HC Deb 21 November 1966 vol 736 cc1108-16

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

11.30 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Chigwell)

I am grateful for leave to raise, although the hour be late, the refusal of planning permission to one of my constituents, Mr. R. M. Atkinson, by the right hon. Gentleman who is now Lord President of the Council, but who was then Minister of Housing and Local Government. This is an individual grievance, but it has possible wider implications. The decision of the Minister is frustrating the expansion of my constituent's enterprise, and it may be said to run counter to the Government's economic and agricultural policies.

Mr. Atkinson is the sort of man whom Ministers should encourage and not dishearten. He is able and energetic, not yet 40 years of age. He took a Bachelor of Science degree in agriculture at the University of Durham. He has considerable practical experience in farm management. In July, 1961, he won a Nuffield scholarship and studied intensive methods of agriculture in North America.

In 1960, Mr. Atkinson purchased Stondon Hall, in the parish of Stondon Massey, a holding of 245½ acres. In May, 1961, he took over its management in person, and since then—I have had opportunity to see this for myself—he has drained land and improved and developed the farm for intensive production. He has engaged workers within the limits of the dwellings at his disposal.

Mr. Atkinson is doing, and doing well, what the Government would have him do, if one is to take at their face value the National Plan and the White Paper on the last Annual Price Review. His speciality is milk production and calf weaning, and he has built up a remarkable business in a very few years. I understand that he has at present 168 calves and between 1,500 and 2,000 young calves, and heifers in calf are being exported from Stondon Hall to Italy and Spain, where Mr. Atkinson recently won a contract for 5,000 heifers. He has received other inquiries from overseas and, what is more, he now employs a representative abroad obtaining export orders.

Employed on the farm he has three married men and about a score of young workers. For the married employees there are two enlarged bungalow cottages and a part of Stondon Hall itself, which has been separated off to make a dwelling for one of his excellent workers. The younger men lodge in Stondon or elsewhere in the Ongar district. The turnover of the enterprise is high, but so is the turnover of labour because of the housing difficulty, and it is preventing even better results than have already been achieved.

Mr. Atkinson does not want the earth. He wants to put up two cottages to house on the farm five instead of three workers and their families. Only last week, there were 34 calvings at Stondon Hall, many of these being—as is often the tiresome way in such matters—at night.

Planning permission for these two extra cottages was refused by the Epping and Ongar Rural District Council. The grounds were two: first, that the site was proposed to be included in the Metropolitan green belt; and, secondly, that the proposed dwellings were not deemed essential for the needs of agriculture.

Not surprisingly, Mr. Atkinson appealed, and on 7th January the Ministry's inspector, having made his local inquiry, accepted the appeal. Two months later, on 4th March, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government informed Mr. Atkinson's solicitors that he had overruled his inspector. I hope that I summarise fairly the reasons given. It appears that the Minister accepted that the intensive farming practised by Mr. Atkinson required considerable staff, but, at the same time, he seemed to expect Mr. Atkinson to carry on with a farmhouse and three dwellings as though he were farming in the older and, so to speak, more normal fashion.

Secondly, the Minister assumed that the farmer and his family and his men and their families can be properly housed in the dwellings available, namely, part of the farmhouse and two existing bungalow cottages, which, admittedly, can be improved.

Thirdly, the Minister made out that if other accommodation were needed, this could be found in what he called "the accessibility of the farm from the nearest centres of population".

I am not pretending that all the arguments in this case are on one side. I am not trying to make out that anybody has been particularly perverse. These are difficult decisions to make, and the Minister has to make very many of them. But I cannot understand what he means. What does he want my constituent to do? Does he want him to revert to older-fashioned farming methods? If, on the other hand, he recognises that Mr. Atkinson is doing a good job, why did he disregard the opinion of the Ministry of Agriculture, which might know something about this—I say this without any disrespect to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government—and why did he disregard the view formed on the spot by his own inspector?

As for the suggestion that accommodation can be got nearby, I know as Member of Parliament, and the councillors know, just how difficult that is and the length of the waiting list in the Epping and Ongar Rural District.

The Minister conceded that it would be what he calls "more convenient" for Mr. Atkinson to have some of his employees living on the land. It is not only a question of his convenience; it is also a question of his efficiency. Both efficiency and convenience would be served if, for example, Mr. Atkinson had more accommodation on the farm and if he could recover that part of Stondon Hall in which one of his employees is at present housed. He has to receive customers, including foreign buyers, and others with whom he does business, and could well do with the extra space in the farmhouse.

The overriding planning objections arise from the laudable desire both of the planning authority and of the Minister to block further scattered development in a rural area intended to form part of the metropolitan green belt. I am as anxious as they are to defend the green belt. But I have walked over the farm and the surrounding country—I told the Minister this in a letter dated 16th June—and it was clear to me, and it must have been clear to the inspector, that new cottages could be sited without injury to our treasured rural scene on the conditions which were propounded by the inspector—conditions as to siting, design and appearance of the cottages, and as to who would live in them.

The Parliamentary Secretary wrote me a letter on 7th November in reply to a request from me for the latest definition of "a purpose appropriate to the green belt". It helps the case that I am putting. He wrote: The main object of including land in a green belt is to keep it permanently open. A great deal of the green belt is in fact in agricultural use. Farming requires certain buildings including dwellings for the farmer and farm workers needing to live on the land. Thus new buildings, providing they are strictly necessary for such agricultural purposes (or forestry) would normally be allowed. This is obviously a purpose appropriate to the green belt. In a letter to me dated 15th September, the Minister of Land and Natural Resources said that if Mr. Atkinson submitted a fresh application a change in his circumstances should be adduced. I do not know whether it is possible for Mr. Atkinson to present a change in his circumstances. What I want is a change in the mind of the Ministry. Let the Whitehall watchdogs for British agriculture and those watchdogs who laudably bare their teeth when the Metropolitan green belt appears to be threatened lie down together or at least put their heads together.

In speaking for only one of my constituents, I speak, I believe, in the national interest as proclaimed by the Government. In speaking for one Essex farmer—a very talented one—I speak for others, too, for what is done in this case may affect the future and efficiency of many others. I therefore appeal to the Minister not to seek to declare this case closed.

11.40 p.m.

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

I do no think that I have any quarrel with the facts which the hon. Gentleman has very fairly put before the House, so I shall not waste time by going over them again. Stondon Hall is about 1¾ miles southeast of Chipping Ongar and about a mile to the north-west of Stondon Massey village. Ongar, which is about 2½ miles away, is the terminus of the Central London Underground.

This farm is in the area proposed by the Essex County Council as an extension to the Metropolitan green belt where green belt development control operates. In the green belt there is a clear presumption against building being allowed, although the special needs of agriculture are recognised and agriculture is one of the uses which are very proper to the green belt.

But, in the process of maintaining the principle, it is inevitable that many otherwise quite reasonable applications will be turned down. The trouble is that each of these applications taken separately may seem very reasonable but, taken as a whole, they amount to just that eating into the green belt which we all deplore.

In fact, it is precisely because of the need for some extra protection over and above that afforded by the normal control that the green belt exists. The pressures are very great, particularly in areas which are readily accessible to London. If the green belt is to be held, local planning authorities have to be tough in applying their policies.

In this case, it is clear that these cottages would not have been allowed for ordinary residential purposes. Indeed, Mr. Atkinson was refused permission to build about 20 bungalows in 1960. The only justification for giving planning approval would be that they were essential for housing key agricultural workers. It is true that we could have attached a condition to the approval, limiting the occupation to persons employed locally in agriculture. That is something we do fairly frequently. But to do that we need to be sure that the agricultural need will last. Two things may happen. If the cottages become redundant and are not wanted for agricultural purposes, the planning authority has the unhappy choice of either abandoning the conditions or leaving the cottages to rot. The alternative is that the new cottages could remain in agricultural use, but the other ones, to which no conditions attach, could be used for ordinary residential purposes. This would come to the same thing as permitting ordinary dwellings in the green belt.

The Ministry of Agriculture, when commenting on applications for houses, is concerned to ensure that the land of a holding is not deprived of those dwellings which are essential for it to be farmed efficiently in the long term and my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government does not disregard the views of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. The two work together.

But in this case, it was the Ministry of Agriculture's advice that the farm would normally require a farm house and three dwellings for agricultural workers. In the local planning authority's view, the existing four units of accommodation, all of which have been the subject of improvement grants, met that requirement and for this reason the application was refused.

The inspector who held the local inquiry—and he did not decide, for he is an adviser—recommended that the appeal be allowed. He noted that the farm was farmed intensively and felt that the undertaking was of such a nature that it warranted more resident staff than would be necessary for normal arable or dairy farming. He came to the conclusion that it would be wrong to deny an efficient and productive farm sufficient resident staff for present-day requirements whatever the likely decline in farming intensity there might be.

My right hon. Friend was unable to agree. He recognised that Mr. Atkinson's methods meant a larger staff than normal had to be employed, but he accepted the view that the farm would normally require four units of accommodation. This is what the Minister of Agriculture had advised. There was no evidence that the existing accommodation would be unsatisfactory particularly bearing in mind that the two bungalows could be enlarged if necessary. He had to weigh the convenience of having more workers living on the land against other serious planning objections and further scattered development in this area. He decided on balance that the planning objections were stronger than the agricultural advantages and dismissed the appeal.

The appeal clearly turns on whether the proposed cottages were essential to agricultural needs. The question of general housing availability was, as the hon. Gentleman said, referred to at the appeal inquiry. The appellant is reported by the inspector as saying that he had tried to buy cottages locally for his workers, but the prices asked were so high as to be beyond all reason and in most cases the buildings were too small for family accommodation. A figure of £5,800 is quoted as not being uncommon.

Of course, this is not a remote rural area, but is very close to London and I think that the cost of these houses has to be seen against the background of the total capital investment of £139,000 and a turnover according to the report of about £500,000. This was a very large and well-established undertaking for which the expenditure on accommodation for key staff would not seem altogether unreasonable. Beyond that, I do not want to say any more about the merits. Mr. Atkinson can always make another application if he thinks that the circumstances have changed and as that might come to my right hon. Friend I would not want to prejudice the decision.

The hon. Gentleman asked whether we would take steps to initiate discussions, and so on, but I want to make it clear that the planning authority is the local planning authority and that the Minister's function is essentially one of appeal. He cannot interfere in a case until the planning authority has decided it and an appeal has been made.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Graham Page (Crosby)

My hon. Friend the Member for Chigwell (Mr. Biggs-Davison) has made a very strong case, a case which was supported by the inspector himself and then overruled by the Minister. The Parliamentary Secretary said that there was a presumption against any building in the green belt except for special occasions and that one of these was for agricultural need. Holding the green belt against farming efficiency seems to be the wrong use of the Minister's powers as exercised in this case.

The argument that it was the fear that these cottages might revert to ordinary use, if always maintained, would mean that farming within the green belt could never be improved and could never be intensified. All the land might go out of use altogether, with the result that it would turn from a green belt into a derelict grey or dirty brown. It seems an astonishing decision that just two more cottages for a very efficient farm, increasing in intensity and contributing to exports and altogether an efficient undertaking, would be a breach or the green belt. I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman can reconsider the position, but this seems to be a case for reconsideration.

Mr. Biggs-Davison rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

Order. The hon. Gentleman cannot speak a second time.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I want to ask a question, Mr. Deputy Speaker. The Parliamentary Secretary spoke of the need for an assurance that the need would continue. Would that be a new circumstance which would help my constituent in making a new application?

Mr. MacColl

This is a matter to be discussed with the planning authority whose decision it is and whose decision my right hon. Friend upheld. The whole position is that if we are not careful, although another two cottages may not sound much, that is how we would lose our green belt.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Twelve o'clock.