HC Deb 20 April 1964 vol 693 cc1054-64

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

11.55 p.m.

Sir Richard Thompson (Croydon, South)

The theme of this debate is to be the intolerable delay in the redevelopment of Croydon Airport, a large part of which lies within my constituency. My aim is to try to inject a sense of urgency in o the Ministry in order to bring about that which has not happened in a e last four and a half years—an early and proper redevelopment of this great asset.

It would be impertinent of me to weary the House or my hon. and gallant Friend the Parliamentary Secretary with a great deal of detailed history about the background of this matter. My hon. and gallant Friend will well remember it at when he was a back bencher and. I was in the Ministry the closure of Croydon Airport was a matter which exercised our attention for some years. There is very little I can tell him about it that he does not already know.

However, I will say this just for the record. After a very long and protracted wrangle, the airport was closed to flying on 30th September, 1959. It would be pointless to reopen the controversy at out all that. Nevertheless, I must say that both those who were critical of the decision to close the airport and the larger party which accepted that it was inevitable because of reasons of safety advanced at the time were somewhat reconciled to the prospect because they felt that the redevelopment of 418 acres of very valuable land close to London and urgently needed for a variety of purposes was a very reasonable quid pro quo for the loss of an airport which had ceased to be viable at the time it was closed.

I do not have to dwell on the fact that of all commodities in and around London, land is by far the most precious. Every local authority is desperately short of land and Croydon Borough Council is among those authorities. It is fair to say that of the 418 acres involved, only 82 are actually in Croydon, the balance of 336 being in Beddington and Wallington. Croydon's acreage is much the smallest.

Nevertheless, all the local authorities having a share in this are concerned to see the land put to a useful purpose, whether as an open space, or for residential, or industrial purposes or, as is contemplated, a combination of the three. It is all the more astonishing that, four and a half years later, this magnificent site remains substantially in the same condition as it was then—unused, undeveloped and with no immediate prospect of being put to a fruitful use.

Even in its declining years as an airport, for charter, for executive and for club flying, it had had some limited value despite its small size. As an unused open space, it has none, It is simply a reproach to us all that we have this asset in our midst and are doing nothing to put it to good use.

I want to try to establish what has gone wrong and what we can do to speed up this process.

I have looked into this business pretty closely over the years, and have asked Parliamentary Questions, and so on. As far as I can see, the story goes something like this: the closure of the airport involved a change of use. That in turn involved the rezoning of the land under the Town and Country Planning Acts, and that of course led to the hearing of objections at a local public inquiry.

After consultations with the local authorities and the Government Departments concerned, proposals for an amendment of the county development plan were published in July, 1960, considerably less than a year after the airport was closed. There were a large number of objections, hence a public inquiry was held in October of that year. Since we are looking at the reasons for delay in all this, it is important to mention that a very late objection made by the Royal Aero Club, which wished to keep the airport open for executive flying, was not finally disposed of until March, 1962.

Although I acquit my hon. and gallant Friend's Department of any responsibility in that part of the delay, I must say that it was utterly unreasonable to take so long to dispose of that particular objection. After all, the airport was closed primarily on the grounds of safety, and it ought not to have taken until October, 1962, to announce the provision of alternative facilities at Biggin Hill for executive and club flying. The delay at that stage was quite unreasonable, and in my view it cost the taxpayer very dear indeed.

However, by October, 1962, the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which, pending the outcome of the Royal Aero Club's objection had suspended action on the other objections which were pending, announced its plan for the allocation of the land. There were to be 55 acres for industrial development, 120 acres for residential and school building, and 250 acres for playing fields and open space.

Then there followed a long wrangle with the local authorities concerned, Surrey and Croydon, over the disposal of the industrial land. A compromise was finally agreed and the industrial land was auctioned off in November of last year. Four years, more or less, from the date of closure of the airport everything seemed set for redevelopment to start. It had been a long time, but the statutory processes had seemingly all been gone through and we confidently expected that things would get moving at last. In fact, in the meantime the local authorities concerned had appointed a consultant to prepare a development plan—very comprehensive, ambitious and imaginative it was—and it was on that basis that it was hoped the airport would be redeveloped.

But then came the bombshell. On 27th August, 1963, the Ministry of Transport, in a Press release which I have here, disclosed that the line of the London—Crawley motorway might cross the site of the airport, and that a decision on the actual route which it would follow was to depend on the recommendations of consulting engineers who had been appointed in March, 1962.

We are now in April, 1964, and we have not had the report from the consulting engineers. They must have had plenty of time to consult almost everybody in sight, but despite the fact that the airport development had been so long delayed before they came on the scene, we still do not know what their recommendations are. I cannot think it right that this additional delay, arising out of all this further consideration of the route of the road, should be injected into the scheme at this stage. Surely it should have been possible to combine this planning with all the other planning being done by the other Ministries and by the local authorities earlier in the day.

The trouble now is that until we have the line of this proposed motorway definitely settled, and until we know when this decision will be announced, the development that we all need so urgently cannot proceed. I repeat that I have not yet discovered any reason why this road planning could not proceed earlier. How is it possible to proceed with any confidence in the planning of an elaborate and comprehensive development over a large area while uncertainty persists about the precise line which a motorway, probably more than 100 ft. wide, will cut through that area?

I have pressed the Ministry of Transport to show its hand on this matter more than once, by way of Parliamentary Questions, on 18th December and 14th January, and I have got this far: I have got the Minister of Transport to say that the road, if it passes through the airport at all—and even that has not been finally decided—will pass through that part which is designated for open space, for recreational purposes. But I have not been successful in getting a firm date when all this can be announced. That is one thing which, whatever else he tells me this evening, I earnestly hope that my hon. and gallant Friend will be able to disclose.

I accept that the Ministry of Transport's function in this matter may be relatively small. I realise that it is not responsible for the planning, and that it does not control the actions of the local authorities concerned. I realise that it was not involved in the original decision to close or not to close. Nevertheless, it is the timing of this final intervention by the Ministry of Trans- port and it; failure to plan the route of this road earlier which has now injected this further and—in my view—quite unacceptable delay into the whole process. Three Ministries have been involved, and as many local authorities. All seem to have concentrated on their own bit of the problem, and it has never been anybody's business to view the matter as a whole and to say, "We must take a grip 3f this problem and recognise that our objective is to redevelop this priceless asset as quickly as possible". In other wards, we have lost sight of the wood because of the presence of so many trees. At no stage in the proceedings has it appeared to be the case that the ultimate objective has been uppermost in the minds of those involved.

I acquit my hon. and gallant Friend of the major responsibility here. He is in the unfortunate position of having come into the matter at a relatively late stage. I urge him to help us in our task of putting these 418 acres to early and fruitful use by at least letting us know when he will publish the line of this road. If h will do that and if he can tell us some reason for the delay in reaching a decision on the line of this route, he will, I believe, be doing something to ea.5 e great public concern which is now felt in Croydon and the areas of local authorities adjacent to it about the quite unbt4ievable delay which has taken place in putting this great asset of unused land to fruitful use.

12.10 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport (Vice-Admiral John Hughes Hallett)

I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Sir R. Thompson) has raised this matter tonight. As he hinted, I am not wholly unfamiliar with the area and I am well aware of the local anxiety caused by the shadow of the motorway. The debate tonight gives me an opportunity of laying something about the immensely difficult problems created when a great road is to be built through the heart of a great city. It also enables me to explain why the effect of this particular project on the redevelopment of Croydon Airport is not so serious as is popularly supposed.

In effect, my hon. Friend has asked two questions tonight—how far is the Ministry of Transport responsible for delay in the redevelopment of the site, and why is the Ministry taking so long to come to conclusions about the line for the motorway? I shall answer the second question first.

The acquisition of land and property plays a big part in any road scheme. Before the line of the road can be decided we have to balance three factors: the engineering problems to be overcome, the cost of acquiring land and property and the social price to be paid in disturbance and damage to amenities. With the advent of motorways calling for widths of well over 100 feet, the acquisition of the land becomes increasingly difficult even in rural areas. In built-up areas its cost, including compensation for property owners, begins to loom much larger. As we draw near to a city centre it can become the dominating factor.

In olden times things were more simple. The Emperor Hadrian would have drawn a straight line and if that line happened to run through a town's new centre so much the worse for the town. Down it came and on went the road. Whether anyone objected, or was compensated we do not know, but I rather doubt it.

Today we order these things differently. An elaborate procedure laid down by Parliament has to be followed. Thus my right hon. Friend is under continuous and conflicting pressure: to build more roads and to build them faster, on the one hand, and to pay more heed to the rights of those whose properties lie in their path, on the other hand. This particular motorway is to run for some 30 miles from a point in south-west London to a point on the London-Brighton road a few miles south of Crawley. Anyone who uses the A.23 road will be familiar with the congestion which occurs from Crawley, northwards. It grows steadily worse, and we have wanted to relieve it for a long time. Even so, there are other motorways of higher priority and I fear that it will be impossible to start work on this one for several years.

It is likely to cost some £35 million money well spent the motoring public may say. Nevertheless, we have a duty to the taxpayer to keep the figure as low as possible, and property costs will play a heavy part in the total. That is why those who plan a road like this are bound to cast envious eyes on any open space which may lie near to its route. I need not labour the point, because my hon. Friend is only too conscious of the immense value of the land in some parts of his constituency.

Surrey County Council suggested a line for the road as far back as 1959. That line raised some difficult problems both in the urban sector and in the more rural sector further south. As the time approached for preparatory work to begin, my right hon. Friend decided that a further extensive survey was necessary before a decision could be reached. This survey was put in hand in the spring of 1962. That, let me say in passing, was the right time to begin, for to have started earlier would have been too much ahead of the likely starting date for the motorway.

The work was entrusted to consulting engineers since pressure of work on the county engineer was at that time very heavy. That is now complete, and we hope to receive the consulting engineers' final report in a few days' time. Their task has been a most formidable one in which the land and property problems in the urban part of the route have loomed large. But that is not to say that a route through the airport site will necessarily be chosen. That is still no more than one of several possibilities, but less property in this section will have to be bought and demolished if the road runs through the airport. However, against this, the open space will be bisected, and its recreational value reduced. We shall have to weigh these two factors one against the other, but not in isolation. The road neither begins nor ends at the airport, and the total effect of the whole route on property and amenities will have to be considered in comparison with all the alternative lines; so, also, must be the relative merits of each route from the point of view of traffic.

Both of the lines examined present difficult problems, and it is not in the least surprising that the consultants should have taken just over two years to prepare their report. Their recommendations will be carefully studied as a matter of urgency, and my right hon. Friend will decide upon a draft scheme as soon as possible. The choice will not be easy. A great deal of further consultation with the public authorities who are concerned will be necessary before the proposed line can be published, and then laid open to formal objection.

I freely admit that the whole process takes a long time, and I regret the uncertainty that it must create in people's minds while it is going on; but, bearing in mind the enormous volume of work, I say that it is inevitable. The alternative is to abandon the idea of bringing motorways nearer to the heart of our great cities.

Now I come to the other question—how much has the Ministry of Transport delayed the redevelopment of the Croydon Airport site? The answer to this is that we have done nothing at all to delay redevelopment of zones for houses, schools and industry, and the possibility of a motorway across the open part of the zone began to act as a delaying factor only at about the beginning of this year. Let me recall some dates and some facts, already referred to by my hon. Friend.

As he has said, Croydon Airport was closed in September, 1959. Surrey County Council and the County Borough of Croydon then formulated proposals for the broad lines of its redevelopment, and these proposals were the subject of a public inquiry into objections, held locally, in October, 1960. Among objections was one from the Royal Aero Club, which objected to any development which would preclude the future use of the land as an airfield, on the ground that the growing importance of business executive flying called for facilities within easy reach of London and that no other airfield was available. This necessitated the study of alternative airfields, and it was not until March, 1962, that it was possible to announce that facilities for private and executive flying would be made available at Biggin Hill.

In the same month, the provisional decision of the Minister of Housing and Local Government about the development plan was made known to the two planning authorities.

He accepted in principle their proposal that much of the site should be used for playing fields and public open spaces, and that the smaller parts of it should be used for houses, schools, and industry. He differed a little from them over the relative sizes and shapes of the various zones, and over the density of the proposed residential development. His provisional decision was the subject of further formal consultations, and it was also laid open to the public for objection. This was confirmed in October, 1962.

At that date, which was shortly after the motorway survey had been put in hand, no decision could be taken on whether or not the motorway would cross the airport. It would have been quite wrong to hold up the airport development until this could be decided, and we did not do so. The consulting engineers therefore examined the situation at the airport as one of their first tasks and they reported their conclusions in December, 1962. These were communicated to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Aviation, and it must be remembered that the latter Department still owned the land on which the airport stood and that the former was still concerned with planning policy.

We all agreed—that is, the three Departments—that disturbance to the zones for louses, schools and industry must be molded. Detailed planning on the redevelopment of these parts of the site was already proceeding and is now well advanced. We also recognised that the scale and importance of the motorway project was such that the possibility of a motorway line across the remainder of the site must be kept open. It was thought that this could be done without real prejudice to the pace of preliminary work on redevelopment of the open space which, for a variety of reasons, was at that time a good deal less rapid.

These principles were settled during the first half of 1963 and, to minimise the effects of a possible motorway on the residential zone, it was further agreed that no motorway line should come within 650 feet of it. The local authorities were so informed in confidence at once and my right hon. Friend authorised a public announcement of the agreed inter-departmental policy in August, 1963. The occasion of this announcement was the impending sale by public auction of the land zoned for industrial use, and one of its objects was to let intending industrial purchasers know that there might one day be a motorway close to the plots for sale.

My hon. Friend will, therefore, see that the motorway project has so far done little to delay the redevelopment of the airport site. The solution early this year of other problems affecting the open zone now makes the possibility of a motorway across it the main cause of delay. The Ministry of Aviation has accordingly suggested to the local authorities that they might like to use part of it for recreational purposes, on a temporary basis.

I can assure my hon. Friend that no avoidable delay in arriving at its permanent layout will be permitted. My right hon. Friend will do all in his power to publish a draft scheme showing the line of the motorway as soon as practicable. I very much hope before the end of the year.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-two minutes past Twelve o'clock.