HC Deb 25 July 1969 vol 787 cc2331-45

3.42 p.m.

Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)

We think a lot of our countryside in Wiltshire and of our good agricultural land. I am very pleased to have this opportunity for a brief debate and I am grateful to Mr. Speaker for making it possible.

I wish to tell a story which has not been heard in this House before. It is a story which sheds the greatest doubt on the integrity of our planning procedures. It is a story which can only lead to the summoning of a fresh public in- quiry. If at any point I am wrong in my facts, I hope that the Minister will not hesitate to correct me.

The story begins three years ago, when consent was refused to English China Clays Limited to extract chalk from a particularly lovely valley near Salisbury. The company then lodged an appeal. It is a large and efficient company and, on this second occasion, it took no chances. It was most careful to prepare the way beforehand, and it did so with the skill which I would expect of it. Indeed, by dint of persuasion and money, the company succeeded in silencing opposition before ever the inquiry was opened.

First, a representative of the company called at the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. That was a month before the appeal was heard. There, he told a long story, which, incidentally, had not been told at the time of the initial application, about a new industrial process concerned with chalk which was a potential export winner—a commercial secret which at all costs must be denied to our overseas competitors. He said that, of more than 200 sites explored, this Wiltshire valley held chalk of a unique quality necessary for the company's invention to be exploited. By the time he put on his hat and left the Ministry that day he had obtained agreement that the public inquiry should be held in private.

At that time I had no knowledge of these things. I had no knowledge of the meeting at the Ministry, nor had my constituents. There was no one present to put forward an alternative viewpoint. To agree to hold a public inquiry in camera was without precedent, and one might think that, before adopting an unprecedented procedure, it would be wise first at least to invite the observations of other interested parties and, if not, then at least to warn them beforehand of what was afoot. But this was not done.

Having secured that flank, the company then turned its attention to the local authority. The chalk is to be removed in 15 or 20 ton lorries; maybe 70 of them a day, maybe more. The total annual extraction is to run up to 200,000 tons. It stands out a mile that the simple rural lanes could not possibly stand up to such traffic, and, therefore, talks with the local planning authority and with the county surveyor took place. The surveyor's primary concern, quite rightly, was the cost to the ratepayers of road improvements. And the talks were successful.

Yes, the company offered a sum of money. It was agreed then and there that if the appeal succeeded the company would pay to the local planning authority £30,000. How that figure was achieved I do not know. Perhaps £20,000 or even £25,000 would have been rather niggardly; perhaps £40,000 would have been unnecessarily extravagant even for a company which earns annual profits in the region of £10 million. In the light of this offer, this contribution to road improvements, the highway objection was withdrawn.

Thus the second flank was now secured, and thus for 30 pieces of silver this Wiltshire valley was sold. The stage was now set. The Minister accepted the story—

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

This matter of the negotiations between the company and the local authority about the contribution for road improvement has not been before me in an official way at all. I am just wondering what is the evidence for this. I am not suggesting that the hon. Gentleman has not got it, but has this appeared in council documents or in the Press, because this is obviously something I should like to study after the debate?

Mr. Hamilton

I am delighted to be able to enlighten the Minister on this. I have the reference in my files here. I think that I shall be able to persuade the hon. Gentleman, if it is necessary, that it was a "considerable sum" of money, but it does not affect the principle of the thing. The sum in question was £30,000. The stage was set, the Ministry accepted the story, the local planning authority appreciated the money, and what remained of the procedures was a mere time-wasting formality.

In June, the public inquiry, as it was called, took place in Salisbury. Perhaps we were rather too naive, but my constituents and I did not realise that the dice were already loaded against us. The neighbouring farmers, to their credit, had enlisted the aid of a local Salisbury solicitor and, moreover, the distinguished geologist, Dr. Hancock, from London University, as an act of kindness, had travelled down to give help to the threatened parish as an expert witness.

Ranged against them that morning they found that a whole concourse of eminent persons had descended on Salisbury—a leading Queen's Counsel, a group estates surveyor, a consultant landscape architect, a chartered architect and a research manager—the whole panoply of commerce. As I said earlier, the company was leaving nothing to chance despite the successful preliminary spadework.

There and then the tawdry charade was played. The pre arranged in camera procedures were applied. Some of my constituents were asked to leave. The elected representatives of the parish on the rural district council and of the county council were shown the door. The geologist, too, was hustled from the room. Perhaps one day the Minister will consider giving him 48s., the price of the second-class return rail fare to Salisbury. He knew too much, of course, about the qualities of chalk, and he might have been difficult.

There was no warning, and thus no opportunity to prepare a defence against this unique procedure. If justice was done it was not seen to be done, and neither I nor my constituents believe that it was done. For the second time, evidence taken into consideration by the Minister was heard behind locked doors.

Fifteen months then went by. From June, 1967, until September, 1968, the Minister here pondered his decision, and well might he have done. He decided to hold a special examination of the chalk. He described this in a letter to me as an "independent examination". I suggested that perhaps I, too, might be permitted to hold an independent examination, but the suggestion did not find favour. If it was to be independent, certainly nobody was allowed to see or to comment upon it, and thus, for the third time, evidence taken into consideration by the Minister was produced and studied behind closed doors. I confess that I often have doubts about our democratic system, but at least in this case democracy cannot be blamed, because it played no part at all.

Finally, and I believe reluctantly, the Minister signed the death warrant of that valley. Whether the Board of Trade pressed him against his better judgment I shall never know, but, knowing him personally as I do, it is the kindest interpretation which I can place upon it.

In such a case application may be made to the High Court within six weeks to quash the Minister's decision. The House may think it reasonable in those circumstances that when a local authority has had secret procedures foisted upon it without warning it should avail itself of this right. Admittedly, the law and the use of lawyers are expensive and litigation, by its nature, is always uncertain.

But in this case it is not just lawyers' fees which are at stake. If application had been made to the High Court and had failed, and the Minister's decision had been upheld, there would have to be further consideration as to whether the £30,000 would still have been made available. I do not know the answer to that. However, I know that within those six weeks no application was made to the High Court.

Thus the company broke into the valley. Already, its huge yellow machines are at work. Already, the first slick of white chalk is visible there in the landscape. And already a new application has been submitted to work a further 155 acres. What is more, 412 acres were bought last month at the highest figure ever paid for Wiltshire farmland!

Today, the corn is ripening, but the fields will not be there much longer, because the machines will eat them away. This process is planned to continue throughout this century and into the next. Unfortunately, time is so short that I have been able to sketch only a few of the facts, but I hope that I have given enough of them to explain why no choice exists other than to have a fresh inquiry. If the Minister accepts my plea, I shall thank him for it sincerely. If not, I shall have to give more detail to the House. I have sufficient faith in the House and in public opinion to feel that sooner or later the Minister must accede to my request. If there are problems of compensation, one knows that similar problems have been solved before.

It is interesting that one of those who were sworn to secrecy was the excellent clerk to the rural district council. But I ask myself what sort of a council chamber is it where the clerk is bound in perpetuity to withhold information on local issues from the elected members of his own council? What is a local authority if it is not the elected membership itself? Yet on this occasion the Minister will remember that it was the elected members who were shown the door.

What is my own position in all this? Like the Minister, I am here in this place to represent my constituents. We both need to understand their problems. Yet with the Minister's knowledge and express intention, I, a fellow Member of this House, have been kept in the dark by him for two years—and I am still in the dark. I still do not know what transpired in that room in the heart of my constituency. Yet some of my constituents were there sworn to secrecy with the full connivance of the Minister.

Today, when I meet and talk with them they are unable to tell me anything at all. The Minister has placed a barrier between us. How can an hon. Member be expected to safeguard the interests of his own constituency when his constituents know more of the local problems than he does, yet they are bound by some or other Minister to silence?

Since when have Members of this House been denied information by a Minister of the Crown, information already given to those whom they represent here? The Minister has been party to a conspiracy of silence, and by so doing he has raised grave issues of principle and of privilege.

When I have sat down, it may be that I shall have no further chance to come in again in this debate. Therefore, perhaps I might suggest to the Minister that when he replies we are not particularly anxious to be told that what took place in those in camera procedures was purely technical, as if technicalities excuse the principle and whitewash the enormity of the whole event. Second, I hope very much that we shall not hear too much about that mysterious deceptive alibi "national interest" in allowing this valley to be destroyed, because I do not believe, and the Minister does not believe, that the chalk in this, the loveliest of sites, is unique among more than 200 other sites which it is claimed have been explored.

It was quite soon after I entered this House, I think it was about eight years ago, that there was a chalk case at Stansted, in Essex. The Minister will remember it well. It seems to me curious how incapable Governments are of handling anything so white as chalk! And yet Stansted was as nothing to this case at Salisbury. Planning procedures should above all, be fair, open and impartial, and yet these smell to high heaven. There was the secret interview at the Ministry, the secret offer of cash, the secret proceedings at Salisbury, the expulsion of the only expert witness, the insult to elected councillors, the disablity imposed on a Member of this House, and the secret examinations described as independent. How green was my valley, and how correspondingly squalid, disreputable, clumsy, and hole-in-the-corner were the measures taken to achieve the destruction of this valley.

It is true that I have referred certain aspects of this case to Downing Street—as no doubt the Minister knows—and to other quarters. I think that the kindest thing I can bring myself to say is that these are difficult days, and that many of us find it easiest to put the telescope to our blind eye. But I have absolute confidence in the wisdom and sense of fairness of this House. I am not sworn to secrecy. I have not been offered £30,000 to withdraw my objection. Instead, I value my freedom, and I use my freedom to ask the Minister now to take the only course open to him, to summon a fresh inquiry.

4.4 p.m.

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

The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Michael Hamilton) has, almost in the last hour of this term, taken the opportunity of raising some very important constitutional and planning points. He has spoken in strong terms. All I can say is that were I in his position, fighting what I believed might lead to the desecration of one of the most beautiful tracts in this county, and, indeed, the whole country, I might have taken the same kind of action as he has taken in the interests of Wiltshire and his constituents.

One of my troubles in this case is that I am so much in sympathy that I have had to guard against not being sufficiently judicial in the advice I had to give to my right hon. Friend. So many of the hon. Gentleman's remarks and his letters have found a ready response in my heart because I react in the same way as he does. To do the hon. Gentleman all credit, not only has he raised the matter continuously with my right hon. Friend and myself, but he has put some issues to the Parliamentary Commissioner and to the Council on Tribunals. He has left no stone unturned, although to complete the record I may say that both those bodies have not been able to say that in the handling of this matter there has been any maladministration or that the Department or its inspector has been guilty of any action calling for censure.

There is no doubt that this was a particularly difficult and complex case. All of these mineral applications are difficult by their very nature, and, if successful, nearly always mean a fundamental change. One of our difficulties is to attempt to weigh up on the evidence before us, the case for development in the public interest and the case for spoiling what may be something of inestimable beauty. Although the Americans have gone some way towards putting a monetary value on beauty and amenity, we have not.

It is extremely difficult to make the right decision, and because of the complexities in this case I thought that we might be under criticism, not so much from the hon. Gentleman, of which I do not complain, but for the fact that our Ministry was delaying for so long a decision of considerable importance. The case was novel, the issues new, and I thought that until we had tested certain evidence I could not advise my right hon. Friend. This has meant delay and I am sorry, although I think that every step I took in that direction has been more than justified.

I know that this case has caused the hon. Gentleman great anxiety, but I can tell him that it has caused myself and my advisers considerable anxiety, too. We have gone to the utmost degree of investigation and taken the greatest possible trouble to reach what we feel was the right decision.

This will not be the last opportunity for the hon. Gentleman to raise these matters, and I am glad that he should have all opportunities, because I have nothing to hide and I want to put as much as I can on the record. It is true that a representative of the company called on my Department and said that because of the commercial nature of the process for which it needed chalk, and in view of the international competition, it would like that part of the inquiry dealing with the special qualities of the chalk to be held in camera.

The advice that they were given by the Department was as follows. The company were not told that they could have it in camera. The Department told them, as it must, these matters being laid down by the regulations for the holding of inquiries, that these are matters for a decision by the inspector as provided in the Town and Country Planning (Inquiries Procedure) Rules, 1965, but there is no bar to part of the proceedings being in camera. It is a matter for the inspector. He has the discretion and right, having listened to the case, to decide whether he thinks that it is in the public interest to hear part of it confidentially.

I am bound to concede that, whenever one departs from the normal procedure, be it in a criminal or civil case or in a planning case, there are certain problems. Although the courts from time to time exclude the public from the whole of a case, or from certain parts of it, they do it only in exceptional circumstances when, for example, there is a secret process involved which, if it were published to the world, would result in great damage to one of the parties, or when perhaps some evidence cannot be given unless it is given in secrecy.

In this case, the inspector heard the application on the first day of the inquiry. Having listened to the submission, he decided that at a particular time on the second day he would be prepared to hear part of the evidence in camera about the nature and quality of the chalk and why the company said that it was different from deposits of chalk elsewhere.

When I first heard the reason for the application, and why my technical advisers and trade advisers recommended that in the public interest it should succeed, and that it all turned on a question involving chalk, I had as much disbelief as the hon. Gentleman that one chalk was very much different from another. Then I read the evidence given in camera. But I felt, as no doubt the hon. Gentleman felt, and as the parties before the inspector no doubt felt, other than the applicants, that, while the company had made out an ex parte case, it was not subject to the kind of cross-examination which might have been possible had an expert been advising the other parties.

The inspector decided to hear part of the proceedings in camera. Before him there were the representatives of the applicant company. Having looked at them, however, I am not sure that they were quite as high-powered as the hon. Gentleman suggests, but, certainly, the company was well represented. Another of those appearing before the inspector was the clerk to the local planning authority, which had delegated power from the county council, accompanied by two officials from other local authorities. I understand that the appellant company also suggested that the solicitor representing the third patries, who were the adjacent owners, might also be present.

I must now clear up one point. In these inquiries, the parties normally appearing before an inspector are the appellants themselves and those who are objecting. A formal objector will be the local authority. There are, under the 1962 Act, what we call Section 17 objectors. They are either owners or occupiers of land which is being subjected to planning application and they have a right to be there. There were no Section 17 objectors in this case. However, going beyond that, the inspector has the discretion, and almost invariably uses it, to permit others with the public interest at heart to be parties to the proceedings, even though, legally, they have no right to be there.

I mention this because in an official communication which the hon. Gentleman received, though not from my Department, there was a reference to "statutory objectors". In fact, apart from the local planning authority, there were no statutory objectors. There was nobody under planning law, other than the local planning authority, who had any legal right to be heard at the inquiry. However, despite that, the solicitor representing the adjacent landowners allowed those others to whom I have referred to be present. This should be on the record, because it was a generous gesture on the part of the company to allow this representation, when it wished to preserve the commercial secrets which, it said, were essential for it.

While these parties were before the inspector during the proceedings in camera, they were not in a position to examine the technical evidence. The company agreed that, because the technical evidence about the quality of the chalk could not be tested, the Minister should have the right, if he thought it necessary, to carry out independent tests. I am glad that that recommendation was made and agreed because, frankly, had it not been agreed it would have been difficult for me to have conducted a prolonged and searching examination into the claims that had been made about the chalk.

Under the auspices of the Government Chemist, other Government bodies and people highly skilled and expert in these issues, the chalk was investigated. Thus, to make the picture a little less black than the hon. Gentleman put it, it was, fortunately, suggested that, if we wished, we could conduct tests. I caused these tests inquiry to be made. In addition to the Government Chief Scientific Adviser we had the advice of the Director of the Institute of Geological Sciences.

Samples of chalk were taken from a number of sites in Southern England and subjected to prolonged tests in laboratories under the independent supervision of advisers from the Government Chemist's laboratory and the Stationery Office and representatives of my Department. I have no doubt that the investigation which I caused to be made was thorough, was quite independent, and proved—I admit, to my surprise—that the chalk on this site had certain properties which were not to be found in chalk elsewhere and which was certainly readily accessible.

I cannot put my hand on my heart and say that nowhere else in the country would it have been possible to have found such chalk. However, I can say frankly, the company having examined samples taken from several dozen places, that no alternative sources of supply had been found. Certainly, I am advised that there is none readily accessible—some- times one can find chalk on the side of a mountain or somewhere equally inaccessible. In the face of the backing that was given to the proposition—I refer to exports and other matters—one had to say that the company had established an exceptional case.

I come now to the other matters which the hon. Gentleman quite properly raised. He complains—and I can understand his attitude, since I should feel the same myself in his position—that, while the clerk of the authority and the solicitor for the neighbouring objectors have seen that evidence, when he asked for a copy of the confidential report he was refused one. Our difficulty is that, if proceedings start in camera in this way, and the facts are given in confidence, we are all bound by it. Had I sent a copy of the report to the hon. Gentleman, it would have been quite an improper thing for me to have done, although I am sure that the hon. Gentleman would have acted most honourably. Had we put some sort of restriction on him in sending him a copy, I imagine that he and others would have said, that it was not acceptable. It really was an impossible situation for me.

However, let us suppose that I had got over that difficulty, that the hon. Gentleman had said that he wished to discuss the matter with me and that I had agreed, or that we had discussed the report elsewhere. The company would then not only have had a sense of grievance, but might well have taken action in the courts, claiming that the Minister had acted irresponsibly. We may have found ourselves involved in an action for damages and perhaps in other consequences. Once one embarks on a procedure where confidentiality is at issue, one must maintain it.

I only wish that that had not been the case and that I could have acceded to the hon. Gentleman's request. He asked today, "Does this not mean that the public are in the dark, having been denied an opportunity of cross-examination about the quality of the material?" I have tried to answer the latter part of that question by showing, I hope, that the hon. Gentleman's fears are to some extent allayed by the prolonged and searching investigation that we have made. But we must not overlook the fact that, when the clerk of the local planning authority was before the inspector in the in camera proceedings, he represented the public. It need not perhaps have been he. It could have been the chairman of the local council or other councillors. That is always a matter of judgment on a particular issue. But the public were represented by the chief officer of their local council at the in camera proceedings. To what extent, they were not in quite the defenceless position suggested by the hon. Gentleman.

I must also put on record one other matter. I know nothing, and can make no comment, about any other application, because it is certainly not before me. I do not know whether it is yet before the local planning authority. In this case, the application was to develop 25 acres. We allowed only the exploitation of 10 acres for a five-year period, at the end of which there must be restoration. In the decision letter, a large number of stringent conditions were included to make the disturbance of this wonderful piece of country the minimum possible.

Furthermore, although we could not make it as a condition because it is not a matter which comes under planning law, we made the strongest recommendation that conveyance of the chalk should be by rail. I gather, although I have no official knowledge of it, that the company is negotiating with British Rail for the chalk to be transported by rail. The more that can be done, the less disturbance there will be by heavy lorry traffic in the lovely lanes to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the conditions about noise, working hours, which are limited, screening, restrictions on blasting, the fact that the whole procedure has to be worked in arrangement with the local planning authority, he will see that we are trying to give the most favourable circumstances and cause a minimum amount of interference with the countryside.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for raising this case. He knows that this is the first time that in camera proceedings have been used in a planning case. The matter has been looked at by the Council on Tribunals and the Parliamentary Commissioner. I am relieved to say that there has been no suggestion that in the hand- ling of this matter the Department had done anything unfair or wrong. We are having discussion with the Council on Tribunals about possible rules for any future in camera proceedings.

Even though the parties have the right of audience at these in camera proceedings there should be firm rules as to procedure so that we can meet the hon. Gentleman's complaint and justice is not only done but seen to be done. The public, even though they had no legal rights under planning law to cross-examine, understandably felt dissatisfied that they never knew what the company's evidence was and could not test it through their own experts. We are having these discussions and can rely upon the Council on Tribunals to insist on rules if it is thought necessary.

The hon. Gentleman asked me whether we would have a further inquiry. I would be delighted, if only to allay—I will not say the hon. Gentleman's activities—but his fears in this matter, to have a further inquiry. However, under planning law, once the Minister has given his decision his functions cease. He has no further say in the matter. Should there be a further application the whole matter could come before him in the normal way assuming that the local council does not grant the application. Otherwise, of course, there would be no appeal.

Mr. Michael Hamilton

If a further application is made, as I believe it has been, is the Minister empowered to call it in for his personal consideration, or does it rest at the option of the local planning authority?

Mr. Skeffington

The Minister has wide powers. In a case like this, involving an area of outstanding natural beauty, if he felt it wise to do this, he could do so.

We are sometimes accused of trying to run everything from Whitehall, but we have entrusted planning authorities with this responsibility. The Minister must take limited action in this way, because we must proceed on the assumption that local people know more about their area than anyone in Whitehall, however gifted. This is something we follow carefully and continuously. There are exceptional cases for all sorts of exceptional reasons.

Also, if, at an interim stage, I had suggested to the hon. Gentleman that he could have seen the in camera evidence, or had taken some other step before the Minister gave his decision, the appellants might well have come back and gone to the High Court for a writ asking us to carry out the inquiry procedure to which we were committed by law. There must come a point in these procedures when a decision has to be given and that is the finish, or the matter will never be decided. I cannot satisfy the hon. Member on that point.

What I can say is that as a result of this case and his care and, I hope I am entitled to claim, the care of my Department, proceedings of this sort in camera are being considerd. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that his efforts have not been in vain, either in relation to his constituents, because we have drastically limited the application, or in relation to the country in general where this is a new proposition which will be considered carefully.