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7.16 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Ms Sally Keeble): I congratulate the hon. Member for Colchester (Bob Russell) on his success in securing this debate on an important aspect of the Government's planning policy. I also congratulate him on the way in which he has presented his case. He has given a clear impression to the House of the importance of the preservation of historic buildings and of the strength of views in Colchester about this particular building. He is right: I have seen the water tower and remember it well as an outstanding and notable building.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman understands that I cannot comment on the merits of this specific case because my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions has a formal role and responsibilities in the planning appeals process. However, it might be helpful if I set out the

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general legislative position and describe the policy pressures that come to bear on such matters. I shall also try to deal with some of the more general points that the hon. Gentleman has raised. He referred to the different positions that the political parties on the local authority took, and he will know that such decisions are bound by codes of conduct and suchlike.

I echo what the hon. Gentleman said about the important role played by the historic environment in so many areas of our lives and about the importance of protecting our built environment and heritage buildings. There are about 500,000 listed buildings in this country and we are incredibly lucky to have some of the most beautiful historic buildings in the world. From the Royal crescent in Bath to Liverpool's Liver building, from St Paul's cathedral in London to towns such as St. Albans and Saffron Walden, we have an architectural heritage of which we can be proud. Indeed, people from all round the world come to see it.

In Colchester, the community has its fair share of excellent buildings, with fine examples from Roman times through to the present day. The hon. Gentleman represents the town that can make the enviable claim to be Britain's oldest, so I need hardly tell him how important historic buildings are to the quality of our national life and to our sense of identity as a nation. In Colchester, they form part of its sense of being an important and thriving town. They also play a vital part in helping to make our towns and cities more vibrant and successful places in which to work and live.

"A Force for Our Future", which the Government published in December, sets out a wide-ranging vision that shows how we recognise fully the importance of the built heritage in our national life and the obligation to care for it for our own benefit and that of future generations. It stresses that the historic environment can improve the quality of life for all of us through the regeneration of our towns, cities and countryside, encouraging a greater sense of community and greater prosperity.

However, preservation need not mean fossilising buildings. Our planning policy guidance note 15, "Planning and the historic environment", recognises that generally the best way to secure the upkeep of historic buildings and areas is to keep them in active use. The restoration of historic buildings can play a major role in urban renewal by promoting confidence in the future of an area and by serving as a catalyst for stimulating regeneration, bringing together communities and tackling social exclusion.

In recent years we have seen the practice of adapting old buildings to make them available for the way we live now become more widespread, with loft apartments in warehouses, fashion designers working in old textile mills, offices in former factories, and shops and bars on canal wharves. I noted with some amusement the hon. Gentleman's description of what the building concerned would look like afterwards, but it is an example of another way in which a beautiful historic building can be preserved, and illustrates what can be achieved through a combination of innovation, commitment and enthusiasm.

At the same time, judging the best use for an historic building is one of the most important and sensitive

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assessments that local planning authorities and other bodies involved in conservation have to make. That is the nub of the hon. Gentleman's argument, and it might help if I broadly describe the planning system—not only what happens, but why it happens.

We need to have an effective framework of statutory protection for all elements of the historic environment. That is where the planning system has a key part to play. When applications involve works to listed buildings, decision makers must have special regard to the desirability of preserving the building, or its setting, or any features of special architectural or historic interest that the building possesses.

Central to the decision-making process are our planning policy guidance notes, which must be taken into account where relevant in decisions on planning and listed building consent applications. PPG 15 provides a full statement of Government policies for the identification and protection of historic buildings, conservation areas and other elements of the historic environment. It complements the guidance on archaeology and planning given in PPG 16.

It is important that those with particular expertise have their say before decisions are made, and it is clear that the process of consultation can enhance the quality of the end product. However, planning is not an exact science and cases vary widely. Decision makers are required to balance a range of factors—social, economic and environmental—when deciding whether or not to grant planning permission. Similarly, the weight that should be attached to the views of consultees and to other material considerations will vary according to the circumstances of the particular case.

I recognise that some people—the hon. Gentleman puts himself fair and square among them—are not happy that developers can appeal against a local council planning decision. However, that right of appeal is a long- established part of the planning system. When comprehensive planning controls were first introduced in 1947, Parliament decided that developers should have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State against a decision that prevented them from developing their land and property as they wished. That right has remained an integral part of the system. More recently, a review in 2000 of the Planning Inspectorate executive agency concluded that it remained the right body to handle appeals cases.

The hon. Gentleman will know that a review of the planning process is ongoing. I am sure that he will take the opportunity to make his views known. I assure him that no decision to overrule the judgment of a local planning authority is ever taken lightly. In all cases planning inspectors are fully briefed on the circumstances of the appeal proposal, and they will visit the site to familiarise themselves with its location and surroundings. The Planning Inspectorate has an impressive reputation in its handling of planning appeals. Each planning inspector acts in a quasi-judicial role as a mini-tribunal. The integrity, impartiality and fairness with which each appeal is handled is widely acknowledged. I am satisfied that inspectors are equipped to consider all relevant aspects of appeal cases.

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The new appeals procedures that we introduced in 2000 are designed to balance the desire for timely decisions with the need to ensure that the public have sufficient time to participate fully in the appeals process.

Under the new rules, the local planning authority must notify people that an appeal has been made within two weeks from the starting date. Everyone consulted on the original application and anyone else who made representations at the application stage should be included. The process ensures that people have at least four weeks in which to make their comments known.

The vast majority of planning appeals in England are determined by planning inspectors. Typically, out of around 14,000 planning appeals each year, between 100 and 150 cases have been recovered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for his own determination. We have set out guidelines for recovering cases. These include appeals involving proposals for large-scale retail or leisure development, significant development in the green belt and major proposals of more than local significance.

However, in recognition of their outstanding architectural or historic interest, my right hon. Friend automatically recovers appeals concerned with grade I and grade II* listed buildings. He may also recover other appeals involving listed buildings at his own discretion. The figure of 100 to 150 cases that I mentioned includes around 40 recovered appeals concerning listed buildings. That gives an indication of the thorough and detailed care and attention that is given to decisions on appeals.

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If the hon. Gentleman would like some more information about the review of the planning process, I should be happy to ensure that he receives it, so that he can have an input. There is not enough time in the debate to go through all of that process.

Our historic buildings and sites are a great source of pleasure, as the hon. Gentleman said. They stand as a record of artistic and technical achievement and are an inspiration for creativity in our own age and for the future. They are a highly regarded and valuable focus for the life of many communities, as indeed is the building in Colchester to which the hon. Gentleman referred. As we said in "A Force for Our Future", there are already many good things happening, including greater access and more community involvement, but a great deal more remains to be done if the historic environment's full potential is to be realised. Good planning provides an essential underpinning to the success of our economy, our communities and our environment, not least our historic environment.

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall take into account the views that he has expressed today in taking forward the various initiatives arising from "A Force for Our Future" and the planning Green Paper. I am grateful to him for bringing these issues to my attention today, and I am sure that he will continue vigorously to represent the views of his constituents on these matters.

Question put and agreed to.

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