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Listed Buildings Protection

Volume 718: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2022

I will call Paul Maynard to move the motion, and then I will call the Minister to respond. There will not be an opportunity for the Member in charge to wind up, as is the convention for 30-minute debates.

I beg to move,

That this House has considered listed buildings protection.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank the Minister for his time today. He is becoming the Swiss Army knife of the Government—a multi-purpose Minister. Whenever Blackpool comes across the political horizon, I see the Minister. I have wanted for 12 years to have a Minister for Blackpool and I think I have now got one—and a very good one, at that.

I am here to talk mainly about the listing of modern buildings. I should declare an interest as a member of the Twentieth Century Society for getting on for 23 years. A couple of weekends ago, it was a true delight to take the Twentieth Century Society on a coach trip around Blackpool and Fleetwood. I was pleased to see their enthusiasm for the buildings they saw. I got to see things that I had not seen before, and to appreciate parts of our built environment that I had started to take for granted, as someone who lives in the area.

I am also pleased to be able to praise the Government; I do not always get the chance these days to do that. Just this week, we saw the listing of Quinlan Terry’s Brentwood cathedral. The platinum jubilee saw the listing of a number of buildings, from the Harrogate sun pavilion to the motorway markers on the M62 at the Lancashire-Yorkshire border. Obviously, the one on the Lancashire side is far superior to the one on the Yorkshire side. In the past couple of years, we have seen real efforts in Blackpool, listing our middle and lower walk colonnades by the Metropole hotel, as well as our excellent promenade shelters that hotel guests enjoy along the north shore. I can also praise the Government for the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill and all that contains, but I do not want to take part of the time for the Minister’s reply to me by detailing all that that includes.

As ever, Back Benchers like to point out what is not in a Bill. The Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies, a group of the likes of the Twentieth Century Society, the Victorian Society and the Georgian Group, has made the point that there is often uncertainty among local planning authorities about the occasions when they are required to notify national amenity societies of applications for listed building consent. The Bill would be an opportunity to provide a reminder and clarification, and have the potential to offer the introduction of a more practical recourse to rectification than judicial review, when a decision has been issued without notification. I urge the Government to look at that.

There are more systemic issues that see the architecture of the past 120 years not getting the same protection, which it deserves, as older buildings in this country. In particular, that applies to interim protection. There is little or no protection for a building in England while a process of listing assessment is carried out. Indeed, the knowledge that a listing might be imminent sometimes encourages an owner who hopes to redevelop the site to rush deliberately to damage or demolish the building, specifically to prevent listing.

Setting up interim listing for England was to have been one of the most significant improvements delivered by the proposed Heritage Protection Bill that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport published in 2008. Sadly, that Bill never became an Act, and we can blame the Labour party for that, like so much in life, mainly due to lack of parliamentary time. Ever since, there has been a desire to plug that obvious gap. That is another potential addition to the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill that I urge the Minister to consider.

We also see local authorities rolling out programmes of wider work enhancing the public realm. They forget that assets are sometimes listed. They do the analysis necessary for listed building consent and conclude that there is a wider public benefit that outweighs the loss of architectural significance, but that does more damage than is necessary to achieve the same public benefit. I recognise that many of my concerns, perhaps inevitably, are resource-related and right now is perhaps not the time to ask for more money—is it ever the right time to ask for more money —in this era of fiscal rectitude, which I hope will continue.

Local authorities’ constrained resources can mean long waits for assessment of potential listings, which leads to very strict triaging of requests to eliminate all but the most urgent applications. That means that developers or potential building purchasers develop proposals, only to be frustrated by last-minute listing decisions. I point to Government policies on converting office blocks and other buildings in town centres into accommodation and housing. That can often hit a brick wall when people discover that that very building is listed nationally or locally.

Listing intervention for modern homes on single plots at risk of demolition is a particular problem. A “for sale” sign is not enough to require intervention, and potential purchasers need to be able to make informed choices about their purchase before they buy. The key problem here is how Historic England defines risk. It does not view risk merely in the case of a property being sold. Waiting for “threat”, as it phrases it, is far too late in the planning process for developer and local authority certainty, as Historic England is very cautious when wanting evidence of threat. Developer purchase is not a in itself a threat in its book.

We need to look to more strategic levels than just building by building. There is a debate to be had about the appropriateness of the 30-year rule—the point at which buildings are automatically considered for protection. Historic England guidance states that buildings

“are not normally considered to be of special architectural or historic interest because they have yet to stand the test of time.”

But technology and architectural fashion are moving so fast now that I do not think that rule still applies. We have seen a branch of Sainsbury’s in Greenwich demolished after only 17 years—demolished for a blue IKEA box—despite being shortlisted for a Stirling prize and being at the forefront of environmentally-friendly architecture. I would love to see Historic England revive its post-war steering group to look at post-1992 national lottery buildings and millennium-era buildings, of which we have a profusion. That was done in the Netherlands very successfully with its post-war reconstruction built environment. We can learn a lot from that.

As I have said, the cycle of architectural styles is accelerating, and that makes the 30-year rule less relevant. We saw post-modernism flourish in the early ’80s. Some of those buildings have been listed because they are exceptional. I think of John Outram’s Temple of Storms on the Isle of Dogs—a pumping station with a fantastic neo-Egyptian edifice.

The hon. Gentleman is right. I know that back home our historic buildings, whether listed locally or in our case provincially, are very important, but the issue for the developer or the owner of the building that is being listed is mostly one of finance. Does he feel that perhaps the financial assistance available through the Minister’s Department might enable those buildings to retain their historic importance?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that intervention. Nothing would please me more than a pot of money to help save 20th-century buildings, but I fear that might not be forthcoming. My favourite building in Northern Ireland is Mussenden Temple. The biggest fear there is its collapsing into the sea, but that is not 20th century, so perhaps it lies outside this debate. However, he makes a perfectly fair point.

Portcullis House is a very good example. It is not listed, despite efforts to do so, because it is not under threat. However, there has been a gradual diminution of the original features. The central pool was meant to cool it—we can see how that is working today. Also, the benches on the sides are now crumbling at the corners. It needs a programme of repair, but because those original details have been altered, it will be less likely to be listed when the time comes. And I have not mentioned the row over Richmond House and the relocation of the House of Commons. We need a rolling programme of automatic assessment of a watch list drawn up by amenity societies, perhaps based upon Stirling prize nominees or another range of sources, or maybe even the self-nomination system in Australia for spot listing.

Historic England has done a number of good things, thematic listing being one of them, but not in insufficient depth or breadth to list all the good enough buildings. It has been seriously resource-constrained. None of that is to criticise Historic England. Thematic studies of the motor era and amusement parks have been of great value in expanding Blackpool’s list of listed buildings. But banks and department stores are all being affected by commercial change and the changes in our high streets in recent years. We could do a whole lot more for parks and gardens. I could hold an entire debate based on the Gardens Trust’s campaigning and helping safeguard Stanley park, a hidden jewel in Blackpool. That might be for my next heritage debate to drag the Minister to.

If the thematic programme is not expanded, we inevitably risk losses in the built environment. We have local listing, which I am sure the Minister will bring up, but that is also variable. There is often uncertainty about the status of local buildings. Inconsistencies can lower the protection they receive in different local authorities. I welcome the Government funding for 22 areas that will be encouraged to build up their local listings.

My hon. Friend is making a very good speech, and I thank him for securing this debate. He is getting on to the issue of variability between different local authorities. As he will know, I am the chair of the all-party parliamentary group for listed properties. Sandwich in my constituency, the best-preserved medieval town in the country, is in isolation. I find too often in my role as APPG chair that different authorities will look at the same project and come to different conclusions when people want to make renovations and repairs. Add to that the withdrawal of VAT relief on repairs, and owners of listed properties are in a tough situation. There are delays in local authorities and variability of decisions, and that needs to stop.

My hon. Friend is right and demonstrates a need for clarity for owners, potential purchasers and potential developers about what they are getting into, and the likely obstacles, risks and obligations that come with owning a listed property. I am sure the Minister has heard his comments

In Blackpool, we are fortunate to have a head of planning who started off as the local conservation officer, Carl Carrington. We have a new policy in Blackpool, which I think is the first in the country, whereby owners of locally listed buildings will need planning permission to demolish them even if they are not in a conservation area. That is important in a seat like mine, where we have some exceptional inter-war domestic housing on the sea front. That will not always be in a historic conservation zone, and runs the risk of being demolished.

I welcome the Government’s investment in heritage action zones, but I am concerned that, over time, they have been subsumed into the wider town centre pots of money that the Government are spending on levelling up, and the heritage element is being marginalised. We need to expand listing as part of building back better, coping with the changing high street and the retail environment. I query whether anything short of listing would do that protection job of enhancing new town centres such as Stevenage or Harlow, perhaps, while also reviving those town centres.

We still have too few conservation officers across local authorities. Blackpool is spoiled in that context, and we have seen the benefits of protecting our built historic environment. It all goes back to resources. That is why it needs to be part of levelling up. I know that survives as a concept and is the key to improving local protection.

Historic England did an excellent case study of how this can be made to work, in conjunction with the Twentieth Century Society. I am sure that the Minister knows all about it because it was all about Worcestershire. It was an unrepeated project that only Worcestershire has benefited from so far. Historic England said that buildings in the 20th century

“are regularly described as making a ‘detrimental or at best neutral contribution to an area’, and that even when a structure is recognised as making a positive contribution, ‘it doesn’t always benefit from the same level of research and analysis afforded to older areas’…Only a very small percentage of these assets meet the criteria for national designation. However, this everyday heritage illustrates wider social, cultural, economic, political and technological changes which were facilitated, amongst other things, by a transformation in England’s planning philosophy and culture, accompanied by the emergence of new building types, construction techniques and materials.”

That is a long quote, I know, but I just wanted to provide some examples from the Minister’s very own constituency of West Worcestershire. I am sure he knows only too well the magnificent main post office in Evesham, dating from 1960, by H L Williamson in a modern style. I am sure he talks about nothing more than the fact that Evesham was only the second town in the country to have trunk dialling when the 1935 telephone exchange opened. That has to be a topic of dinner-party conversation in Droitwich as well as Evesham. He will know from the agricultural sector in the Vale of Evesham that much soft fruit was taken to Beach’s jam factory in Evesham. That might not be an architecturally fantastic location, but it is part of local history and the architectural built environment of the Minister’s constituency.

I am sure my hon. Friend knows the small village of Hartlebury. He is nodding his head; good. The case study states:

“The fate of a recently-demolished Morgan garage raises questions over how 20th-century heritage should be better valued and conserved. Although surviving as a well-preserved example of an inter-war filling station, with its vernacular revival form and detail, changes to its overall footprint were considered to undermine the case for protection. There needs to be more emphasis placed on understanding how buildings such as this illustrate their historic value, and are valued by communities: this could have been secured through retention of the main range facing the road, whilst accepting the need for internal adaptation and further changes to the footprint of the remaining structure.”

Whether it is Hartlebury, Droitwich, Evesham or Blackpool, this really is all about pride in place, which is probably the successor phrase to levelling up. We can do much more to protect buildings across the country that are part of our communities, modern buildings from 1900 to the current day, which are changing how we see our communities and the pride we take in them.

If I had more time, there would be another 10-minute speech, but I have one final plea: can we please sign up to the UNESCO convention on intangible cultural heritage now? We are one of only 12 from a total of 193 countries not to do so. We have seen, for example, that we can no longer make cricket balls in this country. So the moment that someone says, “New balls, please,” they will not be British balls any more. To quote the Foreign Secretary, “That is a disgrace.”

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Stringer. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard) for securing this debate and for highlighting such an important issue. He spoke passionately about not only his own constituency but the heritage ecosystem. I am also particularly impressed that he spoke eloquently and passionately about my own constituency. He was right to highlight the issues and concerns.

I thank those who have participated in today’s debate, because we all care passionately about our nation’s heritage, for the very reasons that my hon. Friend has outlined. It is heartbreaking when parts of our history are wiped out because of ignorance or stupid decisions. I can assure him that I and the Department take our heritage responsibilities incredibly seriously, because we do not want to repeat the many mistakes of the past. However, we need to make sure that systems and processes are in place to minimise the chances of that happening, both at central and local government levels.

I recognise the rich heritage in my hon. Friend’s constituency of Blackpool North and Cleveleys. We spoke before the debate about how many sites are there and right next door. Blackpool is Britain’s favourite seaside resort for very good reasons and each year millions of visitors come to walk on its piers and beaches. The north pier, which is grade II listed and within the town conservation area, is just one of Blackpool’s iconic and much-loved structures. Many are listed, including the Winter Gardens and the Blackpool Tower, so my hon. Friend is right to be proud of the heritage in his constituency and nearby.

I start by setting out where we are on heritage protection, especially the process of listing buildings. My hon. Friend mentioned the strengths and some of the challenges and weaknesses. The listing process is a celebration of buildings of special architectural and historical interest. It plays a vital part in helping to safeguard the legacy of our built environment. Listing protects a diverse range of buildings in this country—nearly 380,000—from grand palaces to private houses. Any member of the public may apply for a building they consider to be potentially of special architectural or historic interest to be considered for listing. Applications come through Historic England, the Government’s heritage advisers, who assess the application and then make a recommendation to the Government. I note that my hon. Friend is very familiar with Historic England and has engaged with them in the past, as has the all-party parliamentary group for listed properties. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet (Craig Mackinlay) for his contributions as well.

The final decision on listing then goes to the Secretary of State, often via myself as heritage Minister—the junior Minister in the Department. On average we get 1,000 applications each year, many from local planning authorities, amenity societies—such as the Twentieth Century Society, which my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys is a member of—and individual members of the public. Most of the remainder originate from a strategic programme of listing properties from Historic England—it proactively tries to identify potential sites for listing.

All listing applications are considered; they are assessed in accordance with the polices set out in the Secretary of State’s “Principles of Selection for Listed Buildings”. If a building is deemed to satisfy those principles, it is listed and formally recognised as a heritage asset of national significance. The factors taken into account when assessing a building’s historical or architectural significance include its age, rarity and aesthetic appeal. It could also be considered significant due to its national interest. Thus it is the building itself, but also what happened in the building, that could be important. If there are relevant grounds for doing so, anyone can challenge a listing decision, requesting a review within 28 days of the decision’s being published.

I will respond directly to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys made about the 30-year rule. It is not as hard and fast a rule as it may appear. The reason why buildings less than 30 years old are not normally considered to be of special architectural or historic interest is because we usually expect listing to stand the test of time—a phrase that my hon. Friend used. It is not a hard-and-fast rule, and some buildings are listed despite being of relatively recent construction, although it is usually one of outstanding quality or particular historic interest. There is a degree of discretion here.

Once a building is listed, it is a criminal offence to demolish it or carry out works, alterations or extensions that affect the special architectural or historic interest without having first obtained listed building consent from the relevant local planning authority—usually the local council. The protections in place to determine changes to listed properties are robust; local planning authorities are obliged to have regard to policies on conservation or enhancement of the historic environment, set out in the national planning policy framework. It is important to recognise that listing does not prevent a building from changing use, nor does it protect the businesses, large or small, that may operate from such buildings. New users can sometimes help sustain historic buildings for the future. Indeed, many of our historic buildings have changed purpose over, in some cases, many centuries and that has enabled them to survive.

On enforcement powers, while the current protections are robust, they can always be strengthened. That is something I pay particular attention to. The debate is timely given that the Government are currently taking through Parliament the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, which contains enhanced heritage protection measures. I will respond to the points made by my hon. Friend about that. There is a lot in the Bill, but I will give some highlights. The Bill will make it simpler for local planning authorities to step in and protect at-risk heritage assets through the use of new temporary stop notices for listed buildings. The Bill also strengthens urgent works powers, where urgent works notices can be served reasonably to a building that is in occupation. Previously, it was parts of the building not in use, as opposed to the whole building. The Bill includes the removal of compensation in relation to building preservation notices, which will encourage local authorities to serve those building preservation notices more effectively.

On interim protection, which my hon. Friend also mentioned, my Department already has a mechanism to step in where a building is deemed to be at risk. An emergency listing can happen at pace if the building is at risk of demolition or alteration. Building preservation notices can be served on such buildings for a period of up to six months to preserve them in their current state. Blanket interim protection for all buildings that are assessed for listing is an extreme measure, and we deem it to be an unbalanced approach for owners and developers. Providing interim protection for all buildings that are put forward for applications would potentially delay the planning system process, and we believe that our measures are a more balanced approach.

On the diversity of buildings on the list, many listed buildings are the result of strategic designation projects. In general, the list has grown organically over the years in response to individual applications—often in response to threats posed to particular buildings. Consequently, it is recognised that some types of buildings and some periods are better represented on the list than others.

With Historic England, we recognise that there may therefore be an under-representation of early 20th-century buildings, as my hon. Friend identified. Of course, an under-representation is to be expected, given that the 20th century ended only a short while back, and therefore the public tend to be divided on some of the buildings from that era. I can reassure him that many of the proposals that come across my desk tend to be more modern buildings, ranging from brutalist architecture, on which opinion is divided in this House and in the country, to Palladian mansions and so on. Most of the very historic buildings are already listed and have been for some time, and therefore it is not surprising that the bulk of the new listings that come across my desk are more modern, so I see quite a lot of the proposals.

My hon. Friend and my hon. Friend the Member for South Thanet mentioned local listings. Locally important heritage buildings, of course, really do shape our sense of character and distinctiveness—the sense of place that they mentioned. Local planning authorities can formally identify such buildings through the compilation of local heritage lists, which, prepared with input from local communities, complement the national listing and can ensure that due regard is given to the conservation of buildings included on them in relevant planning decisions. The significance of locally listed buildings can be further highlighted through their inclusion in the relevant local historic environment records.

The Government are looking to place historic environment records on a statutory footing through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill, and that will hopefully overcome some of the inconsistencies that my hon. Friends mentioned. They are right to mention the inconsistency of the resources and the attention paid to our historic buildings. I see that as I travel around the country, but generally I am very impressed by the attention that most local authorities pay to their heritage assets.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys for securing this important debate. As heritage Minister, I think it is right and important to highlight the Government’s policy for listing and protecting our most loved heritage assets across the country. I have taken on board the points raised by my hon. Friend and others, and I hope I have been able to provide some reassurance that the Government intend to strengthen heritage protection in the planning system through the Levelling-up and Regeneration Bill. I hope that my hon. Friend will support our efforts in doing so.

My hon. Friend the Member for Blackpool North and Cleveleys (Paul Maynard), in his excellent speech, mentioned cricket ball manufacture. Does the Minister find it encouraging that the original cricket ball manufacturing factory in Penshurst for the Duke ball is, in fact, listed?

I am very pleased indeed that it is, and I am very pleased that my right hon. and learned Friend mentioned that in the final moments of the debate. I am also Sports Minister, and we could not have a debate without including some element of sport in the discussion.

I am certainly open to having a debate about intellectual assets. At the moment, we have some reservations about what can be included, because it is not clear how far it goes, but there is some merit in looking at such things. Our heritage assets are not just buildings; they also include the countryside. UNESCO listings are increasingly landscapes, not just old buildings and areas. As we progress this debate, options including intellectual property are worthy of discussion. I thank my hon. Friends for their contributions.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.