HC Deb 14 January 1975 vol 884 cc217-24

The Secretary of State, so far as he considers it practicable so to do in conformity with the provisons of this Act, shall ensure that no works shall be executed pursuant to those provisions, the execution of which is not consistent with—

  1. (a) the policies or proposals stated in any development plan (or any amendment thereof) submitted to the Secretary of State before 7th November 1974 under section 5 of the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972 by the local planning authority of the district in which it is proposed to execute the works; or
  2. (b) any amendment made by that authority to those policies or proposals and agreed by the Secretary of State.—[Mr. Grimond.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

4.40 p.m.

Mr. J. Grimond (Orkney and Shetland)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Morton)

It is proposed that Government Amendment No. 2 be taken with new Clause 1.

Mr. Grimond

Hon. Members will recall that one of the most important points which emerged during Second Reading of the Bill was that the expedited acquisition procedure would not override planning procedures and would be used only where planning permission had been obtained in the normal manner. I put down an amendment in Committee to give effect to that and the Government said that it was their intention that that should be so. They have now themselves put down amendments making that clear. All this new clause would do is to avoid any conflict or confusion over planning.

I believe that we have to reconsider the whole idea of planning as it was popular 20 years ago. The static plans which attempted to lay down the law for all time have done a great deal of harm. They have attempted to apply procedures everywhere, in town and country, in big and little towns, quite unsuitably in many areas. As a result, areas have been designated for particular purposes which have never materialised. In other cases we have created great concentrations of housing and industry with very bad social results.

Some planning, however, is essential in connection with oil and its impact on certain areas. I have a particular experience of Orkney and Shetland. A great deal of planning has been done, as the Government know, under legislation which, passed by this House, local authorities were bound to carry out. Many hundreds of thousands of pounds have been spent in Orkney and Shetland on local plans, particular plans and structure plans, and it would be absurd if, after all that, the decisions made upon these plans could be overridden by the Secretary of State.

The Secretary of State's Amendment No. 2, which the Government will explain, says, as I understand it, that an expedited acquisition order shall not be made in respect of any land unless the Secretary of State is satisfied that the land is required for a purpose which has been accepted as suitable under the planning procedures. As I understand it, it differs from my new clause in that it does not deal with works, so that it will be possible for the Secretary of State to acquire quite properly land for a purpose designated within the structure plan but to authorise or to undertake on it works which in the view of the planning authorities might be undesirable.

I do not know what the Government will say. They may say that such a situation is so unlikely that we need not legislate against it, and that if the Secretary of State were to acquire land for a proper purpose under a plan it is unlikely that urgent construction would be contrary to the plan, but many times in previous debates it has been said that we have to legislate according to the strict intentions of this House and cannot rely on the good intentions of Ministers. My new clause allows discretion to the Secretary of State. It says he is bound to observe it only so far as it is practicable to do so. It is designed to clear up any confusion which might arise between planning authorities and the Secretary of State, and it is also designed to obviate further delay.

4.45 p.m.

Anybody in close touch with oil developments must be very conscious that in all kinds of areas there is now great anxiety over delays and that one of the matters which contribute to delay is confusion over the Government's intentions. Rig builders, those in oil industries of various kinds, and the oil companies themselves, are becoming very worried because they do not understand what their obligations may be or what changes may take place in the Government's policy for oil. I know of undertakings which would be considerably worried if they thought that having gone through the proper planning procedures and obtained planning permission for the execution of certain works the Secretary of State would then come in with new proposals and frustrate their intentions.

I am grateful to the Government for having put down their amendments and I appreciate that they clear up the position about planning procedures in relation to land, and generally, but I would like to hear what they have to say of the situation as I see it which exists in regard to works.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Bruce Millan)

As Amendment No. 2 is being taken with this one perhaps I could explain what that amendment does. When we come to it in its appropriate place I will move it formally.

Amendment No. 2 makes explicit in the Bill, and therefore meets the wish which was widely expressed during Second Reading and in Committee on the Bill, that no expedited procedure for acquisition shall take place under the Bill unless and until planning permission has actually been obtained and unless the land is required for a purpose in accordance with the planning permission. This explicit statement in the Bill of a point that I made on numerous occasions—that normal planning procedures would apply—will be very warmly welcomed and will reassure a number of people who were worried about the absence of such an explicit provision in the Bill, despite Government assurances on the point.

In view of the considerable discussions we had about this point at earlier stages of the Bill I do not think it is necessary for me to explain the amendment in detail. It is self-explanatory. It provides that there must either be planning permission granted under the normal application made under the 1972 Act or planning permission granted by general development order or no development at all involved for the purposes of the Act. I am glad that the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond), with others, welcomes this amendment.

The right hon. Gentleman's new clause, as I understand it, deals exclusively and specifically with the question of works that may be carried out under this Bill on a site which has been acquired by the Government under the Bill, and provides that any works carried out shall be in accordance with policies or purposes stated in a development plan. Without going into the technicalities of development plans perhaps I should point out, first of all, that the amendment is defective because a reference to the development plan under Section 5 of the 1972 Act as outlined in the right hon. Gentleman's new clause is a reference to a structure plan, and there were no structure plans in existence in November 1974; so that from that point of view the new clause is completely defective.

Mr. Grimond

The Minister will appreciate that clauses drafted by back benchers are apt to be not quite perfect, but he must be well aware that structure plans are being drawn up, and it would be foolish for the House to try to pretend that structure plans will not exist and be very important in relation to oil.

Mr. Millan

I have not come to the question of future structure plans. I am simply pointing out, as I am entitled to do, that since there were no structure plans submitted to the Secretary of State before 7th November 1974, which is the date chosen by the right hon. Gentleman, the clause would not bite on anything in any way. So even for that technical reason I cannot recommend the House to accept the clause.

The works which the right hon. Gentleman has in mind—because these are the only works dealt with under the Bill—are covered either by Clause 10, being works for facilitating the execution of relevant operations, or works covered by Clause 8 dealing with works for making acquired land suitable for other purposes. Normally works of development on one of these sites will be by the developer himself and will have been subject to the normal planning considerations, and since planning permission and all the rest will have been gone through before the site was acquired there will be no question of works, by the developer or the Government, which are not consistent with the purposes for which planning permission was granted. That is the basic point with which we are concerned here.

The only possible theoretical difficulty which might arise from the right hon. Gentleman's point of view is that on publicly-owned land the Government could carry out works without planning permission. That is not peculiar to the Bill. It applies to Crown development or Crown land generally. There is a safeguard in the Bill, in that, from the amendment I have described, we shall know generally what the site is to be used for, and, therefore, there can be no question of a Crown development which is contrary to or inconsistent with the general use for development which has already been agreed. Even when Crown development takes place there is a non-statutory procedure which includes, if necessary, arrangements for a public inquiry. Therefore, even if the theoretical difficulty which the right hon. Gentleman had in mind were to arise the provisions of existing legislation, or rather the provisions of the non-statutory procedure, would safeguard the position.

Therefore, because the new clause is defectively drafted, and because, in any case, with the amendment I have described and with the existing non-statutory procedure, I do not see that the kind of difficulty the right hon. Gentleman has in mind can possibly arise, I would recommend the House not to accept the new clause.

Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)

I welcome the Government amendment, which clarifies a point we raised at an earlier stage. I have one or two reservations about it but I thank the Minister for the way in which he described it and for promising to move it later. It makes absolutely clear and beyond peradventure that in the powers exercised under the Bill the Government will use planning procedures prior to using the powers of the expedited acquisition procedure—and that they will use them first. That provides a reassurance to those who criticised this point on an earlier occasion.

I have a point of detail to raise. The Minister said that the power of the Crown not to have to comply with planning procedures was not peculiar to the Bill. He is correct, and it is because it is not peculiar to the Bill that we raised the matter earlier that the Crown, because it enjoyed a special position on planning procedures, might use that position in the acquisition of lands for the purposes of offshore oil development.

The Bill is concerned with taking a new power to the Crown in enabling it to acquire land for these purposes. While that power is not peculiar to the Bill it is relevant to it, and that is why I am particularly grateful to the Minister for bringing forward the amendment.

I have one point of greater substance concerning planning procedures. The Bill does nothing in itself to expedite planning procedures. Everything in the Bill will be subject to planning procedures, and that makes us wonder precisely what the Bill will achieve in terms of speeding up development. Will the Minister say a brief word, on planning procedures generally, on what the Minister is to write into the legislation through the amendment, and how his discussions have been proceeding with the Faculty of Advocates and others with a view to speeding up the mechanics of these procedures? This will be a help to those who believe that speeding up is necessary. Does the Minister see anything effective resulting from his discussions? If the Minister can give us clarification on that point we could deal with it now.

Mr. Gordon Wilson (Dundee, East)

It is worth while congratulating the Minister on presenting this amendment and others which in Committee he promised he would bring forward. We still have deep objections to the Bill but it is an intelligent way of tackling legislation for the Minister to explore new territories and to bring forward amendments to meet some of the views expressed by hon. Members.

However, one of the things that concerns me is how much protection the amendment will offer. If the Minister intends to call in all such inquiries, there will be, in the Scottish Office, a sort of interdepartmental inquiry into the planning requirements of the country or at least of certain given areas. At this stage, is it the Minister's intention to hold public inquiries wherever possible so that objectors to proposals can have an opportunity of cross-examining the expert witnesses who might give evidence? If such an assurance could be given, it would be welcomed.

This is an important point, because if there is an intervention in support of an application from the Department of Energy on the grounds that a certain number of platforms require to be built in order to get so much oil within a given period, this might influence the Minister, who might be persuaded to go against the natural planning inclination. This point was made by the Scotsman in an editorial last Saturday when it stated that this could be an unequal contest and that decisions might not be made on clearly discernible principles. It alleged that the Secretary of State for Scotland had over-ridden the objections of local residents on the ground that the national interest in the speedy exploitation of oil requires the use of Portavadie in order to catch the 1977 floating-out season. If the Minister can give an assurance about the rôle of public inquiries in the reserved planning procedures in relation to the expedited acquisition orders, the House will be grateful.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Millan

With regard to speeding up planning procedures within the present statutory framework, we have had a report from the working group to which the hon. Member for Dundee, East (Mr. Wilson) referred. I hope that circular will go to local authorities within the next two weeks or so giving its results.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

Will the report of the working group be published or made available to others?

Mr. Millan

It was basically an internal document, but the substance will be given in the circular.

As to the general question of dealing with the planning applications, what we have said is not that we shall call in all oil-related applications. I think that the specific reference was to oil production platform applications in the Firth of Clyde, called in for reasons which the hon. Member for Argyle (Mr. MacCormick) will appreciate as being necessary. There was a spate of applications, and we want to avoid proliferation of sites.

To call in an application has no implication one way or another on the question whether there will be a public inquiry. That depends on a number of factors, including the strength and variety of the opposition to the application, how far additional information is required about the application, and so on. The Portkil application was called in, and is now subject to a public inquiry, so calling in an application does not mean that there will be no public inquiry.

But if under the normal planning procedures there is no need for a public inquiry, in the Secretary of State's view, a public inquiry will not necessarily take place. The Campbeltown decision was made without a public inquiry. The Portavadie decision was made after a public inquiry. The pattern is not fixed but depends on the circumstances.

There is no intention to substitute interdepartmental consultation for a public inquiry. That is not open to the Secretary of State. If the hon. Gentleman reads the planning decision letters and the conditions attached to them in respect of the Campbeltown and Portavadie decisions made last week, he will see from the conditions laid down, and the detail to which the letters have gone, that in both cases the matters under consideration received full treatment by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. The decision letters were very detailed.

Question put and negatived.

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