HC Deb 10 December 1969 vol 793 cc434-9
The Secretary of State for Local Government and Regional Planning (Mr. Anthony Crosland)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I wish to make a statement. The Greater London Council, as the strategic planning authority for Greater London, formally submitted their Greater London Development Plan to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in August.

This plan sets out a series of strategic policies and proposals for the future development of London, covering population, housing, employment, roads, transportation, areas for comprehensive development and other matters of strategic significance.

The plan is comprehensive, complex and controversial. There has been much argument, in particular, about the motorway proposals and their possible impact on the urban environment. The objections to the plan now total 20,000; most of them are directed against the road proposals. The Government believe that so important a plan must be subject to the most rigorous and searching scrutiny. I know that the Greater London Council would welcome this.

In the case of the L.C.C. County of London Development Plan in 1952, to which there were 6,700 objections, the statutory inquiry was handled by a panel of inspectors from the Ministry of Housing. On this occasion, without casting any reflection on the acknowledged competence and impartiality of the Ministry Inspectorate, the Government believe that we need special arrangements for the statutory inquiry.

To this end I propose, first, that the inquiry should be conducted by an independent chairman of high standing and repute; secondly, that he should be assisted by a panel including an independent transportation expert and an independent planner, together with sufficient Ministry inspectors and others to enable the inquiry to be conducted efficiently, expertly and expeditiously; and, thirdly, that the panel should, in addition, be assisted by a number of outside assessors to help them probe and evaluate, fully and searchingly, the policies embodied in the plan, the objections made to them and possible alternative strategies.

I am sure that the G.L.C. and other parties to the inquiry, will readily provide such supplementary material as the panel may require for evaluating the proposals in the plan. I consider it essential, however, that, if it should prove necessary, the chairman of the inquiry should have the right to ask the Government to commission any additional research which he considers necessary for the proper completion of his task.

There will be an announcement later of the names of the chairman and the outside members of the panel appointed by the Minister of Housing, and also of the date for the opening of the inquiry, which is unlikely to be before next July.

Mr. Peter Walker

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the Opposition welcome his decision to have an inquiry of this nature into what must be one of the most important projects and plans facing this country? We particularly welcome his decision to appoint a chairman of high standing and repute who is independent of any of the basic interests in this case. We wish the inquiry every possible success and good speed.

Mr. Jay

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the inquiry he proposes will be equivalent in character and procedure to a planning inquiry commission? That was not entirely clear from what he said. If so, many thousands of people in London will be grateful to him for responding to the cogent arguments which have been put to him in recent months.

Mr. Crosland

No, Sir. This is not a planning inquiry commission, because under the 1968 Act it would have been impossible to set up such a commission for this purpose. The 1968 Act laid down that a commission was for the purpose of dealing with individual planning questions and not with general strategies such as there are in the London Development Plan. But I hope that my right hon. Friend will judge from my statement that this form of inquiry will be fully adequate to achieve the end in view, which is a full and searching examination.

Mr. Sandys

I welcome the Minister's announcement. However, would he explain whether this independent inquiry will have the same sort of status and scope as the Stansted Airport inquiry? Can he assure us that its terms of reference will enable it not only to hear the objections, but be free to examine in the broadest sense alternative and different solutions to the traffic problem, including, the improvement of public transport?

Mr. Crosland

This is not the equivalent of a Stansted commission, because that was a non-statutory commission and this is a statutory commission, as we are bound to have under the Act. We have no alternative but to set up a statutory commission. However, the competence and status of the commission, as opposed to its statutory character, will be fully the equal of the power and status of the Stansted Commission.

Although the panel will not be able to produce an entire alternative London plan—that would take 15 years and require thousands of staff—it will certainly be able, on transport policies, for example, to produce alternative proposals embodying different balances between different parts of the transport proposals.

Mr. Marsh

Would my right hon. Friend give some indication of the terms of reference of the inquiry? Would he confirm that, in the light of the disastrous attitude of the Greater London Council towards public transport, the inquiry will be able to insist on alternative forms and that the Government will make the council's acceptance of a proper public transport system in London conditional on their acceptance of the proposals?

Mr. Crosland

The terms of reference are the normal terms of reference of a statutory inquiry set up to inquire into a development plan under the London Government Act, 1963. My right hon. Friend expressed certain judgments. I, having just announced an inquiry into the matter, would prefer not to express any judgments myself.

Mr. Lubbock

As it will be an enormous, lengthy and costly procedure for the panel to sift through 20,000 objections, together with the further thousands which may be received between now and July, when the panel begins its work, will the right hon. Gentleman consider telling the Greater London Council that it would be better if it scrapped this plan and started again from the beginning?

Mr. Crosland

Sifting objections is undoubtedly a formidable task, because of the great numbers involved, but the resources of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government will be available to assist. We could not reject the plan. Our function under the Act, which we are now carrying out, is to set up a proper form of inquiry into the matter.

Mr. Macdonald

Who will be able to appear before this inquiry? Will it be confined to local councils and statutory bodies, or will individuals and residents' associations be able to appear? Will they be able to be represented? Is it yet known when they may apply to appear?

Mr. Crosland

Individuals, residents' associations, and so on, may appear. They may or may not be represented as they wish. However, I should like to emphasise that we do not wish this inquiry to become a great battle between heavily gunned legal protagonists. I hope that its character will be more informal than that. It would be better for people to wait until we have appointed the chairman and members of the Panel before applying to appear; and perhaps they will give us a month or two before doing so.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

If the assumption be correct that it will be necessary for there to be concurrent sessions of this panel of inspectors, does the right hon. Gentleman contemplate at least one independent member sitting on each court, or committee, of the inquiry, there being only one independent chairman? Secondly, is it proposed, arising out of the right hon. Gentleman's new co-ordinating capacity or otherwise, to revise the procedures for statutory confirmation under the Town and Country Planning Acts?

Mr. Crosland

It is not intended to revise the procedures. They will be followed in future as they are now, namely, when the panel reports to the Government the Government can reject or accept the plan or accept it with modifications, which would no doubt be subject to a second inquiry.

On the first part of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's question, we must leave the procedure of the panel until the 20,000 objections have been more thoroughly sifted and I have discussed the matter with the chairman.

Mr. John Fraser

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the publication of this plan both creates and confirms very large areas of planning blight in London and that my own local authority, Lambeth, which is Conservative-controlled, seems blatantly to have ignored the Minister's advice in Circular 15/69 to deal sympathetically with cases of hardship? Would he institute the most rigorous inquiries into authorities which do not accept his advice and offers of loan sanctions?

Mr. Crosland

That is a different question which I will discuss with my right hon. Friend.

Mr. Goodhart

I welcome the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that the inquiry will be fully independent, but will he bear in mind that many people with property along the route of Ringway 2 have been semi-blighted by the plans? Can he give an estimate of how long the inquiry will take, because speed is of great importance to these people?

Mr. Crosland

I am very conscious of the problem of blight; we all are. It is impossible at this stage to give a firm answer on the question of the length of time that the inquiry will take. That must depend on further analysis of the character of the objections. It must also wait until we have discussed the matter with the chairman. I prefer not to set a definite date.

Mr. Arthur Lewis

My right hon. Friend said that there have been 20,000 objections. May I take it that he means "so far"? It is right, is it not, that there is still time for objections to be made and that the hundreds of thousands of people who still want to object are now invited to do so?

Mr. Crosland

My hon. Friend, who is so well informed in these matters, will know that the closing date for objections to be received was yesterday. Nevertheless, on this, as on other matters, we shall adopt a commonsense and flexible approach to objections which may be made later.