HL Deb 28 February 1990 vol 516 cc804-24

7.25 p.m.

Lord Raglan rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what legislative or administrative proposals they have to enable planning authorities to overcome their present difficulties in protecting areas worthy of conservation.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, about 10 years ago the Government brought out a paper called Lifting the Burden which indicated that they intended to relax the planning system. They said that there were too many controls and that large sums of money were involved in new buildings which were necessary to wealth creation and to the revitalisation of the economy. They said that the planning system should obstruct new construction in as few ways as possible. They wanted the public to take the view that all potential development was benign in effect, that the system should be made to work faster and that councils must not fuss about what new buildings looked like or where they should be put.

At first, in spite of those pronouncements, things went on much as before. That was because of a struggle spanning two decades over planning policy between the old and the new. Only recently had an uneasy balance been achieved, much of the trouble being that modern architecture was and is, intentionally or unintentionally, inimical to older architecture.

However, over the last four or five years, although there have been few changes in planning legislation, pronouncements issuing from the department have become more and more insistent. The Government have evidently been determined, through administrative means coupled with circulars and planning policy guidance, to change custom and practice. It has not been merely a change of emphasis, more a reversal of what most people involved in conservation, whether amenity bodies, national institutions or councils, had grown to believe that planning legislation was all about and should be achieving.

Perhaps I should explain to noble Lords who are not familiar with the planning system that departmental guidance, as it is called, is the means by which the Secretary of State controls the planning system. Guidance spells out in effect his orders to the planning inspectors. There are 170 full-time inspectors and about 180 part-time inspectors. Those inspectors, who by profession are usually architects or town planners, preside at planning appeals.

Following such guidance from the department, planning inspectors have increasingly overturned conservation-friendly decisions by local planning authorities—the councils—where the latter have tried to defend their decisions on appeal. Councils have been fined large sums in costs when councillors have properly carried out their function as they saw it. As a result, at planning committee meetings they are being made to feel obliged to reach conclusions on conservation matters against their better judgment as they are ever conscious of the risk of costs being awarded against them.

As an example of what has been happening, in 1987 to 1988 costs were awarded in over one-third of all inquiries and 86 per cent. of them were against councils for supposedly unreasonable behaviour. That has been taking place during a period of unprecedented pressure for development, particularly in conservation areas because of their special attraction. As a result councils have been losing the ability to have adequate control of their streets. That, in turn, is resulting in irreversible erosion—incremental erosion is a good description that I have heard—of the quality of environments, which may well have been saved with difficulty some time ago and subsequently carefully defended over decades.

I understand the Government's attitude. Certainly their sentiments sound liberal enough—so far as concerns developers anyway—in embracing the views that I have outlined and forcing them on planning authorities. But they have not paid much attention to the wishes of the general public. For example, aesthetic controls, which have been anathematised by this Government, are demanded of councils by residents. Surely that is not surprising. After all, though designers and developers pursue a necessary occupation, they work privately for themselves on behalf of clients. However, their products are consumed both physically and visually by the citizen at large. A new building cannot avoid impinging on the street scene and that affects people other than those who are building it. I know that that seems a glimpse of the obvious, but it is something that is often overlooked.

In addition, when residents value their surroundings, as they usually do when they live in conservation areas, their own pecuniary interests are likely to be affected as well as those of potential developers. It would be all right perhaps if developers were altruistic but unfortunately not many of them are. Most of them tend to say something like, "Here is a nice site with a fine view of these listed buildings. I have thingummies designed for a ziggurat in my back pocket"—I know that to have happened—"but perhaps as this is a very well known area I shall get an architect to design something with a period gesture. That should sell very well". That is known as robbing the view and is all too common. The sentiment is, "I have a fine view of your place and I don't much care what you think of

This Government have in general, rightly I think, set themselves against producer control, endeavouring to keep the balance right on behalf of the consumer. Therefore I find it all the more strange that they should have been behaving as they have done over planning. It is inconsistent with their philosophy to absolve this particular producer group, whether architect, developer or client, from responsibility towards the quality of the environment as perceived by the residents of an area. They—they say—with the passers-by are the consumers. Context and compatibility are enormously important to them. I may say that nobody knows or should know more about the qualities of that kind of context and compatibility than the local councils, prompted by residents. They probably know much better than the inspectors.

There have been, and I expect will be again, occasions when for one reason or another councils have not done well by their residents. However, in the past residents have known that they could appeal for help to central government and expect some sort of sympathy. That happened in Bath some 20 years ago when the council got it into its head to pull down large parts of the city. If central government had not intervened there would be nothing like so much left of that city as there is today. Now, at the Government's suggestion, UNESCO has deemed the city to be of world importance. A continuing central government commitment to protect the city has been invaluable both to the council and to the amenity bodies.

Nowadays, though, we do not know where we stand. Former government policy has gone overboard and the city is once again open, not this time to demolition but to spoliation of its setting by erosion. Architectural fashion has changed for the better over the years but my civic society has to remain very alert and the Government have been no support at all. Quite the opposite. Not long ago the council, supported by the amenity bodies and local residents, won an appeal to oppose a new building in a central residential area. It won on grounds of lack of adequate parking provision. Yet, in an act of wonderful—and I am tempted to say wilful—perversity, the inspector awarded costs of £12,000 against the council. That was in respect of the architect's estimate of his own costs in supporting his designs against the council's disapproval of them. For the council had had the temerity to include its disapproval of those designs in its reasons for rejection and, according to the department, councils are not allowed to hold views on aesthetics, which is astonishing.

Likewise in Bath, the council, with the full support of residents, resists the conversion of houses to offices in the city centre in order to keep life there. On appeal against one such council ruling, one reason that an inspector gave for allowing change from residential to office use was that the house in question had no front garden. I may say that nearly all the houses in the city centre have no front garden. That is just one illustration of how far inspectors are or have been going in leaning over against even the most sensible of controls.

In doing so thay are causing the character of conservation areas gradually to alter. The only means of remedying such decisions is by application to the High Court. But that is vastly time-consuming and expensive and can only be contemplated when the decision appears to be fundamentally flawed and the potential harm is so great that it simply has to be avoided. That is another instance of how loaded is the system against conservation at present.

I shall only briefly mention the vast number of problems thrown up by the Use Classes Order 1987 because I understand that the Government have its effects under review at the moment. However, let me give the House an example of how the Secretary of State is deterring councils from doing the kind of job that they are supposed to do. Only last week I was shown the result of an appeal in Notting Hill where the council had refused change of use from shop to restaurant for its own good reasons, which it gave. Yet not only did the restaurateur win on appeal; he was awarded £27,000 costs. In other words, costs are being used punitively to steer government policy. I think that that is wrong. I appreciate that there is a certain mordant humour in making councils subsidise opposition to their own planning controls and decisions but it demonstrates a lack of appreciation of the problems that so often accompany development and change of views.

I must also mention what is known as presumption in favour of development. It has always existed as a general principle although not written into legislation. As a free citizen, one is at liberty to put forward a proposal for a planning development. If the planning authority agrees, there is no need for it to say anything. But if it refuses or disagrees, it has to give reasons. In other words, an explanation has to be given if one is stopped from doing something. The principle is not written into legislation because there is no need. However, the Government have tried very hard to turn an unwritten principle into a written precept. They wrote it into a circular in 1980 and again into guidance in 1988, stating also that to refuse permission local planning authorities have to demonstrate that the development would do harm. That is quite hard to do. However, one cannot act upon such a principle where Parliament has decreed otherwise; and Parliament has decreed otherwise in conservation areas. Presumption in favour of development in a conservation area is a contradiction in terms although no one would gather that from the guidance notes or from anything else emanating from the department.

The way in which a Secretary of State can shuffle legislation to one side with one hand while he writes new policy guidance with the other seems to me a matter of great concern. Pushed out of sight altogether has been the developer's duty as laid down by Parliament to preserve or enhance a conservation area, and only public-spirited action in the courts has shown this up, as it did in the Steinberg case. I am told that the department does not like the Steinberg judgment and is doing its best to water down its effects. I hope that this information is incorrect.

I have mentioned Bath. Your Lordships may think that my remarks are prompted only from my experience there. However, I have been hearing complaints all around the country. I have also received many letters of support from your Lordships, including the noble Lord, Lord Gibson, who is away. However, he told me that I could mention his name in support of my argument if I thought that it would help. I know that it will.

There is deep unease among conservationists at the department's stance. The Government should hold the ring, but instead of that people see them as making onslaughts on those who hold opinions different from those of developers. They are deterring councils and amenities bodies from conserving areas. They have even been trying to impose the view that the look of the building is a matter only for its designers. I seem to differ here from the Royal Town Planning Institute. I see no reason why planning authorities should not set the style of design as part of a planning brief. Why ever not, my Lords? It would save a lot of argument.

When I put down the Question last summer I learned that the chairman of the Kensington and Chelsea planning committee had become so frustrated by the Government's preventing his committee from doing what it saw as its duty that he was resigning in order to campaign to change government policy. Through the borough he produced an excellent pamphlet, a copy of which, the noble Lord, Lord Reay, told me, came through his letter box. I have sent one to the department. It should be helpful.

Councillor Gordon is now the mayor and therefore has withdrawn from campaigning. However, I mention two matters that I have discussed with him. One is that, as things are, councillors are duty bound because of the queston of costs to consider every application as it would be considered on appeal by a probably hostile planning inspector. The other is that in no case does a council stand much chance on appeal if the councillors have reached a conclusion that is different from that preferred and advanced by their officers. So much for exercise of responsibility; so much for independence of judgment. Surely the Government should not impose their views thus but rather should take notice of the widespread dismay that their policies have been causing.

I was chairman of a new town development corporation and of its planning committee for almost 13 years. I know much about the economic importance of new development of factories, of business and of the encouragement of enterprise. Indeed my town gave a lead with a number of ideas in this regard. It is from my experience in a new town that I know that conservation is inimical to these issues. It is a matter of thinking how to handle the question with sympathy, of not imagining that conservation must stand in the way of progress, of respecting old buildings and the people who prefer to live among them, and so on.

The Government's present approach is all wrong. They must rethink it. I hope that they will do so in the light of the debate this evening.

7.48 p.m.

Lord Cullen of Ashbourne

My Lords, I feel very diffident about following the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, who is clearly very much an expert on this subject. I must confess that up until now I have never taken an interest in the subject and am doing so this evening only because I received from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea the brochure to which the noble Lord has referred. I suppose the reason that I received it is that I live in that borough. Most of the very few words that I was going to say have already been said by the noble Lord. However, I shall proceed with what I had in mind to say.

As I understand it, the position is that since national planning control began in 1947 there has always been a presumption in favour of development, as the noble Lord mentioned. That has been going on all the time, not just during the period that this Government have been in office. It was natural enough that there should be such a presumption just after the war, after all the ravages of that war on the capital and on other parts of the country. But this presumption has continued ever since; and I am also told that it has become stronger in the past 10 years.

In Circular 22/80, to which the noble Lord referred, the Government directed local authorities to grant planning permission unless having regard to all material considerations—and I emphasise the word "material"—there were sound and clear-cut reasons for refusal. In January 1988 in PPG 1 the Department of the Environment gave guidance as follows: The developer is not required to prove the case for the development he is proposing to carry out but if the planning authority consider it necessary to refuse permission, the onus is on them to demonstrate clearly why". I now return to the word "material". One of the many considerations which most people would regard as material is surely what the development is likely to look like. Yet the same guidance note in January 1988 stated: Matters of detailed design have long been an unnecessary source of contention and delay in the planning system. Planning authorities should not impose their tastes on developers simply because they believe them to be superior". That appears to mean that the reverse can occur; the authorities can have the taste of the developers imposed upon them.

The general policy guidance appears to be completely at variance with present government policy. The philosophy behind the community tax charge is to make local government accountable to the community. That would make it essential for planning authorities to canvass the opinions of local residents before giving or refusing permission. However, if they do so and the developer appeals it is probable that refusal of permission will be reversed by the department. I understand that that situation occurs not only in Kensington and Chelsea but all over the country.

Usually there are two sides to every question. I shall listen with interest to the remarks made by my noble friend Lord Reay. During the past 40 years there have been some odd developments. Many have not been pleasing to the eye and I suspect to some others. If they stem from a fault in the system there must be a strong case for its reform.

7.51 p.m.

Lord Addington

My Lords, having listened to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, I have reached the conclusion that he knows far more about the process of planning authorities than I ever shall. Therefore I shall restrict my remarks to the function of the system as it stands. A system that presumes the right to devleop must have strong bounds placed upon it if it is not to become a means of abusing the environment as a whole.

"Environmental" and "green" issues have become buzzwords and all political parties and interest groups appear to have developed a green hue. I suggest that in domestic areas the Government should do something to make that hue a little more believable. If we continue to damage our environment at the current rate as a result of new development and certain types of agricultural practice, the statements which we make about the environment of other countries—the rain forests are a classic example—will look fairly shallow. It is worth remembering that centuries of development have led to a total change in our natural landscape and that little is left. We must be careful about what we do in setting examples.

The value of our environment is difficult to place in terms of the benefits gained from certain developments. It is true that there is a housing problem in the South of the country. I suggest that a more realistic regional policy would take away some of the pressure, but not all. When undertaking developments we must consider the cost of our actions, which affect virtually everything that we do. Every time we develop a greenfield site we destroy some natural ecosystem which has evolved over many years. That is equally true of natural heathland and domestic gardens which have not been subjected to a barrage of pesticides. There is a natural ecosystem of wildlife, plants and animals even in one small patch of land. Therefore, it is particularly worrying when people sell parts of their gardens for the development of, say, new flats. Not only is that land destroyed as a form of natural habitat but there is an effect on the surrounding area.

Many forms of wildlife which used to find a home in rural settings are now moving into suburban settings. The process of farming has destroyed their habitat and often their food source, as in the case of birds of prey. Mice and voles are not now found in such large numbers in urban areas because of the use of pesticides and poisons. Many birds of prey are now moving into urban and suburban environments.

Therefore, we must consider some form of guideline which protects all the different environments. In the current situation, where it is assumed that the developer has the right to develop, the balance is wrong. Environmentally we can no longer afford to develop at will because we are running out of space. Ours is a densely populated island, particularly the southern half, and no longer can we allow people to do as they wish.

In considering the Question—it concerns our quality of life and whether we wish to keep in that certain parts of our environment—we must remember the visual appearance of the environment. Anyone who has looked out upon great lumps of concrete thrown up in large regimented lines knows that that view is not conducive to a feeling of well-being. Indeed, living in such an environment causes depression and is deeply dehumanising. At present the huge grey giants are falling to bits. We should be more concerned with the aesthetic aspect and that is undeniably so when we look at the results of the past.

We must develop a policy which asks why an area is to be developed and what the benefits are. They should be weighed against the cost to the environment and we should ensure that they outweigh the costs. Any damage caused to the environment must not be irreversible.

7.57 p.m.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, the House should be extremely grateful to my noble friend Lord Raglan for introducing the Question. His speech came from deep and wide experience of the subject. It had the added and uncommon advantage of pulling no punches. He also went into detail where necessary. I do not remember having heard a better speech about conservation, especially urban conservation, for many years.

I have only two points to make, both of which are subsidiary to my noble friend's main exposition. They fit in as points of emphasis as regards what he has said. Since the middle of the second world war the mainstay of our system of conservation of historic environments in cities, towns and villages has been the investigators of buildings of historic and architectural importance. They are a core of people who objectively judge, say, a street for architectural or historic importance and grade it. Naturally they develop immense expertise and a core of general academic knowledge. Naturally and rightly, in taking planning decisions involving such considerations, Secretaries of State have always turned to the investigators for advice. Without them and their advice it is possible that we should have no preservation of historic and architecturally important buildings. If their role were abolished, we should have to invent a different system; perhaps like the French system, which rests on a different basis and is much more onerous for developers to face.

The investigators and the administrators who administer the investigators used to be part of the Department of the Environment. At one very pleasant period of my life I was the junior Minister responsible for them. Naturally, I noticed and paid a great deal of attention when Mr. Heseltine, who was then Secretary of State for the Environment, proposed to hive them off into the quango which later became English Heritage.

At that time I was so worried about it—and I would not say that I was hostile, because I did not fully understand why he wanted to do it—that I went to see him. He kindly agreed to talk to me. He said, "I understand your worries but consider this advantage. At the moment I could halve the money for the historic buildings branch of the Ministry, I could halve the grants given for the upkeep of historic buildings, streets and towns without anybody knowing. Once I hive it off and it becomes freestanding, I shall have to publish the amount of money it receives every year. If ever I show any signs of reducing it then I have no doubt that you will kick up a public scandal. That will make it less likely that I shall be tempted to reduce the amount". I thought that was a very good argument and on reflection decided to support what was proposed.

I must say that at that time it never occurred to me that the investigators of the historic buildings branch would be treated otherwise than as the experts in the field who would be turned to first and always, nor that, while the advice could not always be statutorily accepted, it would not always be given greater weight in the matters in which the investigators were competent than the advice of anybody else. It is very sad that that is no longer so.

One has been able to see by mere anecdotal reading of the press that there has been an increase in the number of occasions on which the advice of English Heritage in a question involving the demolition of a listed building or street has been rejected. When I saw that that was the case I tabled a whole series of Questions and wrote many letters to Ministers asking for figures. I asked what was the increase in the number of occasions on which the advice of English Heritage had been rejected. The answer came back that no record is kept. I tried again by asking whether or not it would be desirable to keep a record and the answer came back that it would not be.

I then turned to English Heritage to ask if it kept a record of those figures. It said that it did not but that it could reach a figure, if it judged it worth while, by combing back through all the records—a long and arduous business. I do not know whether they are going to do that.

What is quite clear—and it can be seen again and again from reports of inspectors' findings and from Answers to Parliamentary Questions and letters to Ministers—is that the Secretary of State or his inspector consults English Heritage, receives its advice and consults other parties on the value of a given building and receives their advice. These are very often the statutorily listed amenity societies, and it is very good that they should be consulted. However—and this is new—the department or the inspector goes further and consults intending developers. He takes into account—and I have a very well known case of this in Weymouth—a study of the architectural or historical importance of a given building which has been paid for by the applicant for permission to pull it down. He takes that into account as material.

English Heritage has been pushed downhill so that it is now very little more than an amenity society along with the others. It is consulted among others and its advice may or may not be taken into account. If I and others had thought at the time when Mr. Heseltine invented English Heritage that that was to be its fate, we should certainly have opposed the move and said, "You keep it where it has been for 30 years, inside the department, and listen to it as the Government's prime adviser". All I can say is that what is now happening to English Heritage is something which should not happen to an official body with statutory powers which has been entrusted by Parliament with the duty of giving statutory advice to the Secretary of State.

I now turn to my other point, which concerns the world heritage sites which have been mentioned this evening. It is almost a year since we debated world heritage sites. At that time I voiced my fears about the future of heritage sites. I questioned whether existing planning law would be sufficient to protect them. Let us remember that we are dealing here with places of which there are only 12 in Britain and only about 200 in the world. They are by definition—and a definition accepted and proclaimed by HMG—of world importance.

In the first place they are left to a district council, since district councils now have the planning power and county councils no longer have that. I said at the time that I did not believe that that would work out very well and that the Government should do something to increase the degree of central protection afforded by government to our 12 world heritage sites. I was not quite sure what should be done. However, I made a proposal to use the never yet used system of planning inquiry commissions in each case of a planning application of any significance for one of those sites.

The noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, answering for the Government ruled out the proposal and said that he was sure that the protection afforded by existing statutory and administrative arrangements was sufficient. I took the precaution of writing to him in time for this evening's debate and received a letter from him today in which he wrote that it was still his opinion that the degree of protection afforded by present statutory arrangements was sufficient.

Later on I went with the Kennet District Council, which is responsible for the world heritage site at Avebury, to see Mrs. Bottomley when she was the junior Minister concerned at the Department of the Environment. With some dash for a very small rural council, the Kennet District Council put forward possible arrangements involving no change in statute law which could be introduced to protect all the world heritage sites in the country. Mrs. Bottomley expressed a keen interest and I thought that we might be on to a winner. However, since then nothing has happened. That is the second constructive proposal which I have put forward which has been rejected.

I do not intend to put forward another proposal this evening. The record is not so favourable to my having a third shot. However, I should like to tell the House what has happened at that one world heritage site since that time and to draw what seems to me to be the moral. There have been four public inquiries in two years. That does not seem very many. However, Avebury is a village with a population of somewhere between 100 and 200 and the parish of Avebury, which is the planning unit, takes in that and another village. I dare say that between them the population is 300. There have been two separate major hotel proposals, both of which would completely ruin that site and deprive it of any right to continue with the designation of a world heritage site. Each of those underwent a separate public inquiry lasting many weeks. Avebury Manor has been bought by a commercial exploiter who has been very rightly ordered by the district council to cease doing what he is doing to the historic buildings and to undo what he has done. He has chosen to appeal against those orders and that has involved a third public inquiry lasting many weeks. The fourth inquiry will be when the Kennet District Council produces its draft parish plan for Avebury, covering the tiny population of roughly 300.

The last time we debated these issues in this House it was very good to hear the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, say that English Heritage would be putting forward its own proposals for the management of the world heritage site at Avebury, most of which is owned by the National Trust. However, I have not yet found out whether there has been any progress in that respect and the local planning authority has now put forward its proposals. They are well meaning, but in the opinion of many inhabitants of the village—I live in the next village—they do not go nearly far enough. We said so to the district council and it decided that it would be right to have a public inquiry. It is quite right, but I have not the least doubt that it will last many weeks.

What is a population of 150 or 200 expected to do to finance and find the energy and skill to fight four public inquiries, each of which lasted many weeks, in two years? We are flagging. They are flagging; that is natural. I expect that, as pressure mounts from the international hotel chain developers on all our world heritage sites—mark you, it will; it is already happening in Durham, in Cambridge, which is not even designated yet, and other areas—we shall find the force for conserving that which makes it a world heritage site and which stands beside the district council (which is sometimes very small) in its attempts to ensure that it is worth preserving, simply vanishing away through sheer lack of size. That is another reason why the Government should re-examine the refusal they have so far maintained to entertain the possibility of any change in the existing law or arrangements concerning world heritage sites.

8.12 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I echo the thanks which have already been expressed on behalf of myself and the crowded Benches behind me to the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, for the very expert way in which he has introduced this important subject.

When I first saw the Unstarred Question put down I thought I had to declare interest as a former chairman of the development control sub-committee of the London Borough of Haringey. That would have meant my declaring an interest as a gamekeeper. However, since that time I have this week learnt that a planning application which I put in for my own property and which was turned down by the London Borough of Haringey has now been allowed on appeal by the Department of the Environment inspectors. I therefore have qualifications as a poacher as well as a gamekeeper and I propose to capitalise on both qualifications.

Noble Lords who have spoken in this debate have referred to some of the most important issues which face our country in preserving a civilised way of life. Most of the debate has been about the problems of unsuitable architecture—what the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, calls "robbing the view". The noble Lord, Lord Addington, made an impassioned plea for the preservation of the natural environment and of greenfield sites. I do not want to do other than to echo what he said about the importance of maintaining the natural environment.

In the short time I allow myself I want to talk about the balance of interest and the powers of the Department of the Environment and local planning authorities. I want to consider how best they might be meshed together to reflect the interests not only of residents but of the population as a whole. At the moment it seems to me—it has been emphasised by many speakers—that the balance is wholly wrong. The problem with the relationship between the Government and local planning authorities is that the Government have never been under any obligation to state openly and in risk of contradiction by Parliament what their policies are. What has happened is that there has been a back-door revolution.

I paid tribute to Mr. Michael Heseltine when he came out into the open and explained in his paper Lifting the Burden the basis of his policies. At the time I did not agree with what he said, but I thought it admirable that he should be willing to say what he said openly and to raise the matter as an issue of public debate. As the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, made clear, the changes that have taken place since that time—they did not take place immediately—have taken place by the back-door. They have taken place in the form of guidance notes for the inspectors rather than in the form of public debate. It is for that reason above all that this question is of such great importance.

We have to remember with regard to planning applications that the cards are always stacked in favour of developers and against planning authorities. The most obvious reason for that is that, once planning permission has been granted for something, that permission can never be revoked, or at least not revoked except at enormous expense and with very great legal difficulty. Once a developer has been turned down, however, that developer can come back time after time, whittling away at the determination of the planning authority and of local people to resist a particular piece of development. The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, gave a graphic account of that when he described what was happening at Avebury. I fear that that story is not yet complete and it may well be that the whittling away will result in something disastrous.

In that sense the cards are already stacked against local planning authorities. It is extremely difficult for local planning authorities, which do not have money available, and certainly for local residents, who do not have money available, to resist the very well-heeled developers who have a great deal of money to make from certain forms of development.

The second way in which the cards are stacked against local authorities has already been referred to, and that is the way in which costs are increasingly being awarded against local authorities even when they win the case. It is bad enough for local authorities to have costs awarded against them when they lose a case; after all, they are only reflecting a public wish to protect the conservation areas and the environment. When developers put forward proposals of this kind, they are quite clearly looking to make money out of them. In my view they must take the risks and should pay the costs whether they win or lose the application. That position has now been turned on its head and councils which defend the interests of the electors and local people find costs awarded against them even when they win.

The third way in which it is becoming increasingly difficult for councils to act objectively and effectively—the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, again referred to this and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Cullen, also made this point—is when they are told that their decisions are at risk if they go against the advice given to them by officers. In a democratic sense that seems to me to be outrageous. What are councillors for unless they have the ability, on occasion, to follow their own judgment and the judgment of those who elected them to overturn the views expressed by professional officers? I do not denigrate professional officers; I have worked very successfully with them both in a borough council and in the Greater London Council. There are times, however, when it is necessary for the greater good to prevail and the greater good should be capable of being expressed by councillors. There should not be a risk of their case being overturned simply because there is disagreement between councillors and officers.

The fourth way in which councils are hamstrung in the way they deal with planning applications, as I have already hinted, is in the guidance given to inspectors. This guidance goes far too far to enhance the presumption in favour of development and far too far against the presumption which ought to exist that there is such a thing as a heritage, both architectural and natural, which ought to be preserved. After all, architecture is not like the other arts. If one does not like a painting one does not have to go into the art gallery to see it; if one does not like a book, one does not have to open it.

If you live in this country at all you are exposed to architecture, and you are exposed, thank goodness, to a wide range of architecture of many centuries. Some of it over the centuries is good and some is bad—I am not making a point in favour of or against modern architecture. I am certainly not going to enter the debates which have enraged the Royal Institute of British Architects over recent years.

Because architecture is so visible I am reminded of the Coit Tower on the top of Telegraph Hill in San Francisco. It is so ugly that it is said the only way to avoid seeing it is to live in it. There are plenty of examples in this country of similar buildings which ought to be crammed with sensitive people seeking to avoid looking at the place in which they live. Because architecture is so visible there should be a presumption that the advice of such organisations as English Heritage and the Royal Fine Arts Commission—the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, made a valuable point in that connection—is taken into account. We should be given the answer to the noble Lord's question regarding the number and proportion of occasions on which the advice of English Heritage has not been taken into account.

There is an extreme view held in some quarters that there should be no such thing as planning control. The City of Chicago is always used as an example. It is said that Chicago is a successful city economically because it does not have planning or zoning controls. I believed that to be the case until recently when I visited Chicago and discovered that that is not true. There may not be strict controls over the aesthetic appearance of buildings but the city has strict zoning controls and has much more concern than we tend to have.

My final and most important point is that planning controls are essential not just from an aesthetic point of view but because of the zoning implications—the implications of new developments on the demand for transport services, water supplies, utility supplies of other kinds, social and educational services and so on. The creation of a balanced community which contains the services that are required in the places where they are needed is the fundamental reason why planning controls are so necessary.

The need for planning controls for conservation purposes is an important case, but it is a special case which should be taken alongside the social reasons for effective, consistent and clearly expressed planning controls. I fear that with recent unpublished decisions the Government may be moving away from the requirements of our society which have been expressed over the years in the form of planning controls.

8.23 p.m.

Lord Reay

My Lords, your Lordships' House can be in no doubt about the commitment of the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, to conservation. His speech today was generously and justifiably praised by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. I can assure your Lordships that the Government are equally committed to protecting the best of our architectural and natural heritage, to use the phrase of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey.

With the ever-increasing demands and expectations of our living, organically growing society it would be unrealistic to expect to be able to preserve everything, even everything worthy of conservation; nor would it be natural. For centuries buildings and landscapes have been altered and adapted to cater for the requirements and tastes of successive generations of owners and occupiers. Nevertheless, there is a very great deal in this country that it would be everyone's wish to see everything possible done to preserve. That need has been progressively recognised since the war in an expanding framework of legislation and policy guidance from successive governments. I welcome the opportunity which the debate this evening provides to glance briefly at this topic.

The oft-quoted presumption in favour of development is not, as is sometimes supposed, a recently invented policy to facilitate development. It is a statement of principle which has underlain the planning system for over 40 years, ever since the traditional freedom of a landowner to develop and use his land as he wished first began to be subjected to a comprehensive system of control based upon the public interest.

The idea that local authorities should designate areas, of special architectural or historic interest the character or appearance of which it is desirable to preserve or enhance", found legislative recognition in the Civic Amenities Act 1967. We now have some 6,000 conservation areas. They vary in scope from historic town centres—as in Bath where the conservation area now covers two-thirds of the built-up area—to smaller terraces or squares, groups of houses in towns or villages or parks around historic buildings. Many of them are centred on listed buildings but not all: many simply represent good, pleasing architecture in harmony with their surroundings.

For over 20 years there has been a statutory requirement that those who determine planning applications and appeals—that is, local planning authorities and the Secretary of State for the Environment—must pay special attention to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of a conservation area. This requirement was highlighted in the case already mentioned in which a Professor Steinberg successfully challenged a decision by one of the Secretary of State's inspectors. The inspector had allowed an appeal against a refusal of planning permission to develop a site in a conservation area in the London Borough of Camden. The judge held that the inspector had misdirected himself when he identified the issue to be decided as whether the proposed development would harm the character of the conservation area. The judge said there was a world of difference between whether the proposal would harm the character of the area and the correct test of the need to pay special attention to the desirability of preserving or enhancing it.

That was a significant judgment. It highlighted in a way that had not been done before the need to apply the positive test of preserving or enhancing the character or appearance of a conservation area rather than simply the negative test of not doing harm when planning applications are considered. The noble Lord, Lord Raglan, suggested that the Department of the Environment is doing what it can to water down the effect of the Steinberg judgment. I can tell the noble Lord that the judgment of the High Court has been accepted and that planning inspectors have been made aware of the lessons to be learnt from it.

The noble Lord, Lord Raglan, referred to a complaint which is made in the planning brief, The Need for Reform. As he correctly said, I have seen a copy being a resident of Chelsea, as is my noble friend Lord Cullen. It was issued by Councillor Gordon, the former chairman of the planning committee of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. The noble Lord repeated the complaint made in that document that in conservation areas to have a presumption in favour of allowing applications for development is a contradiction in terms and should go. To that I would say that the presumption in favour of development anywhere, as set out most recently in PPGI, is qualified by the requirement to have regard to all material considerations. In the case of conservation areas that must mean paying special attention to the desirability of preserving or enhancing their character or appearance.

The Government's planning policy guidance, published in the Department of the Environment Circulars and Planning Policy Guidance Notes, puts flesh on the legislative framework of development control. The courts have said that such guidance is a material consideration to be taken into account in decisions about development proposals. I believe the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, implied that there is something "back-door" about this method of issuing guidance. However, the PPGs are published documents. They are distributed to local planning authorities and are available to the general public. They largely reiterate advice previously published in circulars but in a more concise and accessible form.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. I am grateful for that explanation. I entirely accept, and would never dream of denying, that planning policy guidelines are available to councils and to the general public. However, that is a different matter (is it not?) from having them subjected to political debate. For example, it is different from having them presented to Parliament by Secretaries of State or, even better, being the subject of legislation. The noble Lord will agree that there have been major changes in the emphasis of these planning policy guidelines. I should have thought this was a matter for debate in Parliament.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I do not entirely accept that. I shall be dealing with some of the points that the noble Lord raised. I now turn to the subject of aesthetics raised by the noble Lords, Lord Addington and Lord Raglan, which is such a subjective matter. It is extraordinarily difficult to provide guidance which is capable of practical application and satisfies a consensus of opinion. PPG1 says: control of external appearance can be important, especially for instance in environmentally sensitive area—such as national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, conservation areas and areas where the quality of the environment is of a particularly high standard". We also recommend authorities to reject, obviously poor designs which are out of scale or character with their surroundings". It is pertinent to bear in mind that this advice has to be applied to some half a million planning applications each year, the vast majority of which are resolved locally without, I suggest, undue fuss or bother.

I should like to emphasise to your Lordships the Government's desire that as many planning decisions as possible should be taken locally. In an ideal world they would all be resolved at a local level. In fact, fewer than 2 per cent. of all planning permissions are granted by or on behalf of the Secretary of State. Inevitably, that 2 per cent. includes a number of major or controversial proposals which attract publicity and generate wider public interest.

The allegation is made from time to time that the Government are allowing progressively greater numbers of appeals against local authorities' decisions to refuse planning permission. However, let me give your Lordships some figures. Last year, 1988–89, 35 per cent. of appeals in the city of Bath were allowed, compared with 36.7 per cent. in England. In the first nine monhs of the current year, 1989–90, only 23.5 per cent. of Bath appeals were successful, and the national figure was 34.4 per cent. Those figures suggest that both in Bath and in England as a whole the proportion of appeals allowed is diminishing.

Lord Raglan

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for providing those figures. I suggest that it is perhaps a false reading. In my speech I said that the councils have the Ridley axe over their heads and they are worried that they are going to be done for costs. That is what is making them feel more inclined to give planning permission in some cases rather than otherwise.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I shall be dealing with the question of costs in a moment. I believe that some will find the figures I have quoted reasssuring. Earlier the noble Lord, Lord Raglan, mentioned the case where an inspector upheld an appeal against the change of use of a house to offices in Bath. Each case must be considered on its merits, but since early 1989 all four appeals against the refusal of permission for such change of use have been rejected by the Secretary of State.

I now turn to the question of costs and I shall address some misconceptions about the award of costs in respect of planning appeals. The present appeal costs regime is not intended to punish the local planning authority for a wrong decision when it has been taken as part of the development control process. The purpose of the costs regime is to enable either party to retrieve some or all of their appeal costs when it is clear that either the planning application should not have been refused or the planning appeal should never have been submitted because it had no reasonable prospect of success.

That policy is applied even-handedly. For example, in the last year costs have been awarded in favour of the local planning authority in respect of dismissed appeals for three particularly large proposals for regional shopping-leisure development. These were on green belt sites in the London borough of Bromley, near St. Albans and at Wraysbury, Berkshire. In each case my right honourable friend the Secretary of State considered that the local planning authority and its ratepayers should not have to pay for resisting development proposals which flew in the face of established government policy. Provided local planning authorities are careful to take decisions on their planning merits, by reference to national and local statements of planning policy, there is no reason for them to fear that the result of an appeal will be an award of costs against them.

I should like to turn to the question of use classes and the general development order. The use classes order removes from the definition of development, and so from the scope of planning control, changes of use where both the present and proposed uses fall within the same use class. The order was reviewed and overhauled in 1987. Some of the changes made then have proved controversial, but I believe that the 1987 order largely satisfies the Government's paramount objectives. These were to make it unnecessary to obtain planning permission for types of development that generally do not damage amenity, while retaining effective control over those that do.

The Government have decided that, since the use classes order has been in force for more than two and a half years, the time is right to assess its impact. We have therefore commissioned independent research to provide an objective assessment of the effects of the order. The research is now under way, and we expect it to provide results by the summer.

The general development order grants a general planning permission for a wide variety of minor development, such as house and factory extensions. It has been subject to numerous refinements over the years, but in 1981 the legislation embodied a two-tier approach for the first time. This provided for less generous tolerances for certain categories of permitted development in conservation areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty and national parks.

In 1988 the differential between permitted development in these areas and elsewhere was further widened. Specific control was extended to loft extensions and the cladding of dwelling-houses, as well as to the erection of outbuildings exceeding 10 cubic metres in size, in conservation areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks and the Broads.

The department monitors continually the working of the GDO, and is always ready to consider constructive suggestions for further refinement. However, in deciding the limits of permitted development we must always keep in mind that to require planning permission for minor works places a burden both on hard-pressed local planning authorities and also on householders anxious to carry out repairs or improvements to their property.

It has been suggested that when development takes place without planning permission—a complaint made in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea document—or at variance with an existing permission, the local authority should have power to issue an immediate stop notice, without considering the merits of the development.

The Government consider that such an approach would be too draconian. There are, we believe, two better ways of dealing effectively with any unauthorised development which is so unacceptable as to require urgent remedial action. First, we can legislate to improve and strengthen the existing stop notice provisions in the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. We already have some proposals for doing that, in a report last year by Robert Carnwath QC. We hope to implement them as soon as we have a planning Bill.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Can the noble Lord say when that will be?

Lord Reay

I do not believe that the noble Lord, or anyone else, would expect me to anticipate what might or might not be in the Queen's Speech.

Secondly, even without new legislation, if a local authority decides that it is essential to compel unlawful development to stop at once, it can use its existing injunctive powers in Section 222 of the Local Government Act 1972. Although seeking an injunction is a last resort, local authorities should be aware that this course is available for use when appropriate.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, spoke at some length about English Heritage, and he speaks with very great experience. I believe he said that the advice of English Heritage was increasingly rejected. That body is the statutory adviser to the Secretary of State, and I can assure him that its advice is always considered most carefully in deciding whether to call in applications for planning permission, listed building consents for the Secretary of State's own decision and permission to hold a public inquiry.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, also referred to world heritage sites. He correctly summed up our view that the existing development control system and the additional safeguards which we already have as regards the built and natural heritage provide adequate protection.

With regard to the proposed developments at Avebury, I can make no comment on the case of the tourist centre at West Kennet Farm, this being at present under consideration by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. With regard to the Elizabethan theme park at Avebury Manor, I similarly cannot comment on the merits of the case, which involves planning and listed building enforcement appeals. I understand that the inspector, who held an inquiry from September to November 1989, expects to submit his report to my right honourable friend shortly.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, in saying that he cannot comment on these matters, does the noble Lord imagine that I thought he could? I should like to disabuse the House of any idea that I was unaware that these matters were under consideration and could not be commented on by the very party who had to decide them.

Lord Reay

My Lords, I had no idea whether the noble Lord was aware or unaware of what my reply would be. I did not presume that he knew or did not know.

In conclusion, I hope that some of what I have had to say may have demonstrated the comprehensive nature of the existing primary and secondary legislation for protecting areas worthy of conservation and of the Government's planning policy guidance. The Government are well aware of the need to keep under constant review all the instruments and guidance which provide the background to every decision on a development proposal. In shaping the legislation and publishing advice on development control, the department is fully conscious of the need for the planning system to reconcile many different interests. I hope that your Lordships will agree that the Government have acknowledged the interests of conservation and are committed to ensuring that full weight is given to this important issue in the planning process.

House adjourned at eighteen minutes before nine o'clock.