HC Deb 01 December 1959 vol 614 cc1139-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Brooman-White.]

10.6 p.m.

Mr. T. W. Jones (Merioneth)

I am very pleased to have this opportunity of raising on the Adjournment the question of the Capel Curig Club House, because of the deep and widespread feeling aroused on this matter throughout the Principality and because of the shocking decision made by the Minister. My hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas) is unfortunately unable to be with me tonight to join in the debate, but the Minister will recall that a week or so ago we told him that he had a bad name in Wales, and tonight I will tell him why this is so.

The right hon. Gentleman has slipped up very badly on this occasion and his action calls for the strongest condemnation and the most severe censure. Indeed, the Minister should be downright ashamed of himself because of the decision he made, thereby causing great pain and sorrow to many people who hold certain strong convictions and who are sensitive to the mischief which he has caused.

Let me remind the Minister that for us in Wales he is first and foremost the Minister for Welsh Affairs and only secondarily the Minister for Housing and Local Government. The very fact that there is a Minister for Welsh Affairs is in itself an indication that the House and the Government believe that in certain respects Welsh affairs can be somewhat different from the affairs of the rest of Britain.

Let us consider one of these respects. There is the Wales Sunday Closing Act. This Act is still very jealously guarded in Wales, and great vigilance is kept to see that it is not circumvented by any back-door methods. The right hon. Gentleman is one of Her Majesty's most responsible Ministers, yet tonight I shall charge him with having aided and abetted in breaking that law. That is precisely what this decision amounts to.

He has given a licensed premises in Wales what is equivalent to a seven-day licence, because one can be practically certain that the people who will become members of the club will in all probability be the same people who are customers in the licensed premises for the six days of the week, so that the same people who will be selling liquor to their customers on six days of the week will in all probability be selling liquor to members on the seventh day of the week.

It is true that the ordering of intoxicating liquor must be in the hands of a committee of the club members, but it is a thousand to one chance that this committee will order its supplies from the licensed premises of which the annexe is a part. It will be honour bound to do so. Any way, it will work on the principle of the old Welsh couplet: Cân di bennill mwyn i'th nain, Fe gân dy nain i tithau. This is a most extraordinary situation and certainly not in accordance with the best traditions of the law. It is, in fact, a circumvention of the law in the interest of a monopoly. My first charge against the Minister, therefore, is that he is helping to break one of the most cherished laws in relation to Wales. If a humble constituent of mine did that he would be brought before a bench of magistrates, but here is a Minister of the Crown getting away scot-free.

Mr. John Morris (Aberavon)


Mr. Jones

The Minister should be ashamed of himself.

My second charge against the Minister is that he has offered a flimsy excuse for his action. This is what he said: I cannot decide planning appeals on moral or sabbatarian or any other grounds.

I must confess that such an observation frightens me. Are planning appeals of necessity bereft entirely of moral significance? However, so that I do not do the Minister an injustice, let me quote him in full and show that even from his own words one can see a reason for refusing the application on strictly planning grounds. This is what he said: What was before me was a planning appeal for the use of a room at Capel Curig as a licensed club. It was supported by the Welsh Tourist and Holidays Board and a number of local people. It was opposed by the local authorities, two hotel keepers, and a Presbyterian Minister. My inspector, who held a local public inquiry, thought that on technical grounds there was no evidence to warrant a refusal of permission, but on social grounds he felt that the proposal would affect adversely the character of the village in much the same way as a cinema might be inappropriate in Capel Curig. The inspector's report came before me for my decision. Now, when a planning appeal comes before me, it is to the planning grounds alone that I can direct my attention. I cannot decide planning appeals on moral or sabbatarian or any other grounds, any more than it would be right for me to be swayed by whether I liked or disliked the supporters or the objectors. On planning grounds I could not see that there was a case for refusing the application and dismissing the appeal. I could not see that it was going to spoil the appearance of Capel Curig in any way, and as this was a planning appeal the licensing law was not relevant to the duty that the planning Acts laid upon me.

One could understand the Minister using this argument if Capel Curig were situated in Mayfair or in Soho, but, as he is aware, this is a quiet, peaceful village situated in a secluded spot in North Wales renowned for its natural beauty. His own inspector seems to have sensed the situation properly and, according to the Minister's own words, the inspector felt that the proposal would affect adversely the character of the village in much the same way as a cinema might be inappropriate there. Is the changing of the character of a Welsh village of no consequence to the Minister? And changing it for the worse? His own inspector said that Capel Curig would be the worse as a result of this.

Surely the character of a village or a town is the very thing that a planning Minister is expected to protect and preserve by all means. The Capel Curig which we have known hitherto will now cease to exist. It will no longer be the quiet, peaceful village that we have always known it to be.

The proprietress of the hotel stated at the inquiry that the total club membership might eventually reach 400. Imagine that—the population is only about 500. But the members will not be the local residents, as I shall show in a minute—far from it. She also stated that only about forty would attend at any one time. That is mere conjecture. Four hundred people will not be members of this club just for the sake of being members. They will be members in order to use it. They will come in their cars from many miles around. Cannot the Minister visualise the traffic problem which will arise on the stretch of road in front of the hotel? Since the effect of alcohol in Wales is the same as it is in every country, one can guess what will be the condition of many of these travellers on the return journey. Here then will be a major planning problem brought about by the Minister of planning himself. That is the situation. He himself is responsible for it. He could have refused consent on planning grounds.

I have a letter from a very great lawyer, which I received this afternoon He says: As an Englishman living in retirement in the area of the Snowdonia National Park, I should like to express my thanks for the sustained criticism which you and Mr. George Thomas, M.P. are offering with regard to the action of the Minister of Housing and Local Government, and to assure you that the English residents of this area are just as wholeheartedly opposed to the establishment of this club as are our Welsh friends. If there were time, I would read the whole of the letter in which he tries to prove—and does prove to my satisfaction—that here was a real planning problem, a problem made more acute as the result of the Minister's decision.

Lastly, I would say that the Minister has flouted the elements of democracy and has come out in the rôle of a dictator. He appoints an inspector to attend an inquiry on his behalf and because the inspector's report does not happen to be in accordance with his own views he, in effect, slaps him in the face. He says, "I won't listen to you, my man". Then he adds insult to injury. He ignores the objection of the county council, which is the local planning authority.

Surely the County Council of Caernarvon ought to know best what is in the true interest of Capel Curig. It was supported in its objection by the local rural district council. This council stood to gain financially by having this club, due to the augmented rateable value, but the council strongly objected. So also did the parish council, the members of which are in daily contact with the residents of Capel Curig. So also did the proprietors of two other hotels in the locality, for obvious reasons. So also did the Nonconformist churches throughout the area.

These objections counted as nothing to the Minister. He stands tonight completely unsupported. He stands condemned. He is in disgrace and, because of this, I ask him to hand in his resignation to the Prime Minister.

10.20 p.m.

Mr. Raymond Gower (Barry)

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government will have been aware that concern and feeling on this matter is not confined to the constituency of the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones), or indeed, even to North Wales.

Mr. T. W. Jones

Of course not.

Mr. Gower

It is expressed all over Wales. Therefore, I hope that my right hon. Friend will be able to make a fairly full statement in reply to the debate and that he will be able to explain to the House more particularly the planning aspect of the matter. I understand that the law relating to planning, for good or ill, is the same in England and Wales. The hon. Member for Merioneth and I and other hon. Members might wish that the law should be different in Wales, but we have to take notice that the law introduced by the present Lord Silkin is the same for England and Wales.

Mr. Tudor Watkins (Brecon and Radnor)

Which side is the hon. Member on?

Mr. Gower

I hope that my right hon. Friend will say something about the fact that the law is the same. He has been acting in a quasi-judicial capacity and has had to act in accordance with planning law. I hope that he will be able to bring out that point in replying to the debate.

10.22 p.m.

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

My hon. Friend the Member for Barry (Mr. Gower) is entirely right. In deciding a planning decision, where I am in a quasi-judicial capacity, I have to have regard to planning law and seek to interpret the law as laid down by the House.

Before I get to the details of this case, I should like to deal with two general arguments of the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. T. W. Jones). He indicated that the county councils view should certainly prevail and that the Minister should accept the recommendation of a civil servant. I cannot accept that as a general rule in planning appeals. If it is to be regarded by the House that the view of the planning authority should always prevail, the appeals procedure becomes nonsense.

The Minister must approach the matter with an open mind, not leaning in advance on the side of the authority or the appellant. The inspector is an experienced civil servant appointed by me to hold appeals and in recent years I have had nothing but high regard expressed of the manner in which my inspectors carry out that duty. But the Minister must decide. He and not a civil servant, is responsible to Parliament.

No one deplores more than I do the absence today on account of illness of the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas), but the hon. Member was something of a bureaucrat in arguing that the function of a Minister was to rubber stamp the recommendation of a civil servant and that he, as Minister, was liable to criticism in the House if he differed from what a civil servant advised him to do. I cannot accept that, and do not think that the hon. Member for Merioneth will accept it.

As to the issues here, we are discussing the conversion of one room 15 feet by 10 feet in a bungalow annexe in the grounds of an hotel in the village of Capel Curig and the planning authority's refusal of permission for its conversion to club use. There was an appeal and a public inquiry was held in January of last year. At the appeal a petition was presented in favour of allowing the appeal, bearing the signatures of 25 local residents. There were four letters in support of the appellant from patrons of the hotel, and a telegram from the Secretary of the Welsh Tourist and Holidays Board was also produced. I think that the hon. Member for Merioneth would know why I deal with this in some detail.

The telegram, of which I have a photostatic copy reads: Greatly interested in your application. Please assure authorities of our full support. The telegram was signed in the name of the Secretary.

I want to be perfectly fair about this. The Welsh Tourist and Holiday Board issued a statement in October of this year saying: It was not appreciated at the time that these alterations involved any additional facilities for the sale of drink, otherwise the Board would certainly have implemented its invariable policy in matters of this kind and would have consulted the local authority concerned before taking any action. But the document produced at the appeal was the telegram which I have read.

As I say, the inspector came to the conclusion that the club would adversely affect the character of the village to the detriment of residential amenities. Let me stress that he came to this conclusion apart from any question of the effect of the proposal on the sanctity of the Sabbath. He was not dealing with Sabbatarian arguments, but with the social amenities of the village.

The matter, therefore, came before me. I decided that I had to decide the matter without reference to Sabbatarian or moral grounds. I could not take into account matters unrelated to land use, but I could take into account the effect on the social amenities of the village. I should like to say, in passing, that only the other day, since I decided this appeal. I dismissed an appeal in relation to a proposed conversion of a house in Penmaenmawr, which is not very far away from Capel Curig, to club use on planning grounds because it seemed to me that it would be undesirable in its effect on local amenities on traffic grounds and for other similar reasons.

The traffic and parking grounds were not an argument adduced by the county council as planning authority at the appeal. The hon. Member spoke of them, but I was not asked at the appeal to take them into account, nor. I think, would anyone seek to stress that that was a considerable factor. The argument which I had to consider was whether this conversion would spoil what the hon. Member has described as a very quiet peaceful spot. He said that the Capel Curig which we have hitherto known would cease to exist. He urged me to be sensitive to the mischief I have caused. I know Capel Curig, also, and I know that it is a quiet place out of season which depends very largely on holiday makers. It is a delightful spot.

Let me say, both as Minister for Welsh Affairs and as Minister of Housing and Local Government, that nothing would be further from my thoughts than any desire to spoil a village of this character. However, it did not seem to me on planning grounds that the county council or the other objectors had made out a sufficiently good case against the proposal. I want to get on record that there were other objectors. The county council was supported by representatives of the rural district council and the parish council and, as the hon. Member said, by two hotel keepers and a Presbyterian minister.

But, having examined the matter and leaving out Sabbatarian considerations which my inspector regarded as irrelevant to the recommendation that he made, it appeared to me that my inspector was wrong in arguing that to allow the appeal would injure the social amenities of Capel Curig. This now is a matter of fact, because I understand that the club is open. I have not had representations made to me from the locality that grievous harm is being done to life in Capel Curig, or that this place is attracting traffic and undesirable people.

Mr. J. Idwal Jones (Wrexham)

It is winter now.

Mr. Brooke

I gave this decision in June, and there are quite a number of people about in Caernarvonshire now. We shall see next summer, but I am entitled to say that, so far, the mischief which the hon. Member for Merioneth said I had caused has not come to light. He was the one who used the past tense and not I.

The hon. Member also said that Wales was vigilant that the Sunday Closing Act should not be circumvented by any backdoor method. I hope that it will not be taken amiss when I say that under the licensing laws as they stand a great number of people who want to obtain a drink in Wales on a Sunday know how they can obtain it. I certainly could not accept that the existence of this one small club would make all the difference between drunkenness and teetotalism on Sunday in Wales.

I am not insensitive to the argument that he is using on this score, but it is an argument relevant to the licensing Acts rather than to the planning Acts. This is not the time when we can discuss legislation, but, frankly, I think that this criticism is misconceived. If it has any value at all, which would be open to argument in this House, its relevance to the licensing Acts rather than to the planning Acts deserves examination.

I wish the House to know that this is not a new policy which I have suddenly embarked upon, and which has attracted widespread attention. In fact, during the last five years there have been 14 other appeals in Wales regarding the turning of premises of various kinds into clubs—

Mr. Roderic Bowen (Cardigan)

How many on licensed premises?

Mr. Brooke

There were 14 other appeals to turn other premises—dwelling-houses, shops, guest houses or cafes—into clubs.

Mr. Bowen

How many in connection with licensed premises?

Mr. Brooke

Six of the appeals were in North Wales. Seven of them were dismissed and seven were allowed. I have made inquiries and, so far as I can see, out of the seven allowed in different parts of Wales only on one was there any kind of complaint or representation. [HON. MEMBERS: "How many on licensed premises?"] That is not relevant here. I cannot accept for a moment that I should regard as relevant whether the bungalow was in the grounds of licensed premises or elsewhere. That certainly is not what I can take into account. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] As I said, the last of these was the case at Penmaenmawr, when, purely on planning grounds, I decided to dismiss the appeal.

Finally, I wish to rebut a suggestion, which was not made this evening, but which has been made by people elsewhere, that this decision shows a failure to understand Welsh feelings and the Welsh outlook. On the very day when the hon. Member put a Question to me in the House I read in the Liverpool Daily Post that the Machynlleth Urban District Council—a Welsh authority if ever there was one—was considering an application from the local football club to use the assembly room at the town hall for "housey-housey", and that after consideration that was agreed to by eight votes to three.

I see in the Western Mail today that the management committee has now granted the Machynlleth Football Club permission to use the Parliament House at Machynlleth for these gambling activities, yet I am asked to believe that it is only Englishmen who lack understanding of the Welsh point of view, and that, if these things were left to Welshmen to settle, they would always settle them on the anti-drink, anti-gambling basis.

Quite frankly, I do not believe that for a moment. I am confirmed in that view by expressions of opinion that I have received from different parts of Wales that my decision, though it was not pleasant to some of the people concerned, was absolutely right, because one must keep these things distinct, and, when Acts of Parliament have laid down the grounds on which Ministers are to reach decisions, Ministers must not be led by their personal preferences, or by any other consideration, to seek to decide matters and perform their quasi-judicial functions according to other principles. Those other principles were, in fact, irrelevant, according to the Acts, to the matter which I had to decide.

It may he that Parliament, in its wisdom, will one day decide to amend the licensing laws. I cannot say. I cannot offer any prophecy about that. But I can firmly say that, so long as the planning Acts remain as they are laid down by Parliament, I shall continue to decide planning applications in England and in Wales on grounds of land use and general amenities in the locality and the effect which any proposal may have on the public. I am not prepared to take into consideration Sabbatarian, moral or other considerations, however important they may seem to me.

The Question having been proposed after 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 at twenty-four minutes to Eleven o'clock.