HC Deb 08 February 1973 vol 850 cc836-46

12.11 a.m.

Mr. Harold Gurden (Birmingham, Selly Oak)

I apologise for delaying the House for an extra half hour by my Adjournment debate, but if I had not done it someone else would. My purpose is to criticise planning inquiries, but not to criticise my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Development, who has been kind enough to stay behind to reply to the debate. We have been together for a long time today, starting about 14 hours ago in a Standing Committee dealing with parallel problems.

I want to direct my remarks particularly to the planning of roads. I agree with a letter in the Daily Telegraph of 7th December last by Mr. Miller, who said, in broad terms, that planners were good and competent and that they are faithful and fair people. I do not criticise the planners. They work to the instructions of the Minister who is responsible for the entire process from beginning to end. He issues his instructions to the planners to plan a road. Nor do I criticise the road construction units and the inspectors, as does Mrs. Barbara Maude in her article in the Daily Telegraph of 25th November last. I do not agree entirely with her, or with many of the objections to plans which come forward.

I should like to cite two schemes—one the M54 in the Midlands and the other the King's Heath bypass which is planned by the local authority. The first runs through the Tapster Valley in Warwickshire, where my daughter lives. I have therefore been thrown accidentally into the company of some of the residents there and I have listened to some of their comments—rude comments on occasion—about the project. My daughter and I do not object to the road and I do not speak for her or for her Member of Parliament, who is my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Dudley Smith). My guess is that he is having a lot of trouble.

I know of no better plan for the Tapster Valley and I criticise no one, but I do know a better plan for the King's Heath bypass, and I expect there will be a lot of trouble over that.

I want to talk about the fairness or unfairness and the justice or injustice of inquiries to those who suffer most and have most at stake. It is always the local people in the vicinity who are most concerned. Although I agree with part of Mrs. Maude's article, there is cause for great concern.

Of vital importance is the fact that in an inquiry the whole process is loaded against the objector. Mr. Miller, who is knowledgeable, experienced and skilled—although I have never met him—says in his letter that everything is loaded against the objector, and I agree.

The provision of legal and professional assistance and the costs involved are factors which weigh against objectors. If the objections succeed, part of the costs may be recovered, but if they fail they will not be. Apart from the costs which objectors may recover, there is a considerable amount of expenditure which they cannot recover. In Committee this morning my hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. Allason) cited a case in which the costs were £50,000. I understand that the case succeeded, and I suppose that the costs were recovered.

We know, and Ministers know, that either side might be right. We accept that the planners, the inspector at the inquiry and the Minister all make the best judgment they can, but at the end of the day who is to say that either side is right, or that no better scheme exists? So it comes down to one person's opinion. Nothing is clearly set down in black and white.

The Minister appoints the inspector, and the Minister has the advice of his staff in reaching a final decision after his inspector has reported. Whatever the complexion of the Government the Minister is both judge and jury. Ministers lean over backwards to find a reasonable solution, and they always believe that they are right.

On one side there is the best legal and professional advocacy, with unlimited funds and unlimited time. On the other side, the objectors have nothing. The hat is going round in King's Heath to get together funds to pay for legal advice. Without funds and legal advice evidence which should be before the inspector may never reach him, and the findings of the inspector and the Minister may be faulty simply through lack of knowledge.

These people who have to fight for themselves do not initiate the trouble. It is caused by either the Minister or the local authority planners. It is often not a question of a compulsory purchase order or the damage to or removal of property. It may be some adjoining problem like the Tapster Valley scheme. Many people who feel that they are affected object to it. It does not necessarily affect their property; it affects their environment. Obviously everybody tries to find the least damaging project for these people and for the public in general.

I criticise the refusal of the professional people involved to consult everybody and to lay all on the information on the table for everybody to see. The objectors have a great disadvantage in not knowing all the facts and seeing all the papers. If everybody is trying to arrive at the right decision at the end of the day, there is no reason why everything should not be before the public.

I understand why the Minister often has to say, "I cannot talk about this project until it is before me for a decision." The Minister will not reveal all that he knows. So the facts and figures and papers are not disclosed. Even when those that do come to light for the inquiry are disclosed, it is too late. They must be available beforehand. They may not be assembled, of course, but the people concerned ought to have everything as it comes along.

The Minister makes the best judgment that he can. I suggest that it is not always bound to be right. I do not see why, in many cases, one should believe that there could not have been a better scheme.

I should now like to quote from the article I have mentioned in which Mrs. Maude says: There can be no real consultation if one side, with a monopoly of information, is allowed to withhold it from the other"— that is, withhold for a certain time, if not entirely— and even more destructive is the way in which the terms of reference are framed so as to prevent anything being discussed except the actual line of a road. … In short, public consultation consists of officials refusing to consult"— that may be an exaggeration, but that is what she says— and public participation is rather like that of the victim at his own execution. … Then there is money. At every public inquiry into road proposals the Department or the local authority briefs Queen's Counsel at considerable public expense. It would seem only reasonable to allot an equal sum, as of right, to be shared among objectors. I agree with that.

It is really quite inequitable that a small parish council, for example, should have to find funds to brief counsel. … There is also the very real difficulty ordinary people find in attending long inquiries; whereas the officials are being paid to be there. In short the whole procedure is grossly over-weighted in favour of the Executive". Finally, I should like to quote from the letter which Mr. J. Miller writes. He is obviously professionally skilled. He says: A complete overhaul of the system is long overdue, and such a review should be conducted by the Secretary of State in consultation with all the other interests involved. The main changes required are: (a) All inquiries to be conducted by Inspectors and Assessors who are independent of the Department of the Environment. I certainly agree with that.

(b) Inspectors and Assessors to have the right to examine witnesses in depth, not merely to ask questions. That I agree with too. (c) The engineers responsible for the planning of a road scheme to disclose full details of their calculations for the proposed road schemes and alternative schemes. (d) Provision of legal and other professional assistance for objectors. (e) The Secretary of State in cases where he decides not to accept the recommendations of the Inspector, to be advised by an independent panel of experts … That might be advantageous.

Mr. Miller continues: Inspectors and administrative civil servants in the Department, however competent they may be in their own spheres, do not have the expertise required to deal with inquiries into road schemes. In addition, unfortunately, they are subject to pressures from within the Department and from outside the Department. Of course, we all must know about the collusion—to use a strong word—that goes on between local authorities, local people and the officials concerned who, having made up their mind that they have the right scheme, want to drive it through and are not keen to help objectors. I hope that my right hon. Friend will look at this matter and see what can be done. If he thinks that something can be done in future, we will look forward to that.

12.28 a.m.

The Minister for Local Government and Development (Mr. Graham Page)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Gurden) for raising this matter, and particularly for referring to articles which I must say at once are extremely ill-informed. He has been grossly misled by some of the statements there, particularly the article by Mrs. Barbara Maude and the letter from a Mr. J. Miller, who says that he is an inspector. We cannot trace him as ever having been a member of the inspectorate for England and Wales. It may be that he was a reporter in Scotland. Anyhow, the information which my hon. Friend has quoted does not apply to inquiries in England and Wales.

I first want to put on record the volume of business about which my hon. Friend has been speaking. Over half a million planning applications a year are received by local planning authorities. In 1972, 14,400 appeals in planning matters were made to the Secretary of State. That was a 70 per cent. increase on the 1970 figure. To cope with that we have increased the inspectorate from 134 last August to what will be 220 after the recruits have finished their instruction. In addition to that, there are 26 inspectors on housing CPOs and unfitness orders and there are some 2,000 cases on others matters to be dealt with annually by the planning inspectors.

I now deal with the main point to which my hon. Friend addressed his remarks, namely, the inspectors who hear road inquiries. These inspectors are not like the planning inspectors of whom I have been speaking. They are on a separate and individual panel. They are not salary-paid by the Department; they are employed ad hoc for the inquiries and they are paid for those inquiries. There are 46 such inspectors who deal with road inquiries. They are not under the orders of the Department. Anybody who has appeared before these inspectors will know perfectly well the independence which they are proud to exercise. If my hon. Friend had ever read some of the reports which we receive from these inspectors—and very good reports they are—he would know how independent they are.

Let us look at the purpose of the public inquiries of which my hon. Friend has been speaking—the inquiries into roads. They are aimed at supplying the Secretary of State with information upon which he can arrive at a decision, and although they are administrative in purpose they are conducted on a quasi-judicial basis and most of the rules of procedure that one finds in a court of law are applied.

The inspectors are drawn from many walks of life. An inspector's is not a career job as such, if I may put it that way. Inspectors receive a period of instruction, and I think that they are acclaimed by those who appear before them as "extremely good at the job".

My hon. Friend may like to know that the period between the decision that a road should be laid from A to B and the traffic beginning to use the road is between seven and eight years. I frequently receive complaints that we take too long to complete roads, but we take that length of time because of our extreme thoroughness in research and preparation. The cost benefit examination of every road is based on carefully considered formulae which are continually under study, research and revision.

On the environmental side, we have the benefit of the advice of the Landscape Advisory Committee, which, although appointed by the Secretary of State, works independently of the Department, and is an entirely independent committee. It advises on the landscaping of roads, the environmental setting of motorways, and so on. Recently we have had the report of the Urban Motorways Committee, and the policy in the Land Compensation Bill is based upon that report.

My hon. Friend said that the Secretary of State's decision may be faulty because of a lack of knowledge. The whole purpose of these inquiries is to enable the Secretary of State to have the necessary knowledge and information when he makes his decision. But however much knowledge comes out of an inquiry, one still finds that there is always that margin of opinion which lies with the Secretary of State. He has to judge it scientifically, if I may put it that way, up to a certain point, but there comes a point where he has to exercise his own judgment, and that is based on the information as much as possible.

I think one ought to remember that all these schemes are devised for the benefit of the public in general. One does not devise a road just because the Department wants a road somewhere. It is devised for the benefit of the general public. The siting of a road may injure individuals, but this is so of many public works that are devised for the majority of the public; they often injure a minority.

Frequently, a new road is planned because of the high accident rate on the road which it is to replace, and the longer the inquiries are stretched out the more accidents occur on the old road. One has, therefore, to look at the two sides of the picture.

My hon. Friend implied that there was a refusal to consult everybody on the plans for a road. On occasions, a road plan first comes to the Department with 20 to 30 lines on the map. If we were to publish the information about the road at that stage it would blight all the properties adjacent to those 20 to 30 lines. One must reduce the proposal to something more definite.

It is true that in the past we have perhaps held back information from the public until a relatively firm decision has been produced. This has been done so that our preliminary ideas should not blight the properties around the preliminary lines on the map. On some occasions those concerned have felt that we have held back information for too long, but the fact is that we may damage property by disclosing thoughts about the proposition at too early a stage.

However, we have looked at this again and, as my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State announced in the House on 6th December, we have decided to provide much earlier knowledge of road making. As I have not the time in this short debate to read the whole of what my hon. Friend said then, I will read only part of it and commend the rest of it to my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary had been quoting examples. He then said this: These two examples show that we are prepared to change our proposals in the light of views expressed at a public inquiry, even when this involves additional cost, as both these schemes will. But I recognise the very genuine nature of the concern that has been expressed today and I believe it is right that we should examine very carefully whether the procedures can be changed so that the public can participate in discussions on the line of the route, and that their views can be fully understood and taken into account in choosing which line should be developed in detail up to the stage at which the Department currently publishes its proposals in the form of a draft statutory instrument."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December 1972; Vol. 847, cc. 1637–38.] My hon. Friend went on to describe how new procedures could be introduced.

We have to that extent recognised that we must cast aside our previous idea of not blighting people's property at too early a stage, and try to reach a balance between the danger of blighting and bringing the public in at a stage where the line of road has not been definitely decided by the Department—in fact, even then it is only put forward as a proposal. In future we propose to bring the public in a little earlier.

My hon. Friend the Member for Selly Oak said that the whole process was loaded against the objector. I assure my hon. Friend that we are always prepared to produce information—engineering information, cost benefit information, and so on—about the proposal we are making to the inquiry. If at a late stage an objector comes forward with an alter-native route, it is not always possible to examine the route fully for the objector. There are occasions when we have been able to do so within the time before the inquiry comes on for hearing. It is, however, difficult to employ engineers at per- haps a few days' notice before the hearing on an alternative route which an objector later produces.

It sometimes occurs that the objector comes forward with an alternative route which is one of those we have already investigated before arriving at the proposed route. If so, he is provided with the information on why we rejected that route.

In any inquiry of this sort where the Secretary of State's officials, or in, some cases, the local highway authority, are putting forward the proposal and the whole administration is set up by the Department, one might have the idea that the Secretary of State is judge, jury and a party to the proceedings. But this is an administrative inquiry—an inquiry in which the Secretary of State is seeking to find out information on which he can base his judgment. To that extent it must be set up and set in motion as an administrative inquiry by the Secretary of State.

I turn to Mr. Miller's several points which my hon. Friend quoted. Mr. Miller says that all inquiries should be conducted by Inspectors and Assessors who are independent of the Department of the Environment. I have explained that that is already the case, through the independent panel of inspectors. They are paid on a fee basis and are not employed on a salaried basis by the Department. They do not act on the instructions of the Secretary of State in any way.

Going on with his list of the main changes he feels to be required, Mr. Miller states: (b) Inspectors and Assessors to have the right to examine witnesses in depth, not merely to ask questions. How he can claim to have been an inspector and merely to have asked questions of his witnesses, I do not know. Anyone who has attended inquiries will know in what depth inspectors are prepared to examine witnesses.

He continues: (c) The engineers responsible for the planning of a road scheme to disclose full details of their calculations for the proposed road schemes and alternative schemes. If anybody asks for details of the alter-native schemes, he will be provided with them. On the basis of the revised procedures which have already been announced, the proposed road schemes will be open for anybody to examine.

His next point is: (d) Provision of legal and other professional assistance for objectors. I do not think that we could be expected to finance all objectors—

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

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.