This is the text of a speech Sir George made in the House of Commons about Thatching
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire) (Con): 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”.
Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset) (Con): 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?
Sir George Young: 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.