HC Deb 20 November 1962 vol 667 cc1175-84

Motion made, and Question proposed,

That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Peel.]

12.15 a.m.

Mr. G. B. Drayson (Skipton)

Tonight, I wish to raise matters in connection with the Yorkshire Dales National Park, an area of about 680 square miles, mostly situated in my constituency, which was established as a result of the passing of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949. A number of local authorities in my constituency feel that they are not adequately represented on the planning board and committees in the Park. I realise that any alteration of the Act should require legislation, which it would be out of order to propose in an Adjournment debate, but I wish to suggest that the bodies should be represented on these committees and that there should be much closer co-operation between rural and urban councils and the planning authority.

In this case, no urban councils are involved. But there are three rural councils, Skipton, Settle and Sedbergh, which are involved. In the case of these councils, which have made representations to me, the planning authority is the West Riding County Council. This is what these councils have to say about the planning committee: The activities of the planning committee are veiled by a cloak of secrecy. They do not meet within the Park"— in fact, they meet at a town some distance away from the Park— the Press and public are excluded from their meetings and the minutes which are published are no more than an extremely brief report. The public have, therefore, no knowledge of the attitude of the committee towards many problems which face a National Park area. Those people who are aware of the good work done by The Peak Planning Board and the Lake District Planning Board would not include the Yorkshire Dales in the same category. Since the committee's formation, five years ago, it is difficult to point out one single action on the committee's part, other than actual planning matters, to deal with National Park problems. I do not think that that is a strictly accurate description of the committees activities. But when I read the eleventh Report of the National Parks Commis- sion I must say that the activities of the Yorkshire Dales and West Riding Parks Planning Committee did not show up particularly well compared with the great deal of work which has obviously been done by other parks committees throughout the country.

Under the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act, the responsibility was placed with the county council, as planning authority, to delegate powers to district councils if they so wished, and one of the matters which greatly concerns the three councils I have mentioned is that they have not had planning powers delegated to them. That leads to a great deal of delay and confusion in planning matters.

These three councils told me that on 8th March, 1961, they wrote on their own behalf to the Clerk of the West Riding County Council asking for delegation of planning functions, putting forward the following reasons: In Skipton and Settle rural districts two different systems of planning control 'operate' creating difficulties in administration in the Departments in the Council and confusion amongst the public. I should say that part of the Skipton rural district is not in the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and that that is why it has to operate two different systems of planning, partly dealing with the area covered by the Notional Park and partly with the area that is not.

The councils said: The present system of delegation works well as a developer can obtain all the information he requires from the District Council. In the Park area two enquiries have to be made. The present system is wasteful of time, not only from the point of view of the members, but also officers. The present system causes delay. I had brought to my not co recently in my constituency delays of un to two years in obtaining planning permission for quite simple matters and that has quite a frustrating effect on people living in the area, particularly when the planning applications have to do with a commercial undertaking where business activity is involved, and employment in the area is not easy to come by. This certainly leads to a great deal of frustration.

Having made, in March, this application to the West Riding County Council for delegated planning functions, the councils received a letter on 31st May from the Clerk of the West Riding County Council informing them that the committee did not feel able to accede to the request for delegation, but no reasons were given. This was put by another council letter to me, which says: …if the rural council make a recommendation on a planning proposal before them (as they are requested to do) and the Park Planning Committee decide to ignore this recommendation, no word as to why a different decision is reached is sent to the rural council, and the only information the latter have is on receipt of a carbon copy of the notice of decision by the Park Planning Committee. The Minister will see that these local authorities feel that they are not sufficiently in touch with the planning authority and that, in some ways, local wishes can be ignored.

Under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, too, provision was made for Exchequer grants up to 75 per cent. on certain work carried out within the National Parks and, again, we have little evidence of anything being done in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. In this connection, another criticism I have had from one of the councils is that The West Riding County Council have been extremely dilatory in preparing the footpaths map under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949, so far they have only reached the stage of considering objections to the draft map. This is 13 years after the Act came into force. There is a general lack of information about footpaths in the area and the National Parks Committee are apparently against providing signposts. There are other matters that the committees are empowered to provide for—car parks, which are very important, lay-bys, the removal of eyesores, the planting of trees, and so on.

I discussed this matter in my local village and a number of villages in the Dales recently. The most important item which they talked about was the provision of public conveniences. This is a very important item in the villages. The establishment of a Dales National Park has encouraged thousands of people to come from the towns at weekends to the Dales, but no provision has been made in this respect. This is a very serious problem. It is a great strain on local hospitality in private residences and is a menace in the countryside. I referred to this recently as one of the scandals of the Dales. I hope that the Minister will use his influence and urge the West Riding County Council to tackle this very serious problem with the utmost speed. As National Parks develop, as they become more popular, and as their facilities become better known, large numbers of people will come to them. This is one of the matters which must be tackled.

The burden of my remarks tonight is that the local authorities in the area—the rural councils—feel that they should be in much closer contact with the planning authority. There should not he a veil of secrecy over the activities of the parks committee. Local people are quite prepared to play their part. Many would like to see tourists attracted to the area. There is now less opportunity to earn a living in country districts. The labour force has been reduced as a result of mechanisation and other things. A flourishing tourist industry would be for the benefit of all concerned.

The countryside must be protected for those who live there and the amenities must be preserved for those who visit the area for recreation. A spokesman for one council sums up the situation very well by saying this: At the moment there is a feeling of mutual suspicion. The councils feel that the Committee is not really trying and, I think, the Committee feel that the councils themselves are perhaps too"— unaesthetic— to be given the opportunity of dealing with national parks matters. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to convey some of these thoughts to the Minister so that some directions can be given to the county council to see what it can do to meet the wishes and fall in with the desires of those local councils which represent the areas concerned.

12.28 a.m.

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

In considering the matters which my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton (Mr. Drayson) has raised it is necessary to keep in mind the purposes for which the National Parks were established. They were, first, to preserve for posterity the very considerable areas of outstanding natural beauty where these form a relatively large single unit and, secondly, to enable, and indeed to encourage, their enjoyment for out-door exercise and recreation by the nation as a whole. These are the national interests involved.

It is of some interest to remember that the Hobhouse Committee, on which the legislation was largely based, recommended that half the members of each park authority should be nominated by my right hon. Friend and half by county councils on behalf of local interests. The Act, however, reduced the proportion nominated by my right hon. Friend to one-third and did so with the deliberate intention of shifting the balance in favour of the representatives of those who live, and, in many cases, earn their living, in these areas. For my part, I am certain that that was the right approach.

Though the attraction of many of these areas no doubt results in large measure from the wildness of the countryside, I suspect that only a few of them do not owe at least some of their beauty to the work of man. We do well to remember that but for the generations of sheep farmers, many of these hillsides would be covered with birch, gorse, scrub, and so on, which would blur the outlines of hill and dale instead of giving open views and the variety which is such an important characteristic of these areas. I have no doubt, too, that, in the right places and in the right circumstances, the forester has played his part.

It is inevitable in this highly industrialised island that many of our people should become increasingly urbanised. They do not perhaps recognise often enough how much they owe to the people who live in these areas and their contribution to the beauty which the various preservation societies are anxious to preserve, and gain access to for the benefit of the townspeople. Thus, I have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend in his championship of the local people in the management of the National Parks in which they live and I am glad to have this opportunity of saying so.

Nevertheless, we must bear in mind, as I have said, that it was in recognition of this interest that the nominated element of these Park authorities was confined to one-third, leaving two-thirds to be found by county councils to represent local interests. It is to be remembered that the idea of attracting people from outside to enjoy these areas is a fundamental part of the concept of the National Park. As my hon. Friend recalled, the Act was passed in 1949 and followed only two years after the Town and Country Planning Act by which Parliament decided that the responsibility for planning matters, outside the county boroughs, should be with the county councils. I believe that that has turned out to be basically the right approach.

Certainly, what might be called the positive side of planning—that is, the preparation of development plans, and so on—undoubtedly requires to go very much wider than the average county district and requires a staff which I do not think many county districts are suited to provide. It is significant that in preparing the basic framework within which local planning authorities must build their development plan, the tendency today is towards larger areas rather than smaller ones, and this is inevitable.

For the negative side of planning—that is, the consideration of individual applications and enforcement of control—there are powers of delegation to county districts. But whether or not a county council decides to use these powers is, except in the case of the larger county districts, purely a matter for their discretion and my right hon. Friend does not interfere with the exercise of that discretion, although he does require schemes of delegation to be submitted to him for approval. I would remind my hon. Friend that this is the pattern of planning control over the whole country and that it must be remembered that there are in many administrative counties, areas of outstanding natural beauty other than those which have been included in the National Parks.

I am bound to say that I find it a little difficult to accept that there is a special case for county district participation in planning in those areas that have been designated as National Parks. Indeed, that designation has deliberately given them a national and, therefore, a rather wider status and I think that one must expect to find this reflected in the planning arrangements. My hon. Friend may perhaps argue that planning control should be in all cases delegated to county districts. That is a much wider and a different problem. I would only say, in passing, that there are two quite definite schools of thought on this matter and I would not think that the case is overwhelmingly in favour of the school of thought that my hon. Friend appears to support.

As for the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the matter is complicated by the fact that it lies across the boundary between two administrative counties, the North and the West Riding. This of course is in no way unique and indeed it is the exception with our National Parks to find them within the boundaries of a single county. It was for this reason no doubt that the Act contemplated that the normal governing body should be the joint planning hoard. Nevertheless, as things have turned out, as a result of the opposition of the county councils in whose area parts of National Parks fell, this has only been achieved in the Peak National Park and the Lakes National Park. In general, therefore, it is true to say that over the other eight National Parks the county councils have retained control.

By and large, they have used their powers of delegation in the areas within the National Park in the same way as they have applied those powers in other parts of their counties. Broadly speaking, as my hon. Friend probably fully appreciates, county councils either retain their planning control powers, or else they delegate them to county districts; where they retain them they sometimes decentralise to sub-committees on an area basis on which representatives of county districts serve.

In the Yorkshire Dales Park, as my hon. Friend pointed out, the two county councils adopt different methods. This is a little unfortunate. In the North Riding part of the Park planning control is exercised on the area sub-committee decentralisation basis with representatives of the county council and country district councils, whereas in the West Riding part the powers have been retained by the county council. In these circumstances the Yorkshire Dales Park Committee, which, in effect, takes the place of a joint board, has therefore only advisory powers. It covers the whole of the Park: it has 18 members of whom my right hon. Friend nominates six. It advises the county councils on the exercise of their functions in relation to the Park and acts as the co-ordinating body for park policy matters common to both county council areas. But it is not and cannot be a planning authority.

These planning functions are carried out by a separate planning committee of each county council, each of which has six members nominated by my right hon. Friend, and three of these six in each case also serve on the joint advisory committee. In that part of the Park falling in the North Riding there is, as I say, decentralisation. Although the West Riding Committee has retained all the powers delegated to it by the county council and does not include representatives of the county districts, I do not think that it can be said that the views of the county district councils are ignored. I certainly do not think that it can be relevant where the planning committee sits.

Other planning authorities are not always as free with their publicity as, perhaps, some of us think they should be. This is not unique to the planning authority which my hon. Friend has in mind, although he knows, I think, that the question of how much publicity is given is also within the discretion of planning authorities and is not a matter in which my right hon. Friend interferes other than to give general guidance, as he has done in a recent circular. I have no doubt that the terms of that circular are, broadly, followed by the planning body in question.

In the present case, I understand, each application for development is brought before the appropriate district council and I am assured that any recommendation which it makes is taken into account by the planning committee before a decision is reached. The county council also reserves on the planning committee three places for the county councillors who represent the electoral districts which fall wholly or partly within the park. Those, I believe, are Sedbergh, Settle and Craven.

have a good deal of sympathy with my hon. Friend in his complaint that the county districts exercise delegated planning powers in respect of their areas which do not fall within the park and not with regard to those areas which do. At first sight, this is illogical and may initially give rise to confusion among the public. Nevertheless, I would have thought that over the years it would become a matter of general knowledge which planning authority dealt with which part of the area and that with good will, there need not be great delay in forwarding applications should they, in error, be sent to the county district offices instead of to the county planning office.

I am sorry to hear about the two-year delay. My hon. Friend will know, however, that if there is a delay of over two months in giving a decision, a right of appeal arises. If, however, he thinks that these are special cases in which I can help, I shall be glad to look into them if he will let me have details.

I take the point made by my hon. Friend. I assure him that we are constantly reviewing the working of the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act in the light of experience in individual parks and of the advice that we receive from the National Parks Commission. In due course, no doubt, legislation will be required to effect various improvements, but I cannot give any undertaking when such legislation is likely to be introduced or commit my right hon. Friend to any general undertaking that either planning or more general management powers will be delegated to county districts.

Turning to the problem of the provision of lavatories, my hon. Friend is right in saying that the planning authorities have power to provide caravan sites, car parks and other amenities or facilities within the parks and that if it is necessary or desirable to provide a public lavatory in connection with that type of development, they may do so and are entitled to the 75 per cent. grant. In all other cases, public lavatories remain the responsibility of public health authorities, which are, of course, the county district councils.

Here again, the pattern is the same for the whole country. Nevertheless, I take the point made by my hon. Friend that in these areas, where people are being deliberately encouraged to come in, there may be a problem and one which is somewhat different from that in other tourist areas, such as seaside resorts, where the extra cost, no doubt, is met by the extra rateable value brought in by the trade.

I can only, once again, assure my hon. Friend that these problems are being studied in the light of the experience and advice of the National Parks Commission and that when we come to legislate we shall certainly do our best to bring about a real improvement in the light of that experience and advice; and we shall consider the criticisms which have been made by my hon. Friend and by others.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned at a quarter to One o'clock.