HC Deb 24 June 1966 vol 730 cc1196-204

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

4.0 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

I wish to raise the subject of the dismissal of an appeal against a refusal of planning permission for advertisement panels at Bustleholm Quarry, West Bromwich.

I apologise to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary for not informing him beforehand of any specific points which I wished to raise on this Adjournment, but I am sure that with his great knowledge of town planning he will be able to answer my queries very easily, and indeed, I hope that he will be able to accede to my requests.

Although I am not normally one of those people who read the end of a novel first instead of starting the story at. the beginning, I think that to assist the hon. Gentleman I shall give my conclusions first, that is to say, give what I hope will be the happy ending to this story, before launching out onto the development of the plot, because then, as I detail the facts of the dismissal of this appeal, the hon. Gentleman can adjust those facts to the proposition which I wish to put as a conclusion.

Starting with the conclusion, I would say that if under the present town planning appeal procedure, as it applies to outdoor advertising, the fiction of a Ministerial decision following upon a site investigation can result in such a stupid position as has occurred in this case, then the procedure should be altered at once.

There is provision within the regulating Statute, the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962 for an alternative form of procedure. Under Section 44 of that Act the Minister can appoint an independent tribunal to take his place in making decisions on appeals from local planning authorities on refusals of town planning permission so far as they relate to outdoor advertising. If the Minister would adopt that, it would have the added advantage of relieving him of the intolerable burden, of town planning appeals, and therefore would speed up the development of land. It would increase the now dwindling rate of housebuilding, it would benefit industry, commerce, home seekers, and the administrators in local councils, and perhaps might even nullify the argument for a Land Commission.

In fact, the reduction of the time taken on town planning appeals is to my mind one of the most urgent reforms of today. I hope that I am not exaggerating in that, but appeals in town planning are like pebbles in a pond, they affect a wide circle of activities.

Having summarised the last chapter of my case, let me come back to the preface. It is Section 34 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, which enables the Minister to make regulations concerning town planning permission for outdoor advertising. This is a repetition of a section in the 1947 Act, so the current Regulations dealing with this are the Town and Country Planning (Control of Advertisements) Regulations, 1960.

Both in the Act and in the Regulations it is said that the purpose of any restrictions on outdoor advertising and the display of advertisements is the interest of amenity or public safety. For example, the Acts says in Section 34 that: Provision shall be made by regulations under this Act for restricting or regulating the display of advertisements so far as appears to the Minister to be expedient in the interest of amenity or public safety. I understand the particular case I have mentioned, is not concerned with public safety but only with the amenities. Therefore I need not trouble the House with the second of those points, but I shall concentrate on the first, whether this decision makes any sense when set against the amenities of the district to which it applies.

A firm, Arthur Maiden Limited, which owns poster sites, submitted an application to the West Bromwich County Borough Council on 17th August, 1965, for permission to erect an advertisement hoarding fronting Walsall Road, West Bromwich. The hoarding was to be a double hoarding in the shape of an arrowhead pointing towards the side of the road and each of the arms of the arrowhead if that is the right expression, each board, was to have a 12 inch picture frame around it. The size of the picture would be 20 ft. by 10 ft. The board would start 5 ft. above the ground and the top of it would be 17 ft. above the ground. In technical language I understand these are described as two 48 sheet bulletin boards in V formation.

On 13th September, 1965, this application was refused by West Bromwich County Borough Council on the grounds, as they were stated in the refusal, that: the site is unsuitable for the display of advertisements in the general interests of the amenities of the district". That is quite a common phrase used in refusing town planning applications for the display of outdoor advertisements, but I think it is recognised that what moved the council in rejecting the application was that it has in mind some very good and proper and valuable development plans for this district. But those plans are far in the future.

In fact no date can be stated for when they may start. To that extent I think the council was wrong if it allowed that to affect its judgment. The applicants, not surprisingly, appealed to the Minister and the normal procedure of appeal in outdoor advertising cases was adopted, namely that the Minister receives written representations, from the council and the applicants, and an inspector from the Ministry visits the site and makes his report to the Minister.

It is a pity, perhaps, that in debate in this House we cannot have a direction to put photographs on the record. I have in my hand some photographs of what the inspector saw when he visited the site. I have seldom seen such a dismal and depressing outlook. The road to which these boards were to front has an unmade pavement, an unkempt weedy grass ridge along the side of the pavement rising to only one or two feet and on that little ridge there are posts and a strand of wire which could not possibly be graced by the word "fence". The posts, crooked in many places, give a thoroughly dilapidated impression. Directly alongside that, there is a quarry.

It is untidy, unsightly, with heaps of earth in various states of covering by weeds, with muddy puddles, and part of it is used as a refuse dump. All this, as shown by the photographs, is visible from the road.

On the other side of the road, there is undulating land, covered with a sort of weed and scruff, which perhaps itself was once a quarry. It is wholly undeveloped for a long way either side of the site of the proposed hoarding. The nearest building—an unsightly garage-is some distance away. Some further distance away, scarcely within sight, is a residential area of pretty low development.

What are the so-called amenities of the site? From looking at the photographs, I suppose the amenities might be a couple of oak trees standing alongside one of the rubbish dumps. This is the sort of amenity one associates with pictures by artists who are determined to present the sordidness but reality of life in an industrial area.

To prove that I am not exaggerating, I shall quote from the Minister's letter refusing permission. I assume that the letter was drafted by a civil servant. Civil servants usually express themselves in moderate terms. I would not say that the terms of this letter are immoderate, but they are certainly very expressive. The second paragraph begins: There is little development in the immediate vicinity of the site behind which, and not visible from the road, are some sandpits still being worked,"— I would correct that, because my photographs clearly show that these are visible from the road— or in use as refuse dumps. Across the road from the site is an embankment to rough undulating open land with a long undeveloped road frontage. The site is flanked on one side by an untidy garage and some business premises and, although the other development in the area is residential, the standard of local amenity is rather low. One would have thought that the conclusion from that would be that it would be a splendid idea to brighten up this scene of dejection with one of these framed, one-picture advertisement boards. This was not the conclusion of the Minister. Here is his conclusion: The panels would be splayed towards the opposite approaches on the roadway and it is considered that they would be over-prominent features in the road picture. Moreover in the approach from the north this over-prominence would be emphasised by the rising gradient towards the site and the panels would be seen against the skyline. Any poster site could be condemned as prominent. It would be a pretty useless site if it did not catch the eye of the passerby.

The letter continues: It is considered that the proposed panels would further lower the standard of local amenity. I draw attention to the word "further", which is itself an admission that the amenities of the district were already pretty low. The letter concludes in this way: Accordingly the Minister dismisses the appeal. This is a solemn Ministerial decision that it is better to look at rubbish dumps than at a modern-type advertisement board. This is a decision that a drab, dirty, squalid quarry, as is clearly shown in the photographs I have, with its mucky puddles and mucky heaps, has a greater amenity value than a splash of cheerful colour on a poster. So far as I know, this House has never directed the Minister, either by Statute or in any other way, that posters are to be deplored. It would, in fact, be running contrary to public opinion if this House were to do so. I believe that the great majority of the public like looking at posters and I will bet that neither the Parliamentary Secretary nor his right hon. Friend the Minister forgot that fact during the last election. During elections we use them as prominently as possible because we know people like to look at them. The industrial man knows that he can sell his goods by posters. This is equally as important as the fact that the public likes to look at posters; industry and commerce need the salesmanship of posters. Posters sell their goods, and the Government, in considering a policy of treating rubbish tips as of higher amenity value than posters, should also consider the effect of that policy upon the health of British productivity.

After all, Governments for many years have recognised the value of poster advertising in Government spheres. Diphtheria immunity, vaccination, savings, recruiting—all these have been advanced by posters to a very great extent. But there are too many local government and central Government administrators who look upon the poster as a sort of enemy of the public, as something to be stamped out at all costs. Yet the fact is that a poster gives pleasure to people and purpose to productivity.

So I come back to what I said, that if mistakes of this sort can happen from the present procedure, that procedure ought to be altered. We have the chance to alter it by the process of Section 44 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, which enables the Minister to bring in regulations appointing and setting down the procedure for independent tribunals to hear appeals from refusal of planning permission by the local planning authority when it relates to outdoor advertising.

I hope the Parliamentary Secretary is prepared to tell me today that he is anxious to relieve his right hon. Friend of the burden of outdoor advertising appeal procedure, that he will see that it is handed over to an independent tribunal and that by that means not only will the appeals concerning outdoor advertising be prevented from coming to the sad conclusion of this one, but that all the other town planning appeals will move up apace and we shall get them done quicker.

4.19 p.m.

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

I agree with one thing that the hon. Member for Crosby (Mr. Graham Page) said, that there is no part of my right hon. Friend's duty which places a more heavy burden on him than the decision of planning appeals, because they very often involve conflicting interests of individuals and relations of individuals with the Government and often introduce very complicated and varied issues.

I accept that it is very important that these matters should be deal with conscientiously and well. We certainly accept entirely what the hon. Gentleman said about the need to speed up decisions on planning appeals. We have never taken the line that we were content with the present position. It is important that that should be done.

I quite agree that advertisement appeals are very difficult to decide. The matter must very largely be subjective.

They depend upon the impression made on somebody of the effect of a poster or hoarding, whatever it may be, in an area, and that impression can very often differ widely from person to person. It is not easy to lay down rules in the matter.

On the other hand, one has to look at three possibilities. There are those sites where no one would want to have advertisements, where the beauty of the area is such that it would be utterly incongruous to have the intervention of some sort of hoarding. There are other areas where a hoarding or poster, as the hon. Gentleman said, can be an asset, where it can provide a certain amount of colour and variety. Unfortunately, between those two extremes there is the great middle ground where it is very difficult to balance the advantages and disadvantages of having advertisements.

The planning authority is quite entitled to look at the future amenity of the area and not confine itself only to the existing situation. This is made clear in Regulation 4(3) of the Regulations, which provides that, in the determination of an application for consent to display advertisements, regard may be had to any material change in circumstances likely to occur within the period for which the consent is required or granted". I accept what the hon. Gentleman said, that in this particular case it is unlikely that there will be a startling improvement in the area within the period for which grant of temporary permission could be made. If it were simply a matter of saying that the planning authority had bold ideas for future improvements and, for this reason, we should not allow permission to be granted, that would not in this case stand. The issue, therefore, is the suitability of this site for a poster or hoarding.

Very often, sites for advertisements are in commercial and industrial districts where the posters can play a big part not only in improving the variety and lightness of an area, but, as the hon. Gentleman said, in furthering the selling of things. The area here is not obviously commercial or industrial. It is an open area in which a fair number of people live and in which such amenity as there is should be preserved and, at the earliest opportunity, improved. The residents of the district and those who visit it, as the hon. Gentleman said, have the misfortune to have to tolerate a good deal of untidiness.

At the same time, it is not all quite as unrelieved as the hon. Gentleman, inspired by the photographs, said. In fact, beyond the offensive features—there are offensive features—there is a view of quite pleasant green belt land, and to interrupt this view with two large advertisements on rising ground would not improve the amenities and would, on the whole, have a bad effect on the conditions on which people have to live. Therefore, bearing in mind the desirability of preserving in this area some degree of amenity, namely, the view, it was thought not desirable to pick the rising ground upon which to erect hoardings which would break that view.

It is easy for anyone to say that my interpretation is wrong. It is an extremely difficult matter to argue, because it is a matter of judgment which must be made on the particular case. But we must not take the view that because an area is poor, and perhaps squalid, it is a suitable area for advertisements. We must not kick people when they are down. It would be undesirable to give the impression that any area in which there is an interference with amenities is suitable for hoardings and advertisements. In some cases the area may be suitable and in other cases it may not be suitable. I believe that in this case it was the right decision. It is a marginal decision and not an easy decision, but I believe it to be the right decision not to make this addition to the site.

The hon. Member talked about the delay in deciding appeals, although I do not think that he was making the point about this case that there has been any excessive delay. This appeal was decided reasonably quickly and the machinery operated at every stage. But, on the general point, what should be done about the machinery for dealing with planning appeals? The hon. Member did not suggest that advertisements should be treated differently from other forms of planning appeal. He used this case as a text for saying that we should have tribunals for a wide variety of claims—but not for all claims.

Mr. Graham Page

Section 44 deals only with outdoor advertising and I could apply my argument only to that subject. My point was that this could be a pilot scheme for independent tribunals.

Mr. MacColl

I was surprised to find that the hon. Member's main point was not about the effect of Section 44 on advertisements but about the efficiency of planning by using independent tribunals. It may surprise him to know that my right hon. Friend is certainly not doctrinaire about this. He is very worried about the whole position of appeals machinery and has recently said in public, and I believe in the House as well, that he is looking very carefully to see the best way of reaching quicker decisions on appeals. The use of independent tribunals is one method which is possible and to which he will give careful attention. He has not shut his mind to it. My own view—I do not state this as my final view—is that I rather doubt whether it would greatly speed up the appeals or necessarily increase the confidence of people in these decisions. In some of these cases a great deal of money is involved and many of them contain an element of policy which it would be difficult to contract out to a tribunal.

How should we choose the tribunal? The hon. Member and I had an interesting discussion on a Friday not long ago about rent assessment committees and the difficulty of finding people whose decisions would be accepted. It may be difficult to fix a fair rent but what of the difficulty of arbitrating between one point of view and another in cases such as this? I am not certain whether such a job could easily be left to independent people. But my right hon. Friend is fully alive to the problems involved and is only anxious to do the job as fairly and well as he can.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Four o'clock.