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During consideration of this draft legislation, I would like other subsidiary criteria such as economic regeneration plans debated and taken into consideration before a recommendation is made to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport for a building to be designated or listed. Recent frustrating experiences in my own constituency of Stockport have led me to that view. May I make it clear that I am not making any criticisms of the individuals
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involved? I would like to thank Henry Owen-Jones from English Heritage for his help. The criticisms that follow are of the system itself.

Those experiences have made me believe that the designating of buildings should be more specific and spell out exactly what should be retained in any future developments. For example, clear descriptions of the materials to be used would enable future developers to tie down and contain costs and know from the beginning exactly what was required of them and how much it would cost. That would prevent expensive proposals from emerging at a later stage, often during informal pre-application discussions with English Heritage, which can severely hold up building projects or indeed jeopardise them altogether.

As I have explained, my interest in this whole issue arose out of tensions between heritage and regeneration in a multi-million pound development of Stockport college’s town centre campus in respect of one particular building. The new campus is to be on the site of the old St. Thomas’s hospital, the buildings of which have fallen into disrepair since the hospital was closed. The building in question, called merely “building 25”, was not a listed building, but because it fell within the curtilage of the principal listed structure, it was regarded as listed. It was attached to a listed building.

The problem was that English Heritage wanted to keep building 25, but Stockport college did not want to keep it. The college did not think it had any value for its vision of a 21st century educational facility and believed that its retention would compromise the design of the front aspect of its new college campus. As the building was riddled with asbestos, restoration would add further expense to the project. The college had already spent £11.217 million on the refurbishment of listed buildings as a result of pre-planning meetings with English Heritage. As the cost of refurbishment of listed buildings is 16 per cent. higher than the cost of new build, the excess costs were £1.53 million. The college did not want building 25, and the proposed alternatives of boarding it up or selling it were not ones that the college considered to be viable.

The college recognised the historical significance of the two listed buildings, but felt that building 25 detracted from the overall scheme. The frustration for the college was that it was always trying to discuss matters against a background of historical significance, irrespective of cost to its budget or the need to cater for 21st century learners.

From a heritage point of view, the college was keeping the best of the site, spending a lot of money on buildings that had hitherto been left to decay with little or no interest from anyone. It was also bringing a £55 million regeneration scheme to Stockport and simply could not go on investing in buildings for which it had no use and that it felt would serve no educational purpose.

English Heritage first advised Stockport council that it wanted to keep building 25 during pre-application advice meetings, and argument went on for months. The college spent £145,032 preparing a case for demolition, employing specialists in this field and commissioning architectural surveys to respond to English Heritage’s aspirations for the site as a whole. The college
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purchased the site in March and the estimated delay, due to the involvement of English Heritage, is likely to be 12 months.

The whole affair has added other costs to the project, including £37,500 in staff time and £117,000 in interest costs. It also had a major consequence for the college’s cash flow as it delayed Learning and Skills Council approval and the subsequent grants by almost a year. Ironically, English Heritage did not in the end formally object to the planning application submitted by the college, which involved the demolition of building 25.

From my involvement, which included several meetings with English Heritage, the Government office for the north-west and council officers, it became clear to me that if a building is listed but alongside that listing there is no description of the work that has to be done to preserve its heritage aspects, the developers cannot possibly know the costs that they might incur and, even worse, those costs will become clear only from advice by either local conservation officers from the council or the local representative from English Heritage. That organisation, of course, will be concerned to improve the heritage aspects, but doing so does not come out of its budget; every helpful piece of advice usually costs somebody else money.

The other difficulty, of course, is that it is not often clear to the recipient of the advice from English Heritage what the status of the advice is. It was clear from my involvement that the college was certainly under the impression that English Heritage was able to exercise some kind of veto on the planning application if its advice were not accepted. That, of course, is not the case. I think there is a need for a much more transparent process for striking a balance between heritage and the need to make buildings fit for the purpose for which they are developed. If, when buildings were listed, the listing were accompanied by descriptions of features that had to be retained, together with acceptable materials for restoration, developers would have a clearer idea of the costs.

In arriving at such descriptions, some regard needs to be paid to the future use of the building. For example, it is important that we provide affordable housing, but if old buildings are to be converted to flats, every extra cost imposed to meet heritage standards will affect the affordability of the housing. I understand the value of heritage, but it is also important to make buildings fit for purpose in the coming century, so we need an approach to heritage and the listing of buildings that takes that into account.

I was also concerned that money intended for further education and other public services was being disproportionately spent on buildings that had no national significance, although they had local listings, and, indeed, on buildings that were not themselves listed, but were attached to listed buildings. I do not think it right that money intended for educating young people should be spent on heritage, and there is a case to be made for having separate heritage budgets that can support such restoration work.

I am also convinced of the need for such a separate budget by another example in my constituency that involves the derelict St George’s Church of England vicarage and St. George’s Church of England primary school, which are both grade II listed buildings. The Victorian vicarage is set in a large garden and has been
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disused since 2001; it is boarded up because it has major disrepair and structural problems—for example, there is no staircase. Groups of children are trespassing and lighting fires inside, endangering both themselves and the surrounding area—a cause of continual complaints to the local police.

The school and the church diocese want to demolish the vicarage to make space for a much-needed green playing field. At the moment, the pupils have just a concrete playground. However, the conservation officer at Stockport council has told the church vicar that the vicarage windows or doors cannot be broken up or demolished because they are part of a conservation area and English Heritage would object, so we are stuck with a derelict, rotting building that nobody wants, can use or indeed, can properly conserve. That is another example of advice being given at an informal level. The consequences of such advice can be far-reaching. Of course, the Church could put in a planning application that involves demolishing the vicarage, but it is not clear that people understand that this is an option. There is a sense, however unreal, that English Heritage has an automatic veto.

Meanwhile, the school building itself is in need of some repairs. For example, the roof tiles have recently needed to be replaced. The school governors were told that they had to use a specific quality and colour of slate, and it turned out that the right tiles could be obtained at great expense only from Vermont in the United States. Again, on what basis was that advice given? Where is it said that only those particular tiles could be used? Why should this school use money that was intended for education to buy expensive tiles for something that nobody can see, simply because the building is listed? Surely, when listed buildings are being used, there need to be clear agreements about how the building is to be maintained. The advice should be more transparent, and it should take into account affordability for the user. These sorts of extra hidden costs can come as a shock and can jeopardise the finances and, in some cases, the continuation of projects.

Three lessons have been learned from the examples of Stockport college and St. George’s. First, the criteria for listing buildings should be widened, and more consideration should be given to wider economic and regeneration issues in the listing or designating of buildings. That is particularly important in inner-city and town-centre developments. Secondly, if buildings are listed, the listing should specify exactly what features any future developers would be expected to retain, together with descriptions of the acceptable materials to be used. Thirdly, there should be a separate heritage budget to support such restoration work so that money intended for educating young people, for example, is not diverted away. English Heritage has a statutory obligation to give advice, but with ever more complex applications involving millions of pounds of investment, we need to look again at the process of listing and the balance between heritage, the extent to which developments are fit for purpose and how those decisions are made.

The right balance has to be struck between the future and the past. Many hon. Members will have examples of derelict boarded-up buildings in their constituencies which have stood vacant for years and which no one can afford to renovate. They are not being conserved at all but just being allowed to decay. Is it not ironic that the
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listing itself may be a deterrent to development and may lead to decay and eventual demolition of a building that is so significant that it was listed for preservation? However, unless some account is taken of the possible use of a building in the application for listing, I cannot see how the Bill in its current form is actually going to achieve its objectives of preserving our heritage.

Buildings stand not in the past but in the present. They carry the heritage of the past, but they will not survive unless they can meet the aspirations of the future. Not all can become perfectly preserved museums. They have to be schools, houses or new offices. The process of listing buildings should take account of that, both in the application and when listed.

8.20 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) has secured this debate. I am even more delighted that we finished the main business a bit early. I am not going to go on at great length, because I do not need to, but I want to take the opportunity to say a few things about the listing process.

The word “listing” is seared on my brain. Anyone who knows anything about Stroud will know that we take a special joy in the process of listing buildings. The obverse of that is that I have also talked to people who are close to suicide as a result of some of the implications of what happens when the listing process develops a life of its own. It can have all sorts of repercussions.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport knows that I take a particular joy in the current proposal for C block of Standish hospital, and I hope that she will do the decent thing and not list it. The idea to list it is, to use a parliamentary term, nuts. It is the wrong sort of building for that. It would stop a perfectly good development on that site, which hopefully will be led by the NHS.

To show that I am not a philistine, I also ask my right hon. Friend to look at the proposal to list the Purton hulks on the River Severn. Those include some wonderful old barges, which were driven into the side of the river to stop its banks eroding. The hulks are of particular interest. I know that we cannot get protection for them at the moment, but hopefully the Bill, which I also welcome, will give us an opportunity to consider something that is of universal importance in the marine world and which we should be doing something about.

At one level, the process of listing is incredibly democratic. Anyone can put a building forward for listing. That is laudable. It is important that we look at the process in its totality, because it is of great importance, as I said. My hon. Friend said that the process was one of apparent transparency. I am a great fan of English Heritage, because it has saved buildings that were in a dire state of repair and in need of proactive intervention. For example, it has paid an awful lot of money to repair the roof of Stanley Mill in my constituency. It is to be congratulated on that. My only criticism of English Heritage is that it sometimes takes rather a long time to respond to applications, which can lead to difficulties because a building is, of course, deteriorating over that time. Uncertainty can be the worst outcome of all. I ask my right hon. Friend to say something about how, in the new legislative world that we are coming into, we can
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speed up the process of listing a building. There are occasions when a silly proposal is made—perhaps even a vexatious one to delay the inevitable development of a site—and we need to deal with that more expeditiously.

In terms of my special interest, the system is fraught with problems if a building has been listed but, over the course of history, some of the reasons for that are not clear and people are left with the problem of how to respond when there is a quite heavy-handed approach. I do not want to cast aspersions on my local authority, but again, anyone who knows anything about Stroud will know that listing is something that we do as a particular joy of life. We take a long time over it and look at applications in considerable detail. However, where those processes take that course, it can be difficult for people who are trying to take forward permitted development. The listing process makes things incredibly complicated and expensive. I hope that the Bill has something to say about that, particularly in view of the joyous phrase “development in the curtilage” of a listed building. Again, that is seared on my brain because it just means, “Look out, chaps. You are going to take an awful long time to get through this, and everybody is going to have an opinion on it, and it is going to take a long time, therefore, to reach some conclusion.” That is not fair to someone who is desperately keen to do something with a particular property.

Much as I see the process as democratic, and one that should be transparent, I hope that we can sometimes speed things along. It is not much good if we find that the process has resulted in the eventual destruction of a building either because it was too expensive to go through the process or, dare I say, because the building was in such a poor state of repair at the end of the process that all we have done is use the process in an adverse way and failed to foresee how we could have dealt with it differently.

I hope that my right hon. Friend will say some interesting things about what the Bill might do to expedite the process of listing, how we might get the process to be even more transparent—it is, as I said, democratic—and, in particular, how we can list what we should be listing and not list what we should not be listing. We need to tell people quickly that we want to get rid of that system because it is not helpful if the process hangs over everyone’s head.

8.26 pm

Mr. Andrew Dismore (Hendon) (Lab): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport (Ann Coffey) on securing the debate. She has made some extremely important points. I do not want to detain the House for long. I was not planning to speak, but as we have a bit of time, I thought I would mention one or two things.

It seems that when the listing notice comes through the letterbox, common sense goes out of the window. We need to get some common sense into the process, which is what my hon. Friend advocated. I suspect that we do not have to look any further than this building to see some of the problems that arise. Our staff struggle to maintain it in accordance with the requirements of English Heritage, which often fly in the face of common sense and what we need to do to make what is, in effect,
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a museum building suitable for a modern Parliament. That is frightening. No one is talking about messing around with the Chamber, but a bit of common sense needs to be applied to how some of the offices and rooms upstairs are maintained and improved, which is prevented by English Heritage.

I want to mention two buildings in my constituency, one of which is not listed and one of which is. The one that is not listed perhaps ought to be, but everyone is frightened of the consequences of going down that route because of what it would mean for its development. The building in question is the officers’ mess in Inglis barracks. The barracks have been the home of the Middlesex Regiment for some time. When the regiment moved out, it was replaced by British Forces Post Office. Indeed, Inglis barracks are named after Colonel Inglis, who was a hero of the Peninsula war and gave the Middlesex Regiment his nickname, “The Diehards”, from the battle of Albuera—but I digress.

The officers’ mess is a wonderful old building. I am not sure whether it merits listing, but it certainly merits preservation. To its credit, the local authority has been fairly co-operative, but the Army has moved out and the whole site is to be redeveloped to provide at least 2,000, or perhaps 2,500, homes, The question is what is to happen to the wonderful old building at the top of the site. What will happen to the Middlesex war memorial and others nearby? As my hon. Friend implied, if it is listed no developer will be able to make anything of it. It will go to rack and ruin: either it will eventually fall down of its own accord, or it will simply be neglected.

We are left with a wing and a prayer. We hope that when the site is developed, whoever buys that part of it will find a use for it—perhaps as a conference centre—and will be able to preserve it without its having to be listed. We also hope that the local authority and the local community will work together to ensure that it is preserved for functional purposes, but that adjustments may be possible that might not otherwise be possible, for reasons cited by my hon. Friend.

My second example is of a building that has been listed. My constituency contains the site of the former Hendon aerodrome. I believe that it was the first aerodrome in the country; certainly it is the site of the first aircraft factory, operated by a chap called Claude Grahame-White. It is now the site of the RAF museum and a housing estate. There is also a new development on the last unoccupied part of the estate—formerly known as RAF East Camp, now known as Beaufort Park—and the developer is putting up a couple of thousand houses there as well.

The original planning permission for part of the development meant that the then derelict Claude Grahame-White aircraft factory, dating from before the first world war, had to be relocated, lock, stock and barrel, to the RAF museum site. It cost a fortune, and it looks wonderful. The relocation was a magnificent operation. The first world war aircraft collection is housed there—but so is the former RAF watchtower, also a listed building of the highest category. The original plan was for it to remain in the middle of the development and be used as, for instance, a health centre. That idea has fallen through, and the current plan is to move the watchtower to the RAF museum site, which will involve a rather complicated land swap and a very complicated financial arrangement. The developer is putting in the cash.

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The watchtower is almost falling down. It will have to be taken down virtually brick by brick and rebuilt on the site, where it will be used as an education centre. That is a brilliant idea, but English Heritage, perhaps being less co-operative than it might be, is insisting that this derelict building—which will be erected in the middle of a new housing estate, surrounded by big buildings—must be marketed, and marketed in a particular way. The project will take months to complete, with the net result that a very complicated deal could well fall through, although I hope it will not.

There is plenty of good will on the part of the museum, the developers and the local authority to ensure that the deal does not fall through, but it could fall through because of English Heritage’s ridiculous requirement. No one in their right mind would buy a derelict watchtower in the middle of a new housing estate with which nothing can be done. There is a wonderful function planned for it where it belongs, in the middle of our RAF heritage only a couple of hundred yards away, and it would be restored as part of the process rather than being allowed to fall down. Yet we run the risk of the whole scheme falling to pieces—literally—because of the approach that has been adopted. Where has common sense gone? A wonderful historic building in my constituency may not be restored and used for a sensible purpose. Moreover, a site that could be used for significant housing development may not be used for that purpose either.

I think that this is what my hon. Friend was getting at. The current process means that buildings that should be preserved may not be preserved as well as they could be because of developers’ fears of what may happen, a point referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew). When a building is listed, all the attendant hassle can be counter-productive in preventing us from preserving our wonderful heritage, which is what we are trying to do.

I think that both those constituency examples illustrate the need for a common-sense approach that, unfortunately, seems sometimes to be lacking in the existing process. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will be able to assure us that the new system will allow for such an approach.

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