HC Deb 29 January 1973 vol 849 cc1122-32

12.16 a.m.

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

As the Minister knows, I have for some time been concerned about the effect of planning permissions on the individual. It seems to me, and it is borne out by successive newspaper reports both national and local, that the present notifications of planning developments are not consistent with safeguarding the interests of persons living in the area of the proposed development.

At present the most anyone can expect is to see the notice of the proposal in the public notices advertised in the local newspaper, and the House can be assured that one needs a magnifying glass to see that small print. In addition, in some cases a site notice has to be exhibited. I have seen some of these site notices. Although they may conform with the law they often take a bit of finding and are of little value to persons who may be affected adversely by the proposed development.

Let me deal first with the public notice advertisements. Here I have to change my theme a little. I understand that the Minister was a solicitor dealing with land issues before entering the House, but I must now ask him how often, had he not been a solicitor, he would have looked at the public notice columns of his local newspaper in connection with proposals of this kind. If he is honest, as he is, he will admit that most of his colleagues, because they have not the same vested interest that he has—and I do not say that in a nasty fashion—are like myself in this respect. It is only in the last 10 months when as a Member I have been interested in the problem that I have ever looked at these public notices of planning development. If Members of Parliament, and I can challenge most hon. Members on this issue, do not look at the public notices in the local Press, how can we expect ordinary men and women who are non-political to look at such notices to see whether they may be adversely affected by developments of one kind or another?

It is not just a case of ordinary men and women. A good many of the cases that have been presented to me have involved older people—people who are not, perhaps, as conversant with modern procedures as people in middle age. I am indebted to the editor of the Western Daily Press for supplying me with details of a number of cases. One of them was that of a widow aged 84 who discovered that her home was due for demolition only because she visited a Somerset county council exhibition. She then found that her house was one of 14 listed in connection with a county council development scheme. One cannot expect an old lady of 84 to chase up such advertisements in the local newspaper.

The Western Daily Press has supplied me with details of persons adversely affected in Gloucestershire, Somerset and Wiltshire. It has conducted a campaign for some time and I pay tribute to its zeal in this matter.

I should not like to convey the impression that this is a local or constituency matter. It is a problem of national importance. My hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Ernest G. Perry) has given me details of a case at High Trees House, Clapham Common, where there are 110 flats. Some of the tenants are fairly old. They found almost by accident that there was a proposal to build an additional floor on to the block. No one had seen any notice of the proposal in the local newspaper. None of them had been notified direct by the local authority.

I have a case in my constituency concerning Mrs. Waite of English Bicknor. I have written to the Minister but the Minister has refused to intervene in this case. I believe that the lady concerned is over 70. She went to the local authority when she heard a rumour that a pumping station was to be built 10 ft. from her front window in an area where there was no other building and where there was an enormous amount of land. She was deceived by an official of the local authority who said "It is only small and will not affect you." Before the pumping station was built I intervened but the local authority and the Minister refused to intervene, the local authority refusing on the ground that it would cost £800, that being the amount it had already spent on the scheme. This lady has lost £2,000 on the value of the property. The fact that the pumping station is a colossal blunder and a terrible eyesore 10 ft. in front of this lady's window in an area where there are no other buildings means that the local authority has by deception imposed a burden of £2,000 on the lady.

The Minister should have had the power to intervene in that case. He should have power to intervene immediately in issues where he is satisfied that there has been a blunder by the planning authority. If there is no final arbiter, the ordinary citizen is left at the mercy of the arrogance of planning authorities. My planning authority at Gloucester is even arrogant to me. It passed a scheme which involved taking part of my land which it thought was its land. When I challenged the authority I was met with arrogance beyond description. In view of what is going on in Britain we should be careful about the kind of people who are officials of planning departments. One member of the county planning authority was and may well still be a director of a development company.

I have a case at present at Clearwell in which the council has granted permission for a house to be built. The man who lives next door and who is likely to be adversely affected examined the plans and was satisfied. Before the scheme was put through he noticed that when the footings and foundations were being put in there was a different alignment from the original scheme. The county council admitted to me that it had changed the scheme without reference to the individual who has been affected. The consequence is that the bedroom of the house which has recently been built will be directly in line with the bedroom of the existing house and only 10 feet away. If the county council had a statutory obligation to contact directly the person likely to be affected, there is the possibility that the problem would have been raised.

However, I went to the county council. I raised not only the question of the invasion of privacy but the subject of natural light. The soulless attitude of the county council, although it has altered the original scheme, is that if the natural light is affected there is redress in the courts of law. We should not tolerate that kind of arrogance. The job of these little officials is to safeguard the public interest and not to ride roughshod over the people for whom they are civil servants.

Another example arose at the old well village of Brockweir where it was decided to build a pumping station. The local authority representatives told the owner of some property at the village that they wanted to build a pumping station in his garden. In fact, the pumping station would affect every one of the houses in the area. The man whose property was involved was bemused. He did not know how far the local authority could go. The district auditor was negotiating with him when someone suggested that he should see me. This man did not want the pumping station in his garden and the villagers were protesting strongly. They had not seen the notice in the newspaper and they did not know the procedure. They did not know how to go about the matter.

The result is that the pumping station at Brockweir has not been built. I understand from a telephone conversation with the surveyor that if the man does not give him a bit of the garden the village will not get a pumping station and there will be no sewerage system at Brockweir That remains to be seen.

Case after case can be cited in which there is not full notification. Notification was not given to the people in the area of the proposed pumping station at Brockweir until I came on the scene. If people are not given full notification they are adversely affected and their comfort, which is much more important, is also affected.

The Minister, by coincidence, sent me today a circular which will be issued to local authorities. He promised that he would do so in reply to my Questions on 6th December. The circular is very good. It improves the issue to some extent. It is, however, coincidental that in the same postal delivery in which I received the circular—and it is not mandatory on local authorities or planning authorities—I received a reply from my county council planning authority on a case in which it used these precise terms: There is no statutory obligation on the part of the county council to take given action. I do not wish to denigrate the circular. However, I had a great deal of experience of sending out circulars when I was a junior Minister at the Ministry of Health. Many circulars were sent out. The good authorities took notice of them but the bad ones simply left them in their in trays and did nothing about them. I am afraid that that is what will happen to this circular. There can be no guarantee to safeguard the interests of people likely to be adversely affected by planning permissions unless there is a mandatory obligation on the planning authorities.

I wish to make three suggestions to the Minister. I suggest that he takes them as alternatives, not only to the existing position but to the proposals in his circular. First I suggest that it is reasonable for planning authorities to give direct notification in writing, as they sometimes do already when it suits them, to those likely to be affected within a given radius of the proposed development. Secondly I suggest that if the Minister is not prepared to do that, he should not only impose on the planning authorities an obligation to undertake site and newspaper advertising, but should insist that local authorities exhibit notices in post offices, rural district council offices, libraries and public offices which people consistently visit.

The third suggestion is perhaps the easiest way of ensuring that people know that a development is to take place. I suggest that the affected area should be staked out with 4 ft. to 6 ft. posts with yellow flags. Once it was known that a yellow flag meant that an area was to be developed, everybody in the area would know what was happening. People would then be put on their guard to look at plans of the development and to make whatever objection they thought fit to the local authority. I hope that the Minister will consider these suggestions.

12.33 a.m.

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

I congratulate the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) for timing this debate so shortly after my dispatch of the draft circular on the subject of notification of planning applications. This circular marks an important step in the direction in which he wishes us to move. I do not know whether I should say this in an Adjournment debate, but I would point out that I have said in answer to parliamentary Questions that in due course we shall proceed with legislation on these lines.

Perhaps I may quote what the circular says in an early paragraph since it sets out the principles at which we are aiming. Paragraph 2 states: …opinion should be enabled to declare itself before any decision is taken on proposals of wide concern or substantial impact on the environment; and that this should be so whether the proposal is that of a Government Department, a local authority, statutory undertakers or a private developer. That is our intention for the future.

The circular says that opinion should be able to declare itself before any decision is taken in those cases where there is an impact on the people of the district. How is that principle to be carried into practice? Briefly, what we have asked local authorities to do is to see that the applicant for planning permission posts a notice on the site so that the people who are concerned know that there is an application and have some idea of what it is about.

The circular goes on to say that local authorities should ask applicants to display a site notice where permission is sought for development likely to have a substantial impact on the neighbourhood. It is impossible to lay down precise rules and it must be for authorities to decide the circumstances in which the public interest is sufficiently involved to warrant publicity, but the Secretaries of State consider that it would normally be right for applicants to post site notices where development comes within any of five categories which are set out in the circular.

Those five cases are, first, where the development introduces a significant change in a homogenous area; secondly, where it would affect residential property by causing, for example, smell, noise or vibration; thirdly, where it would bring crowds or noise into a generally quiet area; fourthly, where it would cause activity and noise at late or early hours in areas where that was not usual; and fifthly, where it otherwise might have an adverse effect of a general character on an area—for example, tall buildings which did not come within the requirements of the General Development Order but which would nevertheless have a substantial impact on the district.

The cases that the hon. Member detailed showed quite clearly that some reform of this sort is necessary. They are all cases that have occurred even before the local planning authorities have seen the circular—which is only in draft form at the moment and is before the local authority associations for their comments prior to our sending it out in its final form.

Some local authorities already give more publicity than the Statutes require and more than the site notice. Some have standing arrangements for notifying neighbours and others likely to be concerned, such as local civic and amenity societies, of proposals with a considerable interest to a good many people, and frequently they notify neighbours even though it may be a quite small development.

Mr. Loughlin

Generally only after permission has been granted.

Mr. Page

No, there are authorities with the interests of their citizens at heart which try to notify them of what is to happen. Some have arrangements to notify others living in the vicinity about comparatively small developments affecting adjoining properties.

This is in addition to what is required by law, or will be required by law under the Local Government Act 1972, for notifying parish councils. It is one reform—and a good reform—that in future parish councils will have to be told of planning applications, and they will then be able to take them up on behalf of the people of the parish and to put their objections to the local planning authority.

The general use of the site notice in future—and I hope that local planning authorities will take note of what the hon. Member has said and of what I am saying in the cases that I have mentioned—will be a revolutionary innovation in planning. We shall get used to seeing notices on sites for development. The hon. Member has mentioned one way in which attention may be drawn to sites on which development is to take place. He has mentioned staking out a site and there is a system—which I understand to be a little more elaborate than he suggested—which is used in Switzerland, where the stakes represent the height of the building. I do not know what people do there when they are to build a Post Office Tower, but it gives a greater indication, in a third dimension, of the development.

There is the suggestion of putting a yellow flag on the site of proposed development. We have not gone quite as far as a yellow flag, but in the circular we are advising local authorities do something very much of that sort. It states: It is suggested that authorities should adopt and make available to applicants"—

Mr. Loughlin

What is the right hon. Gentleman quoting from?

Mr. Page

Paragraph 9 on page 4 of the typed copy of the circular— a standard form of site notice, on paper of a distinctive colour, which would draw attention to that fact that an application had been made and that details were available in the planning register and give a brief description of the development proposed. We have in mind, therefore, something like the yellow flag idea, and I think that these notices will be distinctive. I cannot say that I have yet chosen the colour but the idea is to make them as distinctive as possible and to have them displayed where they are easily visible and easily legible to members of the public without their having to go on to the land. All this is in addition to the present statutory requirements, which themselves go quite a long way.

Where a development affects the character or appearance of a conservation area there have to be a Press notice, which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned, and a site notice. I agree with the hon. Member that unless one is engaged professionally in planning one does not look at these Press notices. We need something more than that and I hope that conspicuous site notices may prove more beneficial to the public than the mere Press notices.

Then there is the case where the applicant is not the owner of the land involved; he has to inform the owner and assure the planning authority that he has done so. There is, of course, the register of planning applications. Once one has been notified that a development is contemplated on a site, one can go to the register and see particulars of the application. Recent legislation has made it necessary to put in the register the plans as well as a mere description of the development.

Then there are the "bad neighbour" cases in which site notices and Press advertisements are necessary. At present, under the General Development Order, the classes of development which are designated for this purpose as requiring site notices are public conveniences, disposal of refuse or waste material, sewage disposal, slaughterhouses or knackers' yards, theatres, cinemas, music halls, dance halls, skating rinks, swimming baths or gymnasia, turkish and other vapour or foam baths, and buildings for indoor games. Under the new General Development Order, which has just been laid and is due to come into operation on 1st March, we have added some most important categories to that list, in particular high buildings of over 20 metres—which is about twice the height of the normal suburban house—mineral workings, scrap yards, casinos, funfares, bingo halls, kennels, zoos, coal yards, cemeteries and the use of land for motor and motor-cycle sport. These are statutory requirements. We have been able to do those by order.

May I, however, give these warnings. Over half a million planning applications are made each year. The object of planning law and procedure is not to protect the property rights of individuals or to create new property rights. The object of planning law and procedure is to ensure that in the development of land the public interest is taken fully into account.

We elect local councillors to look after that public. Each one has a responsibility to the residents of his ward to keep them informed of developments within the area for which he has been elected. We should recognise that local councils—the elected members—are there to keep the public informed of intended development if they feel that it will have an impact on those who elected them.

If we set up too elaborate a formula for public participation in these half a million applications a year, the whole machinery of planning would grind to a halt, just at the time when it is essential that we should speed it up. I receive complaints every day that planning procedure is not quick enough and that we linger over it too long. I do not want to set up any more procedures or formulas which would prevent our speeding up the planning process. If we can give the public participation in depth, telling them all the information we can but limiting them to the time in which to make an objection, I think that it will serve both the individual——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday 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 fourteen minutes to One o'clock.