HC Deb 21 May 1968 vol 765 cc254-9


Mr, MacDermot

I beg to move Amendment No. 10 in page 7, line 28, leave out from second 'by' to 'and' in line 29 and insert 'the Minister or, in such cases as may be prescribed by regulations under this Part of this Act, by the authority themselves'. Clause 6 relates to inquiries with respect to local plans. This was one of the most keenly debated subjects in Committee: what is the proper procedure by which to appoint an inspector for local inquiries?

Mr. Graham Page

On a point of order. Would it be convenient to take Amendments Nos. 11 and 12 with Amendment No. 10?

Mr. MacDermot

I would entirely agree.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Eric Fletcher)

I think that would be very convenient. I suggest, therefore, that we take Amendments Nos. 10, 11, in page 7, line 28, leave out from second ' by ' to ' and ' in line 29 and insert ' the Minister', and Government Amendment No. 12 together.

Mr. MacDermot

I am obliged. I was saying that this was a keenly debated matter in Committee, as it had been outside Parliament from the time when the provisions of the Bill were first published. There was a general desire in Committee that in the first stage the appointment of inspectors to inquire into local plans should be done by the Minister, if possible, from his own inspectorate. We have sought to meet that feeling. I give the assurance that it is our intention in the first instance to do that.

The Amendment provides for some flexibility, and I ask the House to agree that it is reasonable to provide for that flexibility. I will explain briefly the effect of the Amendment. It will enable direct appointment to be made by the Minister of the inspector, appointment by the local planning authority from a list drawn up and maintained by the Minister, or appointment by the local planning authority of persons possessing qualifications approved by the Minister, either with or without specific Ministerial approval of the person chosen.

We are influenced by the fact that the introduction of local plans will be gradual and phased. We will not get a sudden rush of local plans from all over the country. The first stage under the new procedure will be the submission of structure plans and their approval. Local authorities will then proceed to make plans for action areas, which will have priority as local plans. These first ones, being action area plans, will be unusually important local plans. This is an additional reason for providing that those plans in the first stage shall be dealt with by inspectors appointed by the Minister, and they will almost certainly be appointed from within his own inspectorate.

We will not be able to depart from that system without making a change by regulations which would have to be brought before the House, so that the House will retain control of the system. But, as matters get into their swing, as a wider number of authorities are covered by the new system and as the number of local plans begins to increase and come forward, clearly a time could come when it would impose an undue burden upon the inspectorate of the Ministry to have to act as inspectors for all these local plans.

I anticipate that a stage is likely to be reached when it would be right and safe to move to the next stage, which might be the maintenance of a list by the Min- ister of approved persons outside his inspectorate, local authorities being free to select someone from that list. We have kept open the possibility of an eventual stage when local authorities will be free to appoint persons with the necessary qualifications but who are not necessarily on the list maintained centrally by the Ministry.

Naturally, the Minister at the time will be guided by the experience which we have from the working of the new system and of the general confidence in the local authorities operating the new system before giving them that new power. I should like to keep open the possibility of this complete flexibility. After all, the structure of the Bill is to give great additional authority and power to local authorities, and if we are to trust them to settle their own local plans, it is odd in principle that they should never be trusted to appoint the independent inspector to investigate those plans. We have gone a long way to concede the point, however, and we undertake that we will operate this cautiously in the first stage, as we have been asked to do.

Mr. James Allason (Hemel Hempstead)

Under the Bill at present, the planning authority would prepare its own plan, then receive objections, and then, if a public hearing was necessary, would appoint its own inspector. Then, the inspector would make his report and recommendations to the planning authority which could accept or reject them and adopt its own plan against his recommendations. The Minister of State is now giving way slightly on this procedure, which has been more criticised than anything else. He keeps trying to say that we must not talk about the local planning authority being judge and jury in its own cause, but this is precisely what has been done. Now he has modified it, but the modifications are insufficient.

The Minister says that the local authorities will always act for the best if trusted to make their own local plan and must equally be trusted to appoint their own inspectors. But we do not want to attack the local authorities so much as to protect them against criticism by the public. If the local authority appoints an inspector, even though from a list prepared by the Minister, and the inspector's findings annoy a large number of people, the public will say, "This was a put-up job, and the planning authority is not independent "We want to protect them from that.

Therefore, it is much better that the inspector should be appointed from outside so that there can be no accusation that the local authority found the "easy man "who would always give the decision which it wants. It is not as if the planning authority is entirely independent. As a landowner, it has an active interest in the local plan and cannot be said to act always in the best interests of the citizen. It has a vested interest and it may appear to the public that it is not acting as fairly as it should. There are great difficulties here: we do not want to attack but to protect.

Amendment No. 10 would provide a choice in that the inquiry could then be held by the Minister or, in such cases as may be prescribed by regulations under this Part of this Act, by the authority themselves". The Minister of State has explained that this means that there will be a list of qualified people to take the inquiry, from which the local authority may select, but there must always be an easy man and a hard man on a list and it is undesirable that the planning authorities should have this choice.

Amendment No. 11 would remove the possibility of the authority choosing and would merely mean that the hearing would be held by someone appointed by the Minister. This is a more satisfactory method and is not an insult to or a lack of confidence in local authorities. It would, instead, help them.

12.45 p.m.

Mr. Murton

This matter was debated fully in Committee and it is one of grave importance, as the Minister of State admitted. The hon. and learned Gentleman made a very expansive statement in Committee: Finally, there is my hon. Friend's proposal for selection by the Minister, with the full responsibility being on the Minister. This is, of course, as it were, taking the argument to its logical conclusion, and has, therefore, the attractions of anything which is carried to its logical conclusion. It would ensure the complete independence—and public satisfaction as to the complete independence in that appointment—of the inspector. I must go on, in fairness, to point out that he then added: But it increases the administrative problem very considerably and has the disadvantages of centralisation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee G; 5th March, 1968; c. 261.] There are undoubtedly disadvantages in centralisation, but I would not have thought that it increased the administrative problem. I know that it is the Government's policy to have as much devolution as possible in this matter, but this is the one part of the Bill where devolution would be a bad thing.

We were last night discussing the fact that every man's home is his castle. That cliché bears out what the ordinary man feels about his home and the effects of development nearby upon it. He is entitled to know that, when an inspector investigates a planning application, he should be as far as possible both impartial and remote from the local scene.

All of us have heard in our own constituencies the common remark of aggrieved persons after a planning appeal, "The inspector heard what I had to say, but did not appear to take much notice of it." That is an innocent and natural remark, made largely out of irritation because things have not gone as the householder wanted, but at the back of his mind he knows that the inspector is entirely impartial and unconnected with the area, which he may never have visited before.

This is the great strength, showing the completely impartial justice in these cases. I fear that those on a local panel, with the best will in the world and honourable though they may be, would have certain knowledge and would thus be subject to suspicion by aggrieved people that they might not have been as impartial as they should have been.

We know that this would be untrue. On the other hand, it would be wrong if they were subjected to such criticism. With the best will in the world, local authorities are bound to have a direct interest, through their responsibilities as elected members of the public, in these developers. It is wrong that they should be able to choose from a panel of local people. The best way out of this problem, to remove all possible suspicion, is to leave the nomination in the Minister's hands. Then there would be nothing but impartiality and fair dealing.

Amendment agreed to.

Further Amendment made: No. 12 in page 7, line 40, at end insert:

(2) Regulations made for the purposes of subsection (1) above may—

  1. (a) make provision with respect to the appointment and qualifications for appointment of persons to hold a local inquiry or other hearing under that subsection, including provision enabling the Minister to direct a local planning authority to appoint a particular person, or one of a specified list or class of persons;
  2. (b) make provision with respect to the remuneration and allowances of a person appointed for the said purpose.—[Mr. Mac Dermot.]

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