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Thatched Roofs (Planning Policy)

Volume 475: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2008

I welcome this opportunity to raise the problems faced by many owners of thatched cottages and houses when the time comes to renew their roofs and they apply for planning consent. There are a number of players in the game: the home owners themselves, the thatchers who do the work and the farmers who grow the straw. The planners and English Heritage are the referees, and the man who makes the rules is the Planning Minister, whom I welcome to the debate. There are also many spectators: the visitors to and fellow residents of the many traditional villages in this country with thatched cottages, of which there are many in my constituency. They form part of our cultural heritage—a heritage threatened by the very rules designed to safeguard it.

Thatched roofs need to be replaced every 15 or 20 years. Until the last part of the 20th century, the choice of style and material for replacement was left to the owner and thatcher. Replacement was evolutionary, reflecting the availability of materials and the thatcher’s craft and style. In the past 20 years, intervention and control have begun to halt that evolutionary process. The balance must now be shifted away from conservationists, who have tried to freeze-frame the process, and back to owners and thatchers.

English Heritage now insists on a policy of like for like in materials and thatching styles for listed building consent. A cottage thatched with traditional long straw must be re-thatched with traditional long straw. However, that straw is becoming scarce due to changing farming practices. The problem is now critical as a result of the poor harvest last year. Re-thatching with any straw—whether long straw or combed wheat reed, as in Hampshire—is impossible, because there is none.

Farmers can increase their crop yield by replacing cereal straw for thatching with other crops. The rising price of wheat makes that shift yet more imperative. English Heritage seems reluctant to recognise the changing trends in cereal farming and will not accept alternative thatching materials, which are indistinguishable from traditional materials to most of us and last much longer. Its so-called guidance containing the like-for-like policy is being slavishly followed by planning officers.

My interest derives from a lady outside Andover who wrote to me thus:

“Dear Sir George,

As you are a highly respected MP with a good reputation for trouble-shooting, we are hoping you may be able to assist our somewhat desperate situation.”

I shall précis the next bit of the letter, but I wanted to read that first bit out in full. The lady’s home had been re-thatched in 1992. She applied to have it re-thatched again with combed wheat instead of long straw, as she was simply unable to get long straw. Planning permission was refused, although two years before, she had received listed building consent to re-do the adjacent barn in combed wheat, and other nearby properties, including listed buildings, use combed wheat. She continues:

“It would seem the decision of English Heritage to dictate that long straw must remain is ill-timed since there is none available at all this year… All we ask is permission to preserve our home in this way, since the availability of any long straw is impossible to obtain. We have lived here 25 years and now we see how the dips and gullies are appearing all too soon. Combed wheat straw is a far more durable method than traditional style, and English Heritage should be proud to see that there are some of us who fight for this way forward.”

The English Heritage guidance reflects the Government’s planning policy guidance note 15, which was published in 1994. I quote from paragraph C.29:

“Thatched roofs should be preserved, and consent should not be given for their replacement by different roof coverings… When roofs are re-thatched, this should normally be done in a form of thatch traditional to the region”.

However, Hampshire must now import its traditional thatch from Poland, leaving a substantial carbon footprint. Locally grown alternatives, such as water reed, are forbidden.

Shortly after the guidance was issued by English Heritage, it was challenged, not just by thatchers, who rightly argued that theirs was a dynamic and living craft that should reflect the availability of local materials, but in an article in The Building Conservation Directory:

“This issue has been made more complex by the imminent removal of the only two wheat varieties suitable for thatching and remaining on the UK National seed varieties list. It is illegal to trade and plant any seeds not on the current National list; to overcome the problem growers have been planting Triticale for both combed wheat reed and long straw thatching. This is a cross between wheat and rye. It has the advantage of being less susceptible to some of the climatic problems that have caused the poor harvest of other forms of wheat straw in the past two seasons. Many thatchers are now using it for combed wheat reed and the long straw style of thatching. On the roof, it is indistinguishable from the latter.”

The article reported on the national conference on thatching organised by English Heritage in 1999:

“English Heritage speakers acknowledged that, with poor harvest of thatching straw in recent years, many householders are turning to the traditionally more expensive water reed, principally because it has a reputation for longevity.”

I understand that it lasts twice as long as long straw. It was used in Scotland in the late 19th century, and it has been used widely for thatching in the past two decades.

An article in The Observer in March made the point well:

“Prices for home grown specialist straw have doubled in the past year and 2007 stocks are already used up. Foreign growers are unable to make up the shortfall because they have also suffered a disastrous year.”

The article quoted Bob West, a spokesman for the National Society of Master Thatchers:

“Within five years there will be no wheat straw left for thatching”.

Thatchers complain that some conservation officers have clamped down on alternatives, insisting that only traditional materials be used on listed buildings. In one case, officials allegedly ordered the home-grown substitute to be taken off the roof of an ancient barn in Sussex and replaced with Polish cereal straw. Typically, officials decree that roofs must be repaired with exactly the same materials as before.

There are signs in the appeal decisions that go to the Department for Communities and Local Government that planning officers’ excessive zeal is being tempered. In an appeal against a decision in west Dorset, the inspector said:

“I have already considered the possible differences in appearance created between water reed and wheat reed. Overall, I feel these would be small and from most viewpoints would be insignificant. The importance of retaining traditional forms of thatching must be tempered by the availability of good quality material. Local thatchers have confirmed that good crops of wheat reed are rare”.

My right hon. Friend might be aware that I was involved in that case and have been fighting a battle against English Heritage on the matter for some years. As always, he has been enormously tempered and sagacious in his observations, but does he agree that underneath it all, what we are actually facing is “Yes Minister”?

There is a patent absurdity in regulators trying to regulate the invisible. Nobody in west Dorset can see the difference between the two. My constituents observe that, in some cases, English Heritage backs the replacement of old farm buildings with modern monstrosities that no one wants to buy on the grounds that they are an interesting development, but then prevent others, as my right hon. Friend rightly says, from using home-grown materials to achieve a perfectly acceptable effect. Is it not an example in fact of regulation gone mad? Is not what we really require from the Department simply a sense of humour?

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his support, and I commend him for his efforts on behalf of his constituents. I agree: if ever there was an area ripe for deregulation, it is this one. I hope that the Better Regulation Commission will be invited to consider the thatching regime with a view to deregulating it.

In other decisions, inspectors have given weight to the quality and lifespan of water reed, but only after the appellant has gone to the expense of appeal. The flexibility should appear right at the beginning of the process: upstream with planning officers, not downstream with inspectors.

Another appeal is outstanding against the decision of South Cambridgeshire district council. I do not expect the Minister to comment on that, but I raise it as an example. In 2004, an appeal was lost to change the style of thatching from long straw to combed wheat reed. The property was then re-thatched in the long straw style using triticale, but the council have now imposed an enforcement notice specifically prohibiting any re-thatching using triticale.

I gave those examples to demonstrate that the current policy is inflexible, as my right hon. Friend said, unsustainable and in urgent need of review. As he pointed out, this area is crying out for deregulation. All the owners whom I have met and spoken to are passionate about doing the right thing for their property. They want to live in thatched cottages and maintain their value and historical integrity. They have taken advice from experienced thatchers who know their trade. They want a cost-effective and sustainable solution to the problem of roof replacement, but they find obstacle after obstacle placed in their path.

I have also spoken to thatchers, including one from Andover who told me this morning that a lack of good quality straw—long straw and combed wheat—due to bad harvests last year means that homeowners cannot replace their roof with the same material. Planning officers are not being flexible either with new builds or listed buildings needing repair, and English Heritage does not seem to accept newer, more robust cereals for thatching even though they might save the homeowner money in the long run. That restricts the types of material available to the industry. Indeed, some thatchers might go out of business because, although the work is available, the necessary materials are not, so they might not survive.

I want three things out of this debate, if the Minister is to emerge as the hero, which I confidently expect that he will. First, I would welcome a meeting with myself and representatives of thatchers, such as the National Society of Master Thatchers, so that they can explain to the Minister and officials with more eloquence than I can muster this morning both the problems and the solutions. I should also like English Heritage to be present at the meeting, because its role is critical.

Secondly, I would welcome an indication from the Minister that he is prepared to revise the section of PPG15 that I read out, which is now some 14 years old, with a view to replacing it with something more sustainable that takes account of available materials and is much more flexible. I hope that he will encourage English Heritage to do the same, because we need a policy that reflects the changes in agriculture and the dynamic nature of thatching. Thirdly, I should like the Minister to urge planners to be more flexible as from today and to listen to the advice that they receive from experienced thatchers in how they deal with applications and to recognise that, as resources, climate and economic conditions change, what was last placed on the roof might not be the most appropriate for the next generation.

Although I am a Conservative, I have never been called a Thatcherite. However, today, I find myself wholly aligned with those craftsmen and women, and I hope that the Minister can bring comfort to them and to the home owners on whose behalf I have spoken.

The right hon. Gentleman was Lady Thatcher’s Housing Minister; I did not realise that the post had had such a great effect on him.

I never thought that I would stand in this Chamber and celebrate the work of thatchers, but on this occasion I am very pleased to do so. I am pleased, and find it interesting, that you are presiding over the debate, Mr. Bayley, because you represent a beautiful constituency in York with real architectural gems. I am genuinely pleased that the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir George Young) secured this debate. He and I have only just finished the Housing and Regeneration Public Bill Committee, where my respect for him grew by the day, not only because of his huge housing experience, to which you have referred, Mr. Bayley, but because, frankly, he had the uncanny knack of simultaneously praising me and pulverising my argument. He has deployed the same skills today in raising the important matter of the current shortages and subsequent rising prices of cereal straw suitable for thatching, and related planning policies.

This issue affects a significant number of people. Some 24,000 thatched buildings are listed, and countless others are unlisted but located in conservation areas where local policies may impose restrictions on the materials used for re-thatching. The key theme of this debate was brought out by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin)—the sensible and humorous exercise of planning controls. The Government attach great importance to the protection of the historic environment. Buildings are listed because of their special architectural or historic interest. Once lost, they cannot be replaced, and they can be robbed of their special interest as surely by unsuitable alteration as by outright demolition. They are a finite resource and an irreplaceable asset, and I think that we have a responsibility to protect such gems for future generations—something that you will know only too well, Mr. Bayley, with your constituency of City of York.

The starting point for the exercise of listed building control is the statutory requirement on local planning authorities, under section 16 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990, to have

“special regard to the desirability of preserving the building or its setting or any features of special architectural or historic interest which it possesses.”

That reflects the great importance to society of protecting listed buildings from unsuitable and insensitive alteration, and it should be the main consideration for local authorities in determining applications for consent.

As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has mentioned, guidance on the operation of the planning controls, insofar as they affect the historic environment, is given to local authorities in PPG15, published in 1994, which states:

“There should be a general presumption in favour of the preservation of listed buildings, except where a convincing case can be made out...for alteration or demolition.”

Again, as he has said, specific guidance on alterations to listed buildings, prepared by English Heritage, is annexed to PPG15. It makes the point that each historic building has its own characteristics usually related to an original or subsequent function, and that these should as far as possible be respected when proposals for alterations are put forward.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman quoted the following piece of guidance on thatched roofs, but I want to reiterate it, because I take a slightly different subjective view:

“Thatched roofs should be preserved, and consent should not be given for their replacement by different roof coverings… When roofs are re-thatched, this should normally be done in a form of thatch traditional to the region, and local ways of detailing eaves, ridges and verges should be followed.”

The words, “should normally be done” represent an important consideration, to which I shall return.

In addition to that annexe to PPG15, English Heritage has produced a detailed guidance note specifically dealing with thatch and thatching. It describes the three thatch types commonly found today—water reed, combed wheat reed and long straw—and makes the point that the material, in the form in which it reaches the roof, has a strong influence on the method and resulting appearance. The guidance note advises that, when a change of material or style is proposed, the onus should be on the applicant for listed building consent to explain the need for change. In turn, the local authority’s policy should be based on a thorough knowledge of local traditions of thatching. The policy should aim to recognise regional diversity, sustain materials and techniques, conserve the character of an area and protect material of archaeological interest.

That is the important background against which planning authorities exercise listed building control. I stress that it is for local authorities to take account of the available guidance but, ultimately, to consider and reach a decision based on the specific circumstances of each case. As the right hon. Gentlemen are aware, where listed building consent is refused, there is a right of appeal to the Secretary of State. Where listed building consent is granted, there is a wide power to impose conditions, which may require the preservation of particular features of the building, the making good of any damage following the works consented to and the reconstruction of any part of the building after the works, with

“the use of original materials so far as is practicable”.

Again, the last five words of the guidance are important.

PPG15 advises that all conditions must be necessary, relevant, enforceable, precise and reasonable in all other respects. Unless a condition fairly and reasonably relates to the circumstances of the building and its conservation needs, it could be ultra vires. As the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire has stated, the guidance clearly leans towards a replacing like-for-like policy as far as re-thatching is concerned—I agree with his interpretation. Again, I must stress the central point of my contribution: I do not think that wording in guidance, such as “should normally be done”, or

“so far as is practicable”,

which I have quoted already, is over-prescriptive. It gives planning authorities scope to take account of specific difficulties and circumstances at both national and local level.

The Minister has been enormously helpful. My ears pricked up earlier when I heard him say that he took a slightly different view. Does he think it practicable to expect someone to wait for 12 months before their roof is re-thatched in the hope that next year there is an appropriate harvest for the material on which the local authority planning department insists?

That brings me neatly on to my next point. I represent a constituency in the north-east in which there are very few thatched roofs. However, I have researched the matter and found there to be a range of views in the thatching profession on the future viability of the industry. Among the representations received by my Department in recent weeks, I have had letters from the National Society of Master Thatchers, to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred, and the Thatching Information Service. The society has expressed the concern, which was eloquently reiterated by the right hon. Gentleman, about the limited availability of suitable quality cereal straw. It says that the problem has been exacerbated by this year’s poor harvest coupled with what is referred to as the inflexibility of some local conservation officers in not allowing thatchers to work with other materials. It recommended that officers should relax their approach by, for example, allowing water reed to be used instead of combed wheat reed. The society also implies that councils are taking an even harder line than they have done in the past. For example, they will not allow roofs to be thatched with a wheat-rye hybrid called triticale—I hope that I pronounced that correctly, because the right hon. Gentleman did so superbly—which they say has been used for the past 30 years and is approved by English Heritage.

The Thatching Information Service has drawn attention to the need to protect straw thatching as a craft. It says that the poor harvest is not an uncommon occurrence in recent decades and should not give credence to those within the industry who, it says, have been trying for the past decade to dispense with it as a thatching material. It makes the point that relatively few straw thatched houses remain and that, if we wish to preserve their uniqueness and the method of thatching, they should remain under the like-for-like policy of local councils. It says that if we pursue an argument based only on economic reasons, straw is destined to be abandoned. If listed buildings are worth preserving in all their glory, the type of material and the way it is used must be wholly relevant.

Those may be extreme points of view, but there seem to be regional variations in the seriousness of the position. Representatives of the East Anglia Master Thatchers Association say that, although stocks of thatching straw are lower than normal, they do not envisage running out before the next harvest. Some say that they are switching to more ridge and repairs in the short term, delaying large straw re-thatches for up to four to five months, but not seeing any need for panic or unnecessary sheeting of roofs. Therefore, a wide variety of views have been expressed on the matter.

English Heritage’s guidance note encourages local authorities to evolve and publish local policies on the issue. It makes the point that owners and thatchers need to know as far as possible not only the actual policies against which applications will be judged but the reasoning behind those policies. Publication enables the policies to be debated in the light of research and the experience of all interested parties, which seems to be sound advice.

I do not understand why the Minister thinks that it makes sense to try to keep a particular material in place if no ordinary human being looking at two houses thatched with the two different materials could tell the difference.

We are preserving not only the visual effect, but the method of construction and the materials used—traditional materials must be used as far as is practicable. I think that that is a sensible approach. It is extremely important that we preserve not only the visual appearance of a building, but its traditional construction. I am obviously not making myself clear, so I will give way again.

On the contrary, the Minister is making himself entirely clear. He is also being entirely inconsistent. If it were the case that his listed building and English Heritage arrangements were intended to preserve techniques rather than appearance, he should surely be asking people to rebuild stone-built or brick-built houses using the same methods that people used in the 17th and 18th centuries. Nobody does that at present, so why is the Minister not changing the law to achieve that?

I disagree with the right hon. Gentleman. Such work is carried out with regard to some listed buildings. I maintain the point that visual appearance is crucial. I also think that it is not the sole consideration. When it comes to construction, other things are important as well. The main theme of my contribution today is that flexibility is necessary. None of us wants to see an erosion—quite literally—of the thatching profession. We want to see thatchers prosper as much as possible. As regards energy efficiency, thatched roofs are on the increase, because of the sustainable and green technique that is used for insulation.

Planning officers should have the flexibility to ensure that we preserve the historic environment as much as possible while taking into account local circumstances, which was eloquently mentioned by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire with regard to shortage of materials and rising prices. I hope that that explains the point.

English Heritage’s guidance note also recommends that the relevant Government bodies and specialist organisations should investigate the supply of thatching materials and endeavour to remove some of the uncertainties that have distorted the market. It recognises that that is probably the most intractable problem facing the thatching industry and points out that, while the importation of foreign materials is not promoted under general conservation philosophy, it can be argued that those sources provide a degree of reliability. It says that the reasons for straw shortages need to be explored to create a climate that is more attractive to the specialist branch of agriculture and to experimentation with thatching strains.

None of that suggests that the Government or their specialist advisers have taken an extreme or excessively rigid line on heritage issues in compiling guidance on thatching and listed building consent procedures. As the right hon. Gentlemen know, I will not comment on specific instances in which a local authority might have refused consent, or adopted conditions, on grounds that the applicant might consider are due to an inflexible approach. In such circumstances, as I have mentioned, there is recourse to the appeals procedure.

I recognise that concerns exist about the present state of the market and the effect that that is having on the trade and, therefore, on owners of thatched houses. The important message that I want to get across today is that there should be full discussion and consultation with all concerned, including conservation and planning officers, owners, specialist bodies, trade associations and relevant arms of Government to resolve such difficulties as they arise.

That brings me on to the three points mentioned by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire. I certainly agree to attend a meeting with relevant people, including him, not only because this is an important issue that needs to be thrashed out—so to speak—but because of my respect for him following his work on the Housing and Regeneration Bill. I am keen to meet him shortly to discuss the issues more comprehensively.

I am more reluctant on the right hon. Gentleman’s second point, which concerns revising particular sections of PPG15. The existing planning framework is appropriate and gives sufficient flexibility to take into account particular circumstances.

I put out PPG15 when I was Planning Minister. As the author, it is my view that the time has come to revise it. There would be no disloyalty if the Minister indicated that the time had come to move on.

When I was preparing for this debate—and also when we were working on the Housing and Regeneration Bill—I dreaded the right hon. Gentleman standing up and saying, “Well, I actually did that.” His authorship of PPG15 was exemplary, and the document should therefore be maintained as much as possible.

As I have said, the planning framework is flexible and can take into account local and specific circumstances. The crucial point is that the planning system should have that flexibility to take into account the sort of concerns that have been raised and to balance them against the need to protect the historic environment that is of such importance not only to owners of historic buildings but to the cultural identity of the wider community and country. I am keen to meet the right hon. Gentleman to discuss the matter further, and I am grateful to him for widening the debate today. I look forward to meeting him shortly.

Sitting suspended.