HC Deb 01 May 1963 vol 676 cc1271-80

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

1.8 a.m.

Mr. Sydney Irving (Dartford)

I wish to raise the question of the decision of the Minister of Housing and Local Government on the planning appeal in respect of land at Goldsel Road, Swanley. The appeal site is a disused nursery garden of about 25 acres shown mainly as private open space or nursery garden in the development plan of 1958 and situated partly in the green belt. But a draft town map is in preparation and falls to be dealt with in December, 1963. The planning authority has stated that in the new town map it was likely that the appeal site would be allocated primarily for residential development and designated for compulsory purchase by the Dartford Rural District Council.

Despite the close proximity of this review, about nine months ahead, the Minister has chosen to override the Dartford Rural District Council, in whose area the land is situated, the Kent County Council, which is the planning authority, and also his own inspector, to give planning permission to a private developer, Messrs. Cooper Estates Ltd., to develop this land mainly for residential purposes. I raise the matter tonight because this decision will have the most serious consequences. These consequences will threaten some of the most beautiful country in Kent, in the Darenth Valley, and will endanger the green belt, which the Minister is pledged to protect.

The appellants submitted in their case that the inquiry was concerned with the planning appeal and that the designation was not within the terms of reference of the inquiry. The inspector found, however, as a matter of fact that to grant permission would not only constitute a substantial departure from the provisions of the development plan, but would also affect the framework of the revised town map before it could be formally presented to the Minister.

It might be asked, if this land was to be used for residential development in any event, why not now? This, however, would be a superficial and shortsighted view of planning, and particularly of local needs, as the consequences which flow from this decision are both numerous and harmful. First, jumping the gun and allowing partial if mixed development, even if the development itself is of good quality, would prevent the integrated and proper development of the area. Secondly, and even more seriously, it creates a precedent upon which other applications can be made and granted. Thirdly, it takes no account either of local needs or of the effect upon the green belt.

Much of the surrounding area is in the green belt and the Dartford Rural District Council is responsible for satisfying the local housing needs of the green belt villages of Wilmington, Hawley, Sutton at Hone, South Darenth, Horton Kirby, Farningham, Eynsford and Crockenhill. This means that the only way that the character of these villages can be preserved and nibbling at the green belt can be prevented is by satisfying the local housing needs at Swanley, and this is what the council proposes to do.

At Swanley, 184 acres in all are available, but for the local authority there is a planning blight on all but 26 acres as most of the land to be reserved for housing development is almost entirely controlled by the private developer who was the appellant in this case. The total loss is likely to be 158 acres. If the Minister disputes this, let me tell him that already, since the appeal, an application for the development of a further 36 acres at Goldsel Road has been lodged.

The Minister has said that the council's needs would be a matter more appropriate for argument on compulsory purchase proceedings. The compulsory purchase procedure, however, is inadequate. It can be used only for current needs set in the framework of limited programmes which the Minister allows in annual allocations.

Local authorities cannot compete with private developers in the open market. They can proceed only by designation. The Minister, however, has tied the hands of the local authority by allowing this appeal before such proposals can even be presented as part of the new development plan to be submitted in December this year, while he frees a private developer to build as many houses as possible. This, therefore, leaves only 26 acres for local needs, which can cater for only 360 families from the waiting list of 1,301. This is totally inadequate.

If the green belt is to be preserved, the population from outside the area must be restricted.

It might be argued that designation would be unfair to the private developer hut, after all, this could be argued when the town map is submitted. A great many private houses have, however, been built for sale since the war in the Dartford Rural District Council's area, and the Kent County Council stated in evidence that only in one other area in Kent had there been a bigger proportion of private houses to council houses built since the war than here. Some 5,980 private houses to 2,507 council houses have been built. In general, the balance in Kent is in the opposite direction.

In addition, the Dartford Rural District Council is offering for sale at the moment a number of its new houses, but it is clear from the response that only a small proportion of the families on the waiting list can afford to buy, despite the favourable terms offered by the council—and most of those who can afford manage only because of the ¼ per cent. deposit scheme that the council is adopting.

The Minister's decision will have a further consequence. Not only will it make it very difficult to satisfy local needs and mean that the sons and daughters of existing residents will have to leave the area, but the pressure on rail and other services will be much intensified, causing a further deterioration. The population of Swanley has doubled in ten years, and it is estimated that it will further increase, as a result of the Minister's present decision, from 11,000 to 20,000, with an additional 9,000 people living within eighteen miles of London. With private development of this kind, 7,700 of those 9,000 will come from outside the Dartford Rural District Council area. An additional 2,000, on this reckoning, will use Swanley Station each day, leading to a worsening of the very difficult conditions already existing there.

The decision represents a major departure from the development plan. It is not disputed that it will seriously inhibit the submission of the new town map, and possibly make the proper planning development of Swanley much more difficult. It will also prevent proper attention being given to local needs, while worsening the commuter problem, which is already very acute.

The decision will place in danger areas of the green belt of the highest landscape value, and place in jeopardy many of the most attractive villages in Kent. It is clear that in over-riding the rural district council, the Kent County Council and his own inspector, the Minister has failed to show any appreciation of either the planning or the social consequences of his decision, which is to be utterly deplored. I hope that when the Parliamentary Secretary replies he will, in particular, at least be able to tell the local authority how, in these circumstances, it is to secure land to meet its urgent housing needs.

1.18 a.m.

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

The hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Sydney Irving) has outlined the position of this site and its history, and I do not think that there is any need for me to repeat what he has said. As I understand it, the local authority's main problem is not whether or not this land is suitable for residential development but by whom it should be developed. It is quite true that the Kent County Council, in its initial refusal of the planning application, laid some stress on the fact that the development proposed would be contrary to the development plan as approved in 1958 but, in the course of the inquiry, that body made it quite clear that although it had made that a ground of refusal it attached very little importance to it. The inspector's words were to the effect that the county council felt that that point should be mentioned.

I would impress upon the hon. Member that where a town map or development plan generally is being reviewed, it inevitably is a fairly lengthy process from the time when the local planning staff starts on the operation to the time when the approval is given by my right hon. Friend. I do not think it could be argued that it would be right to insist upon a sterilisation of all further development pending the approval of a new town map. We have had other Adjournment debates on cases involving central area redevelopment where inevitably there have been long delays, and difficulties have arisen through the planning authority being unable to give a definite answer. However, in that sort of case where the general proposals of the local planning authority are required for a particular piece of land, as in this case, there is no planning case for saying that individual decisions or permissions must be deferred until the formal town map inquiry.

I ask the hon. Member to bear the timing in mind. The whole development plan for this area is due for review in December of this year, and the county council, as the local planning authority, made it clear in its amplification statement that because of the rapid development of this area it thought that it was right to advance its consideration of the town map for Swanley to precede the development plan which is due now in a matter of months. Therefore the actual timing of this decision is giving planning permission perhaps a year before the matter is due to come up in the development plan review.

In many of our debates my right hon. Friend is attacked for not making sufficient land available and thereby making prices higher than they otherwise might be. And indeed there is a strong case, where land is agreed by all parties to be suitable for residential development, for bringing it on to the market. This land is not only agreed by all parties to be suitable, but it happens to be conveniently situated as regards services. One would have to have a very strong argument indeed to keep that land sterilised, particularly for a relatively short period, on the basis of who should develop it rather than on the basis of whether it should be developed at all.

The second point on which, with due respect to the hon. Member, there is a measure of misunderstanding, is the question of designation and compulsory acquisition. Whether or not a piece of land to be acquired by the local authority is designated in the development plan, ultimately it has to be acquired, in the absence of agreement, by the use of compulsory purchase powers. I suspect that the underlying argument here is that if we waited and had it designated it would be safe and put in reserve for the local authority to acquire as and when it wanted it.

This is simply not so, because, as the hon. Member knows, once a development plan is published with a designation in it there is a right on the part of the owner, under Part IV of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1959, to require the acquisition rather than have the land, from his point of view, permanently sterilised. Therefore, as far as the local authority is concerned, compulsory purchase procedure becomes a necessity in this case—if not at the moment then at any rate within a very limited period.

The hon. Member went on to say that there were in this area 184 acres available for residential development but that the local authority itself had only about 23 acres, the balance being controlled, as the hon. Member put it, by this developer. Here again, ultimately for the local authority to carry out its housing programme it has clearly got to acquire more land, and I cannot see the relevance of the fact—whether a coincidence or otherwise—that the ownership is in the hands of one particular developer. I do not think that that inhibits the local authority in any way from using its compulsory purchase powers as and when it wants to acquire more land; nor does it affect the price that the local authority would pay for it, because the price will be based on residential values, as it would be in any case, since the planning permission assumed to be granted is for the purpose for which the acquiring authority is, in fact, acquiring the land. Whether or not the planning permission exists, as I understand it, the compensation, or price, would be precisely the same.

What it really amounts to is that the argument is a balance between bringing on to the market land that is in every sense regarded as suitable for residential development, and keeping it off the market for probably a year in order to enable the local authority to postpone the actual purchase and, of course, thereby postpone finding the necessary purchase price. One clearly sees the advantage to the local authority in that, but I cannot believe that on planning grounds, when a piece of land is agreed as suitable for development and when the services and so on are available, it is right to say that this is premature.

I know it is argued that in this case the local authority wanted to develop this land—though I see no overriding reason why it should not still do so—and that the chances of the residents on this new estate coming from outside the town will be greater than if the estate was developed by the local authority for its housing list. Of course, there is some strength in this argument, but nevertheless, as I understand this area, there is a good deal of cross-traffic between it and the employment areas of North Kent. There is a good deal of movement out of Swanley to places like Sidcup and Orpington, and of course local authorities have no control over where their tenants work once they become tenants. Nor have they any control over where the purchasers of their houses work.

As the hon. Gentleman said, it was a point in the local authority's case that a proportion at least of these houses would be built for sale rather than for letting. I submit, therefore, that there is very little control, even in the case of building by the local authority, over where people work and where they move to and from during the course of the day. I admit that, on balance, development by the private enterprise developer is more likely to lead to people coming from a distance; but I cannot accept that the difference is as great as is made out.

The other point to which I should like to draw attention is that this development, which includes something in the neighbourhood of 288 dwellings, is a balanced development also containing offices, placed close to the railway station, of something like 60,000 square feet, providing employment for between 400 and 500 office workers. So on that basis it could give enough employment, at least, for a number of people equivalent to the number who will occupy those particular houses. Although it may not actually help in the commuting problem, there is certainly no reason why the net effect should be to worsen it, since there will be a balanced community. There seems to be no reason why those local people who are in the market for buying local authority houses should not be in the market for these houses, bearing in mind that the local authority is still able to lend money for the purchase of houses whether or not it is itself the vendor.

A great deal has been made—I have seen some of the Press cuttings—of the point that it is unfair to jump the gun, so to speak, and that here is something which should have been left to the review of the town map. Indeed, this was the view of the inspector. But I think it relevant also that where the local authority wished to obtain planning permission in respect of another site of which it owned the freehold, it applied for planning permission while the town map review was in preparation, before this particular appeal came forward. That was on what, I believe, is known as the White Oak site. The local authority did not see anything wrong—and I agree—in applying for planning permission; and I think that it would have been a little hurt if it had been told that it had to wait until the town map review procedure was completed. If that principle be right in one case, there is no very strong ground for complaining about its application in another. As the hon. Gentleman knows, there was another application in the area, known as Birchwood Grove, where my right hon. Friend turned down the appeal, with specific reference to the greater suitability for housing of the site we are now considering.

As regards the overall picture, as the hon. Gentleman said, there are still considerable areas in this part of the county for residential development. Whether or not the local authority decides to acquire this particular site, or any other land, whether or not owned by the same developer, the procedure it will have to go through in order to acquire the land will be the same.

I conclude by stressing my firm belief that planning can work only on the basis of land use. Everyone agrees that this is a suitable use for this particular land, the services are available, and I really cannot accept that it would have been right to have reached a decision other than the one which my right hon. Friend reached. If the question of over-riding the inspector worries the hon. Gentleman, I am sure he will appreciate that the whole system is based on the supposition that the inspector is a representative of my right hon. Friend collecting information and is not himself the judge. If the hon. Gentleman reads carefully all the findings of fact which the inspector recorded, he will agree that the only one which leads to the conclusion which the inspector reached is the one in which he, in effect, said that this was premature. That is a matter of policy and my right hon. Friend was in no way going against the other findings of fact, the general tenor of the inspector's report, or the universal agreement about the suitability of the land for this purpose.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-five minutes to Two o'clock.