HC Deb 25 May 1962 vol 660 cc934-44

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

4.3 p.m.

Mr. Gilbert Longden (Hertfordshire, South-West)

I rise in the hope of obtaining some redress for the grievances of my constituents who live in the parish of Abbots Langley, and I hope that I shall get less dusty an answer than we have just had to the earlier debate. As far as I am aware, I speak for all the inhabitants of the parish, the parish council, the local branches of the Women's Institute and the National Playing Fields Association and for the Watford Rural District Council within whose district the parish lies.

All these people feel aggrieved, and, in my opinion, very justifiably, by a recent town and country planning decision of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government relating to 15½ acres, part of 581 acres, of Hazelgrove Farm in the middle of the village. If this was the one and only decision which had been given about this land, it might be another case, but there have, in fact, been no fewer than four public inquiries in six years into the future use of this same piece of land for the same sort of development.

On 27th February last I sent my rigtht hon. Friend a full and detailed account of the sorry history of this case, and so I need not repeat it in full now. The first inquiry took place in February, 1955, and it followed a refusal of permission to build 325 houses for sale on the 58½ acres, because the council itself wished to build on seven acres and to preserve the rest as open space.

Five months later my right hon. Friend's predecessor allowed what he called "a reasonable maximum" of 225 houses, at: a lower density to fit in with the existing houses", and he laid special stress on: the need to provide adequate open space. The parties then agreed that 43 acres of the land should be built over and that the balance of 15½ acres should be left as open space.

In August, 1957, came the second public inquiry. It followed an attempt by the council to acquire eight acres of the 43 to build 50 council houses for some of the 800 people on its housing waiting list. The developers contended that they should be allowed to complete the 225 houses, the maximum number, but offered to give the 15½ acres to the council as permanent open space. Five months later, the predecessor of my right hon. Friend refused to confirm the order, and that was fair enough, because it was in keeping with the earlier decision. Nevertheless, a month or two later, the developers, having withdrawn their offer to give the 15½ acres to the council applied for permission to develop them for residential purposes. The council refused, no appeal was lodged, and, on 15th July, 1959, the developers were awarded and paid the sum of £1,211 8s. 7d. as compensation for the refusal of planning permission.

Believe it or not, Mr. Speaker, only four months later, the developers again applied for permission to build 78 houses on these 15½ acres, and, on the council's refusal, the third public inquiry was held in June, 1960. The inspector recommended that the developer's appeal should be dismissed, because the maximum of 225 houses originally laid down for the whole area had been built. Particular reference was made in the original decision to the need to provide for adequate open space but the inspector reported: There is a severe shortage of open space in the village, and even the addition of the appeal site would not bring the open space provision up to the recommended standard. He also recalled that the developers had actually received compensation for the loss of development rights.

Two months later, in August, 1960—mark the date—the Minister accepted this recommendation, saying, among other things that— it would be wrong to allow this estate to be covered with so many houses without any provision of open space to which the public has access, particularly when there is already a shortage of open space in the area. One might have thought that, having originally offered to give the land to the council for open space, and then having received compensation for not being able to develop it themselves, the developers would have relinquished it to the public. But one would have been wrong. So the council, having again sought to acquire it by agreement, and having failed, had no option but to make, in April, 1961, the Hazelgrove Farm Estate (Public Walks and Pleasure Grounds) Compulsory Purchase Order, in order to acquire these 15½ acres compulsorily.

This necessitated public inquiry No. 4, which was held on 4th October, 1961, and, three and a half months later, on 22nd January, 1962, my right hon. Friend communicated his decision to the council that— it would be reasonable to allow 5½ acres … which has no great amenity value as open space, to be retained by the owners of the land, leaving 10 acres … for public open space. My constituents find it very hard to accept that views held so recently as August, 1960, could have been so changed in so short a time, because nothing else has changed.

In the decision of 22nd January, my right hon. Friend expressed the view that— having regard to the existing provision of public open space in Abbots Langley and the nearness of the village to the green belt, the need for a further 15½ acres of open space is not established. But this is directly counter to the opinions of the two preceding inspectors. There is no more open space today than there was in 1960; indeed, per head of the population, there is less; and the village is no nearer the green belt than it was then. Yet the Minister then agreed that there was a "severe shortage" of open space in Abbots Langley which even the addition of the whole of the appeal site of 15½ acres would not remedy.

It may be that my right hon. Friend has been misinformed on certain very relevant facts. First, the inspector at the fourth and last inquiry reported that— there were some 58 acres of open space in various parts of the village, giving a ratio of 7 acres per 1,000 population. Nobody knows where he got those figures from. According to the provisional figures of the 1961 census—and I have the Registrar-General's letter with me—the population now is 16,589, so that even if there were 58 acres of open space available to the people, it would be nothing like the 10 acres per 1,000 population recommended by the National Playing Fields Association and accepted by the Government.

In fact, in the village of Abbots Langley there are only 33½ acres of open space available—the parish council's Manor House property of 18 acres, the rural district council's South Way playing field of nine acres, and Tanner's Wood of 6½ acres. If my arithmetic is right, that makes 2⅛ acres per 1,000 population. The alleged 58 acres include 13 acres at Langleybury, a mile away and across a main road and intended for the intervening villages of Hunton Bridge and Langleybury and six acres on the Watford Borough's Hillside Estate which is meant as an ornament and of which any functional use is discouraged and an undeveloped area of the Building Research Station experimental housing estate which belongs to the Ministry of Works.

The 15½ acres which the council was to acquire adjoin the Manor House playing fields, and as to their amenity value, which the inspector writes off so lightly, the Hon. Secretary of the Hertfordshire Playing Fields Association writes to me as follows: The area can provide a first-class 'adventure' playground for children, opportunities for simple camping, fieldcraft, a miniature pitch and putt golf course is quite feasible, so too is archery and also pits for field athletics. All these things and others are required by the village and this is the ideal place for them. The writer of that letter has offered to take my right hon. Friend, who lives not far away, over the site, so that he can see things for himself, and I hope that he will accept.

What seems to have been another gap in my right hon. Friend's knowledge is the fact that compensation for refusal to build any more houses had been paid to the developers only eighteen months before. How often can this happen? How often can one be paid for being prevented from developing the same piece of land? On 10th May, in answer to my supplementary question, my right hon. Friend said that he would look into this point. Perhaps he has done so.

Before concluding, I should like to refer to two points of general interest arising out of this case. The first is that it is high time that the whole of our planning procedure was looked at with a view to reform. Four public inquiries in six years with all the time and money spent on them by so many, and with all the anxiety and uncertainty which they engender, is not good enough.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) had a powerful article in the Daily Telegraph of 17th April, last. I have time to quote only two short extracts from his criticisms: After 15 years we might be expected to have built up a stock of experience and to have arrived at more widely recognised principles … In reality, no ascertainable principles seem to guide Planning Departments, private developers, Inspectors—or the Ministry itself. and There is, moreover, no limit to the number of appeals which can be made. My second general point is the alarming increase in the population of Hertfordshire. Between 1951 and 1961, its population increased by 222,000, a 36 per cent. increase, or at a rate of 22,000 per annum. This is the largest rate of increase in any county except Essex. The county authorities estimate that the population of Hertfordshire in 1970 will be 1 million, and they believe that they can accommodate and service that figure; but they add that if the pressures on the county increase as a result of the continued growth of the London Region. which the Government apparently now consider to be inevitable", then there will be very grave problems, not only in preserving the green belt, but in providing services such as water and sewage disposal.

But why do the Government regard this spread of London as inevitable? What is the use of the massive apparatus of town and country planning and all the other powers possessed by the Government? Abbots Langley is a case in point. It was agreed at the first inquiry, way back in 1955, that the target population had already then been exceeded. The Minister's latest decision will mean that it is still further exceeded.

I beg him to look at the whole of this case again and to confirm this compulsory purchase order in toto. In doing so, I venture to quote an extract from the leading article in yesterday's Times. Planning can in the long run be effective only if it carries substantial support from public opinion … Ministers must take more trouble than ever to keep closely in touch with the desires of the public.

4.15 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Geoffrey Rippon)

I can well understand the interest and concern of my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Longden) about this matter. As he said in the forceful document he sent to my right hon. Friend on 27th February, few small corners of our countryside have been subjected to greater scrutiny than these 58½ acres in his constituency. There is a long history of inquiries and controversy. But before I deal with it in detail, there are two general observations I should like to make.

First, my hon. Friend is quite right in saying that it is open to anybody who has had an application for development refused to make another application at any time if he feels that circumstances have changed, or that he has fresh evidence to bring before either the planning authority or, ultimately, the Minister. My hon. Friend objects to that principle, but there are other occasions when hon. Members urge the Minister to have regard to fresh evidence, and we write back and say that it is open to an applicant to bring that forward in the proper way if he so desires.

My hon. Friend also quoted The Times leader. He might have quoted a little more, notably that part which said that planning will not work if one fixes a plan at a given point of time and then refuses under any circumstances to consider changing it.

Mr. Longden

Surely there is a happy medium.

Mr. Rippon

That is what we are striking in this case.

The second general observation is that the question of whether or not compensation has been paid in relation to a previous refusal does not affect the position in any way. When my hon. Friend put his question to my right hon. Friend in the House, he was told that my right hon. Friend would look at this again. He has done so.

The fact that owners may have already received compensation for refusal of planning permission has been dealt with in the statutes. Section 29 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1954, states that compensation must be repaid if permission to develop is subsequently given. So, Parliament contemplated that there might be cases in which permission might be refused, compensation paid, fresh evidence submitted, permission given and compensation repaid.

Mr. Longden

Circumstances have in no way changed in this case and no fresh evidence has been adduced.

Mr. Rippon

I will try to explain this case. Perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to reply, which I thought was what he wanted. I was stating two general principles before dealing with the particulars.

All that the Minister can do is to determine the issues on the basis of the evidence given and the circumstances existing at the time, in the light of his inspector's report and recommendations. I have carefully read the papers on this case, and I am satisfied that everything has followed a logical course at every stage, although obviously, in the last resort, any decision is a matter of opinion and judgment and may be the subject of disagreement by one side or the other.

We start with the first inquiry, held on 22nd February, 1955, into the appeal by the owners against the refusal by the Watford Rural District Council, acting as agents of the county council as local planning authority, to permit development of the 58½ acres for housing. The operative part of the decision letter, dated 25th April, 1955, read as follows: The appeal site lies within the boundaries of the existing community of Abbots Langley and is almost entirely surrounded by existing housing. The land is suitable for housing, and its development would not involve any serious toss to agriculture. In these circumstances, the Minister is satisfied that permission should be given for housing development. He considers, however, that in the interests of local amenity, special care should be taken in the layout, with particular reference to the need to provide adequate open space, and to preserve as many trees as possible. He also considers that the development should be at a lower density than proposed particularly at the western end, to fit in with existing housing. With these considerations in mind, the Minister is of the opinion that it would be reasonable to allow a maximum of 225 houses on the whole site. Clearly at that date, subject to density and layout, it was agreed that the whole site was suitable in itself for housing and no specific statement was made about the amount of open space that might be set aside. On the strength of this promise, development was put in hand, and, as my hon. Friend said, the result was to leave l5½ acres of vacant land at the eastern end of the site.

The second inquiry, in August, 1957, as I think my hon. Friend agreed, has no real bearing on the issue now before us, because that was concerned with a compulsory purchase order by the rural district council for 8 acres of land for local authority housing, and the Minister at the time did not consider that the case was made out for a compulsory purchase order for that purpose.

Now we come to the third inquiry held on 29th June, 1960, which was on an application by the owners to develop the whole of the remaining 15½ acres. The inspector recommended that the appeal be dismissed. The Minister's views on this matter are to be found in his decision letter issued on 26th August 1960, and which my hon. Friend has quoted.

The relevant paragraph says: The Minister notes that the total of 225 houses authorised in his earlier appeal decision has been built mainly on the western part of the estate, and that allowance of this appeal would increase the number to 303 houses with no open space provision whatsoever. This would clearly be contrary to the recommendations which we made in that appeal decision. Although cognisant of the demand for housing land, in scarcity and rising price, the Minister considers that it would be wrong to allow this estate to be covered with so many houses without any provision of open space to which the public has access, particularly when there is already a shortage of open space in the area. He takes the view, therefore, that the balance of advantage lies in leaving the appeal site undeveloped, and he accepts his Inspector's recommendation. Accordingly, he dismisses your clients' appeal. That was followed in March, 1961, by a scheme submitted by the Watford Rural District Council for a compulsory purchase order in respect of 15½ acres of land as public open space. The owners objected, and we had public inquiry No. 4, held in October of last year.

The effect of the Minister's decision now is that the whole of this land will not be used for housing, which is what was originally requested. It has regard to the shortage of open space and provides for an increase of 10 acres, which, accepting the figure of 58 acres, is a considerable proportionate increase.

My hon. Friend seemed in some doubt about where the figure of 58 acres came from. I have here a document—which I will show him afterwards if he likes—put in at the inquiry by the Watford Rural District Council. It is headed, "Existing public open spaces at Abbots Langley," and it lists Manor House grounds; Southway, Hillside Estate; Langlebury; Hillside Estate amenity green and Tanners Wood, which is being acquired by the Rural District Council, making 53.3 acres. In addition, it lists the Building Research Station Estate amounting to 4.7 acres.

Sometimes people talk about public open spaces, and sometimes just about open spaces. When we talk of these figures of 7 acres per 1,000 population, this figure includes some private playing fields and open spaces as well as public spaces. There is no magic in the figure of 7 acres per 1,000 population, or 10 acres per 1,000 population, which I think is the figure usually taken if one includes provision for school playing fields. These are standards suggested by the National Playing Fields Association.

They are—to use a topical phrase—no more than a guiding light. They must be applied in the circumstances of each case. There is a real difference between the need for public open space in an area like Shoreditch and the need in Abbots Langley. In considering population, regard is paid to the developed part of the village and not to the parish as a whole. Normally, there is little need to provide additional open space and public walks for those people who already live, in the countryside, which is protected by the green belt.

That is the background to the inspector's recommendations on the fourth inquiry. In paragraphs 45 to 47 of his recommendations, he said: There are some 58 acres of open space in various parts of the village which gives a ratio of almost 7 acres per 1,000 population but not all of this is very accessible. The Council themselves originally made provision for about 8½ acres of the land to be used for open space. The Abbots Road frontage has little amenity value. The contours make the site unsuitable for residential development at a density similar to that of the nearby houses. Abbots Langley is now almost built up so that the population is unlikely to increase very much. It is near the green belt and there are footpaths leading into the countryside. There is, therefore, less need than in an urban area for a large tract of land in the centre of the village to be used for public walks and pleasure grounds but there is a need for some land to be acquired for this purpose. Taking all these matters into consideration and also the fact that the Council seek to acquire the land compulsorily it seems to me that it would be reasonable for the order to be confirmed in respect of 10 acres of the land at the south-western end of the site and for the owners to be allowed to retain the north-eastern end including the frontage to Abbots Road as long as access is provided from this part of Abbots Road to the remainder of the site. The Minister accepted the inspector's recommendation, and in his letter of 22nd January informed the parties of his decision to confirm the order for 10 acres only. The confirmation is deferred until the council and the owners agree upon the position of the access way from Abbots Road to the open space land. This decision was taken after weighing carefully all the factors in the case.

It is accepted that there is a shortage of open space. Ten additional acres of public open space will be acquired. This is, in fact, 1½ acres more than the council itself thought necessary to provide a few years ago. I do not blame the council for that. It is entitled to argue that circumstances have changed. But my hon. Friend will tell it that nothing has changed and, therefore, that they might have been left simply with the 8½ acres which it originally suggested. We must also bear in mind that this is a compulsory purchase order.

Mr. Longden

I am sorry, but I think that my hon. Friend has that wrong. I believe that the council wanted to build houses on eight acres of the 43 acres which belonged to the developers and had nothing to do with the 15½ acres.

Mr. Rippon

I was saying that the second inquiry did not necessarily refer to the whole of the 15½ acres. It is not apparently challenged—and it came out in the recent inquiry—that the council originally had in mind the provision of 8½ acres of public open space.

This is a compulsory purchase order, and the Minister has to be satisfied that the acquiring authority has made out a case for taking land against the owners' wishes. I think that the decision that my right hon. Friend has made is consistent with the view that he expressed in the earlier appeal decision, that the whole estate should not be covered with buildings but that some of it should be left open. That is why he rejected the 15½ acres proposal for building which was put forward in the third inquiry in 1960, but has left 5½ acres for building as a result of the decision in this inquiry.

That seems to me to be a fair decision, having regard to all the circumstances and to what the inspector had to say when inquiring into this proposal. I am sorry to disappoint my hon. Friend. I fully understand his feeling in the matter and the feeling of many of his constituents, but I do not see that there are any grounds for reopening the matter or for taking any different action.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.