Conservation Areas

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:53 am on 21 October 2009.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Gisela Stuart Gisela Stuart Labour, Birmingham, Edgbaston 10:53, 21 October 2009

I want to raise an issue concerning the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. The problem is best illustrated by explaining to the Minister the plight of residents of the Moor Pool estate in the heart of my constituency. The estate is an early example of a garden suburb. The aim was to build an estate of modern, well-built houses of various sizes, which would attract a cross-section of the community, based on co-partnership principles. At that time, Birmingham was plagued by slum dwellings, typified by the back-to-backs, which came about as the city developed rapidly as an industrial centre. John Nettlefold, the then chairman of the Birmingham housing committee, wanted to demonstrate that there was an alternative way forward, and so he turned to the principles of the garden city movement.

The Moor Pool estate was not intended to house a particular employer's work force, as was the case with Bournville and Cadbury's, but was to serve Harborne and Birmingham in general. It has 500 houses, a community hall with sports amenities, open spaces and allotments, and it has remained almost intact for more than 100 years. English Heritage has described it as

"very significant architecturally and historically", and as an "exceptional survival".

Over the years, people have bought their own properties on the estate, while others are still tenants. Indeed, some tenants are relatives of the first occupants in 1907. The estate has changed hands, too, from owners who cared for the fabric of the community and ensured that it was maintained, to the current owner, Grainger plc, which clearly does not share that approach. Grainger's annual report of 2007 is amazingly explicit about how it views estates such as Moor Pool with regulated tenancies. It says that they give

"predictable vacancies and therefore sales as our tenants get older."

It continues:

"On vacancy we sell the properties to realise both the discount (which we call reversion) and any house price inflation from the date we originally bought them. We therefore realise high margins on sale."

The report also observes that

"these properties are typically unmodernised and appeal to first-time buyers and those hoping to create value on renovation. This keeps them in demand."

For Grainger, ownership of the estate is not about maintaining a community, but about waiting until tenants die so that it can sell unrenovated properties at high margins. That is what it is doing. The results of years of neglect are there for everyone to see in the communal areas such as garages and allotments. To add insult to injury, Grainger has made a planning application to fill in with new build. Despite the coherent and united opposition of local people and their residents association, which is supported by English Heritage, the planning application for 12 houses has been granted by Birmingham city council.

Something has gone wrong. I am concerned about the future of the Moor Pool estate, about the process involved in granting the planning application, which seems to have given no regard to local opinion, and about the future of other conservation areas. The continued attempts of local residents to protect the estate seem to have failed. The estate was granted conservation area status back in 1970, and one of the first issues that I got involved in as an MP was supporting residents such as the late Ken Abbott in attempting to obtain the enhanced protection that an article 4(2) direction seemed to offer. After years of pushing Birmingham city council, the direction finally came into place in December 2006. Alas, however, the protection is limited; above all, it does not apply to new developments.

We thought that the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act might come to the rescue. Section 71(1) clearly states:

"It shall be the duty of a local planning authority from time to time to formulate and publish proposals for the preservation and enhancement of any parts of their area which are conservation areas."

That meant that Birmingham city council had a statutory obligation to produce a character appraisal, but as for the question of when this should happen, the Act tells us only that it has to be "from time to time". The character appraisal matters, because it determines how planning applications should be considered. The appraisal was particularly important in this case because of the added requirement, under the legislation, for publication and public consultation. The strength of feeling on the Moor Pool estate in opposition to the plans is palpable, and it could not have been ignored by the council if it had been expressed through the character appraisal process.

I invite the Minister to comment on the following points. The case officer who recommended approval for the building of 12 new houses in the heart of the Moor Pool estate said in his report that he noted section 71, but that the words "from time to time" indicate that an appraisal may not always be in place. He also referred to English Heritage's guidance, which states:

"Ideally, an appraisal should be prepared prior to designation; but, for many existing conservation areas, this will not have been done."

The case officer said that his planning solicitor did not therefore consider that there was an absolute duty to carry out an appraisal before conservation area designation. He went on to say that the solicitor did note, however, that planning policy guidance 15, "Planning and the Historic Environment", requires local planning authorities to set out their policies for conservation areas in their development plans. He also acknowledges that Birmingham's unitary development plan refers to character appraisals in paragraph 3.27, "Conservation Areas", which states that

"Character Appraisals and Management Plans will be prepared for all of the City's Conservation Areas."

That is clearly an ongoing process, as it is at Moor Pool, where work on the appraisal and management plan is progressing.

We have received confirmation that a commitment from Birmingham city council to prepare appraisal and management plans for all its conservation areas does exist, but I wonder how it would define the word "progressing". Is it progressing after 39 years of being a conservation area; progressing after 19 years of having had a statutory duty; or progressing three years after the application of an article 4(2) direction? What speed of progress does the council have in mind? I cannot resist recalling the opening passage of "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy", in which the Vogon constructor fleet descends on earth to destroy the planet and the commander points out to the complaining earthlings that the planning application had been available on Ursa Minor for at least 50 of their earth years.

Despite contacting both the chief executive of Birmingham city council and the leader of the council, Councillor Mike Whitby, who incidentally is one of the three local councillors representing Harborne and the Moor Pool estate, we still do not have a firm date for the character appraisal. That also raises the question of the role that local councillors can and should play in that process. Planning is and should be a local decision. With regard to the Moor Pool estate, Councillor Whitby could have argued that he did not think that it was appropriate for him to comment on a planning application, which I would have been perfectly prepared to accept. However, that argument simply does not hold, given that only six weeks ago, he found it appropriate to object to the opening of a new café bar on Harborne High street. He also chaired the Moor Pool conservation area appraisal and management plans steering group in December 2006, even though it would have been perfectly all right for it to be chaired by the head of conservation. There was therefore plenty of time and opportunity for local councillors to speed up the process and get the character appraisal done in time, but that clearly did not happen.

English Heritage also objected to the development. In its judgment, a key aspect of the estate's character was that many of the spaces were of good quality, and should be treated as an integrated system in the consideration of development proposals that affect them. In July this year, Grainger's application was approved by the council and its planning committee. Conservation area status, objections from English Heritage and overwhelming objections from the local community-none of it mattered. The builders won and the people lost.

The process also highlighted a number of what I will call stock excuses used by the planners to support property developers. The argument goes something like this: the Government have a clear policy to increase the housing supply and want to encourage the use of brownfield sites in cities. Even back gardens are defined as brownfield sites, so any local authority faced with a planning application by a developer, even if it is in a conservation area, is caught between a rock and a hard place. They have a duty to increase housing stock and so have to say yes. If it is in a conservation area, they simply describe it as permitted development. Would the Minister respond to that point, because that should not be the case? In particular, does she agree that the law could be strengthened by the following proposals: that an article 4(2) direction should apply to all aspects of properties in a conservation area, unless specifically excluded, and not just to those visible from the highway, waterways or open spaces; and that there should be a mandatory requirement for character appraisal to be completed within 12 months of the introduction of an article 4(2) direction, with only limited and defined planning applications being determined in the meantime?

The next argument I came across is as follows: while local authorities have the power to reject planning applications, it is difficult and expensive to do so. The developers appeal, eventually get their way, and the council wastes taxpayers' money by refusing in the first instance. One local councillor went even further and suggested, "If you turn too many of those down, you'd soon find yourself being personally charged for the costs." Would the Minister confirm that a councillor properly exercising his or her function when considering a planning application does not run the risk of being personally charged with the cost of an appeal? Objectors should have the same right of appeal as applicants. Planning officers and committee members make mistakes, so it is not equitable that only the applicant can appeal against the decision.

The planning application that was approved by Birmingham city council included development on, and the consequent loss of, allotment spaces, for which there is an acknowledged demand. The application was granted, despite the fact that it has no regard for the council's unitary development plan and was contrary to its cabinet decisions of 29 June, which fully supported the measures of the Sustainable Communities Act 2007, which included a concern to increase local food production by, among other measures, allowing more allotments, and that was pointed out to the planning committee at the time. Would the Minster not agree that it is perverse for a planning committee to arrive at a decision within a matter of days that is contrary to its council's own policies?

Where do we go from here for the Moor Pool estate? The residents have been failed by the council, which did not prepare a character appraisal in time, despite having more than 19 years to do so, that would have constrained a planning application. The council claims to have a clear commitment to produce character appraisals for all its conservation areas, but so far it has done so for only nine of its 28 conservation areas. The council can clearly do that quickly if it wants to, as it did with the application for Digbeth. In the case of the Moor Pool estate, it seems that even if the leader of the council himself chairs the steering group, nothing much gets done. I urge the Minster to look again at the 1990 Act. Surely it cannot be right and equitable for an Act to impose a statutory duty without being more specific about when that duty should be performed-"from time to time" is just not good enough.