HC Deb 23 May 1958 vol 588 cc1704-14

1.30 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Wilson (Truro)

I wish to raise the question of housing in St. Austell, a town of 23,000 inhabitants in my constituency, which is an urban district, the name town of a rural district adjoining and is the natural centre of the Cornish china clay industry, a very important but highly concentrated industry, the majority of the clay pits of which are situated in the St. Austell rural district and within a mile or two of St. Austell itself.

Cornish china clay has far greater uses than most people appreciate. It not only provides a very large proportion of the raw materials for Stoke-on-Trent and the British pottery industry, but a very great proportion of the raw materials for a vast variety of other British industries, ranging from paint to linoleum, from motor tyres to paper manufacture and from cosmetics to medical preparations. It is also a very big exporting industry as a raw material, both in quantity and in value, and Cornish china clay has a ready sale all over the world, except behind the Iron Curtain, and including the United States of America, where it is a big dollar earner, and where, notwithstanding the American recession, it is still holding its own very well.

In all these circumstances, it is not at all surprising that the small town of St. Austell should be prosperous and growing or that the urban district council, despite its very good housing record, should have been quite unable to overtake the acute housing shortage which was caused during the war. In the last three years, the St. Austell Urban District Council has built 138 houses, and a further 110 have been built by private enterprise, while 52 council houses are at present being built. Nevertheless, in this town of 23,000 inhabitants, there are 1,000 families on the waiting list for council houses. Taking a family as averaging, perhaps, three or four, and on the whole Cornish families are large, that means that something like one-sixth or one-seventh of the total population are on the housing waiting list. That is a high proportion.

We in the Conservative Party have never regarded council houses as the sole or even the most important means of meeting the housing needs of the public. We believe that council houses can be a useful ancillary means of providing houses, but that private enterprise can and will meet the main need, provided it is given reasonable facilities for doing so.

I take it that one of the objects of the recent Rent Act was to encourage private enterprise to play a greater part in meeting the public need with regard to housing, but it is not enough to permit landlords to charge rents which will provide for repairs and maintenance. If private enterprise is to be encouraged to build houses for letting and cheap houses for sale then private builders must be permitted to use sites which they think suitable for the purpose.

The Conservative Party has never been a laissez faire party, and has for many years supported town planning but planning, in my view, should always be tempered with common sense and subject to the needs of local public opinion. It would not do if the gentlemen in Whitehall or in County Hall either, took the town plan and coloured it in pretty colours indicating certain areas of land suitable for housing development, although the local builders were not at all interested in it as a building site, or, on the other hand, indicated land for agricultural use which the builders would have liked for building and which the local farmers thought unsuitable for agriculture. That sort of thing would not be planning, but mere bungling, yet something very like this appears to have happened in St. Austell.

To the east of St. Austell, and only one-and-a-half miles from the town but well within the urban district, there is a property known as Trelawney Farm, which is in the freehold occupation of a Mr. Winstanley. It consists of approximately 23 acres of more or less flat pastureland, not of very high quality. That is rather a small unit, agriculturally, even for Cornwall. It extends from the back of houses built along the road to Bethel in the north to the St. Austell—Lostwithiel—Tavistock main road in the south—a Class I road which is numbered A.390. To the east it is bordered by Daniels Lane, which was recently designated a street by the St. Austell Urban District Council, and to the west by smallholdings which are between Trelawney Farm and other houses.

A trunk sewer actually runs across the farm, and buses run to Bethel in the north and along A.390 to the south, which carries very heavy motor traffic. From the top of a bus or from the main line of the Great Western Railway which crosses A.390 not very far away, Trelawney Farm appears as a vacant lot between the considerable development at Bethel and the main road, and most passers by would look upon that site as ripe for development.

Apparently, this was Mr. Winstanley's idea and in 1955 he prepared plans for a compact building estate in plots of land which he proposed to sell at from £200 to £250 each for the erection of artisan type houses in the £2,000-£3,000 range, and submitted the plans to the planning authority. These plans were turned down, and the rejection was confirmed after a public inquiry in 1956, on the grounds that Trelawney Farm was not included within the area allocated for residential development on the St. Austell town map forming part of the county development plan, and that there was adequate land allocated in the St. Austell area to meet the estimated housing demand.

It is true that at that time, Mr. Winstanley, perhaps owing to the manner in which he had put his claim, had not obtained the support of the St. Austell Urban District Council for his proposals. It is also true that Trelawney Farm is not marked on the plan far residential development, and that there were and are vacant sites in the St. Austell area which are marked on the plan for residential development, but many of these allocated sites are on hilly ground, they are not on bus routes, and they have no trunk sewers, and many are for sale as plots valued at between £600, and £1,200. In other words, many are not sites of any interest at all to builders who want to build cheap houses of a type which would be of any value to the 1,000 waiting families in St. Austell.

At any rate, Mr. Winstanley was not satisfied with the rejection of his proposal, and he would not take "No" for an answer. Ever since, he has been making repeated applications of all sorts to try to get that decision reversed. I think it may be that perhaps his very persistence and his importuning everybody he could think of to support his case may to some extent have prejudiced the reasoned reconsideration of his application in the minds of some of those concerned. Be that as it may, his most recent application was made in 1957 and was supported not only by the St. Austell Urban District Council but by the Central Area Planning Sub-Committee. This application was also turned down by the county council, and the rejection was confirmed by my right hon. Friend on 14th March last, after the consideration of written representations, on the grounds that, he was not … convinced that there was sufficient justification at the present time for taking the appeal site out of agricultural use and breaking into the wedge of rural land. Here we come to the very odd thing about this case. In my experience as a Member of Parliament, it is quite exceptional. Not only is the St. Austell Urban District Council still prepared to say in writing that, in its view, Trelawney Farm is considered suitable for housing development, and to have written to me as recently as 30th April, saying The council are of opinion that the site at Trelawney Farm is suitable for housing development. but no fewer than four Cornish county councillors of high standing, Brigadier Caunter, Mrs. Treffry, Mr. Francis Williams of Penair, and Mr. T. B. Eddy, all took the most unusual course of writing to me as their M.P. expressing the gravest doubts as to the decision of my right hon. Friend and saying that they thought Trelawney Farm should be developed.

What is more remarkable is that the county branch of the National Farmers' Union, through their secretary, Mr. T. W. R. Christophers—who, by the way, is also a Truro city councillor and familiar with housing problems—stating that After careful investigation of the scheme and finding that a sewer has been laid through the land, our opinion is to the effect that while loath to see any good agricultural land taken for building, we are of opinion that this farm has been so encroached upon by the sewerage system and by recent building development that we feel it is no use trying to keep it for agriculture any longer. To sum up, it seems to me that there is an urgent need for housing in St. Austell which the urban district council, under present arrangements and policy, has no hope of meeting, and which can be met only by private enterprise. Secondly, it appears to me that the private builders, for a variety of reasons which they think adequate, have not been attracted by a number of the vacant plots on the town plan but are much more likely to be attracted by Trelawney Farm. Thirdly, I would point out that the local authority most firmly thinks that the farm is suitable for development and has the backing of a number of prominent and experienced county councillors. Finally, the county branch of the National Farmers' Union, which usually is very anxious to maintain in agricultural use every scrap of agricultural land in Cornwall, in this case says quite bluntly that it is no use trying to keep this farm for agriculture.

In all those circumstances I submit that there is here a prima facie case for examining the matter again to see whether, after all, the man on the spot may not be right and know more than the man either in Whitehall or in the county hall at Truro, which is quite a considerable distance from St. Austell; and whether there is a case for altering the St. Austell town plan in the interests of the thousand families in St. Austell on the waiting list for housing accommodation.

I cannot expect my right hon. Friend lightly to reverse a decision already taken nor easily to overrule the views of his professional advisers, whether in London or at Truro. However, I submit that the views of the National Farmers' Union in Cornwall represent a new factor in this matter which has not previously been considered, so far as I know, in any previous inquiry into this matter. I submit that the whole question merits further consideration.

1.44 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Howard (St. Ives)

I wish to support the very good recitation of this case given by my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) and I wish to draw the attention of the Minister to three points in that speech; the high proportion of the people on the waiting list for houses, the backing of the St. Austell Urban District Council, and the need for private building, which must be acknowledged.

We would all agree that planning should be tempered with common sense. I know this place well. I pass it in the train about twice a week during most weeks when this House is sitting and I agree entirely with what has been said by my hon. Friend about its agricultural importance. What is much more important is that today we have heard the view of the secretary of the county branch of the National Farmers' Union, and if that is his opinion I think that it would be hard to press the agricultural merits of this farm.

In view of the tremendous need for housing, ought we not to look at this matter in this way? In every development plan or idea in this comparatively new part of our life connected with county planning there is room for revision or re-examination or plans after a period of years. Could not we take this as being the time when we should look at this plan again in the light of local circumstances? Cannot my right hon. Friend give us some hope that he may have second thoughts, in view of local housing needs and local support for this idea and in view of what has been said by the National Farmers' Union?

1.45 p.m.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Henry Brooke)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. G. Wilson) for having stated his case so clearly and so reasonably. This seems to me exactly the kind of case which should properly be raised on an Adjournment of the House on such an occasion as this, because it stems from an individual appeal and yet raises rather wider issues. I will endeavour to deal with both.

This is a matter to which I have given a great deal of personal attention. I cannot claim the intimate knowledge of the land possessed by my hon. Friends, but in so far as a study of the maps is of any value, I think that I have some mastery of the local situation. At the very outset I want to say that I have great sympathy with Mr. and Mrs. Winstanley in this matter. It is one of those cases where, if one could decide the matter on personal sympathy, one would have no doubt about deciding it in a certain way; yet one has to decide it in another way because the balance of argument lies decisively that way.

I wish to assure my hon. Friend that whatever importunity the Winstanleys may have shown, it has in no way—as he may have feared—prejudiced reasoned consideration. Indeed, if someone makes an appeal which is dismissed, and then makes another appeal and that is dismissed, who is to blame him for feeling strongly about the matter? Certainly it is my desire that all individuals shall be able to express themselves in cases like this, and my hon. Friend has used his opportunity to bring this matter right up to the High Court of Parliament.

I think that Mr. and Mrs. Winstanley had some idea that this had been decided at a lower level, and that the Minister himself was not acquainted with the facts. I should like to say here in Parliament that I did study the papers myself carefully. They received my personal attention on the second appeal—the first, as my hon. Friend will appreciate, was before my time—and I frankly had no doubt about the decision I must give though, on personal grounds, I was reluctant to give it. In their case I think the fact that they knew that the area planning sub-committee had made a recommendation that housing development should be permitted on this land encouraged them to take some action which they might better not have taken. Maybe they did not fully realise that it was not the sub-committee, but the county council itself, which was the planning authority. These are complicated matters and nobody should be blamed if he fails to have a complete grasp of how the machinery works.

I appreciate also that not only did the area planning sub-committee take the view it did, but that it was supported by the St. Austell Urban District Council.

The basic fact which one has to study is the amount of land that is allocated for residential development in the town map under the development plan. In approving the plan my predecessor made a slight alteration; he took thirty acres out of the residential allocation and put twenty acres in. Broadly speaking, the town map is based on the estimate that about 340 acres would be required for residential development in the twenty years from 1951 to 1971. It was originally estimated that, up to the end of 1957, 119 of these acres would be so developed. The fact is that housing development has proceeded more slowly than anyone expected, and the actual housing development over those seven years has been not 119 acres but only 65 acres.

When my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Mr. G. R. Howard) speaks of the tremendous need for housing and suggests that the meeting of that need is being frustrated by planning restrictions, it is only fair to point out that there are more than 200 acres allocated under the plan for housing where housing has not yet proceeded. There may be many different reasons for this. My hon. Friend the Member for Truro suggested that some of the land was far from bus routes, some of it was not yet adequately sewered and some was likely to command a higher price than would be suitable for the kind of small house that might be built on the Trelawney farm estate.

The fact remains that one must view the problem as it is. If, indeed, there is a powerful demand for housing in the area, and a very substantial acreage allocated for housing development but still unused, yet nevertheless the housing is not going forward at the rate that one would expect, then one is bound to ask oneself whether the apparent demand for housing is a real demand.

I accept the contention of my hon. Friend that there is some unresolved question here. The only point on which I wish to join issue with him is when he says—I took down his words—that the private builder must be permitted to use the sites he thinks suitable. If any Government were to accept that dictum there would be no chance of retaining green belts. My hon. Friend may or may not know that the largest element in the 7,000 planning appeals which come to me every year consists of appeals to build houses on rural land, much of it in green belts. The sites selected are extremely attractive. Many are rendered the more attractive, although the applicants do not always realise this, because frequent applications to build in that area of high amenity have been rejected in the past. Unless we are to scrap green belts, which I am sure my hon. Friend does not advocate, we must exercise control and give guidance where building, whether private or public, shall go forward.

Mr. G. Wilson

I believe I said in that context that the land, although allocated for houses, was apparently not regarded by builders as suitable. It is no use putting it on the map because, for some reason, they have not taken the land that is there.

Mr. Brooke

That brings me to the suggestion that I want to make. If the St. Austell Urban District Council thinks that the town map is wrong and the sites that have been allocated are inappropriate for housing purposes, and that therefore the town map should be amended, its proper course is to ask the Cornwall County Council to submit to me an amendment to the town map. That can be done at the quinquennial review, which will be due in 1961—I think I am right in saying that the development plan was approved by my predecessor just before I became Minister, in December, 1956—but if it is thought that the matter is one of real urgency, there is power for an amendment to be made earlier, under Section 6, subsection 2 of the 1947 Act.

I must utter the word of advice that even if it should be thought—I cannot possibly prejudge this point—that the town map should be amended, it does not necessarily follow that Trelawney Farm should be selected as land that ought to be added—or ought first to be allocated and then added—to that which is allocated for residential purposes. One has to bear in mind, for example, that there is land to the south-west of Trelawney Farm—I expect that my hon. Friend is familiar with it—which was originally to be allocated for residential purposes. Now a secondary school has been built on part of it. There is further land there which was excluded from the residential allocation.

The question arises whether, in any case, it would be right to develop Trelawney Farm for housing purposes while leaving the land immediately to the west of it, between it and St. Austell, in use for smallholdings as it is at present. The smallholders raised objections on the occasion of the first appeal in 1955. I understand that their objection was maintained at the later appeal. They believed that if Trelawney Farm were developed for housing purposes there would be more trespass on these smallholdings. They complained of the trespass that existed already. Certainly, that acreage of smallholdings would be left as a kind of island surrounded entirely by housing development.

That is a matter which I should think the Cornwall Branch of the National Farmers' Union, and the St. Austell Urban District Council and everybody else concerned, would need to take into account. It is normally considered to be unsatisfactory planning if one retains a relatively small island of land in agricultural use while building all round it, unless there is a cogent reason why that policy should be followed.

That is the best I can say to my hon. Friend. He suggested that it was difficult for me to override the views of my professional advisers. I can assure him that the Minister is quite bold enough to take an independent line when he is convinced, having examined all the facts on their merits, that he should reject the advice of his advisers or the view of a planning authority. In this case, the planning authority—that is to say, the Cornwall County Council—must have gone into the matter very carefully. It was known that there were strong local feelings about the matter and the county council reversed the recommendation of its own area subcommittee, which presumably it would not have done lightly.

I do not think Mr. and Mrs. Winstanley or anybody else ought to be under the apprehension that this has been decided at an insufficiently high level or has not received thorough consideration on its merits. I can assure my hon. Friend that it really has received such consideration, and if there is to be any change here it ought not to be by the Minister allowing an appeal on a particular part of land which would, in fact, if allowed, gravely infringe the provisions of the town map. It would be more appropriate that the urban district council, if it holds very strong views on this matter, should make official representation to the county council and support them with such argument as it can adduce to the effect that the county council ought seriously to consider amending the town map.

My hon. Friend will appreciate, as I have said, that I am not pre-judging at all whether the town map should be amended. It would be wrong for me to do so, as the application to amend it would finally come to me. But the procedure which I have indicated is, I suggest, the machinery which it would be appropriate to use.