Conservation Areas

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 11:07 am on 21 October 2009.

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Photo of Barbara Follett Barbara Follett Minister of State (the East of England), Regional Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (the East of England), Department for Communities and Local Government 11:07, 21 October 2009

I congratulate my hon. Friend Ms Stuart on securing the debate. The historic environment is a very important subject indeed, and one that is at the heart of the Government's planning policy. I also commend her for the active interest she takes in the historic environment within her constituency, particularly with regard to the Moor Pool estate. It is, as she rightly says, an early example of that peculiarly 20th-century manifestation, garden suburbs, which can be extremely charming and deserve to be conserved.

As she will know, I cannot comment on the specific problems that the residents of the Moor Pool estate are having with Birmingham city council. Individual and specific planning issues, such as the one she has described extremely well and so forensically today, are a matter for local government rather than national Government. I believe that that is right, because accountability for planning decisions must rest at the local level-in other words, with the council that takes the planning decisions. That accountability is exercised through the ballot box, and it is right that it is exercised through the local rather than the national ballot box. In other words, people have to live with the consequences of their decisions locally.

However, I can give my hon. Friend the legal context within which Birmingham city council must operate when making those decisions, which is a matter for national Government. As she will know, that context is changing. On 24 July this year the Government issued a consultation paper on our new planning policy statement for the historical environment, and I urge her to submit as part of that consultation the points she has so ably made today. Her points about timing are absolutely crucial: one can have a duty, but if it does not have to be exercised for 39 or perhaps even 49 years, what is the point of it?

The new planning policy statement is designed to replace the present PPG15 on this subject, and also PPG16 on archaeology and planning. As those policy guidance documents were first issued in 1994 and 1991 respectively, the importance of the consultation on the Government's first new policy statement for 15 years cannot be overstated. My hon. Friend's Adjournment debate is consequently very timely.

As my hon. Friend knows, the main legislative measures for protecting conservation areas are set out in primary legislation, some of which she mentioned. Under that suite of legislation, local planning authorities have a duty to determine which of their areas have architectural or historic interest, to designate them as conservation areas, to formulate and publish proposals for their enhancement and preservation and, most importantly-going back to local accountability-to put proposals to the public whom they serve so that their views can be taken into account.

There are other measures which, for the sake of brevity, I shall skip over-I know that my hon. Friend is aware of them. Taken together, they include not inconsiderable obligations and ensure that a mechanism for protecting conservation areas is in place.

My hon. Friend accurately raised concerns about the progress being made on character and management appraisals-in this case, by Birmingham city council. They must be raised and dealt with locally, but they could also go into the consultation on the new measures that the Government are in the process of putting forward. Again, I shall glide over some of the extra stuff in my brief.

There are more than 9,000 conservation areas in England. They contain a wide range of buildings and places of architectural or historic interest. Again, it is very much a matter for local decision making which areas should be designated as having special interest, and how best they should be preserved and conserved, particularly as there are as many as 9,000.