HC Deb 18 March 1960 vol 619 cc1723-32

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

4.9 p.m.

Mr. F. V. Corfield (Gloucestershire, South)

This debate concerns a matter with which I think my hon. Friend is familiar. I have a thick file on it, a large part of which represents letters written to him, or to my right hon. Friend, and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend has a larger file.

Briefly, the problem concerns planning permission which was given in March, 1958, by the local planning authority for a caravan site in the village of Winter-bourne Down, in my constituency, which is a village in the green belt. For the moment, I am not concerned with the merits of this particular decision,

The House divided: Ayes 28, Noes 29.

Division No. 55.] AYES [3.59 p.m.
Ashton, Sir Hubert Hiley, Joseph Rawlinson, Peter
Baiter, Sir Beverley (Southgate) Hornsby-Smith, Rt. Hon. Patricia Renton, David
Browne, Percy (Torrington) Hughes-Young, Michael Russell, Ronald
Corfield, F. V. Jenkins, Robert (Dulwich) SKeet, T. H. H.
Courtney, Cdr. Anthony Johnson Smith, Geoffrey Smith, Dudley (Br'ntf'rd & Chiswick)
Doughty, Charles Joseph, Sir Keith Waketield, Edward (Derbyshire, W.)
Emery, Peter Langford-Hott, J. Williams, Dudley (Exeter)
Gibson-Watt, David McMaster, Stanley R. Wills, Sir Gerald (Bridgwater)
Godber, J. B. Mathew, Robert (Honiton)
Hicks Beach, Maj. W. Price, David (Eastleigh) TELLERS FOR THE AYES:
Mr. Stevens and Mr. Leather.
Callaghan, James Hughes, Emrys (S. Ayrshire) Pavitt, Laurence
Carmichael, James Hunter, A. E. Prentice, R. E.
Craddock, George (Bradford, S.) Irving, Sydney (Dartford) Robinson, Kenneth (St. Pancras, N.)
Deer, George Janner, Barnett Silverman, Julius (Aston)
Dodds, Norman Johnson, Carol (Lewisham, S.) Skeffington, Arthur
Ede, Rt. Hon. Chuter Jones, Rt. Hn. A. Creech (Waketield) Stewart, Michael (Fulham)
Edwards, Walter (Stepney) Key, Rt. Hon. C. W. Warbey, William
Foot, Dingle Lipton, Marcus Zilliacus, K.
Gunter, Ray Mitchison, G. R.
Hall, Rt. Hon. Glenvil (Colne Valley) Oram, A. E. TELLERS FOR THE NOES:
Holman, Percy Pargiter, G. A Dr. Stross and Sir. L. Plummer.

although I hope to say a word or two about that later on. I am mainly concerned about the procedure which was adopted in arriving at that decision.

It must be obvious, certainly to any hon. Member in this House, and, I would have thought, to most members of the public, or at least those who live in rural areas, that an application of this sort for a caravan site in a country district is something of very much wider public interest than a matter which merely concerns the interests of the applicant. It must be clear that the residents in this village must be vitally concerned at this decision which also represents the violation of a green belt. There is a much wider local interest, and, as a matter of policy, it raises matters of national interest.

Surely the object of the green belt is that our countryside should be preserved. In this case, it is not a question of a caravan site in the folds of the hills or tucked away in a remote woodland area. It is in this village, or on its immediate environs. Moreover, the area planning committee, even if it had not itself adverted to the wide interests there must be in applications of this sort, had brought to its attention the fact that the application was unanimously opposed by representatives of the local authority, namely, Sodbury Rural District Council. In spite of that, and this is what I find the most disturbing feature of this application, it went out of its way to consider this application in secret.

Not only were the proceedings taken in committee, but the agenda was deliberately marked confidential, and the local representative of the county council was given to understand that he was not at liberty to make it known to the local people whom he represented that this matter of vital interest to them was coming before the planning committee. Though I understand he opposed the application, he clearly could not make his opposition as effective as he would have been able to do had he been able to sound local opinion and get the forthright reactions which were subsequently forthcoming.

As my hon. Friend and the House are aware, once an approval has been given the local residents are faced with a fait accompli. There is very little they can do about it. The Act of 1947 provides for a public inquiry when there is a refusal, but it does not provide for any form of public investigation when an application is approved. In this case, the approval is all the more damaging because it is in violation of the green belt and the development plan. I am not certain whether the development plan for Gloucestershire has been confirmed, by my right hon. Friend, but whether it has or not, it is constantly used by the local planning authority as a reason for refusing applications, and has been so used in this village for permanent development in the immediate neighbourhood of this caravan site.

Therefore, this procedure in effect has allowed by a backdoor method the altering of the development plan without a public inquiry, which otherwise the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, very properly provides for where a development plan is going to be altered. I find it extremely difficult to see any possible merit in this procedure, or, indeed, any excuse at all, for adopting it, and I am in complete sympathy with the residents of Winterbourne Down in their very strong reactions of protest in this matter.

I know that it is the policy of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government to delegate a large number of functions to local authorities. I support that policy and believe that, on the whole, it is sound that local decisions should be made by local representatives, Nevertheless, it is absolutely essential that we in the House should ensure that when a decision is delegated individual citizens should not lose the democratic right which they have under our constitution to make their protests to the Executive through their Members of Parliament.

I would urge my right hon. Friend not to allow this particular delegation, or, indeed, any other delegation, to deprive citizens of their fundamental democratic safeguards without putting something equally effective in their place. Unless my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary or my right hon. Friend the Minister is prepared to use his powers to revoke this planning decision—and fortunately in this case the compensation payable would not be large because only about two acres are involved—this is precisely what will happen, not through any fault of my hon. Friend or of my right hon. Friend, but because the procedure adopted by the local planning authority deliberately and quite inevitably deprives the residents of Winterbourne Down, and other people interested in the countryside in Gloucestershire, of their democratic safeguards by making proper representations through their representatives on the council before it is too late.

I should like to say a few words about the merits of this decision. I have read, and I know that my hon. Friend has read, the Arton Wilson Report on Caravans as Homes. I agree that the Report says that there is a need for caravan sites. I am not denying that at all, but it does not follow that there is need for a caravan site in this particular place or that this is the right way of meeting it.

It is relevant in this connection that ever since this caravan site was started to be opened up there have been almost daily in the Bristol evening newspapers, which cover this area, advertisements making it quite clear that these sites are available and encouraging people to go out and use them. There is no question of this caravan site, which has been approved by the local planning authority on the ground of need, being, in fact, needed to meet any pressing demand at all. The promoters are going out to create that demand by advertisements, and it is quite apparent from the number of caravan sites advertised in the neighbourhood that the demand is very greatly exaggerated.

It is also clear from the Arton Wilson Report and it is certainly a feature of the demand in this area—that one of the main needs for caravan sites is to meet the requirements of what I might call itinerant workers. Many of them are highly skilled men who are engaged on the Berkeley Atomic Energy Station and will be possibly engaged on the Oldbury-on-Severn site.

They have to live in caravans because they have to move from one job to another, spending perhaps a year or two on one job. This is precisely the demand which, according to the planning authority, the caravan site was supposed to meet, but this is a tied site. Therefore, it will not meet the demands of these people, because space for caravans on this site will be available only to people who are prepared to buy their caravans from the promoters of the development.

The net result is that we are faced with a backdoor method for bringing a purely commercial enterprise into the green belt in a manner which denies to local authorities where the relevant sites are situated a proper share of the rates which would be due from ordinary commercial premises carrying on the same trade.

I have no doubt at all that the turnover of this caravan agency will be increased, but in so far as that increases the rates, they will go to the City of Bristol because that is where the depot is; but the actual increase in turnover will be due to the activities in the Winterbourne Down which will be rated at a very much lower figure based on the annual value of the plots.

I hope that my hon. Friend will not be led away by reports that this site is hidden in the folds of the hills. The first piece of evidence which one sees in Winterbourne Down of this caravan site is a completely permanent looking structure of peculiarly unattractive architectural design stuck on the most prominent site of the village which is going to be the lavatory for this caravan site.

In response to the protests of my constituents, I invited the chairman and other representatives of the local planning authority to a public meeting in Winterbourne Down. The hall was absolutely packed and there were people outside. I can assure my hon. Friend that the indignation expressed was in no way simulated. What was more significant, and, I think, extremely unfortunate, on this occasion was that the representatives of the planning authority thought it necessary to bring with them the planning officer and to put him up to answer the majority of the questions.

That certainly left the people of Winterbourne Down, and quite understandably so, with the impression—and in a manner for which the local planning authority has only itself to blame —that this was the decision of the planning officer and not of the representatives of the planning authority. To do that sort of thing is to put the planning officer in a quite wrong position. If as a result of that it was thought locally that the elected representatives were not paying due attention to these matters they had no one but themselves to blame. I do not think that I need to ask my hon. Friend to use much imagination to realise the reception that he would get in this House if he put his civil servants in a similar position.

I know that Winterbourne Down is not—and I am glad that it is not— Piccadilly Circus, but the people of Winterbourne Down have their rights just as have the citizens of London. I ask my hon. Friend to ask his right hon. Friend to use his powers under the 1947 Act to show unmistakably that the Government and this House still care for the rights of individuals and that our democratic system still provides for the redress of their genuine grievances.

4.23 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Russell (Wembley, South)

I intervene for only a moment in order to support my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) in the plea which he has made, that there should be an inquiry in a case where an application is granted under the 1947 Act in circumstances such as these.

I only wish to mention the case which I have in mind and which concerns the village of Sea Houses in Northumberland, where an application was granted in similar circumstances by a planning authority in defiance of the expressed wishes of two local authorities. I think it is quite wrong that there should not be an inquiry or an appeal to the Minister by the objectors just as there is an appeal or an inquiry if the case goes against the applicant. I hope that my hon. Friend will look into the matter.

4.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

This case has raised the greatest feeling in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield), and he has, as I can bear ample witness, been a most vigorous partisan in the interests of those who feel most strongly on the matter.

It is true that a caravan site has been given planning permission in that part of the country which is marked as green belt in the sketch plan. I am not going to rely on the fact that this sketch plan has not yet been confirmed by my right hon. Friend. It is an area clearly dedicated and intended to be for the green belt. As my hon. Friend says, this in itself makes it a matter of more than local interest.

I must, however, correct one thing. The village of Winterbourne Down itself is, I gather, one marked for some degree of internal or very close further development, but the land all round it, and certainly the land by this site, is marked for green belt purposes.

Mr. Corfield

I do not know what is marked on the development plan, but I do know there have been two applications in the immediate neighbourhood of this site, that is, on the outskirts of the village, involving the building of small houses which have been turned down precisely on the grounds that it is in a green belt.

Sir K. Joseph

I am not questioning that. The point on which I shall rely almost entirely in answering my hon. Friend is that this is eminently a matter for local decision.

If it is to be a matter for local decision, clearly it should be a matter in which the local people know what is going on. I do not at all condone any excessive secrecy, that is not to be admired, but I feel that it does not in itself justify my right hon. Friend in intervening in matters where the local authority representatives were fully informed. It is for the local residents to take action at the time of the elections. if they are not satisfied with their local authorities.

If full discussion is to be encouraged. I should like to point out to my hon. Friend that the local planning authority must be able to feel that the local residents will accept some responsibility in the face of what might turn out to be communal problems. Throughout this matter, the decision of the local planning authority seems to turn on its conviction that there is a need somewhere in this area for a caravan site. I am sure that the authority would not voluntarily have sought the unpopularity which is given to it were that not so.

It is true that any departure from the development plan, including the sketch development plan for the green belt, can, or should be, referred to my right hon. Friend if the local planning authority so decides, and the fact that this decision is left to the local planning authority is another example of the working of local democracy which both my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend wished to encourage. It is true that my right hon. Friend retains the power of intervention for emergency cases. But this reserve power is meant for those occasions where some permanent wrecking of the prospects of the neighbourhood is involved, or where some obvious mistake has been made or where there is evidence that quite inadequate consideration was given by the local planning authority to the objections of those immediately concerned.

Here I come to a further delicate point raised, quite properly, by my hon. Friend. That is the right to object. There is, as my hon. Friend knows as well as I do, a limited list of developments for which advertisement must be made by the local planning authority before any decision is taken; and it might be said that caravans, because they are in general a delicate subject, should be added to that list. But, as I hope my hon. Friend will agree, if one increases this list under Clause 4 of the General Development Order, it is very difficult to decide where one should stop. Caravans close to houses can rouse even stronger objections than caravans in a sketch green belt. Caravans in beauty spots can rouse even stronger objections, because beauty spots are not always even in green belts. The necessity to advertise anything which anyone may find repugnant would, as I know my hon. Friend will agree, lead to the advertising of practically everything, and the whole system of planning would be fatally clogged. On the general question of keeping the public informed, my right hon. Friend has it in mind to include something in any guidance he gives to local authorities about their relations with the Press.

In this case, my hon. Friend raises a number of details to which I should like now to turn before returning to the general principle on which I must rest. He asked whether this was the right site. He did not discuss whether there was in fact a need for caravans in the area, except to assert that there are some caravans sites advertised in the local newspaper. I admit that the local planning authority knew very well of these advertisements. It is in a far better position than I am to know whether there is a need for caravans in the area and above all, local people are able to assess the best place for caravans. This is preeminently a matter for those who live locally.

My hon. Friend went on to say that it will not help with any caravan need there may be because the site is a tied one. It will be a great pity if no places for caravans are reserved for those who come and go working in the area. The local authority might have thought it better to have its own site if it wishes to cater for such people, but we must see whether in fact, as the local planning authority seems to think, there will not be provision on this site for those working in the industry in the area. I am sorry to say that my hon. Friend was wrong in thinking that the site will not produce rates for the area. I am not going to spend precious time on detail, but I shall write to him setting out the detailed position about rates.

Mr. Corfield

I did not say it would not produce rates, but that what was produced would be entirely disproportionate to the increase in trade.

Sir K. Joseph

I shall write and try to answer my hon. Friend on that point. He did not discuss the general point about whether caravans should or should not be in the green belt at all. I should like to meet this square on. If there is a need for caravans locally they must be somewhere. I have seen it argued in the papers which have passed between us on this case that the proper thing to do is to provide land for houses which Sir Arton Wilson's Report said most people wanted and allow caravan dwellers to put caravans on that land temporarily.

The trouble about that solution would he that pressure to build houses would probably prevent any lapse of time during which the land might be used for caravans. If a site is set aside for housing that site is permanently lost to the green belt whereas this site, though it might be deplored locally with the greatest passion, in a limited time will revert to rural use and to being a part of the green belt.

My hon. Friend referred to the visibility of this site. I am advised by those who have been there that in fact from several directions the site is really sunk in a dip in the ground and is visible only from the north—from three houses to the north—and from the station and that the houses near the station are half a mile away. I am further advised that the latrine of which he spoke is indeed on the skyline, but only on the skyline to someone standng near the stream at the bottom of the valley where the site is. All these are essentially matters for the local authority.

It is the policy of the Government—a policy enthusiastically supported, I know, by my hon. Friend—to encourage in principle local authorities to exercise their responsibilities without the constant supervision and interference of Whitehall. I would remind my hon. Friend that even in the Piccadilly case what was done was to call in an application not yet decided by the planning authority and that is a big distinction. To justify intervention in this case after planning permission has been given there would have to be a prima facie case for saying that the county council had acted without proper consideration or that its decision was a glaring error. There was certainly no lack of consideration in this case for members of the sub-committee took the trouble to visit the site and it can hardly be maintained that there was a glaring mistake although the decision, like many planning decisions, was bound to be made on the balance of two conflicting arguments.

The conclusion, therefore, is that it would not be right for my right hon. Friend to order an inquiry or to take any steps towards undoing or modifying the permission given by the local planning authority after fullest consideration of the local implications.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Five o'clock.