HC Deb 20 October 1966 vol 734 cc502-7
Mr. Murton

I beg to move, Amendment No. 19, in page 9, line 42, to leave out 'and'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

I think it would be convenient for the House to discuss Amendment No. 21, in line 44, at the same time.

Mr. Murton

On the grounds of comprehensibility, it would be as well if I spoke to Amendment No. 21.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Technically, the hon. Gentleman must move Amendment No. 19. There may be a discussion on Amendments 19 and 21 together and, if a Division is thought desirable on Amendment No. 21, that could take place.

Mr. Murton

A rather different definition was set down by my hon. Friends in Committee upstairs on what was meant by "public open space", a phrase used in the Bill. As there was some doubt about whether it was in order and as it had been tabled rather late, that Amendment was not called. During the discussion of the Motion that the Clause stand part there was, nevertheless, a reference to the Amendment and the then Minister of Housing and Local Government said: What we mean by public open space is public open space in the obvious general sense of the term. He went on to give an example, and said: If it is a playing field which is public, it will be covered. If it is a school playing field, it comes under the education grant. The question is whether it is public in the general sense."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee F, 7th July, 1966: c. 206.] Unfortunately, it is not quite as easy as that and local authorities are anxious that this provision, which they welcome, should not be too narrowly construed.

What is a public open space in the "obvious general sense" of the term? A stretch of unenclosed land in the heart of a town, like the Stray at Harrogate, or an open space, like the Town Moor of Newcastle, might be taken as an obvious example, as well as some of the down-lands such as Eastbourne possesses, or even woodlands and moors owned by local authorities. They are open spaces and they are always accessible to the public. No doubt, too, there would be general agreement that the parks and gardens which are to be found in most towns come within this general description, even though they may be closed to the public at nights.

The then Minister mentioned "playing fields", which is a wide term even if we exclude school playing fields. Here there is room for argument. Most people would agree that the recreation ground where a ball can be kicked about or where cricket can be played would be regarded as a "public open space". But what about the playing field for games such as football, cricket, tennis, bowls and so on? What about places where basic equipment such as goal posts, tennis nets and so on are provided and where pitches, courts and greens are maintained, where appropriate, and marked out? What about places where local authorities customarily make a charge for the facilities provided, whether by a charge for the pitch or whatever it may be, either by the day or the hour, or for a round on a putting green or by a rent payable by a club for the use of a pitch or bowling green throughout the season or on specified days each week? How do these stand?

These facilities are among those greatly needed almost everywhere. They are as much a part of town life as the pleasure gardens where one can sit among flower beds or perhaps listen to the band on a Sunday evening in the summer—if it does not happen to be raining, as it often is in this country. They are just as important and usually no less a charge on the rates, as income rarely matches the outgoings.

Local authorities are anxious that the Clause should be capable of the widest interpretation but fear that the words "public open space" are susceptible to too narrow an interpretation. It is important that playing fields other than school playing fields should be covered, even though charges may be made for their use. This definition does not seek to cut down the natural and general sense of the words—that is, if they have such a natural and general sense—but to ensure that some things are not excluded which should be included beyond per-adventure.

This may seem a minor point, but the Government would be well advised to accept the Amendment, largely because the right hon. Gentleman the former Minister drew attention to this wording and since its acceptance would make the matter clear beyond any possible shadow of doubt.

The Minister of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Anthony Greenwood)

I do not think that there is any difference in objective between the two sides of the House in this matter. The issue between us is how best to achieve the same objective, and I listened with great care to the remarks of the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Murton).

8.30 p.m.

The Clause as it stands empowers the Minister—that is, myself—to pay grant at a maximum rate of 50 per cent. in relation to expenditure by local authorities on the acquisition for use as public open space of such land as I approve. Land appropriated for public open space may also be brought in as required for the purpose. It is true that the Bill does not define "public open space," and the hon. Gentleman gave what seemed to me to be a very fair account of what happened in the Standing Committee when a discussion of what was a starred Amendment was not possible.

It seems that if the effect of this Amendment would be to extend the meaning of the words "public open space" you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, would have ruled it out of order as not complying with the Money Resolution, and if it would not be to extend the meaning of those words it is unnecessary, and might well prove restrictive and, I think, limit excessively the Minister's power to pay grant. To that extent it might well operate to the disadvantage of local authorities.

It may be desirable for me to give some indication of our intentions with regard to the administration of the open space grant. Broadly there does not seem to be any major difference between the substance of the grant as the hon. Gentleman has expressed it and as I have in mind to propose to the local authority associations when I have my consultations with them but I invite the House to acknowledge that there must be certain limitations.

The proposition is that for the purpose of these grant arrangements, "public open space" shall comprise parks and pleasure grounds, recreation grounds and playing fields which are in or near built-up areas and are provided by the local authority primarily for the use of local people. A park or recreation ground, I am advised, even if closed to the public at certain times—for example, during the hours of darkness-would still be a public open space within the meaning of the Clause as it stands. The expression is not confined to common land or downland, which are open to the public at all times, and the doubts which the hon. Member for City of Chester (Mr. Temple)—whose good wishes I warmly appreciated when he expressed them to me earlier—expressed in Commitee during the debate on Clause 8 can be set at rest.

Public open space should not include school playing fields nor the amenity areas associated with the development of houses or flats or pedestrian shopping precincts. All these are provided as part of the particular services concerned. Nor is it our intention that expenditure in connection with the acquisition of land for access purposes under the National Parks and Access to the Countryside Act, 1949, should be eligible for grant under Clause 8. There will, of course, be cases, where public open space is provided as part of comprehensive development or redevelopment, where the expenditure on the acquisition or clearance of land is eligible for grant under Clause 7. In such a case the expenditure in respect of the land acquired for public open space would be assisted under Clause 7 and not under Clause 8.

The Amendment, as I understand it, aims to secure that grant shall be payable under Clause 8 notwithstanding that a rent, fee or other charge is made for the use of a playing field. The making of a charge for the use of land and the facilities associated with it will not preclude the payment of grant provided that the land remains, in the ordinary sense of the words, public open space.

If I might give an example, a park would not cease to be a public open space because it included an enclosure with a band stand, with a fee charged for admission when the band was playing. Similarly, a recreation ground would not cease to be public open space because it included a cricket pitch for the use of which a local club paid a fee or rent, provided the public were able to watch the matches.

If, however, the local authority proposed to make available a playing field on some basis of rent or fee for the exclusive use of some sporting or social club so that the general public could no longer expect access to it or enjoyment of it, the land would not any longer be, in the ordinary sense of the words, public open space. It would be contrary to the object of the grant provision were land used in such a way to attract grant.

In view of the explanation I have given, not only of our interpretation of the meaning of the Clause but of our intention as to its application, and in view of the principles we propose to adopt in our discussions with the various associations, I hope that the hon. Member will be prepared to withdraw the Amendment. Otherwise, I shall have to ask the House to negative it.

Mr. Murton

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his full and really devastating answer to the Amendment. His precedessor said that the matter was simple and obvious. I rather suspect that the right hon. Gentleman has put a rather different complexion on the case, but he has explained it very carefully. Under the circumstances, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Mr. MacColl

I beg to move Amendment No. 20: In page 9, line 43 to leave out 'and a parish council'.

This proposal to leave out "and a parish council" may sound devastating in its implication, but I should like to make quite clear that it is in fact basically a drafting Amendment. In subsection (5) "local authority" is defined as meaning for the purposes of the Clause a local authority within the meaning of the… 1962 Act and a parish council but the definition of "local authority" in the 1962 Act includes any other authority which is a local authority within the meaning of the Local Loans Act, 1875, and a parish council is such an authority under the Act of 1962. Consequently, it does not require a separate reference here. This is a tribute to the recognition of parish councils as local authorities rather than an attempt to disregard them.

Amendment agreed to.