HC Deb 19 June 1973 vol 858 cc550-7
Mr. Russell Johnston

I beg to move Amendment No. 322 in page 99, line 3, at end insert: 'provided that the Secretary of State may by order devolve planning powers from any of the general planning authorities to any of the district councils within the three regions, if so requested by both the regional authority and district authority concerned'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With it it will be convenient also to discuss Amendments No. 362, in page 99, line 1, leave out 'the Highland region'; and No. 381, in page 99, line 3, at end insert: 'Provided that in the Borders Region, the planning authority shall be entitled to co-opt members of the District Council of Berwick and Tweed so as to support the continuance of existing cross-border planning by the Eastern Borders Development Association'.

Mr. Johnston

The Secretary of State will obviously realise that this is a variant of new Clause 10 which the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) moved yesterday. It is much more limited, much more restricted and much more permissive, however. It represents a final attempt to persuade the Government to write into the Bill a provision which would permit flexibility in the treatment of local planning powers within the three regions where these powers have not been conferred upon a second tier. Because it is narrower in effect than the clause moved yesterday I submit that the Government would yield very little in accepting it.

It is worth reminding the Government that there is a provision similar to this in the English Local Government Act—I believe in Section 110. That allows a second tier authority to apply to the Secretary of State for a change of function of this kind from the top tier to the lower tier, and, therefore, there is perfectly good and very recent precedent for this sort of measure.

I have said on previous occasions that I should be happier if the amendment were not necessary, but we are now faced with the almost completed structure. It will be virtually completed tonight, subject to any changes which may be made in another place. The Government must accept that there is considerable unhappiness within the Highland, the Border and the South-West regions. Perhaps it is of least importance in the Borders, where there is perhaps more pressure for a unitary authority and for the development of community council powers. It is so small that it does not make a great deal of sense to have district councils and certainly it would not make much sense to have a district council employing such powers.

Equally, within the Highland and South-West regions there are probably at the very most three, perhaps four, districts which would be able to carry that sort of responsibility. The most outstanding example is Dumfries. There is also Inverness. The hon. Member for Dumfries (Mr. Monro), one of the Under-Secretaries of State, is present, I see. He looks doubtfully at me when I mention Dumfries as though I am infringing his copyright. There is also possibly Ross and Cromarty and possibly Caithness, but they are marginal. In the South-West Kirkcudbrightshire would be too small and the rest of the districts in the Highland region would also be too small.

The question is not even whether the Government are prepared to accept that local planning powers are conferred upon particular districts at this stage because they do not need to agree to that now. The proposal is merely to write into the Bill that with the agreement of the district, the region and the Secretary of State the change may be made. I do not regard that as a heavily demanding requirement to place upon the Government, because all sorts of safeguards are built into such an arrangement. But it would give a great deal of satisfaction to a number of people in at least the Highlands and the South-West, and would inject into the Bill an element of flexibility that it lacks.

12 midnight.

Mr. David Steel

I apologise to my hon. Friend the Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) for having been out of the Chamber when he began his speech. I should like to make it clear that I have my name attached to the amendment purely and simply because of representations made to me by the clerk of the Border Burghs Convention. I am not wholly in agreement with its members on the issue, but it was their view that possibly the district councils of Roxburghshire and Ettrick Forest were large enough to have planning powers, and that the possibility should be outlined in the Bill. They felt that this was particularly so if any change in the status and capacity of the districts of Inverness and Dumfries were agreed. They did not want to feel that they were left behind as the sole poor relations of district authorities in Scotland.

I undertook to put forward their views. I am not fully convinced of them, but I think that the amendment achieves a satisfactory compromise by admitting the possibility that in the light of experience the Government may wish at some time to transfer planning powers to the larger district councils in those areas.

Mr. Mackintosh

My Amendment No. 381, which is linked with Amendment No. 322, is on a slightly different issue. But it deals with the question of planning authorities and, in particular, the planning authority in the Borders. It suggests that powers should be given to the Borders region planning authority to co-opt members of the Berwick and Tweed District Council so as to support the continuance of existing cross-border planning by the Eastern Borders Development Association". It is a probing amendment. I am asking whether the Government accept the continuance of the targets they inherited from the previous Labour Government, which were a kind of bi-polar development in the Borders, one end centred on the Galashiels area in the central Borders and the other on Berwick-upon-Tweed.

The Labour Government put a great deal of effort into the matter, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Greenock (Dr. Dickson Mabon), who got the English and Scottish authorities together. We committed the then Government to virtually a doubling of the population of Berwick-upon-Tweed and to special assistance through the Development Commission and the Eastern Borders Development Association, which was to make a stellar development around Berwick-upon-Tweed, with advance factories, housing growth and special assistance for Berwick-upon-Tweed to serve a hinterland on either side of the border and produce a widespread development in that area.

That was possible because the association was not an official body, but was a linking together of local authorities on both sides of the Borders to work through the Development Commission, which gave access to certain Treasury moneys and powers to build advance factories, and therefore committed the Government to an expansion of the area which could occur above local authority boundaries.

Do the Government accept the continued target for the expansion of the Eastern Borders? To make sure that the enlarged Border region will not be solely on the Scottish side for planning purposes, can it bring in people from the enlarged Berwick-upon-Tweed district on the English side to make sure that the physical and land use planning of the area fits in with the economic planning which the association can pursue? Will this part of the objective of the new Border region be allowed and encouraged, as well as the more obvious and clear-cut objective of the expansion of the purely Scottish section focused on the central Borders, when the Border region will obviously wish to continue to pursue?

Mr. Maclennan

I do not propose to elaborate yet again the arguments I advanced in introducing new Clause 10 and in speaking on earlier amendments which dealt with planning. When we take exception to the view embodied in the Bill that the district councils are not capable of exercising planning functions, the functions we are talking about are those which are described in Schedule 22. They include the preparation of local development plans, day-to-day planning control, enforcement of planning control and certain other relatively minor unsophisticated matters. These are functions that have been exercised by very small local authorities. The Secretary of State knows that in my constituency the burgh of Thurso—a much smaller authority than some of the districts that are to be created—has exercised some of these functions and has done a good job.

Although I entirely accept the argument that structure planning should be a regional matter, I regard it as unacceptable to deprive the districts of all control over planning functions. That view was specifically rejected by the Wheatley Commission, which said that planning functions were the central question for local authorities, and identified local authorities with the interests of the area. By depriving local authorities of those functions we leave them with very little that matters.

Before we conclude this stage of the Bill, the Minister should say how he sees the district authorities operating without these functions. There is widespread concern about this. It is not enough for the Minister to say that the functions will be better exercised at regional level without considering the impact at district level. In answering earlier debates he did not deal with this question.

I support Amendment No. 322, although it is slightly less satisfactory than new Clause 10 would have been. I hope that even at this late stage the Minister will be more sensitive to the feelings of the people in the Highlands and elsewhere that the district authorities will be powerless bodies of little prestige and of such status that they cannot hope to attract people of appropriate quality to service them.

Mr. Gordon Campbell

As the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) said, this is a variation of the argument advanced when we discussed new Clause 10. He is proposing a system which already exists in the Bill—that is my main message to him. Clause 56 provides that a regional authority may arrange for any of its functions to be discharged by a district authority. Provided that the district authority agrees, planning powers may be handed over.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the third party—the Secretary of State. That point is also covered, because the Secretary of State would not be in a position to stop such a transfer of planning functions under Clause 56 if the regional authority and the district authority were agree upon it. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the Bill should have this flexibility, and it is included in Clause 56.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of the difference between the functions of districts in the Highland region and in other regions. This, as has been explained before, is part of the decision taken that we should have more districts in the Highland region than would be warranted in population terms but that while there should be more, because of the geography and the distances involved, because the resources would not be as great as those of a district in the populated central area of Scotland, functions have not been provided in the same way as for district; in the main regions of Scotland.

I do not go along with the hon. Member in suggesting that district authorities in the Highland region will feel that they are in some way inferior or that there will be a dearth of work to do in housing. There will be a great deal to do because housing is one of the most pressing problems in the north of Scotland because of the oil industry and the increased demand, and because of the pressure on the construction industry. I have my constituency near the hon. Gentleman's, and I do not have the same feelings as he does on that.

The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) is probing an interesting position about the town of Berwick. Under the last Conservative Government, the co-operation taking place across the border was considerable. The Eastern Borders Association was doing fruitful work in bringing planning across the border between Berwick and the neighbouring area in England and the area around in Scotland. This has continued. While we support what has been going on, we do not feel that in a Scottish Bill we can try to go beyond the border of Scotland.

The Wheatley Commission, while referring to recommendations about the Berwick area, concluded that any change in the national boundary was a constitutional matter beyond its remit. We also feel that in this Bill we are reforming local government in Scotland and could not bring in questions affecting England, but we agree with the general concept of co-operation in that area in planning and development.

Mr. Mackintosh

Does the Secretary of State seriously suggest that the power to co-opt one or two representatives of the planning department of Berwick-upon-Tweed to work with the proposed authority across the border is a constitutional question? The Government should relax on this sort of thing and give way. We just want to institutionalise what is going on in an informal way.

Mr. Campbell

This is happening and is being encouraged, and if we try to write into the Bill a large amount dealing with English rather than Scottish matters we may run into unnecessary troubles. This is already happening and can be encouraged in other ways without trying to put something in the Bill to draw attention to something which should be encouraged.

Mr. David Steel

The Minister has still not answered. The point the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) made was whether the planning authority had power to co-opt somebody to the meetings. It does not matter whether they are from England, Scotland or anywhere else. The English question does not arise.

Mr. Campbell

It is up to those in Berwick to do what they can on the advice received but it is not necessary to write this into the Bill. It would be dealing with parts of England in a Scottish Bill.

12.15 a.m.

Mr. Russell Johnston

The right hon. Gentleman said that the essence of my amendment is contained in Part V of the Bill. In fact, it is not. It may be my fault for using the word "devolve" in the amendment. Part V deals with internal organisation, whereas I was talking about the transfer of a function from one authority to another. There is, therefore, that distinct difference.

The second difference is that even if it were a question of internal organisation the initiative for the change in Part V can come only from the regional authority. I hoped that the Government would accept in my amendment that the initiative should come from either the regional or the district authority. I still hope that the right hon. Gentleman might suffer from the waves of flexibility which overcame the Under-Secretary of State last night. Admittedly they did not overcome the hon. Gentleman very frequently and they were not prolonged.

Mr. Gordon Campbell

I believe that the difference between the wording of the amendment and the provisions in Clause 56 are not very great. I agree that the initative would have to come from the regional authority. I believe that that is right. In any case, as the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Russell Johnston) said, there would have to be the agreement of both authorities and the Secretary of State. I do not think that there is a difference.

The hon. Gentleman also seems to have been hit by a wave of flexibility. It was in his own memorandum of dissent from the Wheatley Report that he recommended that districts should not have planning functions.

Amendment negatived.

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