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7 May 2008 : Column 268WH—continued

Again, as he has said, specific guidance on alterations to listed buildings, prepared by English Heritage, is annexed to PPG15. It makes the point that each historic building has its own characteristics usually related to an original or subsequent function, and that these should as far as possible be respected when proposals for alterations are put forward.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman quoted the following piece of guidance on thatched roofs, but I want to reiterate it, because I take a slightly different subjective view:

The words, “should normally be done” represent an important consideration, to which I shall return.

In addition to that annexe to PPG15, English Heritage has produced a detailed guidance note specifically dealing with thatch and thatching. It describes the three thatch types commonly found today—water reed, combed wheat reed and long straw—and makes the point that the material, in the form in which it reaches the roof, has a strong influence on the method and resulting appearance. The guidance note advises that, when a change of material or style is proposed, the onus should be on the applicant for listed building consent to explain the need for change. In turn, the local authority’s policy should be based on a thorough knowledge of local traditions of thatching. The policy should aim to recognise regional
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diversity, sustain materials and techniques, conserve the character of an area and protect material of archaeological interest.

That is the important background against which planning authorities exercise listed building control. I stress that it is for local authorities to take account of the available guidance but, ultimately, to consider and reach a decision based on the specific circumstances of each case. As the right hon. Gentlemen are aware, where listed building consent is refused, there is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. Where listed building consent is granted, there is a wide power to impose conditions, which may require the preservation of particular features of the building, the making good of any damage following the works consented to and the reconstruction of any part of the building after the works, with

Again, the last five words of the guidance are important.

PPG15 advises that all conditions must be necessary, relevant, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects. Unless a condition fairly and reasonably relates to the circumstances of the building and its conservation needs, it could be ultra vires. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has stated, the guidance clearly leans towards a replacing like-for-like policy as far as re-thatching is concerned—I agree with his interpretation. Again, I must stress the central point of my contribution: I do not think that wording in guidance, such as “should normally be done”, or

which I have quoted already, is over-prescriptive. It gives planning authorities scope to take account of specific difficulties and circumstances at both national and local level.

Sir George Young: The Minister has been enormously helpful. My ears pricked up earlier when I heard him say that he took a slightly different view. Does he think it practicable to expect someone to wait for 12 months before their roof is re-thatched in the hope that next year there is an appropriate harvest for the material on which the local authority planning department insists?

Mr. Wright: That brings me neatly on to my next point. I represent a constituency in the north-east in which there are very few thatched roofs. However, I have researched the matter and found there to be a range of views in the thatching profession on the future viability of the industry. Among the representations received by my Department in recent weeks, I have had letters from the National Society of Master Thatchers, to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, and the Thatching Information Service. The society has expressed the concern, which was eloquently reiterated by the right hon. Gentleman, about the limited availability of suitable quality cereal straw. It says that the problem has been exacerbated by this year’s poor harvest coupled with what is referred to as the inflexibility of some local conservation officers in not allowing thatchers to work with other materials. It recommended that officers should relax their approach by, for example, allowing water reed to be used instead of combed wheat reed. The society also implies that councils are taking an even harder line than they have done in the past. For example,
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they will not allow roofs to be thatched with a wheat-rye hybrid called triticale—I hope that I pronounced that correctly, because the right hon. Gentleman did so superbly—which they say has been used for the past 30 years and is approved by English Heritage.

The Thatching Information Service has drawn attention to the need to protect straw thatching as a craft. It says that the poor harvest is not an uncommon occurrence in recent decades and should not give credence to those within the industry who, it says, have been trying for the past decade to dispense with it as a thatching material. It makes the point that relatively few straw thatched houses remain and that, if we wish to preserve their uniqueness and the method of thatching, they should remain under the like-for-like policy of local councils. It says that if we pursue an argument based only on economic reasons, straw is destined to be abandoned. If listed buildings are worth preserving in all their glory, the type of material and the way it is used must be wholly relevant.

Those may be extreme points of view, but there seem to be regional variations in the seriousness of the position. Representatives of the East Anglia Master Thatchers Association say that, although stocks of thatching straw are lower than normal, they do not envisage running out before the next harvest. Some say that they are switching to more ridge and repairs in the short term, delaying large straw re-thatches for up to four to five months, but not seeing any need for panic or unnecessary sheeting of roofs. Therefore, a wide variety of views have been expressed on the matter.

English Heritage’s guidance note encourages local authorities to evolve and publish local policies on the issue. It makes the point that owners and thatchers need to know as far as possible not only the actual policies against which applications will be judged but the reasoning behind those policies. Publication enables the policies to be debated in the light of research and the experience of all interested parties, which seems to be sound advice.

Mr. Letwin: I do not understand why the Minister thinks that it makes sense to try to keep a particular material in place if no ordinary human being looking at two houses thatched with the two different materials could tell the difference.

Mr. Wright: We are preserving not only the visual effect, but the method of construction and the materials used—traditional materials must be used as far as is practicable. I think that that is a sensible approach. It is extremely important that we preserve not only the visual appearance of a building, but its traditional construction. I am obviously not making myself clear, so I will give way again.

Mr. Letwin: On the contrary, the Minister is making himself entirely clear. He is also being entirely inconsistent. If it were the case that his listed building and English Heritage arrangements were intended to preserve techniques rather than appearance, he should surely be asking people to rebuild stone-built or brick-built houses using the same methods that people used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nobody does that at present, so why is the Minister not changing the law to achieve that?

Mr. Wright: I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. Such work is carried out with regard to some listed buildings. I maintain the point that visual appearance is
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crucial. I also think that it is not the sole consideration. When it comes to construction, other things are important as well. The main theme of my contribution today is that flexibility is necessary. None of us wants to see an erosion—quite literally—of the thatching profession. We want to see thatchers prosper as much as possible. As regards energy efficiency, thatched roofs are on the increase, because of the sustainable and green technique that is used for insulation.

Planning officers should have the flexibility to ensure that we preserve the historic environment as much as possible while taking into account local circumstances, which was eloquently mentioned by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire with regard to shortage of materials and rising prices. I hope that that explains the point.

English Heritage’s guidance note also recommends that the relevant Government bodies and specialist organisations should investigate the supply of thatching materials and endeavour to remove some of the uncertainties that have distorted the market. It recognises that that is probably the most intractable problem facing the thatching industry and points out that, while the importation of foreign materials is not promoted under general conservation philosophy, it can be argued that those sources provide a degree of reliability. It says that the reasons for straw shortages need to be explored to create a climate that is more attractive to the specialist branch of agriculture and to experimentation with thatching strains.

None of that suggests that the Government or their specialist advisers have taken an extreme or excessively rigid line on heritage issues in compiling guidance on thatching and listed building consent procedures. As the right hon. Gentlemen know, I will not comment on specific instances in which a local authority might have refused consent, or adopted conditions, on grounds that the applicant might consider are due to an inflexible approach. In such circumstances, as I have mentioned, there is recourse to the appeals procedure.

I recognise that concerns exist about the present state of the market and the effect that that is having on the trade and, therefore, on owners of thatched houses. The important message that I want to get across today is that there should be full discussion and consultation
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with all concerned, including conservation and planning officers, owners, specialist bodies, trade associations and relevant arms of Government to resolve such difficulties as they arise.

That brings me on to the three points mentioned by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. I certainly agree to attend a meeting with relevant people, including him, not only because this is an important issue that needs to be thrashed out—so to speak—but because of my respect for him following his work on the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I am keen to meet him shortly to discuss the issues more comprehensively.

I am more reluctant on the right hon. Gentleman’s second point, which concerns revising particular sections of PPG15. The existing planning framework is appropriate and gives sufficient flexibility to take into account particular circumstances.

Sir George Young: I put out PPG15 when I was Planning Minister. As the author, it is my view that the time has come to revise it. There would be no disloyalty if the Minister indicated that the time had come to move on.

Mr. Wright: When I was preparing for this debate—and also when we were working on the Housing and Regeneration Bill—I dreaded the right hon. Gentleman standing up and saying, “Well, I actually did that.” His authorship of PPG15 was exemplary, and the document should therefore be maintained as much as possible.

As I have said, the planning framework is flexible and can take into account local and specific circumstances. The crucial point is that the planning system should have that flexibility to take into account the sort of concerns that have been raised and to balance them against the need to protect the historic environment that is of such importance not only to owners of historic buildings but to the cultural identity of the wider community and country. I am keen to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further, and I am grateful to him for widening the debate today. I look forward to meeting him shortly.

11.29 am

Sitting suspended.

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Democratic Republic of the Congo (Development)

2.30 pm

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North) (Lab): I am pleased that we are having this debate. I wanted a debate on the Congo, and the question was whether the Department for International Development or the Foreign Office would reply to it. In reality the issue is coterminous, because we wish to examine the problems of poverty in the Congo and developments there and how this country and others can assist.

I have just returned from the Congo, where I was part of a delegation including my hon. Friends the Members for Falkirk (Mr. Joyce) and for Amber Valley (Judy Mallaber). The trip was funded by a combination of the Catholic Fund for Overseas Development, International Alert and Christian Aid. That is my declaration of interest. We are grateful to Stephen Carter, the secretary of the all-party group on the great lakes region and genocide prevention, who accompanied us and stayed on afterwards to visit some courts and observe some justice processes. He was extremely helpful in organising the visit and ensuring that we had a packed programme. I also wish to put on record our thanks to our ambassador in Kinshasa, Nick Kay, who was extremely helpful in arranging a lot of things at short notice and giving us a full briefing, and to the DFID representative there, Phil Marker, who was equally helpful and very supportive of our delegation.

I have the pleasure of representing a constituency that includes a Congolese community, many of whom have been in this country for a long time and are victims of the history of the Congo. I find it constantly depressing that one of the world’s greatest current conflicts is largely ignored by the world’s media, as are the good works done by many people in the Congo who are trying to bring about significant improvements and changes.

There is not time to go into the country’s history today, but we should be aware that Leopold’s rule in the Congo was among the most brutal anywhere on the face of the earth. It was a wholly extractive and acquisitive rule, intended simply to take out the natural resources. Such infrastructure as King Leopold and the Belgians developed was solely related to the extraction of the riches of the Congo. It was nothing to do with the internal development of that country. Sadly, that pattern has continued for a long time. With the new hope for a long-term period of peace, one hopes that the Congo’s resources will be developed for the benefit of its people rather than to be exported to the nearest coast and off to the rest of the world. However, we are quite a long way from that.

On independence, the country did not achieve the peace and concord that was due it. There was interference from outside and then a long period of Mobutu’s dictatorship, which was finally ended with the current elected Government. I shall return to that later, because it is important that we all support the development of a democratic process, accountable administration and an independent judiciary.

Our delegation came into the country through Rwanda and went first to Goma, in the east. It is difficult to comprehend from the outside just how devastating the
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war has been in the east of the country. In the past 10 years, 5.4 million people have been killed in the conflict there, which is far more than have died in Iraq and Afghanistan combined or in almost any other war in the same period. It is the biggest death toll by armed conflict anywhere in the world in the recent past. First world war proportions of death and destruction have been visited upon the people of the east of the Congo. As ever, the victims of war are the poor, children, women and civilians. Half of all those who have died in the conflict are children. During our visit, we met a number of organisations that are doing their best to support people and help them get through the terrible process.

One must understand what Goma is like as a town. It is potentially beautiful; it is on the east, next to the lake, and contains the remains of what I suspect are the holiday homes of various wealthy Belgians from the colonial period. Yet the streets are potholed, the administration is shaky at best, there are large numbers of refugee camps all over the town, there is constant traffic chaos and there are destroyed and blown-up buildings. In the midst of that, luxury hotels are in use and various fairly luxurious office blocks have been constructed. Goma is to some extent a frontier town, in which the civil war is being played out. At the same time, large quantities of minerals, particularly coltan but other precious metals as well, are being exported through Goma and either being flown from there or going directly through Rwanda. There is a sense of lawlessness about the place.

While we were there, there was a plane crash in which more than 80 people died. It was a wholly preventable accident. The runway has a lava flow across it from the volcanic eruption three years ago, and nobody has got around to removing it. Planes therefore have to take off using half the runway. As I understand it, the plane was unlicensed for that runway. It tried to take off, burst a tyre, was probably overloaded and ploughed into a lot of very poor houses alongside the airport. The local hospitals had great difficulty in coping, and but for the presence of an Indian United Nations force nearby, the death toll would have been far higher. One should pay tribute to the Indian army for what they did to save lives.

I found it depressing that we all immediately got calls from various media sources in this country to ask our views, what had happened and so on. Although they never said it, the subliminal questions from the news media were, “How many westerners were involved? How many tourists were involved? How many international business men were involved in the death toll?” It turned out that the answer was zero to all three. I checked the news media carefully when I came back, and the story had disappeared unaccountably from the media. That shows a quite disgusting sense of news values. If a light plane overshoots a runway in Florida, the world knows about it the next day. If 80 people die in a plane crash in the Congo, it is just one of those things that are ignored. I appeal to people in the media to have some sense of humanitarian values in their reporting of things.

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