HC Deb 06 December 1951 vol 494 cc2689-700

9.58 p.m.

Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

My purpose tonight is to bring before the House certain problems very much in the public eye, and which are associated with our National Parks, in part, but also with the question of public rights of way. I hope to speak very briefly for other hon. Members hope to catch your eye, Sir. The problems I wish to present are four in number: first, the problem of park administration; second, the problem of the nominees the Minister appoints under the joint boards; third, the question of the North Wales hydroelectricity schemes; and fourth and last, the question of footpaths.

On the question of park administration I myself shall say very little, because I see that we have here tonight by hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood). If he can catch your eye, Sir, he will be able to say something on this matter, for, if I remember rightly, he served on the Standing Committee and put down an Amendment on this very point. I would only say that my recollection of what occurred on the Standing Committee leaves me to believe that it was in the mind of the Minister and the Standing Committee that each Park should have its own planning officers and necessary staff.

It being Ten o'Clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn"—[Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith.]

Dr. Stross

On 27th November, a few days ago, I put a Question to the Minister, and he said that the joint boards, like other local authorities, should decide their own staff requirements. I would urge the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend always to bear in mind that these are national parks. They were never intended to be local parks, and, therefore, the analogy is not good or true. I want to consider the danger which we face of divided loyalties if a planning officer is in part employed by the joint board and in part by one of the constituent local authorities. This is not a new problem; I know that the Department has had it before it again and again, but we hope that tonight we may hear something reassuring, because we are anxious to feel that planning will be done in an independent fashion.

Perhaps I may be allowed to diverge for a moment to speak about the finances of the Parks. Is the Parliamentary Secretary satisfied with the arrangements made for the first of the Parks that was delineated in the Lake District? There the administrative expense is limited to £7,500, to be borne by the constituent local authorities in different proportions. That has not happened in Derbyshire and elsewhere, and we ask whether the Parliamentary Secretary, or his right hon. Friend believe that this amount is enough.

Does he not agree with me—and I speak as an old hand at local authority work, both as a councillor and still as an alderman, that if members who represent county councils have to go back, on instructions, to their constituent authorities and ask for more money they will hesitate before they agree to go, and they are not likely to press their case very strongly. At least, there may be a temptation in that direction.

My second point is on the question of the Minister's nominees on the joint board. That is another point, but I think that it should be raised. The Minister, we understand, nominates members to the Commission. Fears have been expressed that there may be such divergencies of local or even national opinion for the Welsh Parks involve national opinion, that the board may sometimes be formed without representation of the users of the parks—the ramblers, hikers, mountaineers, rock climbers, cyclists and others. What we are asking tonight is that in each and every case the Minister will see to it that in every park the users of the park are fully represented.

My third point concerns the North Wales hydro-electricity schemes. I speak tentatively on this matter, because I do not want to rush in where angels fear to tread. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he can say anything as to what he and his right hon. Friend have in mind. He must be aware that there is a considerable body of opinion which believes that if the full schemes, as we hear them mooted by the British Electricity Association, are carried out, then Snowdonia can only be a pretence of a Park.

We on both sides of the House, for this is not a political matter in any sense at all, know that there are other things to consider than joy, amenity and beauty when we are considering our national destiny or our social environment. I have to urge on the Parliamentary Secretary that he and his right hon. Friend should be acutely aware of the interests that are concerned and if it is possible they should keep an anxious eye on all developments of this kind, particularly in Snowdonia.

If one speaks of beauty and amenity there is one thing where one need not be tentative at all, and that is in respect of the use of overhead electricity lines in the National Parks. Here we are of one mind in this House, for we believe that where the Parks are most used and where they are most beautiful these lines ought to be underground. The cost, it is stated, would be very high. I am told that for 2,000 miles of underground wiring the extra cost would be about £4 million. That figure is on the high side, I am informed. It could not be spent in one year, but over 20 years. It therefore means an expenditure of some £200,000 a year.

If this charge were borne nationally, as we think it should be, and added to the charge for electricity nationally, it would mean an increase on the users of electricity in this country of one-thousandth part of a penny per unit. That, I submit, is not a large increase. But if the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend feel that they cannot persuade the D.E.A. to accept that charge there is the National Land Fund, and we should hope that an approach would be made to get the money from there.

My last point is about footpaths. In Section 56 of the Act a farmer is required to give seven days' notice to the highway authority before ploughing a footpath, and he is required to restore as soon as possible the surface of the footpath after ploughing up. The Parliamentary Secretary knows as much about this as any of us as he is addicted to walking in the countryside. From his own observations he will know what is happening.

Footpaths are being lost. They are being ploughed up and they are not being replaced. Highway authorities are taking no action, and in some coastal areas, as my hon. Friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Mr. Hayman) can testify, farmers are ploughing up right to the edge of the cliff, so that people cannot get round and access is barred. It is very important that these things should be watched most carefully.

With reference to the repair of footpaths, may I remind the House that Section 47 makes it clear that footpaths are repairable by the highway authority. We know that several county councils have refused to repair footpaths until a survey is completed and a right of way established. If the Act is right they are wrong, because where a highway authority knows that a path is a public one it should at once assume a responsibility for its maintenance without waiting for the completion of the survey procedure. I am certain that that is correct.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will make a note of the points I have mentioned. I would draw his attention to the fact that the Gloucester County Council have refused flatly to restore a footbridge over the River Avon. We know that an aggrieved person may take action against the defaulting highway authority, but that is a costly business and it is understandable that people are not in the habit of doing so.

We ask tonight whether the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend will arrange for the Home Secretary to take a test case in the name of the Attorney-General against one of the offending highway authorities. If he will do this, it seems to us that the position will be clarified and everybody will benefit. I hope that he will do his best to give a satisfactory answer now, and so save us from having to pursue him with Parliamentary Questions on points of the kind.

10.11 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Greenwood (Rossendale)

I am very glad to have caught your eye, Mr. Speaker, because I should like to elaborate on one point which my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross) made in his very admirable speech, and that is the point relating to the administration of the National Parks. I do so because many people in the country are disturbed about the arrangements which have been made in the area of the Peak District National Park and I believe also in the case of the Lake District National Park, where the planning officers of one of the local authorities involved has been appointed as planning officer for the National Parks.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to clarify the position tonight, because we hoped that in the discussions on the Standing Committee which considered the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Bill this point had been met by assurances from Lord Silkin, who was at that time the Minister of Town and Country Planning. On 5th May, 1949, on Standing Committee A, some of my hon. Friends and I had put down an Amendment, which I moved and which was designed as exploratory to find out the Ministry's intention in this respect. I began by saying that I expected that it would be possible to elicit assurances from the Minister that each and every joint planning board should employ its own planning officer Later, in my quite short speech, I asked that the arrangements which were made would be subject … to discussions with the National Parks Commission before they were made.

In his reply, the Minister used these words: I can certainly give my hon. Friend, in the most unqualified terms, the first assurance for which he asks. On reading back the discussion on that occasion I think there is no doubt that the assurance to which he was referring was the one in which I had asked that each and every joint planning board should employ its own planning officer. When, later, he said that he was unable to give the second assurance, I believe he referred to my request that the arrangements should be subject to discussions with the National Parks Commission before they were made.

In the course of my remarks on that occasion I explained why it was that we wanted to have this assurance. Perhaps I might quote the words which I used. I said: We want to avoid a situation where, instead of having a planning officer of its own, a joint board may be prepared to make do with a planning officer of one of the local authorities constituting part of that board. We feel that if that were done such a planning officer would be fulfilling two posts at once, which would militate against the unity conception of the national Parks."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee A, 5th May, 1949; c. 589 and 590.] That is exactly the question which has developed with Peak District National Park and, I understand with the Lake District National Park as well.

My hon. Friend has explained very clearly indeed that we believe that that position is unsatisfactory. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us tonight that he deprecates the practice just as much as we do, and that he will use the powers which he has under the First Schedule of the Town and Country Planning Act to ensure that National Park committees comply with the assurance which we understood Lord Silkin to give two years ago.

10.15 p.m.

Mr. E. H. Keeling (Twickenham)

I was a member of the Standing Committee on the National Parks Bill, and I can confirm what has been said by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), and the hon. Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) regarding a separate planning officer of the parks authority.

There is not the slightest doubt that Lord Silkin, who was then the Minister, gave the undertaking, and I am sure that he himself knew that he was giving this undertaking, for it was because he gave it that an Amendment to the same effect was withdrawn. It is clear that the planning officer of the Peak District or any other park will have a divided allegiance if the undertaking is not carried out; he will have an allegiance partly to the park authority and partly to the local authority by whom he is also employed.

My hon. Friend is entitled, if he so desires, to reverse the promise which was given by Lord Silkin. If he does intend to reverse that promise, I hope he will say so in terms and will not try to make out that the promise was never given. It was given.

10.16 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Ernest Marples)

I am sure the House and the country will be grateful to the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central (Dr. Stross), for raising this most important issue on the Adjournment, and to his hon. Friend the Member for Rossendale (Mr. Anthony Greenwood) and my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling) for supporting him. All three are ardent and enthusiastic supporters of what I call the "ginger group for the amenities of the country" They pursue that task with great perseverance.

I commend that perseverance for the reason that, of all the people in this House, I am the person who now uses the National Parks most. I have used them in the past more than any other hon. Member, and I propose to use them more than any other hon. Member in the future.

When I was very young I used to walk in Derbyshire along the Pennine way from Edale and over Kinder Scout. I used to sleep on top of Kinder Scout in a sleeping sack, and I used to know every grough on Kinder Scout. I have probably forgotten many of them since my Parliamentary duties became such a heavy burden on me.

When I grew up a little I used to go to the Lake District and to North Wales and climb on the rocks. I should like to invite the three hon. Gentlemen who have spoken to accompany me to a National Park on one occasion so that we can do a rock climb together. If I skilfully manipulate the rope at a right and convenient time it may be that we can increase the majority of the Government by at least two.

I assure hon. Members that they have established an identity of interests as far as I am concerned. In spirit, I am more than willing to do what I can to see that there is a National Park. I am still a member of the Climbers Club and I climb on the Idwal Slabs, which will be threatened if a bad hydro-electric scheme is established there. I recall a walk which my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham took with me one summer's day last year. With all respect to him, he wilted in the last mile of an 11 mile walk.

Mr. Keeling


Mr. Marples

The spirit was willing but the flesh was a little weak.

To come to the points raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent, Central, I cannot really pursue the controversy between the two hon. Gentlemen opposite and Lord Silkin, who is now in another place. The controversy has gone on for a long time, and I am not sure that it is worth while pursuing it on this occasion. After Lord Silkin had the controversy with the hon. Members for Rossendale and Stoke-on-Trent, Central, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Bishop Auckland (Mr. Dalton) made a decision, and established a precedent, that the joint boards, like the local authorities, should decide as they thought fit whether an independent planning officer should be appointed. The right hon. Gentleman having decided that, I think that it is fruitless to carry the discussion very much further.

I believe in this rule in life: If you want anything done well and effectively, you will not dictate to a person or even suggest to him—you will get him to suggest to you. Some of the hon. Members who have spoken tonight are married men, and they ought to know that that rule applies in marriage, in business and in politics. Therefore, I think it best that we do not dictate to the Planning Board but that, having given them a definition of duties, we allow them to carry out those duties in the proper way.

The joint boards can, if they wish, appoint a planning officer. We believe that the gentleman in Whitehall does not know best, and we think it is better that the boards, and not the authorities in Whitehall, should make the decision. The joint boards must decide two things: first, the weight and the volume of work they have to carry out; and second, how best to cope with it. If they think that they want a permanent planning officer, they must appoint one; if not, they ought not to appoint one.

The national interest is safeguarded, surely, by the one-third membership of the Board which is appointed by the Minister himself. My right hon. Friend will appoint one-third of the Board. This policy was initiated by the right hon. Member for Bishop Auckland, and it is not for me to take part in a controversy between Members of the Socialist Party. Many controversies are now going on, I have enough on my hands, and I would hate to intervene in any controversy between hon. and right hon. Gentlemen opposite.

Dr. Stross

I point out to the Parliamentary Secretary that we on this side are quite eclectic about this. We know that there has been a change of Government, and we are looking to see whether we can have an improvement on this point, at least.

Mr. Marples

Hon. Members opposite will have an improvement on many points, mostly in the building of a large number of new houses. On this particular issue, however, I appeal to hon. Members opposite to give these joint boards, now that they have been established, a fair crack of the whip and a sporting chance to prove themselves. The joint boards should be free from carping criticism until they have had a few years to see how they go.

If they fail, I promise the House that, if I am here, I will use what influence I have as Parliamentary Secretary to see that remedial action is taken in the interests of the National Parks. I ask hon. Members to believe me in this, even if they are a little dubious or doubtful in other respects. It would be unfair and ungenerous if we did not give these joint boards a chance to prove their mettle. I ask hon. Members not to continue to criticise them month after month, but to give them a fair chance now that they have been given a definition of duties and a possibility of action.

Now, I come to the question of footpaths, which was raised by the hon. Member for Stoke-on-Trent. Central. Last Sunday, I took a walk near Godalming, and I was astonished and enraged when I found that a footpath was closed by barbed wire. The action I took was to write to the Commons. Open Spaces and Footpaths Preservation Society, but although that is a worthy Society it lacks funds and is not always able to remove the impediments which are placed on the footpaths. I agree in principle that these footpaths should be open to the public, and not closed by any action whatever. Again, therefore, in spirit I am with the hon. Member and I shall try to do my best to help him.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

Did the hon. Gentleman write to the Society in his official capacity or as a private individual?

Mr. Marples

As a private individual—I am much too cautious to write in my official capacity. I have written in the past, when I was on the benches opposite, and I shall always write if I find a footpath closed.

Mr. Robens

When the hon. Member is on this side again.

Mr. Marples

I shall not be back there. It will be many years before I write from the Opposition benches; most of my time will be spent here because there is a lot of work to do, and a lot of work, which hon. Members opposite have done, to undo.

The question of footpaths was raised by the bon. Member who opened the debate. It is a difficult question. The present position as regards footpaths is not satisfactory in my view, but I think we shall have to wait until December, 1952, because Section 27 of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949, provides that the local authorities have to make draft maps of footpaths. That has to be completed by December. 1952. Then there is the regular procedure of objection and so on.

When those footpaths have been clearly defined will be the time to make sure that local authorities keep them in repair. The first thing I have found when I have asked a local authority whether such and such a line is a footpath or not, has been that they have disclaimed responsibility until December, 1952. I rather think that because of the legislation passed by the previous Government—correctly in my view—we must wait until December. 1952, before taking effective action.

Mr. Keeling

If there is no doubt at all that a footpath is a public footpath, why should we wait until the end of 1952?

Mr. Marples

I agree, but the difficulty at the moment is that local authorities normally are very cagey about this—

Mr. Keeling


Mr. Marples

—and until 1952 they will say they do not recognise as a footpath—

Mr. Keeling

It is not so at all.

Mr. Marples

If my hon. Friend has any point in mind where a local authority has admitted there is a footpath, perhaps he will be good enough to send me details—

Mr. Keeling

I will do so.

Mr. Marples

—and we will have a look at that specific instance. But, broadly speaking—and I think it is only human nature for them to take this action—they are very careful before they admit that it is a footpath in view of the draft map they have by statute to prepare.

I come to the question of ploughing. I was so interested in this subject that I made a great deal of research into it. I find it is extraordinarily complicated and that landowners have the right to plough up footpaths as part of the conditions under which a park was dedicated. If they have no such right as a condition of dedication, now, under the Act, they can plough up paths in accordance with the rules of good husbandry, provided they give seven days notice to the highway authority and restore the path as soon as may be. If they fail to give notice or to restore the paths, they may be prosecuted and fined.

The difficulty there is that under the existing law only the highway authority can enforce those provisions and take legal action. They have been reminded of these duties by my right hon. Friend's predecessor in the Ministry, and if there are any complaints of footpaths being ploughed up illegally highway authorities should be requested to take action. In case of doubt, if they do not do so I ask hon. Members to write to me and I will do my level best to see if we can get some sort of action taken.

The last point is the question of Snowdonia. I am in somewhat of a difficulty here because I shall be under pressure from many sources. This House will press me considerably, my club, the Climbers' Club will watch me very carefully and my hon. Friend the Minister for Welsh Affairs will never give me a moment's peace on this question.

The question of overhead wires was a specific point raised in the debate. The cost of laying wires underground is extremely high; I think it is higher than the estimate given by the hon. Member, and his estimate was only the capital cost of laying wires underground. He neglected to take the maintenance cost into account, and that is most important. In conclusion, to those who want the amenities preserved, I would say, remember what Arthur Balfour said, that the average person seldom realises the controversial value of understatement.

The Question having been proposed at Ten o'Clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House, without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned accordingly at Half-past Ten o'Clock.

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