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Planning (Proper Maintenance of Land)

Volume 680: debated on Tuesday 22 September 2020

Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to make provision for increased fines for failures to comply with a notice under section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990.

We are incredibly lucky as a nation to have such a vast and well-documented history. The built history is our physical connection to the past and those who came before us. As Members we feel that connection each time we walk through the ancient Westminster Hall, but whether it is the great beams that support its roof, or the narrow terraces and redbrick factories of our industrial heartlands, all have equal importance and all must be protected. Therefore, the law must allow the courts the flexibility to punish those who seek to destroy our heritage, and that is what I seek today through the introduction of this Bill.

Some in our nation do not share our passion to protect and preserve our history. Rogue landlords and property owners are endangering the historic buildings that we must preserve as a nation. This is a national issue, but I wish to use an example of a historic building in my own constituency of Stoke-on-Trent North, Kidsgrove and Talke to illustrate our plight. The once glorious 18th-century teapot works Price and Kensington sits just outside the mother town of Burslem. The site is privately owned and has fallen into serious disrepair at great expense to the taxpayer of Stoke-on-Trent.

Price and Kensington is a large complex of factory buildings situated next to the Trent and Mersey canal and is a grade II* listed building. It is of national importance: it is the only such factory left in existence that demonstrates how the pottery industry evolved over time. Sadly, though, due to the actions of a rogue owner, most of the buildings are not safe for use. Damage is being caused by the systematic removal of slates and windows by the rogue owner, who is determined to do all he can to destroy this building, leaving him with a vacant site to sell for profit—a profit at the expense of our built heritage and of the taxpayer.

The owner knows that the punishment for breaking the law in such a way is weak. He knows he can get away with it. As well as removing structural parts of the building, the rogue owner has illegally let parts of it out to individuals under investigation for drug offences, human trafficking and the illegal disposal of hazardous waste. The site is regularly subjected to arsonists and thieves, who seek to light the flammable material the owner has placed across the site.

In October 2019, the condition of the historic front range of buildings, which sat directly adjacent to a strategic road, was collapsing. Despite notices being served on the owner to carry out repairs, the council had no option but to demolish this section of the building on the site under the Building Act 1984 and to seek compensation from the owner by placing a charge on the land. It was either that or having the building collapse on to passing traffic.

This was not the first time that Stoke-on-Trent City Council intervened at Price and Kensington. Most notably, over the past four years, the council’s planning and enforcement team have launched numerous actions against the owners, all at the expense of the taxpayer. This House is aware of the duties placed upon local authorities by law to protect heritage assets. However, the responsibilities that rest upon the owner, especially an unco-operative owner, are not as they ought to be. This can leave taxpayers massively out of pocket.

Sections 215 and 216 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provide legislative routes for local authorities to act against owners who do not repair their buildings. If a landlord or an owner, as in the case of Price and Kensington, refuses to adhere to a section 215 notice, the provisions laid out in section 216 come into force. The failure to comply with the notice is an offence that can lead to a conviction and a fine. However— and here we arrive at the crux of the issue—the maximum fine for this offence is a level 3 on the standard scale: a mere £1,000. If the notice is still not complied with, the legislation allows for a daily fine of up to £100 on a second conviction. Alternatively, the local authority can carry out the works and place a charge on the land to recover costs. However, in areas such as mine, where land values are low, as is the case in many former industrial towns and cities, this is not a financially viable option for the council.

To demonstrate that, let us look at the figures. The cost of repairs for Price and Kensington are estimated to be well over £5 million. The land is valued at only £70,000. Last year, magistrates at North Staffordshire Justice Centre found Middlesex-based Charles Lewis & Co. guilty of failing to comply with a notice issued by the city council. It was handed a £1,000 fine, a £100 victim surcharge and a £530 fine for council costs. A £1,000 fine is not even 1% of the site value.

In situations such as the one I have described, the local authority is essentially left with two limited but costly options. The first is an urgent works notice under section 54 of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990. This can apply only to repairs in unoccupied sections and related to weather-proofing and keeping the building safe from collapse. If the owner takes no action, the council must carry out the repairs and invoice the owner. This is often converted to a land charge through the courts, meaning that the council and, again, the taxpayer is effectively left to foot the bill, letting rich property owners and developers off the hook.

The second option is to issue a repairs notice under section 47 of that Act. This notice requires a landlord or owner to carry out reasonable works to protect and preserve the building, notably if there is architectural or historical significance to the site. The council must create a detailed schedule of works, and if they are not carried out, the only option left to the council is to issue a compulsory purchase order. There are no other legal or financial penalties for non-compliance with the notice and the works cannot be carried out in default by the council. These restrictions and meaningless punitive measures often render local councils tied at the wrists, as the outcomes as outlined in legislation do very little to alleviate the finances and efforts expended during the process by the local authority. It is imperative that we increase the fines that can be levied on the owners who allow heritage negligence.

Although Price and Kensington is the most damning example of this disregard in the constituency I serve, there are many other buildings with similar dilemmas across Stoke-on-Trent, from the Central Hotel in Burslem to Commerce works in Longton. However, this is an issue not just for the Potteries, but across the country. The successful passage of this Bill will help hundreds of historic buildings that find themselves in a similar state to Price and Kensington. Birnbeck pier in Weston-super-Mare is privately owned with an owner unwilling to co-operate. What about the Walton Works in Chesterfield? That is another grade II* listed building falling into the ground as the private owner does nothing. The pithead baths at Lynemouth in Northumberland have lain vacant for more than 20 years while the commercial company waits for the building to collapse of its own accord. Shuttleworth Hall in Burnley, a 17th-century building, faces an uncertain future because the law lets the property owner off the hook. A £1,000 fine is much less than the cost of repairing these iconic and protected buildings.

There are more than 5,000 entries on the heritage at risk register. This Bill would enable the relevant authorities to take action against those who destroy this nation’s heritage. That is why I have the unreserved support of Historic England in my endeavour to see the law changed and our nation’s heritage assets protected. Historic England agrees that stiffer penalties are paramount to efficiency, local authorities and the security of our heritage.

In addition, it was a pleasure to have the opportunity to make my case on this issue directly with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government. I hope that the Government will look to include the Bill in the forthcoming planning reform Green Paper.

Our silence so far on this issue has been deafening. We must act now to give the courts the powers to levy unlimited fines against those who destroy the nation’s built heritage. I hope I have the full support of the House for the changes I seek today.

Question put and agreed to.

Ordered,

That Jonathan Gullis, Chris Clarkson, Mrs Pauline Latham, Andrew Rosindell, Aaron Bell, Martin Vickers, Peter Gibson, Tim Loughton, Marco Longhi, Lee Anderson, Simon Hoare and Mr Andrew Mitchell present the Bill.

Jonathan Gullis accordingly presented the Bill.

Bill read the First time; to be read the Second time on Friday 29 January 2021, and to be printed (Bill 184).