HC Deb 03 November 1955 vol 545 cc1337-48

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Colonel J. H. Harrison.]

10.2 p.m.

Mr. Charles Doughty (Surrey, East)

I wish to draw the attention of the Minister of Housing and Local Government and of his Parliamentary Secretary to the sanction given for the removal of Green Belt land near London. The place concerned is Riddlesdown, in the county of Surrey, and the strip of land is between two built-up areas. This land is much used by people living in the locality, as well as by others coming from the district, and from Croydon and London, too, and the preservation of it as a public open space is most important. Great efforts have been made by the local council so that the land can be kept for local people and others to use at weekends and other times as a public open space.

In making the Order, I do not think the Minister or his Parliamentary Secretary could have had any idea of the land with which they were dealing. If they like at any time to come there, I shall be only too pleased to show them how close it is to built-up areas and what a boon it is to local and other people to have this open space in the locality. Having read the decision of the Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary, I have no hesitation in saying that they have not the faintest idea of the nature of the land concerning which they are making this Order.

The area concerned is approximately nine acres, plus a further two acres which were acquired by the council in 1937. It is in the neighbourhood of a chalk quarry which, until recently, was quite a small affair. It would not be inaccurate to describe it as a one-man affair, and it was therefore no great trouble or nuisance to the neighbourhood. A very few years ago—only three or four years—a fresh company acquired the site and work proceeded not as a one-man affair but as a whole-time affair, night and day, and on the maximum possible scale. The result in the locality was to create dust, dirt and noise, all of which was very objectionable.

That in itself would have been sufficient ground for ceasing the activity and transferring the chalk-producing efforts elsewhere, but another result of these extended activities has been that the quarry is now practically worked out. Instead of looking for a fresh quarry elsewhere, the company which owns it has the temerity to propose extending its operations into and physically removing no less than approximately 11 acres of Green Belt land. The area concerned is about nine acres belonging to the quarry company and two acres which belong not to them but to the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council. I have a great deal more to say to the Parliamentary Secretary about those two acres.

Need I say that the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council, as planning authority, did what any planning authority should do in these circumstances—refused permission for the physical removal of Green Belt land in this way. I have no hesitation in saying that I am quite sure that that refusal was right. The quarry owners, as they were entitled to do, appealed to the Minister. Those living near—there are a large number of them—and interested in this matter, all hoped that the Minister would uphold the planning authority. I also made representations to the Minister, which I hoped he would at any rate consider before coming to this wholly incorrect decision.

The inquiry was held, and perhaps I might digress slightly by saying that this inquiry, like all others of this kind, was of the most unsatisfactory nature, in that no report by the person conducting the inquiry is available, there is no right of appeal on the facts, and one does not know, but one has a very good reason to believe—from the evidence at the inquiry and the finding of the Minister—that the two findings had very little to do with each other. It is high time that this type of inquiry was fully inquired into. I am glad to see that a committee has been nominated to inquire into this form of inquiry. I hope its report will be that it is time this form of inquiry was stopped.

The people who knew the appeal had been made to the Minister naturally had confidence that he would uphold the position of the Green Belt, the position of those who have worked hard to maintain the Green Belt around London. One of the reasons why they held that view is because of one of the Written Answers given by the Minister to an hon. Member who had put a Question, and the written reply was given on 26th April this year—as recently as that. In that reply the Minister said: I am convinced that, for the well-being of our people and for the preservation of the countryside, we have a clear duty to do all we can to prevent the further unrestricted sprawl of the great cities. The development plan submitted by the local planning authorities for the Home Counties provides for a Green Belt, 7 to 10 miles deep, all around the built-up area of Greater London. Apart from some rounding off of existing small towns and villages no further urban expansion is to be allowed within this belt. These proposals, if strictly adhered to, should prove most effective. For this the authorities in the Home Counties deserve much credit."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 26th April, 1955: Vol. 540. c. 45.] The Minister did not add to that statement that in a few months he was going to sanction the physical removal of no fewer than 11 acres of this important land for industrial purposes; he should have added that in order that the full effects might have been before the House. This is the first time that statement has been read to the House, and it is just as well that the House should know what the Minister said in writing then. Contrary to his declared intention, the Minister granted permission for the Green Belt to be physically removed, not only in respect of nine acres belonging to the appellants, but also of the two acres not belonging to them but to the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council, who were opponents of the scheme.

There are people detained in Dartmoor who are quarrying for disposing of other people's property, and they may have what they think were valid reasons for doing so. These two acres were acquired by the council in 1937 with the restriction that they were not to be allowed to be developed except as Green Belt land. London County Council and Surrey County Council contributed to the purchase price of those two acres which are vital to the whole scheme because they lie across the path of the quarry owners.

Let us turn to the decision the Minister has made which can be shot through in every single paragraph. He pays lip service to the annoyance caused to the people in the locality and says: the existence of the quarry and lime works in this area is unfortunate, and he appreciates that the quarrying and processing activities must eventually be a source of some annoyance and disturance to the local residents. That is a gross under-statement; that goes on night and day and covers the locality with dust and noise and difficulties, yet the Minister dismisses it with these few trumpery words. He then goes on to say that the fixed plant and machinery is there and that to close it down now would lead not only to a serious reduction in the supply of lime to the building industry over a wide area, but also to a waste of capital resources. It simply is not true. That capital plant was put there by the quarry owners at the time when they knew that very soon their quarry would be worked out. It can easily be removed to other premises and it is quite untrue to say that any hardship would be caused to anybody by forcing them to move elsewhere.

Then, the Minister refers to the loss of lime to the building industry. Of course, we want to maintain the supply of lime to the building industry, but the whole of the North and South Downs are composed of chalk and the quarry people should be told to open a quarry elsewhere and supply just as much, if not more, lime to the building industry. If in the interim they require facilities, nobody would be more anxious than myself to assist the Minister in arranging them. But my right hon. Friend has ignored that and has said that the quarry can continue, not for thirty years, but for nearly fifty years. The eleven acres to which he has referred involves fifty years and not thirty years as he said in his report, which allows the quarry owners to go into land belonging to Caterham and Warlingham in respect of which the quarry has planning consent.

One of the worst parts of the report, in which it is not accurate in law or on fact, is the paragraph dealing with the two acres which belong not to the quarry company or to the Minister, but to one of the objectors, the Coulsdon and Purley Urban District Council. The Minister says: Having reached these conclusions on the planning issues put before him, the Minister nevertheless recognises that the actual development of the land in respect of which he now grants planning permission depends on whether the company can obtain the right to work the small connecting strip of open-space land. The view on this point of the local authorities concerned is likely to depend on whether arrangements can be made for an exchange of land which they, as the authorities primarily responsible for safeguarding the amenities of the area, will consider to permit of a satisfactory alternative connection, appropriately rounded off, between the two larger areas of open space. If such an arrangement can be made the Minister would be prepared to accept it for the purposes of any consent required of him whether under Sections 5 or 15 of the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act, 1938, or otherwise, provided satisfactory provision can be made for a footpath linking up the green-belt areas on either side of the quarry. The Minister never looked at the Act when he wrote that. Is he aware that under the Green Belt (London and Home Counties) Act, 1938, a copy of which I hold in my hand, before he gives consent he must ask for the objections of anybody who has contributed to the purchase price of the land? The London County Council and the Surrey County Council are the bodies concerned. The Minister has given his consent at a time when he had no power to do so. He has given it before hearing the views of those whom he is obliged by law to hear. If any judge were to do that, he would soon be removed by resolution of both Houses of Parliament. In that, therefore, the Minister is completely wrong in law and has exceeded his powers in giving consent before fulfilling his statutory duties.

The letter goes on to say: The compulsory purchase order under which this land was purchased contained a provision prohibiting the acquiring authority from selling or laying out and developing the land subject to the order.… It was never acquired under a compulsory purchase order. The Minister has not even bothered to find out the facts. The land was acquired by private treaty under covenants in which the vendor and the purchasers and those who provided the land covenanted that it would not be used without the written consent of the Surrey County Council and the London County Council previously had and obtained that it should be used for parks and open spaces. I do not have time to read the whole of the covenants. The Minister's facts, therefore, are not right.

An eminent legal gentleman whose opinion has been taken by the council has described any transfer of the land as being sharp practice. It therefore is not necessary for me tonight to point out that the Minister's advice that a suitable exchange of the land would be prohibited by that provision does not apply, because the provision does not apply. If it had applied, he had no business to take the decision which he did.

On the face of it, the decision is bad. It is wholly inaccurate to say that the supply of lime would be affected. It is the duty of the quarry owners to seek their chalk elsewhere. There is no suggestion in the decision that there was to be found any difficulty about this. It is a completely wrong decision.

The date of the decision, 11th August this year, may, perhaps, give us a clue to the matter. I see that the decision is not signed by either the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary. I know that at that time the Parliamentary Secretary was, unfortunately, indisposed. We are glad to see him back and looking so well tonight. The Minister himself, perhaps, was away on a well-deserved holiday at that time. Neither looked at the decision before it was made. If they had, I can be quite certain they would not have agreed to this Green Belt land being removed in the way in which it was.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary now, in the few minutes remaining to him, to give at least this undertaking, first, that he will look at this matter again, if necessary in consultation with me, and I will point out to him that his facts in this decision are completely wrong and that his law does not begin to comply with the requirements of any of the Acts to which he refers. So far as the decision in general is concerned, it makes a travesty of the statement made to this House that the Minister intends to maintain the Green Belt.

If, however, my hon. Friend maintains his position, if he says, "This is my story and I stick to it," then I ask him to give the undertaking here and now that he will bring no pressure to bear upon the owners of these two areas who are to be deprived of this land or upon the Coulsdon Purley Urban District Council, and that under the Surrey Development Plan which, I know, he has in draft before him now, in which the land is described, as it should be, as Green Belt land, he will not go behind other people's backs and describe it as land ripe for mineral purposes or any designation of that kind. If he does do either of those things I can promise him that he and the Minister will have to answer in this House for it, and answer for it at very short notice.

10.17 p.m.

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

This debate would be facilitated if we could spread a map out between us to see exactly what is at stake. Unfortunately, that is an arrangement which is precluded here, and I must do my best to give my version of this story without a map, as my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty) had to do. My hon. and learned Friend has fought a very stiff battle over this ground, and I do not underrate in the least the strength of local feeling about it, nor his own, but he must not underrate either the consideration which we for our part gave before this decision was taken.

He says that neither my right hon. Friend nor I had the faintest idea of the land before the decision was given. That, frankly, is nonsense. A great deal of care was taken over this decision, and I shall now mention some of the considerations, not all of which were referred to by my hon. and learned Friend, which led to the decision which was eventually taken not a clear-cut one, not an easy one. I do not pretend it was.

Chalk has been worked on this site for a great number of years, probably in a very small way for most of the time. In 1946 there was installed a great deal of the present plant in an extensive programme of modernisation and re-equipment, and in 1951—I ask my hon. and learned Friend to take note of this—planning permission was obtained from the neighbouring council for acquiring land immediately to the east, the intention then being that it should be approached by a tunnel under the intervening open space land.

That could not be carried out. In 1952 the whole undertaking was taken over by Associated Portland Cement Manufacturers, Ltd., who maintained that the tunnel was impracticable and wanted permission instead to approach the existing face by way of a north-easterly direction, through the open space directly into the area to which my hon. Friend has been referring. That application was refused.

The company appealed, and the local inquiry was held.

The objection to this proposal was that it involved interference with a public open space, and the authority contended —it is fair to say this—that the narrow strip, although only about two acres, was vital as a connecting link between the open space area to the north and the other. While the authorities seemed to recognise that some further land would have to be worked, what they insisted on was that access to it should be by a tunnel so as to preserve the continuity of the open space. I think that they were reconciled to a very large-scale development of this kind, but not in the area under consideration. The district council and the local residents, of course, complained, no doubt not without cause, of the noise and the dust and the depreciation of values and so on.

The company's case was that it would have to work further land unless its machinery and plant, said to be worth £300,000, was to be rendered valueless. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Surrey, East has made very light of the company's production, but it produces about 30,000 tons of hydrated lime a year, or very nearly enough to supply the London area, which requires about 35,000 tons, and that cannot be dismissed lightly. The company says that the tunnel was out of the question because of the cost of making it and the communicating shaft that would be required, and because of the double-handling that would be necessary between the two halves of the works.

I accept that it is possibly regrettable that this quarry ever developed from a small pit into one of the largest undertakings of the kind in the London area, but those circumstances came about before the inquiry about which my hon. and learned Friend feels so strongly. What weighed with us was that, in view of the importance of the works, some further extension of the quarrying area would have to be permitted. The company's reason for saying that the tunnelling would be impracticable seemed to us to be, on the whole, sound.

Therefore the alternatives left were either to let the company work as it suggested, that is, the present working face advancing into the hillside, or to give permission for an open cut eastwards into the land for which the planning authority had already granted planning permission. I stress the point that permission had already been given to the east. We thought the former course was preferable. It had the advantage of keeping the work fairly compact and leaving the appearance of the quarry face very much as it is now. It was recognised that the open space strip to which my hon. and learned Friend has made several references would be destroyed in the process, but the chief merit of this particular land is that of a connecting link.

There was some talk of letting the company make a narrow cut through the open space strip and spanning it with a footbridge. That was considered but was rejected because of the cost. It was decided finally, after further consideration, that permission should be given for about eleven acres of the appeal site, giving the company enough raw material for thirty years—not fifty years.

Mr. Doughty

My hon. Friend appreciates, of course, that the opening that he has given into the Green Belt gives access to another piece of land which would make it enough for fifty years.

Mr. Deedes

I am prepared to discuss that matter again with my hon. and learned Friend but, with respect, I am holding to my figure of thirty years. He knows, as well as I do, that the Minister has no further jurisdiction on the appeal.

Several appeals are made to the Parliamentary Secretary in debates on the Adjournment at this hour of the night, but it must be well known to my hon. and learned Friend, experienced as he is in these matters, that the Minister has no further jurisdiction. Permission can be revoked or modified, but to do that would require compiling new evidence, and I know that my hon. and learned Friend is aware of that.

I tackle next the point that my hon. and learned Friend makes about the Green Belt and the whole question of open land. I maintain that what has been done is in no way inconsistent with the policy which my right hon. Friend laid down recently in relation to the Green Belt. The modern conception of a Green Belt is an extensive area of open countryside, its object being to provide not merely publicly-owned walks and pleasure grounds, but a broad buffer between towns, a barrier against urban sprawl and haphazard encroachments of house and factory building into the countryside, generally as ribbon development.

Quarrying is not necessarily out of suggested Amendment—will the Minister learned Friend smiles, but he himself suggested earlier, and in a letter to myself, that an alternative to this quarry would be the North or the South Downs. As a resident in the area of the South Downs I take issue with him about that suggestion. Most quarries are situated in rural areas, and the crux of this case was that it would involve the destruction not of the Green Belt in its wider sense but of public open space and the interference with the amenities not of a rural but of a residential area. The strongest thing that could be said against this was the disturbance to a residential area. Therefore I say that, without making too much play about this intervening piece of land, nothing in this decision is incompatible with the declared policy of the Minister on the Green Belt.

I think that the works are admittedly undesirable in such a locality but to close them down at the point they have now reached would cause not only serious disruption but tremendous wastage of most expensive plant.

Mr. Doughty

The really serious point is that it is disposing of other people's property. Will my hon. Friend deal with that point?

Mr. Deedes

It is worth realising, too, that quite apart from the recent appeal, this company had permission for a much larger area south-east of the appeal site.

Mr. Doughty

They did not have the two acres. Let us deal with those.

Mr. Deedes

They had permission for this much larger area and, but for the tunnel, they would have been operating their lime works over a larger area and for a much longer period than is now envisaged.

My hon. Friend has said that there can be no possible chance of an amicable exchange. He knows that I am not going into the details because time precludes. He knows what is at stake here. The obstacle to working for the company now is the fact that the open space strip is owned by the district council. A compulsory acquisition of the necessary working rights by a compulsory purchase order or by High Court grant is not without the bounds of possibility, but it would be a better arrangement for all concerned—and I do not accept my hon. and learned Friend's word as the last word on this—if the council would agree to negotiate an exchange of the strip in return for the considerable area of other land held by the company.

Although the Council is precluded by the 1937 compulsory purchase order from selling the land before 1958, an exchange of land is not prohibited, although the consent of the Minister is necessary under the Green Belt Act. I understand that the council has declined to consider an exchange, and I earnestly put it to my hon. Friend that he should do what he can to see that authority tries to ensure that the decision of the Minister is carried out, and that in particular it will give further consideration to these arrangements for exchanging land.

I myself think that the prospect for local residents is not quite as bad as my hon. and learned Friend has made out. Surely this is better than the alternative for which planning permission had already been granted by the Caterham Council—I stress that—and which would have meant virtually the opening up of a second vast quarry which, in the end, might have been far more objectionable than the arrangements which are now being suggested by my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Doughty

Before he sits down, will my hon. Friend reply to my two questions? He has not referred to either of them.

Mr. Deedes

My hon. Friend raised a legal point which, frankly, I will not answer "off the cuff." I will, however, send him an answer in detail.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Ten o'clock.