HL Deb 22 January 1998 vol 584 cc1603-5

The Earl of Bradford asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their policy for the productive use of redundant farm buildings.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, as part of their commitment to sustainable development, the Government encourage the reuse of existing farm buildings which cease to be needed for agriculture. Such use is subject to the controls of the planning system. Planning policy guidance advises on the circumstances when it would be appropriate to convert such buildings for other business or residential use.

The Earl of Bradford

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is she aware that PPG7, which was published in February 1997 under the previous administration, discriminates positively in favour of business rather than residential reuse? Is she further aware that very often residential reuse is the only economic proposition?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Bradford, is absolutely right. In February last year, PPG7 was revised in order to introduce an emphasis on commercial development because residential use does not have an impact on rural employment whereas commercial use is beneficial to the maintenance or creation of jobs. However, I should say that the guidance stresses that residential use may be acceptable if commercial use is not viable.

Baroness Nicol

My Lords, given that we are now hoping not to use too many green fields in order to house the 4.4 million extra families that we are told we shall have to house, is it not even more important that any buildings which can be made available for residential use, including farm buildings, are used in that way? Will the Government consider encouraging, for example, the Rural Development Commission to give support to residential use in the way that it does in relation to commercial use?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is absolutely right that the planning system needs to be responsive to the needs of people in rural areas for affordable housing. Wherever possible, we want to make sure that we make maximum use of the so-called brownfield sites. Therefore, the residential use of redundant farm buildings can help in that area. But it is important also that we look for the most sustainable solutions in the round. Sometimes because of problems of, for example, lack of access to transport, an isolated conversion may not be the most sustainable response. But at the end of the day, it is a matter of local circumstances and therefore for local authorities to decide.

Lord Luke

My Lords, yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in referring to the current difficulties facing farmers, mentioned the need for restructuring in the industry. Does that mean that medium-sized and small farms will be forced to amalgamate sooner or later? If that is the case many more farm buildings will become redundant. What plans do the Government have to deal with that?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I know that those matters were well debated yesterday in your Lordships' House. I believe that I made clear that the reasoning behind the changes to the planning guidance was looking at the ability to diversify and reuse buildings. Grants like the redundant building grant are available through the RDC in order to make sure that, where buildings become available, they can be used to regenerate countryside.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, does my noble friend believe that those farm buildings with perhaps 50 to 100 acres on the Welsh uplands should be totally disregarded? Those relatively small farm buildings are extremely important to the general life of the area.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, indeed, it is important that we recognise that there is a whole variety of uses, both commercial and residential, for which we need to encourage the use of such buildings if we are to have thriving communities in the countryside.

Lord Elton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that a viable rural community depends upon the availability of rural employment and that a countryside populated with urban commuters will not provide either an economically viable or socially stable community? Will the Minister therefore assure us that PPG7 will remain unaltered?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as I said in response to earlier questions, it was exactly that thinking which accounted for the revision of PPG7 and its emphasis on commercial development because research had found that in remote areas, in particular, applications for residential use predominated. Residential conversions of buildings can have minimal economic impact whereas business conversion may have a much more positive impact on local employment. As I say, I believe that there is enough flexibility in the guidance to allow for residential development when there is no possibility of economic development.

The Earl of Shrewsbury

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the listing of farm buildings often renders them completely useless for any other purpose? Will she say what is the Government's policy towards the listing of those buildings?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the question of whether or not a building should be listed is a matter for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, following recommendations from English Heritage. But PPG15 relating to planning and the historic environment gives guidance to local planning authorities on the handling of listed building consent applications and it explains that the best way of securing the upkeep of historic buildings is to keep them in active use.

Baroness David

My Lords, could I ask the Minister if the Council for National Parks has a policy about buildings which are no longer used as farm buildings? I have seen a number of excellent, strong barns in the national parks, and it is a great shame to see them in a not exactly derelict but rather an unusable state, and they would make very good houses.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, developments in the national parks, as in areas of outstanding natural beauty and SSSIs, have particular planning constraints upon them. But I shall certainly look into the suggestion which my noble friend made and perhaps write to her on the subject.

The Earl of Courtown

My Lords, will the Minister advise local authorities that consistency of decisions in relation to planning applications would greatly help those who are putting forward planning applications?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, that is why we have the planning policy guidance in the first place. However, there is a need to have a correct balance between putting forward a national framework and allowing for the sensitivity that comes from local determination of planning applications.

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