HC Deb 13 May 1969 vol 783 cc1363-72

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

10.57 p.m.

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

I wish to raise the case of the refusal of grant under the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act, 1961, for putting in main drainage at Datchet, in my constituency. Datchet is in Eton rural district and until this case arose, places in a rural district were given grant under the Act as such, that is, as being in a rural district. The result of the Minister's refusal is a cost of approximately £500,000 to the local rates, raising them by as much as 2d. in the £, or rather more than 8 per cent. for 30 years.

The former practice under this Act was set out in Circular 15/61 which laid down the payment of grant in respect of any place which was a rural district and so tended to give certainty to district councils which had, before 1961, suffered from not knowing whether they would get the grant or not and from not knowing how much they would receive. That is well illustrated by what happened, in this case, to Eton Rural District Council because of the change in Ministerial policy in 1967 by Circular 75/67. The Minister changed the rules and made the grant a matter for discretion.

Paragraph 3 of that circular said: The Act of 1944 authorises contributions from the Exchequer towards expenses incurred in serving rural localities. Experience shows that areas and schemes in rural districts are occasionally far from characteristically rural. Location in a rural district will not, in future, therefore, necessarily mean that a locality will be accepted as rural for the purposes of the Acts. It is the effect of that on the Datchet scheme to which I draw the attention of the House.

The scheme originated in 1960 and the district council, after assessing the project, put it to the Department for a ruling, as this was before Circular 15/61 had made the grant automatic. The Minister ruled that the project was eligible for grant. That was stated in a letter dated 24th January, 1961. The Minister will be aware of that piece of correspondence. Indeed, he may be uncomfortably aware of it.

The letter said: Datchet Main Drainage. I am directed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government to say that he has considered the Council's application for grant under the … Acts towards the cost of this scheme, and is now able to give some indication of the assistance which may be expected. The Minister has necessarily based his forecast of grant on the estimate of cost at present before him and on all the other current circumstances which are relevant. This forecast is not a formal undertaking to pay grant and only remains valid for a limited period. When loan consent is given the Minister will take a final decision about grant in the light of all the circumstances at that time. Subject to these reservations the Minister has in mind half-yearly payments of £1,400 for thirty years. As the Minister knows, that would be matched by a payment of equal amount from the county council. That was a clear indication to the rural district council, under the old rules—it was at that time a matter of discretion on the part of the Ministry—that this case was considered to deserve grant.

After that, matters ticked along gently, held up occasionally by credit squeezes and similar events, culminating in the full scheme being submitted to the Ministry in April, 1965, with a request for authority to invite tenders. The Ministry asked for various pieces of further technical information, which it received by August, 1965.

Then the Ministry asked to be assured that one small piece of land that was concerned could be acquired at a reasonable price. This meant that the district council had to serve a compulsory purchase order before getting final approval and grant. The council submitted the compulsory purchase order to the Minister in July, 1966. Time was passing, but it was not until June, 1967, that the Minister confirmed the order.

During the previous year or two I had written to the Minister asking for these procedures to be speeded up and, finally, in June, 1967, when confirming the order, the Minister, rather like a negotiator from behind the Iron Curtain, asked for yet further technical details before tenders could be sought. I am bound to feel that the Ministry might have thought of that during the 11 months while the district council had been waiting for the compulsory purchase order to be confirmed. In any event, the Ministry had earlier said that it had all the technical information it wanted. That took until the end of August.

Then at long last, when the bills of quantities and specifications were being finished and the scheme was on the point of going out to tender, the Minister put out Circular 75/67 in December, 1967, and brought down the chopper on Datchet as the first victim of the new rules.

Since the Department had already explicitly approved the project for grant in 1960, subject only to the conventional saving words that go in every such letter, and the Datchet project was caught by the change of rules so narrowly, it is surprising that the Minister has persisted in his refusal to reconsider the refusal of grant. As the Minister knows, I have both written to him and seen him about this.

Finally, the Minister wrote to me saying that it did not seem that the Datchet scheme had so narrowly, in point of time, missed the grant after all. He said: The council appear to have accepted the tender for the work on 25th June, 1968, and this is more than six months after 7th December, 1967, the date when new arrangements were introduced by Circular 75/67. But the Minister knows quite well that, as soon as Circular 75/67 came out, the rural district council wrote to him asking for confirmation that this would make no difference and received, fairly quickly, a reply that it made all the difference in the world.

Then, not surprisingly, because this mattered very much to the council—and I must say that it had been badly dealt with—the district council asked the Minister to receive a deputation. That took a little while. I do not complain about that, because I know that Ministers have deputations in considerable number to receive. The Minister saw the deputation in May. After that, he told the council that if it would submit the proposal in final form he would reconsider it. That is why it was submitted in that final form in June.

In the circumstances, it is hardly fair of the Minister to say in his letter to me that the Datchet scheme missed the grant by six months when the application could have gone in more quickly. But he had already brought the chopper down and it was natural to take time to ask him, first, to see a deputation. Therefore, I am not impressed by the remark that there was a lapse of six months. There was no near miss in this case.

But we must look at the underlying claim of merit which the Ministry makes. In changing the scheme it said that some places in rural districts were, in fact, not all that rural. The new circular refers to where the development is urban or suburban in character, in particular, where it is near a town. The example given is of a town, or a place, or a neighbourhood where the suburbs have been built out and across the boundary of a rural district, and it would be artificial to treat that case as being a rural district within the meaning of the Rural Water Supplies and Sewerage Act. On the independent merits one can see the force of that argument, but I wonder how it could apply to Datchet.

In reply to me, the Minister said that it was just such a place, it was near to the towns of Windsor and Slough. That was one leg of the attack on it. When I saw the Minister I told him that to describe the village of Datchet as not rural because it was close to Windsor and Slough was rather an extraordinary misconception. It is separated from Windsor by no less than the River Thames, and after the Thames by Windsor Great Park, two barriers not merely very relevant to drainage—one could hardly imagine draining across the Thames—but also impassable areas from the point of view of development. Nobody will develop Windsor Great Park. Nobody will develop the Thames, and, therefore, the proximity of Windsor is irrelevant.

The proximity of Slough is almost equally irrelevant, because Datchet is separated from it by a green belt which again cannot be developed or impinged upon unless the Minister himself allows that to be done, which is most unlikely. It is a belt of farm and green belt use of land. Therefore, to describe this as in any way pertinent to either Slough or Windsor is to get an entire misconception.

The Minister has said that it is a built-up area of about 4,000 people, and likely to grow. The total population of the parish of Datchet may be about 4,000, but it is not proposed to "sewer" 4,000 people, and it is not very relevant to count those living in outlying farms and homesteads. Nor is there any likelihood of Datchet growing, because it is a completed green belt village, and it cannot grow any further.

It is a little surprising that a village in the green belt, insulated all round by a green belt, except on the south side where there is the River Thames, and then on the other side of it Windsor Great Park, should be compared with a developing suburb which has crossed a rural district boundary, or with a residential area which is so much under the wing or shadow of a neighbouring town that it ought really to be considered as an extension of it from the point of view of grants uinder this legislation.

I was disappointed with the Minister's reply. I realise the difficulty in dealing with transitional cases, but the point which I must put to the Minister again this evening is that this is a transitional case in a more exact degree than he realised when he last wrote to me, because that interval of six months between Circular 76 and the date of the application is to be explained by the deputation to the Minister, or to his predecessor. Secondly, on the merits it is surprising, or at any rate marginal, that Datchet should ever have been treated as a locality as disqualified for this grant.

That being so, I hope that the Minister will not just give me—I am sure that he has no inclination to do that—a purely Departmental answer written out for him and expected to be read at a later hour of the night than we have been fortunate enough to strike.

I hope that he will take into account what I have said and will offer to consider this matter again, because £450,000 to £500,000 is a very considerable burden for a rural district. It must not be thought that 2d. is not very much. Two-pence is being added to a rate of 2s. 4d. That makes a substantial relative proportionate increase in the burden on the ratepayers.

I therefore hope that the Minister will give careful thought to what I have said and will not shut any doors tonight but will say that he will look at this matter again to see whether this case, which so narrowly missed the date and which, I must say with all respect to his Department and without imputing any malice to it, was played along by his Department for two or three years, is not one to which he should give the most careful consideration.

11.16 p.m.

The Minister for Planning and Land (Mr. Kenneth Robinson)

I feel almost like expressing gratitude to the hon. and learned Gentleman for raising a subject with me on the Adjournment that does not concern the Land Commission. The hon. and learned Gentleman has put the case for Eton Rural District Council very moderately, although I know that it is a matter on which he feels strongly. I do not think that he has adduced any further arguments this evening over and above those that he very persuasively argued when he came to see me some months ago. The council has run into financial difficulties with one of its most costly schemes because it has been refused grant following a change of policy at a late stage, in circumstances which might have induced me to pay grant despite the change of policy.

This picture which the hon. and learned Gentleman has given quite fairly gives one aspect of the position, but it is not the complete picture. We must look at it against the background of the purposes for which grants are paid. One of the basic terms of the legislation is that the work which is grant-aided should serve a rural locality, an expression which is not defined in the Act because I do not think it could be satisfactorily defined. It was contemplated from the outset that a rural locality in a borough could get grant for a scheme under the Act, and indeed grants have been awarded from time to time to schemes which are located in boroughs. The important thing is to recognise a rural situation when one sees it. This can only be for the Minister to judge, and it is not always easy, because it is often a matter of degree. If the Minister cannot agree that the situation is rural, strictly speaking he has no power to pay grant. The idea of "rural locality" is a matter of judgment and not tied to the status of the council concerned.

Back in 1944 everybody thought, quite reasonably in the conditions of those days, that any part of a rural district would automatically be a rural locality. But circumstances change and it became clear that there are parts of rural districts which are not rural at all. Sometimes a town spreads across its boundaries and the adjoining part of a rural district becomes a suburb. In other cases, a compact and populous locality has grown up, perhaps round a traditional village nucleus, and becomes a sizable residential area. Datchet is, I submit, an example of this.

With new development going on, it became clearer with the passage of time that the practice of automatically accepting all localities in rural districts as rural localities would have to be looked at again. The change came with the latest revision of the general terms and conditions for grant set out in the circular from which the hon. and learned Gentleman quoted the relevant passage. Appendix 1 to the circular said: Most localities in rural districts will be accepted as rural; but exceptions may be made where development is urban or suburban in character, in particular, where it is near a town. The circular was issued on 7th December, 1967, and came into effect for all schemes which had not reached a certain point of progress by that date. This point was the submission of tenders to the Ministry or, where that was not required, the date of the council's resolution to accept a tender or a direct labour estimate. The date of the Eton Rural District Council's resolution to accept the tender for the Datchet scheme was, I understand, 25th June, 1968, so that there can be no doubt that the terms of the circular, including the withdrawal of automatic acceptance, applied to this scheme.

The hon. and learned Member made some play of a section of a letter which I wrote to him. This was in reply to a specific assertion on his part that they only just missed the old scheme. In fact, a grant application is made only when the scheme is ready to proceed, and that is tender stage, and I am informed that the scheme could not have qualified on any premature application before June 1968.

It was, I admit, unfortunate that the scheme had hung fire for a number of years, for reasons outside the council's control. But to plead for special consideration on that account would be to argue for a return to the practice of automatic acceptance of all localities in rural districts when this practice had for some years past become increasingly unrealistic. It would involve ignoring the merits of the case entirely.

I said earlier that Datchet is an example of an urbanised locality in a rural district. The population exceeds 4,000 and will probably increase, because while the scheme will, I understand, serve 1,370 existing properties, it is designed ultimately to serve 1,750. Evidence given in support of the scheme at a public local inquiry in March, 1967, spoke of Datchet having become an area of development with the characteristics of urban and part-urban congestion. In the face of facts such as these, arguments about the one-time village character of Datchet and its location in the green belt do not carry the weight which the hon. and learned Gentleman attached to them.

Mr. Bell

With reference to the traffic congestion, of course.

Mr. Robinson

Possibly, but there are other factors about Datchet which deny the normal characteristics of rurality.

The point has been made, although the hon. and learned Member did not mention it tonight, that the cost of the scheme at more than £600 per property is so high that it shows the typically high cost of a rural scheme and should be assisted on that ground. But the primary consideration is that grant is payable where the locality is rural. It happens in most cases that the cost per property is high because low-density development requires long average lengths of main or sewer, and the current terms and conditions for grant take this into account. But a high-cost scheme for urban conditions would not attract grant simply because it was high-cost, while a cheaper scheme for an undoubtedly rural locality might well do so.

It has been suggested that the Minister has contributed towards the misfortunes of the council in that one of the reasons for the slow progress of the scheme was the time taken to deal with a compulsory purchase order on one of the pumping station sites. That this took a long time is true, but much of the delay occurred because it proved difficult to make progress with the objector and to get an agreed date for the public local inquiry.

In the end, we achieved progress by enforcing a date. But I do not think that the consideration extended for so long to a person whose land, after all, would be taken from him by the compulsory purchase order, if made, should render the Minister culpable for delay in a quite different context.

Reference has been made to the way in which the grant arrangements under Circular 75/67 came into force on a particular day, that is, 7th December of that year, without due regard to schemes such as this which were in the pipeline. The hon. and learned Gentleman implied that such schemes ought to be given special consideration because hopes of grant would be dashed by a rigid deadline. That sounds easy and fair, but, in fact, it would be neither.

The great merit of a firm starting date for new arrangements, or, rather, revised arrangements, for that is what the circular mainly comprised, is that it is intelligible and clear. Most important schemes are years in preparation, and they are all at one stage or another in the pipeline. It would be extremely difficult to make judgments, or to try to make them, as between one case and another; and one would have not revised arrangements so much as a series of controversies as to whether they should apply in this or that case.

As regards fairness, the new arrangements introduced on 7th December, 1967, were more beneficial in some respects and less beneficial in others. It would hardly be fair as between the Exchequer and the local authorities if the new arrangements were applied when they gave the local authority some benefit but were not applied where there was some disadvantage to the local authority. That would be a case of, "Heads the local authorities win, and tails the Exchequer loses".

The hon. and learned Gentleman, I accept, has done a service to his constituents and to the council in giving us an opportunity to debate this matter, about which, I know, he feels very strongly. But, in view of the quite explicit nature of the Department's circular, I do not see how I could exercise a discretion in favour of the Eton Rural District Council on this scheme, for the reasons which I have given to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Eleven o'clock.