Amendment 243

Part of Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill - Committee (10th Day) – in the House of Lords at 3:45 pm on 20 April 2023.

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Photo of Lord Carrington of Fulham Lord Carrington of Fulham Conservative 3:45, 20 April 2023

My Lords, I rise to support the amendments that were so ably addressed and presented by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews. These are important amendments because the demolition of historic building is a very long-standing problem. I do not want to go through all the arguments that the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, ably set out in her speech; I want to consider some slightly different issues which these amendments would help to address.

Part of the long-standing problem is that historic buildings are not properly protected by either our planning or listing systems. This is partly because fashions change, partly because of prejudice and partly purely because the legislation does not keep up with the need to protect buildings as they become old and more vulnerable. It is an old problem. Those of us who go back a few years—I ought to say that I have been a member of the Victorian Society since I was a teenager, which some of you will be surprised to hear was one or two years ago—will remember the Firestone factory, which was expected to be listed as a great Art Deco building. It was knocked down overnight—indeed, it was severely damaged to ensure that it could not be repaired—to stop it being listed. The Firestone building was not alone. Those of you who remember the last 20 or 25 years will recall Kensington Town Hall in Kensington High Street. Outrageously, the local council, whose politics I strongly agree with, knocked down the façade of the old town hall overnight to stop it being listed. Neither of these buildings would necessarily have been a great priority for listing, but they were certainly well worth protecting.

Another problem is that the listing regime has a bias, as the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, has said, against buildings which are post-1850. This means that if a building is prior to 1850, it is very likely to be listed; if it is after 1850, it is less likely to be listed. I just have to tell you the names of some of the architects whose careers were entirely after 1850: think of the very great Richard Norman Shaw, Charles Voysey, Edwin Lutyens and Giles Gilbert Scott, who rebuilt the new Chamber of the other place down the corridor. These days, all their buildings would probably be listed.

Of course, architecture was not only great architects. Often, the great architect would put up a design, maybe even publish the design, and other architects would then take on that design and build buildings which perhaps did not have the genius of a Richard Norman Shaw but possibly had the style of one. These days, English Heritage would almost certainly consider them to be derivative and therefore not worthy of protection. It is a very serious problem.

Having slightly defined one bit of the problem, I want to come on to why developers use the permitted development rights to knock down buildings. If a developer is buying a building, he is buying it almost in every case to build another building on the site, unless he is trying to extend his garden. If a developer rushes in to knock down what was there before, before getting planning permission to build what they are going to replace it with, there is a reason for doing that. One reason may be, as with the Kensington Town Hall and the Firestone tyre factory, that they thought it might be listed. The other reason is that it is much more difficult for a planning committee of a local authority to refuse planning permission to an empty site than it is to a site that already has a perfectly usable building on it, so they will knock it down. There is a third reason, the one raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, concerning VAT—they may feel that there is an incentive to get on with the work because of the VAT and the cash elements in it, but, frankly, that is minor compared with the other two.

So there is an issue here which needs to be addressed. There is no reason why developers should not be required, at the time they put in their planning application to rebuild on a site, to put in a similar, parallel application to demolish. I am not saying that every building should be protected; that would be nonsense—there are a lot of buildings which, quite frankly, could easily be replaced with better buildings. What I am saying, and I believe this is also what the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews, was saying, is that we need to think about it. We need to look at the building that is there and say, “Is this a building that could better be used by being refurbished and keeping the character of the town or street preserved?”.

Those of us who have travelled, as I am sure all of us have, around Europe will be well aware of the beauty of towns in France, Germany or wherever, where the character of the town has been preserved to look as though it evolved gently over time to reflect the character of the people. Too often, our towns and high streets are a higgledy-piggledy collection of some fine buildings, some meritorious buildings, some rather dull buildings and some buildings that look as though they were designed and built purely with the idea of keeping the costs down but with no real element of design. We need to bring this to an end: we need to stop developers’ profits determining what it is that our towns, villages and high streets look like—we need to ensure that more thought goes into it.

I think these amendments go a long way to achieving that. The problem I have with them is that some of the worst offenders in knocking down buildings are local authorities themselves. Sadly, local authorities will police their own planning committees, and consequently if they want to do something for whatever reason and there is a building in the way, they will give themselves planning permission to knock it down and rebuild when they probably should not. I do not know how we get round that, but it is a problem and has been a problem in London for some time, where civic buildings in particular have been knocked down outrageously because the town hall decided that what it really wanted to do was build a monument to the current councillors. That is something which we need to address and these amendments do not address it, but they are a movement along the way.

It has also been suggested that it would be sensible for these amendments to have timelines in them. The suggestion has been twofold. One is that the time should be 1948, so we would not remove permitted development rights from buildings built after 1948. I would oppose that. As much as I like Victorian and early 20th-century buildings, some very fine buildings built after 1948 are vulnerable too. The other suggestion is that the timeline should be based on 1850, which, frankly, is a nonsense for the reasons I have already given. Therefore I strongly support these amendments.

However, I will end by giving the House the apologies of my noble friend Lord Cormack, who could not be here to move his own Amendment 247B, which is in this group of amendments and which gives protection to statues and monuments; it is not confined just to buildings. My understanding is that this is largely already covered in existing legislation. The removal of statues from listed buildings would clearly require planning permission. There is a degree of protection but I am unclear as to quite how much, and I would greatly appreciate it if my noble friend the Minister could elucidate exactly what is possible.

There is also an issue around the desecration of statues, which has become rather fashionable, from writing graffiti on the statue of Winston Churchill in Parliament Square to putting funny hats on the statue of Disraeli in Liverpool—I rather suspect he would have found that rather amusing and would have enjoyed it, provided that the hat was decorative and fun and fell in with his zeitgeist. I am not sure that statutes are protected from being defaced, and I would be grateful if my noble friend the Minister could comment on that as well.

Other than that, I strongly support these amendments. I hope that they will be acceptable to the Government and to the House, and I look forward to our heritage, our streetscapes and our towns being better protected as places of beauty, history and community than they are at present.