HC Deb 14 January 1975 vol 884 cc299-309
Mr. Millan

I beg to move Amendment No. 15, in page 7, line 27, at end insert: ';and before any reinstatement is carried out in terms of this subsection the Secretary of State shall consult with such other bodies as he considers appropriate'. We are dealing here with the reinstatement clause. During the Committee proceedings, in an amendment in the name of the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith), the question arose of consultation with other bodies where reinstatement was involved. I think the amendment in Committee was rather wider, but I promised then that we would consider the matter in relation to cases in which reinstatement had been decided upon if there were bodies in addition to local authorities which we thought it would be appropriate to consult, and that is the purpose of the amendment. The bodies which we have in mind would be the Countryside Commission for Scotland and the Nature Conservancy Council, but in a particular case other bodies might be involved, too. This is an important element of additional consultation which I think will be widely welcomed.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I would have preferred specific consultation with particular bodies to be written into the Bill. That would have given more reassurance to those bodies. But I accept the spirit of this amendment and the undertaking that the kind of body I had in mind in Committee will indeed be the kind of body which will be consulted. I thank the Minister for moving this amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Grimond

I beg to move Amendment No. 16, in page 7, line 37, at end, insert: '(3) In respect of any works executed or operations carried out pursuant to the provisions of this Act, section 27 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 (Conditional grant of planning permission) shall apply subject to the modification that for paragraph (b) of subsection (1) thereof there shall be substituted the following paragraph— (b) for requiring, at such time (to be specified, in case of doubt, by the local planning authority) as the use of the land so authorised has been substantially discontinued, that any buildings or works authorized by the permission be removed, and that any works required for the reinstatement of land be carried out"'

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this amendment we may consider the following amendments:

No. 17, in Clause 9, page 7, line 42, leave out from 'condition' to 'requiring' in line 43.

No. 18, in Clause 9, page 7, line 43, after '1972', insert: '(as applied by section 8 above)'. No. 19, in Clause 9, page 7, line 44, leave out: 'at the end of a specified period'.

Mr. Grimond

The other amendments are consequential as far as I am concerned although they may have deep implications for Greenock. This point has been considerably argued between the Government and the Shetland County Council. This is a short but important point from their point of view.

Briefly, it is this, that Section 27 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 allows a planning authority on granting a planning application to impose certain conditions. One of those conditions could require reinstatement of the land in question but, under that Act, that can be done only at the end of a specified period. The point at issue is what is a specified period—because if it means a definite period of years, as would seem to be the reasonable interpretation of the Act, the Act will be largely frustrated as far as oil-related developments are concerned. That would arise because no one can tell how long the work may be required or how long the oil-related industry may continue. Therefore it would be impossible to specify a period.

The Minister was kind enough to write to me about this on 10th January. He said that he is advised that a specified period need not be a fixed number of years. He said that, for instance, it could be made contingent on certain specified events, for example, the cessation of the use of the site for which planning permission was granted.

If that is certainly so, it meets the point of the county council. I am grateful to the Minister for saying that if there is anything further to be cleared up he will meet the council and pursue the matter further. What worries me is that on consulting such lawyers as I am able to consult, and others experienced in these matters, I find that they are very surprised to hear this. They have told me that the general development orders under the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act, in their experience, have always to state a specified period.

I am not in a position to enter into these rarified matters, but to the layman it would seem strange if a specified period could be as indefinite as to be limited to the cessation of certain works of unknown duration. It seems to me that if that is really so, the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act needs amendment, because it surely cannot have been intended that the specified period should be as vague as all that.

I raise this matter again because it is of importance at least to Shetland County Council. I should be grateful for renewed assurance from the Minister that his interpretation of that Act is correct.

Mr. Millan

As the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond) said, we have been in correspondence about this matter. I have also been in correspondence with the Shetland County Council about it. I am not absolutely sure what the council's view is at present, but the position that it took when I wrote to it was that what I said was helpful and that the council would proceed to discuss the matter with my officials at official level.

Even if it were shown that the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act was defective, the Bill would be an unsuitable vehicle for putting it right, because the kind of amendment which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind has a much wider application, and I do not think that we could include it in the Bill.

The amendment is defective. The right hon. Gentleman is talking about works executed or operations carried out pursuant to the provisions of this Act but the works that he is trying to get at, as it were, would be developments under Clause 9, which are developments at a privately-owned site. The way in which he has drafted the amendment would not achieve the purpose which he had in mind. Nevertheless, if there were a real difficulty to be put right here, it would be simply a matter of drafting.

I must say, I have been advised on this matter contrary to what the right hon. Gentleman said, that as a layman I thought that the advice sounded absolutely sensible, which is not true about all the advice I receive on legal matters. Normally I find great difficulty in believing what the lawyers tell me is the plain meaning of a particular phrase in an Act, but in this case it struck me as a layman to be very sensible that the specified period did not have to be specified in terms of years or months, and that it could be a period contingent on certain events—for example, a period of six months, say, during which no operations had taken place on the site. It could be expressed in a number of different ways. It could be a specified period which was laid down in the planning condition but was subject to qualification dependent on the circumstances. As I understand it, there is a whole lot of ways in which this could be expressed. I am strongly advised that the amendment is therefore unnecessary.

With all these legal matters I do not like to be absolutely categoric and to say that I am not subject to persuasion or argument. If it can be demonstrated that there have been difficulties about this provision which would render nugatory some of the provisions in Clause 9—to which I attach considerable importance, because they are bound up with the question of reinstatement of privately-owned land—I should obviously consider the matter again.

I am advised, however, that, as at present, the amendment is not necessary and that Clause 9 will give local authorities the power they require. It is a power which they have very warmly welcomed. Therefore, I could not advise that these amendments be accepted, and I hope that in the light of what I have said they will be withdrawn.

Dr. Dickson Mabon

I go along with the Minister in feeling that it would be wrong of us to press these amendments at this stage. It is true that they may be defective in drafting, and the Minister immediately concedes that that is not his argument against them. If they have a substance of argument I am sure the Minister will be prepared to influence another place to make an appropriate amendment at a later stage. The advice that I have been given, quite independently of the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond)—though admittedly I am in bed with him on one of the amendments and find it extremely uncomfortable—means that we go together in the same argument, which is an argument over the interpretation of Clause 2(6) as against the reference to the provisions of Section 26 of the Consolidation measure—the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972.

There is a contradiction—let us put it in this way—from two reasonably intelligent sources of advice and despite what my hon. Friend says of lawyers there might be some doubt about the restrictive nature of the words we seek to delete by these amendments as if they were standing in the Bill if it became an Act of Parliament. That is our argument. Section 26(1)(a) of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 provides that a planning authority: may grant planning permission, either unconditionally or subject to such conditions as they think fit;". My hon. Friend made reference to the time when conditions could be made, such as six months after work ceased, or some such condition, indicating that the period of operation was over and that this was the time at which land should be reconstituted. We are all agreed that the purpose of this section is to ensure that planning authorities will obtain the reinstatement of spoiled land. That is what we are concerned about.

We are arguing whether the statute is tight enough to ensure that. Clearly, Section 26 provides that there can be conditions, or it can be unconditional, with no specified period. On the other hand, if one refers to Section 27, at least where it is picked up in this clause, one sees that it could be argued that a restriction arises as a consequence of putting in the words as they stand. This is the advice offered to me by the British Ports Association, which would like to see the words removed in order to achieve the same intention as the Government have.

Where there is doubt about this matter—particularly among those, like my hon. Friend and myself, who are not lawyers—it is very worth while going back from time to time to make sure that the statute, which, after all, my hon. Friend is piloting through, is not defective. Therefore, I welcome his statement that if we withdraw the amendment tonight he will look seriously at the question again to see whether the advisers whom we are in a sense representing tonight are correct or whether his Department is wrong. It is a very good Department, but it can sometimes be wrong—but even while not being wrong, it may change its mind.

Mr. Millan

I have already taken steps to get further advice on this point before the Bill goes to the Lords, and if it is contrary to what I have said tonight I shall write to the right hon. and hon. Gentlemen.

Mr. Grimond

In view of what the Minister wrote to me and said today, and in view of his offer to talk again to Shetland County Council, if it is still worried about the matter, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

9.0 p.m.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I beg to move Amendment No. 52, in page 7, line 37, at end insert: '( ) Where any land is no longer required for the purposes of this Act and where it is also no longer required for the purposes within paragraph 2(a), above, the land shall be offered to the person or body from whom it was acquired'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we are to take the following amendment:

No. 53, in Clause 10, page 9, line 9 at end insert: '( ) When land acquired under this Act is not being developed after a period of one year following acquisition for the purposes of this Act the Secretary of State shall dispose of his interest in such land; he shall first offer it to the person or body from whom it was acquired and thereafter expose it to public sale'.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

The two amendments are not directly related. Amendment No. 52 covers a point which was debated at considerable length in Committee and concerns the Crichel Down procedure. We were considerably confused at the end of the Committee stage debate on the matter, as to precisely what the position was, and I have tabled the amendment in an attempt to get the matter clarified. Where land is no longer required for the purposes of the Act, or where it is no longer required for the purpose of maintaining employment or for other purposes, but is to be reinstated to the condition it was in before it was acquired—I am thinking particularly of agriculture—the amendment provides that it shall be offered back to the original owner. That is in accordance with the Crichel Down procedure.

Amendment No. 53 seeks to avoid the sterilisation of a site if development does not take place. Therefore, if the Secretary of State acquires a site and a prospective purchaser backs out, or no one can be found to take it on, it should not lie idle when there may be another use for it. I have tried to provide a time limit, which may not meet with the agreement of the Government, but the spirit of the amendment is what matters, not its details and technicalities. We want to make sure that the Secretary of State does not retain a site and by doing so sterilise it.

I am much more interested in getting clarification on the Crichel Down procedures. I hope that having reflected on the matter with all the good will that comes from Christmas, the New Year and Hogmanay the Minister will comment favourably upon my proposals.

Mr. John Smith

I understand that the purpose of Amendment No. 52 is that we should offer reinstated land back to the body or owner from whom it was first acquired. The hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan Smith) addressed his remarks particularly to agricultural land, although the amendment goes much wider than that and would apply to all land. Perhaps I may preface my remarks on the amendment with an explanation of the Crichel Down procedure. This is difficult territory because these rules and the other rules concerning the disposal of property acquired by Governments were not made in the context of this Bill and it creates difficulties to apply those rules here.

I have sought to establish the position of agricultural land acquired under the Bill and developed for some other use, for example for oil-related development, and which later becomes available for disposal, perhaps being reinstated to agricultural land. If the Secretary of State thought that that was the best purpose for it, the Crichel Down rules would not apply. The Crichel Down rules would apply only where the land had remained in agricultural use while in the Government's possession. Therefore, the short answer to the hon. Gentleman's point is that they would not apply. The amendment made in 1967, where a planning permission was attached to the Crichel Down rules, would not apply in this circumstance.

Where we believe those rules would apply is where agricultural land had been acquired compulsorily by the Government but not developed. In that unlikely event it would have remained in agricultural use and would be offered back to the original owners under the Crichel Down procedure. Where development had taken place and there had been an interruption of agricultural use, we do not think that the Crichel Down rules would apply.

The Government would have to consider the matter carefully as and when reinstatement cases arose. That is the best advice I have about a difficult situation.

That still leaves the hon. Gentleman with the argument "Why not legislate to give the land back to the agricultural landowner?" That would mean that the Government had a different procedure with respect to land acquired for oil development purposes under the Bill than for other land they disposed of according to the rules. We should keep the procedure in line with the way in which we dispose of other Government property under the fairly well known procedures. It would be a mistake to make an amendment.

We disagree on principle here. We had a long argument about it in Committee, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will feel that he has had a fuller explanation, because we have had time to examine how the rules would apply.

The hon. Gentleman and I are at one in hoping that there will be no sterilisation of land. The purpose of the Bill is to get on with the job, rather than to leave land blighted by the fact that it has been allocated for a particular purpose and nothing is happening. The trouble about the amendment, leaving aside any technical defects, is that if the period were only one year there might be delays which were not foreseen at the time of the acquisition. If the Secretary of State were forced to dispose of the land because the development had not come to fruition within a year, he might have to go through the elaborate procedure of acquiring it again if he wanted to go on with the development. That is the last thing we want.

The Secretary of State has powers under other parts of the Bill to dispose of land acquired under the Bill. If there is unnecessary delay in the development of a site, he can use those powers. To a certain extent, the powers the hon. Gentleman seeks are not necessary, because we have them in those other parts. The Government will not be anxious to allow delay. Nobody wants it to happen. We want to get on with the developments for which the land would be acquired.

We still disagree over Amendment No. 52.

Mr. Corrie

May we have an assurance that if land should be taken over and not developed subsection (2) would not then come into force so that the land taken over for oil development but not used for that development could be used by the Secretary of State for another purpose?

Mr. Smith

That is a different point. It is difficult to reinstate land if its use has not been changed. We are talking about reinstatement where the use has been changed. Where the land has been acquired and will not be used, the Secretary of State has the power to give it back under other parts of the Bill which I hope would be used. That is why I do not think that the amendment is strictly necessary. It is a question of will on the part of the Government. We would not want to see land sterilised.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Amendment No. 53 was a probing amendment, to discover the Government's attitude. I accept the Minister's assurance that the Government have no desire to sterilise or blight land. I do not intend to press that amendment.

I accept the Minister's arguments on what I call the Crichel Down amendment. I was not seeking to extend the Crichel Down procedures to make a special case in relation to oil developments. I appreciate that Crichel Down applies strictly to agricultural land that has remained agricultural land. I am grateful for the Minister's assurance that in such a case the Crichel Down procedure will apply. I do not ask for a specific assurance on that point. I am prepared to ask leave to withdraw the amendment. However, I ask the Minister to reconsider the whole matter and to write to me about it.

I cannot think of them now, but there may be other examples involving compulsory powers in which the Government acquire land, develops it and then reinstates it to its original agricultural state. How often does that apply? I question whether it applies very often.

We may be creating a precedent. In the specific case that we are considering the Government could acquire, develop and then reinstate to the original agricultural state. That could be a precedent. I hope that the Minister will consider the matter of extending the Crichel Down rules if it is found to be a precedent. If it is not a complete precedent I do not argue that we should make special provision for the Crichel Down procedure in relation to the Bill. If there are other instances in which we have gone through the procedure of development and reinstatement and have not applied Crichel Down I do not ask for such provision in the Bill.

If, in his researches, the Minister finds that we are setting a precedent in which ground is acquired, developed and then reinstated to its original state, I ask him to consider whether there may be an occasion, administratively, for reconsidering the Crichel Down procedure. If this is a special case we should treat it as such. If the Minister gives me that assurance I shall be prepared to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Mr. John Smith

If I may speak again, with the leave of the House, I think that this is probably a unique situation. The reinstatement in question and the obligation that the Secretary of State is taking upon himself after land has been used is a highly desirable feature. It is one of the Bill's most attractive features.

The difficulty of speculating on what would happen if the procedure that we are considering were adopted arises because of the uniqueness of the situation. I have done my best to establish what the position would be. My hon. Friend the Minister of State whose Department more closely deals with these matters, will write to the hon. Gentleman and take up the points that he has raised. Off the cuff, I think that it is a unique situation, but it should be researched. The hon. Gentleman will be told of the results of our research.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has dealt with these amendments. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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