HC Deb 03 July 1978 vol 953 cc110-65

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Tinn.]

7.4 p.m.

Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

My hon. Friends and I are grateful to the official Opposition for having made available to us the second half of this Supply Day. We are the more grateful because we know how extremely anxious they are to find time for discussing other subjects upon Supply, such as the question of New Commonwealth immigration and its consequences, which I know they have been trying for a long time, unsuccessfully, to fit in. We are the more in their debt on that account.

We have decided to use this opportunity for discussing the impact upon the pattern of rural society in Northern Ireland—that is, upon the predominant form of society in Northern Ireland—of a system of planning regulation. There is certainly no part of the United Kingdom where this subject is of more importance, not merely in its day-to-day-impact upon individuals and families but in its consequences for the future economy and the future society of the Province as a whole. The occasion is the more opportune because of the recent publication of a remarkable report, the report of the committee which was chaired by Dr. Cockcroft. This report, like so many documents tendered to or emanating from the government of Northern Ireland, has very properly been made available for general public study and comment. The latest date for the receipt of such comment is as far ahead as 30th September.

We do not feel that that is any reason why we should not debate this subject tonight on the Floor of the House. Quite apart from the fact that the House will be going up, presumably at the end of the month, and there will then be a long period during which this consultation period will come to an end when the House will not be sitting, this is not the kind of subject where one needs to wait breathlessly for the full total of comments to flow in before hon. Members are entitled to stress the important aspects and put forward their views.

We certainly do not regard a planning policy as something which is subject to sudden and dramatic jerks and developments. We want to see a smooth development, although a development, as I shall show, very different in its tendencies and in its spirit from that which has characterised most of the last five years. We feel no inhibition whatever in opening up this subject and putting forward our views upon it.

Anyone who as an observer—I might even say as a lover—of the English countryside goes to Ulster, either as a visitor or more permanently, is bound to be struck by the contrast between the two patterns, the English pattern and the Ulster pattern. Instead of the sharply demarcated village system characteristic of England and the wide areas almost without human habitation—not merely in the wilder parts but in the rural and arable areas—the visitor to Northern Ireland is rarely out of sight of human habitation. In the fastnesses of the Mourne Mountains in my constituency he has to chose his position carefully if he is to look through 360 degrees and find his eyes not met by at least one habitation. This characteristic is deeply embedded in the economic and social history of the North-East of the island of Ireland and it has not only placed its mark upon the people; it endows them with certain advantages which are not enjoyed by the inhabitants of other parts of the United Kingdom. They are particular advantages which we do not wish to see diminished or destroyed by an unwise or an insensitive application of planning legislation.

In the rest of the kingdom, particularly in England, industrialisation has meant the denuding of the country, and it has often meant or threatened the death of the rural, the village, community. The lifestyle has been totally altered in the rest of the kingdom by the process of industrialisation. One may say that that goes as much for the new industrial revolution as for the old. No such threat need be posed to Northern Ireland by the industrial development and the economic advance to which we look forward.

It is true that, as the years go by, a lower proportion of the total population will necessarily be engaged in agriculture. That is the counterpart of the increasing efficiency, in which Ulster has not been behind hand compared with the rest of the country. But whereas elsewhere the decline of employment in agriculture tends to mean the denuding and impoverishment of the country, that is not so, or it need not be so, in Northern Ireland.

In Northern Ireland, both industry can come to the country and the country dweller can go to industry. I would like to look for a moment at these two sides of the equation. They were both referred to in the evidence given to the Cockcroft committee on behalf of the Department of Agriculture, which said: The development of industry in the district towns and, to a lesser extent, in the villages could assist in the improvement of farm structure by providing alternative employment opportunities to small farmers and their families, many of whom will wish to remain domiciled in the countryside. So, on the one side, there is virtually no part of Northern Ireland to which suitable industry is inappropriate, and that siting of industry—and not only or not exclusively rural and ancillary industry—widespread over the Province means that farming families and the farming community's particular patterns of life and habitation need not be broken up by the shift from agriculture to non-agricultural, industrial or service employment.

On the other hand, so small is the Province in size—and I must say so excellent, certainly compared with much of England and Wales, are the communications—that in most parts it is perfectly practicable for the younger generation, or one part of a family, while living in or near the family home, the farmstead around which the family has centred for generations, to travel daily to a place of work in the industrial centres of the Province. I take a statement from the report to that effect: …the preference of rural dwellers to preserve their rural community connections and identity even though they may choose to work in urban centres thus preventing an ageing and rapidly dwindling rural population. So the unique pattern of settlement—I have sometimes been so injudicious as to describe it as the pepperpot method of settlement—of Northern Ireland, which so strikingly confronts the observer, is a potential source of strength, elasticity and resilience to the economy and the society of Northern Ireland, and it is that which we wish to see not merely uninjured but preserved and built up by a proper application of planning policy.

We could not be better guided in that direction than by the report of the Cockcroft committee, which really is an exceptionally excellent document, forthright in its statements, refreshingly literary in its language, and a document which certainly pulls no punches and owes no respect to any vested interests or current theories. We congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on setting it up only just a year ago, and his action in doing so, I noticed, was acknowledged by the committee itself in conferring upon him a Privy Councillorship. We congratulate the committee even more upon the work that it has brought out.

So good is this report that one has to fight hard against the temptation to over-quote. There is hardly a paragraph in it which does not contain at least one really good quote, but I shall endeavour to ration myself to some of the key statements of the Cockcroft committee.

I begin with the indictment in the report of the existing failings of planning policy, although perhaps I should say at this stage that in nothing I shall say, and in nothing, I think, that my hon. Friends will say, do we imply that during the last four or five years there has been no change or development. On the contrary, I know that the Minister himself has taken a personal interest in introducing more flexibility into the planning rules-of-thumb which were being applied, and I have reason to be grateful to him personally for the attention he has given to individual cases from my constituency which exemplified only too harshly the consequences of rigid rules of planning imported from an English context and applied in Northern Ireland.

The Cockcroft committee said: We are satisfied from the evidence presented that there is a reluctance on the part of the policy makers to accept anything other than the strictest proof of necessity to live in the countryside as good reason for obtaining planning permission. Do we not know it? Do we not, from our constituents, know perfectly well the hoops they are made to jump through in order to establish the basic, prima facie right to live in the countryside. The report continues: This intransigence ignores the social structures and settlement patterns peculiar to Northern Ireland, where there is a centuries-old rural tradition of living in a scattered pattern of loosely grouped and isolated dwellings which, nevertheless, form identifiable communities based on parishes and townlands and woven together by kinship groupings. By the same token, systems of land tenure have not been taken into account. I think that the word "intransigence" which the committee uses there is a singularly apt term with which to describe the rigidities of a good deal of planning policy hitherto.

I turn to another statement, in paragraph 26, which says: We must record that evidence presented to us has overwhelmingly indicated that the policy is forcing the disintegration of rural communities with the consequent loss of social stability and declining use of earlier investment in churches, schools, halls, roads, water and other services; in short, the result of the rigid application of the rural planning policy is seen a; a depopulated countryside scattered with abandoned buildings and derelict dwellings. That could hardly be put more forcibly or, indeed, more accurately.

My last heading from the indictment as framed by the report is from paragraph 37. I quote only one sentence, for it is a subject to which I intend to return. The Committee does not accept that the rural planning policy is administered in a sympathetic and understanding manner. I dare say that my hon. Friends, like myself, when they read that sentence, murmured "You can say that again".

Within the compass of this limited debate, I can only pick out what seemed to me to be some of the major proposals for the adaptation of planning policy to the rural pattern as it is in Northern Ireland. I pick them out from the report not to indicate that by any means these are the only important recommendations but to indicate that they are among those with which hon. Members dealing with their constituents, and watching the development in their own areas, have become distressingly familiar.

The first is the "infilling" rule. That is a term of art which is not unfamiliar in other parts of the United Kingdom—that one can build a house in a rural area provided that one can satisfy the planning authority that it is infilling. But "infilling" is defined in the present policy note as: a small gap in a substantial and closely built-up frontage allowing at most for two dwellings". We associate ourselves with the comment of the committee upon that, which was: We find it difficult to comprehend the rationale behind the definition and we consider that it should be relaxed". In the length and breadth of Northern Ireland everyone can find areas where evidently, without any damage to the pattern of the area or to any consideration of agriculture or amenity, a great deal more than space for two dwellings in a closely built-up frontage represents in the normal and natural sense of the term "infilling". Therefore, the first point we would make is that the whole concept of infilling in planning policy has to be thought through again against the background of the actual rural pattern in Northern Ireland.

Then there is the use of old sites. Again, I quote from the report on this subject. In the passage which I quoted earlier, which drew attention to the depopulation and the scatter of derelict, decaying buildings, which could result from a mistaken planning policy, the committee continues: Such buildings are already increasing in number yet their siting is generally admirable, rarely on skylines, usually sheltered and surrounded by mature trees and hedges, and with access along hedge lines. We recognise that in some instances there may be sound reasons against replacing dwellings on existing sites, but it has been strongly put to us that the… restrictions —as at present applied— are not acceptable". I doubt whether more than a week or two goes past before I am confronted in South Down with the proposition that the permission to develop a new dwelling on an old site has for one reason or another been turned down. Indeed, the Minister has before him a particular case which is at present in my mind's eye. It is a site below the brow of a hill on a descending slope. It is surrounded, as the committee says, by mature trees. There are two old buildings on the site which could be worked into a new pattern, and there is a perfectly safe and suitable access to the adjacent road which could be contrived, avoiding all possibility of road danger. One could not imagine a more suitable site, not for new development but for redevelopment.

That one of the sons of the farmer higher up the hill should wish to build for himself a house on that site is surely devoutly to be desired. His application had been turned down out of hand. But I have good hope that with the flexibility of mind which the Minister personally has often shown, that decision will not be upheld. I quote that case as an illustration of the way in which one of the great assets of the Northern Ireland countryside is being deliberately neglected.

The existing sites of former settlements or dwellings which are ideal from every possible point of view for renewed occupation, and very often renewed occupation by those who are related to the people who work the soil in the neighbourhood, are something on which we should like to see a change of emphasis. Indeed, we should like to see the onus shifted the opposite way. The onus should be on the planning authority to explain why a former site is not now suitable for a dwelling house.

Then there is the attitude towards industries in the countryside. No serious thought seems to have been given to industrial planning in the countryside as opposed to planning for residence. The committee has certainly made an important point in saying that this has to be considered in its own right. In the words of the report, we believe that The need to foster agriculturally related industry in the countryside has been disregarded. Those are strong words to find used of a planning authority in a predominantly rural province such as Northern Ireland, but they are not a whit short of the truth. The presumption ought to be in favour of the would-be developer of an agriculturally oriented industry in the deep rural parts of Northern Ireland. Everyone comes across the small factory, very often closely knit with the agriculture of the neighbourhood, which is both socially and developmentally an asset to the neighbourhood. But, on the whole, the attitude has been the rule-of-thumb—"Industrial development? Put it in the urban areas. Put it in the areas which are zoned for industry". This concept of zoning, which in England we have grown up with over two generations, is really not applicable, or at least not applicable until it is transformed out of recognition to the circumstances of Northern Ireland I turn to the point about the over-rigidity in insisting upon avoiding waste in the supply of services. On that subject, the committee is again excellent. Of course, we all know the argument. It is essentially an English argument. "Put the houses where the services can be cheaply provided". That is one of the guiding lights of rule-of-thumb planning policy on this side of the water, but hear what the committee has to say: The argument for economy does not take into account the existence of a widespread service infrastructure in rural areas, and an investigation is clearly required into the comparison of direct costs in the provision and maintenance of services in dispersed rural communities with the level of public finance needed to create additional urban housing. After that, the committee achieves a statement for which I have waited for donkeys' years. It says, "but after all we do not need to assume the full range in urban terms of services in order to be justified in permitting development"—and here comes the sentence: the owner-occupier's…freedom of choice to live without full social facilities should he so wish". Hurrah, hurrah! We have been waiting for someone to say that; for after all, the man who was prepared to build himself a house, and choose for his reasons where he wanted to live, was entitled to accept that in that area some amenities indeed might not be available, but he had made his choice and knew what he was doing. It is unrealistic in the circumstances of Northern Ireland to work upon the calculus from the cost of services which is perfectly applicable to urban developments in England.

Noticeability is the next point. This is what is said about noticeability: the 'noticeability' of a house is irrelevant; that it is necessary and enhances the environment is most pertinent. The planning authority under planning rules that prevail at the moment—unless one can personally secure some attention to the realities on the ground—go by the rule-of-thumb that if a house will stick out, one cannot build it. Of course I agree that there are many circumstances in which it is far better to site a house below the skyline rather than on the skyline, but the traveller through Northern Ireland finds many houses that are extremely prominent and do stand out against the countryside, but these are necessary and they enhance the environment. There are many houses, deliberately painted in that typically Ulster shade of ochre, which stand out for miles, yet no one would say that these houses were a desecration of the hillside or the country in which they sit. They belong to it, are part of it and give it its character.

That is not true just of the older houses, the Georgian houses, the houses with the Dublin front doors. It is equally true of many of the well-designed houses which have been built in recent years and which are still being built. Therefore, let us get rid of the rule-of-thumb that if it is noticeable one cannot do it. That is not the rule by which to control developments in the Ulster countryside.

I have already said something about rural and agricultural industries and their place in the country pattern. I hope that the Minister will see that particular attention is given to the chapter on industrial and commercial developments, and particularly to the suggestion again to dispense with the rule-of-thumb that were there are fewer than 10 employees one does not bother about them, that the Department of Commerce should be brought into the picture and into the consultations only when a planned industrial development will give employment for at least 10 people. The report says that if a development will give employment for one extra person it is worth consideration in its own right. I hope that that is one of the many recommendations of this committee that will be adopted.

I come to the last of the list of recommendations that I have selected. It concerns buildings dedicated to tourism. I was particularly delighted when I read paragraph 60 of the report on that subject. I had been explaining to the Standing Committee on the Finance Bill that in Northern Ireland the definition of the size of the number of bedrooms of a building appropriate and required for the development of tourism was often very much smaller and the site very different from that which would be expected in other parts of the United Kingdom.

The Northern Ireland Tourist Board stressed to the committee that since it is a statutory body with specialist expertise it should, as of right, be consulted by the planners about any potential tourist project or any development that could adversely affect the tourist industry". The Tourist Board has been particularly keen that the provision of new accommodation, even in small units, in the deep rural areas of Northern Ireland should not be hampered, because it fits the pattern both of the country and the wishes of those who enjoy that kind of country.

I shall not lengthen the very selective list of points to be noted—points that I hope will be accepted and implemented in due course—that I have culled from the report.

I turn finally to administration. I have already quoted the damning sentence from the committee on administration: The committee does not accept that rural planning policy is administered in a sympathetic and understanding manner. The report goes on with very wise words: the advent of bureaucracy has alienated many of those involved in, or affected by, planning decisions. It is our view that this sense of alienation must he removed. That will come as no surprise to Northern Ireland Members. It is our view that the sense of alienation should be removed. We believe that in this we shall have the sympathy of the Secretary of State himself and the Northern Ireland Office generally.

In the end there is only one way to remove alienation which is caused by bureaucracy. That is by subordinating the bureaucracy to those who are democratically elected and responsible. I deliberately say "and responsible". Merely to take an elected person and put him on a board is not democracy. He may be an elected person in another context but he is not elected when he is put on the board. He is an appointee, just as much as anybody else. True, he may be in touch with what his colleagues on his elected body are thinking, but when he is on the board he is not there as a responsible representative. He does not have to go back individually to those who sent him there and explain what he has done.

This is where there is scope for utilising and developing local government in Northern Ireland. This should appeal to the Secretary of State, who told the House last Friday that he would see whether the right principles are being properly applied in the allocation of functions and responsibilities between the district councils and the regional government.

Planning is one area in which they are not properly applied. It is an area in which the bureaucracy has too much and the district councils too little. Indeed, that is an exaggeration, because the bureaucracy has it all. The district councils are in a purely consultative, non-responsible and non-representative role.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

They are just informed.

Mr. Powell

Yes, they are just informed. That is another and very common meaning of the word "consultation".

That brings me to perhaps my only serious disagreement with the report. The report says that there should be a statutory requirement for the Department to recognise that councillors should have more than a consultative role". We would agree with that. Indeed, we would say that in the detailed local application of planning policy the councils should be given a responsible, executive role. After all, there is plenty of safeguard. There is an appeal procedure. If the Minister does not like it, he can provide himself with an appeal procedure if he wishes to do so. But the executive power of detailed application—if we are to get away from bureaucracy and undo the alienation—must belong to the councils themselves.

Therefore we disagree with the proposal in the report to give the councils an appeal function. I do not believe that it is the natural function of elected bodies to sit upon appeals. Their natural function is to do. If there is to be an appeal, then we wish to take it a little further away and give it to a different sort of body. The elected body should be doing the initial deciding.

In this one respect the committee was misled. It says in paragraph 4: Councillors did not express to us any desire to assume the planning responsibilities of their predecessors prior to 1973, since planning decisions often led to divisions, dissension and allegations of sectarianism. I would be the first to agree that the district councils can only play a subordinate function in planning, in the sense that the general pattern of planning and the overall rules must be decided on a scale for the Province as a whole. But I do not know where the Committee went if it found councils that did not think they were fit to deal with the detailed application of planning policy in their own areas. As for divisions, dissension and allegations of sectarianism", what are elective councils for but to debate and decide matters which may be the subject of controversy? If they take a decision which in the view of the Secretary of State is contrary to general policy or a decision regarded as oppressive by the subject, he has his recourse by way of appeal.

I hope that this report, and in its way this debate, will not only bring about much more rapid process in the adaptation of planning to what Northern Ireland is and should remain in the future but will help in the task which I know the Secretary of State has set himself—namely, the re-democratisation of government in Northern Ireland. I refer to the bringing back of government to the understanding, control, sympathy and support of the people themselves.

7.42 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ray Carter)

I wish to welcome to the Opposition Front Bench the hon. Member for Petersfield (Mr. Mates). I understand that it is his maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box. He comes to this debate with considerable knowledge and experience of affairs in Northern Ireland. Therefore, he is no stranger to us.

I do not propose to make a long speech, and I shall certainly not make a controversial speech. The Cockcroft report is now before the people of Northern Ireland and is being considered by local authorities and political parties. Therefore, in this debate I wish to say nothing that will in any way prejudice the outcome of discussions. Although the report has been published, I am sure that many people think that there are still further contributions to be made. Indeed, this debate illustrates that hon. Members have points to make, as I am sure we shall soon discover in this debate.

I do not think that we can have too much discussion of the subject of rural planning in Northern Ireland. It is a controversial subject and since I have visited 26 councils in Northern Ireland I can only say that, if one leaves Belfast out of the picture, the other 25 have a very great deal to say about rural planning.

I hope to have the opportunity at the end of the debate to reply to any points made about broad policy and to make a few comments of a philosophical nature. I have some general thoughts to give the House on the subject of planning. It is an area of activity in which I have been involved for many years. My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) has a great deal in common with me. My first appointment in the world of representative politics and government was on the East Hampstead rural district council, and my hon. Friend and I served together on a planning committee, which often sat until three or four o'clock in the morning in that small council in Berkshire. Therefore, I was well aware long before I went to the Northern Ireland Office that planning was an important subject for those who live in rural areas.

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) for raising the subject of rural planning in a helpful and constructive manner. He has mentioned the recently published report of the committee which I set up last May to examine and make recommendations on our present policies for the control and development of the countryside. I should like to take this opportunity to thank Dr. Cockcroft, the chairman, and his committee for producing within 12 months this comprehensive and useful report on a most difficult and sensitive subject.

The committee has made a number of detailed recommendations, which seem to fall into two main categories. The first group of recommendations refers to our policies on domestic housing and development in rural areas, and he and the committee urge the Department of Environment, the sole planning authority, to adopt a more flexible and sympathetic approach. The second group of recommendations refers to our policy on industrial and agricultural development, though once again the keynote is the need for flexibility.

I shall be giving all these recommendations careful consideration and, obviously, my officials will need time to study the full implications of the recommendations. Moreover, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said to the House last Friday, we must remain sensitive to the views and feelings of local people. Hence, I shall be inviting comments on this report from elected representatives such as hon. Members here this evening and from district councils, as well as from other interested organisations such as the Ulster Countryside Committee and the Royal Society of Ulster Architects and any other interested parties.

I have no doubt that hon. Members will be referring to these recommendations during the course of this evening's discussion, and I think it would help if I reminded the House of the basic aims of our rural planning policies to which these recommendations refer. Our rural planning policy is, of course, only one element, albeit an important one, in the whole physical planning strategy. The regional physical development strategy for Northern Ireland sets out clearly the Government's overall planning policies and objectives. It is a strategy designed to maximise economic growth, whilst taking into account social and environmental factors, and to ensure that all the people in Northern Ireland benefit from this industrial growth. We have decided that this aim can best be achieved by the regeneration of Belfast and the adoption of the district towns concept. Outside Belfast, the concentration of scarce investment and resources in district towns will make them more attractive to new industry and create improved social and environmental conditions.

However, I recognise that some growth will be necessary outside the district towns in the smaller county towns and villages. I accept that many people who have lived all their lives in rural areas are simply not prepared to move into a district town, whereas they may be prepared to move into smaller settlements which are still essentially rural in character. The regional strategy provides for this and stresses that services need to be maintained and provision made for some expansion to cater for the increased population in these small towns and villages. These are being identified by my Department as it continues with the preparation of area plans. Obviously, development of these settlements must depend to a large extent on the employment opportunities available in the surrounding area and those nearest to the district towns are more favourably placed in this respect.

However, as Dr. Cockcroft's report has highlighted, it is the development outside these settlements which is causing the most controversy. Our aim is to complement the other aspects of the overall regional strategy, while recognising that individuals must have as much choice as possible about where they wish to live. We fully recognise that some people must live in the countryside outside any settlement. However, any applications for rural development must meet certain defined criteria as regards the amenity of the countryside, the loss of high quality agricultural land, ribbon development and urban sprawl. Moreover, the cost of the provision of services, and factors such as pollution problems and traffic hazards are all important elements that must be taken into account.

I am sure that hon. Members here tonight will agree that these are important factors and they would not wish to see a total free-for-all, without any form of control in these areas. Northern Ireland's rural environment is too great an asset to risk squandering in this way.

Subject only to good siting and design and any other land use considerations, the policy recognises that planning permission must normally be given to persons who need to live in the countryside because of the nature of their employment. In addition, sympathetic consideration is given to applicants who, because of special personal or domestic circumstances, require to live in rural areas. Apart from these personal circumstances, the present policy also permits building on suitable infill sites and replacement of existing dwellings which are readily capable of occupation.

In my view, these policies achieve a balance between the legitimate needs of some people who live and work in the countryside and the need to retain and preserve the rural environment. The report of Dr. Cockcroft's committee criticises the application of these policies as being inflexible. Unfortunately, it is impossible to please everybody. In the carrying out of any planning policy, some people will be refused planning permission and, naturally, they will be aggrieved. If there were a particularly high number of people with grievances, I would accept that this would be a fair indication of inflexibility on our part. However, the latest figures show that roughly two-thirds of all applications for rural housing are approved and only one-third refused. These figures hardly indicate that the policies are being applied inflexibly. However, I would be the last person to argue that either our policies or their implementation are beyond criticism. It is for this reason that I have given the undertaking that we shall be studying the report carefully and entering into the widest possible consultations.

The Cockcroft committee has taken the first step in enabling me to undertake this comprehensive review, and I await with interest the comments of hon. Members tonight.

7.52 p.m.

Mr. William Craig (Belfast, East)

As I represent East Belfast, which has an electorate of about 100,000, most of whom are engaged in industry and commerce, with a large number manning and servicing the machinery of bureaucracy, some people may wonder what is my interest in rural planning. But this is a matter that every hon. Member should take seriously. I could cite a number of minor constituency interests such as the wellbeing of the Lagan Valley and the development on the shoreline of Belfast Lough, but there is a much greater community interest centred round rural planning.

The Cockroft report is a most useful start to what I hope will emerge as much new thinking on a vital subject. Planning is a dirty word to most people and it is a neck and neck race whether economic planners or physical planners are the more resented. I believe that this is largely due to the insensitive attempts to direct people in ways that they do not immediately see the benefit of following.

I start my consideration of the report where my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) left off—the glaring omission of any comment on the machinery for administering planning law. My right hon. Friend referred to the part of the report that said that district councillors did not want planning powers returned to them. That may or may not be their view, but that is not the point. The question is how we can best ad minister planning law.

Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is hardly surprising that members of the present district councils were not fully alive to the possibilities, bearing in mind that their predecessors, to whom mistaken reference is made in the report, were not the old rural councils but the county councils which dealt with planning?

Mr. Craig

That is a valid point, and I entirely accept what my hon. Friend says.

The essential machinery for the effective operation of any planning law must involve three levels. The first, which touches people most, is the area level—what happens in their own locality. The second—the central level—has overall responsibility for working out the strategy and co-ordinating the life of the community as a whole. The third level, which has been lacking not only in Northern Ireland, but in other parts of the United Kingdom, is an independent appeal body acting in a judicial role. Far too often decisions involve a great deal of injustice and there is no effective remedy for the citizen.

Of course, all this involves some basic criteria being agreed for planning law. I am not sure that the terms of reference of the committee were adequate if they are deemed to be limited by the statutory requirements of the Department or are only those set out in the report, which refers to:

  1. "(a) the statutory requirements imposed upon the Department;
  2. (b) the social and economic objectives embodied in the Regional Development Strategy;
  3. (c) the need for due economy in the pi o-vision of essential services;
  4. (d) the protection of good quality agricultural land;
  5. (e) likely trends in population growth, population movement and employment; and
  6. (f) the interests and wishes of those who live in the countryside;"
They are all relevant and essential to a study to produce a modern code of planning law, but the crucial omission is that there is no reference to the right of the individual and the right of property ownership. Those rights touch upon the fundamental character of a democracy and planning law impinges upon fundamental rights in terms of the individual and his ownership and use of property.

British law, and our concept of freedom, has always been jealous of these rights. Indeed, the Englishman used to boast that his home was his castle. I am not sure that Parliament has always guarded these interests with the zeal that one would expect. This is not only a British theme. It is an essential ingredient in the character of democracy throughout the free world.

The Government would do well to address their mind to the European Convention on Human Rights to which this nation subscribed. Article I of the first additional protocol to the convention states: Every natural or legal person is entitled to the peaceful enjoyment of his possessions. No one shall be deprived of his possessions except in the public interest and subject to the conditions provided for by law and by the general principles of international law. In other words, if one wishes to deprive an individual of his possessions or to limit his use of them, one must establish clearly and beyond doubt that one is doing so in the general interest, or as a necessary process of protecting the rights of others. That is why I lay emphasis upon the need for at least three tiers of administration to ensure that the planning law works effectively.

The area level, in my opinion, is the one that will create the necessary climate for people to co-operate and accept planning as a useful part of day-to-day living. What the body should be is not easy to say in the situation that prevails in Northern Ireland. One would certainly expect the district council to be considered for that role. Indeed, I wonder what is the purpose of the district council if it has no effective say in controlling and shaping the environment and growth of the area which it is responsible.

What sort of councillor would be happy if he had no say as to where public sector housing was to go, or what quantity or quality of public sector housing was to be thrust into the environment for which he was held accountable by the electorate? Equally, the councillor would wish to be able to say what sort of private sector activity he wants and what scale and quality it should be. The people who are paying rates to the district council expect that this should be so. After all, if one is to invest a substantial part of one's life and a substantial proportion of one's material goods in a place, one wants to be assured that one's investment will be protected, and that the activities of others will not throw away something that is crucially important to one as an individual. In all this, nothing can touch or improve upon an area body that is elected by the people who live in that area, whether it be a district council or something greater than a district council. An elected body is an essential ingredient.

The central authority is also crucially important and is also in trouble if it is not adequately answerable to the people, and to the electorate in particular. The central planning authority has the onerous task of working out a strategy, which should be nothing more than broad guidelines, but it also has the duty to ensure that either the public sector or the private sector, in taking decisions to invest, is investing in something which has a consistency about it.

I am not sure that I entirely agree with the Cockcroft committee in its assessment of central planning strategy, but one thing is certain—that unless the central planning authority can speak decisively for a long-term policy, planning cannot succeed.

The report makes one or two fairly basic errors, I think, in assessing the present situation in Northern Ireland. I do not believe that it is correct to say that the planning policy presently applicable is drawn from or equivalent to that operating in the highly urbanised areas of lowland Britain. I think that this is a misreading of what has happened in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland's strategy, in terms of modern planning, has grown out of a recognition that we were in danger of having the greatest proportion of the Province's population living in the capital city or the immediate environs. It is a problem very similar to that with which Denmark and Sweden had to contend. The attempted solution was not dissimilar to the policies that were adopted towards Copenhagen and Stockholm.

Unhappily, terrorism, which has existed in Northern Ireland now for all too long, has to some extent—indeed, to a very large extent—changed that picture. Belfast, as an industrial growth centre, no longer presents the same sort of problem as it did before terrorism broke out. But it would be wrong, in my opinion, to develop a strategy now on the basis that the terrorists will continue to succeed in what they have achieved over the ast 10 years. It is essential to Northern Ireland that Belfast should become once again a magnet of considerable pulling ower, and our rural planning strategy must take recognition of that.

In chapter 2, the conclusion of the committee, in paragraph 8, is: We do not believe that any overall planning policy for the Province should be a political issue". I wonder what is meant by that remark. I can think of nothing more political than planning decisions of the sort that we are talking about, but presumably we are getting confused with the rather remarkable statement in paragraph 4 of the same chapter, in which reference is made to planning in an earlier age, alleging that it caused divisions, dissension and sectarianism. It is this sort of rubbish that seems to distort so much of our current thinking. Let us not allow these imagined problems to distort our thinking. We are dealing with something which is highly political, and which can best and only be handled in political institutions.

Chapter 4 touches with very considerable skill on the particular problems relating to Northern Ireland. I certainly agree that the Committee is speaking for the great majority of people in Northern Ireland when it says that there is a reluctance on the part of policy makers to accept anything other than the strictest proof of necessity to live in the countryside as good reason for planning permission. That is certainly my experience, and I have not found anyone in public life—or, indeed, professional life—who would seriously dispute that.

I welcome the approach of the committee to planning permission in rural areas, although I should like to see it even more flexible. I should certainly like to see a virile and vigorous approach to the encouragement of owner-occupiers. Compared with the rest of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is sadly deficient in the number of owner-occupiers in the community. This is of importance to the stability and progress of any community.

There is one thing that I cannot agree with, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South has already referred to it, all too briefly. I for one would seriously question the right of the Department or the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to take steps to acquire land in settlements or villages for sale or leasing to individuals. This is not the way to encourage owner-occupiers. It merely enmeshes them further in the control of bureaucracy and inhibits the style and character of private development.

Paragraph 23 of the report refers to the physical development strategy. The situation is well stated. As we move through the document, we would do well to refer back to paragraph 23. But I should like to see more emphasis on the question of the destruction and revitalisation of culture. That is something which is entirely different from what we know today as conservation or the maintenance of historic buildings and buildings of architectural appeal.

In every community, and particularly in Northern Ireland, enshrined in bricks and mortar, on highways and byways, in main streets and back streets there is tradition and character which is being rubbed out too easily by development. Too often what is there is razed to the ground and replaced by something which is totally different in architectural style and layout. Often the revitalisation of a culture can be better achieved by encouragement and by granting permission to restore and improve that which is already there.

Not only in our large towns but in small villages there seems to be a planning dream that our main streets should not contain a proliferation of shops—that there should be one baker and one laundry to a street. But it is no part of the planner's job to arbitrate what services shall be available to the community. Competition is the spice of life. We want our villages and smaller complexes to have all the variety of the villages of yesterday but with the amenities of today and tomorrow.

The recommendation in the report that will be endorsed by everyone is that the present rural policy be operated in a more flexible and sympathetic manner". That is easy to say. I welcome that declaration. In particular, I welcome the recommendation That the special restrictions on the renovation, rebuilding and replacement of existing dwellings be removed. That is a big step forward. If the right machinery is created with that type of objective, a major step will be taken for the benefit of our community.

I tend to disagree with the substance of paragraph 29. I do not believe that there is substantive evidence to question the value of urban and industrial concentration as a major factor in the resolution of the economic problems.

If Ulster is to have the economy that offers room for skills and energies, we must share in the development of modern technologies and we must be involved in large-scale industry. Skills and energy are not easily satisfied by taking in laundry or operating in small craft industries. The Northern Ireland of the future will depend upon its capacity to attract the most exciting of the industries that derive from modern technology.

Considerable skill is required in order to do that. We must bear in mind not only the skill of the urban facility and the services provided, but the skill of manpower. One of the things that has affected industrial development in Northern Ireland is the immobility of the labour force. I have known people to remain unemployed for long periods when a job is available in a town 15 to 20 miles away. This type of large-scale industrial development must be centred in a fairly large urban area if a labour force is to be found with any certainty.

It is important to relate rural planning to urban growth centres. Whatever the merits or demerits of the national policy, there must be a genuine and sincere effort to ensure urban concentrations in Northern Ireland without robbing or depopulating the rural areas.

I shall not go into the details of individual planning applications. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South and with the report that noticeability is not in itself decisive. There should be a general recognition that anyone should be able to build on his own land, unless there are good reasons for his not doing so. It is the responsibility of the planners to specify and declare what that good reason is. The individual must have the opportunity to challenge the planning authority.

I am a great believer in avoiding as far as possible uniformity in the lives of people. The greater the variety the better. That is the spice of life. I hope that the report has taken us a step along that way.

I take exception to few of the recommendations. That must be the hallmark of any good report. The recommendation to which I take the most exception is that which involves the acquisition of land by the Department or the Housing Executive. I agree with the rest of the report but I should have liked some issues to have been given greater emphasis.

Tourism is promoted and recognised but there is little reference to the recreational needs of the people. Recreation Is important in terms of planning. The best opportunities for recreation occur in the rural areas.

I have left the most controversial disagreement to the end of my speech. It involves recommendation 30 which reads: That, in order to raise the capital needed for the restoration of past, present and future development, some form of levy should be imposed on developers, supplemented by Government funds. I can speak only for Northern Ireland, although I imagine that a lot could be said in United Kingdom terms on this question. The encouragement of development of any kind is not likely to be achieved if, as part of that encouragement, one holds out the spectre of further burdens of taxation. In Northern Ireland, I would much rather hear less talk about levies and taxes and do away with the concept of subsidies. It would be far better to relieve the citizens of taxes than to give him a subsidy.

In Northern Ireland, we have had some useful benefit from the subsidy given to the private sector of housing, but this benefit has been greatly overrated and exaggerated, and I should not be unhappy to see it disappear if it meant that we should be relieved of taxes on development. Of course, there are areas of activity to which some contribution has to be made. If the public purse is to create benefits from which the private citizens can derive advantage, there may be a case for some measure of tax, but I am reluctant to subscribe in general to a levy in relation to all forms of development, be it the restoration of the past, the maintenance of the present or provision for the future. Incentive and guidelines are what are needed.

This is a most useful report. I am glad that we have had an opportunity to discuss it, and I hope that this will not be the end of discussion in Parliament before decisions are taken.

8.21 p.m.

Mr. John Ellis (Brigg and Scunthorpe)

I make no apology for speaking in the debate, because I recently had an Adjournment debate on the decline of services in rural areas. I am always anxious to learn, so when I saw this document I wondered whether there was anything for me to learn from it, although its context is that of rural planning in Northern Ireland.

Having read some of the document, I feel that there is something missing from the debate thus far, and I hope to be able to make a contribution which hon. Members from Northern Ireland will accept as having some relevance. One of the terms of reference for the review was: (e) Likely trends in population growth, population movement and employment. I am somewhat disappointed that nowhere in the report is there a reference to the difference in character between the Province and what we find in this country. I claim no great expertise to talk about Northern Ireland in any context. In fact, in my adult years I have visited the Province on only one or two occasions. But I recall that, even as one looks down from the aeroplane, a striking difference is to be seen. What did that difference in landscape bring to mind? I could only think back to my very early childhood. The hedgerows were still there, and the landscape was small-scale.

I have made inquiries, and I think that the relevant point which is not mentioned in the report is the change of circumstances among people engaged in agriculture. I understand that, whereas about 14 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland are still engaged in agriculture, in this country the proportion has already fallen to 2 per cent. I should not like to be bound by the figures, but I think that hon. Members from Northern Ireland will accept that they still have a significantly larger number of the total population in agriculture than we have in this country.

Looking at the report, I feel that there is a certain nostalgia reflected in its pages. On page 25, recommendation 7 is that attention should be given to the wishes of rural dwellers to preserve their rural community connections and identity even though they may choose to work in urban areas. Whether we speak of Great Britain or of Ulster, we must recognise also what is said on page 11 of the report: …the drift away from the land has been evident in the Province for many years. It is my contention that that process has gone much further in the rest of the United Kingdom than it has in Northern Ireland, but I believe that hon. Members will find that it has significant effects for Northern Ireland, too. No doubt there are historical reasons for the present relationship. Indeed, the report makes the point that The agrarian history of Northern Ireland has also created an emotional dimension to land ownership that is unusually intense and it points out that The mainly 'owner-occupation' system in Northern Ireland has to be contrasted with what is, generally, the 'landlord-tenant' system in the remainder of the United Kingdom. Our experience in Great Britain has been that people have a love of the soil, especially when they own it. The problem for farmers even in Great Britain, when faced with the new techniques in agriculture and the new intensive methods, often capital-intensive methods, and economic competition from the larger holdings has been that, whether in pigs or in dairy farming, they have tended to put up one more lean-to and carry on with a difficult and hard job, frequently finishing up working 80 hours a week. I ask hon. Members opposite not to put that matter aside lightly.

There has been reference to local planning decisions and local input. I lived in a village for many years. I know very well that there is likely to be resistance from people engaged in agriculture. I do not say that in any political sense. It is just that there are farmers on the local authorities and so forth. I know from hard experience that if it is proposed that a factory should be set up in their area, they are not likely to be very co-operative, because the workers employed in agriculture—I am sure that this is true in Northern Ireland unless circumstances there are very different—usually have lower wages.

I recall what happened in one village when some local authority housing was put up. When the farm workers moved out of their tied cottages into the dwellings put up by the local council, they speedily got jobs anywhere but in agriculture—on the railway, as roadsweepers for the county council or whatever it may have been.

I am therefore a little suspicious when I see reference to industry mainly associated with agriculture. This is an interesting idea—it has possibilities—but I do not think that we should lead ourselves to conclude that, if we can somehow have some small units of industry in the villages, this will dead to changes in agriculture so that farmers, farmers' daughters and part-time farmers can work in industry. We shall not change the general feeling of the villages and rural areas in that way.

What generally happens is this. I take the example of Scunthorpe, which I know very well. People have the dream of living in the countryside. Every Englishman—and, I take it, every Ulsterman—has his dream of settling down in a country district, with roses round his front door. But who is he when he comes to live there and do the infilling? He usually has his car. in my context, he will probably be a steel worker, a tradesman with a good income, and he comes into the village to live. But he is really no part of that community. He commutes in and out every day in his car. He is not concerned with the general services.

It has been said that the planners should not have the job of deciding how many shops there are in a vilage, how many butchers, bakers and candlestick makers. There may be a point there. But what is happening is that overall the number of people who are the true rural dwellers has declined. I have a feeling that that will happen in Northern Ireland. The people with the cars will come in. It is not the planners who are chasing them out; it is the fact now that we have supermarkets and hypermarkets, and people can shop there.

It may be instructive—perhaps it is happening in Northern Ireland now—to look at the number of sub-post offices that have disappeared from our villages. As the standard of living goes up, more and more people are mobile, and more and more are not the traditional villagers that we once knew but are coming in from a considerable area. They choose to do their shopping at the supermarkets and the hypermarkets. So it is very difficult for people to make a living in what were the old and accustomed ways.

I do not welcome all this. It may be that in Northern Ireland there is a chance for the Province to tackle matters differently. In spite of all that I have said, I do not think that we in this country have solved the problem. I think that there are possibilities with the small factory. Very much of this thesis, though, depends en that kind of approach. But it would be wrong not to anticipate the real difficulties that stand in the way.

There will be changes. Because of the system of land tenure, I think that people will tend to cling on to their small farms, where we have rooted out the hedgerows and have had massive amalgamations until our countryside is as different as chalk from cheese from what it was. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is older than I am. He will remember what our countryside was like when he was young. It is now very different from what it was. It is rolling country, so there is more dairy farming, perhaps, than in the context of Northern Ireland. So I think there is scope.

I certainly would have hoped that in this document more words would have been written on the subject of Northern Ireland having about 14 per cent. of its total population still in agriculture, whereas we in this country have 2 per cent.

The point is that as we go down this path—perhaps we could look at the figures for the United States, where although things are not entirely different, there is much more mechanisation and so on—the tendency, all the time, is for the little man with his pigsty, six pigs, or whatever, to be replaced by the pig factory. That is what they are. There are the broiler units and people going to work in factory conditions, which is perhaps the only area in our own agriculture where these units are operating.

If hon. Members were to read the provincial Press in this country—these matters are not often reported or debated in the House—the enormous problems that these units cause in villages would be obvious to them. There are problems of disposal of effluent, the obnoxious smells that are produced, and so on. They are very often unwelcomed by the traditional rural element. I have just attended a protest meeting about the installation of one of these units.

I urge hon. Members not to be too wildly enthusiastic about this report. I think that this is the start of the debate. It makes a contribution. Very often things go on in the Province of which we, as English Members, should take more note, in relation to some of the aid to industry and the changes that have been made. Some of it has a significance for us in this country.

If it were that even in that one field, some progress could be made towards integrating some form of industry in a rural setting without destroying the existing pattern of real community, which has much to commend itself, that would be a singular contribution that we should support. However, I am bound to say that I do not think it will be as easy as that. We shall watch and see how it progresses.

8.33 p.m.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

It is always good for hon. Members representing the rest of the United Kingdom to sit in on these debates and make their contribution. I welcome the contribution of the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis). But the fact of the matter is simply that different regions of the United Kingdom are entirely different from each other.

Northern Ireland, in its history, its agriculture, its tenancy of farms, its viability of the smallholding, and the desire of the people not to have a break-up of village life and rural community, is entirely different.

The hon. Member was talking about people from the towns wanting to move to the country. Our problem is rural people being forced into the towns against their will. That is why, for us on this Bench, the Cockcroft report is a breath of fresh air blowing through the planning offices, where people with pencils and paper are trying to regulate where people will live and how they shall be pushed out of their heritage. That is why there is a fierce confrontation in Northern Ireland between the people and the planners.

Things are so bad at the moment that whole district councils are voting against every proposal of the planning officer because that is the only way in which they can protest. One councillor told me the other day, "We have decided to vote against everything he brings forward, because that is the only way to make him heed our opposition." No planning department can succeed without the cooperation of those for whom it is planning.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) raised one important point—that no elected representative should be asked to act in a judicial capacity. They are there to administer. Bringing councillors into an independent planning appeals board will not remedy the matter. They should sit in the council, taking executive decisions which can be appealed to an independent board. Elected representatives should not sit on a judicial planning inquiry. If we proceed in that way, we shall go further astray. That is one disagreement that I have with the report.

On balance, of course, I would far rather go before an independent tribunal as envisaged in the report than the Appeals Commission of Northern Ireland. Some hon. Members on this Bench will agree with me on that. I do not despise what the Appeals Commission has done within its parameters, but many of its decisions are contrary to the spirit of good planning. I have some experience, having been told by the commissioner that I appear at planning appeal tribunals more than any other elected Member.

The district councils must have a true executive role in the planning of their own areas. That is where the change should come. I am not as optimistic as the right hon. Member for Down, South that the Government will bring democracy back to Northern Ireland through those councils. The Minister has to do some hard thinking about giving the district councils a proper executive role. It is strange that, after deliberation, whole district councils should tell the planning officer that they do not like his decision and that he should reconsider it, only to be told by the planning officer, "I refuse. I have the authority. That is my decision, and you can appeal if you wish."

Under the present appeals system in Northern Ireland, others who think that they will be aggrieved have no right of appeal. After all, it is not only the person asking for planning permission; there are other persons who, if planning permission is granted, may think that they will be aggrieved. If the planning officer decides to grant someone the right to build a factory or a hotel or a house, others in the neighbourhood who might object to such development have no right of appeal. Once the planning officer authorises the development to proceed and it is accepted that he is right, there is no appeal by other aggrieved parties. I believe that third parties should be able to set forth their objection to planning decisions.

I commend the authors of this report. They have set before us a very important point in paragraph 25 where they say that planning has been geared to the Northern Ireland regional physical development strategy, whatever that may be. They say, in other words, that the decisions in planning are geared to an overall policy which envisages that the rural areas will be depopulated by almost 5 per cent. from 1975 to 1995. I do not want the rural areas to be depopulated at all. I want the population to stay there. The authors also use this vital sentence: evidence presented to us has overwhelmingly indicated that the policy is forcing the disintegration of rural communities with the consequent loss of social stability and declining use of earlier investment in churches, schools, halls, roads, water and other services; in short, the result of the rigid application of the rural planning policy is seen as a depopulated countryside scattered with abandoned buildings and derelict dwellings. What an indictment that is.

My constituency is perhaps the longest rural constituency in Northern Ireland. It stretches from the borders of Carrickfergus right to Portrush and then down to Toome Bridge and the borders of Randalstown. I see these derelict dwellings. I am amazed that, when a farmer's son says that he would like to remove an eyesore and build on the site—a site which is usually surrounded with mature trees, a site which is ideal for the building of houses—he is told "You cannot do that. We do not want rural development".

I congratulate those who made representations to the authors of this report because, by so doing, they ensured that many important points were brought out.

There seems to be a crazy idea that a farmer's son, when he is about to get married, must have his house built right beside the original farm house so that the two houses are together. No young man wants to set up right under the eye of his in laws—they are sometimes outlaws, as we all know, and perhaps some have more bitter experience of this than others.

There must be flexibility. I have stood on farms in my area and have heard the planning officers arguing down the throat of the farmer's son. I am thinking in particular of a farmer's son who is not engaged in a work outside farming but is the heir to the farm; his father and mother will soon hand over the reins. Yet the planning officers insist that his house must be built cheek by jowl with the parents' house. On one farm in the Rasharkin area, the only site available was the dunghill. The planning officer said to the young man "You will clean that up and that is where you will build."

This is a fact of life. I said that there was a suitable site across the road, but he replied "We shall have no building across the road". What attitude does that young man adopt to farming when he finds that an officer in the Northern Ireland Office is not prepared to allow him any leeway?

The report says that there should be a little positive thinking in planning in Northern Ireland and that we should adopt a positive and not a negative role. Those of us who have been at these planning appeals know how the refusal is worded. It is said that if permission is granted the development will affect the amenity of the countryside. That is the jargon of the planners. When one asks how it will affect the amenity of the countryside, the official goes into long, high-sounding phrases to defend the amenity of the countryside. I say that the sites at present occupied by derelict dwellings that are scattered across the countryside are the ideal places to build these new houses. Let us do away with the derelict dwellings, and let people build on those sites and thus bring fresh life into the rural districts.

I have to laugh when I hear someone say that if there are sceptic tanks they will pollute the countryside. There are thousands of houses in Northern Ireland that have no septic tanks. They have what an old politician in Northern Ireland called Adam and Eve sanitation, and this has been going on for generations. People have been burying their sew-wage in the back garden. It would be far better if they were granted planning permission for a septic tank and were allowed to have some amenity in their homes.

The committee says that we should bring a breath of fresh air into the matter and be positive in what we do. It is time that we had this breath of fresh air An 85-year-old constituent of mine still carries her bucket out every day. People such as her should be allowed these amenities, and the idea that water courses will be polluted by allowing septic tanks to be used is ridiculous.

Another important matter dealt with in the report is the attitude of the planners to commerce in these rural districts. We have in Northern Ireland a series of what are called area plans. They have no statutory authority, but every time one goes to a planning appeal these plans are pulled out and one is told that one area is allocated for one purpose, another for another purpose, and yet another for a different purpose again. If the planning officer is asked what statutory authority the plans have, one finds that there is none. They are just ideas on the board. They are just a dream, and those concerned want to make everybody conform to what is really a nightmare.

In my own area in Portglenone the area plan has allocated a section of the area for industry. In other areas, such as Ahoghill and other villages, all the sites have been taken up but in Portglenone not one industrial site has been taken. Why? It is because that is the worst terrorist area in the district. Policemen have been shot and murdered in that area. No industrialist or workers will go there.

I raised a case with the Minister who is responsible for commerce in which the planners had turned down projected industrialisation which would have provided work for 40 people. They did so because the man concerned refused to go to an area that would put both his building and his workers in jeopardy.

The matter went to the planning appeals commission. I fought the appeal, and the vice-chairman of the commission, who presided, recommended that the man should have permission. But when the man returned to the commission he could not persuade the people concerned, who had never heard about the case, that they should grant permission. Therefore, he asked that when they turned down the appeal his name be written in as protesting against their decision.

Those are some of the things that are happening in the appeals commission. I am glad that the Minister overruled the decision when I appealed to him, and that that industrialisation in that small village is going ahead and that 40 jobs will be available for the people there.

The Minister must have a hard look at the so-called area plans. I feel very strongly that this first ventilation of comment on the report will be helpful. But the Minister will need to take some interim decisions. I refer especially to the proposal about the in-fill sites. I have been at planning appeals where the planning officer has said "We shall allow one house there" and it was possible to put three there.

If the Minister is to make a decision later, he should surely deal with some of the matters that could have a decision made on them now. He could do some hard thinking now. I do not know what representations he will receive from district councils that will affect his decision on in-filling. The practical thing to do is to permit the in-fill sites. I believe that that is a decision that the Minister will need to take rapidly.

The length of this debate is limited. I have made the points that I feel need to be made about my constituency. I trust that we shall again have time for debate on the Floor of the House, after the Minister has heard the representations that will be made to him. I also trust that he will realise tonight that there are some decisions he could make rapidly that would at least ease the position and put encouragement into the hearts of those who are prepared to invest, rather than go to public housing, in the rural community in order to hold it together.

In many rural villages both sides of the religious divide are well represented They live together and go about together, and there are no problems. The villagers of Northern Ireland have been practically immune to any discord between factions in village life. When those people are transferred into the ghettos of the city, when they are taken out of the environment that they have been used to and are put into an environment where they no longer have the stability that they had, they become an easy prey to the strife that can arise in those cities. Therefore, a contribution to the stability of our country can be made by the decisions that the hon. Gentleman has to take.

8.53 p.m.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

Like the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley), I welcomed the contribution by the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis). I do not want to get into waters that I am not too familiar with as eagerly as he got into the Northern Ireland waters. The hon. Gentleman was not comparing like with like. Whilst his contribution was interesting, a better understanding of the rural situation in Northern Ireland is needed if one is to make a contribution that has some meaning.

For example, the hon. Gentleman talked about the 14 per cent. of the population who are engaged in agriculture in Northern Ireland as against the 2 per cent. on the mainland. I suggest that, although that 14 per cent. will reduce somewhat, it will not reduce much more. If it settles at around 10 per cent. or 12 per cent., that will be much healthier for Northern Ireland than the 2 per cent. is for Great Britain. The 2 per cent. on the mainland to which the hon. Gentleman referred is the consequence of the explosion in population that occurred in the cities on the mainland after the movement had taken place from the country into the town. That 2 per cent. on the mainland does not relate to the 14 per cent. or whatever in Northern Ireland.

Mr. John Ellis

I was merely posing the question for the purposes of this debate. The hon. Gentleman must recog- nise that, for example, milking machines are invented and people use them. A man may keep many more cows than he wants to. All I am saying is that there is a danger in the traditional pattern of rural life. There is equally a danger if we introduce the factories. I am interested to know who will live in the houses which form part of the in-filling programme. I have derelict houses in my constituency. The young people engaged in agriculture move to the towns. Those who take their places are not necessarily engaged in agriculture or working in the villages.

Mr. McCusker

The hon. Gentleman must understand—and if he were in County Armagh for a while I could quickly show him—that the problem is housing the people so as to keep them in the rural areas. Just 120 years ago North Armagh was the most densely populated part of the island of Ireland. In any road or lane in that part of my constituency there would have been one cottage after another. The famine certainly had its effect and reduced that population substantially. But it is still a predominantly rural area and highly populated. As one drives through it, one can hardly go 250 yards or more along a road without coming to two or more houses. Family sizes in Northern Ireland are substantially larger than in Great Britain and there is a desire on the part of those who were born in the country and have lived there for 20 or 25 years to remain there.

We have a substantial rural-dwelling population who travel five, 10 or 20 miles to work. There are many antiquated cottages, many of them belonging to the Housing Executive and as lacking in facilities as others referred to earlier in the debate. They were originally built for farm labourers and are now occupied by their descendants, who are perhaps tradesmen. Very few of these people are unemployed. Most of the unemployment is in towns such as Portadown, Lurgan, Craigavon, Belfast and so on.

There are very few people in Northern Ireland, with the exception of the old populations of Belfast and Londonderry, who are more than one or two generations removed from the country. Most adults could trace at least one of their grandparents to a rural background and most children in Northern Ireland today have a grandparent engaged in some form of agriculture. The historic feeling for the country is a tremendous driving force throughout the community.

We need only witness the struggle by those still living in the designated area of Craigavon to hold on to what they think of as theirs, even though it has been taken from them for the so-called greater good—not a greater good which I support—to understand that feeling. Last week there were some disturbing scenes in Craigavon with one or two of the remaining farmers there trying to cling on to what is theirs and to get a fair deal before being evicted.

I am constantly having to help constituents to hold on to what is a fundamental dream of most of them, namely, to remain on their farms or at least to remain in the rural areas where they have been brought up and where their families have lived for generations. I could cite examples of how the planners have applied this strict test of the proof of necessity. I remember the case of an elder son of a farmer who would eventually inherit the small farm. At the time he was working in a factory belonging to a multinational company in Craigavon. He had married but had not set up house because he was hoping to build on the farm. His mother and father were due to retire and he was expecting to take it over in a few years' time.

We managed to obtain planning permission at the appeal only by showing that the shift system he was working was not a normal three-shift rotation system of five or six days a week. We managed to show that he was working the continental shift system of three by two by two. I was able to argue that because he was working three 12-hour shifts a week he had time to engage in certain agricultural activities. I believe that the persons who heard the appeal would not have accepted that if he had been working five eight-hour shifts a week he would have had time for such activities. That is the sort of nonsense one encounters in trying to get planning permissions for such people.

I have never considered that the countryside, particularly in Northern Ireland, would be enhanced if it were devoid of buildings. I think that part of the attraction of Northern Ireland's countryside is its vitality and the life that exists because of the population that is there. This point was eloquently made by my right hon. Friend. Certainly there would be nothing for me in a barren countryside in County Tyrone, County Fermanagh or County Armagh. I would find it strange.

I support what my right hon. Friend said about Great Britain. I find it strange travelling through Somerset and Dorsetshire, going on mile after mile without coming to a farm or a group of buildings, but then coming to an attractive village or hamlet with another five or six miles further on. It is beautiful and attractive countryside for me to visit, but it is not the sort of countryside that I should want to live in. Nor would, I think, the majority of the people of Ulster, but for very different reasons, of course.

What I like about the Cockcroft report is that it is concerned with people more than with plans and strategies, and I am glad that there is an emphasis on rural dwellers, people who live in the country but do not necessarily work in agriculture and have established a right over many generations to continue to live there. For example, rural churches have declining congregations, but members of such declining congregations will travel five or 10 miles to attend what they regard as their own church. They will travel far in order to keep their traditions going.

I never cease to be surprised on a certain day each year—not so far away now—to see people walking behind a banner designating a rural district miles away from where they now live. They are behind that banner because their grandfathers or fathers came from that place, and when they themselves came of age to join they joined where the family had its roots.

Many people have a strong desire to build in these areas. I do not want to see good farmland destroyed any more than anyone else does, but there are many pieces of land on farms which are barren or derelict. I am glad to note that the divisional planning officer in Craigavon has given planning approval for a house on a piece of land on a farm which had no agricultural value. I hope that more consideration will be given to that kind of action.

Permission should be given for more replacement dwellings. I have never understood why those concerned about the appearance of the countryside should be prepared to put up with derelict buildings when a well-designed modern house could replace it with much more attractive effect. I certainly want to retain firm control on the type of housing built in the countryside, and I like the section in the Cockcroft report which deals with planning advice centres which would help in such matters. Emphasis put on the overall design of buildings in order to establish some sort of uniformity might be useful as well.

I agree with the reservations that have already been expressed about the buying of land around villages. I do not think that will go down very well. Perhaps the committee came to that conclusion because it could not suggest any other way in which one could meet the point it makes in paragraph 22: That the Department pursue its general aims in a more positive manner, not only by allowing, and being seen to allow, a certain amount of housing in the open country". I suppose that that can be achieved only if people are allowed to buy land and go somewhere else. I do not quite know how the Government intend to put that suggestion into operation.

As I have said, I welcome this report because it is a human document which reflects the values of the people in Northern Ireland. If a mistake was made in relation to where the planning policy originated, perhaps it was the fact that Dr. Cockcroft brought with him the same views as did the Minister.

The Minister will remember saying to me a few weeks ago that, while he always knew rural planning to be important, he had never realised that it was such a burning political issue until he came to Northern Ireland. No doubt his views were conditioned by the fact that there is a particular rural policy in England which is generally accepted. No doubt Dr. Cockcroft also arrived in Northern Ireland conditioned by that policy. Perhaps that is why the Committee came to that conclusion. Irrespective of how the Committee reached that conclusion, the fact is that the policy as we have known it for the past few years has been wrong. I hope this report will go some way towards changing it.

9.7 p.m.

Mr. Michael Males (Petersfield)

May I first thank the Minister for his kind remarks which he made at the outset of his speech. I noticed that they were made before I caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, or had opened my mouth. I hope that he will have no cause to regret it when I have finished.

This has been an interesting debate on an exceedingly interesting document. I should like to associate all my right hon. and hon. Friends with the expressions of thanks and congratulations to Dr. Cockcroft and his committee on having produced such an excellent report.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) took us through the meat of the report with his customary lucidity. I shall not seek to do that again. If I were to be so bold as to try to summarise what he said, it would be that this report had examined and identified all the problems with devastating effectiveness. If I am to ask any critical questions during my remarks, it will be whether the report goes as far down the road in offering solutions to these very difficult problems. Indeed, I believe that the contribution of the right hon. Member for Down, South and, indeed, that of the right hon. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig), stopped short of a really tough attempt to provide the answer which is clearly lacking in relation to the whole range of planning policy in Northern Ireland.

Since hon. Members from Northern Ireland have been through the guts of the report, I shall only skate lightly through the body of it and concentrate my remarks on the recommendations at the end. I refer to paragraph 6, which the right hon. Member for Down, South mentioned as a significant difference between one part of the United Kingdom and the rest. Normally that is something which he tells us should be otherwise. The report says that it does not regard the historical need to prevent suburban sprawl and ribbon development…to be the major criterion of a rural planning policy for Northern Ireland". It alleges that this is the major criterion in mainland England and points particularly to the South of England. It seems to suggest that the situation in Northern Ireland is so different as to require a very major difference in the laying down of criteria. The report does not say what the committee thinks the criteria should be. It mentions the differences and problems in rural Ulster, but it does not go any further. I would have liked to see another set of criteria put forward for discussion since the committee felt the existing ones were wrong. But we do not see that in the report. Perhaps in the widespread discussions that will be held in the coming months we shall hear from the Minister what these criteria might be.

The same criticism will apply when we touch on the fearful lack of democratic control over planning procedures in Ulster. Having identified these problems lucidly in his speech, the right hon. Member for Down, South begged the question on the solution to them. If he believes that it is wrong that district councils should not have a say in planning; if he believes that it is wrong that all decisions should be in the hands of bureaucracy; and if he believes it is wrong—and here I agree with him—that district councillors should have a say in an appeal procedure, rather than in the initial executive decision, then he owes it to us to say what the solution should be.

I think it would be wrong, if control were introduced at district level, for it to be only for appeals. If one elects local representatives for anything at all, it is to decide something, not to change a decision that has been taken bureaucratically.

Although it has been suggested that planning decisions could be left to the district councils, would it be right or justifiable in the overall planning context of that part of the United Kingdom to leave all such decisions in the hands of 26 different councils? If the proposition is that that would lead to a lack of coordination and a lack of overall discernible policy one must ask how it should all be drawn together. For the life of me I can see no other way than by setting above the district councils some sort of body or authority that can draw the strings together and produce a comprehensive planning policy for the whole Province.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Surely the old county councils, which had this planning authority, had no other council above them to appeal to. They went straight to the Department. Why cannot the Department take over this role that it had before?

Mr. Mates

The hon. Member cannot have it both ways. He said that he wants the Department to do it, but then he will charge the Minister once again with being remote. Although the Minister is an elected representative, he was not elected by anyone in Northern Ireland and the Department would be taking decisions in an arbitrary way—

Rev. Ian Paisley

The point is that under the old system the county councils had planning authority. They made the original decision and the only appeal from them was to the Department. Why cannot we reimpose that system? That will not give the Department complete power because the first decision will be made by the local authority.

Mr. Mates

If we are to restore democracy, we must do so throughout, and we must start at a much lower level. But between that lower level and a central authority there must be some democratic answerability. In the old days of the county councils that answerability existed, but those days are gone. We are now seeking other solutions. The Conservative Party has devoted a great deal of thought and study to this topic and we have put forward suggestions as to how the matter should proceed.

My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) has made clear that an incoming Conservative Government will look hard at the possibility of setting up one or more regional council. He was referring to an upper tier of local government—not simply for planning, although planning must come into the matter. Unfortunately, I believe that this section of the report looks at the problem too narrowly. To set up an upper tier for planning purposes only, as the report suggests, would only proliferate those statutory authorities of which many people believe there are far too many in Northern Ireland at present.

There are some recommendations in the report which appear to me to be questionable, to say the least. I do not want to be too critical when I say that the report is rather short on solutions. Although one can understand and sympathise with the desire to cure, there are one or two suggestions, particularly involving the central authority, which might leave us worse off than we were before. Recommendation I says that if planning is refused, the unsuccessful applicant should be offered an alternative site. That is a reasonable sentiment, but recommendation 2 says that the Northern Ireland Housing Executive should purchase these sites and, if necessary, subsidise the unsuccessful applicant in the choosing of an alternative site if his first application has been turned down.

It will not take the sharp Ulsterman long to realise that that is a very good way of obtaining a piece of subsidised land, even if it is the piece of his second choice. That is what will happen, unless these matters are carefully controlled. Once again it can ony be centrally controlled. Before such a recommendation is accepted, it will need to be closely examined.

Recommendation 16 has already been covered very fully I wish to emphasis that I do not think that suggestion is the right one. It is surely not right to say that the first time one introduces the democratically-elected voice, it should be in the context of an appeal and not a decision.

The report recommends that not only those who have been refused permission should be allowed to appeal, but also third parties affected by planning decisions". From my knowledge of local planning, I consider that that recommendation seeks to go a long way further than the system that exists in the rest of the kingdom. That is opening the door to the representation of interests by third parties which are not fully concerned with the planning application itself.

Recommendation 23 speaks of applications to build well sited, well designated factories and workshops, even with Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty", and adds that such applications should be sympathetically considered. Who is to decide whether what is being considered is well-sited or well-designed? Who is to decide whether an area of outstanding natural beauty can take such well-sited and well-designed buildings? If these decisions are to be taken, surely it is irrefutable that those decisions must be taken by those who are answerable to the local community on whose behalf decisions are taken?

The same argument applies to the design and attractiveness or otherwise of houses. It is all very well to knock bureaucrats and planners and to say "They sit in their ivory towers deciding whether this or that is aesthetically satisfactory". They must be helped and consulted, but, above all, they must be supported by a democratic body for which they must work. That is the system which, roughly speaking, has made the planning laws acceptable in our community. It should be looked at in the context of improving democratic answerability as the supreme criterion in trying to solve all the problems posed in the report.

For the life of us, we cannot think of any way of achieving this other than by evolving some form of local government to bridge the gap that exists, not only in planning, as is shown so clearly in the report, but in many other areas where the events of the past five years have left problems over the government of Northern Ireland which we all seek to solve and which must be solved by the extension of local democracy and the powers of local authorities and by ensuring that they are answerable to the people whom they will have to represent, in order that we can be sure that decisions will have the agreement of the majority of people in Ulster.

9.21 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

I start by expressing the thanks of my right hon. and hon. Friends to the Opposition for making available this half day for an important debate which has considerable social implications for Northern Ireland.

The Minister will not be able to answer tonight most of the points that have been put to him, but I hope that he has taken them on board and will consider them before reaching final decisions on the report. The hon. Gentleman should be under no illusions. This is an emotive and highly political issue in Northern Ireland. It always has been and I believe that it always will be.

Paragraph 38 of the report states that councillors should have far more than a consultative role. That is a self-evident truth for those of who, like myself, have been councillors, but it is a complete reversal of the present policy. It will give far greater control to councils and will drive a far bigger hole in present planning policy than most hon. Members realise.

The planners were not happy with the former system under which they were employees of county councils. They wanted to get the power into their hands. They did, and, as I said last week and as the hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) said tonight, the result has been open warfare at planning committee meetings. There is no responsibility for action taken by councillors and therefore no sense of responsibility in councillors. My colleagues and I have seen this at first hand, and I believe that there will never be any responsibility in the people concerned until they are made responsible for the decisions that are taken. I warmly welcome the recommendation in the report.

One of the most annoying problems for councillors is that the zoning changes every few years and can be completely changed within five years. People do not know where they are from one year to the next. Any decision taken on this matter must last for a very long time.

Few councillors and few other people in Northern Ireland have ever had a clear understanding of the objectives of the present planning policy, which has not been understood. A great deal of the criticism that I have heard about the application of that policy stems from ignorance. I am afraid that there was never any serious effort made to educate people as to the true position. Even when it was understood, nobody liked it. It was not accepted. I believe that the Cockcroft report sets out to correct a great deal of what was amiss.

One of the great problems, and the one that has concerned me most, about the present policy is that its application created a special category of people who could build houses in rural areas. I believe that this was based upon the assumption that Northern Ireland either would be turned or would turn naturally very rapidly into a highly urban society. The people of Northern Ireland did not want that to happen, and they resisted it in many different ways.

I believe that that whole theory was nothing but nonsense anyway, because the people of Northern Ireland have an infrastructure in the country of houses, of schools and of churches that they want to maintain. They have a very close-knit community. I often think that it is just like a fishing net. It is closely bound together into the life of the community. It is, in fact, the community, and the people do not want to leave their homes. It is part of the general parochialism of the Northern Ireland people.

The people who were not allowed to build where they wished—there were many hundreds of them—were absolutely furious when the refusal came out. They tried to get around those refusals in every way they could think of. There were all sorts of special cases, hardship cases and medical cases. I think that some of them were simply invented. The trouble was that, once permission had been given on special grounds—and sometimes the medical cases were terminal cases—whenever the person for whom the house was erected died or went away, the house was still there and could be seen. The new occupant was there in contravention of planning policy, and in fact would not have been there if the house had not been put up originally on the ground of special hardship.

There is a danger in the Cockcroft report in that it seeks to perpetuate the special category by multiplying the number of people who will qualify. I think that this is wrong, and I shall return to that aspect later in my remarks.

All of us from Northern Ireland are very much aware of the scenic beauty in the place, and we want to preserve it. There are many people in Northern Ireland who want to live in a beautiful, well-designed house in a prominent position on a hillside perhaps or at the top of a hill, with a nice view. There are many people who would want to live in a more secluded area. Quite often they wish to live close to a hamlet, village or town. But the countryside consists of people and houses. If there are not people and houses, what is there to look at? Where is the beauty? Where is the life? Where, if it comes to that, is the whole of what one could call Northern Ireland society which has existed in the country areas?

I do not think that I have ever seen a photograph or a landscape of Northern Ireland without a pretty bungalow or a pretty cottage in it. The houses and the people make the countryside what it is. I can safely say that we want to see a nice countryside, with the beauty preserved, and with quite a lot of houses and people living there to ensure that it stays beautiful.

Having said that, I suggest that one of the principal reasons for young people wanting to live in the country is that many of them can get a cheap building site. The economics of it are apparent, for, if a young man or a young woman can get a building site on the parents' land, usually it costs nothing. Cockcroft, in fact, recognises the economic argument by asking for subsidised plots near villages. If there were not an economic argument, there would be no reason to seek subsidised plots. In many cases this is simply an attempt to cut the cost of providing the house. The nut amount saved is probably between £2,000 and £3,000 per house. That is a substantial sum to any young man or woman, and it is worth saving.

The flight from the urban areas to the suburbs and the countryside is not so much a flight from a town as it is from the housing estates in which young people live. Many housing estates have been designed appallingly and the layouts are shocking. Should anyone require confirmation of that, he should examine the housing estates from which young people wish to escape. They want to move to estates where the houses are not jammed on top of each other and where they are not looking in each other's back windows. There is no difficulty in persuading tenants to remain in pleasant council estates. This aspect is too often ignored.

I turn to the summary of recommendations. I welcome the recommendation that there should be a relaxation of policy on in-fill sites. I draw the Minister's attention to the danger that is inherent in that if it is carried too far. The figure of two houses was set in an effort to prevent ribbon development What will be the number in the new policy? Will it be three, five, seven or nine? Alternatively, will in-fill sites be permitted only off main roads or down short driveways?

The report stresses the need for research into the problems of the special needs areas. We can recognise the needs on the outskirts of Belfast, Fermanagh or Tyrone. One can see the different approaches in different areas. It is clear what is needed in those areas. But not so clearly understood is the effect of the present policy on those who live in the countryside where there is an ageing population and few young families. The population in the countryside, particularly in the more isolated places where no building has been allowed, is unbalanced and unhealthy. Something must be done about that. It can be done only by allowing young people to bring up their families in the countryside.

One of the most difficult problems to solve is that which involves the individual who wishes to live in the country for a special reason. I do not know how one can deal with that problem. The problem caused by the individual eccentric will always be with us.

My hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) drew attention to the problem of the farmer's son who wants to build a house beside a farmhouse. One aspect of that has concerned me. Often the young man or woman is told "You will build your house there." That is usually the place where the farmyard should be extended. I have seen such houses built in the place where the farmyard should have been extended and the whole farm process has been thrown out of gear as a result. That is usually unnecessary because there are good sites a couple of hundred yards away.

I welcome the recommendation on the fostering of agricultural and ancillary industries in the countryside. But I am not clear what is meant by it. If it means mechanical repairs to farm machinery, that is very welcome. If it means some sort of blacksmith's shop, that is very welcome. Equally, if it means a processing industry, that is very welcome. But sometimes these things grow, and what starts out as a small shop with a welder and blacksmith working in agriculture becomes a fellow selling tractors and farm machinery.

Mr. Powell

Why not?

Mr. Ross

It depends where it is. The chap then wants petrol pumps. He then wants a car saleroom. Instead of being tied to farming, the whole thing becomes tied to the general structure of the countryside.

Mr. John Ellis

The hon. Gentleman is making a point about industry and commerce mainly in the rural areas. I hope that he recognises where his reasoning is taking him. The point is—he is a farmer and he knows—that we have about 2 per cent of our total work force in agriculture and in Northern Ireland the proportion is still 14 per cent. If people are to get jobs in industry—if we are to allow the factories in—what will these people do? Eventually, Northern Ireland will move towards a more efficient agricultude, using less labour.

Mr. Ross

If the hon. Gentleman looks at the record of farming in Northern Ireland, he will find that it is fairly efficient now. My point is that the industry which started in a small way, for the repair of farm machinery, eventually grows, and it started there because the site was cheap, too. It is then in direct competition with the fellow who may well be on an expensive site in the nearest town or village. There is a problem here which is not easily overcome and it cannot be ignored.

I shall say a brief word now about areas of outstanding natural beauty. Architects may be prepared to provide well sited and well designed houses in such areas, but architects are like everyone else and they will eventually produce what the customer demands, which may not be quite in keeping with what the planners are seeking. I hope that the Minister will take that on board and in due course give us his thoughts about it.

In the same connection, what is the position regarding the Crown's interest? We have a wonderful area of outstanding natural beauty at Magilligan, and the first thing the Crown did was to build a prison which would take the prize for ugly building anywhere. It is not something which the people of Limavady district have welcomed, and I hope that we shall see it removed in the not too distant future.

Another aspect of this problem is the question of quarries and gravel pits. I do not see the grounds for asking for a levy on future development in this respect. Anyone who is now selling gravel sells just that—the gravel and the sand—and he holds on to the land, part of the deal being that the land will be restored after the gravel is removed. Therefore, any levy which is to be taken up from this day forward will be taken up, not to correct that which is now being carried on hut to correct the past sins of others who have already got their money and have long gone. Many of them, in fact, will be dead. This problem must be dealt with in a totally different way.

I referred earlier to the list of people in the farming community, including relatives, and even those employed in forestry and fishing. The list is nearly endless. If we add to that special personal and domestic circumstances, there will be hardly a person in Northern Ireland who could not find his way into that category by some means or other. Anyone who lives outside Londonderry. Belfast or the larger towns such as Portadown and Coleraine could come into it.

Therefore, if the Minister tries to keep and to expand the special category of persons who can live in the countryside for one specific reason or another, it is a line that cannot and will not be held. He would do far better to forget about keeping or creating special categories of persons and to accept that applications for building houses in the countryside should come before councils and before planners purely and simply on the merits of the application. There is no other way forward, and there is no other way out of the dilemma and the problem.

This is the only way that it can be done. Each application should be treated on its merits. The Minister should be prepared, whenever it reaches his desk, to accept his executive responsibility and act upon it. When we get a regional council—I hope that that will be in the not-too-distant future—applications would land on that council's desk and that council would be the perfect vehicle for exercising the executive function in this respect.

If the Minister tries to continue the path that has been set over the past three or four years, he will be heading deeper and deeper into trouble and will really only be making the problem worse.

Surely the objective view, and the professional objective view, of a building site and of a building should be the deciding criterion, regardless of any real or imaginary ties with the countryside.

Tied to the cost of building is the value of the site. Some people may think that there will be a vast influx if the planning application is accepted on its merits, but I do not believe that that is so. Farmers value their land in Northern Ireland. Farms are small and people will allow only their own children to build. I speak from personal experience and the experience of my friends and neighbours. They do not like selling building sites. They will sell them only if the price that is to be paid is far above the current market value.

If the Minister takes that fact into consideration, he will see that the dangers that often appear to rear their heads are not as real as they are sometimes imagined to be.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. Carter

We have had an extremely interesting, useful and constructive debate. In contrast to some of the discussions I have had about rural planning when going round the various councils of Northern Ireland, the debate has been extremely even-tempered and highly objective.

I am only too well aware of the importance of the whole field of planning in the rural areas in the life of Northern Ireland. The wider the discussion and the more intense the discussion, the better. As the Minister responsible for the Department of the Environment, what I want to see—and what I am sure any Minister who might step into my shoes at some later date would want to see—is a policy that is acceptable to the whole community.

I think that I would be right in saying that here in Great Britain, in most rural areas we have a planning philosophy that is, broadly, acceptable to everyone, irrespective of political point of view. Indeed, in my time in local government the question of politics never came into planning at all. We would vie with one another on the merits of a case, but the political attitudes struck by parties on planning were not particularly divergent. That is what I think we would all like to see in Northern Ireland—planning being treated on its merits and all matters of policy being freely consented to by all political parties and people representative of the community.

Mr. Molyneaux

Just in case the Minister has been misled by the little fatal sentence in the report, perhaps I could assure him that in my six years on the Antrim county council, the key position on that council—namely, the chairmanship of the planning committee—was held by a gentleman councillor who would, had he been around today, have been a member of the SDLP. His recommendations were invariably accepted by the predominantly Unionist council without a quibble. The cases were always decided on merit.

Mr. Carter

I accept that entirely. I was not drawing inspiration from the Cockcroft report, because I know from going around the local authorities that members of the SDLP, the Unionist Party, the UDP and Alliance band together when it comes to rural planning policy. There is no question of party politics being involved. What I am talking about is the body political consenting to a central planning ethos. That does not exist in Northern Ireland and all of us who are concerned with government there desperately want to see it come about.

So I do hope that hon. Members are in no doubt that I am aware of the feelings on this subject. I have tried to pay as much attention to them as I can. Indeed, the genesis of the report was my discussions as I went around the Province. At times, some of these doubts and the depth of feelings are misplaced That is particularly so with the current workings of the policy. People seem to believe that the vast majority of applications are turned down. Indeed, the impartial observer of this debate might feel that planning is directed against all those who wish to build a house in the country side.

In that light, the figures for the whole of the planning districts combined might be interesting. In 1975, 71 per cent. of all applications in rural areas—that is on a strict definition of "rural"—were approved. In all areas, 85 per cent. of applications were approved. In 1976, the figures were 66 per cent. and 87 per cent. respectively; in 1977, the last year for which I have figures, they were 66 per cent. and 87 per cent.

The present policy might have warts and imperfections in some respects—I freely admit that—but on the basis of those figures, any fair-minded person will agree that we are being even-handed.

Mr. McCusker

I am trying to be a fair-minded person and I agree that the Minister is being fair by breaking the figures down. He will agree, I think, that as we are talking about rural planning, we must consider the rural planning figure. If 66 per cent. were approved, that means one refusal for every two approvals, which many would say was a fairly large proportion. But what the Minister does not bear in mind is that hundreds of people never go to the stage of seeking outline approval because their advice from the likes of myself, their legal advisers, councillors and others is not to waste their time, that if they do not have a good reason for wanting to live in that countryside, there is no point in applying. So there is a body of opinion, not included in the statistics, which keeps the pot boiling.

Mr. Carter

I find that difficult to believe. I accept that the hon. Gentleman might be prepared to advise people not to apply, but I did not think that people in Northern Ireland were reluctant to take the Government on. If people believe in their planning case, I think that they will come forward.

I cannot tonight say anything very positive about the report. My right hon. Friend and I want there to be the maximum possible debate upon it before any minds are made up. The local authorities will want to think carefully about the implications of the report, and I dare say that the Association of Local Authorities will want to see me.

I shall, in seeking to reply to as many as possible of the points in the 10 minutes that are left to me, reveal my broad thinking, although I think that most people will have a hint of it already.

Northern Ireland still has a basically rural community and, in that sense, it cannot be compared with any other part of the United Kingdom. One-third of its population lives in Belfast and the rest in the rural areas. There is still very much of a rural atmosphere around Belfast I accept that in a largely rural community the views of people living in rural areas should be reflected in our policies and planning.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said he did not want planning policy to move off in jerks. Nobody wants to see that. We want a policy to be adopted which everyone can accept, to such an extent that those concerned with considering planning applications can approach the matter in as detached a way as possible.

The right hon. Gentleman stressed the need for sensitivity. The figures I have just read out show that our present policy is fairly sensitive. However, others believe that we are quite insensitive. How sensitive can one be? One person told me—believing every word that he said—that we should not consider the two-thirds of cases that are approved but should think only about the 25 per cent. or 30 per cent., whatever the figure is, that are not approved, for that figure represented 100 per cent. He told me that we were refusing 100 per cent. of applications. That is a very strange use of statistics, but there are plenty of people in Northern Ireland who think in that way. The attitude is to support planning if it does what one asks of it but to condemn it as irredeemably wrong if it does not do what one urges upon it.

It is very difficult to get a balance in this highly sensitive area. Human judgments are involved and they are always fallible. By and large the officials in my Department do a pretty fair-handed job in getting the balance right.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that when he first went to Northern Ireland what made the greatest impact on him on looking out of the aeroplane window on landing was that there had been a pepper-pot approach to development. That is true. The trouble is that today that pepper-pot approach is proving rather more expensive than it did 150 to 200 years ago. Anyone who built a cottage or a small house in the countryside 150 years ago did not require much in the way of amenities. Today the story is entirely different—people want roads, schools, hospitals, telephone kiosks; they want a whole range of amenities which in a modern society they are entitled to argue should be theirs as of right. Planning then turns itself into an entirely different animal. We have to consider the use of resources, and in the current climate extremely scarce resources. We cannot contemplate scattered rural development that will place on public funds a burden that we cannot afford.

The right hon. Gentleman went on to say—and I think he was quoting when he said this—that planning had denuded the countryside. I do not think that that will stand up to any sort of examination. Long before planning came on the scene the depopulation of the countryside was running wild. In the majority of Northern Ireland—in fact anywhere in Ireland—depopulation of the countryside had gone on for many years before planning became anything like a feature of modern government. Indeed, last weekend I watched a programme on the television entitled "The Irish Way" which was about Connemara, a poorer region than most other parts of Northern Ireland. The interesting point was that its problem was no different. A different political philosophy was operating there, but people were running away from that part of Ireland in droves and nothing much that the Government could do was having an effect. The broad point that the right hon. Gentleman was making was that we cannot equate planning in Great Britain with planning in Northern Ireland. I accept that entirely, and that lies at the heart of what the Cockcroft committee said.

There is another interesting concept to which I thought the right hon. Gentleman might have got round. It is something that concerns me, and has concerned others in this debate. This is the concept of having an area of outstanding natural beauty and limiting the sort of development that goes on in it. I admit that I have some doubts about how we could effectively operate a policy of that kind in a community with a great deal of unemployment. It is not an easy one to deal with, because conservationists rightly feel, as do the rest of the community, that the countryside belongs as much to them as to those who live in that part of the countryside which may be designated an area of outstanding natural beauty. My natural inclination would always be that if we can produce a development that is as consistent as possible with the preserv- ation of the area as one of outstanding natural beauty, employment and opportunity should be a considerable factor in coming to the judgment that is finally made.

The right lion. Member for Belfast, East (Mr. Craig) said that as he was a city Member we might be surprised to see him participating in the debate. I am not surprised at that. People who live in cities, towns and urban areas have as much right as anybody else to participate in debates of this kind. It is our country, and wherever we live we have a right to participate in a debate of this kind.

The right hon. Gentleman went to say—or, to put it more mildly, to suggest —that property conferred rights, and he seemed to feel that planning and bureaucracy were interfering too much with the rights of the individual. I think that on reflection he will accept that in a modern society property confers only limited rights. If factories in his constituency owned by industrialists were committing a nuisance he would be the first, I am sure, to come running to my Department wanting some form of restraint imposed upon the people who were causing the nuisance.

He did not seem to feel that we had done enough to get the balance right between the individual on the one hand, and the community on the other. It is a sensitive issue—I accept that completely—but he can take it from me that we are trying all the time in the Department of the Environment to get it right, even though some people do not seem to feel that we are making too good a job of it.

The right hon. Gentleman also said that he was against subsidies, which rather surprised me, as Harland and Wolff is in the heart of his constituency. Quite where we should get in Northern Ireland without the quite widespread use of subsidies, whether in this area or the industrial area, I do not know.

My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) gave—

It being Ten o'clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.