HC Deb 28 January 1947 vol 432 cc899-912

10.49 p.m.

Mr. Derek Walker-Smith (Hertford)

I beg to move, That the Kettering Rural Town and Country Planning (Special Interim Development) Order, dated 19th November, 1946, a copy of which was presented on 25th November, be annulled. This Motion arises on a point of principle of some importance. I shall try to put the points in regard to it quite shortly to the House. This Order, which I am moving to annul this evening, permits the development of a defined area in Northamptonshire for the working and winning of ironstone.

There are, in brief, three points of objection which I have to this Order, and to the form in which it is cast. Two of these points of objection are primarily points of form but the third is a matter of substance. I will briefly refer first to the two points that are mainly points of form. Normally, as the House is aware, interim development orders are made by the local planning authority, in this case the Kettering Rural District Council. This Order, on the other hand, is a special interim development order made by the Minister. I do not, of course, challenge the Minister's power to make an order in that form. It is perfectly within his powers to do so, but I consider that some reason should be advanced for this departure from custom, because I hope that this House will always consider that reason should be Adduced for even a legal usurpation of local functions by the central authority.

The second point, which is mainly a point of form, is the matter of urgency. In this Order the Minister has used his powers to prescribe that on account of urgency the Order shall come into effect immediately. Here again, of course, I am not challenging the Minister's power to do this. He is perfectly within his legal and constitutional rights, but there is no obvious or apparent urgency in this matter. Therefore, I hope that when the Minister comes to reply, he will address himself to the question of defining what is the urgency in regard to it.

I now come to the third point, which, as I have indicated, is the point of substance. I would like to preface my remarks upon it by saying that if it appears that the substance of this matter is in itself unsatisfactory, one does not have to have an unduly suspicious turn of mind to think that perhaps the peculiar form which the Order has taken may owe something to the unsatisfactory nature of the substance. In order to make clear the point in regard to the unsatisfactory nature of the subject matter of this Order, I must briefly refer to the imperative need for the restoration of land which has been used for the extraction and working of ironstone to its previous or normal use. It is a well-known fact that unless ironstone extraction is carried out with a view to its levelling and restoration to other uses, it results in a devastation of the land surface which it is extremely difficult and expensive to repair at any subsequent period. Therefore, one would look, in this Order, for a clear statement of the obligation regarding the restoration of this land. One would look for that with the more confidence because of the recommendations contained in the Report of the Waters Committee, which was a one man committee—Mr. Waters—set up by the Minister of Town and Country Planning. This Report was presented by the Minister to Parliament in September. That being so, I hope I am not making an unduly optimistic assumption when I express the hope that the Parliamentary Secretary is well familiar with its contents.

If that is so, he will be aware that, in paragraph 15 of Mr. Waters' Report, a very clear expression of opinion indeed is given in regard to the absolute necessity of the liability for restoration being directly imposed in cases of the permission of development for the winning and working of ironstone. I would refer to Mr. Waters' conclusions as set out: The main technical conclusions, at which Mr. Waters arrived as a result of his investigations are as follows: In order to ensure the most efficient and economical use of the necessary machinery, restoration of the surface must be considered as a part of the operation of extracting ironstone and not as something divorced from it requiring subsequent and separate treatment. It goes on, in subparagraph 3, to say: If a legal obligation to effect a 'stated degree of restoration were imposed on the ironstone producers, this would, in all probability, lead to the development of further modifications in excavating machinery and in operational techniques and progress in restoration methods would soon be considerable. That is a very clear statement of principle, in the Report for which the Minister takes responsibility, having himself presented it to this House; but when we turn to the terms of this Order we find a very different form of language expressed. In paragraph 4 of this Order, instead of carrying out the recommendations of Mr. Waters and imposing an obligation to restore, the wording runs thus: The land to which this Order applies may be developed for the purposes of a quarry for the winning and working of ironstone, and all structures and machinery required for the said purposes, including railway sidings may be erected and laid on the said land. Provided that all such structures, machinery and railway sidings shall be removed on the completion of the said winning and working. There is not a word there as to restoration. This Order imposes a liability only for the removal of the machinery and ancillary structures, without a word as to the restoration of the land to its proper user. I might add that I understand in this case that the mineral lessees offered to restore the land to its agricultural use, and that this undertaking on their part was an important factor in the consent in principle given by the mid-Northamptonshire planning committee to the Minister.

This Order affects only 83 acres in the county of Northamptonshire. The principle, of course, is one of much wider importance, because unless this Order is annulled, or, in the alternative, withdrawn and rewritten in the proper form—or what Mr. Waters considers to be the proper form—there is a clear danger that it will be taken as a precedent for subsequent development of this sort. The Parliamentary Secretary will appreciate that we are only at the beginning of the exploitation of ironstone in this part of the country. If the liability of the restoration of the land to its original user is not to be clearly enforced and established, we shall have the prospect of great industrial devastation there. I am bound to say that I consider that the Minister in this instance has been guilty of a considerable inconsistency if, while paying lip service to the principles of good planning and to the preservation of the amenities of the countryside, he should attempt to force upon us this Order carrying, as it does, no obligation to restore the land.

It may be that the Minister will say that the Order was rather hurriedly drafted because his Department has been somewhat hard pressed of late producing the very large Bill which the House is due to discuss tomorrow. It may be that the Minister is, to some extent, hoist with his own petard, because the haste with which this Bill has been put forward to the House has led his Department into this blunder and its regrettable consequences. I ask the Minister to face the position frankly, confess his error and withdraw this unsatisfactory Order for amendment so as to incorporate that obligation to restore the land which is so vital to the future well-being of the countryside

11.1 p.m.

Mr. Manningham-Buller (Daventry)

I beg to second the Motion.

It was so ably moved by my hon. Friend that there is only one statement he made on which I want to comment. He referred to the beginning of the exploitation of ironstone excavation in Northamptonshire. I would not like it to be thought that the excavation which has already proceeded is not extensive. It is, and I make that point because I think that few not acquainted with that part of the country can appreciate the danger to the countryside in Northamptonshire resulting from ironstone excavation without restoration. It is, indeed, a serious problem, and hon. Members of this House have continually pressed for action to be taken with regard to it. We had to press for a long time before we could get publication of the Waters Report, which met with a welcome from both sides of this House. That Report revealed that there are 3,600 acres derelict which have not been restored. It also shows to what extent the owners and those excavating have endeavoured to restore the surface. The Minister of Agriculture talks of the Romney Marshes, but I was sorry that he made no reference to these 3,600 acres of Northamptonshire. Now, there is an opportunity for the Ministry of Town and Country Planning to show their willingness to take action in a matter of this sort. This is, I think, the first of the Orders of this character which has been made. I may be wrong, but we thought this was still an opportunity for the Ministry to show that they were not intending to give permission for excavation unless there was a clear proviso for restoration as part of that process. I understand that the Northamptonshire Planning Committee were influenced by the fact that the company prepared to make the excavations were also prepared to undertake to restore the surface. Why, then, has that undertaking been left out of this Order? It may be that the Minister was satisfied with the undertaking given, but it is still, in my view, desirable that that proviso should be inserted in the Order, so that it is clear that the Minister of Town and Country Planning is not going to give permission of this sort without the persons extracting being under a clear public duty to restore the surface as part of the process of extraction.

With regard to the two other points mentioned by my hon. Friend, it is, I think, a matter on which some explanation should be given of how it comes about that this Order should be made by the Minister when the Planning Committee and the Interim Development Committee were prepared to give the sanction on the undertaking given by the Government. I also understand that there was some question raised with regard to the water supply of Kettering and the preservation of footpaths. Neither of these things is mentioned in this Order, and I think that, if the Parliamentary Secretary, who is going to reply, does not give an explanation of why this matter is not taken to be one of urgency, why the powers of the local planning authorities and interim development authorities have been superseded and the proviso about restoration not inserted in the Order, I hope he will at least agree to withdraw the Order and replace it with one which is more satisfactory in form and content.

11.5 p.m.

Mr. Mitchison (Kettering)

I cannot help regretting that, while this work is proposed to take place in my own constituency, the first I have heard of this Prayer and of the attitude of any of the councils concerned, should be, quite accidentally, today.

Mr. Walker-Smith

If the hon. Member will forgive me for interrupting him, I would point out that it has, of course, been on the Order Paper, and I take it that it is his custom to read it.

Mr.- Mitchison

May I put it more accurately? The first I heard of the attitude of the councils concerned was today. These 83 acres are, I understand, adjacent to some ground which is already being worked by a company called the Lodding-ton Ironstone Company, who are the mineral lessees referred to by the hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith). As he pointed out, they have undertaken to replace the land in proper condition for agricultural purposes, and it was only upon that undertaking, and upon the faith of that undertaking, that the permission embodied in this Order was given. In those circumstances, it seems to me somewhat remarkable that hon. Members opposite should seek to annul the Order, and say that a guarantee given by what appears to be a reputable firm proposing to work the land, a full and complete undertaking to do that which they are so properly re- quired to do in connection with these ironstone works, is insufficient.

I do not for a moment dispute that it is of the greatest importance that companies working iron ore in Northamptonshire, just as companies working similar deposits in orher parts of the country, notably, for instance, gravel deposits in many parts around- London, should be compelled to make good the damage which they do to the agricultural land and to all the amenities of the county. I would point out that, as the hon. and learned Member for Daventry (Mr. Manningham-Buller) has said, this has been a matter of constant pressure in Parliament for very many years past, long before the present Parliament, and, during that time, nothing whatever was done to deal with the matter. The present Minister of Town and Country Planning is the Minister who has actually published, not the whole Waters Report, but the substance of it. He is, I think I am right in saying, the only Minister who has ever gone down to Northamptonshire and seen for himself exactly what is happening. It is exceedingly difficult to appreciate both the extent of the damage, and also the best means of dealing with it, without going to see the ground and the various ways in which these excavations are carried out, and the different types of machinery that are used for the purpose. He has, in fact, done what any practical person ought to do. He is the first Minister to go and see for himself exactly what is going on.

Further, he has not only gone there, but it has been stated in the public Press—and I have no reason to doubt it—that negotiations have been going on between his Ministry and the iron ore companies concerned with a view to providing for restoration in the future. I would like to point out that that was exactly what the Waters Report recommended should be done. At the end of the Report there are certain proposals made by the iron ore companies concerned. Those proposals are criticised by Mr. Waters, but he does suggest that this should be a matter of agreement and that the proposals are a basis for discussion. Assuming that there is some such agreement in contemplation, then, for my part, I fully understand why, in those circumstances, the Ministry should accept an undertaking from what appears to be a reputable company and should not insist on having the matter embodied in the Order.

It seems to me remarkable that hon. Members opposite, who are usually concerned with these Orders being too restrictive, should on this occasion find that they are not restrictive enough, that they should hold an undertaking and an agreement insufficient, that, in a case where the persons concerned have been fully and amply consulted by the Ministry, they should say that that is not good enough, and that they should require the kind of understanding, which I should have thought was so important for the practical working of these matters, to be embodied in the rigid form of an Order. I say that all the more because it is obvious to anyone acquainted with these iron ore workings that the obligations of restoration in one case may differ considerably from those in another case. Indeed, there may be instances where complete restoration cannot be possible. To embody technical matters of this sort and technical obligations in one standard form in these Orders might lead to considerable difficulties, particularly if it were done at an early stage, while negotiations for a complete agreement were still in progress.

Accordingly, for myself, while I yield to no one in my wish to see not only the past, so far as may be, but certainly all future iron ore workings in this area so conducted that the land.may be fully restored to its original use, I cannot think that that consideration ought to lead the House to annul an Order when we have been expressly told by the hon. Member who moved this Motion that there is already in existence a definite agreement upon the faith on which the Order was made.

11.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning (Mr. Fred Marshall)

As the hour is getting late, I think it would be as well if I gave the explanations asked for. The hon. Member for Hertford (Mr. Walker-Smith) moved the annulment of the Order under three heads. He first wanted to know why the Minister issued the Order himself, instead of allowing the interim development authority to come to a decision. The hon. Member, of course, knows as well as I do that the Minister has very extensive powers of calling in applications for development, and he used those powers on this occasion. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why?"] He used them, I presume, because an application of this character was a very important one. It deals of course, with mineral extraction. Very important consequences may arise out of such an operation, and, in consequence, the Order was called in. The Minister acted quite properly and within his powers in coming to a decision and issuing an interim development Order himself.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

There is no suggestion that the Minister was not acting within his powers, but why did he exercise those powers and not leave the matter to the local authority? Was there any reason to suppose they would not act properly? Are we to take it that in every case of mineral extraction, although powers will be left to local authorities, they will always be called in by the Minister in the future?

Sir. Marshall

Oh, no. The hon. and learned Member assumes that, but he knows very well that some time ago there were very important negotiations taking place with the interests concerned generally about mineral extraction in the country, after the Minister had issued a general Interim Development Order. The mineral companies, of course, were very anxious that the Minister should take an oversight, at any rate so far as the very early applications were concerned, and I suppose on this occasion the Minister acted in accordance with that desire. The second question is: why was it so urgent in this case? The Loddington firm is a subsidiary of the great Staveley Coal and Iron Company, a firm which needs a vast mass of material to carry on its undertaking. They wanted this particular site for immediate production. I know the Staveley firm very well, and it is true to say that they consume a vast mass of this material in order to carry on their production. From that point of view, of course, the matter was urgent. Another point, put forward by the hon. and learned Member was the question of water and footpaths. I understand the workings will be very shallow. There is no danger to the water resources in the area, so that matter does not arise. On the question of footpaths, the firm is under an obligation, under common law, to maintain footpaths, and, therefore, that will be done.

Why was not an obligation to restore the land placed in the Order? I think that is the real ground for the Motion to annul this Order. I am sure there is a common desire on the part of every hon. Member in this House that land should be restored after mineral extraction, and anyone who knows my right hon. Friend knows the very great interest he has taken in this matter, and the steps he has taken to implement his desires. It is a subject that is very near to his heart, and, in answer to the hon. and learned Member, not long ago he gave certain undertakings and indicated his general policy with regard to the problem. It is a very grievous problem; it is a problem of planning which goes back many years—at any rate, before the present Labour Government came into office—and we are working earnestly at it. We have an undertaking from the firm that they will restore this land to its previous state as far as possible by restoration methods. For the benefit of the House I think I had better give the undertaking of the firm. This, I think, will prove that we have got everything we want, and, therefore, it is unnecessary to put this obligation in the Interim Development Order. They were asked to undertake: That the surface soil would be removed to a depth to be decided by inspection on the pot, and may be removed in one lift and replaced as soon as possible after the extraction of the ironstone. That the land should be restored to a reasonable level to enable it to be returned to agriculture. That any field drainage disturbed should be made good. That every possible endeavour be made to keep down injurious weeds and the prevention of their seeding. They were further asked to undertake That the Company will approach the occupiers and maintain close liaison with them and the W.A.E.C. throughout the period of working in order to avoid undue interference with cropping plans. I do not think the hon. and learned Member could have imposed more strict conditions than were dealt with in the request.

Mr. David Renton (Huntingdon)

Will the hon. Gentleman allow me?

Mr. Marshall

Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will listen to my reply, and then I will be quite willing to listen to him. The firm, in answering that request, said: We are much obliged by your letter of the 29th instant from which we have noted the points mentioned to you by the Rural Land Utilisation Officer. In general we do not see any objection to the conditions enumerated in your letter and, in fact, they really amount to what takes place in the ordinary course of our workings. In the circumstances we have pleasure in confirming that the conditions put forward by the Rural Land Utilisation Officer as mentioned in your letter are acceptable. That letter is signed by the management. I contend, Mr. Speaker, that everything that has been raised in this House has been conceded, and it was quite unnecessary, therefore, to impose these conditions in the Interim Development Order.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

May I just ask the hon. Gentleman this question? When undertakings of this sort are obtained, will he consider making a statement of them in the Explanatory Memorandum, if it cannot be done in the Order?

Mr. Marshall

I could, of course, say more about it, but the hour is getting late. I can, however, give hon. Members this assurance, that in the very near future a statement will' be made by my right hon. Friend regarding the policy in this matter. I think the hon. and learned Gentleman will find the policy will be very satisfactory. I mentioned a moment ago that my right hon. Friend was taking a very keen interest in this matter, and for the benefit of the House I want to give just one or two figures. I would not like the House to take these figures as absolutely accurate, because they are subject to checking, but the total mineral workings in the country are 136. Full restoration is taking place in 66 of these workings, and there are another 36 where it is very doubtful whether full restoration can be achieved. There are 17 of these workings which are hopeless because of various geological reasons, depth of working, or Tack of machinery. They are hopeless, at any rate, at the present day.

Mr. Speaker

We seem to be extending this Debate now to all the surface workings that may be taking place. We are dealing merely with Kettering and with nothing else.

Mr. Marshall

I bow to your Ruling, Mr. Speaker, and I am sorry that I introduced this new matter. I was only trying to prove that the Minister is taking a keen interest in this question, and is watching it very carefully. There will be an inspection, and a very adequate inspection, in future, and we will watch all mineral workings very closely. I think I have proved that in this case it was quite unnecessary to impose these conditions in the Order. I know that everybody desires to see that these places are restored to agricultural use, and the Minister of Town and Country Planning is very eager to see this is done. I think that the House, after the explanation, will let it go.

Mr. Manningham-Buller

May I put this question, which I do not think the hon. Gentleman quite followed? If further Orders of this kind have to be made, and further undertakings of this sort are given, it would save a lot of trouble, and possibly many Prayers, if something about the undertaking could be mentioned in the Explanatory Memorandum if it cannot be put into the Order.

Mr. Marshall

I will undertake to convey that view to my right hon. Friend the Minister.

Mr. Renton

Before the hon. Gentleman sits down, I would like to put this simple question to him. In the unlikely event of an undertaking of the type he has read out being broken, what is the position? Of course, it will not happen as a rule, but it may in one case out of a hundred, so that the point may be important. In the event of such an undertaking being broken, how can it be enforced? It is not a contractual undertaking. There is no contract between the Minister and the person giving the undertaking. There appears to be no penal sanction behind it. It seems important, because the Minister may find himself in great difficulty, and such difficulty could easily be avoided by making provision in this Order.

Mr. Marshall

I must remind the hon. Member that planning is not the only control over the iron and steel industry, of which the firm in this case is a part. Before you can get machinery, you have to apply to the Government. Control can be exerted by the Government over these undertakings apart even from planning control. I have no doubt that it would be exercised where they had defaulted on their agreement.

11.26 p.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and Kinross, Perth)

There is an important matter of principle involved, and I do not think the Parliamentary Secretary has given us a good reason why this particular matter should not be inserted in the Order. We are up against the difficulty here which we are always up against in these Prayers, that we would like to pray to amend the Order, but are not allowed to do so. We must pray for annulment. That gives the impression that we are against the Order as a whole; but that is not so. Can the Parliamentary Secretary say why this should not be put into the Order; because it has already been included in a letter written by the firm? Why, if it is not necessary to put this vital matter of restoration of the land into the Order, is it necessary to put in such matters as structures, machinery and railway sidings? If the Waters Committee thought it necessary, why is it not considered necessary in this case? Even with the undertaking of the firm, I do not think it is sound legislation not to put into an Order all that it is desired that the Order shall carry out. The Parliamentary Secretary says that he wishes to carry out restoration of the land, and that he thinks it will be done.

That is a slapdash way of operating an Order. If it is necessary to include houses, buildings, railway sidings, I think there is no doubt that restoration of the land, which is very important, should also be inserted. We have, all over the country today, the terrible sight of land which has not been restored, and as the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) has said, he does not want these unfortunate examples to be followed in his area. Therefore, I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will reconsider this matter, for it is important, in my view, that the land should be properly restored once the minerals have been withdrawn.

Mr. Mitchison

Will the hon. and gallant Member say whether he suggests that the whole of the somewhat involved undertaking given by the company should be embodied in the terms of the Order?

Colonel Gomme-Duncan

No; I did not say that. The obligation requiring the restoration of the land could be put in with the other provisions.

11.27 p.m.

Colonel Crosthwaite-Eyre (New Forest and Christchurch)

I believe that the Staveley Company, which is the firm concerned, is very largely affected by nationalisation already. Can the Parliamentary Secretary give the House an undertaking that whatever the firm has said in the past will be carried out by the National Coal Board, and further, that when the remaining activities of this company, which may be affected in the near future by the Government's plans for the iron and steel industry—

Mr. Speaker

That is going right outside this particular Order. I think we must confine ourselves to Kettering, and not discuss further legislation which may take place.

Question put, and negatived.

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