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Chartist Cottages, Dodford

Volume 931: debated on Tuesday 10 May 1977

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Tinn.]

1.7 a.m.

It is with a sense of profound relief that I am able to place before the House and the Government tonight questions arising out of the listing of six Chartist cottages at Dodford in my constituency as buildings of historic and architectural importance.

As far as I have been able to trace, the affairs of Dodford last came before the House in 1848, when the affairs of the National Land Company were the subject of examination by a committee of inquiry, and subsequently, in 1857, with the passing of Acts for the winding-up of that company, which was concerned with the purchase of an estate at Dodford for settlement by the Chartists under the leadership of Fergus O'Connor, who promoted that company and was the leader of what is known as the Chartist movement.

Dodford was the last of three settlements built to the same design. I summarise briefly. The houses comprised two bedrooms, one store room, one sitting room and one kitchen, which included a pump and a well inside the building.

I wish that I had been able to take advantage of the Minister's presence in the West Midlands today to take him to Dodford so that he could see for himself the attractions of the area and the beauty of the surroundings. I hope that he would not have been lulled into a false sense of security about the strength of character and feelings of the inhabitants of Dodford—and I can illustrate that point by remarking that it is the only area in my constituency where I have had a gun drawn on me while canvassing. I hope that the Minister will not leave the House this morning with any doubt about hte resolution of the inhabitants of these Chartist cottages.

I come more up to date. Since the war the area has become liable to redevelopment and, of course, in such a favoured area plots of four acres in extent—which is what these cottages have—have become desirable properties. A number of the plots have been bought up and the original bungalows demolished. That is hardly surprising, since the cottages were built without solid floors or foundations, despite the clay nature of the soil, and the materials from which they were built have not managed to withstand the passage of more than 100 years. Many of the cottages are now in need of substantial repair and need the provision of amenities that are now expected, such as a bathroom and, indeed, an inside lavatory.

I should at this stage make reference to a valuable publication for those who are interested in this subject. It is "From Hamlet to Parish, the Story of Dodford, Worcestershire" by Miss Winifred Bond, whom it might have been possible for the Minister to engage in conversation had he visited the area today.

Following discussion in the parish council during the autumn of 1974 the area was designated a conservation area in August 1975. It was at that time suggested by the council that certain buildings in the area might be the subject of listing. Notices to that effect were served in December 1975 on the six cottages that are the subject of this debate. As far as I can see from the records—though it has not been clearly established—they were confirmed by the Secretary of State in May 1976, despite representations that I made just before that on behalf of the occupants of the cottages and following a well-attended meeting of the parish council that unanimously opposed the listing.

It is not my purpose to go over the procedure and manner of the listing and the serving of notices by the district council. There is grave doubt about the propriety with which that was carried out and it is the subject of a reference to the Commissioner for Local Government who is considering whether a formal investigation is required. My purpose is to deal with the consequences of the listing for the residents and to raise the wider subject of how the community sees its responsibility in preserving benefits for itself at the expense of the individuals living in the listed buildings.

Of the 27 such cottages that remain substantially extant, according to Miss Bond's book, only six have been listed so there is an element of discrimination, which has been aggravated during the course of the events that I have recounted. One cottage that was in a much better state of repair and in a much more authentic condition was offered for sale to anyone interested in preserving it. It was subsequently demolished and a much larger building erected on the site. I trust that the Minister will therefore understand the vexed feelings of people who were already perturbed and troubled by the original listing that this neighbouring property should have been allowed to be demolished.

Apart from that discrimination, the occupiers of the six cottages have suffered injury because of the cost of repairs. The buildings are more than 100 years old and were built without foundations. Naturally there has been considerable settlement. When such a listed building has to be repaired, one must expect difficulties in finding replacement materials of the same type and same dimensions as those used originally.

An occupant of another cottage received an estimate following his application to install a bathroom. The estimate for repairs was more than £10,000 and the House will readily appreciate the alarm that this caused to the inhabitants of the six listed cottages.

These inhabitants also fear that there has been a loss in the value of their properties, because they have seen other properties bought for development at favourable prices and they apprehend that there may not be such favourable prices for listed buildings that are subject to all the restrictions applying to such properties.

There has never been an attempt to consult local opinion, which showed itself solidly opposed to the listing. Because of the conservation order, the inhabitants naturally supposed that the exercise of planning controls and the requirements of the order would provide adequate protection. Correspondence continued unhelpfully through the summer after I wrote to the Secretary of State in April 1976. I accompanied a delegation of residents to the Department on 29th November 1976, but it did not seem to receive a very clear reply and certainly I was unable to trace the response. Since then I have been seeking to raise this matter on the Adjournment.

I have tried to establish that these six cottagers feel that they have been the subject of discrimination. They feel that they have been most unjustly treated, that there was no consultation, and that adequate powers exist under the conservation order and the existing planning control, and they wish that the Secretary of State would reconsider the possibility of removing these orders.

There has been some discussion whether the Secretary of State has power to lift an order. As far as I can trace in the legislation, there is no question of there being a prohibition on the lifting of an order, and there are some grounds for supposing that the power to do so does exist, because the Secretary of State is able to give his consent to the demolition of a listed building. That would lead one to suppose that the listing order was lifted before the consent to demolish was given.

To alleviate the lively and real apprehensions of my constituents, I ask the Minister to give some indication how that situation is viewed and to say whether, in particular, he is able to substantiate the suggestion that has been made by the district council in writing that he would consider favourably an application for demolition if it could be shown that restoration was an uneconomic or impracticable proposition. That has never been substantiated to the satisfaction or the relief of my constituents.

I should like the Minister to address himself to the wider question whether it is appropriate that when such buildings are listed and preserved for the wider benefit of the community the entire cost and consequences of such a listing should fall solely on the shoulders of the occupants of the cottages.

I might at this stage perhaps mention that in two of the cases those concerned are direct descendants of the original inhabitants, and therefore they have preserved unbroken the link going back to the very beginning of this enterprise which, as I said, was last brought to the attention of the House in 1857.

1.18 a.m.

I am indebted to the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) for bringing these events before the House. There is another link between us in this matter, in that not only did we both go to the West Midlands today, the hon. Gentleman to his constituency and I to Coventry, but the Chartists had a great deal to do in the area that I represent. Indeed, the great Chartist poet, Ernest Jones, was buried in what eventually became the playing fields of the school at which I taught.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman is not too disposed to suggest that a few people have been selected for arbitrary and callous treatment by a local authority and departmental machine. I want to take the opportunity to demonstrate to the hon. Gentleman that in its actions my Department has been carrying out the wishes of the House in the proposals made for listing.

Under Section 54 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, the Secretary of State has a duty to compile a list of buildings of special architectural or historic interest. The purpose of this list is to offer guidance to local authorities in framing their planning policies and development plans. Effectively, the list indicates those buildings whose future should be carefully and formally weighed if there is ever a question whether they should be demolished or changed in any major way.

My right hon. Friend and his predecessors have had this responsibility since 1947, and the whole country has been surveyed once to produce a statutory list of buildings of special interest for each local authority area

In deciding what criteria should be followed in the selection of buildings for listing, my right hon. Friend is required to take appropriate advice, and in practice he looks to the Historic Buildings Council, his statutory adviser on the matter, to provide this. It recommends the criteria, which have been accepted and published, and which are followed by the Department's professional investigators in selecting the buildings to be listed.

The first survey was completed in 1968, but, reflecting the public's growing concern for the numbers of familiar buildings that were being destroyed and the revised assessments of what was accepted as architecturally or historically important, the Historic Buildings Council recommended that the listing criteria should be brought into line with current standards. Its advice was accepted, and at present the statutory lists are being systematically revised. About one-third of the local authority area lists are now up to date. The full revision programme is expected to take another 10 to 15 years to complete.

In the usual way an investigator from the Department will visit an area that is to be resurveyed, get what information he can from the local authority and local amenity groups, and then assess the buildings in accordance with the accepted criteria. He will usually be able to assess the building externally and will not need to go inside or trouble the owner.

If, following his advice, it is concluded that a building is of special architectural or historic merit—and my right hon. Friend can take account only of those two factors—it will be included in the revised list and published in due course.

I should like to emphasise here at this stage only the building's architectural or historic merit is in question. The condition of the building, the means of its owner, and the qeustion whether it is in the way of a proposed redevelopment, are not relevant to the decision whether it should be included in the list, although, of course, factors like these could be highly relevant if there were to be a subsequent proposal to demolish or change the building.

This is the way buildings are usually included in the statutory lists, and the greater part of the 15,000 or so buildings which are now being added to the lists each year are dealt with in this way. The resurvey is a slow process, however, and the Department relies on the help of local authorities and others to let it know about buildings which may be of architectural or historic merit in areas which may not be resurveyed for some time.

Where a building is threatened with demolition, or an urgent assessment of its area or historic merit is requested, the Department of the Environment operates an emergency listing process. Here an urgent assessment can be made of a building, and if it merits inclusion in the lists it is quickly added and the local authority is informed at once and asked, as the law requires, to inform the owner that his building has been listed.

The Department also sends an informal letter to the occupier telling him or her of the listing. Many of these emergency or spot listings are in response to requests from local authorities who ask that buildings that have been recommended for listing in the normal resurvey process should be formally listed in advance of the publication of the complete list.

The other broad way in which buildings are listed, and the one that was used for the Chartist cottages at Dodford, in the hon. Member's constituency, is by means of a building preservation notice. All local planning authorities may issue such a notice in respect of a threatened building not included in the list. The effect of this notice is to give the building the same protection afforded by normal listing—it cannot be demolished or altered significantly without listed building consent. The notice is effective for six months, enabling my right hon. Friend to decide within that time whether or not he should include the building in the list.

It is perhaps necessary to mention here one other way in which buildings can be afforded the same protection as if they were listed buildings. Under the Town and Country Amenity Act 1974 unlisted buildings in designated conservation areas cannot be demolished or significantly altered without formal listed building consent.

The designation of a conservation area itself has, therefore, much the same effect as if all the buildings within the bounds of the conservation area were listed. The cottages at Dodford are within the Dodford conservation area and, indeed, form its nucleus.

In March 1976 the Bromsgrove District Council served building preservation notices on the owners and occupiers of six of the Chartist cottages in Dodford and asked my right hon. Friend to consider the buildings for inclusion in the statutory list.

The cottages form part of a settlement designed by the social reformer Fergus O'Connor as part of his scheme within the Chartist movement to settle working men on smallholdings. They thus form an extremely interesting and early attempt at social reform, particularly related to the depressed conditions of the latter 1840s, and my right hon. Friend concluded that they should be listed as being buildings of special historic interest, so the six cottages were included in the list on 12th May 1976.

I appreciate the hon. Member's concern for the fears of the occupiers when the building preservation notices were served. I can assure him and those concerned that the inclusion of their cottages in the statutory list does not itself mean that they must be preserved as they are now for all time, or that they cannot be adapted to meet modern living standards. The inclusion in the lists—and the same considerations apply to the remainder of the unlisted cottages in the conservation area—is a penalty only if the hon. Member insists on regarding it as a penalty, in that proposals to demolish or change the cottages in any significant way will require formal listed building consent. The local authority will usually be able to decide whether alterations can be permitted.

I might here say that this control does not extend to alterations made before the date of the issuing. Proposals to demolish a listed building have to be submitted to the local authority, which must advertise the application and notify the four national amenity societies concerned with historic buildings. If the local authority is minded to grant the application to demolish the building, it must inform my right hon. Friend, who may, if he so decides, call in the application and decide it himself—usually after a public inquiry.

The hon. Member may have in mind, in his conception of penalties, the powers available to the local authorities and to the Department to take action against the owner of a listed building who, as sometimes happens, deliberately neglects it and allows it to deteriorate. Section 101 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 empowers a local authority to effect emergency repairs on an unoccupied listed building and to recover the costs from the owner. Section 115 of that Act enables a local authority to issue a repairs notice to the owner of a listed building. This notice must specify the repairs that are needed to maintain the building. If the repairs are not effected within a period of two months, the local authority can compulsorily acquire the building at its existing use value.

The owners of the Chartist cottages, however, need have no inordinate fear of the use of these powers. They have been used sparingly in the past and are usually revoked only when a building falls into extremely bad repair, such as might make the collapse of the building an immiment possibility. They are not likely to be used merely to ensure routine maintenance, and there is no intention that they should be considered as an immediate consequence of listing a building.

I hope that from this the hon. Gentleman will be able to convince his constituents that they are worrying unneecessarily about the effects of the listing. I think that he will know that a senior officer of the Department has visited some of the owners concerned and has discussed their fears with the chief executive of Bromsgrove District Council. The chief executive has undertaken, as far as he is able, to ensure that the district council adopts a sympathetic and helpful attitude to the occupiers of the cottages. I note that the hon. Gentleman has asked the Ombudsman, the Commissioner for Local Government, to investigate the local council's action.

The hon. Member also suggested that the Government, having listed the buildings, should make some financial contribution to help bring them up to the required standard. The Government do indeed help with grants for repairs to outstanding historic houses and towards projects undertaken to present and enhance the character of outstanding conservation areas. We expect to allocate, in grants this year, overe £4 million in this way, and a small amount has been allocated on the recommendation of the Historic Building Council to projects in the non-outstanding conservation areas. Local authorities may also make discretionary grants for the repair and maintenance of historic buildings under the Local Authorities (Historic Buildings) Act 1962.

But this country has a rich architectural heritage, and the available money usually goes to the most outstanding projects. Central and local government expenditure is currently under scrutiny, but in the best of times it would not be feasible or appropriate to assist each and every owner of the nearly 250,000 buildings listed in this way.

The hon. Gentleman is under a misapprehension if he considers that the inclusion of a building in the statutory list means that money must immediately be spent on bringing it up to some specified standard. Where the listed buildings are modest dwellings, as at Dodford, it would be quite unreasonable to expect standards greater than their occupants would strive towards if they were not living in listed buildings. The listing itself puts a marker on a building and asks that the owner, local authority and central Government treat its claim to survive with care. It does not mean that it should take on the attributes of an ideal home or showplace.

I shall examine the point made by the hon. Gentleman about improvement grants and the heavy demands that have been made by the local authority.

The hon. Gentleman referred to a deputation that he brought to the Department at the end of November, to which there had been no reply. I understand that on 13th December my noble Friend Baroness Birk wrote a detailed reply to the petition that was presented on that occasion. I shall certainly send him a copy of that letter of several months ago.

As I indicated earlier, I am glad of this opportunity to deal with several apparent misconceptions about the way that buildings are selected for listing and why we list them. This country has a good record in conserving its historic buildings, and an adequate inventory is a basic element in helping us to conserve them. I trust the cottagers at Dodford can in future regard their historic houses as rather more than an oppressive burden.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes to Two o'clock.