HC Deb 28 July 1955 vol 544 cc1427-37

3.43 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)

It has been extremely interesting to listen to the debate which has just taken place. I was specially interested in one comment made by the Economic Secretary. He referred to the concern of the Government in cases of hardship to small businesses. My object is to deal with a case of hardship in a smaller unit than a small business, namely, a family—a hardship to which I referred in a Parliamentary Question not long ago.

I refer to the case of Mr. and Mrs. Holland, who live in a little house in my constituency. The house has the rather charming and romantic name of "The Cottage in the Woods." The history of this case is that after Mr. Holland came back from the war he and his wife were determined to find a home rather different from that which most people look for. They wanted a home far from the madding crowd, and yet Mr. Holland realised that he had to go back to his civilian occupation, which was in London.

Hon. Members can therefore understand that it took them some little time to find what they wanted. First, there was a circumference around London beyond which they could not go. Eventually they discovered this little cottage, which was at that time in a wilderness of weeds and, as its name implies, in a largish copse. This cottage is situated north-east of Crawley but it is actually in the very extreme north-eastern tip of the designated area of the Crawley new town. It is situated upon a long road running north and south between Horley in the north and Balcombe in the south.

They bought the house in July, 1949, and I should say here that at that time it was not in my constituency. It was in East Sussex and it came under the Cuckfield Rural District Council. When they were in process of buying the house their attention was drawn to the fact that it was within the designated area of the Crawley Development Corporation and, as everybody knows, if one comes within the ambit of a new town and at the same time one wants to be far from the madding crowd, one should take a certain amount of precaution.

Mr. and Mrs. Holland, therefore, visited the offices of the Crawley Development Corporation in July, 1949, before they actually bought this property, and they were assured that it was in a green belt area, and that it was a very small area just to the west of a large green belt area which exists outside the designated area. They were shown a map in the offices, and this small space was painted green.

They were also concerned at that time about a planned radial road to the east of their small property, and they therefore paid a visit to the Cuckfield Rural District Council, from whom they also received an assurance that this was, in fact, in an area which was to be retained as green belt. Not only was it not going to be built on, but the long-term policy was that as houses got into a state of dilapidation they were to be pulled down so that this would constitute a completely green belt area.

Mr. and Mrs. Holland bought the house, and in a matter of two years they had converted it from the wilderness to which I referred into a house which has received a very great deal of prominence because of the beauty of its garden. In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that photographs of this garden have appeared in periodicals and magazines in countries all over the world, and visitors have come to see it. This Mr. and Mrs. Holland achieved in a matter of a very few years.

In 1951, two years after they bought the house, they thought that further to secure themselves they might be able to buy a small strip of land to the south of their boundary, 60 ft. in depth and entirely woodland. They approached their neighbour on that side and he informed them that they would have to pay a development charge. I will say straight away that they did not know very much about development charges, and in that respect I think they were probably on common ground with many hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens. But they were rather worried about it because of the word "development" and they had at the back of their minds that this place was in a green belt.

They telephoned to the Crawley Development Corporation and they were again informed that this area was in a green belt and would not be built upon. Again they were reassured and were perfectly happy for another three years. In 1954 their neighbour on the northern boundary informed them that he was selling quite a large amount of land for building purposes. They immediately told him of the assurances that they had had, not once but time and again, that this was in a green belt area and, therefore, was not for development.

They were very concerned about it because he told them that that had all been changed, so they telephoned Crawley Development Corporation and this time the response was different. They were not reassured at all. They were told somewhat abruptly, so they tell me, that it was no longer a matter which had anything to do with the corporation and that they must get in touch with the rural district council.

I should say here that in the intervening period this area had come within my constituency. It had been transferred from East Sussex to West Sussex. Therefore, the appropriate local council was the Horsham Rural District Council, to whom Mr. and Mrs. Holland immediately wrote in February, 1954, objecting strongly to the fact that they had not been notified of this planning change. They received a reply to the effect that there had been no applications received up to date for development and that, therefore, the council felt that they had no worries.

Three weeks later the Horsham Rural District Council received an application from a Mr. Brooker to purchase, and to build a house on, a property a bare 100 ft. north of their own small cottage. Mr. and Mrs. Holland were never informed of this. The first they heard of it was in the October—several months later. Directly they did hear, on 15th October, they wrote to the rural district council, but the reply was that there was no onus on the local council to notify them that planning permission had been granted and there was nothing further they could do about it.

The Hollands accepted this situation with more or less resignation but it at least served to keep them alive to any further developments. Being on the qui vive they discovered, on 20th October, that another application had been lodged, this time for the plot of land between that of Mr. Brooker and their own. They immediately wrote again in protest, and it was on the strength of that letter, so I am informed, that Mr. Dudman's application for the new piece of land was turned down. I should like to make clear that the refusal was on the grounds of loss of amenity to Mr. and Mrs. Holland and not on planning grounds. I understand that that application was turned down by the local council on 24th November, 1954.

Mr. and Mrs. Holland realised that Mr. Dudman would no doubt appeal against the decision. Therefore, when they were approached a few days later by the local Press for information, they said that the matter was sub judice and that they would prefer to make no comment whatever. Unhappily—and unfortunately—no such restraint was exercised by a very senior official of the Crawley Development Corporation who at that time made a statement to the Press which, I believe, read as follows: "They never would have been assured this." He referred, of course, to the original assurance given by the Crawley Development Corporation to Mr. Holland that the cottage was in a green belt.

I submit that that statement by an official of the Crawley Development Corporation seriously embarrassed Mr. and Mrs. Holland's position in the appeal. However, the point which I wish to make to my hon. Friend is that which I pressed in a supplementary question—that the Hollands did not receive even adequate notice of the appeal which was later heard. Here I must confess that I quite unwittingly somewhat misled the House in my supplementary question. I should like now to put that right. I apologise for the rather large number of dates but they are important.

Mr. Holland has been informed by the Ministry that he would be given adequate notice of the appeal. On 1st February —when he saw this statement in the Press made by the official of the development corporation—he wrote asking the Ministry whether an appeal had been lodged and, if it had been, when it would be heard. In view of this Press statement, he also asked that the evidence should be taken on oath and that he should be allowed to subpoena witnesses. On 1st February—and this is where I misled the House—the local rural district council wrote Mr. Holland a formal letter stating that the appeal would be heard on 10th February. He received that letter on the evening of 2nd February.

For two reasons—first, that he was awaiting confirmation from the Ministry in reply to his letter of 1st February; and second—and I do not quote this as an excuse—that he was in bed with influenza with a temperature of 103 degrees, he did nothing about this until getting confirmation from the Ministry. He did not receive that until he got a telegram dated 8th February. I ask my hon. Friend this. If the Ministry—as it did—notified the rural district council on 27th January that this appeal was to be heard on 10th February, why did it take the Ministry from 2nd February to 8th February to notify Mr. Holland? I think that Mr. Holland has perfect grounds for saying that he could not do very much until he had a reply from the Ministry. The biggest point is that he never received, until 15th July, a reply from the Ministry to his question whether the evidence could be taken on oath and that he should be able to subpoena witnesses.

The result of all this was that when the appeal was heard on 10th February Mr. Holland was not represented legally nor, in my submission, had he a reasonable time in which to make his case. It is on those grounds that I ask my hon. Friend once again to look into this matter —this chapter of what I call hardships and the statements made from time to time to my constituent—and to ask himself whether that appeal was not, as I described it in my supplementary question, almost a travesty of justice?

I have three reasons for bringing this matter to the attention of the House. The first, and by far the most important, is that in view of all the statements which have been made and of the fact that my constituent did not have reasonable time, in my submission, to get legal representation at the appeal, his name has been impugned. People are saying that Mr. and Mrs. Holland have been making up the story that it is unreasonable that they should have been told time and again that they were in a green belt. Therefore, my principal reason for raising the matter is to clear their name. I hope that will be done.

There are one or two other questions which I want to put to my hon. Friend. The first, which is a matter which affects very much my constituency, is whether the Minister, before he made his decision as a result of this appeal, consulted the Minister of Transport and Civil Aviation? I really cannot understand how the Minister can allow what is nothing more nor less than ribbon development on this road, which will be of vital importance at the time when Gatwick Aerodrome is being developed, and in view of the fact that the whole of the traffic to Brighton will be seriously impeded for several years. I wonder whether my hon. Friend would say whether full consideration was given to that aspect of the matter?

Finally, I ask my hon. Friend whether he can give any sort of assurance in regard to the southern boundary of Mr. and Mrs. Holland's small property. I saw, in a brochure issued by one of the companies which has a factory in Crawley, that it is intended to have a certain number of better-class houses built, some of which will have two or three acres of land each.

I am asked by Mr. and Mrs. Holland particularly to say that they do not wish that it should in any way be thought that they want their amenities to be considered before housing in Crawley. Nevertheless, this is a most lovely beauty spot. It is a place where, if we are not careful, there will be ribbon development and most serious traffic congestion. In all the circumstances, I ask my hon. Friend to give an assurance, either that there will be no further development or that it will be restricted to these better-class houses.

3.58 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. W. F. Deedes)

I very much welcome the chance—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

I take it that the hon. Member is speaking with the leave of the House?

Mr. Deedes

I beg pardon, Mr. Deputy-Speaker. By leave of the House, I wish to say something about this case presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough). It is a case in which allegations of gross injustice have been made and the expressions "travesty of justice" and "shameful treatment" have been very freely used. I always think that in such circumstances the best thing is to have it all out in the open, and this debate which my hon. Friend has initiated provides an opportunity for doing so. To that extent I am genuinely grateful to him. I should like first to outline the initial facts, as my hon. Friend has done—I am not much at variance with him—as we have them. Mr. Holland, whose motives described by my hon. Friend I fully appreciate, acquired a cottage at Worth, Sussex, just within the designated area of Crawley new town in 1949. He paid £3,000 for it and has since spent, I think, about £1,000 in improving it. My hon. Friend is quite right in saying that Mr. Holland has a remarkable garden which has today become a showpiece. That is quite beyond dispute.

The heart of Mr. Holland's case is that he says that before buying the house he inquired of the Crawley Development Corporation and the Cuckfield Rural District Council, which was then responsible for planning applications, and he obtained assurances that the land was green belt and that no further houses would be allowed. I have my own note of the conversation as it was recorded at the time by the Crawley Development Corporation. This is my note: I informed them that the property was in the open space which it was proposed to use as the buffer land around the developed part of the town and that the house would probably not be interfered with during its normal physical life. I shall have something more to say about that presently.

As my hon. Friend said, certain conversations and correspondence followed, but the next act of substance was five years later, when a Mr. Dudman applied to build a house next door on the north side of Mr. Holland's house. The Crawley Development Corporation was consulted and offered no objection. Mr. Holland, as my hon. Friend said, heard of the application and, quite naturally, took immediate action, including strong representations to the Horsham Rural District Council, which by then had become responsible for considering planning applications.

It is noteworthy that the Horsham Rural District Council took the view that there was no planning objection to Mr. Dudman's application. However, it refused the application these terms: The proposal would be likely adversely to affect the amenities of the adjoining property. That was done solely in order that there should be a public inquiry at which Mr. Holland could register his objection. When references are made to "shameful treatment," and so on, that is a point which I am entitled to stress. Clearly, the rural district council was anxious that justice, as far as an inquiry could do justice, should be done to the case of Mr. Holland.

Mr. Gough

I did not for one moment suggest anything else. I know that the rural district council and several councillors have taken up the case on behalf of Mr. Holland.

Mr. Deedes

I am glad we are agreed on that.

The inquiry was held on 10th February, 1955. I am glad that my hon. Friend has taken the opportunity to put right the question of the notice. It is a fact that there was a difference in the notice which Mr. Holland received from one source and that from the Ministry, but what matters is that Mr. Holland was given the date of the inquiry eight days before it was held; and I think he had anticipated some time beforehand that there would be an inquiry. He has since said that he had no time to instruct a solicitor and to prepare his case as he would have wished. If so, that certainly is regrettable, but there was eight days' notice and he had, I think, some anticipation of the inquiry which was to take place and had, no doubt, to some extent got his affairs in readiness for such an inquiry.

My hon. Friend referred to a statement made by the Crawley Development Corporation while the matter might have been considered to be sub judice. I cannot comment on that, as I have no notice of it, but I can say that no such statement made by the Crawley Development Corporation could conceivably have weighed with the inspector at the inquiry. That is what matters. As a result of the inquiry on 15th April, a decision was issued allowing Mr. Dudman's appeal, subject to the site, design and external appearance of the building being agreed with the local planning authority.

Having given a fairly straightforward account of the facts, I should like to make same comments on the situation. Mr. Holland is clearly under the impression that when he first asked in 1949 he got a categorical assurance that no development could take place. It is perfectly true that all these transactions were verbal, and I do not dispute for a moment with my hon. Friend that on this occasion, as on all such occasions, it is one man's word against another's as to exactly what transpired.

However, there are two points which, I think, it is fair to make. First, Mr. Holland says that similar undertakings were given to Mr. Johnstone, who has a house nearby. In correspondence with Mr. Johnstone in 1949 the corporation explained that the master plan was only a framework and that is showed that the area concerned was in a green strip. We come here to what, I think, may clear up a major misapprehension in this case. My hon. Friend said that this small space was painted green. That is absolutely right. It was shown as a green strip in the coloured version of the master plan—a light green colour. The correspondence included a statement that until the detailed drawings were prepared it could not be said with certainty to what extent a particular property would be affected by development. I think that between the green strip and the green belt there may have been misunderstanding. There is no question of this land being in the green belt.

The second point is this. Mr. Holland's case is based on a misconception, for which he cannot be blamed, because these are not simple matters, as to how planning control is exercised. No one can ever give a categorical assurance about the fate of future planning applications. That is quite clear. If anyone could, any appeal to my right hon. Friend would become quite meaningless. It would be worth nothing. Development plans and master plans in new towns lay down the general policy of land use in an area, but can never be or seek to be conclusive in relation to particular proposals.

Mr. Gough

What rather defeats me is this, that my hon. Friend agrees with me that the local authority refused permission on amenity grounds, not on planning grounds at all, but then he tells me that when the appeal was heard the appeal was upheld on planning grounds. Therefore, the amenity question appears to me not to have been dealt with.

Mr. Deedes

The local authority, having in the main no objection in principle, refused in order to give an opportunity for an inquiry, so that justice could be done to my hon. Friend's client. Therefore, I do not think much stress can be placed on that.

Mr. Gough

Not client but constituent.

Mr. Deedes

Constituent, I should have said.

The second point I want to stress is this. To define land as green belt—which is not the case here—raises a strong presumption against development, but it does not preclude development between existing houses. That often is allowed even in the green belt. So that even if this land in question had been within the green belt, still no categorical assurance could have been given in 1949 that nothing could ever be built between one house and another.

The third thing I would stress is that had the appeal been dismissed, Mr. Dud-man himself might have had a very strong grievance. To have denied him the right to build would in itself have been certainly an act of gross injustice.

For Mr. Holland in his cares and anxieties during the recent years I have great sympathy. I think it is rather tragic that when, as my hon. Friend put it, he sought to be far from the madding crowd he should have been so deeply exercised and involved in so much correspondence in safeguarding his property. It is rather tragic. However, I do not think he should be too gloomy about the future. He has still a charming and secluded garden, of which he is rightly proud. His new neighbour made clear at the inquiry that he would respect the desire for seclusion, and he proposed to leave that belt of trees 45 ft. wide between the two gardens. I think that most of us in this tightly packed island would be very glad of as much as that.

I come lastly to the two questions which my hon. Friend raised about transport and about the southern boundary. I am not going to attempt to answer either offhand. I have had no notice of either and I am most anxious that any answer given should have been carefully studied in some detail. I will, therefore, seek out any answer which my hon. Friend requires on the two points and write to him and give as full particulars as I can.