Previous SectionIndexHome Page

8 Mar 2005 : Column 423WH—continued

8 Mar 2005 : Column 424WH

Port Sunlight

3.59 pm

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South) (Lab): I am delighted to have secured this debate on planning applications at Port Sunlight village. It presents an opportunity for me both to highlight the importance of the village to our heritage and to represent the concerns of residents, which I substantially share. This self-contained residential area is hugely significant, not only to the region, not even solely to the country as a whole but internationally, as I hope that a short history will help to illustrate.

Port Sunlight was born of a most laudable combination of human qualities, which is often found in   the throes of the industrial revolution—the entrepreneurial spirit and philanthropy. English Heritage has said that Port Sunlight is arguably the finest remaining example of the so-called workers' village and a forerunner to the garden city movement. In common with Bourneville, the home of the Cadbury brothers' chocolate factory, and Saltaire, established by the wool baron Sit Titus Salt, Port Sunlight was founded in order to provide self-contained, clean, modern and sanitary accommodation for workers employed at the adjacent factory. William Hesketh Lever, born in 1851, expanded his father's already prosperous enterprise, before beginning to specialise in the marketing of soap in 1884. Business boomed and, to cater for demand, construction of new premises began in 1888. In the following two years, land was purchased to allow for 28 houses to be built.

The architect of the initial round of construction was William Owen but, subsequently, a plethora of people lent themselves to design homes, which has resulted in   the creation of the unique mix that we enjoy at Port   Sunlight today. Uniquely, and in contrast to Bourneville, Lever and Owen married the philanthropic endeavour of improvement of the working class with the visual tradition of the sylvan suburb. By the turn of the   century there were 400 houses, and the village continued to expand; today, there are nearly 1,000 dwellings. Port Sunlight possesses a character which it has preserved well; my constituency, the community and the country are richer for it.

A rich tapestry of features contribute to making Port Sunlight what it is. The Lady Lever art gallery contains one of the most beautiful collections of fine and decorative arts in the country, and the recently refurbished Gladstone theatre is a gem. They are but two such institutions, and they are not merely minor curiosities—they are part of our cultural heritage. The importance of Port Sunlight was recently recognised, when a project of £1 million, to construct a heritage centre befitting its status, received funding partly from   the Heritage Lottery Fund and partly from the   European Union objective 1 programme for Merseyside.

Port Sunlight is also a living place, with a pub, a school, a church, a bowling green, and, until recently, a   post office—the Post Office, with a shortage of sensitivity, recently announced its closure. In addition, there have been places of work in the village—a garden centre, offices, and a gardeners' compound. The village also has its own railway station. It needs to be a living and working place, not a "Disneyfied" dormitory.
8 Mar 2005 : Column 425WH

However, there is a problem. After Unilever—as the company became—set up a new company to manage the   village at arm's length in the 1960s, a process began that eventually led to housing being sold, either to residents whose tenancies had expired, or on the open market. In 1999, management of the village passed to an independent charitable organisation established for the purpose, the Port Sunlight village trust. Its declared responsibilities include to preserve

I regret that the proposals made jointly by the trust and Miller Homes, which I will outline shortly, threatened those terms of reference and the character of the village. The trust appears by omission tacitly to admit that the plans do not fit with the mission statement I have quoted, by referring to it as setting out what

It is not the fact of the proposed developments per se that cause me and many of my constituents concern, although by their nature plans for development in conservation areas with listed status such as Port Sunlight should be treated with the utmost caution. Any development, no matter how it fits in with existing designs, can alter a village—in this case a village of 1,000 dwellings already—if it is of sufficient scale.

New homes have been constructed in the past decade or so, but have not presented a particular problem. However, they were designed in the traditional arts and craft style and blend in with the village as it stands. Rather, it is the background to the trust's insistence on recent proposals that requires close attention, for the justification is claimed, substantially, to be financial.

The village trust says that the planning permission that it seeks is essential to its needs if it is to comply with the covenant established with the trust's inception. The trust says that, for various reasons, it needs to develop and raise money by selling new properties for capital and by building properties to rent. Accordingly, the trust and Miller Homes submitted six applications, which could have provided 296 new dwellings, apparently on the questionable basis that if enough applications were submitted for enough dwellings, at   least some would get through. By themselves, 296   dwellings would change Port Sunlight village, whatever their design.

From that swathe of applications made to the Wirral borough council planning department, for dwellings of   varying design and location, two were accepted on 11   January 2005. Just for the record, they are for 21   apartments on Water street and 62 apartments on   Wharf street. The two approved applications may involve the least offensive of the designs proposed and at   least one is in the arts and crafts style, but the development of 62 apartments raises the greatest concern, because those apartments represent a deviation from the character of the village.
8 Mar 2005 : Column 426WH

The trust's financial predicament, which is claimed to be the cause of the development, has two elements. First, prior to the establishment of the trust a financial audit was undertaken with a view to making the trust self-sufficient in building and public space upkeep, with the aid of an annual income provided by Unilever as part of a £25 million settlement with which the trust was established. Even now, Unilever does not accept that that dowry was insufficient for the purpose. Moreover, it was for the trustees who first joined the trust to establish that it was adequate—including, in my view, by showing due diligence in relation to it. In the light of further studies conducted after the trust's inception—and, effectively, by the trust itself—that sum was claimed to be insufficient to cover the costs of maintaining and refurbishing the complex.

Secondly, the trust's finances were hit by losses suffered as a result of the stock market downturn in 2000. That the stock market has declined is beyond question, but it seems to me that what goes down must eventually come up. In any event, although consistently prayed in aid of what is proposed, finances should not be a material issue in such planning matters. Before any account is taken of the finances, I would need to be satisfied that the trustees had done all that they could through, for example, benchmarking with other model villages and learning from them, responsible tourism, exploiting the grants regime and so on. After all, Merseyside is an objective 1 area.

Many other aspects of the consideration of the   applications were questionable, not least the consultation with residents. The problem is that, although only two applications were approved, they were particularly open to debate. For the residents, it appeared that the council may have been acting against its own planning guidance, which states that local planning authorities should reject poor design where decisions are supported by clear planning policies, and that

in respect of

Furthermore, it was felt that the consultation with the   residents was somewhat unsatisfactory and not in the spirit of the code of conduct. Some of the residents' objections, for example, were not included in reports submitted for consideration by the planning committee.

The Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment has lodged objections to the designs themselves. Although the guidelines were not ignored, I   cannot say without compunction that the designs are in keeping with the character of the village. Some of the proposed apartments would be three storeys high, but adjacent to two-storey existing buildings. The materials to be used would not be wholly sympathetic to the surrounding buildings. Moreover, there would be a high density of apartments, which would be at odds with William Lever's leafy suburban vision. The problem seems to be that the designs are confused; they are neither one thing nor the other.

As part of the planning committee's consultation, CABE submitted the following comment:

8 Mar 2005 : Column 427WH

I emphasise the word "any"—

However, two did.

When the applications were approved, the trust expressed its disappointment that the remainder were rejected. It said:

The chairman of the planning committee said:

I do not dissent from that, but the problem is that one wholly inappropriate design was recommended by the planners for approval. The very body entrusted with the   protection of the village is now casting itself as a developer. Is the village properly protected in such circumstances?

As I said, the final word may not have been spoken. Decisions were taken on 11 January, but more will be sought. It is commonplace for developers who have had applications turned down to appeal, unlike protestors against proposals, who get no appeal. Developers can appeal ad infinitum, but I hope that they will be more responsible and that there will be pause for thought.

Before any further steps are taken or any proposals are made, I ask that certain items are considered. First, full account should be taken of those for whom the development will form part of the fabric of their lives. I   pay tribute to the Port Sunlight Conservation and   Residents Society and its campaign group Save Port Sunlight, which have attempted to limit inappropriate development. Those involved have organised, deliberated, written letters and collected 2,200 signatures for a petition. None of those efforts should be underestimated, but it saddens me that they became necessary.

I am afraid that there seems to have been a lack of   constructive dialogue between the residents on the one hand and the trust and Miller Homes on the other. I hope that that will be put right, because dialogue is essential. It should not be merely cosmetic, because, in the long run, no one will benefit, and there will only be losers. The refusal by the trust and, to some extent, Miller Homes to engage seriously undermined the consultation process. What consultation there was with residents consisted of a four-hour presentation in a pub. Now, four hours is a long time, but the residents felt that they were being talked at, not listened to. The trust and Miller Homes were either unable or unwilling to answer many of the questions put to them. If residents had approached the issue with the mind of a saboteur, I   could understand the trust's reticence, but that was not the case.

The second point that I would like the Minister to consider is that there needs to be a master plan before any planning decisions are taken. As part of Liverpool's capital of culture year in 2008, Port Sunlight is, rightly, being promoted as a major attraction. Visitors will come from all over the United Kingdom and around the
8 Mar 2005 : Column 428WH
world. They will all congregate on Merseyside, and many will come to Port Sunlight. With the capital of culture year, we on Merseyside have only one crack of   the whip. The trust has cited long overdue maintenance and repairs that need to be carried out in advance of that as its overriding concern. Thus, there is a motivating factor for the cash-raising developments. It is right in so far as it recognises that work is needed and overdue. However, it is my belief and that of residents and other interested parties that not enough has been done to exploit other potential sources of funding.

There should have been a greater focus—admittedly limited by inadequate heritage centre facilities—on attracting tourists and exploiting the tourist stay. The new visitor centre will help in that enterprise, but there are other initiatives to be taken. Some buildings may have lain idle for want of a realistic rental price being sought.

Thirdly, a proposal for a conference on the future of Port Sunlight, put forward by English Heritage, is coming to fruition. It will bring together representatives from model villages across the UK in order to provide a forum for the exchange of ideas, as well as for the development of best practice in respect of long-term management. That is well overdue and much to be praised.

In addition, English Heritage has offered to provide advice and, possibly, financial assistance to help the trust come up with a sustainable vision for long-term upkeep of the village. That is to be welcomed. I am delighted to have been asked to chair the conference, which will take place at Port Sunlight—hopefully, in the autumn.

Fourthly, English Heritage will be producing an authoritative book on Port Sunlight in its Informed Conservation series and I hope that that will act as a reference point for any future steps that might be taken in the village.

Fifthly, we need to take account of the potential for world heritage site status. If Saltaire and New Lanark can qualify, some would say, surely Port Sunlight could qualify—perhaps even more so. Lord McIntosh of Haringey, the Minister for Media and Heritage, has told me that the earliest that it could be included on a tentative list for nominations is 2006. We therefore have an opportunity to help Port Sunlight to get the best possible chance of being judged a site of "outstanding universal value", which I think it is, as is required by the criteria for eligibility. I hope that when we move forward with that, we can get more support than we have had in the past from Wirral metropolitan borough council.

Sixthly, and finally—you will be glad to learn, Mr.   Deputy Speaker—I urge Unilever to use its good offices to ensure that any future development that is necessary at Port Sunlight is responsible. Not only does Unilever still have a vibrant factory as part of the Port Sunlight site—as a consequence, it objected to the proposals that were put before the planning committee—but that vast international company has, after all, Port Sunlight as its birthplace. It is a key—possibly the key—element of the Lever heritage. Unilever has a vested interest in the success of the village and I hope that it will do all that it can to stress that.
8 Mar 2005 : Column 429WH

Let us hope that on the basis that I have outlined, all the parties concerned will reflect long and hard before making any further proposals for development at Port Sunlight.

4.18 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Phil Hope) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wirral, South (Mr.   Chapman) on securing this debate. He raises an issue that is clearly important to a good number of local residents and, indeed, more widely.

Until this debate I was not particularly aware of Port Sunlight or its story and fascinating history. As my hon. Friend so eloquently explained, it is an important part   of the legacy of efforts made by a number of philanthropic Victorian factory owners to secure decent homes for their workers. Thankfully, we now have our own decent homes strategy to redress that problem in the 21st century, but historically Port Sunlight ranks very much alongside the examples that he quoted of Saltaire and Bournville.

Port Sunlight village follows from the Levers' decision in the 1880s to move to new premises. That provided the opportunity for a fresh start, in the form of not only a new, modern soap factory—by the standards of the day—but nearby decent housing for workers, with schools, a library and other public buildings to encourage tenants towards self-improvement. That was, perhaps, an early example of sustainable community development.

The first houses were built in the late 1880s and the building continued up to the start of the second world war. Different phases of building are distinguishable by the materials used, and they are all laid out in a landscape garden setting. I understand that no two blocks of houses in the village are identical. Particularly noteworthy is the fact that from the very beginning, in the late 19th century, every home was provided with a bathroom. That is quite exceptional. Because I was not familiar with the site I found some photos on the internet, so that I could visualise what my hon. Friend has been describing.

Modernisation and renovation work over the years has brought the village up to date, but without affecting its essential character and appearance adversely. I think that that has been acknowledged locally by the council in the designation of the village as a conservation area, and, nationally, by the fact that so many buildings—900   of them—have been included in the statutory list of   buildings of architectural or historical importance. I   very much agree with my hon. Friend that Port   Sunlight village is a nationally—indeed, internationally—important place. It enjoys an international reputation and attracts a great number of visitors.

My hon. Friend has suggested, here and elsewhere, that the village might be a candidate for world heritage site status, under the terms of the UNESCO convention. I think that my hon. Friend will know, because he has been in touch with her about it, that that is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. To qualify for world heritage status a
8 Mar 2005 : Column 430WH
site must be of outstanding universal value judged against the criteria set out in UNESCO's operational guidelines. However, I might add that following a consultation exercise in 1998 and further discussions the Government drew up a list of 25 potential sites.

After a rule change by UNESCO, which took effect in 2002, the UK is allowed to submit only one nomination per year for what is described as a cultural site for world heritage status. Some 17 sites remain of that initial tentative list of potential and future nominations. I   think, therefore, that my hon. Friend can see that there will be a substantial number of sites for the Government to put forward in future years. That said, the Government expect to review the list in the next couple of years, and that will provide an opportunity to make the case for Port Sunlight. No final decisions have been taken about the form that the bidding process might take, or the precise timing.

The criteria are very demanding, so a strong case would need to be mounted to persuade the Secretary of State to put Port Sunlight on the list of potential UK sites. I shall of course communicate this debate to my right hon. Friend so that she is aware of the bid that may be on its way.

Since 1999 the responsibility for the management of   the landscape and environment of the village, in particular, and of the heritage centre there, has rested with a charitable trust, the Port Sunlight village trust. For reasons that I think my hon. Friend has explained, the trust was not adequately funded for the work that it took on, and it now needs to generate additional future income and capital to fund a backlog of work and help to secure the future management and maintenance of the village. That is a debate that my hon. Friend has raised; the question is how to go about the task.

My hon. Friend suggested that the trust might not fully have explored the availability of grant aid to support its aims and that it might do more to generate income through tourism development. I can only suggest that he and his colleagues continue to exhort the trust to pursue those possibilities with the borough council and other agencies.

Of course, the main issue that concerns my hon. Friend, about which he has spoken, is the proposal by the trust to generate capital receipts by releasing land in the village for housing development. To that end, the trust, with, in some cases, the developer, Miller Homes, submitted a batch of six planning applications for a housing development on sites that overlap or lie adjacent to one another at the edge of the village, quite close to the factory buildings and straddling the boundary of the conservation area.

The planning applications have been determined by Wirral metropolitan borough council. In January it granted permission for two of the applications and refused permission for three. Those three are now the subject of appeals to the Deputy Prime Minister, together with the sixth, on which the applicants have appealed because of the council's failure to determine it in the prescribed period. Arrangements have been made for a public inquiry to be held into the appeals, and that is scheduled to open on 20 June.

My hon. Friend will appreciate that, in the circumstances, it would not be right for me to say anything today about the merits or otherwise of the
8 Mar 2005 : Column 431WH
developments proposed, because that might be seen as prejudicing the outcome of the appeals. Nor do I think it right to comment on the decision of the council to grant permission for the proposed apartments on Wharf street that so concern my hon. Friend and his constituents. Those were decisions for the council to take, and in doing so I am sure that it paid particular regard to the comments of CABE and English Heritage, as well as the   many representations that I understand it received from other organisations, local people and, of course, my hon. Friend.

In determining such planning applications, the council will, I am sure, have paid close regard to the   likely effect of the proposed development on the setting of nearby listed buildings and the character and appearance of the conservation area. Indeed, planning Acts require them to do so. The two main planning policy guidance notes relevant to the case appear to be PPG15 on planning and the historic environment and PPG3 on housing.

PPG15 provides a full statement of the Government's policies for the identification and protection of historic buildings, conservation areas and other elements of the historic environment, and then explains the role of the   planning system in their protection. It explains the importance of early consultation with the local planning authority on development proposals that would affect historic sites. The planning guidance also emphasises the importance of the requirements, set out in planning Acts, for local planning authorities to pay special regard to the effect of the development on the setting of listed buildings, and to the desirability of preserving or enhancing the character of conservation areas, when considering applications for planning permission. It is important to remind the House that that planning guidance exists, and that local authorities are expected to pay due regard to it.

The aspects of PPG3 relevant to this subject are the requirements to give priority to the reuse of previously developed land in urban areas, to make efficient use of   land by building in a net density of no less than 30   dwellings to the hectare, and to promote good design in new housing developments.
8 Mar 2005 : Column 432WH

Proposals to build near listed buildings, and in or close to conservation areas, can, as the proposals for Port Sunlight amply demonstrate, lead to considerable debate about the form that the development should take, and indeed about whether any development should be allowed at all. It is a most difficult balancing exercise. It is disappointing that the development permitted at Port Sunlight caused such strong local opposition, particularly if, as my hon. Friend suggested, a better solution might have been achieved through more meaningful dialogue. It is for the local planning authority to ensure that there is proper consultation on these matters. My hon. Friend's points about the future and about the importance of effective dialogue are well made and, I hope, will be well received.

I tend to agree with my hon. Friend that if similar problems are to be avoided in future, it may be prudent for the trust and the borough council to agree a master plan for the village after appropriate consultation, particularly with local residents. That can only be of benefit to the site, but of course it is for those parties, and not the Government, to decide. Under the new regime in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, it is open to the local authority to develop an area action plan, and that would feed into the wider local development framework. I hope that that will provide opportunities for taking this matter forward.

My hon. Friend mentioned that he is chairing a conference that is taking place this year with English Heritage on the future of the site; I am sure that that, alongside the planning process currently in train, will provide another opportunity to consider the many issues that he has raised, and will provide a good opportunity to think afresh about the way forward. I   congratulate him on securing this debate, and on making an impassioned plea on a topic that is clearly of great concern to his constituents.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): Before I   call Norman Lamb, I should say that a Division is likely at some stage, and when that happens, I shall suspend the sitting for 15 minutes.
8 Mar 2005 : Column 431WH

8 Mar 2005 : Column 433WH

Next Section IndexHome Page