HC Deb 25 January 1974 vol 867 cc2142-54

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Reginald Freeson (Willesden, East)

I wish to refer to the decision of the Secretary of State for the Environment to refuse housing development on the Pilgrims Way site in the London Borough of Brent. I shall have serious observations to make about the matter.

The first concerns maladministration, which may be defined as administrative action based on, or influenced by, improper considerations or conduct. I propose to show that the Minister has a case to answer on that with regard to his refusal of Brent Council's planning application for housing on part of the Pilgrims Way site.

But first I wish to examine the planning and environmental implications of the Minister's decision. Perhaps more than any other borough in London, Brent encapsulates the problems and characteristics of the inner and outer city areas, for it physically bestrides just such areas within its boundaries—broadly, Willesden south-east of the North Circular Road and the Bakerloo-Stanmore line, and Wembley and Neasden north of the line.

North of the line housing conditions are excellent. The density of people to the acre, less than 60, is good, and it is much lower than 60 in many areas of that part of the borough. There is one household to each dwelling in all but a few cases. Open space and playing fields, at six acres per thousand population, are above the standards laid down in the Greater London Development Plan. School playing fields are easily accessible. Most housing is modern and consists of single dwellings with gardens. Generally one sees a relatively new and spacious environment.

South of the line which I have roughly described, is mainly Victorian Willesden, where the picture is quite the reverse. Housing is tightly packed and largely multi-occupied. Densities are 100–150 people to the acre. About 20,000 dwellings—45 per cent.—are substandard or slum. Nearly 40 per cent. of households have to share toilets, bathrooms or similar facilities. Thousands of children and parents are without gardens or any easily accessible open space. There are fewer than two acres per thousand people. We are over 30 acres short of school building sites alone, and 140 acres short of school playing fields.

We have 10,000 more families than we have individual dwellings. The environment is riddled with overcrowded, decaying properties. There is a lack of adequate community facilities and of open space and visual relief.

Tremendous efforts are being made by the local authority, as they were by the old Willesden authority, to improve housing, schooling, community and amenity facilities in the worst areas, but they can but partly relieve the situation when what is needed is radical improvement.

The contrasts which I have described exist throughout London and every big city. They are also to be seen in much of the small town urban sprawl of the old industrial areas. It must now be faced that there has not been the radical environmental improvement in our inner city areas to which so much action has been directed during the past 25 years and more despite the massive improvement in housing conditions for many individual families during the growth of suburbia and the slum clearance of the past 25 years, and during the 1930s. There have to be major changes in our urban housing and land policies to ensure that conditions change much more rapidly in future than in the past.

Today I shall refer to but one of those policies which is relevant to sites such as Pilgrims Way. I do not over-rate its importance in relation to other policies. Inner urban areas of the cities, in addition to providing poor housing, poor job opportunities and poor community services of a variety of kinds, will be short of open space and amenity land as far as we can see into the future on the basis of present facts and policies. That means that even new developments, such as housing, schools and various kinds of social services, will continue to be substandard well into the next century and beyond.

Those are the facts of life, despite the constant reiteration of minimum standards at official level and in all planning circles. For example, I doubt whether there are more than a handful of the many hundreds of schools in inner London and similar areas which comply with the minimum standards of the Department of Education and Science for playing fields. That is because they cannot be complied with. The same position obtains in many other inner city areas. There must be improvement or redevelopment in future, but the standards provided will be substandard on the basis of present policies and facts. Meanwhile, in the outer suburbs there is open space provision which frequently exceeds minimum planning standards, and far exceeds the standards to be found in the inner cities.

The renewal of our older areas, whether by redevelopment or modernisation and environmental improvement, should include the better provision of open space and requires the land to which to move people and services so that better conditions can be provided. Without such movement these areas cannot be renewed at a reasonable speed and decent modern conditions provided. The open space which they need will thus never be provided. An important contribution to such inner city renewal would be the introduction of selective "land swaps", involving the development of open spaces directly related to the renewal of particular building areas, including the provision of open spaces in such areas. That idea should also be applied to the 2,000 acres of non-amenity green belt land which the Secretary of State for the Environment is proposing to use for housing in Greater London.

I have given much thought to planning and urban policy in the long term. I am now convinced that without that approach, inter alia, we are fooling ourselves if we think that we can push ahead rapidly with the upgrading of our inner city areas. I remain a defender of open space standards as established, but I want to see them more fairly spread in our lifetime.

How do these matters bear on Pilgrims Way? It is a nine-acre site which, although it was bought for the purpose by the local authority over 40 years ago, has never been used as a public open space. For 25 years it has been occupied by 100 prefabricated bungalows. It is in an area of low housing density. It is adjoined by nearly 300 acres of open space at Fryent Way. That is much more open space in one site in Wembley, and Wembley has 700 acres more than that which is available in the whole of the old part of Willesden.

Brent Council wants to use three acres of the nine-acre area for desperate housing needs. Its requirement affects 1 per cent. of the open space in Fryent Way. The Minister has turned down its request on grounds of the overall shortage of open space in the borough, although he recognises that in the vicinity there is a plentiful endowment of open space. He takes no account of the facts and considerations that I am putting forward today or of those which Brent put to him in its statements.

On good planning grounds the Minister should have given conditional approval provided that the authority made available in a programmed way and in specific terms three acres of open space or playing fields in older parts of the borough. He should have approved of the application subject to that condition. This would have given proper responsibility to the local authority to protect and enhance the amenity and open space standards of the borough.

Why did not the Minister do this? It cannot be because of the deficiency of open space overall in the borough. Recently he approved the re-zoning of a private open space of six acres not far from Pilgrims Way for residential development which the borough wanted to retain and to buy for open space and playing field purposes. I refer to Clarendon Gardens near East Lane, Wembley.

Brent Council referred its proposal to the Department of the Environment in October 1972 because it involved a departure from the development plan. Four months later a planning inspector appointed by the Minister visited the site. The same month written statements were sent to the Department by the GLC and by Brent setting out their different views. Six months went by, and Brent sent a letter of inquiry asking what was happening. There was no reply. Two months later a telephone call was made, and two days after that, in October, a letter was received by Brent saying that the matter was receiving attention.

During October and November, a year after the proposal was first put to the Minister, there were numerous telephone calls by Brent to the Department asking what was happening. I sent several letters to the Minister in November and December urging that the case be resolved. In January, a year and four months after the referral, the Minister made his decision and turned down the plan

On this ground alone the Minister is to be criticised and condemned. He took more than a year to make a decision when he had the facts before him.

I believe that party political pressure played an important part and led to the Minister's refusal. His planning advice inside the Department would have been in line with the advice given over the Clarendon Gardens site, that housing needs outweighed the need for turning the whole of Pilgrims Way into open space. The Minister delayed his decision week after week and month after month because he faced a dilemma involving political pressure on the one hand and Brent's housing needs on the other.

In November 1973, more than a year after Brent submitted its original planning application, something worse happened. I am led to understand that the Minister put a proposal to the council that if it was prepared to build houses for sale on the site he would probably give planning consent. He must know that the nature of the tenure of houses is extraneous to planning considerations. The fact that houses are to be sold or to be retained by a council or any other owner of a site is irrelevant to a planning issue.

If it occurred, such conduct was quite improper. There is nothing wrong in a Minister expressing a view to a local authority or to anyone else, directly or indirectly, that he thinks that houses should be sold, let or leased. But he has no right to let this view influence a planning decision on the rezoning of land use, let alone to seek to make it a prior condition.

I realise the seriousness of what I am saying to the Minister, and I have no criticism of the Department's officials, for whom I have a high personal regard and many of whom I know personally. There are excellent relations between Brent and the Department's officials, and there have been for many years. They have always been very helpful.

My criticism is a political one, and the Minister should clear up this matter today. In addition to replying to my points on planning grounds and on the points which I have just made about the posture that he adopted in this matter, he should undertake to make available in the Library and to the local authority his planning inspector's report and other relevant papers on the Pilgrims Way site.

Failing a satisfactory reply or such an undertaking today, I shall have to consider asking the Parliamentary Commissioner whether such a case is within his authority to investigate on grounds of maladministration.

4.15 p.m.

Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Willesden, West)

I wish briefly to add my plea to the case so eloquently made to the Under-Secretary by my hon. Friend the Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson). We are pleading for open space as far as the Welsh Harp, an area which is wanted for residential purposes, while at the same time where we want residences the Minister wants us to have an open space.

I want to add to the housing facts given by my hon. Friend and to tell a little of the human story behind the statistics, which the Under-Secretary knows only too well because the housing problems of Willesden must have come before his Department time and again. The figures reflect the human stories that come to our constituency surgeries week after week.

The first typical example that I give is that of a husband and wife who have only two children and who live in the kind of accommodation that my hon. Friend has mentioned, sharing a bathroom and lavatory and having only two rooms and a kitchen. They have two rooms and only two children, but the trouble is that the girl is 11 and the boy is 13, so that they have reached the age when accommodation becomes a difficult problem, and that intensifies the housing problem.

The second example is that of a young couple who get married and who, because they have nowhere else to live, go to live with the parents of one or the other in Willesden. When their family begin to arrive, they are unable to find accommodation for themselves, and so one sees a marriage being potentially broken because the young couple cannot find adequate space.

The third example concerns an elderly couple one of whom may be suffering from coronary thrombosis, for instance. Because they live in shared accommodation, either upstairs or downstairs, and because of the constant climbing of stairs, the illness means certain death, unless they can be accommodated elsewhere. I know that there have been a number of deaths in Willesden simply because of housing problems.

I plead with the Under-Secretary to listen to the comprehensive case that has been advanced to him and, if possible, to change his mind about Pilgrims Way.

4.17 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Reginald Eyre)

Before I answer the points made by the hon. Member for Willesden, East (Mr. Freeson) and the hon. Member for Willesden, West (Mr. Pavitt) and explain why planning permission for this development was refused, I think that I should say something about the background of the case.

The three-acre site formed part of a much larger area of 270 acres at Fryent Way which was purchased between the wars by the former Middlesex County Council—with a contribution from the Wembley Borough Council—for open space purposes. The land was not, however, actually brought into use as public open space and in 1946 the county council leased about 10 acres of it to the Wembley Council, which built 114 temporary bungalows there. Then, in 1965, when local government in London was reorganised, the ownership of the whole of the 270 acres passed to the new Brent London Borough Council.

The temporary bungalows ceased to be occupied and in January 1966 the Brent Council, as housing authority, sought from itself, as local planning authority, outline planning permission for permanent housing on the 10-acre site. Because the Brent Council regarded the proposal as a substantial departure from the initial development plan for Greater London—where the site is allocated as proposed public open space—it had to refer it to the Greater London Council as strategic planning authority. After considering the proposal, the GLC told Brent that in its view the proposed development had strategic implications and that the whole of the Fryent Way land should be reserved for public open space as the development plan provided.

As is usual when there is a difference of opinion between the GLC and a London borough council, members of the two councils met to try to resolve the matter. Brent offered to reduce the housing area to three acres and it also promised to lay out the remaining seven acres as open space as soon as practicable, but the GLC adhered to its view that the whole of the land should be used as open space. Brent therefore put its proposals into cold storage for the time being.

In December 1971 it again sought planning permission for residential development at the density of 90 habitable rooms to the acre—that is, 80 to 90 dwellings. The GLC, however, continued to take the view that the proposal should be rejected because—and here I quote from the report of its Environmental Planning West Area Board: It is contrary to the provisions of the initial development plan wherein the site is shown as public open space and represents a loss of potential open space and a loss of visual amenity in that building would project into an area of open land. The position was therefore that the Secretary of State was called upon to resolve this difference of opinion between the GLC and the Brent Council by deciding the application himself. Because the issues were quite clear cut, he suggested to both councils that the application should be dealt with by an exchange of written statements rather than the much longer process of an inquiry. Both councils agreed, and the Brent Council was asked to include in its statement the views of any local residents and others who might be affected by the development. The councils were told that an officer of the Department would visit the site though, in accordance with the usual procedure for cases dealt with in writing, his report would not be published. That is a well-established procedure in such cases.

Mr. Freeson

The Minister should correct that. The information given to the council was that the councillors would not receive a copy of the report. It was never said that according to procedure it could never be published.

Mr. Eyre

I must tell the hon. Gentleman that the report was a factual description of the site and its surroundings—one element only in the total decision. It is a long-established procedure not to publish reports of that kind.

I turn now to the merits of the proposal. I do not think hon. Members would wish me to go into the details of the representations made by the parties but I shall try to summarise them to show the main points. The Brent Council asserted that although the housing proposal was contrary to the provisions of the initial development plan, the loss in terms of open space and visual amenity would be minimal and would not, in its view, be sufficient to outweigh the advantages of providing 80–90 new dwellings.

It drew attention to the shortage of housing land in the borough and the fact that there were 7,000 families on the waiting list many of whom were living in conditions of stress. I accept what the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend said about the difficulties of inner London boroughs. There is a serious problem.

The Brent Council also said that there was no deficiency of open space in this part of the borough, where at present there are 4.60 acres of open space per 1,000 people, which should rise to 6.42 acres when all the proposed new open spaces are brought into use. The standard recommended in the initial development plan for the outer London boroughs, which include Brent, is five acres per 1,000 people. The borough council also pointed out that residents in those parts of the borough which are seriously short of open space could reach open space outside the borough more easily than the Fryent Way area.

The GLC acknowledged that in its view the immediate locality was not deficient in open space but it pointed out that the figures of 3.15 acres per 1,000 people which at present obtain for the borough as a whole and the planned figure of 4.17 acres were both well below the recommended standard of five acres per 1,000. The proposed housing development would reduce the potential of one of the most important areas of public open space in Brent and was the more serious because the borough was particularly lacking in larger open spaces for the use of people of the borough as a whole. Furthermore, the application site was intended for walking and general enjoyment whereas most of the Fryent Way land was to be developed for organised recreation activities—playing fields, and so on.

Local residents and conservation societies submitted representations supporting, on grounds of loss of open space, the Greater London Council's case against the proposed development. This clearly presented my right hon. and learned Friend with a difficult decision. He had to weigh two conflicting planning considerations—that is, the need for housing land and the importance of ensuring that people living in heavily built-up areas have adequate open space where they can find recreation and enjoyment. He accepted that there is no shortage of open space in the immediate locality of the site, but it is beyond dispute that there is a serious deficiency in the borough of Brent as a whole which is likely to continue—and this was supported by what the hon. Gentleman said—in the foreseeable future, which is why the land had been allocated for public open space in the development plan.

Mr. Freeson

In the last five minutes of his speech, will the hon. Gentleman answer the debate?

Mr. Eyre

It would be better if the hon. Gentleman allowed me to get on with my speech. I am dealing with considerations important to the decision.

In regard to the deficiency of open space, I can do no better than repeat the figures which I have already given and which the borough included in its representations.

The borough as a whole at present has 3.15 acres of public open space per 1,000 people, and it is hoped to increase this, by 1981, to 4.17 acres—still below the recommended standard of five acres per 1,000. Furthermore, a great deal of the Fryent Way open space is earmarked for organised recreation and the loss of these three acres will reduce the remaining area available for walking and general enjoyment which the Secretary of State regards as a most important need. My right hon. and learned Friend therefore reached the conclusion that, notwithstanding the shortage of housing land in the borough, the greater need was to retain all the Fryent Way land for public open space, and decided accordingly.

I stress that the Secretary of State's policy is well balanced. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the serious housing problems in London. I wish to remind him of some of the work of the London Housing Action Group. Since 1971 it has helped to produce no fewer than 700 extra acres from Government surplus land for use by the London boroughs. Between 1964 and 1972 800 acres of British Rail land have been made available to local authorities. I mention that to put the matter in perspective.

The hon. Member has suggested that my right hon. and learned Friend would have reached a different decision had Brent Council made it clear that the land would be used for housing for owner occupation, rather than for local authority housing.

I cannot accept that the decision was influenced by considerations of this sort. As I have made clear, it rested on the evaluation of the relative weight to be given to the two opposing considerations which I have outlined—the pressing need to retain every possible piece of land allocated for open space in a borough desperately short of this commodity, the arguments for which were presented on two successive occasions by Greater London Councils of opposing political complexions; and the need for additional housing land to meet the housing shortage in the borough, on which the council's own case was based. Both the 1966 and 1971 applications were considered by the Greater London Council. On each occasion, the political complexion of the council was different and on both occasions the arguments in support of the Secretary of State's decision were stressed. The arguments were finely balanced and it was not easy to decide which should have prior claim.

The hon. Gentleman has alleged that there was something improper about the way in which the case was dealt with. If that was so, the council would have a remedy in the courts. Therefore, I cannot say anything on that subject.

Mr. Pavitt

In making up his mind, did the Secretary of State consider that the North Circular Road makes Wembley one island and Willesden another? There are only three bridges between Wembley and Willesden. Therefore, the global figures mean nothing in terms of housing people and open space.

Mr. Eyre

The Secretary of State took account of all the complicated matters relating to the circumstances in London. He made his decision very carefully and was supported by the opinion of the GLC on two occasions.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.