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7 May 2008 : Column 261WH—continued

The relocation of 230 Squadron will free up significant facilities at Aldergrove. Those include not only office and hangar space, but family quarters, single living accommodation and welfare facilities of a high standard, as hon. Members have mentioned in the debate. Having reviewed the options available, we have concluded that we will make best use of the defence estate and deliver the best quality of life for our personnel if 38 Engineer Regiment, which will move to Massereene barracks in Antrim later this year, relocates to Aldergrove once 230 Squadron has departed. We will still use that good
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estate that hon. Members have talked about. Aldergrove will remain a base, although of course it will primarily be an Army base. It is only about five miles from Massereene to Aldergrove, so some people will want to go, and some facilities associated with Massereene will still be usable. The move will allow the consolidation of 38 Engineer Regiment’s technical and domestic accommodation on one site and enable the unit to benefit more fully from the additional facilities available at the larger site. As the hon. Member for South Antrim is aware, that will remove the requirement to retain the Massereene barracks. While he may regret that decision, I am sure that he shares the Department’s objective of making the best use of available defence estate and infrastructure and delivering the greatest possible coherence for our units and the best possible quality of life for our military personnel.

As to the matter of gifting the base, all I can say is that Democratic Unionist party Members know that their party leader raised the issue at Prime Minister’s questions, and they heard that the Prime Minister was prepared to meet him to discuss it. My view is that we need the receipt to pay for the many facilities and necessities in the Ministry of Defence. We are dependent on the estate. However, I cannot pre-empt the discussion that will take place between the leader of the DUP and the Prime Minister, and I do not know what agreements they will reach.

For staff whose posts are removed, such as those whose posts are associated exclusively with the security and maintenance of the Massereene barracks or for personnel unable to relocate to Aldergrove with 38 Engineer Regiment, everything possible will be done to find acceptable alternative employment in the Ministry of Defence. Where redundancies are inevitable, we will pursue voluntary release on compulsory terms, as we have done successfully in the current civilian draw-down associated with normalisation. It is our intention to make every effort to avoid compulsory redundancy. The Ministry of Defence will, in any case, remain a significant employer within the Antrim area.

The hon. Member for South Antrim has talked about 140 redundancies, but it will be much less than that. We want to retain many people at Aldergrove, which we want to develop. Some of the people who are associated with the basing at Massereene will be given the opportunity to redeploy, but their jobs will not exist if we close the Massereene barracks. However, that would involve fewer redundancies than the 140 figure that the hon. Gentleman has mentioned. We estimate that there will be fewer than 100 job losses. That, of course, will be subject to consultation with the trade unions, which is starting now.

Dr. McCrea: Does the Minister appreciate the serious economic implications of the removal of the RAF personnel and their families from the constituency? The important points include not only the job losses, but the loss of 1,000 people and their buying power from the constituency.

Mr. Ainsworth: The hon. Gentleman is right. Of course that will have an impact, but we are moving to a position in which we shall base 19 Light Brigade in Northern Ireland. The move into Aldergrove will facilitate part of that, so Aldergrove will continue to be used, and
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families will be based in Northern Ireland. Of course, the numbers will fluctuate, depending on whether those mostly Army personnel are deployed or home-based in Northern Ireland at any given time, but there will still be considerable activity at Aldergrove, which will replace what has gone on there to date, and there will be a commitment to the site by the MOD over a considerable time.

To deal further with the future of Aldergrove as a military base, the announcement in the House on 30 January 2006 by the then Secretary of State for Defence of the move of 19 Light Brigade from Catterick to Northern Ireland demonstrated our commitment to basing significant units in Northern Ireland. As the hon. Member for South Antrim may be aware, two key units of 19 Brigade are already in place: 2 Rifles in Ballykinler and 2 Mercian in Holywood. Further units will arrive over the coming months: 40 Regiment Royal Artillery, 38 Engineer Regiment, the Combat Service Support Regiment and the headquarters of 19 Light Brigade. Just as the relocation clearly demonstrates our commitment to basing in Northern Ireland, the decision to relocate 38 Engineer Regiment to Aldergrove clearly demonstrates our commitment to maintaining a base there.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for South Antrim for seeking the debate. I am sorry that he was upset about the consultation process, but the House was told the news in the normal way, following the normal procedures, and the hon. Gentleman’s constituency was treated in much the same way as the rest of the United Kingdom.

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Thatched Roofs (Planning Policy)

10.59 am

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): I welcome this opportunity to raise the problems faced by many owners of thatched cottages and houses when the time comes to renew their roofs and they apply for planning consent. There are a number of players in the game: the home owners themselves, the thatchers who do the work and the farmers who grow the straw. The planners and English Heritage are the referees, and the man who makes the rules is the Planning Minister, whom I welcome to the debate. There are also many spectators: the visitors to and fellow residents of the many traditional villages in this country with thatched cottages, of which there are many in my constituency. They form part of our cultural heritage—a heritage threatened by the very rules designed to safeguard it.

Thatched roofs need to be replaced every 15 or 20 years. Until the last part of the 20th century, the choice of style and material for replacement was left to the owner and thatcher. Replacement was evolutionary, reflecting the availability of materials and the thatcher’s craft and style. In the past 20 years, intervention and control have begun to halt that evolutionary process. The balance must now be shifted away from conservationists, who have tried to freeze-frame the process, and back to owners and thatchers.

English Heritage now insists on a policy of like for like in materials and thatching styles for listed building consent. A cottage thatched with traditional long straw must be re-thatched with traditional long straw. However, that straw is becoming scarce due to changing farming practices. The problem is now critical as a result of the poor harvest last year. Re-thatching with any straw—whether long straw or combed wheat reed, as in Hampshire—is impossible, because there is none.

Farmers can increase their crop yield by replacing cereal straw for thatching with other crops. The rising price of wheat makes that shift yet more imperative. English Heritage seems reluctant to recognise the changing trends in cereal farming and will not accept alternative thatching materials, which are indistinguishable from traditional materials to most of us and last much longer. Its so-called guidance containing the like-for-like policy is being slavishly followed by planning officers.

My interest derives from a lady outside Andover who wrote to me thus:

I shall précis the next bit of the letter, but I wanted to read that first bit out in full. The lady’s home had been re-thatched in 1992. She applied to have it re-thatched again with combed wheat instead of long straw, as she was simply unable to get long straw. Planning permission was refused, although two years before, she had received listed building consent to re-do the adjacent barn in combed wheat, and other nearby properties, including listed buildings, use combed wheat. She continues:

The English Heritage guidance reflects the Government’s planning policy guidance note 15, which was published in 1994. I quote from paragraph C.29:

However, Hampshire must now import its traditional thatch from Poland, leaving a substantial carbon footprint. Locally grown alternatives, such as water reed, are forbidden.

Shortly after the guidance was issued by English Heritage, it was challenged, not just by thatchers, who rightly argued that theirs was a dynamic and living craft that should reflect the availability of local materials, but in an article in The Building Conservation Directory:

The article reported on the national conference on thatching organised by English Heritage in 1999:

I understand that it lasts twice as long as long straw. It was used in Scotland in the late 19th century, and it has been used widely for thatching in the past two decades.

An article in The Observer in March made the point well:

The article quoted Bob West, a spokesman for the National Society of Master Thatchers:

Thatchers complain that some conservation officers have clamped down on alternatives, insisting that only traditional materials be used on listed buildings. In one case, officials allegedly ordered the home-grown substitute to be taken off the roof of an ancient barn in Sussex and replaced with Polish cereal straw. Typically, officials decree that roofs must be repaired with exactly the same materials as before.

There are signs in the appeal decisions that go to the Department for Communities and Local Government that planning officers’ excessive zeal is being tempered. In an appeal against a decision in west Dorset, the inspector said:

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Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): My right hon. Friend might be aware that I was involved in that case and have been fighting a battle against English Heritage on the matter for some years. As always, he has been enormously tempered and sagacious in his observations, but does he agree that underneath it all, what we are actually facing is “Yes Minister”?

There is a patent absurdity in regulators trying to regulate the invisible. Nobody in west Dorset can see the difference between the two. My constituents observe that, in some cases, English Heritage backs the replacement of old farm buildings with modern monstrosities that no one wants to buy on the grounds that they are an interesting development, but then prevent others, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, from using home-grown materials to achieve a perfectly acceptable effect. Is it not an example in fact of regulation gone mad? Is not what we really require from the Department simply a sense of humour?

Sir George Young: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support, and I commend him for his efforts on behalf of his constituents. I agree: if ever there was an area ripe for deregulation, it is this one. I hope that the Better Regulation Commission will be invited to consider the thatching regime with a view to deregulating it.

In other decisions, inspectors have given weight to the quality and lifespan of water reed, but only after the appellant has gone to the expense of appeal. The flexibility should appear right at the beginning of the process: upstream with planning officers, not downstream with inspectors.

Another appeal is outstanding against the decision of South Cambridgeshire district council. I do not expect the Minister to comment on that, but I raise it as an example. In 2004, an appeal was lost to change the style of thatching from long straw to combed wheat reed. The property was then re-thatched in the long straw style using triticale, but the council have now imposed an enforcement notice specifically prohibiting any re-thatching using triticale.

I gave those examples to demonstrate that the current policy is inflexible, as my right hon. Friend said, unsustainable and in urgent need of review. As he pointed out, this area is crying out for deregulation. All the owners whom I have met and spoken to are passionate about doing the right thing for their property. They want to live in thatched cottages and maintain their value and historical integrity. They have taken advice from experienced thatchers who know their trade. They want a cost-effective and sustainable solution to the problem of roof replacement, but they find obstacle after obstacle placed in their path.

I have also spoken to thatchers, including one from Andover who told me this morning that a lack of good quality straw—long straw and combed wheat—due to bad harvests last year means that homeowners cannot replace their roof with the same material. Planning
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officers are not being flexible either with new builds or listed buildings needing repair, and English Heritage does not seem to accept newer, more robust cereals for thatching even though they might save the homeowner money in the long run. That restricts the types of material available to the industry. Indeed, some thatchers might go out of business because, although the work is available, the necessary materials are not, so they might not survive.

I want three things out of this debate, if the Minister is to emerge as the hero, which I confidently expect that he will. First, I would welcome a meeting with myself and representatives of thatchers, such as the National Society of Master Thatchers, so that they can explain to the Minister and officials with more eloquence than I can muster this morning both the problems and the solutions. I should also like English Heritage to be present at the meeting, because its role is critical.

Secondly, I would welcome an indication from the Minister that he is prepared to revise the section of PPG15 that I read out, which is now some 14 years old, with a view to replacing it with something more sustainable that takes account of available materials and is much more flexible. I hope that he will encourage English Heritage to do the same, because we need a policy that reflects the changes in agriculture and the dynamic nature of thatching. Thirdly, I should like the Minister to urge planners to be more flexible as from today and to listen to the advice that they receive from experienced thatchers in how they deal with applications and to recognise that, as resources, climate and economic conditions change, what was last placed on the roof might not be the most appropriate for the next generation.

Although I am a Conservative, I have never been called a Thatcherite. However, today, I find myself wholly aligned with those craftsmen and women, and I hope that the Minister can bring comfort to them and to the home owners on whose behalf I have spoken.

Hugh Bayley (in the Chair): The right hon. Gentleman was Lady Thatcher’s Housing Minister; I did not realise that the post had had such a great effect on him.

11.12 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Mr. Iain Wright): I never thought that I would stand in this Chamber and celebrate the work of thatchers, but on this occasion I am very pleased to do so. I am pleased, and find it interesting, that you are presiding over the debate, Mr. Bayley, because you represent a beautiful constituency in York with real architectural gems. I am genuinely pleased that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) secured this debate. He and I have only just finished the Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, where my respect for him grew by the day, not only because of his huge housing experience, to which you have referred, Mr. Bayley, but because, frankly, he had the uncanny knack of simultaneously praising me and pulverising my argument. He has deployed the same skills today in raising the important matter of the current shortages and subsequent rising prices of cereal straw suitable for thatching, and related planning policies.

This issue affects a significant number of people. Some 24,000 thatched buildings are listed, and countless
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others are unlisted but located in conservation areas where local policies may impose restrictions on the materials used for re-thatching. The key theme of this debate was brought out by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—the sensible and humorous exercise of planning controls. The Government attach great importance to the protection of the historic environment. Buildings are listed because of their special architectural or historic interest. Once lost, they cannot be replaced, and they can be robbed of their special interest as surely by unsuitable alteration as by outright demolition. They are a finite resource and an irreplaceable asset, and I think that we have a responsibility to protect such gems for future generations—something that you will know only too well, Mr. Bayley, with your constituency of City of York.

The starting point for the exercise of listed building control is the statutory requirement on local planning authorities, under section 16 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, to have

That reflects the great importance to society of protecting listed buildings from unsuitable and insensitive alteration, and it should be the main consideration for local authorities in determining applications for consent.

As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has mentioned, guidance on the operation of the planning controls, insofar as they affect the historic environment, is given to local authorities in PPG15, published in 1994, which states:

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