HC Deb 27 January 1971 vol 810 cc719-34

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

12.04 a.m.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

The purpose of my raising this debate on the Adjournment is threefold: first, to ascertain how Tomatin, a small village in Inverness-shire, was nearly deprived of its sole shop through action initiated by officials of the Scottish Development Department, possibly in co-operation with officials of Inverness County Council, without any elected representative knowing what was happening, and to try to clear up a number of unsatisfactory inconsistencies which have emerged from subsequent inquiries; secondly, to ask for an indication from the Minister of his intentions in the new situation which his Department has contributed to creating; and thirdly, by highlighting what I think is a disturbing case, to try to prevent anything similar happening anywhere else.

Tomatin has only one shop. Since it is 14 miles from Inverness, it is very dependent on it for the provision of simple basic things that any community requires daily, like milk, groceries, newspapers, and so on. I think it is also agreed that Inverness County Council, as planning authority, has a definite interest in encouraging the maintenance of such a vital community provision.

The previous owner of the shop, Mrs. Gordon, advertised it for sale in February, 1970. On 7th June, Mrs. Gordon approached the local councillor, Councillor John A. Macdonald, to see whether he could do anything about improving the offer which she had had from the Scottish Development Department. That was the first that Mr. Macdonald had heard about the S.D.D. being interested.

He at once contacted the county council and established that the shop had been bought by the Scottish Development Department, which proposed to take it over on 27th June and have it demolished almost at once as part of a road widening scheme. As soon as he realised the position and the serious effect that it would have on the village, Councillor Macdonald took every action open to him to secure a reprieve. The Minister will remember that this was occurring bang in the middle of a General Election and a lot of people were rather preoccupied at the time with other things.

Councillor Macdonald raised the matter in the planning committee on 10th June and a letter was sent to the Development Department from the county council the following day requesting such a reprieve. One of the villagers, Mrs. Jean Mackay, offered to man the shop on a temporary basis and negotiations were set in train whereby she could do so.

Councillor Macdonald, in conjunction with the district councillor, Mr. Glynn Percy, arranged a public protest meeting on 22nd June, which I attended. There were 84 people present—a remarkable proportion of the population of the area —strong feelings were expressed and a resolution and a letter were despatched to the Secretary of State. Subsequently, the temporary arrangements whereby Mrs. Mackay was enabled to operate the shop were extended, and she continues to run it.

While I emphasise that once the situation had been created, officials of the Minister's Department and of the county council were very helpful and cooperative, it remains true that were it not for the vigorous and determined action taken by Councillor Macdonald once news of the shop's closure had accidentally—it was quite by accident—come to his knowledge and the public-spiritedness of Mrs. Mackay, the village would have been deprived of its shop.

That is a bare outline of events. I turn now to certain specific questions, relating them to three documents: the county clerk's letter of 11th June, the minutes of the county council of 7th July and the letter from the Scottish Development Department to Councillor Macdonald dated 10th July on behalf of the Secretary of State, copies of which I have given the Minister.

First, who initiated the action to purchase the shop for the purposes of demolition and what consideration was given to the fact that it was the only shop in the district? The county clerk's letter of 11th June states: It was understood locally that your Department had recently acquired the premises. Does that mean, seriously, that the county council was unaware of the purchase? That is what the words mean. The Scottish Development Department's letter of 10th July says: The property was advertised last February out the Department did not make an offer of purchase to the owner until the beginning or June, when it still remained unsold. This carries the clear implication that there were no other offers, but my information is that there were two other higher offers—one from a person in Inverness and one from someone in Nottingham, out both potential buyers were informed at the county buildings that demolition was due and therefore withdrew their offers.

The Department's letter went on: It was always possible that another purchaser who equally might not have intended to carry on the shop could have bought the property, in which case a situation no different from that resulting from its acquisition by the Department would have arisen. indeed, the minutes of the Roads Committee of Inverness County Council on 7th July put this even more strongly: The criticisms levelled by local interests, that the villagers had not been given time by the Department to consider the provision of a new shop was unjustified … for this reason. But according to the terms of the feu, which surely someone should have looked up, any purchaser would have had to use the premises for a shop; it was in the feu. The feu even goes on to say specifically that, supposing that the premises were burned down, the insurance would have to be used to rebuild them for the same purpose. So this apologia is specious.

Lastly, on the first occasion on which this matter was discussed openly—as opposed to the things that were going on in private—at the Roads Committee on 7th July, the minutes on page 252 say that the letter from the Department dated 8th June, was submitted "inviting " the council: as agents to carry out work on the Tomatin-Balvraid junction at an estimated cost of £4,300, including the purchase and demolition of the shop premises. But the purchase had already been made before the invitation was extended.

Perhaps this is common practice. If so, it is not quite the practice that one likes to see. Given that the eventual demolition of the shop in the interests of road safety might be desirable, what realistic consideration has been given to the choice of an alternative site for a new shop, supposing that such a decision cannot be made until the Department makes up its mind about the future alignment of the road?

The Department's letter of 10th July said: The site of any new shop would need to be chosen with the long-term alignment of the trunk road from Tomatin in mind. Obviously. The minutes of the county council on 7th July actually said: The Department were willing to delay demolition "— of the shop— until 30th September and it was hoped that, within that period, any new shop which might be sited elsewhere within Tomatin would be fully operational. At no time was there even a vague possibility of this happening. It was never possible, and that it should solemnly be recorded in this way is incredible. Someone's knuckles somewhere should be firmly rapped.

As it is, the alignment of the road is not yet determined, and I would not expect the Minister tonight to pronounce on it. It would be unreasonable of me to do so, just as it was unreasonable to say this in the minutes of the county council, but I am sure that local people would appreciate some indication of the time scale that he anticipates and the sort of consultation he intends before the decision is made. It should also be borne in mind that, should a new line be chosen, the demolition might not be necessary.

I have been very disturbed by the facts which my inquiries into this case have revealed. Precipitate action was taken without full regard to the consequences, without full information and without any attempt at local consultation. This reveals both administrative weakness and a disregard for the principles of good planning, which we are all anxious to see implemented and which were well set out in the Skeffington Report.

If it happened at Tomatin, it could happen elsewhere. There are many places on the West Coast of Scotland which not only I but, for example, the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray), who is present tonight, know, where great damage to the community would be done if this were the case.

I hope the Minister will assure me that he will look at the procedures in his Department with a view to preventing any repetition. We all make mistakes. When public authorities make them there should be no evasion. There has been a fair amount of wriggling in this case and there should now be a frank admission. If not, we cannot have trust in future.

I appreciate that this event took place before the Minister had responsibility. Nevertheless, I am sure that he wishes to give assurances about the continuance of the shop and, in particular, I am sure that he will be anxious to clear the whole matter up.

12.17 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Development, Scottish Office (Mr. George Younger)

I thank the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) for raising this matter, which is clearly of great concern to him and his constituents. I am glad of this opportunity to discuss it with him on the Floor of the House, and I hope that I will be able to explain exactly what happened and give him at least some of the assurances for which he asked.

It might be helpful if, first, I went through the sequence of events and filled in the outline which the hon. Gentleman gave. I will then comment on some of the inferences which he drew from his reading of that sequence.

As the hon. Gentleman mentioned in his opening remarks, the county council was inevitably, and rightly, involved in this matter right from the very beginning. Indeed, the first intimation that my Department had that the shop at Tomatin was up for sale was contained in a letter dated 22nd May, 1970, from the county surveyor. It was that letter which also first suggested to the Department that a small trunk road improvement at Tomatin should be carried out.

The county surveyor's formal recommendation, with details of the suggested improvement, followed on 4th June, and on 8th June the Department replied, formally inviting the county council, as agent authority, to undertake the scheme. For agent authorities—which, for the purpose of this discussion, can be taken as being all county councils and some other local authorities—to use their initiative in this way is the accepted practice and is a valuable factor in the administration of the trunk road programme, particularly as it affects smaller improvements.

The Department did not know at that time that two offers, which apparently proved unacceptable to the vendor of the shop, had been made; and the Department's offer, put to the vendor's solicitor on 11th June, was based on the market value of the property as assessed by the district valuer. This offer, put, as I said, to the seller's solicitor on 11th June, was accepted right away—on 12th June.

The first local representations made to the Department were received on 15th June from the county council as planning authority seeking a temporary reprieve for the shop until a suitable alternative site could be found. The Department replied on 17th June granting a short-term lease for the shop if anyone interested in taking it over could be found. No date for the demolition of the shop had been fixed at that time, because the detailed scheme for the improvement, which would include the demolition, had not then been prepared.

I understand that on the same day— 17th June—the local county councillor and a district councillor met an official of the planning department at Tomatin in an attempt to find a new site for the shop. On 19th August the county council suggested a site for temporary premises, a suggestion which was accepted by the Department on 28th August provided only that access to the site was not obtained directly from the trunk road. So far, there has been no follow up of this acceptance.

Perhaps I may comment on one or two of the inferences we can draw from this sequence of events. The first is that, quite clearly, the first knowledge of this matter came from the letter from the county surveyor, and the hon. Gentleman would probably agree that in trunk road improvements, particularly small ones, the only authority that the Department can lean on is the local planning authority. The people there are the only people who have the necessary local knowledge to be able to advise us. So I think that the Department was entitled to take the advice of the local planning authority on the matter, and the Department did so. As a result, the offer was made and accepted, and the whole train of events happened.

Following this, there was a very strong and very understandable and very proper reaction to the news that the village shop, so important a part of the life of a small village like this, was threatened with disappearance altogether. I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman for acknow-ledging in his remarks that from that time onwards the Department did, and has done, all that it could to be helpful, and to meet the feelings of the villagers which were very properly represented.

The conclusion from this is that one must accept that in planning trunk road improvements there should be, and must be, the fullest feasible consideration of and consultation with local interests. In practice, one has to rely largely on the vigilance of the agent authority in the achievement of this desirable aim, but in the light of the circumstances raised by the hon. Gentleman I will undertake to look into the Department's trunk road procedures to see what improvements can be effected in the administrative arrangements for ensuring that the interests of local communities are taken fully into account.

I will consider whether the procedures can be changed to make the arrangements better, and I will also consider the desirability of issuing an amending Circular, or an amendment to the existing Circulars, to agent authorities on this matter. It is important that whatever method is chosen to improve the procedures, we should have written into them an essential requirement that when such a case occurs in the future it will be the normal and usual and invariable practice of the Department to get a specific clearance from the agent authority that the planning and social implications of any move of this sort have been considered. If that had been the case here, a lot of the bother would probably have been avoided. I hope the hon. Member will feel that this is one credit result of his efforts this evening.

I want to answer some of the other points he raised which could perhaps come under the heading of "What happens next?" Following the events I have outlined, there was a question of what should be done about the shop in the immediately following period. As the hon. Member knows, we arranged that a tenancy should be granted to Mrs. Mackay to carry on the shop, first for three months to 30th September at a purely nominal rent. This was subsequently continued until 31st December, and a further three months' extension beyond that date was proposed.

On 24th December, 1970, the county council told my Department that Mrs. Mackay was finding difficulty in planning ahead on such a sort-term basis as three months and asked if the Department was willing to authorise a new lease of longer than three months. In the circumstances, my Department said it was willing to approve a 12 months' lease, but that there would have to be a reassessment of the rental which was a nominal one of £10 a quarter. The views of the county council and Mrs. Mackay are awaited but Mrs. Mackay is continuing her tenancy.

The question of the next step thereafter has to await the views of the county council and Mrs. Mackay. These short-term and medium-term arrangements reflect my Department's recognition of the strength of local interest in the problem, but they mean that the intended road improvement cannot be carried out until a suitable alternative site for the shop has been found. I would make it clear to Mrs. Mackay and the residents that although it is a 12 months' tenancy at the moment, adequate notice would be given if the Department felt it necessary to put an alternative date on this. I am thinking of at least three months. I hope that this will give a measure of continuity and security to the villagers and Mrs. Mackay.

There is also a planning aspect to the case.

Mr. Russell Johnston

I will intervene only on one point and briefly. The Minister has been very helpful and will appreciate that Mrs. Mackay did not take this over as a commercial venture. She did not expect to make much, but this is a service to the community and I hope that the Department will look sympathetically at the rent question and not take a purely commercial attitude.

Mr. Younger

Yes, indeed. I was merely wishing to establish that this would need to be considered and not that a dramatic new consideration is brought in.

On the planning aspects, we have a rather wider problem to consider. While a proposal to put up a replacement shop would in the normal course of events be a matter for a private developer who would have to satisfy himself on the commercial aspect of a new shop site, the type of development to be allowed is a matter for the county council and only for it as the local planning authority. I understand that some local interests may favour the establishment of a composite business with a cafe and petrol filling station, to encourage a developer to come in.

My direct interest—or that of the Secretary of State—is as the final trunk road highway authority in the effect of such development on the flow of traffic and public safety. If any such development were proposed within the statutory 220 feet of the centre line of the trunk road, the Department's Chief Road Engineer, acting on behalf of the Secretary of State, is required under the Town and Country Planning Act (General Development) (Scotland) Order, 1950, to approve any access to it from the trunk road.

In August, 1970, the county council submitted details of the temporary development which could take place on a site directly opposite the existing shop, that is, on the western side of the trunk road, and in this case set back some 30 feet from it. After consulting the county surveyor the Department told the county council on 28th August that it would be prepared to approve the erection of a new shop on this site provided access to it could be obtained from Old Mill Road and not directly from the A.9 trunk road. So far no further word about the proposal has been received from the county council.

Finally, because of the uncertainty about the future line of the A.9 through Tomatin, and because of the possibility that some years could elapse before any improvement was carried out, my Department also suggested officially on 12th January this year that the county council might wish to consider buying the shop property from the Department and entering into suitable leasing arrangements with Mrs. Mackay or any other prospective tenant. This would give the county council scope to fulfil in the short term the obligations that properly rest with it as the planning authority and not with the Secretary of State as the highway authority. It has the obligation to encourage the provision of community facilities considered necessary at Tomatin without prejudice to long-term trunk road needs. No reply has yet been received from the county council to this suggestion, but it was not very long ago that it was made.

I have tried to give as full an account as I can both of the past events in this problem and of the situation as I see it, and as I see facilities for the people in Tomatin being available during the next 12 months or so. I quite understand the upset and concern felt by the villagers to find suddenly that what they regarded as an essential part of their life was threatened by the trunk road improvement. I am equally sure that provided other arrangements can be made—and, indeed, if proper consultations had taken place earlier on—the villagers would agree that the improvement was a good idea and is in the interests of road safety, not least to people in the village, in the use of this trunk road, which takes a fairly heavy volume of traffic, some of it proceeding at considerable speeds.

I therefore hope that by explaining the way in which this has happened we shall have contributed something to understanding how these things can arise, and that with the improvements I hope to make on the procedures normally followed with the Department we shall be able to see that in future consultation takes place before such concern is expressed and not after. Therefore, I thank the hon. Gentleman for having raised the matter in the way that he has and for having given the opportunity to look at one problem, out of a great number that come, that has gone wrong.

We must try to frame our procedures and methods to cope even with the small number that go wrong, so that they may be kept down to the absolute minimum. In this case we have seen that the Department must depend upon the advice…

The Question having been proposed after Twelve o'clock on Wednesday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put pursuant to the Standing Order and the Order of 25th January.

Adjourned at twenty-six minutes to One o'clock.