HC Deb 15 May 1981 vol 4 cc1020-33

`Procedures under which certain categories of application for planning permission within areas of national scenic heritage are referred to the Secretary of State for Scotland if agreement between the planning authority and the Countryside Commission is not reached shall not be introduced within the areas of the Highland Regional and Western Islands Councils before the first day of September 1984.'.—[Mr. Dewar.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Dewar

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

We shall try to move the clause along fairly fast, but it is probably the second most substantial issue of the day's debate. That is not to undervalue some of the points which are to come, but I believe that we can dispose of some of them quickly. Therefore, I make no apology for dwelling a minute or two on this matter, which again affects the area represented by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) and again is an area where we walk on sensitive ground. However, we should not be frightened to do so and we should try to face up to the fact that there are genuine anxieties about the way the present planning system is about to work.

From 1 September 1981 the Government are proposing to enter into an arrangement whereby, in the Highland regional area and in the Western Islands council area, in certain designated areas of national scenic importance, where the planning permission for a specified group of applications is at issue—for example, schemes for five or more houses, five or more mobile dwellings or a non-residential development requiring more than half a hectare of land—the Countryside Commission for Scotland must be consulted. If it is not prepared to agree to the development, the matter must automatically go forward for consideration and adjudication by the Secretary of State for Scotland.

That scheme is coming in from 1 September 1981. We should carefully consider whether that should happen. I say that with a little hesitation because I realise that, on the face of it, it is not an unreasonable proposition, because a similar scheme is operating and has been operating from 1 September 1980 in the rest of Scotland. Therefore, I recognise that there may be a temptation to ask, if such a scheme is operating in Argyll and Galloway, why it should not operate in the Highland region and in the Western Isles. I need hardly say that the commission, which will be built into the planning arrangements, and which has the statutory right to object and to force consideration by the Secretary of State, finds the scheme thoroughly reasonable.

Indeed, I have no doubt that the Minister will tell us that it is working well. The thirteenth report of the Countryside Commission for Scotland, to which I have just referred, states that there have been nine cases in 1980 in areas where the system is working and that there have been no problems at all. The Secretary of State was challenged at Scottish Question Time by the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and the right hon. Member for Western Isles (Mr. Stewart). When they expressed anxieties about the introduction of the scheme, he gave them little comfort.

Mr. MacLennan

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the scheme is opposed not only by every local authority in the Highlands but also by the Minister of State, Department of Energy, who appears to he as uninfluential with the Secretary of State as I have been alleged to be with the former Secretary of State? On a delegation to the Under-Secretary of State, he wholly failed to sway him.

Mr. Dewar

That is an interesting insight into the domestic life of the Conservative Party. I was not aware of that.

Mr. Rifkind

Both hon. Gentlemen will appreciate that it was precisely because of the meeting with the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and my hon. Friend that we decided to delay implementing the proposals in the Highlands and Western Isles for a full year to see whether the problems that it was said might arise would occur in Argyll and other comparable areas with a topography similar to that of the Highlands. The delegation gave us the opportunity to test the hon. Gentleman's allegations.

Mr. Dewar

I cannot speak with authority, because I have not consulted the Minister of State, Department of Energy. The feelings in his area, which the hon. Gentleman formerly expressed and I trust in private is still expressing, have not abated. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland is correct that there is almost total unanimity in the Highlands about the undesirability of introducing the measure on 1 September 1981.

My new clauses have been simple in their intention and easily comprehended. New clause 3 suggests that the innovation should not be introduced in the Highlands and Western Isles until 1 September 1984.

I have to make my case, because if the system is working in other parts of the country, why should it not work in the Highlands and Western Isles? I have no doubt that the Minister will tell me—I appreciate that there is some force in the argument—that section 9 of the Countryside (Scotland) Act 1967 contains proposals about areas of special planning control which are being repealed and which would have allowed a tight and cumbersome control machinery in specified areas, which by reason of beauty, amenity or other special characteristics should be the subject of further planning control.

However, there are two differences. The first distinction is a matter of scale. It is true that we might have had areas of special planning control under the old Act, but they would have been very tight and there were few of them. The ability of the Countryside Commission to veto the local authority's right to grant planning permission there and then and to force adjudication by the Secretary of State—I think that that is a fair way of representing it—will now run in a remarkably wide area throughout particularly the Highlands and Western Isles.

I have here the publication "Scotland's Scenic Heritage", which designates no fewer than 40 areas where the rule will apply. Sixteen are within the Highland region. They are not small patches of land. There are to be 20,000 hectares in North-West Sutherland, 90,000 in Assynt, 145,000 in Wester Ross, 39,000 in Knoydart, 79,000 in the Ben Nevis area and 37,000 in the Cairngorm area. I cannot give an exact calculation of the total number of hectares and what proportion it is of the Highland region, which is a vast land mass, but I am told that almost certainly more than one-third of the Highland region will be involved.

In the Western Isles, South Lewis, the whole of Harris and large lumps of North Uist—109,600 hectares—will be covered by the new scheme, which means that at the end of the day we have in the Western Isles almost a concurrent planning authority, superimposed on the directly elected councillors of what is called an all-purpose authority but which will be a gae funny all-purpose authority if the scheme comes into being.

That is the second point. I do not want to turn romantic and dewy-eyed about local democracy. I am as capable of criticising councillors as the next man, but they are elected to do a job and answerable to their electorate. Although I am entitled to criticise, they have to live with their mistakes or triumphs and answer to their electorate at the ballot box. An unfortunate principle may be involved. Over such a vast area of land and in areas of great political insensitivity failure to agree with the Countryside Commission may inevitably mean that the Secretary of State must be involved.

I do not want to fall into the trap of casting personal aspersions. That is not my role today. Also, although I take an interest and try to get the flavour of the argument, I am not involved in the day-to-day politics of the Highlands and Western Isles. However, putting it as dispassionately as possible and following the electorate argument, the commission is inevitably bound to be narrowly based, because the people on it are there because they have a particular point of view and expertise. It might be wrong for them to broaden their standpoint too much. They have to look at things from the point of view of the commission and special interests. Also, given that the commission will have such influence in planning throughout large areas of the Highlands and Western Isles, should it be based in Perth?

I say this with a little hesitation, but I do not believe that there is anyone from the Western Isles on the commission, although that can be put right. There will no doubt be a fluctuating population on the commission. However, that underlines the difficulty of giving the commission a prominent position in planning in those two areas. It worries me a little that we should find a great deal of discontent about the way in which it exercises its power. There is a danger of that because of the wide spread of designated areas in those two local authority units, which is not true in other parts of Scotland. I put that, I hope, not in any way pejoratively, but there is a danger that the Commission may be wearing too many hats, if the specific statutory power is unregulated.

After all—we are strengthening this in the Bill—the Commission will be responsible for giving grants. There may be genuine difficulties. For example, the Countryside Commission may object to a caravan site and force the matter to the Secretary of State. He may find for the caravan site proprietor or, in effect, the local authority, and the same commission may have to decide whether discretionary grants, which may be vital to the project, should be given. If it decides they should not be given, the decision is open to misinterpretation. That is the difficulty that can arise if we enable the commission to use its powers over such a wide geographical area.

This is a modest new clause. I am merely asking for further postponement. I am absolutely certain, having talked to people in the Western Isles and Highlands at a number of levels, elected and otherwise, that I reflect fairly the almost unanimous view that they do not wish the system to be introduced this September. If I were an elected councillor in the area, I would find myself exactly in that position. It is not a bad principle when considering the worth of a proposal to put oneself into the local position and the position of those who have to decide whether it is a desirable or undesirable reform.

I believe that this matter infringes the reasonable expectations of local government about its area of operation. I believe that, because of the total difference in scale in the area, it would be better to pause and to consider whether it would not be more sensible to exempt the Highland region and the Western Isles from these proposals for a further three years.

If the Minister is right and everything, to put it colloquially, is hunky-dory at the end of that year so far as other parts of the country are concerned, I would not rule out the possibility of considering whether there should be an extension, if it has worked well over a period. But when we are talking about such a massive infringement of local government——

Mr. Rifkind

indicated dissent.

Mr. Dewar

It is—because it means that an outside non-elected body can call in the Secretary of State at will. That will be resented. Given the difference in scale, we should hesitate about this before introducing it.

It is very much in that spirit—of reasonable conciliation, I hope—that I ask the House to consider the new clause.

11 am

Mr. John MacKay (Argyll)

I think that I have two qualifications for speaking on this matter. The first is that I am currently a member of the Standing Committee of the House which is considering the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. The second is that I am the Member for Argyll, where there are national scenic areas subject to the arrangements which are being opposed by the Highland region and the Western Isles council.

There is a great problem in this whole area. It is being rehearsed during discussions on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. It is the dilemma between people who wish to develop the countryside, such as farmers or foresters, or developers in other ways, and those who wish to conserve it. The Labour Party appears to be caught in the most appalling barbed wire entanglement. I invite Opposition Members to read the report of the Second Reading debate on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill and the reports of the two Committee sittings we have had this week. If they really wish to put their listening ability to the test, I invite them to listen to the proceedings of that Standing Committee next week, when they will hear from some of their hon. Friends a view that is in total opposition to the views that they are putting forward.

That view is that conservation, be it via the Countryside Commissions or the Nature Conservancy Council as regards SSSIs, should be upgraded beyond almost anything else. I invite Opposition Members to read the speech of their right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) on Second Reading of the Wildlife and Countryside Bill. They will see that he was saying, more or less, that not a single hectare of moorland should be ploughed up, and that it should be left as it is today because great damage has been wreaked over the last 20 years by agriculture and forestry in the wilderness areas of not only Scotland but also England and Wales.

This is a problem that we all face. I know it within myself. It is within the Labour Party—but Labour Members are used to having divisions. This is a division within myself. It is between allowing forestry and agricultural development, which gives employment, and accepting that if one stays in a place such as the Highlands one is in the midst of an area of great scenic beauty—not just the bits that have been defined by the Countryside Commission for Scotland, but virtually all, in comparison with much of the rest of the United Kingdom.

Therefore, two problems arise whenever any planning development is considered. The first problem is the very localised problem of whether that development should be allowed. On a slightly broader basis, there is the question whether the forester and the farmer ought to have to apply for planning permission before they can do anything to change things on their land. That is being debated on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill.

Planners have not shown themselves to be brilliant in the planning of our urban areas. I do not think that they would prove to be any better if they were let loose in the countryside to decide on farming and forestry uses.

However, especially in the Highlands and Argyll, we have areas of great scenic beauty which, perhaps many of us who live there take for granted. I find that one of the advantages of having being elected to this House and being in London during the week is that I appreciate the countryside much more when I return to it at weekends than I ever did when I lived in the country all the time. There seem to be many more birds in my garden than there used to be; but that is because I now notice them much more in the mornings.

There are different interests in the countryside. There are the interests of all the people who live in our urban areas, such as the constituency of the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar), and the interests of future generations. The effort being made on the Wildlife and Countryside Bill and by my hon. Friend the Member for South Angus (Mr. Fraser) in his much more modest Bill is to strike a balance between the two.

With regard to national scenic heritage areas, the Scottish Office has issued a document which outlines a new procedure to be followed by planning authorities in those areas. As I have said, we in Argyll have some of those areas. My planning authority, the Argyll and Bute district council, is currently operating under the procedures mentioned in the new clause. According to the director of planning, to whom I talked about this matter the other day, the council is absolutely satisfied with the way in which it works. It considers it to be an improvement on the previous situation.

I reckon that, if the planners in Argyll and Bute—which has, I suppose, percentage-wise, just as large an area of national scenic beauty as any other part of the Highlands and Islands—find the current situation satisfactory, I am not convinced by the arguments of the Highlands regional council or by the Western Isles council about it. They have already had an extension of one year. We are a little way through that year now. The procedures have operated in the Highlands—Argyll may be technically part of Strathclyde, from a local government viewpoint, but it is Highland country with exactly the same countryside and beauty—perfectly to the satisfaction of the planning people and, as far as I know, of the people who live in these national scenic areas. They have been an improvement.

I am critical of some matters. For example, a valid criticism must always be made, and has been made by Opposition Members, when bodies that are not elected are allowed to intervene in the planning process. But the most important point on this matter is that when they play their part in the planning process they should play it along with the planning authority, in consultation with it. That is what they are doing here. It is only if that link breaks down that they can ask the Secretary of State to intervene and have a planning inquiry.

It may interest the hon. Member for Garscadden to know that the Countryside Commission for Scotland does not always win in these planning inquiries. There have been two in Argyll since I was elected to this place, and the commission has lost in both of them. I hope that that will at least act as a precedent when judgments are being made about planning matters.

Neither the planners nor the commission—nor the NCC—is the ultimate source of wisdom on planning matters. I suspect that the one can be as wrong as the other on the subject. Perhaps it should be left to me. It all seems to come to me, anyway. When people disagree with planning decisions, either for or against, they seem to consider that I am the non-statutory planning appeals machinery.

The present position being operated in the rest of Scotland and in Argyll, which is part of the Highlands, is working perfectly satisfactorily. The Highlands and Western Isles have had a year's extension. I do not think that they have been able to say to the Minister, "Look what damage has been done in Argyll and at the problems in Argyll." They cannot do that. There have not been any problems. It has been perfectly satisfactory. They should come within the same procedures later this year and not wait, as the amendment proposes, until September 1984. I suppose that the significance of that date is that the Conservative Government will have renewed their mandate.

Mr. Maclennan

The hon. Member for Argyll (Mr. MacKay) told us of his renewed interest in birds in his garden. There is a strange new bird in his garden which resembles the emblem of the Hapsburg monarchy—a double-headed eagle which faces both ways. The hon. Gentleman's speech was redolent of seeking to please everyone all the time, but he should know that that is impossible. It is about time that the hon. Gentleman came down from his aquiline perch and spoke on the interests of the Highlands as a whole. If he thinks that Argyll's modest experience is relevant to the debate, he is either less sincere than I believe him to be or extremely credulous.

This provision has been attacked root and branch by every elected authority in the Highlands and by every authority, other than the Countryside Commission for Scotland, which has responsibility for the well-being of the Highlands. During the period in which this provision has been operative, the Countryside Commission for Scotland has shown an unwillingness to chance its arm. It is scarcely to be accepted that that is other than prudence on the part of the Commission, because it knows that, if it stirred up a cause celebre in Argyll during the period of review, it would not be possible not to extend as has been suggested by the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar).

The hon. Member for Garscadden has made my task easier because he has ably represented the position and forcefully expressed the views of the authorities which he has consulted and which other hon. Members representing the Highlands and Islands have consulted.

The Minister of State, Department of Energy, the hon. Member for Ross and Cromarty (Mr. Gray), was at least as forceful in his criticism of the Government's position as I am. If the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland is prepared to argue that the rule of collective ministerial responsibility can be breached in respect of myself, it is reasonable to point out the breach within the Government's ranks on this issue. I regret that the Minister of State finds his colleagues as utterly intractable and insensitive to Highlands opinion as I have throughout. He has considerable powers of persuasion, but even he has failed to move his junior colleague, who is more familiar with matters in Edinburgh than in the Highlands. Often in the Highlands people say to me, "Let us deal with a Whitehall Department any day in preference to the Scottish Office, because Whitehall Departments do not pretend to understand our problems, whereas the Scottish Office almost invariably claims omniscience."

The new clause is modest. It proposes an extension of the status quo for a further three years to allow the situation to develop and to see what happens in other parts of the country. What happens in other parts of the country is not wholly germane to the Highlands. As the hon. Member for Garscadden pointed out, the scale of the land in the Highlands and Islands designated by the Countryside Commission for Scotland is much greater than in any other part of Scotland. As the hon. Gentleman said, about a third of the Highland land mass, which is about half of Scotland, is affected by this measure.

The Under-Secretary of State interposed from a sedentary position—no doubt he will return to this point if he replies to the debate—that powers such as this already exist. They do not exist for such a vast area of Scotland, and he should bear that in mind. Though these powers exist, they are in desuetude and have not been invoked for many years.

On Wednesday, at Question Time, the Secretary of State, in reply to me, said that the local authorities could do with a bit of advice on these matters. Is do not quarrel with the view that local authorities could do with advice on these matters. The commission has a legitimate statutory role to offer advice, but the question whether planning permission should be granted is pre-eminently a matter to be decided by elected authorities. Advice is one thing, but the power to impose an embargo on development is another. The fact of disagreement between a local planning authority and the commission resulting in a reference to the Secretary of State can impose wholly unacceptable delays.

11.15 am

The Under-Secretary of State and hon. Members will know that development in these fragile areas is difficult to achieve. If an obstacle of this kind is interposed between the developer and his project, he will find it much easier to go elsewhere. That operates against the interests of authorities in the Highlands which are responsible for development. It is for that reason that the Highlands and Islands Development Board is so rootedly opposed to what the Government are proposing and have implemented for the rest of Scotland.

For example, the extension of Highland Stoneware Ltd. at Lochinver, which could create about 20 jobs, could be put at risk if this measure goes through, because there is a need to move rapidly to take advantage of an expanding market. If this kind of project were opposed by the Countryside Commission for Scotland—there is no reason why it should necessarily be opposed to it, but it might be—the firm would probably look to some other favourable location where such planning obstacles do not exist.

I fail to understand how the Minister and his colleagues cannot appreciate this matter. It must mean that they are prepared to give supervening, overriding importance to matters within the specific authority of the commission and that wider planning questions are to be regarded as of less importance.

I have listened to many debates on the relationship between local government and central Government in the context of local government finance this year. I confess that I do not understand the Government's attitude to the role of local authorities. It appears to be that they should exist to carry out certain statutory functions but that, wherever possible, they should be confined and eroded, that the Secretary of State should be called in to take decisions in their place, and that the Government should rely on the advice not of local authorities but of their appointed bodies—for example, the Countryside Commission for Scotland—to override the local authorities' views.

The Government are confining local democracy into such narrow bounds that any altruistic person who wishes to contribute to local government will be driven out because its role is so diminished. It is symptomatic of the centralising tendency of the Government towards local government matters. It is deplorable, and it is opposed root and branch by every elected authority, that this arrangement, dreamt up by the Countryside Commission for Scotland, will apply in the Highlands and Islands.

It is not only those authorities that have said that the Government are wrong in the matter. The Convention of Scottish Local Authorities has expressed the strong view that the Government should not apply the proposals to the Highlands and Islands. I do not speak for Argyll. The hon. Member for Argyll did so. If his authority is prepared to strike the balance as it has, that is satisfactory. I have explained why I think it likely that there will be problems, though there have been no problems yet, and perhaps there will be none. It may be that the composition of the local authority is different there and that it wishes to strike the balance differently. It may be less interested in development than in the kind of considerations that the Countryside Commission for Scotland must pay attention to.

However, that matter is not for me. What is for me is the interests of the Highland area. The Highlands and Islands councils have been at one on this matter, and COSLA also agrees. It is time the Government listened to the voice of the people affected by their measures. This is a matter of pre-eminent importance in an area where a third of the land mass is affected, and they should accept the advice of all those bodies, appointed and elected, which are at one.

Mr. Bill Walker (Perth and East Perthshire)

I wish to speak to the new clause because it is directed primarily at the Countryside Commission for Scotland whose headquarters are in my constituency, and because of the comments that have been made about its chairman and, indirectly, its staff.

Anyone who has ever listened to me knows that I am no lover of quangos, but I must compliment the chairman and members of the commission and its staff on their dedication to their work and its high standard. Some of the comments that we have heard this morning were unjustified. I can only presume that the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton), who has now left the Chamber, has exalted the commission's chairman to the ranks of royalty, because normally he saves for royalty the kind of venom that he used this morning.

If we are serious about having a Countryside Commission, if we mean that it is to do a job, it is nonsense to pretend that it should do it for only one part of Scotland.

Mr. Rifkind

I am at a loss to reply to the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan), because he has now left the Chamber. I assume that he will return soon——

Mr. Dewar

The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) probably underestimated the time that the hon. Member for Perth and East Perthshire (Mr. Walker) would take. That is understandable.

Mr. Rifkind

It would appear that that is not all that the hon. Gentleman underestimated. That, too, may explain his absence.

The new clause deals with a matter that has been the subject of controversy for some time in one part of Scotland. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said in passing that the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities was at one with the Highlands and islands authorities in their opposition to this provision, that was incorrect and misleading. The truth is that when the Government consulted the convention it gave complete support. It was only after the proposals had been implemented elsewhere in Scotland, and no doubt after intensive lobbying from the Highlands region and the islands, that COSLA said that, whilst it was still in favour of them for the rest of Scotland, it thought that they should not be applied to the Highlands and islands. No reason was given for the sudden change in its opinion.

I am glad that the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland has returned to the Chamber, as I have deliberately waited until now to come to the substance of my remarks. The basis of his representations was the implication that the commission could stultify development in the Highlands and islands. He said that it would be able to put an embargo on development or impose unacceptable delays. The hon. Gentleman did not say that he feared that that might happen; he stated it as a matter of fact. Yet he must accept that in the parts of Scotland where the powers are currently operating there have been no delays. There is no basis on which the hon. Gentleman can state that as a matter of fact. Experience so far is to the contrary.

The only way in which the hon. Gentleman could try to explain his assertion was by the suggestion that the commission was deliberately not trying to use the powers in case that affected the implementation of these proposals in the Highlands and islands. That is an unfair suggestion, unless the hon. Gentleman has some evidence to support it. His whole approach today has been to rely largely on abuse rather than evidence. That is unfortunate, because it is not his usual standard.

Mr. Maclennan

Will the Minister accept as evidence the opinions that have been expressed by so many people? I explained the reason why I thought it unlikely that the commission would stir up matters at this time, which is that the question is still capable of being debated.

The hon. Gentleman is an advocate by profession. He must know what is evidence and what is opinion, and that in a matter such as this opinion weighs as heavily as anything else.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman has confirmed that what he is talking about is his opinion and the opinion of others. I do not question that it is a genuine opinion that there may be unacceptable delays, but I think that he will accept that the evidence so far does not justify those fears. That evidence comes from the remainder of Scotland, where the proposals have been implemented.

I did not start my discussions with the hon. Gentleman and the local authorities with a hard and fast view of what must or must not hold. I was anxious to hear the views of the Highlands region and of Members of Parliament. It was largely for that reason that we agreed to delay the implementation of the proposals in the Highlands and islands. We did so on the basis that if the fears of those in the Highlands and islands who expressed these views were justified that would show itself in other parts of Scotland, particularly in Argyll, which is part of the Highlands, over the first year of their operation.

The opposite consequences have been shown. Not only have none of the problems been of the kind suggested, but it is the belief of the local authority in Argyll that the new procedures are an improvement on the previous ones. I am not surprised. We should briefly consider what those previous procedures were. Section 9 of the 1967 Act, which is repealed by the Bill, required, first, that the Secretary of State should designate a special planning area because of its scenic beauty. Secondly, he could give directions to a local authority to provide information in regard to any planning application. Thirdly, if the authority received such a request or direction from the Secretary of State, it had to give the information not only to him, but to the Countryside Commission within 21 days. Fourthly, the commission was empowered to make recommendations to the local authority. Fifthly, the authority had to tell the Secretary of State whether it was prepared to accept the commission's recommendations. Sixthly, in the light of the authority's response to the commission's recommendations, the Secretary of State had to decide whether to call in the application.

I mention those procedural matters for two reasons. First, they show that the previous procedure was immeasurably more complicated. I do not think that anyone could disagree. Secondly, for that very reason, they would be much more likely than anything in the current proposals to result in unacceptable delays.

There is one major way in which the new provisions are less attractive to the Highlands, if there is any substance at all in the concern and fears that have been expressed. I refer to the geographical area over which they apply. The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland is correct in saying that, because a much wider area is covered by the national scenic area categorisation, a much bigger part of the Highlands and islands area would in theory be affected if major problems arose from these provisions. But the controls themselves are not only far less cumbersome and complex, as Argyll district council itself recognised, but when implemented they cannot possibly take the same length of time as would be required under the provisions of the 1967 Act.

Mr. Maclennan

I acknowledged in my speech that the existing powers were cumbersome. But they gave rise to no problems because they had simply fallen into desuetude. Is the Minister aware of any cases in which they have been invoked and caused problems? The local authorities in the area are not aware of any problems of the kind that he suggests existed.

11.30 am
Mr. Rifkind

I do not think that one can talk about provisions passed in 1967 as having fallen into desuetude. One would normally use that phrase with regard to something a good deal more ancient. As the hon. Gentleman rightly says, the section 9 provisions have not created problems. But nor have the new proposals for national scenic areas over the whole of Scotland, including most parts of the Highlands, where they have been implemented. I understand from Argyll and Bute district council that since the provisions came into force there have been 10 applications within the notifiable categories, all of which were decided with no difference of opinion between the local authority and the Countryside Commission for Scotland. The authority says that it has found no difficulty in applying the procedure, which it considers superior to the old procedure, no doubt for the reasons to which reference has been made. The House should take that into accout.

Our proposals would not give one single power of decision to the commission. If we did that, the hon. Gentleman would be entitled to say that it was being given a right to overrule the views of the local elected planning authority. But that is not the case. If the local authority wishes to involve itself in any development and is unable to reach agreement with the commission, it goes to the Secretary of State not to decide, but to decide whether to call in the application. There may be cases in which he may have no desire to call in the application, notwithstanding the inability to reach agreement. Irrespective of whether he decides to call in the application, however, the crucial decision as to whether there should be development will be taken either by the local elected authority or by the Secretary of State as a member of the elected Government. In no case will a non-elected body take a decision as to whether development should take place in the Highlands and islands or elsewhere in Scotland.

Mr. Maclennan

Does not the Minister realise that the power of the commission to delay a project resulting in its reference to the Secretary of State is the power to kill a project?

Mr. Rifkind

Again, I believe that that is an unfair suggestion. First, the hon. Gentleman implies that the commission would wish to delay for the sake of delaying in the hope of killing a project. No evidence has been produced by the hon. Gentleman or indeed by anybody else to suggest that the commission would deliberately seek delay.

Secondly, the question of how long it should be before the matter goes to the Secretary of State is within the power of the local authority. If the authority makes it abundantly clear from the beginning that it is not interested in the views of the commission or does not accept them, the Secretary of State will consider the matter straight away. It will take a few weeks only if the local authority itself decides that there is something worth discussing with the commission to see whether agreement can be reached. But that will be within the control of the local authority. It is not as though the proposal was for the commission to refer the matter, if and when it chose to do so, which could give the commission a power to delay if it wished to use it. Even then, there is no evidence to suggest that it would wish to do so.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the commission does not have even the power of delay. The local authority will indicate what it wishes to do. The commission may indicate whether it agrees, just as it has that power under the 1967 Act. If agreement cannot be reached, the Secretary of State may then decide whether to call in the application. As with all planning applications, in scenic areas or elsewhere, wherever there is the slightest suggestion that delay might harm employment, economic development or any other matter due to the urgency with which a decision is required, under successive Governments there is special provision for the Secretary of State to ensure that decisions can be taken in order not to stultify a decision which might be ruled out simply because of delay.

The Scottish Office has no interest in stultifying desirable economic development. I hope that the hon. Gentleman accepts that. This is not a party matter. It does not depend upon which party is in office. We all have the same objectives and the same interest in development. These proposals have worked perfectly satisfactorily elsewhere in Scotland. We deliberately responded to the fears expressed by agreeing that, instead of implementing the proposals last September, a whole year should be allowed to go by so that we could see the experience in other parts of Scotland, including Argyll, which is part of the Highlands region. The evidence so far—and it is quite considerable, particularly from Argyll—indicates that the fears, which I accept are genuinely expressed, are nevertheless unjustified and unnecessary.

On that basis, I ask the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland and the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Dewar) to accept that the proposals will produce not only a far simpler procedure than that which has been available in the past but one which, far from damaging the Highlands and islands, will benefit them from every point of view.

Mr. Dewar

I remain unconvinced. I am grateful that the Under-Secretary of State has at least recognised that we were expressing a general concern that is reflected in the Highlands. The differences of scale are manifest and I believe that the dangers of delay are real, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) suggested. I do not believe that six months' experience in an area where the amount of land designated is relatively small compared with the Highlands and the Western Isles is a fair run to reassure and defuse those anxieties.

I suppose, however, that I shall have to accept that the Minister will not be moved. But I hope that he will have second thoughts about new clauses 2 and 3 and will be prepared to consider the matter, despite the extremely harsh exterior that he has displayed during the debate.

As an unconvinced sceptic in the face of the Minister's arguments, and recognising that I represent genuine views, I hope that the commission will do all that it can to smooth the passage of events. I understand that the Highlands region has decided, with great reluctance, that it should have discussions about criteria and machinery. I hope that that will be approached in the most helpful spirit possible by the commission and indeed by the region if we are to make what I believe is an unfortunate innovation on the basis of insufficient experience.

At this stage, however, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the new clause.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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