Amendment 243

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:30 pm on 20 April 2023.

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Photo of Baroness Andrews Baroness Andrews Chair, Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee, Chair, Common Frameworks Scrutiny Committee 3:30, 20 April 2023

My Lords, this is an important group of amendments, and I have great pleasure in supporting them all. I have two amendments in my name, which reflect a particular interest that the Victorian Society has in the demolition of non-listed buildings. I am very grateful to the Victorian Society for marshalling support for these amendments. I would also say that these are amendments that sit the heart of the Levelling-Up and Regeneration Bill, and they follow present practice, to which I will draw attention. I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Shipley and Lord Carrington, for their stamina in being here to support these amendments. I will try to be brief.

My amendments address a serial, long-standing failure to protect the historic built environment that gives the ordinary places we live character, memory and beauty through familiar structures. Nationally protected buildings are, as we know, protected if they are listed. They are secured by law, but the demolition of most buildings is permitted without planning permission if they are not listed or in a conservation area, even if they are in good condition and have potential new uses. This has been happening, as recorded by the Victorian Society, across the country, and the problem is that because of the historic underlisting of important buildings that Historic England identifies through the Saunders report. Buildings that are potentially listable and not on the list can be demolished.

Permitted development is exactly what it says: the ability to demolish or change a structure with none of the protections or local involvement that the planning system provides. It has been an unwelcome flood that has been extended in recent years, which brings unpredictability and perverse consequences. It is well overdue for a review, and I ask the Minister to consider very seriously whether he and his colleagues can put that into practice now.

The changes that PDR promotes, together with what the noble Lord previously implied—the hollowing out of planning departments and the loss of conservation specialists—means that our villages, small towns and cities are at greater risk than they have been for some time. The risk is from cumulative change as well as casual change, and it is irreversible. Locally listed buildings—a very small number in relation to the whole—are now particularly vulnerable. My two amendments focus on these groups.

Amendment 312G would remove permitted development rights for all demolition. It would allow for public consultation and would protect all non-designated heritage assets. Amendment 312H focuses on the local listing of buildings. It removes permitted demolition rights for locally listed assets and protects non-designated heritage assets that are on a local planning authority’s local list. This is long overdue. We also suggest that the Secretary of State could provide further clarity by setting out a definition of what qualifies as a local list following consultation.

These amendments are timely and would re-engage local communities. They would be extremely welcome, and I offer them as a gift to the Government, who are now in an election year. They are timely. Is it not better to save our historic assets that are still safe, habitable and useful than to pull them down? Increasingly, this is how people feel. In recent years, when so much in the country has shifted around us, we have come increasingly to value the quality and resonance of our local environment. This intensified during the pandemic.

When I was heavily involved with the Heritage Lottery Fund, we funded a great deal of locally inspired small projects within 15 minutes of the places where people live. We had a tremendous response. It drew out of local communities the things that they felt were really important to them. It is clear that keeping and repurposing historic buildings—schools, surgeries, churches, cinemas, factories, mills—is seen as an infinitely better alternative and one within reach. They retain character and diversity and inspire unique pride across the generations. We have lost so much, and we will lose more unless we stop and pause.

Once something is gone, whether it is the Euston Arch or a local cinema, we cannot recover it. At a time of so much instability in the high street and excessive office building, surely the time has come to rethink and repurpose for what people need today, whether that is childcare centres or marketplaces.

The second argument for timeliness has been used across this Bill for many days: climate change. Demolition wastes energy and demands more. We are now in the final lengths if we are to avoid the tipping point of global temperature—1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels—but our preparations are, to reflect what our Climate Change Committee has said, pitifully inadequate. It is not enough to build new houses to net-zero standards, even if we were doing that. The demolition and reconstruction of buildings is a huge expense that brings a direct increase in emissions; up to 51% of a residential building’s carbon is emitted before the building is operational, and for an office building it is up to 35%.

It is particularly perverse—this bears on the argument that we have been having on the conservation of buildings for many years—that the VAT rules incentivise demolition. There is no VAT on demolition, but there is 20% VAT on repair and maintenance. It makes no sense. If that were reversed, it would help us meet our net-zero target. What could possibly be wrong with that?

The second argument is simply democratic. Demolition is the nuclear option, yet one in which the local community has no say. By bringing demolition of all non-designated assets as well as those that are locally listed into planning disciplines, the local authority and the local community would finally have some influence and be able to follow through. This seems to be reasonable and right. I simply say to those who argue that this is impractical, would give too much power to local people and set back development that my first amendment would not prevent demolition; it would just have to be considered on its own merits. It brings a benefit with it because in most cases it would be logical to make an application for demolition alongside the application for the new building, which would enable the site to be considered strategically as a whole. A de minimis right would remain regarding small structures so that planning permission would not be required for demolition.

These arguments apply to both my amendments, but apply to the second with specific force. It is self-evident that buildings which are locally listed have a particular character and meaning for the local community. They are a clear guide to what is significant and enable local decisions to reflect that. That is the only protection they have. However, blanket PDRs exclude them. The buildings on the local list can be demolished without planning permission if they are not in a conservation area. A local community hall at the heart of a community, but not in a conservation area, can be demolished without challenge.

At present, the only option for saving a locally listed building is to use the cumbersome procedure of an Article 4 direction, which is a real hassle. It does not get used because the time and people are not there and it is too expensive. Anyway, not all local authorities have local lists, as the Government have recognised by putting £1.5 million into improving their coverage and consistency. My second amendment in this group would put protections around these most significant and well-loved local buildings, which are often better known than national monuments. That would be the first step, but the Government could strengthen this by issuing guidance on the criteria that those local lists would have to meet to be excluded from PDRs.

These amendments have been carefully thought out and prepared. They have the support of the Heritage Alliance, which represents a wide constituency of heritage bodies, and are entirely consistent with the published advice issued by Historic England. Even more persuasively, they are completely consistent with the spirit of this Bill and the principles and practice of the levelling-up agenda. I welcome that the role of heritage in promoting the levelling-up agenda has been recognised in the partnerships between government and the heritage bodies that are working to conserve and develop historic assets and the environment around the country, particularly in poor areas. Government figures show that £594 million—a terrific amount of money—of the £2.1 billion from the second round of the levelling-up fund has been awarded to local projects to restore local heritage.

These amendments serve that purpose. There are beautiful and resourceful historic buildings in every community in the country, no matter how different they are, which reflect the history of those communities and can be put to work for another generation whose needs are different. I commend the amendments to the Minister and hope that he will take their point.