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Mr. Bruce George (Walsall, South): I represent an urban constituency. Much has been said today about the problems of rural areas, but people living in metropolitan areas such as mine like a little rural idyll and it has been provided for us thanks to the wisdom of the Victorians, who gave us parks, and the wisdom of civil servants and politicians in the 1930s and 1950s who gave us the green belt. I wish to retain the green belt in my area for the benefit not of property speculators but of the citizenry of Walsall, Birmingham and Sandwell.
Adjournment debates are literally local lotteries. The timing of this Adjournment debate is most fortuitous and I am grateful to the failure of the law of averages which permitted me to speak tonight. There are three reasons why the debate is fortuitous. First, a formal application has just been submitted to Walsall council by West Midlands regional health authority for
"the erection of 98 Dwellings, Country Park, Roads and associated structures".
I understand that the project is to be advertised in the press tomorrow. The advertisement will show that it is a departure from the Walsall unitary plan adopted only in December, but more about that later.
Secondly, the debate is fortuitous because it is just three days since the publication by the Department of the Environment of planning policy guidance note 2 on green belts, which I generally endorse. Thirdly, this is the week of the launch of a campaign by the Great Barr Hall action committee against the West Midlands regional health authority application. I co-founded the organisation in December 1987 after a previous fright for people living in the area. There is, in fact, a fourth reason why tonight's debate is fortuitous. Today's debate on the future of rural England has a relevance for people living in urban areas. If the Minister ever travels north along the M6--or, preferably, takes the train--I hope that he will make a detour to visit the area that I am talking about. If he comes, I shall take him to the top of Barr beacon. If he looks down to the south, he will see the urban centre of Birmingham which was once described as a "little hamlet near Walsalle". In front of him he will see Sandwell, Dudley and, to the north, Walsall. In the middle of that metropolitan urban area is an oasis provided by farsighted politicians and civil servants.
This enormous site of 300 acres comprises three sections, one being St. Margaret's hospital for the mentally handicapped which is owned by the West Midlands regional health authority. It is scheduled to close in 1997. The site also comprises Great Barr hall, its chapel and grounds. It is a grade II star listed building from the late 1770s on a site that goes back deep into medieval history. It is built in the Strawberry hill gothick style and is a rare example associated with Joseph Scott. The grounds were designed by Humphrey Repton in collaboration with John Nash. The hall is one of only four examples of its type in the country.
It was a meeting place of the world-famous 18th century Lunar Society and of scientists and entrepreneurs such as Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Joseph Priestley,
Column 584Erasmus Darwin and Josiah Wedgwood. They were the harbingers of the industrial revolution and the building served as a clearing house for the ideas that transformed this country and the world. It is therefore of great historic and architectural significance. The hall and grounds were shamefully sold by the regional health authority in 1988 for £650,000 to a so-called financial adviser. I will not abuse parliamentary privilege by describing him in the way in which he should be described. I shall merely refer to him in Private Eye terms as a man with an uneven or chequered business career.
That man purchased the job lot, not for the purposes of preservation and conservation, but as a speculative development with the help of the regional health authority. He wanted to make himself wealthy and the former chairman of the regional health authority must accept ultimate responsibility for the shameful sale. The property is now in the hands of the official receiver Cork Gully and the Midland bank owns the freehold. I am afraid that many people have been left with their fingers severely burnt.
The third part of the site is away from St. Margaret's hospital; 89 acres of land south-west of Chapel lane, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Snape), who supports everything that I say. The land is north of Sutton's drive, and it includes a road of 100 m. Within that acreage lies the male homes complex of the hospital. It is in structural order. It is not derelict, and could be re-used in line with the appropriate green belt policies.
The proposal which I am opposing most strenuously is to build 98 domestic dwellings. The planning history of the site is profoundly unsatisfactory. There have been previous attempts to demolish Great Barr hall. Birmingham regional health authority applied in 1974 to demolish the hall. In 1976, Walsall planning committee approved an application to demolish the hall and chapel.
Now, the hall is boarded up. It is in danger, in a few years, of being worthy of nothing more than a bulldozer, and it would be criminal to allow that to happen. I appeal to the Minister to assist the restoration of this fine building to some form of acceptable use.
In 1991, the regional health authority made four planning applications to develop the male homes complex site to build houses and to build an estate of offices. It was totally inappropriate under the planning law then and it still is under the present guidelines that have been issued.
This large site is the most heavily protected in the west midlands. It falls in the green belt, Sandwell green wedge, Great Barr conservation area, Beacon regional park and the English Heritage gardens register, it has a grade II star listed building and, as I said, it contains a protected nature reserve.
My interest in the site goes back many years. I have submitted evidence to inspectors, given written evidence, made oral presentations and written numerous letters as, no doubt, the Minister's files will testify. I was very encouraged by a letter that I received in 1994 from the Minister's colleague, the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry), then Environment Minister. He wrote:
"However, the Secretary of State may well be involved at a later stage when precise proposals have been put to the Council and their attitude is known. Walsall Metropolitan Borough Council has assured the Government Office for the West Midlands that if it
Column 585decides to approve the proposals it will submit them as departures from the development plan. If and when this occurs I will need to take a hard look at the applications for the Green Belt amongst other matters. As part of this, I would emphasise that we would undertake a very thorough assessment of the overall package of proposals for the site."
I am also very encouraged by documents which have been issued recently-- PPG2 on the green belt in January 1995 and PPG15 on planning and the historic environment in September 1994. I will not go into any great detail of what they contain, but I ask the Minister to look especially at paragraph 4.26 of PPG15, which is very important to our case.
PPG2, issued only this week, almost completely vindicates my argument. I believe that when Walsall council looks at it, it may approve of what I am saying. Paragraph 2.6 says:
"detailed Green Belt boundaries defined in adopted local plans or earlier approved development plans should be altered only exceptionally. Detailed boundaries should not be altered or development allowed merely because the land has become derelict." The section headed "Control over development" and paragraphs 3.1, 3.2 and 3.4 contain a restatement of my arguments. At C.11, it states:
"Suitable re-use is to be preferred to redevelopment." The male homes complex is capable for re-use in line, one hopes, with planning guidance. The unitary development plan, which was approved only very recently, again vindicates the argument. An inspector said that he wanted to see the site viewed in its totality. He said:
"It is perhaps, this diffuseness of policies which belies the importance of the Great Barr Hall and Estate. That it is important in a Borough wide context is without doubt in spite of the fact that public access to it is limited. Its combination of characteristics, its size, the variety and quality of its landscape and buildings, the wild life habitats and its proximity to densely built-up urban areas make it worthy of the prominence it has been given in the urban development plan."
However, the inspector wants it to be seen in its totality and not in little bits, which is what is happening now. Walsall declined to accept some of the inspector's recommendations. To my amazement, its version appeared in the document that was finally published and that is to my regret.
Walsall refused to accept the recommendations and the plan was adopted without the recommendations of Mr. Williams, the inspector. My final endorsement of Government policy--this will be detrimental to my relationship with my constituency party, so I hope no one finds out about it--relates to the document entitled, "Draft Regional Planning Guidance for the West Midlands", which states at paragraph 10.3:
"Detailed Green Belt boundaries should be altered only exceptionally, and as a last resort."
It states that housing must be found at locations elsewhere and it refers to a list of priorities where housing is to be located. I cannot say, and I defy anyone to say, that the site is necessary for the building of houses. Other sites must be exploited first. Walsall council's record with regard to defending the green belt is far from scintillating, but it is not one of total indifference. I appeal to the council to consider the
Column 586application made by the West Midlands regional health authority very carefully, and I hope that its views will concur with mine. The regional health authority's goal is to pick up a few million pieces of silver and then run like Mr. Worth, the so-called financial adviser. The way in which Mr. Worth proceeded is not much different from the way in which the regional health authority is proceeding. We want to stop the development going ahead because, if it is not stopped, the regional health authority will see a green light and will build elsewhere on land that it already holds. There are more footprints in St. Margaret's hospital than in a Kenyan national park. The development would be exploited and there would be far more damaging applications in the next few years. West Midlands regional health authority is a danger.
The "listening bank", part of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation, which knows a thing or two about building in confined spaces, quite rightly wishes to realise its assets. However, its aims are not for conservation or concern for the land. The commercial imperative is overwhelming.
I hope that I have not appeared to be rather negative, although I am sure that I have. I want that fine land to be properly utilised in line with Government policy. The scope for building on the land and for developing it is not limitless, but it must be used properly. I hope that it will be properly utilised in the next few years. I look to the Minister and to his Department to protect the land because I cannot look to the health authority and--I hope that I am wrong in this regard--I cannot look automatically to Walsall council to provide the protection that the land so richly deserves.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Sir Paul Beresford): We have heard such support for the Government's planning policy this evening that it is surprising that it did not come from Conservative Members. Nevertheless, I must admit that I always look forward to contributions from the hon. Member for Walsall, South (Mr. George). He always approaches even the most difficult subjects with a touch of humour and more than a little journalistic licence. The subject of the debate is, of course, of considerable concern to the hon. Gentleman, his constituents and many neighbouring hon. Members and their constituents.
It is no exaggeration to say that Walsall is not over-endowed with properties and parklands of great historical and architectural interest. That adds, of course, to the importance of Great Barr hall, its chapel and surrounding and adjacent parklands, as outlined this evening. The fact that the chapel was never consecrated and has been used as a billiard room may appeal to the hon. Gentleman's sense of humour. As the hon. Gentleman has made quite clear, the areas under discussion this evening are in several parts and several ownerships--I shall concentrate on two--and subject to two different planning applications.
As the hon. Gentleman has said, those areas obviously interrelate with each other in the impact of one upon the other, and both are included within the confirmed green belt. To that we must add the fact that the hall is a grade II listed building and therefore of great interest to English Heritage. As the hon. Gentleman is abundantly aware, any
Column 587potential or aspiring developer must take note of the implications that will be of considerable interest to English Heritage, the local planning authority, and, of course, ultimately, the Department of the Environment. In addition, we all see that area as a valuable stretch of open space in a heavily built-up area, which makes it enormously important to those living in surrounding residential areas. I shall now refer to Great Barr hall and its surrounding lands. I share the hon. Gentleman's concern at the state of that building, and it is recognised that English Heritage has classified it as seriously at risk. In fact, English Heritage has clearly expressed its extreme concern. The hall has been empty since the 1970s, and it has been subjected to fires, vandalism and structural problems. I understand that much of the interior timberwork is affected by dry rot, and a restoration job running into millions of pounds is obviously urgently required. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman and I can urge the borough to look again at the problem and to redouble its efforts to ensure that at least the building does not deteriorate further.
Of course, the sooner a long-term future for the hall is secured, the better. As the hon. Gentleman and I are aware, for some years development proposals for the hall have been discussed by the local authorities, the receivers and English Heritage. English Heritage has accepted the need for some enabling development to offset the high cost of repairs to the hall, but of course that must be balanced against the need to avoid further damage to the landscape and, if possible, to improve and reinstate the parkland setting of the building.
The most recent planning application for the hall and grounds was submitted about two years ago. It included the conversion of the hall for office and leisure purposes and the erection of an office building within the curtilage of the hall on land presently occupied by wartime agricultural buildings. English Heritage has given its views on the application to Walsall council, and it has suggested detailed amendments to the work on the hall and its extension. English Heritage has also recorded its objection to the planned building within the curtilage. That building, it believes, should be smaller and differently designed. The borough, in response, has written to the applicants asking for more information. The response is still awaited. Equally, any application will be of potential interest to the Department, as has been mentioned, in the light of the recently tightened PPG2 relating to the green belt, and the consideration of English Heritage, particularly if it continues to express concern.
We must recognise that a balance must be struck between encouraging a viable use of the hall and the safeguarding of its essential character. The obvious answer, therefore, is that real progress must be made through detailed negotiations between the parties, locally.
Column 588The same concerns apply to the park, which, as has been mentioned, is classified grade II. In PPG15, which has also been mentioned, the Government have emphasised the need to protect registered parks and gardens in determining planning applications. As the hon. Gentleman might be aware, a golf course is proposed on the parkland. Although English Heritage generally regards golf courses as inappropriate, it believes, exceptionally, that a golf course may be acceptable, provided that it is designed on parkland principles. That re-emphasises the need for detailed negotiations between the parties to find an acceptable scheme. As a long-stop, the Secretary of State has reserve powers, especially in this case, as the land is within the green belt.
The adjacent site has been given the interesting name of the "male homes" land. Demolition of the buildings, to which English Heritage had no objection, will take place soon, and a planning application for a country park and 89 homes--I understand that that, rather than 98, is the figure; perhaps someone has dyslexia--has just been submitted. The submission is with the local authority, and obviously it is at an early stage.
The local authority has agreed that if it is minded to approve, it will definitely refer the application to the Department of the Environment before approval. In view of the complications that is, of course, to be expected. Any development will have to take account of PPG2, which has recently been tightened, including the section relating to a proposal to increase floor area in comparison with that occupied by the properties demolished.
We must recognise that the site is within a conservation area. In addition, English Heritage will be especially concerned about the impact of the development because of its close proximity to Great Barr hall and its parklands; clearly, although there are two applications relating to two sites under separate ownership, they are closely interrelated and extremely complex.
Nevertheless, we must bear in mind the importance of the restoration of the hall and the maintenance of the parkland. Mindless opposition--I make no accusation here--to change on the estate will hinder not only the long-term restoration of the hall and the parkland but the search for an acceptable solution for the redundant hospital. Obviously, the search for the best solution is best carried out by those on the ground, who have detailed local responsibilities and knowledge.
I assure the hon. Gentleman that, while he is watching closely over one shoulder of those responsible, the Government, conscious of their responsibilities for the green belt, for historic buildings and the historic parkland and for the overall situation, are looking closely over the other.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Ten o'clock.
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