§ The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. David Mitchell)
I beg to move,
That the draft Local Government, Planning and Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1981 which was laid before this House on 29 January, be approved.Despite its title, the order is not a carbon copy of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. Much of what is contained in that Act is of no application to Northern Ireland. For instance, the different structure of local and central administration in the Province means that many provisions of that Act, for instance, the new block grant system, are of no relevance to Northern Ireland. There are also other matters covered by the Act where further consideration of the specific implication for Northern Ireland is required before we decide whether to bring forward legislation.
Before I go on to explain the contents of the order I should draw hon. Members' attention to the fact that four additional articles have been added since the order was first published as a proposal. These additional articles are all valuation and rating matters and would empower the Department of Finance, first, to vary by order the amount recoverable in respect of rates pending disposal of an application for revision of a new valuation list; secondly, by order to vary the amount of certain allowances payable to an owner rated instead of the occupier; thirdly, to extend the right to a reduction of rates on a dwelling house to a private garage and private storage premises; and, fourthly, to provide rating exemption for fish farms. These articles correspond to late additions to the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980; additions that we decided should also apply in Northern Ireland.
The rating and valuation provisions in the order correspond to provisions in part V of the Local Government., Planning and Land Act 1980; the planning provision in relation to fees corresponds to provisions in part IX; and the provision for new town land disposal corresponds to the provision in part XV.
Apart from articles 1 and 2 which are introductory, article 3 amends article 12 of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. Hon. Members will recall that it is under that article that the amount of rates recoverable pending disposal of an application for revision of a new valuation list and any subsequent appeal is limited to the amount last levied plus half the difference between that amount and the amount of the new charge. The new article will confer power for the Department of Finance to vary the amount by order.
Article 4 makes provision to enable the Department of Finance to vary by affirmative order the percentages of allowances to owners who are obliged to pay rates on property occupied by others, or who do so by agreement. Under the existing provisions of articles 20 and 21 of the 1977 rates order, the allowances are at fixed percentages.
Article 5 extends domestic rate relief to private garages and private storage premises that are physically separate from dwellings. Article 27 of the 1977 rates order at present limits this relief to dwellings.
Article 6 amends article 29 of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977, which gives the right to domestic ratepayers to pay rates by instalments. The proposed 832 article would extend the right to pay rates by instalments to non-domestic ratepayers and, in particular, small businesses—and it is this small-business concession that was contained in the mainland legislation: that is, for property that is valued within lower and upper limits to be specified in an order subject to affirmative resolution. The precise figures of valuation used in the Great Britain legislation are £100 to £2,000, and we are proposing to use the same.
Article 7 amends article 39 of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 to make provision enabling the Department of Finance to prescribe by subordinate instrument a reference date to which net annual values assessed in the course of future general revaluations of specified hereditaments shall notionally relate and to prescribe that in relation to specified or unspecified hereditaments the rateable value shall be arrived at by methods to be set out in subordinate legislation.
By way of further explanation, as I have been using the technical terms, in order to ensure that those who have to interpret the subsequent legislation are fully aware of the precise details, I should say that this enables partial revaluation of classes of property but does not allow a class to be disadvantaged. Obviously, hon. Members will have in mind the relative positions of a domestic and a non-domestic hereditament.
Article 8 amends article 45 of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977 to relieve the commissioners of valuation of the obligation to publish a new valuation list every five years and substitutes a power to have a general revaluation at dates to be prescribed by the Department of Finance by subordinate instrument—which means that it is subject to prayer for annulment.
Article 9 extends existing rating law to the effect that occupiers of fish farms will be exempted from liability for rates on such properties on the same general basis as occupiers of agricultural land. Perhaps here I should remind hon. Members that in Northern Ireland a fish farm is treated as an industry and that therefore it will move from 60 per cent, derating to total derating from 1 April.
Article 10 of the draft order authorises the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland to make regulations prescribing charges for any application or appeal under the planning legislation. The Government consider the reduction of public expenditure as one of their most important tasks. If, therefore, services that in the past have been paid for out of the public purse are to continue, an alternative source for part of the cost must be found. The provision in article 10 would be used to prescribe charges to meet part of the cost of the development control system. Similar powers were provided for the remainder of the United Kingdom in the Local Government, Planning and Land Act 1980. It is intended to prescribe a scale of fees for applications for planning permission and for consent to display an advertisement.
There will be no fee for an application for a determination whether planning permission is necessary. Nor will the new charges apply to applications for listed building consent or to planning appeals. A consultation paper outlining proposals for the new planning charges has recently been published and comments have been requested by 15 April. The scale of charges proposed will be in line with the reduced fees prescribed in the regulations for Great Britain which were approved by the House on 3 March 1981.
833 It may be helpful for the House to know that a consultation paper on relaxing controls on the size of extension that requires planning consent is now out for comment. That must be taken into account when considering the additional charges that arise under article 10. In other words, many of the smaller applications that in the past would have required planning consent, and therefore incurred fees, will not now do so.
In article 11 the opportunity is taken to raise the current maximum for some fines under the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 from £400 to £1,000. I think that hon. Members will approve of that. Those increases give parity with the higher penalties provided in Great Britain under the Criminal Law Act 1977. Only the more important offences are involved—for example, failure to comply with enforcement and stop notices, tree preservation orders and unauthorised demolition or alteration of a listed building. Since the fines were set in 1972 they have become less effective as a deterrent and the new maximum of £1,000 should ensure a more realistic penalty. I confirm that enforcement arrangements in the Province are the same as those on the mainland.
Article 12 of the draft order deals with disposal of land in Northern Ireland's new town areas of Antrim, Ballymena, Craigavon and Londonderry. Land for those new towns was acquired largely between 1966 and 1969, in accordance with the initial plans and projections of future increases of population for these towns. Actual progress, except perhaps in the case of Antrim, has been at a much slower rate than originally expected and present trends suggest that the ultimate populations of the new towns will be significantly lower than the original forecasts, again with the possible exception of Antrim. In consequence, less land will now be required and land identified as surplus to planned needs will be available for disposal.
Article 13 confirms the Belfast city council as the owner of two industrial estates, namely, the Balmoral and Duncrue Street industrial estates. It will regularise an existing position under which the council took responsibility for promoting the development of the two estates, both of which were acquired by the former Belfast county borough council under various enactments. They have been operated by the present city council since reorganisation on 1 October 1973, on a profit-making basis. The legislation will also confer power on the city council from 1 October 1973 to manage these estates and a small area of land adjacent to the Balmoral estate acquired in 1974.
The powers being taken are not of a general kind and limit Belfast city council's responsibility to develop and manage industrial estates to the lands at Balmoral and Duncrue Street. It is not the Government's intention to extend the powers of other councils in Northern Ireland to acquire and develop land for industrial or commercial purposes, this being the function of the Department of Commerce. There is a need to obviate some uncertainty about lands that were acquired by the former corporation before the existing city council came into being.
The draft order is of modest length and of no great complexity. It seeks generally to bring Northern Ireland into line with Great Britain. I shall be happy to help hon. Members on points of clarification.
§ 9.2 pm
§ Mr. J. D. Concannon (Mansfield)
First, I congratulate the Under-Secretary of State on the way in which he has elucidated some of the order's more intricate details. I do not intend to detain the House for long. Most of the provisions deal with local government and it is only fair that the representatives of the people of Northern Ireland should have the maximum opportunity to debate these issues.
I have several questions to put to the Minister on the powers to be granted to the Department of the Environment by certain articles. They demand clear and open answers from the Minister so that those who are in possession of property that they want to improve may know where they stand.
I am concerned that under the new article 105A the Department of the Environment maymake such provision as it thinks fit for the payment of a feefor planning applications and appeals. I do not know whether I misheard the Minister, but I thought that I heard him say that he was not contemplating a fee for appeals. In Northern Ireland we have the Planning Appeals Commission, a body which does not exist anywhere else in the United Kingdom. It seems that article 10 makes provision for article 105A(6) of the 1972 order to include a fee for appeals. The Opposition have always been opposed to the principle of charges for planning permission.
I have always regarded the Planning Appeals Commission as a body that provides the opportunity for the law to be seen to be done. I accept that some might have taken advantage of the procedure. However, those who feel that the Department is riding roughshod over them have been able to turn to the commission. I should hate to think that payment to the commission will put the appeal system out of reach of many in Northern Ireland. If I have misunderstood the Minister, I shall be happy to be corrected.
This is an intricate and complicated piece of legislation. I hope that every effort will be made to elucidate the changes so that the people of Northern Ireland will be fully informed of their rights under the law. I think it best to resume my place and allow those from Northern Ireland who represent the people to get on with the job.
§ 9.4 pm
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
This is an order of considerable width and scope, and of considerable importance. I am afraid that it is possible to consider it satisfactorily only by taking the separate articles one by one, as I fear I shall trouble the House by doing in a moment. I shall make two procedural observations by way of a preface.
In the first place, as the Minister conceded, the order as laid is considerably larger—it is larger by four articles—than the order previously laid in proposal form, accompanied by an explanatory memorandum. When it was relaid in its extended form there was no consultation process of the ordinary character and no explanatory memorandum accompanied it. Consequently, hon. Members confronted with the draft order in its present form were without any guidance or assistance as regards the reasons for and meaning of the new articles in the order. Therefore, I believe that that procedure should be avoided if possible in future. The Minister was most 835 courteous and helpful, when he recognised what had occurred, in obtaining a stay of execution for hon. Members so that we might come to tonight's debate better prepared, and in providing us with some elucidation on the number of new clauses which we had not previously seen.
The procedure by way of proposal is not an absolute statutory requirement, but I think that it is a procedure which, as long as we must have legislation for Northern Ireland by Order in Council, all concerned—public and Members of Parliament—find valuable. I hope that in future Departments generally will be scrupulous, when there is major change in an order, not in consequence of parliamentary proceedings, but as a consequence of decisions taken outside Parliament, in proceeding ab initio by means of draft proposals plus an explanatory memorandum. I believe that that plea already has the sympathy of the Minister. It would be helpful if he would confirm that impression which my hon. Friends and I have when he winds up the debate.
My second procedural comment goes somewhat further. The original explanatory memorandum said—the same words verbatim somehow got into the Minister's speech this evening—that much of what was contained in the England and Wales Local Government, Planning and Land (No.2) Billis of no application to Northern Ireland circumstances … because of the considerably different system of public administration".It turns out from the order, both in its first form and in its second form, that there is a considerable part of that England and Wales Bill that is of application to Northern Ireland, and is being applied to Northern Ireland. As the notes indicate, and as the Minister's remarks indicated, it is being applied to Northern Ireland more or less precisely as it was applied to England and Wales in the Act that was passed Last Session.
§ Mr. David Mitchell indicated assent.
§ Mr. Powell
I have the Minister's assent to that.
I am afraid that this is not the first time—it may not even be the last time—that I remark how much better it would be if Northern Ireland Departments would keep in touch with their opposite numbers on the mainland at a much earlier stage in the preparation of legislation, and not wait to start thinking about Northern Ireland until the England and Wales legislation has been passed. There is no reason whatsoever why, from the earliest stages of the preparation of the Local Government, Planning and Land Act for England and Wales, the Department of the Environment should not have been looking at it carefully and saying"Bless my soul, it is quite likely that some of this will be applied to Northern Ireland". If the Northern Ireland Departments found, as they have now found, that there were about a dozen matters that should apply, and should apply identically, to that part of the United Kingdom, what on earth could be the objection to their saying to their colleagues on the mainland"Would you kindly arrange for that part of your Bill to apply to Northern Ireland"? That would have saved the House the trouble that it has tonight, it would have saved the repetition of the same explanation and, what is more, it would have enabled my hon. Friends and myself to participate in the debate in principle on many of these matters in the previous Session.
I refer briefly to fees. I have considerable sympathy with what the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. 836 Concannon) said. It is a serious matter for debate whether fees should be charged for planning applications and what are the theory and morality that lie behind such a proposal. I am sure that that was debated in the context of the England and Wales Bill. Had my hon. Friends and I sought to take part in the debate in the House or in Committee, the general feeling would have been"What business was it of yours?" Our attention would speedily have been drawn to the statement that that part did not apply to Northern Ireland.
The Minister shakes his head. Of course we have the technical right, which we sometimes excercise, to be heard on legislation which, on the face of it, does not apply to Northern Ireland; but I have a suspicion that, had we discussed the matter in the light of Northern Ireland conditions, the occupant of the Chair would have been fully within his rights in calling us to order.
Now, faced with the order, we are told that the Department of the Environment has concluded that the same should apply in Northern Ireland. We are placed in a quandary. Either we have to debate the matter for ourselves in principle—incidentally, without the possibility of amendment—and come to our conclusion, with a Division presumably if we disagree with the Government, or we have to conclude, as I imagine my hon. Friends do, that, as the principle has been accepted on the mainland, we had best fall in line with it so that there may not be: inequity and disparity between citizens in identical circumstances in two parts of the Kingdom.
What I am about to say does not come as news, but it bears repetition and will be repeated. Indeed, it is in the interests of the Government and the House that it should be understood and accepted. Wherever possible it should be foreseen whether mainland legislation is regarded as applicable to Northern Ireland, and that application should, if possible, be made in the initial legislation so that hon. Members representing Northern Ireland can take part from the beginning, with full rights, in debate and in establishing what the law is to be.
After that double preface, I come to consider the operative and substantive articles of the order in succession. As the Minister explained, and as appears on the face of the article, the purpose of article 3 is to enable the Department to vary, subject to negative resolution, a fraction which at present stands in the law as half for the purposes of the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. The Minister did not explain—and I simply injected the monosyllable"Why?", which he failed to hear—why the Department should want to vary the fraction of a half as it stands in existing law. If it wants to vary it, why does it not say what fraction it considers right? This is not a quibble. I can quite understand that if the existing law specified a particular figure, such as a sum of money, it might be reasonable, given the continuance of inflation—despite this afternoon's Budget—for the Government to have powers to vary the figure by order, but this is a fraction. As a fraction, so far as I can see, it will be unaffacted by inflation or other economic changes.
It is therefore necessary for the Minister to justify his contention that, although the 50 per cent, fraction is specified in the existing law, the Department should be able to change it to three-quarters or one-quarter. Indeed, I hope that he will go further and disclose whether the Department actually entertains any such intention and, if it intends to alter the fraction of one-half, in what direction it intends to alter it and for what justifiable reason. Will 837 the Minister, when he winds up the debate, therefore please be more candid about the purposes and intentions behind article 3?
The same objection, or at any rate the same query, applies to article 4. Article 4 makes provision for the Department, by order, to alter a percentage mentioned in the Rates (Northern Ireland) Order 1977. Why should it wish to alter a percentage, once fixed? Has anything happened in the costs of rate collection, or whatever it might be, relative to the level of rates, which would justify a change in the percentage? And does the Department in fact have any such intentions of which our constituents might be made aware?
While the Minister is directing his mind to answering, as I am sure that he will, my queries on articles 3 and 4, I must point out that the safeguards that these articles import are by no means what they might appear to be to any innocent hon. Member from the mainland who, whether waiting for the Adjournment debate or otherwise, may be present on this occasion.
Such a Member, having provided himself with a copy of the order, and seeing the words"subject to negative resolution", might conclude that we could pray against the order. Similarly, looking at article 4 and seeing the words"subject to affirmative resolution", he might conclude that a debate would have to take place upon an affirmative order. He would be mistaken. We have to carry out that transposition, if I may use a musical term, which must always be applied in dealing with these orders. For"negative procedure", read"no procedure at all", and for"affirmative resolution", read"negative procedure".
In other words, the Department will be quite uncontrolled in whatever it does under article 3. Under article 4 it will be controlled only to the following extent. The previous Administration—and I trust that the same applies to this Administration—by a concession, agreed that, if possible, it would accept, though preferably for handling in the Northern Ireland Committee, a prayer against an affirmative Northern Ireland order. But so rare is it in these enlightened days for even Great Britain prayers to be debated that Members from Northern Ireland would obviously be chary of asking on each successive occasion that the Government should provide time and organise a sitting of the Northern Ireland Committee in order to hear the equivalent of a prayer. Therefore, although there is parliamentary procedure to control the powers taken by the Department in article 4, it is parliamentary procedure which is extremely difficult to use, and which in practice is used only when matters of considerable public importance are involved.
I pass from articles 3 and 4—leaving aside articles 5 and 6, which we welcome—to article 7. Article 7, although it was in the original order and received a cursory reference in the explanatory memorandum thereto, is of such inspissated obscurity that even with the assistance of both documents I must confess that it defeated myself and my hon. Friends. We have succeeded in attaining to some degree, though only a partial degree, of enlightenment only as a result of a two-and-a-half-folio letter which the Minister was kind enough to send to us at the end of last month.
I think that some dim notion of what it is about has, as a result of this, dawned upon my mind. Let me try. I think that the idea is, first, that instead of the date of the new 838 valuation list being the assumed date at which the properties in it are to be valued, an earlier, and therefore more realistic, date to which the valuation is to relate will be specified. For example, if the new valuation order is to come into effect from April 1984, one would specify a date, say in 1982, as the valuation date, so that the valuers would be working upon real or nearly contemporary values, instead of having to speculate upon movements in the economy over the next two or three years.
I seem from various signs and winks to have done fairly well so far. So I approach with some encouragement the more difficult part, which is to be found in the latter half of the article. I think that I understand that during the currency of a particular valuation list it is intended to take hold of a group or class of hereditament. That may be specified or unspecified. However, in this context I think that those words are not what they seem to mean, but are terms of art. At any rate, it is intended to take hold of a specific class of hereditament and revalue all hereditaments of that kind. All of them having been revalued, the global valuation will then be scaled down to what was the global valuation of those hereditaments in the existing list.
The result will be that the relativities between those hereditaments may be altered and modernised, but the relativities between all hereditaments of that class, on the one hand, and all other hereditaments, on the other, will remain unaltered.
I seem to be getting the most encouraging signs from the Minister. Therefore, I shall now put to him the difficulties that I find. They are to understand for what purpose this second operation, which I have attempted to describe, is intended to be engaged in. For example, do the Government feel that the relative values of domestic hereditaments are getting out of date faster than the relative values of non-domestic hereditaments? Is that what is wrong? If so, will they please say?
In the note with which the Minister kindly supplied us he says:The distinction between domestic and non-domestic hereditaments is not specifically provided for in the draft order, although in practice it is this distinction that would most likely be made.That illustrates the importance of the attention that hon. Members pay to these orders, apparently of a technical kind, when they come before the House. How wrong we would be to treat these orders on a take-it-or-leave-it and semi-formal basis. At about the third time of asking—he will appreciate that this is no personal criticism—the Minister said that it is quite likely, although not certain that it will happen, that if we use these powers we would be concerned with the distinction between domestic and non-domestic hereditaments. I hope that he will not think it unfair that hon. Members should ask him point blank whether there is any intention to take out domestic hereditaments and revalue them in this way. If so, what are the reasons for doing so? If it is some type of non-domestic hereditament, what type of non-domestic hereditament, and for what reasons? In other words, will the Minister, true to his nature, display a candour towards hon. Members and the House which is noticeably absent from what are called the explanatory memoranda which have hitherto accompanied these documents?
That brings me—the subject of valuation lists is common to these two articles—to article 8. Article 8 is the Northern Ireland version of a well-known and regrettable"Rake's Progress". My hon. Friends and I have the 839 greatest objection to article 8. Whenever Governments, at intervals of about a quarter of a century, screw up their courage to the point of having a new valuation for rating, they are full of good intentions. When they do that, they always say"And of course, from now onwards we shall revalue every five years". But before the quinquennium is very old their courage begins to ebb and so the Rake's Progress starts whereby quinquennium after quinquennium the same old valuation lists go on until sooner or later the situation becomes intolerable. Then—and this is the human point about this—all unawares, ratepayers are brought up against the consequences of the economic changes that have taken place, sometimes over 25 years.
It is not fair that the ratepayer, who recognises his duty to pay rates in relation to the relative value of his property at a given lime compared with other values, should suddenly be subjected to the tremendous changes in burden that take place when there is a valuation after a long lapse of time. We therefore believe that, expense or no expense—after all, this is the cost of justice and the price of fairness to the ratepayer—the valuation ought to take place as provided by the law. Indeed, we have more than a recollection of all sorts of good intentions when the order was passed in 1977. No doubt the right hon. Member for Mansfield will be able to recall them himself, although it was not his own Department. I am sure that his late departed colleague at the Department of the Environment at that time would be distinctly aware of the undertakings that were given—that in future there would be a regular quinquennial valuation so that never again would those unfair, unexpected and unreasonable shifts of burden take place.
Here we are, subject to an affirmative order—that is to say, in practice to the unlikelihood of any parliamentary procedure at all—saying that the Department will have power to defer the general revaluation indefinitely. I give notice that my hon. Friends and I regard this as a matter that in itself calls for a debate either in the House or in the Northern Ireland Committee. When such an order is made, we shall pray against it and we shall expect the Government to provide time for a proper debate.
Article 9 refers to the exemption of fish fanning, and it is welcome. It ties in admirably with the new legislation on fish farming—both in the Province and on the mainland—which has just passed through the House.
I turn to a matter that has already been mentioned by the right hon. Member for Mansfield, namely, the imposition of fees for planning applications. Fees will not be charged, as the right hon. Gentleman inadvertently said, for planning permission: a person will pay the fee whether or not he gains permission. That makes it a little more disagreeable. I should like the Minister to confirm that the scale of fees proposed in the paper that he has circulated is identical with that in the regulation for England and Wales, which the House recently accepted. I have done my best to compare the two. Rather uncharacteristically, Northern Ireland has been able to set out the table with greater brevity. As I suspect the Northern Ireland legal department has always thought, Northern Ireland must have better draftsmen than has the mainland. At any rate, we shall be satisfied with the Minister's assurance that the fees—whether right or wrong in principle—will be levied in an identical way on both sides of the Irish Sea.
No proper objection can be made to the increase in fines contained in article 11, because of the fall in the value of 840 money and because of the complete assurance that the Minister gave to the effect that there would be parity with Great Britain. However, at that point the Minister slipped in a sentence—a significant sentence—when he said incidentally that the procedure for enforcement was the same in Northern Ireland as it was in England and Wales. Thereby hangs a tale, a little of which should be put on the record of the House, because it is a matter of public importance and concern.
It may be—indeed, it must be, since the Minister says so—that the enforcement procedures in Northern Ireland and in England and Wales are identical. However, having some experience of both sides of the Irish Sea, I do not believe that the enforcement procedure works as effectively in Northern Ireland, either as it does in England and Wales, or as it ought to do. In six years I have come across too many cases, far more than I like, of development taking place, either without permission or in contravention of permission or in contravention of conditions, and things then beginning to happen in such a way that eventually a new application was put forward which was granted, which made an honest woman of something that started with a very different character.
I know that the Minister has been made aware of the anxiety that my hon. Friends and I have and that he will direct his mind to ascertaining why, if the legal procedures are identical in both parts of the kingdom, they should apparently produce such different results. Of course, there is a difference in the system of adminstration in the two parts of the kingdom, but that does not necessarily contain the explanation. So perhaps it is not unreasonable, in talking about the fines imposed upon those who are the subject of enforcement, that hon. Members should notify their anxiety about the effectiveness and comprehensiveness of enforcement in Northern Ireland.
Article 12 relates to the disposal of land which is no longer required for the purposes of new towns. The only point that I wish to raise here is to ask for an assurance from the Minister that the Crichel Down rules will apply to those disposals. Of course, the Crichel Down rules are not embodied in legislation in Great Britain, but they are a convention which has been treated as binding upon successive Governments. I have been assured by Northern Ireland Ministers that they are regarded as applicable in identical terms in Northern Ireland. I confess to some unsureness about whether that is absolutely honoured to the letter. However, that is a matter on which my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) will address the House later with a greater wealth of argument and illustrative material than I can command. I simply leave the query there and express the hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy the House that Crichel Down rules will apply to disposals under article 12.
You will be pleased to know, Mr. Speaker, that the number of operative articles of the order does not exceed the number of 13, and that therefore I have now come to the last.
The explanatory memorandum told us—and the Minister repeated the statement in introducing the order this evening—that"the powers being taken are not of a general kind". I must say that, on reading the article, I find that a very strange statement. If the Minister will be good enough to look at paragraph 1 of article 13 he will see that the power conferred by it is very general indeed. I admit 841 that it refers only to the corporation, but beyond referring to the corporation it is to all appearance entirely general. It says:The Corporation shall be deemed always to have had power to hold and develop land as an industrial estate.If it is deemed always to have had it, I presume that it is deemed to have it.
The rest of the article, I quite understand, is restricted to the treatment of the lands referred to in paragraphs (3) and (5).
§ Mr. David Mitchell rose—
§ Mr. Powell
Clearly, the Minister has the answer, and if he has, I am willing to accept the discharge at the moment. But he has at any rate grasped my difficulty, which is that apparently article 13(1) is at large, even though the remainder of the article appears to be specific.
The Minister has at least had this advantage under the shower of interrogatives with which I have sprayed him—that, if in a briefer form, they had already been placed at his disposal some time ago. So I hope that he will not feel himself hard done by in being invited, if possible within the limits of the debate this evening, to satisfy them.
§ Mr. Gerard Fitt (Belfast, West)
I rise briefly to reinforce the objections by my right hon. Friend the Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) and the reservations put forward by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in relation to the principle of the payment of fees for planning applications. This is a completely new departure. We have never had it in Northern Ireland before and I was completely unaware of it until I read the order this evening. I am certain that the general public in Northern Ireland are unaware of the proposed legislation. If they were aware of it they would be objecting to it, as I am objecting to it this evening.
I ask the Minister to tell us the reason for the decision to charge a fee for planning applications. I repeat that it is a new departure for us in Northern Ireland. Has it been found that the existing law has been abused to some extent and that therefore some restriction needs to be placed on frivolous planning applications? Has it been found that the applications dealt with have led to a good deal more work for the staff who deal with this type of application? One would have thought—I speak specifically in relation to Northern Ireland, and more particularly in relation to Belfast—that there would be adequate numbers of civil servants to deal with the planning applications brought to their notice.
I find it very difficult to understand the need for the order. It may be that the Conversative Government are seeking a new means of bringing in revenue, under whatever guise. We know from the Budget Statement today that they will get more revenue by way of taxes on cigarettes, petrol and other commodities, but the provisions in the order seem to be a rather hidden way of trying to get more revenue.
Some of the people concerned may be in very humble circumstances. There are some ordinary people who do not have a great deal of finance behind them but may want to build extensions to their houses. There may have been additions to their families, or they may simply wish to 842 carry out extensions to their properties. I cannot see why they should be asked to pay a fee to authorities when they make planning applications. The wording of the order says that the authority or Department"may", but we have seen that word before. One often sees it transformed to"shall". I am sure that the word will become"shall" when the order becomes effective.
Have the Government made an assessment of how much money would have been collected for the past year if the proposed fees had been in operation? How much money would have been collected last year, or the year before? How much money will be collected in the forthcoming financial year? If the figure were thousands or perhaps hundreds of thousands of pounds, my party would still object, but the Government might justify it. If the figure were small, it would be utterly unjustified to establish such a principle.
I do not object to that kind of tax under this guise—we have heard enough this afternoon about what the Government will do—but I wholly object to the principle that people should be forced to pay fees for planning applications to carrying out essential improvements to their properties.
§ Mr. James Kilfedder (Down, North)
I wish to dwell on article 10 of the order and I shall not take much time, because what I intended to say has already been said most eloquently. I want to put on record my objection to the principle of imposing charges for planning applications.
Development is vital for the whole community. Planning authorities perform an essential service, not just for the person who makes an application but for the whole community. It is wrong that the Government should seek to impose charges on a person who makes a planning application when the function of the Department of the Environment is to protect the environment.
As we have heard from the Minister, the reason why these charges are being imposed is to bring in revenue to pay for the bureaucracy which already exists in Northern Ireland. As has been pointed out by the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt), we had an example this afternoon in the Budget which showed that the Government are out to penalise people as much as possible. Unfortunately, the majority of people who are being penalised are the ordinary men and women in the community. Planning consent is not a privilege. Everyone has the right to make a planning application, but no one may erect or extend a building without obtaining planning permission. Therefore, it is not proper for the Government to charge people for fulfilling an obligation that is imposed by law. That is wrong in principle, and I take strong objection to it. It is necessary to protect the environment and we must, therefore, have proper planning. It is right that plans should be submitted to public scrutiny. We must ensure that a building or extension will not be offensive to residents or the environment.
I concur with the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) that the charge for planning appeals will penalise aggrieved applicants. In many cases a charge will deter an appeal. The applicant will have already faced officialdom and had the application rejected. Unless the applicant has plenty of money to throw around, he will have to think carefully before appealing.
That will strengthen the bureaucracy, which is already too strong. We should be curtailing bureaucracy. It is 843 wrong to give this power to the planning authorities. The measure will add to the cost of buildings for industry, farming and horticulture. That is at a time when in Northern Ireland we need more industry and more people developing free enterprise. More people should be erecting buildings and promoting industry. The order imposes a penalty on that activity.
It also imposes a penalty on ordinary people who wish to build their own home or an extension. Costs are already too high. Many young people find it impossible to meet mortgage repayments. It is wrong that the cost of a home should be increased as a result of the charges.
The planning authorities will gather large sums. I shall be interested to hear exactly how much the Minister expects will be collected. As a result of collecting the large sums involved, officials will have less incentive to maintain efficiency and curtail bureaucracy. The Government will defeat their avowed purpose. There will be an increase in the number of people working in the planning offices and a delay in processing planning applications. I shall regret that.
An applicant will have to pay £20 or more for permission to build a home. As a result he will take time consulting the planning authorities to ensure that he does not throw away his money. He will have to go carefully through the plans with the officials to avoid the official throwing the application out of the window. That will lead to more work. It will mean delay and an increase in costs. In addition, planning officers will have a sanction. They will be able to threaten an applicant who will not give in to demands about where a house should be sited, how it should be built, which way it should face, or the way in which the roof is built. Planning authorities impose many niggling requirements. Some of them do not make sense, although many do. Some authorities are difficult with applicants.
I do not believe that the imposition of charges will bring any improvement in planning in Northern Ireland. A number of cases have been brought to my attention where planning permission has been given where it should never have been given and also a number of cases where planning permission has been refused where I felt it should be given. In one case, where planning permission was given, I felt that it was diabolical that the authorities should grant such permission to a speculator to build a house right in front of an existing house, thereby adversely affecting the value of the house and the enjoyment of the house by the residents. They protested, but there was nothing that they could do.
I should like to refer briefly to article 11, which increases the level of fines under the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972 and the Planning (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978. Until now, where someone has defied the planning law in Northern Ireland, the Department of the Environment has seemed impotent or unwilling to enforce the law. I have one case with which I have plagued the Minister and his predecessor where an industrial activity is being carried on without planning permission to the annoyance of residents in the area. I have not yet succeeded in persuading the Department of the Environment to stop that activity and to make sure that the building reverts to its former purpose. I hope that when this order takes effect the Department of the Environment will ensure that the planning law is enforced for everyone.
§ Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)
The measures in the order fall under three headings—valuation and rating, planning, and land. It is rather obnoxious that three such separate subjects, with their roots in separate pieces of legislation, should be bundled together in a single order. I would have thought that for the benefit of everyone concerned it would be better to have three small orders that related more easily to the parent legislation in each case. In future, confusion is bound to be caused to hon Members or others who start to look through the various laws governing valuation and rating, planning, and land to try to find the subject matter that they seek.
I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in drawing attention to the fact that four new articles had appeared between the proposal for the draft and the actual draft. If I had thought that the order could be expanded in the way that it has been expanded, I could have brought up a few more matters to be added to it. There is an embryo transfer centre at Coleraine, about which I wrote to the Minister's predecessor, which is bearing heavy rates. If it were located on this side of the Irish Sea, no such rates would be charged. I would have thought that this was an excellent opportunity to clear up the law and to relieve my unfortunate constituent of the problem that he faces. I would have put that matter to the Minister if I had thought it possible that the order could be extended. I see no reason why it should not have been extended to the producing organisation of fish farms, so closely connected with a new branch of agriculture.
I wish, above all, to direct my remarks to the problems that arise under the powers being taken to dispose of land no longer required for the purpose for which it was originally vested or acquired. This order raises the apparently dormant but hotly smouldering question of the disposal of such land. I am not sure whether the Minister is a willing volunteer or a reluctant conscript. I know that he mounted the horse in mid-stream, and it may be that once he was mounted he found this flaming fire ahead of him. Of one thing I am absolutely certain: heaven help him if he does not get it right.
I assume that the area of land affected in Londonderry city is relatively small, as no one has been able to identify it. There is the problem of Antrim, which my hon. Friend the Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) will raise if he catches your eye, Mr. Speaker. There is the problem of North Antrim, which apparently will not be raised by anyone, and there is the problem faced by my hon. Friend the Member for Armagh (Mr. McCusker), who, unfortunately, is not able to be with us, in relation to Craigavon new city.
That is a hideous problem, and I am keen to know how the Minister will resolve it. Originally the land could be sold only for new town development, but the order alters that. The land can now be disposed of to anyone.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South said that he hoped that the Crichel Down rules would apply. I hope that a much more generous spirit will be shown in the disposal of these lands. The problem is not quite as it was in the case that gave rise to the Crichel Down rules. In Craigavon there are 3,000 acres of surplus land. I want to know, as do the people living on the land, how much of that land will be released. Will part of it or all of it be 845 released? What are the criteria for deciding which lands shall be released and which shall be held? Who will be given the opportunity to purchase the land?
We must consider the serious facts surrounding the land. Some farmers settled 15 or 16 years ago. They received a price for the land which at that time was a tiny sum compared with today's values. They settled because they were told that the land would be required in the almost immediate future, but to this day they are still living on their holdings, paying rent for land that they probably inherited. There are other farmers who did not settle, who have never been paid for the land, and are still farming the land as their fathers before them did.
Will the Government now say to either of those two classes of people, because of the creation of Craigavon,"You are living on your own land. We vested it 15 years ago; we did not pay you for it; it was worth £500 an acre 15 years ago; it is worth £2,500 an acre today. If you want to stay you will have to give us £2,000 an acre for your land"? To say that that would be the morality of the cesspool would be to praise it. A much more generous spirit than the Crichel Down rule will have to apply to both those classes of landowner who have been placed in this position through the bungling, the delay and the misapprehensions that have surrounded the whole Craigavon project.
I need not enter into the argument whether it could have succeeded. What we do know is that it has fallen far short of expectations and that a dreadful situation has been created for the people who live there and have owned this land in many cases for generations, and who now, through no fault of their own, will find themselves in the greatest difficulty—and in circumstances in which the Government cannot win, for if the Government try to apply the legal framework that has been applied elsewhere, they will come out of it with the muckiest faces that any Government ever had. I hope that the Minister understands that; I hope the House understands it; and I hope that when the Minister deals with the matter he will take account of the feelings of those who live there.
Let us look for a moment at the Crichel Down rule. It says, in effect, that agricultural land should be sold back to the former owner when it is no longer required for public purposes. Normally, when land is being sold back it is land that has been used for the purpose for which it was first acquired either by vesting or by other means; the public use has disappeared and the land has now become available. This is a difficult and intricate subject, which arouses the most ferocious emotions among those who are involved in it.
I should like to quote from a leading article in The Times on the Bloomsbury case last year in regard to the publishers, George Allen and Unwin. The article recalls the words of a previous Home Secretary—Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe—in winding up the debate in the Crichel Down case, when he said:'Every citizen of good will sees his land go in time of emergency for Government requirements with as much good will as he can muster;'"—generally speaking, there is not much good will in it—'but it is taken for a specific purpose, for a specific need of the State. When that purpose is exhausted, when that need is past, what is wrong, on any consideration of morality or justice, in allowing the person from whom the land was taken to have the chance of getting it back?' Crichel Down was not an issue of land 846 as against buildings, but of morality and justice against administrative oppression."—[Official Report, 20 July 1954; Vol. 530, c. 1292.]I think there is no one in the House who could disagree with the last part of what I have just read, but I draw the attention of the House to what the Home Secretary of that time was saying. He was generous in his attitude and went very much further than the Crichel Down rule, because he said that the land that was taken for a specific purpose—he did not add the requirement that it must be agricultural land, he said"any land"—should be returned whenever the purpose for which it was taken was exhausted. That is something that has never been put into effect.
Land is not returned whenever the specific purpose for which it was taken is exhausted; it is offered to other Government or local government bodies. In other words, land can be taken for a specific purpose and can be used eventually for a totally different purpose and never returned to the person who at one time owned it and lost it.
This is the first opportunity there has been to consider this matter in the Northern Ireland context, and I hope to raise another matter in that context, too, on another occasion. I hope that the Government will have the courage to reopen the whole Crichel Down settlement, because I believe that full justice for the citizens who suffer is long overdue. There is perhaps no better opportunity than the Craigavon case to start looking again at the rules that surround the return of land to its former owners.
The order is narrow, because it refers only to new towns. I want a far more detailed examination of the whole planning scene. That is overdue. I wish to digress a little, but remain within the rules of order, and illustrate the problems that can arise. I draw attention to article 11(2)(f), which refers toknowingly making mis-statement when required to give information as to land.That relates to the Critchel Down theory when land is taken for specific purposes. There are times when land is taken for specific purposes, and its use is then subtly changed so that the original planning application does not apply the end use.
In my constituency there are two such instances that may be of interest to the House and that are relevant to the general point. One is the proposal to play Gaelic Athletic Association football in the Waterside, in Londonderry. There is a change of use from one game to another, but in planning terms there is no change, as they both come under the heading of recreation. Yet no one who knows the position in Northern Ireland could deny that it involves a major change of use.
I wish to quote from the charter of the GAA. It states:The Association is a National Organisation which has as its basic aim the strengthening of the National Identity in a 32 County Ireland through the preservation and promotion of Gaelic games and pastimes.Rule 26 states:British soldiers, navy men, and police shall not be eligible for membership of the G.A.A.A member of the Association participating in dances, or similar entertainments, promoted by or under the patronage of such bodies, shall incur suspension for at least 3 months.Rule 10 states:The National Flag should be displayed at all matches.That refers to the flag of the Irish Republic. The general foreword states:Those who play its games, those who organise its activities and those who control its destinies see in the G.A.A. a means 847 of consolidating our Irish identity. The games to them are more than games—they have a national significance—and the promotion of native pastimes becomes a part of the full national ideal …It continues:Those who are unaware of the conditions that called the G.A. A. into being, and of the national significance that attaches to the native games may be forgiven if, to them, one game is as good as another. But those who know our country's history and understand the role that the G.A.A. has played in it will see that …Anyone reading that charter soon understands that the GAA envisages its aims as more than playing games. It says that in the plainest language. Who are we to disagree with those who belong to, organise and run that association? Yet in planning law that difference from other games is ignored. The games played by that association, the emotions aroused by it, and all the hullaballoo surrounding it, are set at naught and treated as normal sporting activity. It may be law, but it cannot be a good standard of morals. The Minister should bear that in mind when considering such matters. The type of game changes the circumstances. It changes the attitude of people towards the use to which land is put. If those changes are to be introduced, the planning laws should be changed to take account of that.
The same criticisms can be levelled at a new school. Strangely enough, it is in the immediate area that featured in the original plans, which were changed on a subsequent application. The Minister is aware of the school that I am talking about. An amendment was made under the subsequent planning application that might well have given rise to objections if it had appeared in the original application. The Minister is well aware of that. I regret that he has accepted the case of those who wanted the change made. However, the change could not eventually be challenged on planning grounds. As I said, it may be lawful but it is not good morals.
These actions have opened doors that should now be closed firmly and decisively. That can be done by changing the law or by the Minister remembering that he operates a Department in Northern Ireland and not in 848 England. He operates a Department that has to be much aware of the social and political complexion that will be attached to his decisions.
Planning law is difficult and complex enough, and it needs to be opened up, not only for the reasons that I have submitted but because of the developing interpretation of existing legislation. I was approached some time ago about the provision of a bus shelter. That was not a big event. The provision was sought in the village of Ballykelly. Until recently the planning authority had to consider bus shelters, but under the 1973 order such development is now entirely in the control of district councils. Apparently, it has been in that control since the order became effective, but that was not appreciated until fairly recently. That is a small development, but it is a happy one. It is a road along which the Minister could properly travel. He should go not a short way but the whole hog. It is time that people in Northern Ireland and councils were given some responsibility for something.
Another unusual development has arisen, strangely enough, in the Ballykelly area. It is one that I find rather disturbing. A chap wanted to build a house on a farm lane. He would not have been allowed to so so before the relaxation of the planning rules some years ago. However, whenever he made the application he was told that if he built his house there would be one house too many on the lane. He was told that the public street legislation would come into play and that before he built the house he must bring the lane up to the standard required by that legislation.
That appears to be a rather unusual use of existing law. I wonder how widespread that application of the public street legislation will be. Apparently, it will cost £30,000 to satisfy the requirements of the legislation. In other words, the applicant will be unable to build his dwelling.
I hope that in discussing the order and the planning law that is embodied in it we are firing only the opening shots in what will be a long examination of the detail that is involved in planning law. I hope that it will not be long before we have a debate on planning controls and the relaxation of planning controls that apply to minor developments.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)
I shall be brief in complementing what has been said by my right hon. and hon. Friends. The new town of Antrim is mentioned in the explanatory document of the order. Although the reference is to some extent qualified, the document states thatActual progress, except in the case of Antrim, has been at a much slower rate than originally anticipated".In the same paragraph, it is said:with the possible exception of Antrim.No one considering the growth rate in the town of Antrim at the moment would draw a great distinction between it and the town of Craigavon. They have both come to a standstill for roughly the same reasons. I accept that the problem exists in Craigavon on a greater scale than it does in Antrim, but in Antrim there are one or two points which I hope will receive the attention of the Minister. I do not expect him to reply in detail tonight, but I am sure that he will wish his Department to consider the matter in detail.
There are two aspects of the Antrim problem. First, as in Craigavon, there is the land which one would call the"green field" category, which has not yet been touched or developed. The second aspect is land on which there is property, some of it of a fair age and at various stages of disrepair. Some of it is still usable and some of it is being used to carry on profitable business.
There is a mystery over what is known as site B. I know that the Minister has a map and that he looked at the site when he visited Antrim. Site B is distinct from site A. It has been earmarked for what is termed in the Antrim town to which I referred as an area to be used for cultural and entertainment purposes. We are talking about public money, not developers' money. I am not certain that we will see the day when public money will become available on a sufficient scale to provide for cultural facilities. A cinema and some kind of assembly hall are listed. However, the town of Antrim already has a reasonable number of such buildings and cannot be said by any stretch of the imagination to be deprived of places of assembly, particularly as the population is relatively small and as there is not much prospect of it growing to a great extent in the near future.
The Minister should persuade those who make those decisions to face up to that big question and see if a decision can be made. If they can make a decision that in the foreseeable future public money is not likely to be available to be spent on such projects, the present occupants and owners of those businesses should be put out of their misery and should be told that their property will not be required in the foreseeable future. If their property has been vested, it should be handed back to them. If the property has already been purchased by the Department of the Environment, it should be sold back to them on the terms already mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross).
I hope that the Minister can ensure that action is taken. All it needs is for a decision to be taken, because site B should not deteriorate while people are struggling to carry on their businesses, having no idea of what the future holds in store.
The development in site A—the larger site—is fairly well advanced. On a recent visit to Antrim, I noticed that 850 many new shops were nearing completion. However, I fear for the future of even that development. Those shops have been erected by a developer who has been commissioned to do so by the Department of the Environment. However, the other day a table of scales of charges for the new shops was circulated. It will probably come as a surprise to the Minister to find out that the charges for those shops in Antrim are over twice those quoted for the Croydon shopping centre, which is in the middle of an area with a population of approximately 1½ million, whereas in Antrim we are proud that the population is 30,000. There is a difference between 30,000 and 1½ million. Antrim, with its 30,000 inhabitants, is charging fees double those of the Croydon shopping centre.
I hope that prosperity will return to Antrim. I hope that the Minister responsible for commerce will ensure that the Enkalon factory is preserved. However, everyone regretfully accepts that the labour force will be reduced dramatically. As the right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) knows, there is no alternative source of employment within reach of the town of Antrim. If Enkalon is scaled down—worse still, if it goes—the Minister will have to face the problem of what will happen to the hideously expensive development in the town. There will not be sufficient income for the shops.
In the older part of Church Street, we have family businesses, such as a widow and her daughter selling paint and wallpaper. The Antrim development commission told those people that they would be vested, with compensation. They were told that they would be guaranteed the option to tender for one of the great new shops to be erected. However, the shop would cost between £10,000 and £11,000 a year, plus rates, the cost of shopfitting, which is not included in the initial rental, the cost of installing heating, and so on. The proposition was, therefore, not particularly attractive.
The Department of the Environment stands to lose a great deal if the scheme collapses. I hope that it will, therefore, persuade developers to adopt a more realistic attitude.
§ Mr. Wm. Ross
My hon. Friend will be aware of the large development at Richmond Street in Londonderry. Perhaps he will ask the Minister whether similar financing arrangements were arrived at for the Antrim development, and what is the standard of the building.
§ Mr. Molyneaux
I can quite accept that my hon. Friend has the same problem in his constituency. In the days when he and I served in local government those of us who had our feet on the ground warned the starry-eyed planners that they would come a cropper. Even in those days of relative prosperity, we could not see where the money was to come from to flesh out the marvellous plans. We are now reaping the consequences of decisions that were not realistic even then. In present circumstances they are even more unrealistic.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and the hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) drew attention to the unsatisfactory method of dealing with Northern Ireland legislation. I remember that when the Local Government, Planning and Land (No. 2) Bill was being debated we took the attitude that it was none of our business. Hon. Members from Great Britain would have been gracious enough to permit us to participate, but 851 they could not have been blamed for feeling that it was none of our business. We did not participate or vote. I remember even more vividly the short debate on the two orders for England and Scotland implementing the decision provided for in the Act. The Minister, who had come recently from the Northern Ireland Office, explained to the House that he had started with much larger fees, and he gave two examples.
The Minister said that in the case of outline planning permission applications the original maximum fee had been fixed at £20,000, but—and this was the significant part—as a result of representations made during the passage of the Bill, and, more importantly, representations made by individuals and interests affected, he had reduced the fee from £20,000 to £1,000.
At the other end of the scale, the Minister gave an example which was perhaps not quite so dramatic. At the lower level of the common or garden type of application—say, the extension of a bungalow or something of that kind—where the flat rate had originally been £30, as a result of expressions of opinion and objections from smallholders that fee had been reduced to £20.
The Minister may well say tonight that, although in the consultative paper his Department had not set out the fees that it proposed to levy, it had at any rate indicated clearly that it intended to impose such fees. He may therefore ask why representations were not made to his Department on the proposal.
The answer is that the general public, beyond the fairly small circle of people to whom the memorandum was circulated, had no way of knowing because there had been no preliminary debates in Parliament on the matter to give them an opportunity to express their views while there was still time to amend the legislation.
Again, I hope that this reinforces the plea made both by my right hon. Friend the Member for Down, South and the hon. Member for Belfast, West that we should examine the whole problem of legislation for Northern Ireland and treat it no differently from that which obtains in the rest of the kingdom.
§ Mr. David Mitchell
The House has had a very interesting survey of a major area, which is perhaps bigger than I had anticipated when I first introduced the order. I shall endeavour to deal with the many subjects raised by hon. Members during this short debate. If I fail to cover any points I shall write to the hon. Members concerned afterwards.
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) referred to the late introduction of new articles and sought assurances that, wherever possible, draft orders should not be extended without adequate opportunity for consultation. I could give him an explanation of the lack of time involved in this case after the House of Lords finally made the additional changes to the Great Britain legislation, but I think that it might be better if I accepted that the situation was not entirely satisfactory in this case and said that I shall endeavour to ensure that there is adequate opportunity for public discussion on future occasions.
The right hon. Gentleman then suggested that much of the draft order could have been introduced in the Great Britain legislation. That would have been complicated and difficult in this case. The use of the Order in Council has been preferred, since, apart from article 13, the substance 852 of the order is in the form of amendments to legislation contained in the Northern Ireland series of statutes. It would be confusing for a number of amendments to the corpus of Northern Ireland law on local government and planning to be placed in the United Kingdom series rather than in the Northern Ireland series of statutes. Therefore, while I entirely accept the concept that the right hon. Gentleman put forward, I hope that he will accept that in this case it would not have been appropriate.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to ask some specific questions about the articles. He began with article 3, and wanted to know whether we intended to alter the 50 per cent. rate now chargeable. This has been taken as a power because some people have availed themselves of the opportunity to challenge an assessment, have paid only half the rate pending the appeal, and in one way or another have extended the period of appeal so that they have given themselves an unfair advantage. In this case, power is being taken but no specific proposals are being brought forward at this stage.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell
Do I gather from that that the purpose is to enable the fraction of one-half to be increased? If that is so, would not it be proper for the Government, in asking for the power, to indicate what they have in mind? Presumably, they have something in mind, such as three-quarters. The reason seems to me to be a perfectly satisfactory one, but would not it be more proper for the Government to come cleaner still?
§ Mr. Mitchell
It is our intention to follow the Great Britain legislation. We are not yet in possession of the full thoughts of the Secretary of State as to when and how he wishes to move.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the alteration of the existing percentage figure in relation to commission to owners for the collection of rates on behalf of the rating authority. This is part of the extending of powers to local government in Great Britain. We have no immediate plans similarly to follow in Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to article 7, which he described as obscure and obfuscated. He explained with his usual lucidity exactly what that article was intended to do. As I followed his explanation, I think that I can audit it as being an accurate portrayal of exactly what is intended. He asked specifically why we should seek power to revalue certain separate classes, and what was intended. The intention of the Great Britain legislation has not yet been made known, although one might suppose that in the longer term it is related to the intention to reform or abandon domestic rating. Hon. Members will know that this matter has been with us for a considerable time. There is widespread disquiet about the operation of the existing rating system on the mainland. Power has been taken to deal with changes, should they occur.
The right hon. Gentleman asked me about article 8. He objected to the failure to update the valuation and to the lack of consultation. As for the quinquennial rule, a statutory rule was made on 27 August 1980, which was circulated on 9 September to all those who represent Northern Ireland constituencies. It suspended the 1981 quinquennial review until 1985. Therefore, we are bringing ourselves into line with the situation in Great Britain. I refer to revaluation by order subject to an affirmative resolution. There was an opportunity to pray against that statutory rule. Although that was before my 853 time at the Northern Ireland Office, I understand that the opportunity was not taken. The Government brought forward that proposal with the objective of saving 1,000 staff on the mainland. I am sure that hon. Members will recognise the important financial saving involved.
§ Mr. Powell
I apologise for interrupting the hon. Gentleman, but will he clarify the point that the power to defer the valuation—and specifically to do so—already existed and had been exercised and that this article merely makes a permanent change in the quinquennial law? Is that the case?
§ Mr. Mitchell
No. The change in the statutory rule extended the requirement to 1985. The order extends that further, subject to an affirmative resolution.
Several right hon. and hon. Members, including the right hon. Member for Down, South, referred to the Crichel Down principles and to the return of land that was compulsorily purchased or vested for public purposes and that is now surplus to needs. Several hon. Members doubted whether the convention was being properly applied. I should like to know of any cases in which it is thought that it is not being properly applied. It is our intention that the Crichel Down principles should apply to surplus land in new towns. Indeed, there is considerable interest in relation to surplus land at Craigavon and Antrim.
I was asked by the right hon. Member for Down, South for assurances about article 13. He said that it appeared to give a general and retrospective legislative power to the city council for industrial development purposes. It confers the power not on the city council but on the former city corporation. Nothing more serious is involved than the uncertainty that arose on that question whether the city corporation was, at one stage, ultra vires. This provision puts that matter beyond peradventure.
The right hon. Member for Mansfield (Mr. Concannon) asked me questions about article 10 and sought clarification about planning appeals and the fees involved. He asked whether there was a discrepancy between my introductory remarks and the power contained in the order to charge for planning appeals. I well understand the potential for misunderstanding. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for probing and for having given me the opportunity to clarify the situation.
A charge of £3 per planning application is made for advertising an appeal. We have had to word the provision so that we can continue to make that charge. However, we do not intend to charge a fee for planning appeals. The hon. Member for Belfast, West (Mr. Fitt) said that he had only just become aware that fees were to be charged for planning applications. He wished to know the principle that lay behind that concept. The principle is that, when a planning application is made and processed, certain costs are incurred by staff, and so on who should meet those costs? Should they be met by taxpayers who not interested in the planning application and who may, indeed, not want it, or should they be met, at least in part, by those who seek, and will benefit from, planning permission? I see a good deal of logic in the concept that those who benefit should meet at least part of the costs.
§ Mr. Powell
Surely the logic of that is that the fee should be charged for the permission and not for the application. There is no benefit if the application is refused.
§ Mr. Mitchell
The right hon. Gentleman has a certain logic on his side, but I have to tell him that the staff costs of processing the application are incurred when an application is made, whatever the result may be.
§ Mr. Fitt
The Minister says that certain costs are incurred when an application is made. The applications are vetted by people who are already in the employment of the planning division of the Department of the Environment. If they were not looking at applications, what else would they be doing—drinking tea? Surely that is their job. What extra costs are involved?
§ Mr. Mitchell
The hon. Gentleman asks me what extra costs are involved. There is the cost of running that service. The question is whether the cost of running that service should be met by the generality of the hon. Gentleman's constituents and the rest of the taxpayers and ratepayers in the Province or should be met at least in part, or contributed towards, by those who are to benefit by it.
§ Mr. Fitt
Is the Minister suggesting, then, that someone who has a family allowance book, or who is on sickness or social security benefit, should pay the people in the post office for the service rendered? The people working in the post office are surely acting in the same way as civil servants. They are doing a particular job in the interests of the ratepayers or taxpayers. If the Minister carried his present argument to its logical conclusion, nobody would be paid for by the Government.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I was also asked how much money would be raised by the proposal. It is estimated that approximately £1 million will be raised. The hon. Member for Down, North (Mr. Kilfedder)—
§ Mr. Kilfedder
Will the Minister state how many applications for planning permission have been refused in the last year by the Department of the Environment? How much money has been thrown away on that account?
§ Mr. Mitchell
I do not happen to have in my head the number of planning applications that were refused before I arrived in the Northern Ireland Office but I shall write to the hon. Member.
The hon. Member for Down, North objected to the principle of planning charges and feared that charges would inhibit building or extension. Improvements and extensions will in general be excluded because of the extension of the concession about not requiring planning consent in relation to small developments, but the cost of a planning application is estimated to be about £40 for an ordinary house.
§ Mr. Kilfedder
Is the Minister saying that if a family wished to have a flat built to accommodate a mother or father or relatives planning permission would not have to be paid for?
§ Mr. Mitchell
The hon. Gentleman will have to wait until the result of the consultation that is now going on as to the size of extension that should be permitted. He should have among his papers a consultation paper on planning 855 controls over minor development that has just been issued. Responses should be addressed to the planning division of the Department of the Environment in Belfast. A charge as small as that against the cost of the whole of a house will certainly not prevent building taking place.
The hon. Gentleman sought stronger enforcement of planning controls. I shall keep in mind the point that he made in discussing that with my advisers.
The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) raised the question of land acquired for public purposes that is now surplus. That was somewhat related to the point made by the right hon. Member for Down, South over the Crichel Down principles. The hon. Member for Londonderry asked for two assurances. The first was that land would be offered back to the former owners, if traceable. I give that assurance. The second assurance concerned technicalities of valuation. I entirely agree that that was a hot potato.
Clearly, one is involved in very complex technical matters of valuation, which have the additional complexity that wherever one draws the line to make a consession for one group of people, one is immediately placing another group in a position in which they, too, feel that they should have a concession. Lying behind all that are the twin problems of land, the value of which has been enhanced by the fact that it has been assigned to be part of and is close to a new town—in other words, where a public decision, public money and public purposes have enhanced the value of the land. Those who have been compensated and received money some time ago may feel that if one were to return the land to the original owners without taking note of the enhanced value they, too, would have a claim for some compensation.
I agree that this is an area of extreme complexity in which there are likely to be strong feelings. We must consider carefully a fair and acceptable solution to the problem, one in which public assets are not given away at prices and values that would lead to the Public Accounts Committee objecting to the terms that have been allowed.
I join with the hon. Gentleman in agreeing about the complexity and sensitivity of the matter and wishing to have time for consultation with hon. Members about the best way to proceed with the minimum of unfairness and with some underlying principles against which subsequent problems that arise can be measured. I wish to discuss them with hon. Members with a view to agreeing what the principles should be and how we should apply them.
The hon. Member for Londonderry raised the question of change of use of a playing field from one form of sports field to another, involving, in this case, the Gaelic Athletic Association, from the rules of which he quoted. Lawfully, there is no change of use. I think that he agreed with that. He said that there was a change of morality. But morality is not a planning matter. The question of the Gaelic Athletic Association rules is not a planning matter. If I 856 were to take sectarian matters into account I should be forfeiting the impartiality essential to secure respect as the basis upon which planning decisions are taken.
§ Mr. Wm. Ross
The hon. Gentleman misses the main thrust of my argument, which is that if the people in that area had known that eventually the land would be for a use different from that which they perceived when it was first set up for soccer and cricket there would have been serious objections. The change is to another game which is, in the eyes of the game's promoters, more than a game. That alters the concept behind the original application.
§ Mr. Mitchell
It might alter the concept behind the original application. It might give rise to considerations whether the rules of a particular association are acceptable or unacceptable. However, those are not planning matters. There are other ways of dealing with them apart from seeking to inject into planning considerations matters that are not related to planning.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) wondered whether the town's development would come to a halt because of the substantial number of redundancies in the area. I place on record how impressed I was, when visiting the town, by the determination of the mayor and the members of the council to ensure the success of what they have put their hands to. I was also impressed by the tremendous emphasis on sporting and recreational facilities in and around the town.
I was asked about site A—the shopping centre that I visited. I understand that public money is not involved. It is a private development. The judgment about the level of rents and potential occupancy is a matter for the private developer.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South asked whether public money would be available for site B. I should have liked notice of that question. I shall write to the hon. Member. I am happy to be identified with the principle that wherever possible we should persuade private sector funds to be used and so prevent unnecessary and avoidable use of public funds. I intend to do that throughout the activities of my Department in the Province.
The hon. Member for Antrim, South was also worried about dispossessed shopkeepers who are offered expensive alternative premises. I have much sympathy with such shopkeepers. If the hon. Member writes to me I shall examine the particulars of the case that he raised.
The House has covered a substantial amount of ground. I believe that I have covered all the points raised. If I have missed any I shall write to the hon. Members concerned. I commend the order to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ That the draft Local C5ovemment, Planning and Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1981, which was laid before this House on 29 January, be approved.