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House of Lords

Thursday, 22nd January 1998.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by The Lord Bishop of Oxford.): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Redundant Farm Buildings

The Earl of Bradford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What is their policy for the productive use of redundant farm buildings.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, as part of their commitment to sustainable development, the Government encourage the reuse of existing farm buildings which cease to be needed for agriculture. Such use is subject to the controls of the planning system. Planning policy guidance advises on the circumstances when it would be appropriate to convert such buildings for other business or residential use.

The Earl of Bradford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, is she aware that PPG7, which was published in February 1997 under the previous administration, discriminates positively in favour of business rather than residential reuse? Is she further aware that very often residential reuse is the only economic proposition?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the noble Earl, Lord Bradford, is absolutely right. In February last year, PPG7 was revised in order to introduce an emphasis on commercial development because residential use does not have an impact on rural employment whereas commercial use is beneficial to the maintenance or creation of jobs. However, I should say that the guidance stresses that residential use may be acceptable if commercial use is not viable.

Baroness Nicol: My Lords, given that we are now hoping not to use too many green fields in order to house the 4.4 million extra families that we are told we shall have to house, is it not even more important that any buildings which can be made available for residential use, including farm buildings, are used in that way? Will the Government consider encouraging, for example, the Rural Development Commission to give support to residential use in the way that it does in relation to commercial use?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, it is absolutely right that the planning system needs to be responsive to the needs of people in rural areas for affordable housing. Wherever possible, we want to make sure that we make maximum use of the so-called brownfield sites. Therefore, the residential use of redundant farm

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buildings can help in that area. But it is important also that we look for the most sustainable solutions in the round. Sometimes because of problems of, for example, lack of access to transport, an isolated conversion may not be the most sustainable response. But at the end of the day, it is a matter of local circumstances and therefore for local authorities to decide.

Lord Luke: My Lords, yesterday the noble Lord, Lord Donoughue, in referring to the current difficulties facing farmers, mentioned the need for restructuring in the industry. Does that mean that medium-sized and small farms will be forced to amalgamate sooner or later? If that is the case many more farm buildings will become redundant. What plans do the Government have to deal with that?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, I know that those matters were well debated yesterday in your Lordships' House. I believe that I made clear that the reasoning behind the changes to the planning guidance was looking at the ability to diversify and reuse buildings. Grants like the redundant building grant are available through the RDC in order to make sure that, where buildings become available, they can be used to regenerate countryside.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos: My Lords, does my noble friend believe that those farm buildings with perhaps 50 to 100 acres on the Welsh uplands should be totally disregarded? Those relatively small farm buildings are extremely important to the general life of the area.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, indeed, it is important that we recognise that there is a whole variety of uses, both commercial and residential, for which we need to encourage the use of such buildings if we are to have thriving communities in the countryside.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Minister agree that a viable rural community depends upon the availability of rural employment and that a countryside populated with urban commuters will not provide either an economically viable or socially stable community? Will the Minister therefore assure us that PPG7 will remain unaltered?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, as I said in response to earlier questions, it was exactly that thinking which accounted for the revision of PPG7 and its emphasis on commercial development because research had found that in remote areas, in particular, applications for residential use predominated. Residential conversions of buildings can have minimal economic impact whereas business conversion may have a much more positive impact on local employment. As I say, I believe that there is enough flexibility in the guidance to allow for residential development when there is no possibility of economic development.

The Earl of Shrewsbury: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the listing of farm buildings often renders

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them completely useless for any other purpose? Will she say what is the Government's policy towards the listing of those buildings?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, the question of whether or not a building should be listed is a matter for the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, following recommendations from English Heritage. But PPG15 relating to planning and the historic environment gives guidance to local planning authorities on the handling of listed building consent applications and it explains that the best way of securing the upkeep of historic buildings is to keep them in active use.

Baroness David: My Lords, could I ask the Minister if the Council for National Parks has a policy about buildings which are no longer used as farm buildings? I have seen a number of excellent, strong barns in the national parks, and it is a great shame to see them in a not exactly derelict but rather an unusable state, and they would make very good houses.

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, developments in the national parks, as in areas of outstanding natural beauty and SSSIs, have particular planning constraints upon them. But I shall certainly look into the suggestion which my noble friend made and perhaps write to her on the subject.

The Earl of Courtown: My Lords, will the Minister advise local authorities that consistency of decisions in relation to planning applications would greatly help those who are putting forward planning applications?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, that is why we have the planning policy guidance in the first place. However, there is a need to have a correct balance between putting forward a national framework and allowing for the sensitivity that comes from local determination of planning applications.

Bosnia: Mine Clearance

3.10 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What progress has been made in the clearance of mines in Bosnia; and what support they are giving to this process.

Lord Whitty: My Lords, under the Dayton Agreement the responsibility for demining is that of the authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mine clearance operations are being funded by a number of international organisations and they are co-ordinated by the UN Mine Action Centre. The UK has contributed £400,000 through the EU and £280,000 bilaterally to the international effort. We have also seconded military

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personnel to assist in the establishment of the UN Mine Action Centre, and the regional demining operation in Mostar.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. Unfortunately, a good number of civilians have already been severely mutilated and maimed by these mines, including a fair number of Moslems. Are Her Majesty's Government able to offer any help, either through NGOs or through their own agencies, as regards the support and rehabilitation of some of these mine victims in Bosnia?

Lord Whitty: My Lords, clearly this is a tremendous problem. Indeed, about 50 civilians were killed and many others maimed during the last full year for which we have figures. However, there are about 1 million mines laying in the Bosnia area covering about 300 square kilometres. The process of clearing even the priority areas is very slow; only about 4.7 square kilometres have been cleared. The attention to victims is most important. We are providing assistance for the physically disabled and we supported capacity building projects with WHO and through other NGOs, such as Oxfam and the International Rescue Committee, in order to deal with the precise problems mentioned.

Baroness Strange: My Lords, can the Minister say whether any specific action has been taken about the little round, hand-sized mines which are attractive to children and which can be floated down rivers?

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