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Compulsory Demolition

11 am

Mr. Siôn Simon (Birmingham, Erdington) (Lab): This is my first experience of speaking in this excellent adjunct, and of addressing this excellent Minister, and I am grateful on both counts.

I have come largely to talk about a pub. In part, its plight is symbolic of many other such places in the city of Birmingham and my constituency of Erdington, although it is an actual, specific pub. It is what one great American writer might have called a personal pub—not that I personally have ever been in it. It is now an ex-pub, and, several years after its demise, it is causing serious problems. The Minister is not responsible for this pub or, as far as I am aware, for any pubs; he is not that kind of Minister. Nor is he directly responsible for the continued, ugly, dangerous, and pointless existence of the benighted building in question. However, he is responsible for the law and its attendant regulations that have allowed the situation to occur. I shall sketch out the problem that has led me to trouble the Chamber and the Minister today, before going on to the more widely applicable matter of what I would like him to do about it.

On Six Ways island—Britain's first, and one of Birmingham's best known, traffic islands—which might be thought of as the entrance to Erdington's high street, sits the former Queen's Head public house. That is an inauspicious eventuality. It is the burnt-out shell of a former pub, enclosed in a metal sheath to keep children away from the vermin, vagabonds and structural hazards within.

During the several years in which it has lain derelict, the site has twice been the playground of arsonists, who have started very serious fires. That prompts me to wonder when anything has ever been "secured" from idle-handed youngsters by having a fence put around it. A derelict building—fence or no fence—is a lethal challenge to every kid in the neighbourhood. Yet the enforcement order served on the site in 2001 required only that the site be made "secure", which, apparently, means a fence. As I say, I believe—as does everybody else in Erdington—that the only way to "secure" such a site is to knock it down. The travellers who were on the site prior to the order may have moved on, but does that make the site secure? No.

As I understand it, the Housing Act 1985 provides demolition provision for properties that are unfit for residential accommodation, but when does a non-residential property become such an intolerable part of a community that it, too, must be demolished? The Town and Country Planning Act 1990 does not seem to provide a satisfactory answer.

The site is neither secure nor safe; those two terms seem, but ought not, to be the only criteria that can compel demolition. Can it be true that the law provides no avenue for demolition on grounds of commercial regeneration or social aesthetics? If no one will knock down this monstrosity—let us be clear, it will have to be knocked down in the end; it is a filthy, pointless, burnt-out shell—the only questions are how many more than the five years already it will be left standing hideously until they do, and whether the next time it is burned down there will be a gang of kids or rough sleepers inside.
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This is a ridiculous situation. The area around the site is having hundreds of thousands of pounds of taxpayers' money spent on regeneration. Graffiti and posters are being removed from the high street, and we have plans to pedestrianise more of that street. There is a new village green. Shoplifting and street crime have been massively cut by new CCTV, and so on. Those projects involve high levels of community participation and partnership with local groups, yet the Erdington town centre partnership reports that new private sector investment is being discouraged by the visual blight that is this long-derelict building. Erdington residents association has described it as

I know that the Minister cannot comment on individual cases. This is a matter for the city council. However, it would kind of like to see it knocked down too. In a letter to me this week, the district planning officer said:

That is marvellous.

I come to the several issues that the Minister can put right, which we might call the parameters of action provided to local authorities by central Government: laws that are made in this place and guidance that comes from the Government. First, the council says:

That is nonsense. Nobody in Erdington believes it. The only thing that will secure a reasonable appearance for the Queen's Head is knocking it down. Councils do not come to such conclusions autonomously. They have legislation and guidance that tightly prescribes the parameters of their opinions. If their conclusions are wrong, discounting, as I do, the almost inconceivable eventualities of incompetence or ill will on their part, the parameters that they were set must be wrong. That is a matter for the Minister.

It is also wrong if requiring this monstrosity to be demolished

That is also a matter of planning law and, therefore, for the Minister. Furthermore, it is clear that in cases such as these there is considerable confusion as to what constitutes danger. That is puzzling to me; danger is such a straightforward concept. If one is in a burning building that should have been knocked down years ago and it is falling on one's head, that is clearly dangerous.
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I know what dangerous means and I hope that the Minister might encourage moves towards redrafting the legislation or the guidance, such that that unfortunate ambiguity is ironed out.

For the district planning officer to believe that requiring straightforward demolition under a section 215 notice of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 would make a successful appeal more likely is simply not good enough. The council needs better powers to require such buildings, which are inevitably going to be demolished anyway, to be demolished in reasonable time. Indeed, the council should have an obligation so to require, and to do so well before the five years that we have been waiting for somebody to do something about the Queen's Head.

I say nothing of arrogant and irresponsible landlords. I do not ask the Minister to legislate on this occasion for good corporate citizenship. I ask only that he give appropriate powers to local authorities to take control where bad landlords cannot be bothered.

What precisely does Erdington want from the Minister? Flicking through a recent Hansard—as I do—I came across a few words of the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne) that expressed my feelings perfectly. He said:

The hon. Gentleman was talking merely about the defence of the realm and the practice of medicine. They are simple matters compared with my subject today, which is planning. Planning is a legal minefield and not one on which I propose to dance a meretricious minuet with the Minister. I have no interest, and nor do my constituents, in trading subsections, appendices and special provisions.

Mr. Khalid Mahmood (Birmingham, Perry Barr) (Lab): Locally elected councillors sit on planning committees and the time has now come for those committees to be given proper powers to deal with places that are complete eyesores in our communities. They should be able to hold proper committee meetings on that basis and be able to deal rapidly with such issues.

Mr. Simon : I am grateful to my excellent next-door neighbour for his timely and wise intervention. We want to bring to the attention of the Minister and his Department a problem that is serious, chronic, potentially lethal, pointless and emblematic of a wider problem throughout the city of Birmingham and, for all I know, other cities. I was about to say similar cities, but obviously there are no cities comparable with Birmingham. I refer to the problem of when big, old pubs on corner plots have outlived their licensed usefulness, are continually being redeveloped and often lie dormant or derelict for—in the case under discussion—far too many years. The council has insufficient power or insufficient statutory obligation to compel demolition in such circumstances as I have outlined. Either way, that is a matter for the Minister, and we in Erdington would like him to sort it out for us.
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11.11 am

Paul Clark (Gillingham) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Simon) on raising such an important issue. Far be it from me to imply that there is another city like Birmingham—I understand that as a constituency Member of Parliament—although the issue that he raises is how best to deal with something that is of course faced by other authorities too.

From my reading of the reports about the site that my hon. Friend has provided to the Department and the report that was printed in the Birmingham Evening Mail, I can well understand the frustration that is felt by him and the local residents about the eyesore, as he puts it, on their doorstep in the shape of the Queen's Head public house and about the period over which the issue has run.

Let me at the outset point out that the Government are committed to tackling dereliction and to retaining land in productive use. That is a key part of our drive to maintain and improve the quality of the built environment, as much as it is important to have a sustainable development strategy. My hon. Friend will recognise the importance of retaining land and bringing it back into use, as it fits 100 per cent. into the sustainable community strategy that the Government are pursuing, and eases pressure on other possible greenfield sites and the countryside further afield. That is the baseline where we start.

My hon. Friend is right that we do not have direct responsibility for public houses. Our approach to planning is not to interfere day by day with the powers of local, democratically elected planning authorities. It is for them to make the best decisions for their local communities. They are on the ground and are best able to take such action. My hon. Friend is right, however, that we have a responsibility to create a legislative environment in which local planning authorities undertake their planning responsibilities, and I want to cover some of those issues and provisions.

Section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides a local authority with the ability to require buildings and land to be cleaned up when their condition is adversely affecting the amenity of an area. When the condition of a particular plot of land or a building seems to be having a negative effect on an area, the authority can serve notice requiring the owner to remedy the situation. Such notices are often referred to as untidy site notices or section 215s.

My hon. Friend will recognise—I am not talking about specific sites—that there could be one owner or a collection of owners and, because the sites are in private ownership, a number of issues are immediately raised and further steps have to be taken responsibly by the local authority in using the planning controls at its disposal and the legal system. We must make sure that it is right; that is only fair under the law.

The powers under section 215 have been effectively used to make derelict buildings look occupied while keeping them secure from acts of vandalism, incidents such as those at the Queen's Head to which my hon. Friend referred, and antisocial behaviour. In fact, in several local authorities, an owner required to undertake external works has gone further and redeveloped the site or the building, to bring it back into
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proper use, rather than just securing it from health and safety and other points of view. We have also given powers to local authorities under section 219: If a landowner does not remedy what is listed in a section 215 order, the local authority can do so by default and recharge the landowner. Those powers have also been used.

I said at the outset that it is not for us to dictate day to day; it is for us to provide the framework. Part of that framework is planning legislation, such as section 215, and part is guidance to local authorities on how that can be used. In the past there has certainly been resistance to using some of the powers available to local authorities because of worry about costs being levied against them. That particularly applies to the default powers. That is why, in 1998, we issued guidance in circular 02/98, which is still relevant, on practical measures that can be taken to tackle dereliction. It contains positive measures to help prevent and tidy up derelict sites and to encourage local planning authorities to use their default powers.

I will come in a moment, as far as I can, to the case of Birmingham and the specific site to which my hon. Friend referred. It is for the local authority to decide whether a section 215 notice under the provisions would be appropriate in a particular case. It would have to take account of local circumstances and would need to consider, for example, the condition of the site, the impact on the surrounding area and the scope of its powers. A section 215 notice can be a stand-alone process or carried out in partnership with other agencies that might be relevant to a particular site or combination of sites. That is alongside proactive measures such as empty homes strategies, developments briefs and public-private funding programmes. Those are all development control tools that can be used by a local authority.

Before the end of the year, we will take that further by issuing a good practice guide on the use of section 215. We have already consulted with stakeholder organisations on the contents, and the final version will be circulated before the end of December to all local planning authorities. We recognise that many local authorities have successfully used 215s to deal with the type of problems to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. Simon : I am conscious that the Minister may go on to say all kinds of things that I do not know about yet, but could he keep in mind that, although I take his points about section 215, we want the pub knocked down? The site is no more likely to be rebuilt or put back together than Stonehenge. It is only a matter of time before the building is demolished. I am concerned by the impression I have formed that the local authority has neither the power nor the statutory obligation to compel demolition rather than tidying up.

Paul Clark : I thank my hon. Friend for that intervention. I am bearing in mind what he would like to happen. I know that his endeavours on the issue with Birmingham city council and others have been great. He read out a letter that he received from the planning officer, which indicates that there is some movement towards what he wants. Action is being taken—rightly so—by local government, which best knows the site's potential or where we can go with it. When I say "we", I am talking about the local authority, the local
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planning authority and the strategic authority, along with the private landowners who hold that patch of land. All those factors have to come together, and, because of variations on any given site, it is difficult for straightforward requirements to be laid down at a national level. I shall explain a bit more as I come now to deal with the Birmingham city council case.

My hon. Friend is aware that a section 215 was issued in September 2002. Birmingham city council took that decision on the public house. Unfortunately, the section 215 was issued on the previous owner of that site. At the time of its being issued, there was a change in ownership. One can immediately see one of the hurdles of dealing with privately owned sites through the system. The local planning authority is preparing a new section 215. I know that my hon. Friend has been heavily involved with it through his work as a constituency MP. It is intended to cover not just the public house but the whole site, which also contains several other former industrial or commercial buildings that are equally derelict. Birmingham city council has taken the decision that it is important to cover the whole site.

My hon. Friend is keen to see in the new 215 a 100 per cent. requirement—no holds barred—for demolition of the building. The information that I received from the council and the letter that he recently received from the planning officer indicate that the authority is considering a provision in the 215 for remedial action or demolition. Clearly, that has come about because of the work of my hon. Friend, local people and organisations such as the Erdington residents association.

There is always a danger that any decision will be challenged through the courts, and I know that my hon. Friend will want to ensure that whatever is put in place now through the system has a lasting effect and is not delayed further by great court cases. Therefore—learning from the best practice of other authorities and using existing powers and guidance provided by the Department on their use—it is sensible that Birmingham city council gets it right and we get a lasting solution for his residents. He is right to say demolition controls are about whether dwellings—houses or flats—are unfit for habitation. I suspect that he knows why legislation was introduced specifically on housing and homes for people: we want to eradicate any instance of someone living in an unfit home. He is right that that is where the Housing Act 1985 leads us.

The use of compulsory purchase orders is also open to local authorities, which enable them compulsorily to purchase a site, but although the Government believe that those are important tools for local authorities as a means of assembling land, we expect CPOs to be used as a last resort, and most local authorities do so. Nevertheless, compulsory purchase is another tool for a local authority to consider using. CPO powers cannot be
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used in isolation; the local authority must be using other powers—requiring that the land be redeveloped for housing, for example, under the 1985 Act. The land must be acquired for a purpose.

We have sought to make CPO powers easier for local authorities to use. My hon. Friend will no doubt recall the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, which contains, in part 8, a series of measures to reform the compulsory purchase system, and they will be brought into effect at the end of this month. For example, the Act amends the power of local authorities, joint planning boards and the national parks authorities, and allows them compulsorily to acquire land if they think that it will

benefit to

I quote that specifically so that it is clear. I reiterate, however, that the Secretary of State would normally expect any statutory procedures intended to remedy derelict or unsightly land, such as section 215s, to be followed through first and foremost and exhausted before CPOs are considered. In addition, the new Act introduces a "well-being" power—well-being for the given area—which helps to make an argument, although we would still expect there to be a clear proposal for the use of the land under a CPO.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the highway improvements that are required under the bus showcase standard. That affects part of the land about which we are talking and is part of the opportunity to secure a sustainable change of use. Again, it is for the local authority, together with landholders and other interested parties, to become involved in finding out how to take forward a given site to make a lasting change that benefits everyone, particularly the residents in the area. I noted that my hon. Friend said that there is a lot going on around the area—CCTV cameras, a new village green and getting money into existing communities through various programmes.

I hope that my hon. Friend recognises that the Government are keen that a remedy for such sites is found as quickly and as fairly as possible, because they are important to the sustainable communities programme, which this Government have been developing and taking forward. I know that through the hard work of my hon. Friend and neighbouring colleagues, they will ensure the best result through Birmingham city council.

11.30 am

Sitting suspended till Two o'clock.
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