HC Deb 27 May 1970 vol 801 cc2026-36

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

1.25 a.m.

Mr. Antony Buck (Colchester)

On 18th October, 1966, the House debated the Second Reading of the Parliamentary Commissioner Bill, and in presenting that Measure the then Leader of the House, the right hon. Gentleman who is now Secretary of State for Social Services, said: The Office of Parliamentary Commissioner…is designed to protect the individual citizen against bureaucratic maladministration."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th October, 1966; Vol. 734, c. 42.] It was made clear that this office was being created in order to enhance the armoury of weapons available to a Member of Parliament to enable him to protect his constituents.

The Parliamentary Commissioner has been given power to delve deep into the workings of Whitehall and to report whether there be maladministration relative to any individual case referred to him by a Member of Parliament. The Parliamentary Commissioner then reports to the Member of Parliament on the individual case, and from time to time presents his report to a Select Committee of the House. The purpose of all this is to detect cases of maladministration which have resulted in hardship so that the maladministration or inefficiency may be cured and the injustice righted so far as that may be possible.

I regard the creation of the office of Parliamentary Commissioner as an important constitutional step taken by the House. The first appointment to the office, Sir Edmund Compton, was, and is, admirable. It was a constitutional mistake of some importance that his appointment was announced before the actual creation of the office, but we shall not go into that now.

During the Second Reading debate, with that modesty which so endears him to the House, the Secretary of State for Social Services said: …there will be general agreement that the Government can be congratulated upon choosing the right man to do this job. We have here someone who has been a distinguished servant both of this House and of the Executive. As a servant of this Houe during the eight years that he was Comptroller and Auditor General, he learned not to spare the Executive when there were fair grounds for criticism."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th October, 1966; Vol. 734, c. 53.] Hon. Members on both sides fully agreed with what the right hon. Gentleman said on that occasion; he was right to congratulate himself on a very fine appointment. Having had the privilege of working on the Select Committee on the Parliamentary Commissioner, I can say that every meeting with Sir Edmund increases my admiration for the work which he does.

There are problems relating to his office, and I come now to something which has a direct bearing on the subject of this Adjournment debate. One problem relates to publicity. This was pointed out by Mr. George Clark, in an article in The Times on 7th May this year. He said that the activities of the Parliamentary Commissioner should be properly publicised, and that where a case of maladministration is found he cannot tell the story save to the individual Member of Parliament. But the individual Member of Parliament can, and should, tell the story publicly when a case of maladministration emerges. It is partly for this reason that I bring before the House the proven failure of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to deal with proper efficiency with a planning application of importance to the future development of Colchester.

The facts are as follows. On 22nd February, 1968, application was made for planning permission for the erection by Colchester Borough Council of a multistorey car park on an important site near the town centre in Colchester. A shop and office block, which is now virtually finished, was designed to allow for the construction of an elevated pedestrian way to connect with that multistorey car park. Final completion of this block cannot be achieved until there is a decision on whether or not there should be the multi-storey car park. The new building is thus sterilised, although it is virtually finished, until a decision is made on the multi-storey car park

So, as I said, on 22nd February, 1968, application was made for planning permission for the erection of the car park. On 25th July, 1968, the Minister issued a direction that the application be referred to him. I do not quarrel with that, although it is perhaps a little surprising that it took five months for him to take the decision that it was an appropriate case to be " called in ". He was, however, probably right because as I have emphasised throughout planning matters relevant to a town like Colchester are of special complexity and it is even more than ordinarily important to get the decision right in order to keep the balance between preserving the unique and historic character of the town and seeing that there is proper scope for the borough to prosper and expand in a way beneficial to all its citizens.

On 25th September, 1968, a local inquiry was held. It was thorough and the objections to the proposal were fully heard. Both proponents and opponents of the plan agreed, and think that the inquiry was admirably conducted. I understand that the Minister received the report of his inspector on 10th January, 1969. The inspector recommended that the appeal be allowed. On 27th January, 1969, the Minister informed the borough that the report was being considered and that it was hoped to issue a decision within a few weeks.

The weeks drew out into months and eventually, on 3rd July, 1969, following a meeting about another matter, I raised the issue personally with the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry, the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. He gave me his personal assurance, in the presence of Colchester councillors and officials, that a decision could be expected within about 10 days. This I confirmed by writing and it has never been challenged by the Ministry. Despite repeated representations by letter and telephone, the days lengthened into weeks and the weeks into months until, in October, 1969, I telephoned the Ministry and informed it that, in view of the inordinate delay and the failure to give any explanation of the delay, I intended to refer the matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner.

That caused the silence to end, at least in one sense, because on 24th October, 1969, the Minister stated, through the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, that a decision had been arrived at—namely, to set up again the whole inquiry. In other words, it was a decision to make no decision. That was nine months after the borough had been assured that it could expect the result within a few weeks and three-and-a-half months after I had been told that it would be given within about ten days.

I then referred the matter to the Parliamentary Commissioner and received his report on 28th April. I published it a few days later. In his report, the Parliamentary Commissioner said that his main concern was to consider whether it was reasonable for the Ministry to reopen the inquiry to seek further information. Having examined in detail the inspector's report and the ensuing Departmental correspondence, he considered that it was not essential to seek further information. He said that it was his opinion that the case might well have been decided on the evidence given at the lengthy inquiry held in September, 1968. when both the planning and the amenity arguments had been considered in detail.

In the final paragraph of his report, the Parliamentary Commissioner said that the time taken to reach a decision on the application was unreasonably long and that there was no reason why Ministers should not have decided on the basis of the evidence presented at the inquiry. The developers had complained of inconvenience caused by the lack of any decision, and the complaint was considered to be justified. This office building has been sterilised over a long period.

More than inconvenience is involved —and there is still no decision. It has been estimated by the borough authorities that if the car park is allowed, the increased cost because of the inordinate delay will be about £30,000, and that will have to be borne by the ratepayers of Colchester, unless the Minister decides to assist them in some way. There is also the increased cost caused by the second public inquiry, and the developers have been put to more than inconvenience because they have had a valuable building—valued at about £140,000—not being able to be utilised for a considerable period. That has cost them thousands of pounds.

There is also the planning aspect. How can the planning of a beautiful and historic town like Colchester be carried on sensibly if there are to be delays of such a fantastic character? The application was made in February, 1968, and now, on 28th May, 1970, there is still no decision. In the meantime, an independent authority of the highest integrity has found that there has been maladministration. I appreciate the courtesy of the Minister of State in coming here this evening to reply to the debate. Perhaps it would be appropriate to say that we have had a referee of the highest integrity, appointed by the Government and approved by the House and respected by all of us, finding that there has been maladministration.

I hope that the Government will not take the serious step of seeking to question the referee's decision. That would come ill from the Minister of State. There has been this finding and we are entitled to an explanation and, I think, to an apology. I hope that the Minister of State will say that he intends to try to mitigate the loss to Colchester ratepayers if the planning application is eventually allowed, and perhaps that he will seek to compensate the developers. I hope that he will not seek to go against the " referee's " decision. If the Government do not accept the finding of the Parliamentary Commissioner, their whole attitude to the institution which they set up will be suspect.

We look forward to hearing from the Minister and to hearing his response to this sad and sorry saga.

1.38 a.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Mr. Denis Howell)

The hon. Member for Colchester (Mr. Buck) very properly began by going back to the appointment of the Parliamentary Commissioner, the ombudsman, and said that this was exactly the sort of case which the House had in mind. Representing the Government which produced the legislation which created the ombudsman, I certainly agree with the hon. Member that this is essentially the sort of case with which we expected him to deal, and I have no complaint about the way in which he investigated the complaint.

As a referee myself, I have always believed in the philosophy that the referee can never be wrong and must be right. Therefore, we largely accept what the Parliamentary Commissioner has said. I want to explain why we still think that we were right to take the further step of having a second inspector's report, but I do not do that in any spirit of criticising the Parliamentary Commissioner, but simply to state how the situation developed from the Government's point of view.

First, I will go over the history of this matter. I entirely agree with the hon. Member that there is a special need to get the decision right in this case. That criterion has led us into difficulty because if we got the decision wrong in an historic town such as Colchester it would be wrong for all time; it could never be put right. The delays which have occurred over this and which have been the subject of criticism have all stemmed from that objective by the Government.

Colchester town is one of the 51 historic towns and cities regarded as particularly precious by the Council for British Archeology. Though development has spread far beyond the ridge it occupied in the times of the Romans, the walled town remains the core of present-day Colchester. During the centuries it has acquired many buildings of note and over 320 of them are listed as being of architectural or historic importance. Because there are so many treasures to be preserved, all the central area has been designated a conservation area. Once this has been done the Civic Amenities Act of 1967 lays a duty on everyone—including my right hon. Friend—to do his best not only to preserve but also, where possible, to enhance the quality of the environment.

Were Colchester a backwater the tasks of the local planning authority, the borough council and my right hon. Friend would be much easier. However, Colchester is a sub-regional centre with many pressures for growth. In their review of the county development plan, Essex County Council has forecast that the population of Colchester would grow from 65,100 in 1961 to 101,000 in 1981. The University of Essex has been established near its borders.

A fast train service to Liverpool Street attracts commuters whose work is in London, but who prefer to live beyond the outer metropolitan area. And, finally, three main routes converge on Colchester —the Al2 London to Ipswich road; the Al20/ A604 from Cambridge and Bishop's Stortford to Harwich; and the A133 to Clacton.

Both outer and inner by-passes are planned to cope with this traffic and their construction should start within the next year or so. It is the growth of the town and the large volume of traffic that make the conservation of the central area such a difficult problem to solve.

Now I come to the burden of the hon. Member's complaint, that the Minister has taken an unreasonably long time in reaching a decision on the application by Colchester Corporation to erect a multistorey car park over the existing open bus station in Queen Street, Colchester. The hon. Member will understand that I cannot comment on the merits of the case as it is still before the Minister for consideration, but I shall deal as fully as possible with the procedure and the delay.

There is no dispute about the dates of the various events. The original application for planning permission was submitted by Colchester Corporation to Essex County Council in February, 1968, and referred by the county council to my right hon. Friend in July, 1968, when he decided to call in the application for his own decision. The first public inquiry was held in September, 1968, and the inspector's report was submitted to the Minister by the middle of January, 1969. It is the period of 16 months from January, 1969, that is the subject of the Parliamentary Commissioner's report.

Let me refer briefly to the planning background and its complications. Colchester Corporation wished to erect a total of seven multistorey car parks—two within the Roman walls and five outside them, near the proposed inner relief road. These car parks were estimated to be the minimum required to cater for local parking needs up to 1981. There was considerable opposition from civic and amenity societies to the Queen Street car park proposal. As the car park was to be erected over the bus station, it would be approximately 56 ft. high. Apart from the water tower and town hall clock tower which dominate the Colchester skyline, 56 ft. is about the maximum roof height of any building in Colchester.

In addition, the back of the car park would be near the top of the Roman wall and so easily visible from places outside the wall. As the car park is intended ultimately to house 1,000 cars it would extend over the entire bus station and also displace cars from the adjacent surface car parks. There was concern about the impact of the building on its environment, and also about the volume of traffic likely to remain in the central area if the car park were built, even after new traffic management schemes had been put into operation.

My right hon. Friend and his colleagues accordingly had to give serious and prolonged consideration to the report of the September, 1968 inquiry and to the possible courses of action. As the hon. Member will know from the Parliamentary Commissioner's report, the Royal Fine Art Commission was asked for its opinion on the design and likely impact of the car park building. The Commission, however, declined to comment on the specific proposal for Colchester, but reminded the Minister of their general view that the building of multistoreyed car parks within the walled area of historic towns should be prohibited. This was one of the matters taken into account when the decision was taken, in October, 1969, to reopen the inquiry.

The points set out for further consideration were whether either the car park or the bus station could be sited elsewhere; and if not, whether the building could be reduced in size or made less obtrusive in some other way. The reopened inquiry was held in the middle of December, 1969, and the inspector's report was received just over a months ago —on 23rd April.

The hon. Member has referred to the Parliamentary Commissioner's report. The Commissioner's investigations were the result of a complaint by Mr. Tomkins, of Frincon Holdings Limited, a development company, about the delay in issuing a decision on the car park. Mr. Tomkins' interest in the outcome derived from an arrangement that the company had made with Colchester Corporation to join the multi-storey car park at first-floor level to adjacent shops by means of an elevated pedestrian walkway. This would extend first of all to St. James House, a newly constructed five-storey block, and then bridge over Queen Street to the shopping development on the opposite side. Mr. Tomkins did not think that the delay on the Minister's part was justified in what he considered to be " a comparatively simple matter ".

The Parliamentary Commissioner did not accept Mr. Tomkins' view of the matter as a comparatively simple one, but stated that the isssues appeared to him to be important and not to be lightly decided in any circumstances. This, of course, was also the view of my right hon. Friend. Nevertheless, the Commissioner's conclusion was that the Minister had sufficient evidence from the 1968 inquiry on which to give a decision, and that the absence of a decision had caused inconvenience to Mr. Tomkins. Delay in reaching planning decisions must, of course, be expected to cause inconvenience and this is to be avoided wherever possible, but Mr. Tomkins did not suggest that the absence of a decision was causing any hardship, nor did the Parliamentary Commissioner come to such a conclusion.

The only point at issue is whether the inquiry should have been reopened or whether a decision should have been taken on the material of the first report. The Parliamentary Commissioner takes the latter view. My right hon. Friend considered, and, with the greatest respect to the Parliamentary Commissioner, still considers, that it was right to err, if at all, on the side of caution. This must be so. This is what the hon. Member said himself. The essence of the thing was to get the decision right. It may be that in the end we made a mistake. I am not seeking to say we have not made a mistake, but it was a mistake born of the right consideration—to get the decision right, as the hon. Gentleman generously said.

Mr. Buck

I accept that there was well meaning, but the difficulties were known from the beginning. Can the hon. Gentleman explain why the borough was told in January it was a matter of weeks and why I was told I would receive an answer in 10 days?

Mr. Howell

I am seeking to say this, if I may go on with my prepared speech.

I am not saying that we were right. but that if we were to err it was right to err on the side of caution, because we all agree, and the hon. Gentleman and I agree, that the important thing was to get the decision right, because if it were to be wrong it would be wrong for all time: it could not be put right. A mutlistorey car park, once constructed, would have a permanent effect on the environment of a historic town.

In these circumstances, I submit that it was not unreasonable to seek additional evidence on the possibility of new sites for the bus station or the car park; or to try to find ways of mitigating the impact of this large building on the centre of Colchester. Nor could the general view expressed by the Royal Fine Art Commission be ignored. We would have been severely sensured and criticised if we had ignored it.

To bring the story up to date I should mention a related matter. When the car park application first came to my right hon. Friend's attention it was the only application affecting the town centre. Since then Colchester Corporation has submitted applications for the eastern, southern and western sections of its proposed inner relief road. These were heard at a public inquiry which lasted three weeks in October and November, 1969. The inspector's report on this inquiry was also received on 23rd April and it is the intention to consider this report in conjunction with the one on the multi-storey cra park. The Parliamentary Commissioner has said that he does not criticise that course of action, and I do not think that the hon. Gentleman does.

Mr. Buck

I should be grateful if the Minister would say when we shall have the result of this inquiry.

Mr. Howell

Having heard this complicated story, I am sure the House will agree that my right hon. Friend and the Ministry have been actuated by the need to give the closest possible consideration to any proposal for large-scale development in an environment so susceptible to permanent injury.

The Parliamentary Commissioner has been assured that every possible effort will be made to reach an early decision on both the car park and the inner relief road. A decision has been taken on the car park issue. I cannot disclose tonight what that decision is because, in accordance with our procedures, it has to be sent to all the parties involved, and they are also entitled to a complete copy of the inspector's report. These matters were put in hand yesterday, and all the parties can expect to receive a decision on the car park in a matter of days.

To sum up, there have been delays, which, on behalf of the Ministry and my right hon. Friend, I very much regret. The delays were caused with the best of intentions-to get the actual decision right and to take no action which might be wrong and irreversible. With hindsight I believe that some of these delays could have been reduced, and to that extent I think the Parliamentary Commissioner's viewpoint and the hon. Gentleman's actions in raising the matter have helped to ensure that in future cases of this character the timetable will be watched very much more carefully by the Ministry than perhaps it was on this occasion.

If that happens, I think that the hon. Gentleman and the House will agree that the Parliamentary Commissioner procedure was not only appropriate but extremely beneficial.

1.52 a.m.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)

The Minister has approached this matter with a reasonable degree of contrition having regard to the severe stricture to which my hon. Friend very properly drew the House's attention.

It is not good enough. There have been cases before where the Government have scouted the decision of the Ombudsman, particularly one remembers the Sachsenhausen case. But on this occasion the hon. Gentleman—and I say this having studied some of the papers and listened to the debate—has gone some way to recognise that the criticisms were justified. His closing words, that he and his colleagues and officials will take this to heart and make sure there are not similar inordinate delays in the future, well justify my hon. Friend detaining the House at this late hour to put these matters before the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at seven minutes to Two o'clock, a.m.