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Mr. Dismore: Is it better to have half a cake or no cake at all? That question is at the heart of the argument presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Stockport
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(Ann Coffey). We have all seen the television programme in which one wonderful building is chosen from each region and then the whole nation votes—that shows how popular this subject is—on which should be preserved. As a result, the other 10 or 11 buildings, or however many of them there are, are left at risk of falling down. The programme shows the state of all the buildings, and how urgent it is to find the money to restore them. However, despite all the publicity and national effort, only one of the wonderful buildings shown in each series can be preserved. How many buildings are simply falling down for lack of money? Might not some other approach—perhaps a lessening of the restrictions—be appropriate? That might allow us to succeed in preserving something of a building, even if not the whole thing.

Margaret Hodge: That is an extremely interesting line of argument. I hope that the Select Committee will have regard to the proceedings of the House this evening when they consider what advice to give me.

I have been reflecting on a whole range of issues, especially in connection with recently constructed buildings and in particular because so many of them have to be funded through the public purse. Let me take an example that will be familiar to my hon. Friend the Member for Hendon. The old London county council fire stations were all constructed at about the same time, and many of them are splendid parts of our English heritage that we would want to conserve. However, there is a little problem: a modern fire engine cannot get into an old LCC fire station. What can we do about that? Clearly, we want future generations to be able to see some of those fire stations, and to see what wonderful, aesthetically pleasing, architecturally well-constructed buildings they are, and what their historic value is—what they add to the community. Clearly some of them can be used for other purposes. They could be, and have been, used to create housing units or flats. However, the chair of the authority with responsibility for the fire service came to see me—I am trying to think what the authority is called.

Mr. Dismore: LFEPA.

Margaret Hodge: It was the previous chair; this was some three or four months ago. She said, rightly, that there were parts of London where the fire authority had looked for an alternative site for a fire station, to ensure the safety of the local population, but were unable to identify such a site. The result of listing old fire stations would therefore be to put at risk the health and safety of residents in London. In those circumstances, the question that we ask ourselves is whether a thematic review could be undertaken of all the fire stations built by the LCC, and whether we could decide on a few that we wanted to list and conserve for future generations, without feeling that we had to conserve the lot.

Mr. Dismore: Again, that is the halfway house argument. What I was saying from a sedentary position is that the name of the organisation is LFEPA, the London Fire and Emergency Planning Authority. Surely there are two aspects to this issue. First, there are fire stations that should be preserved pretty much as fire stations, perhaps even as museums. Secondly, there are buildings that are worth preserving, but with a different function. For example, in Hammersmith there is a brand-new fire
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station, and the old fire station has been turned into a bar. The fa├žade and the building are still there, but the building has a different function. It is not preserved in the listed sense, because it has been completely knocked about, but there is still something left of it, although the whole lot has not been preserved.

Margaret Hodge: I agree entirely. I cannot find the words in my notes, but at present one cannot have regard to the fact that there are a number of old fire stations, and that preserving and listing a few would be sufficient for ensuring that future generations could enjoy our current structures.

My hon. Friend talked about the way in which common sense appears to go out of the window in the listing system, and he gave the example of two buildings in his constituency. I have had to deal with watchtowers in a number of constituencies across England in the past few months. I wonder whether, when derelict buildings become heritage assets, there is a point at which we perhaps take the wrong view.

Let me help with a few facts. There are 2,000 applications every year to list, and 30,000 applications each year for listed building consent. There are only 100 cases a year in which alterations to listed buildings are agreed and buildings are demolished. The system is very slow. English Heritage tries to make a decision within six months, but the process can take longer. As all hon. Members have said, seeking listed building consent is also extremely slow—but there are reasons for the delay. The planning guidance states:

I hope that the new system will speed up consideration. We are cutting out the duplication, so English Heritage will make the decision. I hope that the process will be much more transparent, that the owners will be notified and that there will be a much better description, in much more accessible language, of what is being listed and why. That would help. In response to my hon.
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Friend the Member for Stockport, I undertake to look further at how we can improve transparency. I will write to her about that.

My hon. Friend talked about the separate roles of those with responsibility for listing—that is, English Heritage representatives—and those who give planning permission for listed building consent. We need to improve the professional and public understanding of those separate roles. I undertake to consider that and see what further work I can do, and I shall come back to my hon. Friend. English Heritage has the information, and I agree with my hon. Friend that in the interests of transparency it should be able to provide it.

We are in much more difficult territory in respect of the criteria for listing. At present, there is a hierarchy of criteria. The statutory criteria relate to historical and architectural interest, and, as we have said, there is no discretion on selectivity. Beneath that lies the planning policy guidance note, which we are reviewing; we will see whether we can have regard to some of the issues raised tonight. Beneath that, English Heritage has introduced selection guides, which provide the technical information demonstrating the features that need to be considered. Again, we can look at that.

However, if hon. Members wish, as they have suggested, to try to alter the statutory criteria, they will need to do so through the process of considering the Heritage Protection Bill. I have to say that that idea would be highly contentious for many other stakeholders in the heritage world. However, this conversation between parliamentarians and that world is important and needs to take place.

My hon. Friend raised the issue of separate accounting. That is pretty difficult, but I have great sympathy with the motivation for it. Why should money set aside for education facilities be used to protect heritage assets? My hon. Friend’s request is fraught with practical difficulties, but I shall have a look at it and come back to her. This debate has been really interesting. I thank hon. Members for their contributions, and I draw my comments to a close.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes past Nine o’clock.

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