HC Deb 13 May 1947 vol 437 cc1455-8
Mr. Henry Strauss

I beg to move, in page 8, line 43, to leave out paragraph (b), and to insert: (b) that where objections and representations have been duly made in accordance with the regulations the Minister shall, unless he is satisfied that the objection or representation relates solely to a matter which can be dealt with by an arbitrator by whom compensation is to be assessed, before he approves, makes or amends such a plan, cause a local inquiry to be held. The object of this Amendment is to avoid the risk that the regulations, which the Minister is here empowered to make, might obviate local inquiries or hearings, or only prescribe them in certain cases. I think the House will agree that in the normal case of objection a local inquiry is the proper course and it should be obligatory in the statute.

Colonel Wheatley

I beg to second the Amendment.

The Attorney-General

It is perfectly true that as the Clause is drafted it is within the discretion of the Minister to hold a public inquiry. There is nothing novel in that. In the 1944 Act the holding of a public inquiry is not obligatory. Even under Section 1 of that Act the Minister is not obliged to afford objectors an opportunity of being heard, still less to hold a public inquiry at which they may make their representations. He is under no obligation, if he is satisfied that he is already sufficiently informed.

None the less, while we cannot accept this Amendment, I can indicate that it is the intention of the Minister that the initial plan, or any amendment of any substance at all, shall always be the subject of a full dress local public inquiry. The Minister has adopted that practice hitherto, for instance in the Plymouth case in which the Court of Appeal upheld his attitude, and he intends to follow it. But, it is of importance, if the position of the Minister as a Minister, rather than as a quasi-judicial officer, is to be preserved, that the Minister's discretion in regard to this matter should be maintained. If he does not hold an inquiry in a particular case where it is appropriate that one should be held, the political sanction is the sanction which ought to be imposed on him, and that sanction is often much more useful than a purely legal one in this type of case. I hope the House will feel content with that sanction, which it has in its own hands. Incidentally, there is a reference in the Amendment to the position of an arbitrator and the question of compensation. That appears inappropriate because the development plan, unlike the scheme under the Act of 1932, does not give rise to compensation.

Mr. H. Strauss

I think I agree with the last criticism the Attorney-General has made. I was not suggesting that what I said ought to be the practice was not the existing practice of the Minister. I agree that it is. In view of the assurance of the right hon. and learned Gentleman I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Attorney-General

I beg to move, in page 9, line 5, at the end, to insert: (3) If as the result of any objections or representations considered, or local inquiry or other hearing held, in connection with a development plan or proposals for amendment of such a plan submitted to or prepared by the Minister under this Part of this Act, the Minister is of opinion that the local planning authority or any other authority or person ought to be consulted before he decides whether to approve or make the plan either with or without modifications, or to amend the plan, as the case may be, he shall consult that authority or person, but shall not be under any obligation to consult any other authority or person, or to afford any opportunity for further objections or representations or to cause any further local inquiry or other hearing to be held. This Amendment is intended to preserve the Minister's right of consultation even if he has caused a local inquiry to be held. It is, I think, the desire of the House, in these matters of town planning, where the Minister under the Statute by which his Ministry was constituted in 1943 is placed under a responsibility to Parliament to ensure consistent and proper planning throughout the country as a whole, that the Minister should act as such, that is to say, should act as a Minister and should be responsible for his actions to Parliament rather than act in a quasi-judicial capacity within the narrow lines of judicial procedure in a way which restricts him to evidence which may be brought before him in public inquiries. The functions of a court administering justice as between subject and subject, and those of a great administrative department of Government seeking to administer the law in the interests of the greatest good of the greatest number, are not the same, and it does a disservice both to the judicial ideal and to the principles of good administration to attempt to unify them. Under the Bill as at present drafted the Minister acts as a Minister responsible to Parliament. That is the position which yesterday the Court of Appeal decided he occupied under the 1944 Act, and that is the position we want to make quite sure we are preserving under this Bill. I venture to think that members of my own profession will, quite rightly, always be ingenious in finding ways and means of attacking the actions of Ministers, and this Amendment is designed to make it quite clear that if, after holding a public inquiry, the Minister decides to fortify himself by consulting with outside bodies, even with bodies which may have been represented in the course of the public inquiry, he should be free to do so without being under any obligation to communicate the results of such inquiries to the public, or to objectors, or indeed to anyone at all except on the instruction of Parliament.

One has to distinguish in this matter between an inquiry into a development plan, where the interests of the community as a whole are paramount and where what is to be decided is some broad question of public policy, and an inquiry into a compulsory purchase order, which immediately affects one particular individual whose land it is sought to acquire. In the latter case, where you are dealing with the rights of a particular individual, it is appropriate that the forms of quasi-judicial procedure should be pursued, but in the former case, where you are dealing with questions of broad public policy, if any finality is to be secured, if the risk of protracted litigation going right through the hierarchy of courts is to be avoided, Ministers must be left free to arrive at Ministerial decisions without disclosing all the sources of their information, or canvassing them all in public with every objector. This is the only practicable course, and since every inquiry under this Clause affects a large number of landowners and involves fundamental principles of planning in which local planning authorities have an over-riding interest, it would be entirely contrary to good administration and to the doctrine of Ministerial responsibility to Parliament to compel Ministers who take part in such consultations to re-open inquiries and to disclose the consultations they have had.

It being Twelve o'Clock, the Debate stood adjourned.

Debate to be resumed this day.