HC Deb 14 December 1962 vol 669 cc848-58

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House will now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

4.2 p.m.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

I wish to call attention to certain weaknesses in the existing mechanics operated by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and Ministry for Welsh Affairs in connection with the handling of planning applications and planning appeals. My impression is that the Ministry does not realise the volume of this problem, and I think that there are two aspects to it. First, there is the need to speed up the handling of planning applications by local authorities and the handling of appeals by the Ministry. Secondly, there is a need to do something about the increasing disapproval by the public of the whole theory of planning. I feel that it is important because one hears it said often that planning is nonsense, unnecessary and unjust. All these three criticisms I think are ill-founded. But the fact is that the present operation of the Act, amended as it was in 1951 and 1959, lends colour to this popular but, as I believe, erroneous view.

I wish to hasten my words, Mr. Speaker, because I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart), who leads from the Opposition Front Bench on this subject, will have the opportunity to catch your eye.

I shall have to place on record certain statistics which I trust will substantiate what I have been saying about the volume of the problem. If, apart from national statistics, I use certain figures relating to my constituency county of Stafford, I shall use them merely as an illustration and not because I think that the problem in Staffordshire is any different from the problems experienced by other planning authorities.

As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, at present the average delay between holding a planning inquiry and the Minister's decision is 10 weeks for the United Kingdom as a whole. But the gap between the tabling of appeals and the holding of inquiries is where, demonstrably, the problem is of serious dimensions. That delay in the United Kingdom averages 24 weeks. In Staffordshire—there is a slight difference here between the figures given to me recently by the Minister and those provided by the county—it would appear to be about 27 weeks. Regarding planning applications, and again in respect of Staffordshire, for the 12 months ending 31st March, 1961, the number of planning applications handled was 8,595; and during the 12 months ending 31st March, 1962, planning applications numbered 8,691. The number 'of appeals decided upon by Staffordshire for those two periods amounted to 202 in the year ended 31st March, 1961, and 248 in the year ended 31st March, 1962.

Planning appeals on a national basis awaiting inquiries demonstrate the delay which is going on. In 1960 the number was 2,390, in 1961, 3,134 and in 1962, 2,949. Put in a slightly different way, the number of appeals increased so that in 1960 there were 28 per cent. more than in 1959 and in 1961 20 per cent. more than in 1960. I do not know whether the Government begin to understand how serious this is, especially for overspill receiving areas like mine. It is a national problem and it is not helped very much by certain methods of handling these appeals by the Ministry itself.

The whole thing has been bedevilled by the acute shortage of trained technical staff at both local planning authority level and in the Ministry. The Minister told me recently, in answer to a Question, that in an establishment of 66 he was short of six persons, but he had no information at his disposal as to the shortage of staff at local planning authority level. If he has not got that information I suggest that it is time he got it. Otherwise, he must be in ignorance of whether the procedure is working efficiently or not.

I am advised by Staffordshire County Council that there is an overall shortage everywhere—in the architect's department, the civil engineering department and among the planning staff. When publicity is indulged in sometimes certain positions remain unfilled for a long period because no suitable candidates apply and in some cases no candidates of any sort apply. The first question I put to the Parliamentary Secretary is, what steps has the Ministry taken to acquaint higher education and technical education authorities with the need to start training the necessary people?

I give two cases where planning seems to have gone mad. I have in my constituency a little parish called Longdon, a typically rural parish. Some time ago that parish decided to try to demolish 10 very old almshouses and replace them by three modern ones. It sounds incredible, but I have traced the history of this planning application and find that, although it went to the Minister twice, there were no fewer than 21 various meetings at which the problem was considered. I do not think it was an easy one, but something better than this should have happened. There were meetings between the county authority and the trustees, between the rural district authority and the trustees, between the welfare committee and the trustees and between the planning sub-committee and the trustees. It went on and on and a decision initiated on 16th October, 1959, finished on 27th July, 1962, when the Minister allowed the second appeal.

Take the case of the Lichfield town map. This was requested by the Minister, and on 22nd October, 1960, the comprehensive development area map, the designation map and the town map were submitted to the Minister. These were agreed on 7th February, 1962. But the town map itself has still not been agreed. I am informed that a meeting of officials of the city of Lichfield and the Ministry took place last Wednesday, and I do not know what happened there. But the Minister will understand that these long delays mean frustration for civic authorities and uncertainty by the commercial element and by the residential element.

I feel that the time has come when an attempt should be made to speed up the mechanics of this whole procedure. As the Minister is aware, it is possible for a local authority to apply for the permission of the applicant to extend the statutory period of two months by which time the local planning authority is supposed to give a decision. This is done under the General Development Order, 1950, article 5 (8) (c). I recently asked the Minister whether he would give me the national average percentage figure, at the latest convenient date, and the figure for Staffordshire particularly, of the cases of extension of time being requested under the General Development Order … by local planning authorities compared with the total number of planning applications."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1962; Vol. 669, c. 88.] The Minister's reply was that he had not this information, since it was a matter which was settled between local planning authorities and the individual applicant. That may be true, but unless he can give some idea of this figure, how can he know what pressure is being built up and what frustration is being caused?

May I make some suggestions to the Minister? First, I do not think that the information at his disposal is adequate. Some reform of the whole procedure is badly overdue. What else can I think when, for instance, I came across a case in my constituency the other day in which there had been nine development planning applications from the town of Rugeley which had been called in by the Minister? They had been called in by the Minister because he was advised that there was some danger of the pollution of the local water supply. But such was the delay that I asked the then Minister of Housing whether I might be put in touch with the official of his Department who was handling the case. It seemed to me that there was some lack of information or some wrong information being used by his Department. I was horrified to find that in one case of these nine a senior official in his Department was actually studying whether a house, if built, should or should not be connected 25 yards to a local sewer. Why cannot these matters be handled, if not at county level, then at regional level?

My main criticism is that the Government's action in 1951 of abolishing the regional offices and centralising everything as between the local planning authorities and the Ministry itself, theoretically done to economise in staff, has had the effect of delaying still further the handling of applications and appeals. The Minister is cluttered up with matters which should be settled at local or even regional level, and I suggest that the Minister might consider this point.

I am bound by the rules of order not to propose amending legislation, but I may incidentally mention one or two ideas. The Minister should consider examining the constitutional structure of the various administrative tribunals which at present exist. I am not at all sure that one of the existing tribunals could not be amended to handle appeals on a two-tier system, because, serious though the local planning applications are both in volume and in the way in which they are handled, I believe that the more serious problem is the handling of appeals.

Existing administrative tribunals are, for instance, the pensions appeal tribunals, the local valuation courts, which deal with rating, the general and special commissions dealing with Income Tax, the rent tribunals dealing with the assessment of furnished rentals, and the land tribunals dealing with assessment of land values. Why is it not possible to have a two-tier appeal system whereby, in the first instance, an appeal at moderate cost shall be handled at regional level? Then, if that does not succeed in producing equity, the appeal should go forward —and I should have thought at enhanced cost—to the Minister where matters of serious policy are involved.

The amending Acts of 1951 and 1959 had the very serious effect that it virtually pays anyone to appeal whose original application has been turned down, because statistically it is demonstrable that about 30 per cent. of all appeals are allowed by the Minister. It costs very little to make an appeal and there is a good chance that it might succeed. If, therefore, one can reduce the pressure of work on the Minister and by regional methods speed up appeals, I should have thought that that is a highly advantageous proposition. I hope that the Minister will consider this view and take into account the frustration that we feel where houses are not being built because people simply lose heart on account of these delays which take place.

4.16 p.m.

Mr. Michael Stewart (Fulham)

My hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow), has raised a matter which is fast becoming notorious, but it is not easy to see an immediate remedy. Either it is a matter of action within the Ministry to reduce delays, which involves, as my hon. Friend said, the recruitment of more staff, and possibly ensuring that local authorities do not produce any unnecessary delay; or, alternatively, the Minister has to try to reduce the number of matters which come for his personal decisions. That means giving greater discretion somewhere else, either to the regional official, or possibly—and this might tie in with what the Minister is saying in other connections—greater discretion to the local authorities, thus actually reducing the grounds upon which appeal might be launched.

Is it possible to draw a line between matters which might be left entirely to the local authority to decide without appeal and matters on which the right of appeal should still lie? I do not pretend that that is easy to answer, and I shall be interested to hear what the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has to say on how far the Government have got towards the answer.

4.19 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. F. V. Corfield)

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow) has introduced a subject which is of very wide range and half-an-hour is all too short to deal with the points which lie has raised. I would disagree with him when he says that there is increasing public disapproval of planning and that it is regarded increasingly as a nuisance, unnecessary and unjust. My own impression is that this is not so and that there is an increasing interest in planning and an increasing appreciation of its necessity, even if there is not perhaps a parallel increasing understanding of all its intricacies.

The hon. Gentleman said that the major delay was between the date of the acceptance of the appeal and the date of the inquiry, and that is true. I think that the hon. Gentleman's figure of 24 weeks is out of date. I am told that in recent months it has been reduced to an average of about 19 weeks.

The regional offices were abolished in 1956. Even before that time it was becoming increasingly apparent that it was quicker and more effective to deal with the paper work, and so on, involved from my right hon. Friend's point of view in the London headquarters rather than in the regional offices. These were not to a very great extent towards the end used for the consideration of these appeals and we did not find that to do so resulted in reducing the delay.

With regard to the question of staff, we are in very close touch with the professional institutions, The Town Planning Institute has been carrying out throughout this year a survey of the needs for staff throughout the ocuntry in local planning authorities and relating them to vacancies and shortages. The Institute hopes to have a report ready very early in the new year. We shall keep very closely in touch with the Institute, because as a professional body it is to a very large extent also responsible for the training of the people we need for the future.

I assure the hon. Members for Lichfield and Tamworth and for Fulham (Mr. M. Stewart) that neither I nor my right hon. Friend are in any way complacent about this. The hon. Member for Fulham suggested a variation of the regionalisation by in a sense categorising appeals and saying to local authorities, "You will deal with this category and you will be the final arbiter", the other category remaining as they are with an appeal to the Minister.

The hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth, following somewhat the same line, suggested perhaps a tribunal with an appeal on major matters only to the Minister. I realise his difficulties in developing that, in view of the rules of order. I do not dismiss out of hand the possibility of trying to categorise, but it is a very difficult problem and I should not like to hold out any great hope that we shall produce a means of doing it in the very near future. It is certainly something we have been anxious to look at, because a stage comes when one is clearly wasting talent when many smaller planning appeals are settled by senior officials.

The real problem is that the overall background of planning is so often a matter of policy. I am sure that the House will agree that policy must be for the Government in general, and in particular for Ministers responsible to Parliament. This is enshrined in the 1947 Act, which makes the Minister the final arbiter, with his responsibility to Parliament as the safeguard or sanction. Any suggestion of giving a tribunal final, decisive powers would undoubtedly cut across that important principle and it is not something which we can accept without the most careful consideration. I am sure both hon. Gentlemen will appreciate that. In any case, it would require legislation.

I want to refer to the two specific cases referred to by the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth. As to almshouses at Longdon, I understand that the first proposal was for three almshouses together with an ordinary dwellinghouse in the green belt. There was an appeal which was dismissed on 18th October, 1960, but with an indication that the Minister would be inclined to accept three almshouses without the dwellinghouse, because of the green belt and other factors. In due course another application was submitted and the appeal came to my Department because the local authority failed to give a decision within the statutory period. The appeal, therefore, meant that the applicants treated that failure as a refusal. It was settled by written representations which were exchanged between the parties during March, June and July of this year.

From the point of view of my right hon. Friend's responsibility, the important factor to remember is that the last letter, which was from the appellants, was received in my Department on 17th July and that the decision was given on 27th July. Thus, in this case, the cause of the delay cannot be laid at the door of my Department. I appreciate that various consultations and other things went on and added to the delay before that, but those are factors beyond my knowledge.

Regarding the Lichfield town map, this, as the hon. Member knows, was submitted together wth a proposal for a comprehensive development area. Late last year the Borough Council particularly asked us to give priority to the comprehensive development area. This was done and a decision was given in the spring of this year. There have been difficult features in the town map —a new one and not an amendment of a previous or existing one—the most difficult feature being the proposal for a new road through the Cathedral precinct, which affects the whole framework of the development as proposed.

As the hon. Member said, there was a meeting on Wednesday of this week between officials of my Department and those of the local planning authority and I hope that my right hon. Friend's proposed modifications will reach the local planning authority in the near future. Under the procedure, they must then be published and an opportunity must be given for objections to be heard. It is of the nature of things that undoubtedly this is a somewhat prolonged procedure.

I wish to refer briefly to the suggestion that we should concern ourselves more with the use by local planning authorities of their powers to seek the agreement of the applicant to extend the two or three months' period, as the case may be. I do not believe that that sort of information would be of any great value. This is a useful provision because often a planning application is turned down on a relatively minor disagreement between the applicant and the local planning authority. The provision enables relatively minor matters to be ironed out and, in the long run, it saves an immense amount of delay if, as a result, an appeal, with all the further delays that that involves, can be avoided.

Another matter which I would like to put to the House is the genuine difficulties in which many local authorities find themselves in cases of this sort. As the House knows, more and more towns are considering the redevelopment of central areas and other obsolescent areas within their boundaries, and we all hope that this will continue and that authorities will be even more active in this regard. But the complete planning of an area, often running into a susbtantial acreage, inevitably takes time, and if applications are made for development in those areas during the process it is inevitable that the local authority is in a difficult position in being able to give its views on such applications one way or the other. The same applies if the applicant decides to appeal to my right hon. Friend on the ground that there has been failure to issue a decision within the statutory time and, therefore, the applicant treats that as a refusal.

It would be quite wrong if, merely to avoid delay, we in such circumstances gave over-hasty decisions. To do so would result in piecemeal development and might prevent the local authority from carrying out a sensible scheme. In the long run this would produce something much less satisfactory than could otherwise be the case if the decision were delayed so that it could be seen how the application fitted Into the overall plan.

I agree that this is a dilemma, but I am not in a position to offer a remedy because it seems inevitable that if we are to get the replanning of many of our obsolescent cities and towns this sort of delay is inevitable. If we become too impatient and deal with applications and appeals too quickly, purely for the sake of speed, we may well upset good development and bring off something which is second best. I am sure that the House will appreciate that dilemma.

I assure the hon. Gentleman, as I said earlier, that we are not complacent and that we are willing to consider any constructive suggestion. The hon. Member has certainly made a number of suggestions. Although they are rather far-reaching in their ideas, that does not mean that we shall condemn those ideas out of hand and will not consider them with the care which they deserve.

Question put and agreed to.

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