HC Deb 12 November 1975 vol 899 cc1521-3
18. Mr. Russell Johnston

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he is satisfied with the procedures for dealing with planning applications in Scotland.

Mr. Millan

Existing procedures work satisfactorily for most planning applications. But I have asked my officials to explore afresh, with the new local authorities, the scope for further improvement.

Mr. Johnston

I welcome the Minister's answer. Is he satisfied with the speed with which planning appeals are dealt with by the Scottish Office? Could the process be accelerated if, for example, more staff were employed?

Mr. Millan

I doubt whether that would be the answer. I am not aware of any untoward delays in the Scottish Office in dealing with reports of planning inquiries. If delays take place at all, they occur at the time of the inquiry. Earlier this year we issued a circular about new, improved procedures of inquiry, which are now being put into effect. We are already reaping some benefit from that. A number of inquiries have continued for far too long and there have been delays in the reports, delays that are completely unjustified. However, I hope that the House will appreciate that once an inquiry is under way and a reporter has been appointed, it is not open to the Secretary of State—indeed, it would be improper for him—to try to influence the reporter in any way. In case I am misunderstood, I make it clear that I am not referring to any particular current inquiry.

Mr. Gray

Will the Minister agree that an easy way round this would be to state a date by which the reporter of a public inquiry should report? Is he aware that apprehension over the inquiry at Nigg Bay concerning a refinery is causing considerable anxiety to the whole area?

Mr. Millan

That was a 38-day inquiry. If we were to lay down in advance a time limit for an inquiry we should, in effect, be preventing people from giving evidence, including objectors. I would remind hon. Members of the Drumbuie inquiry and the kind of difficulties we should have experienced if we had attempted anything of that sort. That will give the hon. Gentleman some idea of the kind of problems we face.

We are trying to complete these inquiries as quickly as possible, but we cannot do so simply at the expense of objectors and, for that matter, applicants. At the end of the day, we cannot dictate to reporters how they should go about their business. We have given guidance, which is already being followed and which is producing results. The time inquiries are taking is being reduced.

Mr. Robert Hughes

Is my right hon. Friend aware that one of the difficulties of planning inquiries, large or small, is lack of finance? Will he look into the possibility of making available a fund for assistance to individuals to bring forward their appeals, possibly on the basis that it could be drawn upon after it had been certified that the appeal was not frivolous?

Mr. Millan

There are great difficulties in that, as well. This has been considered very carefully by successive Governments. Whatever else it would do, providing finance for appellants would not reduce the length of time taken in reaching planning decisions. That is not the only consideration, and there are other difficulties.

Mr. Henderson

Is not the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is some concern about the lack of rights of people to object to planning applications? Is not he aware that many people find out only when it is too late that a planning application has been submitted in relation to a neighbouring property and may reduce the amenity and value of their own property, and that they have no position at law under the present planning legislation to complain or lodge objections? Is not this something that requires urgent attention and urgent legislation?

Mr. Millan

If the hon. Gentleman has a particular point to raise on this matter—I think that I know the point to which he is referring—I should be grateful if he would write to me about it. However, this is largely a matter of legislation, and, of course, it would not reduce delays, whatever the rights of the matter. What we have been talking about with the authorities—and we shall be having a comprehensive review with them—is the management of planning business, so that the delays inherent in the system are not added to by delays that arise from inefficiency in handling applications. There has been some difficulty about getting this review started, because local authorities have had to have some time to organise themselves. But we are now looking at the matter with the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.