HC Deb 24 July 1963 vol 681 cc1701-9

3.53 a.m.

Mr. John Farr (Harborough)

Briefly, because of the hour, but none the less emphatically, I wish to draw attention to the limited scope of Article 7 of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order, 1959. I am very much obliged to my hon. Friend the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for being on the Treasury Bench again to answer another debate—the third with which he has had to deal—in the series which we have had tonight.

Article 7 of the Order lists five classes of proposed development details of which it is necessary to advertise in the local Press before an application to develop is made to a local planning authority. The five classes, very briefly, are as follows: (a) a public convenience; (b) a rubbish tip; (c) a sewage farm; (d) a slaughter house; (e) places of entertainment. For any other types of development whatsoever, it is not necessary first to advertise in the local Press the intention to develop. This can mean, and often does, that many householders are not aware that a planning authority has approved development near their houses until such time as bulldozers move in and commence work on an adjoining site.

This has been a cause quite recently of much concern and distress, and, indeed, of a deterioration in the relationship between local authorities and householders in a district. It can often cause hardship and loss of property values when, for instance, a site in a residential area is suddenly developed with industrial buildings.

My hon. Friend, I know, is familiar with a particular case which occurred in my constituency in Leicestershire, in the urban district called Wigston, and on the Grange Estate. He was, indeed, good enough to concern himself with this matter and I shall not go into great detail about it now. Suffice it to say that the site comprised some 200 houses built in the nineteen-twenties. When the original householders, who were also the house owners, took their houses in the nineteen-twenties they were given the impression that the estate would be used solely for residential purposes—for houses only. It was a compact estate in a suitable position adjoining the centre of the town of Wigston with little or no industrial development nearby. Up to the war all but two acres of the Grange Estate had been developed for housing purposes. Since the war broke out the remaining two acres remained in an undeveloped state—until fairly recently, when one day bulldozers rumbled on to the site and the preparatory work commenced of clearing the site and laying the foundations for industrial buildings. The people who live on the Grange Estate had no idea whatsoever that any planning proposal had been submitted or considered by the local planning authority for this development.

It is not especially the merits of this case, whether the land should have been used for industrial development or not, which concern me. What does concern me very much is the lack of liaison between the local planning authority and the householders who suddenly, almost overnight, find men and machines moving on to land adjoining their houses without their having been any the wiser, though on inquiry they find that the local planning authority has given consent for the land to be developed for heavy or light industrial purposes.

In the case of the Grange Estate there were furious protests from the residents, but under that Article 7 industrial development as such is not included as one of the categories which have to be advertised before planning consent is given. What is so wrong in this case is that the residents were never asked for their views. They did not know what was going to happen. If they had only had the opportunity to express their views at a proper public inquiry, and only had known that their case had been considered, they would have felt satisfied about the matter.

There are further examples in this connection. The two which most readily spring to mind have both concerned me to some extent in recent weeks, and both, strangely enough, occurred in the same urban district of Wigston.

The first concerns another proposal for a rather strange development in Wigston, in Granville Road, a fairly choice residential area. I have been up and down the road several times. It is a fairly quiet, discreet road, with a number of shady trees along it. Most of the houses are detached and owner-occupied. A private developer applied for permission to erect on a site there, which was intended for only one house when the road was constructed in the 'twenties or 'thirties, no fewer than 22 what he called "garden flats" but what I would call "battery flats", plus 15 garages.

The application was considered by the local planning authority. Under Article 7 of the Town and Country Planning (General Development) Order. 1959,a local planning authority has no need to advertise that it has received such a strange or unusual request for development. It can decide the case on its own merits. The first that the householders in Granville Road need have known about the project was when consent was either given or refused to the application. But, fortunately, the Wigston Urban District Council did in this case what a great many local authorities are having to do these days. It realised that Article 7 of the Order is no longer applicable to present circumstances. It realised that it had to liaise with the ratepayers and householders in the urban district. Off its own bat, and without being required to do so, the council arranged for the proposal first to be advertised. A large number of objections flowed in. The matter is at the moment, I believe, up for decision by the Minister.

The second matter to which I wish to refer in this connection, and again in connection with that urban district, is a letter from a constituent which is typical of letters which I have fairly often received recently. It says: A licence to build an extension to a factory was granted after repeated refusals…, to Messrs, Cottam in a residential area. This has considerably reduced the values of surrounding properties and now the situation has been made intolerable by the fact that in this building, originally designed for ground floor garage and a yarn room first floor (licence was granted for this purpose), plain glass windows of the push-out type are being fitted instead of opaque hopper windows. The factory occupants will now almost live in the rooms of the surrounding homes. There is a limit to progress at any price. I feel that cases like this of friction between local planning authorities and householders are arising chiefly because Article 7 of the Order is no longer adequate for its purpose. During the Committee stage of the Town and Country Planning Bill, 1959, which the Order followed, my hon. Friend the Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) addressed a question to my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Housing and Local Government when they were discussing this matter in relation to publication of notice of applications for planning permission. My hon. Friend asked: Before we leave this Clause, could my right hon. Friend give some indication to the Committee of the class of development which it is intended should be designated for procedure under this Clause? The Minister replied: That is a matter which will be debated at a later stage in the House when the development order comes to be laid. It was not in the minds of the Government to spread the net so widely so as to include everything, but it was in the minds of the Government to include those things which are particularly unpleasant neighbours. It would give rise to most ill feeling when one faced some smelly or unpleasant process suddenly authorised in one's immediate neighbourhood, one having had no opportunity to know about it and having had no right of action at all, the local authority having given planning permission. Later he said: The order itself will be subject to Parliamentary procedure, and Members on both sides will have opportunities of expressing their views on it when it comes to be laid. Then he added: I do not even say that when we make the first development order we shall get it right first time, because I believe that we may need to learn by experience."—[Official Report, Standing Committee D, 3rd March, 1959, c. 1093–6.] That Order was laid before the House on 29th July, 1959. We all remember what happened after that. I was not a Member of this House then. Shortly after the Order was laid Parliament was dissolved, there was a General Election and in the ensuing excitement, clamour and glamour the Order languished on the Table unnoticed by hon. Members on either side for the 40 Statutory days and thereafter took effect. It was never discussed in the House. Hon. Members never gave positive acceptance to it.

The evidence is piling up and I ask my hon. Friend to replace this Order with another, recognising that the Order is not adequate. The new order should have a considerably enlarged scope, certainly including all industrial premises.

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir William Anstruther-Gray)

By leave of the House, Mr. Corfield.

4.9 a.m.

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

I was hoping that the House might refrain from giving me leave at this time of the morning, both for its own sake and for mine.

My hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) has made almost as good a case for altering this Order as I made myself during the proceedings on the 1959 Bill. He made one mistake however. Far from this Order have gone unobserved. I took it from the Vote Office the day it was laid and studied it very carefully. But I ask my hon. Friend to realise that the Planning Acts do not confer on private individuals rights over other people's property.

It is significant that the estate to which my hon. Friend particularly referred was built in the 1920s on an understanding that the whole of the estate would be reserved for residential use, and that the residents now feel very sore that some alteration has been made. My recollection of this case—and my hon. Friend brought two or three residents to see me—is that there were no restrictive covenants attached to the estate at the time and nothing in the conveyances which suggested that there was any restriction of the use of any part of the estate, or any part of the land which remained undeveloped, which is the piece to which my hon. Friend is referring and where the industrial development is now likely to take place.

Had it not been for the planning Acts, the people who bought originally in the 1920s would not have had a right of objection even to the classes of development listed in Article 7. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the Minister at the time of the 1959 Bill, said, these classes of development were explicitly chosen because they were clearly bad neighbours in themselves. Perhaps it would help if I read them in rather fuller detail than my hon. Friend did. Class (a) was buildings for use as a public convenience; (b) was construction of buildings or other operations, or use of land, for the disposal of refuse or waste materials; (c) buildings or other operations or use of land for the construction of septic tanks serving single dwellings or the use of the land for the purposes of sewage disposal; (d) construction of buildings or the use of land for a slaughterhouse or knacker's yard. After that came the slightly less unpleasant use for entertainment of any nature likely to make a noise.

I think that hon. Members would agree that any development, whether it is a high block of flats, even of the luxury type, or whatever, if badly sited can be a bad neighbour. If we are to list everything which could conceivably be a bad neighbour, we would have to advertise, with all the delays which that would cause, every conceivable kind of development. We would also be under mining the whole concept of planning, the purpose of which is to see that any development, whatever it may be, as far as possible fits into its surroundings and that if it does not, planning permission is not granted. In other words, what my hon. Friend is asking for is planning by referendum, and that does not make any sense.

As my hon. Friend knows, local planning authorities are the counties and county boroughs, with various delegation arrangements, which vary up and down the country, with the county districts. However, in this development there was no need to advertise. The local authority could simply refuse or grant planning permission. After all, the authority comprises the elected representatives of the neighbourhood and this is why it has been given planning powers. It was thought, I think rightly, that local representatives would have the local knowledge and that, if local government is to mean anything, they should have a considerable degree of control and interest in the development of their area.

What my hon. Friend is suggesting is that we should advertise and seek the views of local residents on virtually everything which, as I have put it, is planning by referendum; or else that Whitehall is to look over the shoulders of planning authorities all the time and say, "You cannot do this or you cannot do that; we must have a public inquiry." Quite apart from the fact that this undermines any degree of local responsibility, it clearly would make the planning machine immensely cumbersome—and there are a good many hon. Members who accuse us that it is over-cumbersome already. The fact is that it takes a considerable time to arrange public inquiries, to consider the findings and make the decisions. I do not, off hand, remember the exact figures, but in general it is anything between three and six months.

If we were to double or treble or, perhaps, increase tenfold the number of inquiries by the sort of procedure which my hon. Friend has in mind, we should never get the machine off the ground. We would be in grave danger of grinding the economy to a halt, because a great deal of this development, particularly industrial development, may well be vital to our trade and exports. I cannot believe that to put additional delays of this nature into the whole planning system, bearing in mind that they would probably double or treble present delays, could be in anybody's general interest.

That is not to say that I support the idea that major developments which are likely to alter the character of a neighbourhood should be considered, on application for planning permission, behind closed doors in the sense that no attempt should be made to ascertain local reaction. My hon. Friend will be aware that when the Public Bodies (Admission to Meetings) Act 1960, which was introduced by my hon. Friend who is now Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Pensions and National Insurance, was passed, my right hon. Friend the then Minister undertook to issue a circular on the subject of public bodies', particularly the local authori- ties', attitude to publicity and to the Press in particular.

That circular was issued in 1961. It had a special part devoted to publicity for certain planning applications. Paragraph 12 refers to Article 7 and goes on to say that under the Town and Country Planning Act, 1959, certain types of proposal relating to uses which may be particularly objectionable neighbours have to be advertised: substantial departures from the development plan are also given publicity in appropriate cases: and there is publicity again when public inquiries are held by the Minister in connection with planning appeals and other planning procedures. There is always the opportunity to object, which generally results in a public inquiry when development plans are considered; and when there is any substantial departure from a development plan there are again opportunities for objections and often a public inquiry is held.

The circular goes on to state, in paragraph 13: But there are some planning operations not covered by these arrangements where, in the Minister's view, there is scope for greater publicity than at present. The applications which the Minister has in mind are those which, if carried out, would affect the whole of a neighbourhood and which are therefore of considerable interest to a good many people. These cases are, in any given planning area, not very numerous. Nor can they be satisfactorily denned in any legal instrument. It is a question of judging whether a particular proposal is of such interest to a considerable part of the community that it ought to be made publicly known, whether by direct notification to persons affected or by local publicity or both, and an opportunity given for anyone concerned to make his views known before a decision is taken. My hon. Friend will, I know, consider that this is too vague and lacking in binding force. But surely it is part and parcel of local government that the people on the spot should have discretion how they deal with their public relations. This is basically a matter of public relations, and that is why I firmly believe that local authorities would be wise to put a liberal interpretation on that circular and, when in doubt, err on the side of publicity.

I must, however, warn my hon. Friend that even if they did that, he would not necessarily have fewer objections from his constituents. Over and over again in my office I get cases in which local authorities, going right outside their statutory obligations have consulted parish councils, have advertised and have had representations sent to them as a result of the advertisement and have considered them most carefully.

If the decision is then taken—and the authority has a perfect right and indeed a duty to take a decision which may well be unpopular—we still have the protests and demands that the Minister should revoke or call-in or have a public inquiry. I appreciate the feelings of people whose property has been depreciated, but the plain fact is that decisions must be taken, and in planning one finds nearly always that whatever decision is taken one offends one party or the other—the local planning authority, the applicant, or the objectors. I think that this will be even more difficult in future than at the moment, because with the vast expansion of the population we will have to develop to greater densities and people do not like having denser development on their doorstep, though I believe that in fact they get used to it more quickly than they have generally expected.

To bring in the cumbersome procedure suggested by the hon. Member might well cause the end of planning. It may be cold comfort, but without planning the constituents he has in mind would have no protection against a neighbouring land owner developing the land exactly as he liked; that was the position before the Planning Act of 1947, in the absence of restrictive covenants which had to be paid for by private rights.

I would ask the hon. Member to go to his constituents and try to make this difficult distinction between the public interest, with which planning Acts are concerned—the development of land to the best use in the public interest as a whole—and the private interest, which is something with which planning is concerned only incidentally in so far as some of the private interests are also public interests. There is a distinction. It is difficult to make, but until it is understood I fear we shall have a lot of disappointment and resentment and people believing that planning exists to replace common law and give rights over other people's property.