HC Deb 06 February 1956 vol 548 cc1462-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. E. Wakefield.]

10.0 p.m.

Mr. John Hynd (Sheffield, Attercliffe)

I am extremely grateful for the opportunity of raising the question of the Sheffield development plan tonight. I regret only that the debate has to be restricted to such a short time, because this matter of the plan for the redevelopment of Sheffield after the war has implications much wider than those affecting Sheffield alone. I have rarely known, in my experience, an occasion on which the City of Sheffield has been so unanimously indignant about a Minister and his treatment of the city as on this occasion. I am certain that it will be much more indignant tomorrow when it finds that, after all that has been said, the Minister has not deigned to come to the House to deal with the discussion.

I should like to read, for the information of the House, a resolution unanimously carried by the Sheffield City Council on Wednesday last. It was moved by the Leader of the Council and seconded by Alderman Sir Harold Jackson, the Leader of the Conservative Opposition. It is as follows:

  1. "(1) That this Council place on record:—
    1. (a) that the Sheffield Development Plan was submitted to the Minister of Housing and Local Government on the 15th December, 1952;
    2. (b) that the Minister promised his observations in March, 1955, and again in the summer of that year and that such observations have not yet been received;
    3. (c) that the Minister has refused a recent request made by this Council to receive a deputation to urge upon him the importance of announcing a decision at an early date.
  2. (2) That this Council express their extreme dissatisfaction that the continued delay in dealing with a matter of such importance to the City and, in particular, they deprecate the refusal of the Minister to receive a deputation to discuss this delay."
There may be a very good reason why the Minister is not here tonight, and if there is, I should like to hear from the Parliamentary Secretary what it is. If there is not a substantial reason, I would only say that the people of Sheffield and the Sheffield City Council will take that as an added insult to the city.

This is a matter which affects the very basis of Sheffield's building development. Sheffield is a city the supreme importance of which as a centre of iron and steel, special steels and the rest, I need not try to emphasise. It is a city which was very severely blitzed in 1940, a city whose centre still largely remains undeveloped, partly at least because of the fact that the development plan for which we have been waiting for many years has not yet been authorised by the Government.

I should like the House to know the situation. The city council deals with approximately 200 development applications every fortnight, according to a statement made by the Lord Mayor of Sheffield only the other day. These development applications are made by small and large shopkeepers, business people and private people, for the purpose of rebuilding their property—or building property within the city—where it has been damaged, or where replanning is involved.

It is quite impossible and unfair to expect that these people who are awaiting the authorisation of plans to go ahead should be expected to go ahead without any assurance that the development plan will ultimately be authorised. There is still no assurance that that will be done. It is for those reasons that in a speech last Thursday, the Lord Mayor said that it was a situation which Sheffield could endure no longer.

No doubt the Parliamentary Secretary knows that there has been a demand from the city council for a deputation of the council to be received by the Minister. I do not see what is wrong with that. The Minister has received a deputation of the city's Members of Parliament, but they have not the detailed information to place before him.

The interview was held upon a confidential basis, as are many such interviews, and the city council does not know precisely what is the Minister's point of view; nor is it possible for me to develop what was said at that interview. What is known to the Minister and to Sheffield, however, is that other cities have had their plans approved and are able to go ahead with them. In view of Sheffield's industrial importance, I do not think that the Minister would suggest that its plans are less urgent than some of the others. He has not made clear to us upon what basis of priorities he is authorising these plans—or, if there is any such basis, why it is necessary that this case should have been held up for so long.

We hope not only to develop shops and industries, but also flats and houses both in the centre and upon the fringes of the city, but the Government know that when an extension of Sheffield's boundaries has been suggested it has been thrown out in another place, and Sheffield has to go on developing as speedily as it can receive permission to do so within the present confines of the city.

I should like to know whether the Government intend, at any time, to authorise the city council to go ahead with this development plan. If they do, will they explain carefully and clearly why it is taking so long for them to authorise Sheffield to do the job? We are not asking the Government to do anything except permit Sheffield to get on with the job upon the basis of its plans. If those plans are not acceptable to the Government, will they say in what respect they fail to meet the wishes of the Government, so that some kind of plan may be put forward which will be acceptable to them, and the people who want to get on with the development can do so?

At the moment, matters are being dealt with in a piece-meal way, in the hope that at some stage the plan will be authorised and everything will be all right. The Minister should tell us whether he intends to authorise this plan. If he does not, he should indicate to the city council what modifications he is prepared to accept, and the best way he can do that is by inviting representatives of both sides of the city council to see him and discuss with him the details of the plan.

No doubt the Minister has seen the tremendous amount of pressure which has been built up in the local Press upon this subject. He may have seen the report in the Sheffield Telegraph of Thursday of last week, reporting a debate in the city council, in which the Conservative leader of the opposition, Sir Harold Jackson, quoted the well known words from Shakespeare's "Measure for Measure" in describing the Minister: Man proud man! Dress'd in a little brief authority: Most ignorant of what he's most assur'd. His glassy essence—like an angry ape Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven. As make the angels weep. If that is a proper description of the Minister's attitude, we may be able to get something done, but I think that his attitude is worse than that. It is not a question of the Minister being ignorant of what he is most assured; I suspect that he has no intention of authorising this plan, but will allow the whole matter to drift on until it is too late for anything specific to be done. If so, I hope that the position may be cleared up tonight.

I demand that the Minister or the Parliamentary Secretary should be prepared to agree to an interview with the Sheffield City Council as quickly as possible, so that the council may know whether or not the plan is likely to be accepted, and, if it is not suitable, within what limits the council can now go ahead and build up some of the Sheffield that was blitzed in 3 940, so as to make the greatest possible contribution to our economy and welfare. That is all that the city council is asking for, and I hope that it will be granted.

10.10 p.m.

Sir Roland Jennings (Sheffield, Hallam)

I should like to congratulate the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) on using his luck in the Ballot to bring this important subject to the attention of the House. The Sheffield development plan has been before me for many years, and I have had many interviews about it. I and other hon. Members representing Sheffield constituencies consider that by raising this matter we are doing what our electors sent us here to do—to help them to develop the city after the severe bombing. Sheffield had two very bad days of bombing and the centre of the city was laid bare. This is not a party political matter, but one concerning Sheffield as a whole and all its ratepayers and residents.

I have received a letter similar to that referred to by the hon. Member for Attercliffe, which takes the history of the original plan as far as 1952. In March, 1955, the Minister promised his observations, but those observations have not yet been received. He was also requested to receive a small deputation from Sheffield. I have received many deputations from the city, and I do not think it is a very big thing to ask the Minister to hear the views of such people in order to see how exactly he can help them to get on with their plan. There is at present almost a standstill in the development of the centre of the city. The city council says that it has been insulted, but I do not think that the Minister had any wish to insult the councillors. The hon. Member for Attercliffe has stated that the leader of the opposition in the city council is a Conservative. I should like to correct that—he is a Liberal.

Mr. J. Hynd

Then he is a National-Conservative-Liberal.

Sir R. Jennings

If the hon. Member has had dealings with Sheffield for many years he will know that the gentleman is a very prominent Liberal.

There are present tonight five Sheffield Members to support this appeal to the Minister to give his views on the development plan. We ask the right hon. Gentleman to let the council get ahead, and that if there is some difficulty in the way he should see a deputation, tell it what that difficulty is and see how it can be surmounted. I am perfectly certain that in such a way we can restore harmony and good will between the Department and the Sheffield City Council. We expect the Minister in reply to tell us what is happening to the plan in the Ministry. Is the plan to be approved, or is it to be thrown out? Can a deputation of councillors come to London and see the Minister and his officials and explain the urgency of the matter?

I wish to express with as much force as I am able my expectation that the Parliamentary Secretary will give us tonight some indication that the development plan is likely to be approved, that Sheffield will be able to proceed with the plan, and that, if there are any difficulties, the; Minister is ready and willing to see a deputation from the city.

10.15 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. J. Enoch Powell)

I should like to begin by dealing first with the immediate past and the immediate future. As the hon. Member for Sheffield, Attercliffe (Mr. J. Hynd) mentioned, a deputation of Sheffield Members of Parliament met my right hon. Friend in the first half of December. In the second half—to be accurate, two days before Christmas—the City Council wrote to the Minister requesting him to receive a deputation.

My right hon. Friend was then within sight of being able to send to the City Council an indication of his intentions in regard to the plan, as a basis for detailed discussions between the City Council and officials of the Ministry. He therefore felt that at that time there would be little profit in a deputation being received, and he indicated that to the City Council on 9th January and again on the 17th. That letter which will convey to the City Council the Minister's intentions in regard to the plan will reach the City Council this week.

Sir R. Jennings

Hear, hear.

Mr. Powell

After all, this has been forecast for some weeks past in letters from the Ministry to the City Council. The way will then be open for the detailed discussions which will pave the way to the final approval of the plan.

I want next to put Sheffield's development plan into its perspective in the general process of the approval of the development plans which have to be made under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, for I would like to make it clear that, although the queue of development plans moving forward to approval moves slowly, Sheffield has not lost or changed its place in that queue. Sheffield's plan was received by the Minister on the last day of 1952, and only three development plans which reached the Minister later than that date have yet been approved. It will therefore be seen that, slowly though the queue may be moving, Sheffield's development plan is moving at least level with the queue.

Mr. J. Hynd

How can that be so if three which have been received since have been approved?

Mr. Powell

Those happened to be cases dealing with very much smaller areas and where the problems raised were not so complex. I think it will be seen that, generally speaking, Sheffield has not been at a disadvantage with the other local planning authorities in regard to its development plan. I think that the apparent contrast with the approval already of the Leeds development plan may have caused some misunderstanding, but it has to be borne in mind that the Leeds development plan was submitted no less than fourteen months before the Sheffield development plan.

Taking the country as a whole, of all the development plans submitted—and practically all have now been submitted, as the Act requires—over one-half have been approved and the necessary public inquiries held into practically all of them. Why then, it may be asked, is there this length of time, averaging perhaps something up to three years, which intervenes between the submission of a development plan and its final approval by my right hon. Friend?

I would ask the House to realise the immense amount of consultation, of hearing of objections and of considering those objections which must take place when so important a matter as a basic development plan has to be settled. The most important stage in that process, although by no means the only stage, is the public inquiry, and the public inquiry into the Sheffield development plan lasted thirteen days. Therefore, the immense mass of material and the great complexity and number of issues raised will at once be clear. In addition, there are all the conflicting interests which are involved in development plans. The fullest effort has to be made to reconcile them and fit them in.

The first reason why this process is necessarily slow is that it is a job which must be done thoroughly, concerning which it is best to have full consultation and to which it is better to give full consideration than to gain a little time. The other limiting factor is that of manpower, the manpower of the skilled inspectorate to hear and report on these public inquiries and the manpower of the skilled personnel in the Ministry who carry out the work of preparing for Ministerial decision the information and the surrounding facts about these plans.

Hon. Members may be tempted to say, "Here was a big job which it was quite clear would have to be done in the few years following the coming into force of the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. Surely the right thing to have done was to take on extra staff in order to see the Ministry over the bulge, as it were." On a little reflection, however, I think they will see that such a course would have been very unwise. To deal with these development plans at all effectively not only requires great experience, but also that those who deal with one plan should be dealing with many other plans, so that they bring to their task experience and judgment schooled over many years in dealing with planning questions and in hearing planning inquiries and adjudicating upon the results.

It would have been quite wrong to draft in, so to speak, raw and inexperienced officials so as to bring a little more speed into this process. It is most essential that the people dealing with this work should be people of sound judgment and wide experience. It is also important that there should be continuity, that after this work of approving development plans is finished, they should continue to deal with the plans in their subsequent stages, because as soon as this phase has come to an end and the basic plans have been approved, we shall be starting the quinquennial revisions required under the Act.

That is a continuous process, in the necessity of things, and it is desirable that the staff which deal with development plans, their revisions and questions arising from them should be a staff continuously engaged in these matters, so that it may build up and can apply a fund of experience. I therefore make no apology to the House for the fact that the approval of these plans has been, on the whole, what must appear a slow process. It is a deliberate process, and I assert that it is a process which ought to be deliberate and that it would be wrong if it were otherwise.

There is no reason why during this lengthy interim there should be prejudice either to the operation of the local authorities concerned or to those of individual potential developers. I am glad to have the opportunity of this debate to clear up some misapprehensions on this score, which, as was clear from the remarks of the hon. Member for Attercliffe and my hon. Friend the Member for Hallam (Sir R. Jennings) may exist in some quarters.

Development need not be held up by the absence of formal approval to a development plan. There are a number of ways in which urgent problems can be settled before the Minister's approval to the plan as a whole is given. Applications for permission to develop can be made at any time to the local planning authority, irrespective of the stage which the Minister's consideration of the development plan has reached, and a person who needs to know whether he can develop the land in a certain way can therefore obtain a decision in advance of the general approval of the plan.

If the application agrees with the submitted plan or is at most a minor departure from it, it can be settled by the local planning authority on its merits, with the usual right of appeal to the Minister from the local planning authority's decision. If, on the other hand, a substantial departure from the submitted plan is involved in an application for planning permission and the local planning authority is in favour of permitting it, the authority is invited to notify the Minister, who may either leave the decision to the authority or take it into his own hands, and have an inquiry if he thinks that necessary.

Mr. J. Hynd

That does not answer the question. It might be all right if it does not differ considerably from the final plan, but supposing that the final plan is ultimately approved and differs from the original plan and something has been built into the original plan, the whole thing may be out of balance and may be out of place.

Mr. Powell

I have already pointed out that if an application is made during the time that the plan is pending and differs substantially from the submitted plan, the normal course, where that is of importance, is that it should be submitted to the Minister who, therefore, can take responsibility for fitting the decision into the plan which is before him——

Mr. J. Hynd

That is not the point.

Mr. Powell

I think I may be able to help the hon. Member if he will allow me to proceed. The local planning authority itself can seek express permission from the Minister for any development of its own which is at variance with the plan. The local planning authority may need to know the attitude of the Minister to certain proposals in the plan before determining whether a major piece of development, either public or private, may proceed. The authority is at liberty to approach the Minister who, after any necessary consultation, declares his intention in regard to those proposals. For local authority schemes awaiting approval in the plan compulsory purchase of land may be sought——

Mr. R. E. Winterbottom (Sheffield, Brightside)rose——

Mr. Powell

May I finish this point? A decision on a compulsory purchase order by the responsible Minister is not held up until the Minister's comprehensive approval of the plan has been given. So, neither the local planning authority nor any individual developer need be delayed or prejudiced by the fact that the plan is still under consideration. I would invite Sheffield City Council, or any would-be developer in Sheffield who is affected, to make use of the rights under the Act and of the procedure I have just outlined in order to clear away these uncertainties at the earliest time. There is no reason why these uncertainties should remain until the development plan is approved——

Mr. Winterbottom

Does the Parliamentary Secretary for a moment imagine that all this verbiage will camouflage the real charge that is being made here tonight? Does he not think that all this is known to those people who are practically applying the Town and Country Planning Act in Sheffield? Of course they know it and of course they know all about the way this operates. Out of their experience in respect of what the Parliamentary Secretary has said, this last week they most indignantly passed a certain resolution. Knowing the Liberal, or Conservative, Sir Harold Jackson, I know he would not approve of that resolution if he thought the defence the Parliamentary Secretary put up at the onset of his remarks was true.

To be frank, I am questioning whether the Sheffield City Council know that there has been such a communication from the Minister, and I am wondering why the Minister is not here tonight. Is it that that which has been told to the Parliamentary Secretary is spurious advice or is it——

Mr. Powell

I think probably the hon. Member has asked enough questions now for me to take not only the remaining 90 seconds in answering but some little time afterwards. I hope I have cleared away the misapprehension that the delay in the approval of the development plan holds up either the planning authority or the would-be private developers. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] Let them test the matter and put in an application.

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.