind in the form of an Unstarred Question. I understand that he may not wish to go into the whole matter. I am not very happy with the point being brushed aside in that manner. Perhaps the noble Lord will write to me at greater length, and I shall be happy to hear from him. I believe that that part of the Minister's reply was extremely disappointing.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, I would never ever brush aside anything that the noble Baroness says. I shall take advantage of her offer and I shall write to her further on that point.

House adjourned at eleven minutes past six o'clock.