HC Deb 08 July 1980 vol 988 cc404-23
Mr. Fox

I beg to move amendment No. 153, in page 54, line 37, leave out 'matter")' and insert 'matter")— (a) the following sub-paragraphs shall be inserted after sub-paragraph (c):— (ca) the use of land for any purpose required in connection with the transport by rail or water of aggregates (that is to say, any of the following, namely—

  1. (i) sand and gravel;
  2. (ii) crushed rock;
  3. (iii) artificial materials of appearance similar to sand, gravel or crushed rock and manufactured or otherwise derived from iron or steel slags, pulverised fuel ash, clay or mineral waste),
or the erection of any building, plant or machinery which it is proposed to use in connection therewith; (cb) the erection of any building, plant or machinery which it is proposed to use for the coating of roadstone or the production of concrete or of concrete blocks or pipes, where the building, plant or machinery is to be erected in or on land which forms parts of or adjoins a site used or proposed to be used—
  1. (i) for the winning and working of minerals; or
  2. (ii) for any of the purposes mentioned in paragraph (ca) above;" and

We now turn to that part of the Bill concerned with planning. The amendment give effect to the Government's commitment as part of the measures to reallocate planning functions, to provide for some additional county matters, namely, rail aggregate depots, marine aggregate wharves and aggregates processing plant. Aggregates are not defined elsewhere in the planning legislation, and the new paragraph (ca) defines aggregates as sand, gravel, crushed rock and artificial aggregates used as substitutes for them, which are normally made from industrial or mineral waste.

11 p.m.

The new subparagraph (cb) defines the class of aggregate processing plant that is to become a county matter. The erection of any such plant will be a county matter only where the plant is located at the site of mineral extraction or at a rail aggregate depot or a marine aggregates wharf. This is to avoid the inclusion in the category of county matters operations which happen to involve aggregates but are divorced from sites in respect of which there arises strategic considerations requiring the particular expertise of county planning departments in minerals matters and strategic planning.

Hon. Members will appreciate that these definitions are a very tricky matter. We do not want to include in a county's responsibilities things which are of no immediate significance to the range of policies for minerals in its area. At the same time, we do not want strict responsibilities for development which, from the applicant's point of view, are part of the same process. We arrived at this definition after consultations with the local authority associations concerned, and with representatives of the minerals industry. These discussions are continuing and I would not want to rule out the possibility of further amendment of the Bill at a later stage if that were desirable.

Amendment agreed to.

Mr. Fox

I beg to move amendment No. 154, in page 54, line 41, leave out subsection (4) and insert— '(4) Nothing in the general transfer provisions shall prevent a county planning authority determining an application to which this subsection applies after the commencement date if it was made before that date. (4A) Subsection (4) above applies to any application which relates to a transferred matter and which is of a description mentioned in paragraph 15(1)(a), (b) or (c) of Schedule 16 to the Local Government Act 1972.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this we may take Government amendments Nos. 156 and 241.

Mr. Fox

These three amendments are technical, and therefore it is not necessary for me to go into considerable detail.

Amendment agreed to

Mr. Charles Morrison

I beg to move amendment No. 155, in page 55, line 2, at end insert— '(4A) The following subsections shall be substituted for subsections (1) to (3) of section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971:—

  1. "(1) The Secretary of State may give directions requiring applications for planning permission, or for the approval of any local planning authority required under a development order,
    1. (a) to be referred to him instead of being dealt with by local planning authorities, or
    2. (b) to be referred to the county planning authority instead of being dealt with by the district planning authority.
  2. (2) A direction under this section—
    1. (a) may be given either to a particular local planning authority or to local planning authorities generally; and
    2. (b) may relate either to a particular application or to applications of a class specified in the direction.
    1. (3) (a) any application in respect of which a direction under this section has effect shall be referred to the Secretary of State or county planning authority accordingly.
    2. (b) any application referred to the county planning authority under this section shall be dealt with by them as if it were a county matter.".'

I wish to make it clear that I am not questioning the basic intention of clause 70 in relation to the distribution of planning functions, but there are two questions behind this amendment. First, do the Government still believe in structural plans, and do they believe that they should be upheld? Secondly, given the Government's proper determination to contain public expenditure, do they wish to ensure that there are no loopholes that would allow unforeseen public expenditure to occur?

On the first question, I think that we can take it that the Government continue to believe in structural plans because both the Secretary of State and the Minister have said so on a number of occasions. Therefore, I think that we can assume that the Government want the provisions of the structure plans which have been agreed to be upheld. That must be entirely sensible, because the plans are not only concerned with land use but—and perhaps this is of greater importance—are statements of resources which a county is able to make available for the provision of infrastructure. In consequence, they are a means of co-ordinating the investment decisions of other public bodies.

However, in their desire to redistribute planning functions between county and district, in order to meet the objectives of speeding up and simplifying planning procedures, the Government have had to face the problem of how to reform development control for which districts are responsible without undermining the agreed practices of the structure plans and without adding to complications and bureacuracy.

In drafting the Bill, the Government believe that they have dealt adequately with those problems and safeguarded structure plans. Unfortunately, few others agree. Among those who do not believe that structure plans have been safeguarded are the Confederation of British Industry, the British Property Federation, the Country Landowners' Association, the National Farmers' Union, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Royal Town Planning Institute, the Town and Country Planning Association and the National Housing and Town Planning Association. In addition, there is the Association of County Councils. It may be suggested that that association cannot be entirely objective in its judgment. However, it is hard to believe that the other organisations are not being objective or that they are all wrong.

There are two possible types of breach of structure plans. First, a district council could blatantly and wilfully set out to ignore the provisions of the structure plan. A district council, acting in breach of the structure plan, would not only create difficulties over the costs of provision of infrastructure by the county; it would be acting in an extremely selfish manner towards other district councils in the county area. That is important. The structure plan, designed by the county, mulled over, thought about, subjected to the public comment and ultimately agreed by the Secretary of State, is an attempt within a county to provide a balance of development, having regard to the needs and requirements of the different parts of a county area. If a district council took upon itself the right to act in breach of that structure plan, it could create costs to the disadvantage of other districts, given the limits on capital expenditure. Alternatively, it could put the county in the position in which, perforce, it has to spend more capital on infrastructure than technically it is allowed to do. It is mercifully rare for a district council to wish to act in breach of the structure plan. The vast majority wish to act responsibly.

Secondly, there are not infrequent occasions when there is a genuine difference of opinion between county and district on the interpretation of the structure plan. When there is such a genuine difference of opinion, the district council could again decide to go its own way, which would give rise to extra costs, create worry for the county and difficulties for other districts.

What can be done?

It has been pointed out that the statutory formulation that a district has merely to have regard to the structure plan would make it difficult for any case brought by a county to be sustained in court. On the other hand, the Secretary of State has a long-stop position built into the Bill with the departure procedure.

The Secretary of State has said that he is not willing to depart from that because it would mean duplication and delay. But, under the system that the Bill proposes, not only will departures have to be considered in Whitehall; district will have to consult counties, and Whitehall will also consult counties before making a decision.

If the long-stop procedure were used, the Secretary of State could ultimately order revocation, a fact of which the Minister made great play in Committee. He said that he would not hesitate to order revocation. That is excellent. It is encouraging to those who will ultimately be responsible for upholding the structure plan. However, I am concerned not with what my right hon. Friend says but with the law that he is attempting to pass. Without amendment, the Bill will be deficient. The Secretary of State may put one interpretation on the law and apply it as he has promised, but a future Secretary of State may take a different view—and we are legislating not just for the present Secretary of State but for his successors.

I tabled two amendments to try to cope with the problems that I have raised—No. 157, which was not selected, and No. 155. I regret that No. 157 was not selected because it would have insisted on a structure plan being upheld by district councils and would have coped with most of the problems.

Amendment No. 155 provides a new long-stop procedure. It provides, in effect, that the long-stop can be either the Secretary of State, as at present, or the county council. The Government have left themselves a long-stop position through the departure procedure to deal with certain cases where things are going wrong, but the exercise of calling in by the Secretary of State is contrary to the Government's intention to devolve powers to the right level. It sets the control several stages removed from the scene of events and there would be considerable implications for increased public expenditure in terms of the resources that the Department of the Environment would require to deal with relatively detailed cases. In any case too many matters which have connections with local government are already decided in Whitehall.

11.15 pm

The county council is the strategic planning authority. Once the structure plan has been approved by the Secretary of State, the county council, as the democratically elected body, should be entrusted to deal with departures from the plan. It would be more economical if the Secretary of State's departure powers were supplemented by a power, in appropriate circumstances, for applications to be referred to a county planning authority. for consideration and decision.

At present, once an application has been called in by the Secretary of State it must be determined by him, even if it becomes apparent that the application could be determined by the county planning authority. The ability to delegate to a county council is a valuable and worth-while option which could lead to a reduction in the use of departmental resources. My amendment provides such powers.

It must be right for the Government to try to contain public expenditure. If the Government do not accept my amendment, they will let themselves in for an increase in expenditure on planning procedures and they will let counties in for unplanned infrastructure costs.

The Minister is much too optimistic about the Bill's provisions. If it is passed unamended, the Minister is asking for trouble between county councils and district councils. It is tedious and self-righteous to say "I told you so", but some of us served on the Committee on the Local Government Act 1972. I remember well the rows about the provisions for planning functions. I also remember only too well how the Front Bench, upon which sat the present Secretary of State for the Environment, was convinced that it was right and would not listen to Back-Bench Members' advice. One of the reasons why the Bill is before us today is that the Government did not take the advice given to them from the Back Benches.

I hope that on this occasion the Government will have greater regard for our advice. If they do, they are more likely to provide a lasting and sensible solution to the problems. That means the redistribution of powers, backed up by provisions to ensure that the structure plan is upheld and that there is a reasonable understanding between the districts and counties about who is responsible for what.

Mr. Rippon

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) has shown that, in its peculiar way, this part of the Bill is as complex and difficult as the financial provisions. I regret that we should be considering such important matters at this time of night. In some respects this part of the Bill should be in a separate Bill. It would have been better if planning matters had been dealt with in a more conventional way. But while the rolling up of all these subjects into a long and complex Bill—it had 210 pages when we started it and it has now 234 pages, having been through Committee—may indicate a laudable bid to save parliamentary time, it certainly is not calculated to result in good law.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes said that the Bill, if passed without amendment, would be deficient—in other words, it would be bad. Certainly the controversy over the new financial arrangements between central Government and local government has tended to overshadow the proposed changes in planning law and practice. Whatever else may be said about this part of the Bill, it is a long way from achieving creative rather than obstructive planning.

Although I do not wish to say too much at this time of night about the allocation of planning functions, it is the difficulty of making a proper and sensible allocation of functions between the county councils and the district councils that led my hon. Friend to put down his amendments. The Bill as it stands will create a degree of confusion hardly yet imagined.

I simply cannot understand why the Government should have introduced a Bill making these changes—for example, the repeal of the power of a county planning authority to give directions to the district planning authority as to how it should determine any application in which there are proposals to the county which appear substantially and adversely to affect its interest as a local planning authority. It does that in rather a bald way, but apparently it is not intended to eliminate the counties altogether from matters of development control.

The Bill, therefore, as the House will know, creates, as it were, a skeleton for a new relationship on such matters between county and district. That is to be given blood by means of regulations, and the Government have promised to inflate the whole body with what they call a national code of guidance. If that is not sufficient to create life, the Government have also promised that the code may be supplemented, where necessary, by guidelines covering particular local situations.

One can hardly call that a plan for radical clarification of our planning law. As I understand it, there are now to be two main categories of applications involving the counties. The first category consists of the applications raising county matters, as now restrictively defined, and there is the category concerning applications in which consultation must occur. But the circumstances in which this consultation will take place are by no means clear.

The functions, therefore, between the county and the district councils remain very blurred. The Government say that the consultation will relate to all strategic applications. Again, the meaning of that will be indicated in the national code of guidelines supplemented by local guidelines. With respect, I do not think that that is a satisfactory way of trying to deal with planning law at present. It is, of course, very much concerned—although it seeks in some ways to curtail the powers of control of the Secretary of State—with the alteration of the structure plan and the adaptation and alteration of local plans where the structure plan is not settled, making it easier to adopt and modify a local plan and dealing with conflicts between the structure and local plans.

The object of this part of the Bill, as with so much else of it, is quite admirable. We all know that here, as elsewhere, some reforms are required. But I believe that it is necessary to have some certainty in the law. Otherwise I foresee endless discussions between county councils and district councils, particularly while they wait for the guidelines. But even when they have the guidelines, they will not probably have the force of law in all respects and so they will give rise to continued controversy.

It is right to allow for the repeal and replacement of structure plans. That is a relatively sensible suggestion. The second change is in the procedure for altering structure plans in circumstances in which an examination in public need not be held of proposals for altering or replacing a structure plan.

There are a number of matters where the division of responsibility between the county council and the district council is not clear. In addition, the circumstances in which the public have the right of objection are no longer clear.

This is not a little battle between the county councils and the district councils over the allocation of functions. It is important to have regard to the effect that these changes will have on public participation.

A matter to which my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes directed attention and on which the Secretary of State hitherto placed great emphasis is the provision in the Bill that enables local plans to be adopted or altered where the structure plan is not yet settled. It is still assumed that there is a structure plan and that it may be settled.

Where the local planning authority has prepared a local plan and the Secretary of State has not approved the structure plan as it relates to the area of the local plan, the authority may adopt the local plan if the Secretary of State so directs. The district planning authority will not need a certificate of conformity. Before adopting the plan, an authority may make such modifications to it as may be necessary to make it conform generally to the structure plan as it stands for the time being.

The division of responsibility between the district council and the county council and the circumstances in which the Secretary of State will make his directions are by no means clear.

There are two other changes that concern development that the Bill proposes. The first enables the authority to adopt a local plan which incorporates more modification than has previously been possible. A local planning authority has always been able to adopt the local plan as originally prepared. Hitherto it could adopt a modified plan only if it had been modified to take account of any objections duly made during the period afforded for such objections. A plan modified for any other purpose could not be adopted. The reason for that restriction is clear.

If modifications to a local plan were freely allowed after the statutory processes of objection and consultation had been completed and immediately before its adoption, the interests of private individuals might be materially affected without notice being given to them. I refer to the right to object and the opportunity to be heard. The public could find that they had been consulted on a plan that bore no resemblance to what was eventually adopted.

If the principle of natural justice and the policy of encouraging public participation are to be applied in the preparation of development plans, some restrictions have to be made. We accept that in terms of the power to adopt a local plan differing from the plan originally proposed. However, the Bill proposes that the local planning authority may adopt a local plan and modify it to take account not merely of objections duly made but of any other objections made to the plan and any other considerations which appear to the authority to be material. It is difficult to reconcile a change of that sort with the Secretary of State's claim that he does not want to reduce the opportunity that people have to stand up for their rights. He wants them to have those opportunities within a structure system. It seems that the provisions in the Bill leave the gaps between respective responsibilities to which my hon. Friend has referred.

It is wrong to be dealing with such matters at this time of night and I do not want to address the House at length. However, there are aspects of this part of the Bill that should be considered at some length and with care. The various authorities and the public should understand exactly what the Government are doing.

11.30 pm

I defy anyone to pick up a Bill of this size and complexity and readily comprehend what it is that is proposed and to understand what exactly will be in the directives and how the respective responsibilities, especially of the county and district councils, are to be dealt with. I hope that, if my right hon. Friend cannot accept the amendment in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes he will give an undertaking that we shall have a further opportunity next week to consider the planning aspects of the Bill and that we shall not drive sturdily on through the night to little purpose and to the detriment of those who would like to be governed by laws that are clear and understandable, not shoddy and bad.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I rise humbly to speak in this debate. I do not wish to follow my right hon and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) in his technical address on the question of planning. I wish to speak to the amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) and to say that I am concerned that what is behind it will damage the Bill. It will tend to make the structure plan much more rigid.

I take a rather cynical view of structure plans. Most of them are out of date before we have even got them. We have taken a long time as a country to get them in the first place. Basically they are guidelines on planning and should not, therefore, have a rigid structure.

Recently, at Question Time, the Under-Secretary said that the structure plans were guidelines and that he was much more interested in local plans. I am nervous that this amendment will work against that principle. I am uneasy about what my right hon. Friend is proposing. It would be a mistake to let the county council, in every case, have the opportunity to call in plans, because what we are trying to do in this Bill is to streamline planning. This has been the argument that has long gone on, that there are too many levels of planning and too many people involved. I am nervous that this amendment will put things back almost to where we are now. It will not help the new policy, which is to streamline planning. I speak on behalf of the district councils. They feel that this proposition will work against them and against the attempt to make planning quicker, smoother and more in line with local needs.

Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)

I shall be brief. I wish to support the plea made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon). I hope that the House will not be called on at this hour to consider such legislation as we have before us. I admire very much the speed with which the Under-Secretary ran over his introduction to the amendment which he moved. Had he gone a little more slowly, the meaning of what he said might have been a bit clearer, and that would have been more painful to him and more exquisitely horrible to the rest of us.

I have long been a supporter of lost causes. One such cause to which I have devoted a little of my time has been concerned with purity and clarity in our legislation. The more often I have reiterated that plea, the more complicated, diffuse and ghastly our legislation has become. I am sorry to say that the Bill seems to be eminently deserving of some comment in this direction.

I applaud the intention of Ministers to streamline legislation, simplify local government, curtail Government expenditure and the rest, but one feels that time and again Ministers are so overwhelmed with their good intentions that they do not look closely enough at the instruments with which they seek to carry out those good intentions. My hon. Friend the Member for Reading, North (Mr. Durant) mentioned streamlining. There is not much streamlining here. I wonder what kind of tax will be put upon the digestive capacities of our local authorities to understand this stuff, and how long it will be before they or the Government are clear about what is being done here.

I said when I rose—I meant it—that I did not intend to take up the time of the House for long, but I must say that I find it very difficult to condone, and certainly impossible to applaud, the practice of Ministers in successive Governments of bringing along their slop pails and emptying them all over the statute book.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Some years ago I was, while working with my right hon. Friends, addressing members of the Devon county council when I was called to the telephone. The then Prime Minister was at the other end of the line. He said in very clear terms that he was not happy about planning and that I should return to the Department of the Environment and join my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) and assist him in speeding it up. With the assistance of Mr. Dobry, my right hon. Friend and I tried to speed up planning. However, I regret that, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil said, we were not entirely successful, and the speed of planning in our country remains a national scandal. On average, about nine or 10 years elapse between the decision to build a road and the laying of the concrete. Two-thirds of that time is consumed by the processes of planning. Therefore, I welcome my right hon. Friend's intention in the Bill to seek to streamline the system. The question is whether the Government have succeeded.

As the hour is late, I shall make only three points. First, we tried once before to arrive at a proper balance between the county authorities as the main strategic planners and controllers of what was happening and the district councillors, who were very much closer to the details. We did not succeed. We assumed that the concurrent powers that existed between the two would work perfectly well because planners were all boys together and that they would understand one another and would not become rivals. In fact, the history of local government since, as before, the 1973 Act is disfigured by endless squabbles between the county and the district planners as to who does what and who should make the final decisions.

Having examined this clause, which I have done with considerable care, and read the reports of the debates in the Standing Committee, I am bound to express my view that, although there is some improvement here, the best that can be said is that it is A for effort but only C-minus for achievement.

The second point arises specifically from the amendment, namely, the structure plan. I hope that in replying the Minister will deal with one specific point which was made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) with considerable force. The agreement of a structure plan, whether it is a detailed plan, which it should not be, or whether it is a broad-brush plan, which I think it should be and where it does have some value, is the end process of an infinitely long process of consultation and inquiry. Where that happens, the individual has some reasonable visibility of how it might affect him.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham asked a specific question: is it to be the case that a structure plan can be amended without the citizen being able himself to go to the public hearing and to have the authority that is amending the structure plan make its case? If this is not to be so, it is, as my right hon. and learned Friend fairly said, contrary to natural justice, and I do not believe that the House ought to act in that way.

Finally, I reinforce the plea that if the Government must, as Governments will, have their way tonight and the clause is carried, my right hon. Friend will give the House an undertaking—because there are genuine misgivings on the Conservative Benches—that next week in some way we shall come back to the specific point about the structure plan and the balance between the county and district authorities.

Mr. King

The amendment arises out of the attempt by the Government in clause 70 to meet the problem of overlapping functions between the county council and the district council. I am grateful for what my hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths) said about the attempt to simplify the streamlining and planning aspects.

With the greatest respect to my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), I think he will concede that the present position is extremely confused. There is the question of who has jurisdiction. A citizen can put in a planning application. It can lie on the table of the district council for eight weeks. Nothing happens, and he does not know whether it has been decided by the district council, whether an argument is going on between the district council and the county council on whether it is a county matter, or whether the county is intending to direct refusal. The present position, therefore, is very unsatisfactory.

Sadly, in some areas there are intolerable relations between counties and districts. There have been endless squabbles. I recall that in one instance, in a certain northern area, 9,000 planning applications came to the district council and were scrutinised in detail. Exactly the same 9,000 applications came to the county council and were again scrutinised in detail. That cannot be an efficient and appropriate way in which to run our planning system.

Our proposal, therefore, is to try to clarify the respective roles of the two tiers of authority in planning. The proposal that is enshrined in clause 70 is that the county should have responsibility for the structure plan and that the prime responsibility for development control should lie with the district council in order in that way to avoid pointless duplication.

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), who moved the amendment, for making it clear that he was not challenging the basic objective of the clause. He asked a very pointed question—whether the Government still support structure plans. I recognise the criticisms that can be made of them—that some are far too detailed, taking far too long to prepare, and some are not as relevant as they should be by the time that they are ready—but they are the plans on which the planning system is established. We intend, therefore, to support them.

While we make clear our determination to support the structure plans, there is an understandable concern among the county councils that it will be impossible for them to protect this responsibility if development control is in the hands of districts, which in some cases may be less than totally conscientious in this respect. I think it would be helpful if I were to spell out the safeguards—some existing and some that we propose to add—to establish the position of county councils.

In the case of every proposal for its own development, the district must consult the county. Every planning authority, in deciding planning applications under section 29 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, is required to have regard to the provisions of the relevant development plan, including the structure plan.

11.45 pm

Every application for planning permission that is a departure from the development plan and that the planning authority is minded to approve must be advertised. Important applications must be referred to my Department so that we may consider whether to call them in for our own decision. In future we shall require the district, in doing so, to include the county's views on the application.

The clause provides a procedure for consultation with the county in such classes of case as a development order may specify. The district council must take the county's views into account before it may decide the application. The relevant development order will be made to come into operation with the reallocation of functions made by clause 70. It is our intention that the district shall consult the county on the strategic implications of every application which is of material significance to the structure plan. To guide districts and counties in the exercise of that new duty a code of practice is being prepared.

My right and learned Friend the Member for Hexham referred to the work being done on the code of practice. That work is not dictated by my Department but is a joint collaboration between the counties and the districts to evolve an effective code of practice to cover planning arrangements under the new system. Although final details for publication are not yet settled, they are virtually settled, and I hope that shortly I shall be able to confirm agreement on this important code of practice. It should play a major part to help to overcome the squabbling to which my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes referred.

I believe that structure plans and the strategic role of the county can be adequately safeguarded. We shall not leave the matter there. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I, through the regional offices, will monitor the position closely. If problems arise despite those safeguards, we shall not hesitate to take appropriate action. Under article 10 of the general development order we have the power to prevent a local planning authority from granting planning permission unless and until we are satisfied that it is appropriate for the authority to do so. We have the power to call in any planning application for our own decision. In cases where a perverse decision has been taken, we have both the appellate role and the power to direct revocation or modification of the permission. My hon. Friend the Member for Devizes referred to that. I have made some play of it before, at the expense of a number of other existing safeguards. It is a powerful safeguard.

Mr. Rippon

Will my right hon. Friend explain what he means by "a perverse decision"? How and where will that be defined?

Mr. King

A clear breach of the agreed code of practice, a palpable departure from a structure plan that has not been observed, or a major strategic decision taken is a matter on which an argument could be made that a perverse decision had been taken. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham makes a fair point. He will know how many uncertainties exist within the present system about what is a county matter, and in what matters a county may intervene. This ultimate power—and it is a draconian power—will remain in reserve. If my right hon. Friend were to direct revocation, it could be an expensive item in terms of compensation. That compensation obligation falls upon the district council concerned.

An important point is that in cases of continuing difficulty there is an existing power, similar to the power suggested in the amendment, to make other things county matters. Where it is clear that the proposed system is not working satisfactorily there is a power in the Local Government Act 1972 to prescribe special classes of county matter for particular districts. My hon. Friend's amendment provides a power to direct that certain matters should be made county matters, either generally or for a certain district. There is an improvement, in the sense that this can happen only after a resolution has been laid before the House which would change the planning powers in a particular district.

Mr. Michael Latham (Melton)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that some of us have misgivings because he uses expressions such as "revocation", which is an exceptional and unusual weapon. Does he intend to publish the code of practice in draft form before another place discusses the matter? It would greatly assist some of us in coming to a decision on this matter if the code of practice were available before the parliamentary procedure was completed.

Mr. King

I hope that that will be possible. My hon. Friend said "in draft form". I hope that it will be an agreed code of practice between the counties and the districts. Therefore, it will not be something, as it were, for amendment, but something on which they have agreed.

I agree with my hon. Friend's comment about revocation. I have perhaps over-emphasised this previously. If so, I apologise. But I was anxious to spell out clearly all the safeguards, because they represent collectively a significantly greater safeguard for the counties than many of them seem to appreciate.

I have sought to make clear why we believe the position of the counties and their strategic role in relation to the structure plan is safeguarded. I have dealt with this matter at some length, because I know that there is considerable concern among the counties about this responsibility. I hope that the House will agree that on balance this is a sensible way to resolve what in many cases was an unjustifiable duplication in the previous situation.

I hope that, because a major part of the amendment is already adequately covered in legislation, my hon. Friend will not feel it necessary to pursue the matter.

Mr. Charles Morrison

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for the care with which he has replied to this brief debate. However, I share the feelings of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) and of my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) about the time of night at which we are discussing this important matter. It is regrettable that a matter of such importance should come up for debate at so late an hour.

My right hon. Friend has dealt at considerable length with the safeguards which he believes exist for the maintenance of the structure plan. We can all have our different views about what may be involved in a structure plan, but my right hon. Friend has removed many of the fears that some of us may have had regarding the safeguards. However, I must make the point that time and again in debates on the Bill my right hon. Friend has been able to speak with great certainty about the interpretation which he puts on these provisions. Unfortunately, the outside world does not share his conviction about their meaning. I am not suggesting that my right hon. Friend is necessarily wrong and that the outside world is right. However, it means that he has to do a considerable propaganda job to persuade the local authorities and others about the safeguards and the meaning of the Bill in regard to the planning provisions and other matters.

There will be a further opportunity for these matters to be discussed in another place, and I am encouraged in that regard by what my right hon. Friend said about the code of practice. It will help immensely continuation of discussion on this matter if the code of practice is available. It may help to bring into focus what is being discussed and proposed.

On the basis that there will be further opportunity in another place for discussion of the matter, and consequently further opportunity, if necessary, for amendment of the Bill if the uncertainties felt by people who are involved continue to exist, and then another opportunity for discussion in this House, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment made: No. 156, in page 56, line 9, at end add— '(5A) Subject to subsection (5C) below, the provisions to which this subsection applies shall come into operation on the commencement date. (5B) The provisions to which subsection (5A) above applies are—

  1. (a) the general transfer provisions;
  2. (b) the Greater London provisions; and
  3. (c) paragraph 4 of Schedule 11 below.
(5C) A development order required to be made for the purposes of any of the provisions to which subsection (5A) above applies may be made before the commencement date. (5D) In this section—

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