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14 Feb 2002 : Column 414

Planning (Historic Buildings)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Dan Norris.]

7 pm

Bob Russell (Colchester): Every week the Planning Inspectorate based in Bristol authorises the demolition or disfigurement of three listed buildings, contrary to the wishes of the local communities where those historic buildings are located. Sometimes those decisions, which are taken by a single inspector, are also against the recommendation of English Heritage, which is the official body appointed by the Government to safeguard our nation's historic built environment.

The loss of historic buildings and damage to others, allowed on appeal, are in addition to those authorised by local councils. A large part of our country's built heritage is being irretrievably destroyed. That loss is bad enough, but I submit that it is worse when the decision is taken contrary to the views of the local council. Today's custodians must have respect not only for the past but, perhaps more important, for future generations. It seems that the Planning Inspectorate pays scant regard to that.

Every decision to approve a planning appeal, made by a single person with no personal knowledge of the area, is done against the express wishes of that community as determined by locally elected councillors who are answerable to their electors. Planning inspectors are not elected. They are not accountable to the communities against whom they pass judgment. Local councillors on planning committees, taking account of all the facts before them, come to a decision. It is called democracy.

An applicant, unhappy with a decision, has the right to go to appeal. It is not unknown for wealthy owners to employ highly paid lawyers and so-called "experts" prepared to prostitute themselves for payment and to give evidence to suit the case and pocket of the owner. An easily swayed inspector—making a fleeting visit to a town which perhaps he has never been to before—overturns a decision that has been carefully arrived at by locally elected councillors. That is not democracy.

There is little point in Government complaining about people not voting in local elections when town halls increasingly have less power and influence over what happens in their community. When residents see planning decisions affecting their town or village reversed by anonymous inspectors from hundreds of miles away, the democratic process is brought further into contempt.

I should like to draw the Minister's attention to early-day motion 564, which I tabled on 12 December 2001. Headed "English Heritage", it states:

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I am grateful to hon. Members, from different parties and from different parts of the country, who have signed that early-day motion. I suspect that they have knowledge of similar planning outrages in their areas.

The Library has kindly provided me with background information which states:

The work of English Heritage is overseen by a board of up to 16 commissioners, selected by the Government.

English Heritage has powers set out in the National Heritage Act 1983, section 33 of which lays down its general functions, including a declaration that

to undertake such tasks as


I can only conclude that the Planning Inspectorate at Bristol is oblivious to what is contained in the National Heritage Act 1983.

The debate is of national significance. By focusing on a controversial decision in my constituency, I want to illustrate something that happens throughout the country. By tabling parliamentary questions, I have discovered that planning inspectors reject the carefully considered decisions of local councillors every week. In many cases, such as the jumbo water tower in Colchester, those decisions are also contrary to the detailed consideration, conclusions and recommendations of English Heritage. What vote of confidence is it in English Heritage when a planning inspector, without the knowledge and background of the case in point, can breeze in and disregard the expert opinions of the Government's own watchdog for historic buildings?

Fortunately, the Minister has seen the jumbo water tower before it is destroyed. I pointed it out to her from the high street and on the returning train to London when she made a ministerial visit to Colchester last year on matters that had nothing to do with this planning issue. She is aware of the significant impact that the historic tower has on the skyline. It is on top of a hill in the centre of Britain's oldest recorded town, next to the ancient monument of the Roman wall and within a conservation area.

I do not hold the Minister or her Department responsible for the planning disaster that confronts us; I only wish that they had been part of the decision-making process, in which case I believe that the wrong decision would not have been made. After all, the Department's own buildings watchdog, English Heritage, made it clear that the proposals, which will destroy the architectural integrity of the tower by removing its cast-iron tank, should be refused.

Regrettably, the Planning Inspectorate in Bristol decided that a single planning inspector should be given delegated powers to determine the appeal. The fact that English Heritage opposed the proposal should have given

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a warning signal that the decision was too serious to be left to one individual if he had a different view. There is no equivalent of a court of appeal when an inspector finds against a local council and English Heritage on planning matters. The owner of a property, however, can have as many goes as he likes using—some would say abusing and misusing—the planning system to get his way. If an application is refused, he can try again; if he is unhappy with the decision, he can go to appeal; if he loses that, he can start all over again.

In contrast, however, those who truly cherish our historic past have to win every time: if a council says "yes", then that is it; if a council says "no" but an inspector at a planning appeal says "yes", then that is it. The system is clearly loaded in favour of those who have the time and money to try and try again until they get their own way. As my early-day motion proposes, there should be a mechanism for a Minister to call for a second opinion to be sought when English Heritage opposes a proposal and an inspector thinks differently.

I recognise that in the case of the jumbo water tower the decision—a very bad one at that, with national ramifications—has been made. The only hope is that the owner will realise that his eccentric desire to spend the best part of £2 million to build a glazed residential box high in the sky is a folly—as in a foolish act, not an ornamental building. The house will be a goldfish bowl by day and a Chinese lantern by night. If the owner wishes to be remembered with gratitude by present and future generations he will, even at this stage, acknowledge that retaining all the features of the largest surviving Victorian water tower in Britain is more important to our national heritage than disfigurement.

It would be nice if the Government acknowledged that the planning inspector has blundered and that ways should be found to accommodate the recommendations of English Heritage. I invite the Minister to see what she, her ministerial colleagues and English Heritage can collectively do to retrieve the situation.

I am sure that the highly respected "Piloti" of Private Eye fame, who has twice in that esteemed organ featured the jumbo water tower controversy and regularly exposed the fate of so many of our nation's historic buildings, would welcome—along with many others—greater protection.

I also invite the Minister to give an assurance that, if the owner of the jumbo water tower seeks to undo the conditions that have been imposed by the inspector, that will not be permitted, and that any future planning applications will be called in for determination. In granting the appeal, the inspector did not give the owner all that he wanted—perhaps 75 per cent. of the loaf, but by no means all of it.

It should be remembered that we are dealing with an owner and his paid professionals who have used every means that they can think of to secure a planning consent that had been denied them by councillors. In total, over several years, they rejected 16 applications to remove the tank and replace it with a 100 per cent. glazed residential box, towering 100 feet or so above the town centre.

It is to the credit of Colchester borough councillors—the majority of them at any rate—that they refused to buckle. That is more than can be said of council planning officers, who were such enthusiastic supporters of what the owner and previous owners wanted that the views of

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councillors and English Heritage were brushed aside. Fortunately, English Heritage was made of sterner stuff and refused to budge, unlike the Victorian Society, which was initially opposed to the loss of the tank, but which, in due course, demonstrated what a spineless organisation it is by caving in and meekly agreeing to what the owner wanted to do. Why did it do that, I wonder?

An attempt was also made to get English Heritage to drop its opposition. The owner wrote to the then chief executive in a manner that was clearly designed to put pressure on officers further down the line. I am relieved to say that that tactic did not work.

The Minister may care to observe that party politics became involved. Councillors in all parties were initially opposed to what the owner wanted, but an astonishing about-turn then occurred, when Conservative councillors on the planning committee switched to supporting the owner. Later, in what I am sure was purely an amazing coincidence, in the opening leaflet of the general election campaign, the Conservative candidate made the jumbo water tower an election issue, supporting what the owner wanted. Any suggestion of financial support by the owner in return would, of course, be unthinkable in a democracy, particularly when planning applications are involved. It is certainly the case, however, that the owner's plan for the jumbo water tower was the subject of vocal support by the Conservative party's then shadow Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for East Surrey (Mr. Ainsworth) on a visit to Colchester.

The Labour candidate and I supported the borough council's opposition to the owner's plans. On polling day, our combined votes were two to one to the Conservative candidate, whose share of the vote fell, while my majority was trebled. The people of Colchester spoke. Alas, the planning inspector subsequently approved what the defeated Conservative candidate wanted—another bad day for democracy.

As an aside, the Minister may care to ponder the fact that the jumbo water tower was built by the visionary city fathers of Colchester corporation in the last quarter of the 19th century. It was funded by local ratepayers. In 1974, as a result of local government reorganisation, the tower and all other water assets were taken from the borough council and handed to the new publicly owned Anglian water authority.

Years later, the water industry was privatised by the Conservative Government and, in due course, the now redundant jumbo water tower was sold to property speculators. At no time did the people of Colchester receive a single penny in compensation for the public asset that was taken from them. It would be justice if the building was returned to public ownership, restored as a monument to Victorian civic pride and civil engineering excellence and turned into a tourist attraction and viewing platform, which is what local campaigners advocate.

The Minister will, of course, be aware of the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers. Its chairman wrote to me last month and said that the association's strategy, endorsed by the Local Government Association, had among its specific objectives the need to

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In its "Strategy 2001–2006", in the section headed "Historic Buildings", the association states:

ALGAO also calls for an

and seeks to

The ALGAO historic buildings committee says that it

Perhaps the Minister can state whether the Government also are seeking to achieve the objectives of conserving our built heritage. In my opinion, the Planning Inspectorate is not.

I sought this debate because I feel that the House should be made aware of the inadequacies of the present planning appeal system and, in particular, how even the excellent work of English Heritage can be dismissed by a single planning inspector. There must be a better system for determining cases when the overwhelming evidence of opponents of a development, the local democratically elected councillors and the expert recommendations of English Heritage all come to one conclusion only for a single inspector to overturn that conclusion in favour of an appellant who has, in effect, bought a permission through buying a listed building at a cost that reflects the planning constraints on it and then uses the planning system to obtain a consent against all the informed evidence and opinion.

I invite the Minister to consider carefully the need to improve the planning appeal system, particularly where it relates to listed buildings on which English Heritage has expressed views. Existing legislation is weak. It needs strengthening, otherwise even more of our nation's historic buildings will be lost.

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