HC Deb 07 December 1983 vol 50 cc344-67

Order for Second Reading read.

4.58 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Neil Macfarlane)

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

As the long title implies, the subject matter of this Bill is the application to Crown land of the enactments relating to town and country planning. Right from the time of the 1947 planning legislation, which laid the foundation of our present system of land use control, planning permission has not been required for development carried out by the Crown itself, and the present Bill does not affect this principle. The legislation has, however, always sought to control activities carried out by other people on land owned by the Crown. Section 266 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, which is now the principal planning Act for England and Wales, therefore includes provisions—based on similar provisions in the 1947 Act —which apply certain parts of the Act to Crown land to the extent of any interest therein for the time being held otherwise than by or on behalf of the Crown". This Bill is primarily related to those provisions in section 266 and to the equivalent provisions in the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1972.

It might be helpful if I begin by saying what we mean by Crown land. As defined in section 266, the term means land in which there is a Crown interest or a Duchy interest. A Crown interest is an interest belonging to Her Majesty in right of the Crown, or an interest belonging to a Government Department. A Duchy interest means an interest belonging to Her Majesty in right of the Duchy of Lancaster or belonging to the Duchy of Cornwall. While I shall for convenience refer to land owned by Government Departments, it should be remembered that the term has that wider meaning, and for that reason we have kept closely in touch with the Crown Estate Commissioners and with the two Duchies over the preparation of the Bill.

When a landowner sells land for development, he will normally first obtain an outline planning permission for the proposed development, and the land will then be valued on the basis of that permission. It has always been recognised that, when a Government Department is selling surplus land, the Department cannot make such an application and it has sometimes been the practice to invite either the prospective purchaser or a third party to make a mutually agreed application for planning permission.

We have been considering that practice, and, as my hon. Friend who is now the Under-Secretary of State for Energy told the House on 12 May, we have now concluded that it is invalid. The reason lies in the basic constitutional principle that an Act of Parliament applies to the Crown only to the extent that the Act itself specifically provides. Because of the wording of section 266, the planning legislation does not apply to land in which no one, apart from the Crown, has an existing interest, which is normally the situation in disposal cases. If planning legislation does not apply, it follows that no planning application can be made.

Until now Departments have had an alternative procedure available when disposing of surplus land. That procedure was set out in circular 49/63 of the former Ministry of Housing and Local Government. It involved asking the local planning authority whether the proposed development would have been permitted if an application had been made for planning permission.

That procedure fell short of obtaining the benefit of planning permission, and many valuers believed that it acted as an impediment to the disposal of land and the realisation of maximum values. It led to the real danger of land being sold by Government Departments at less than its full potential value because purchasers were inclined to discount the price to protect against the uncertainties of planning permission, and, in extreme cases, land could be rendered unsaleable.

The problem was highlighted in the report of an inquiry into under-used and surplus property in the National Health Service which was made to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Services in November last year. The committee, in paragraph 1.4 of its report, said: In particular, Crown authorities have been regarded as unable to obtain planning permission for the property they occupy. This has been an impediment and has affected the attitudes of local planning authorities to property occupied by the NHS. This situation has led, on the one hand, to NHS authorities resorting to unorthodox procedures in an attempt to obtain the best value from the sale of property whilst on the other hand the income from some transactions has been less than that which would have arisen had the same property changed hands in the private sector. The committee, in paragraph 5.7, went on to recommend that legislation should be enacted to enable health authorities to obtain planning permission in their own right, so putting them in the same position as private sector property owners. The Bill does just that.

There is now another problem about the alternative procedure. The circular provides that, if the local planning authority and the disposing Department are unable to reach agreement, either party may ask the Secretary of State for an opinion. In a judgment given only last month, the High Court decided that that procedure was invalid in certain respects. When a subsequent planning application is made, the local planning authority would normally be expected to adhere to the Secretary of State's opinion, and the judge considered that this was an improper constraint on the authority's exercise of its functions. While it might be possible to revise the circular to ensure that objectors have the opportunity to make their views known and to give the authority clear and explicit freedom to reject the Secretary of State's opinion, that would make the procedure an even less satisfactory basis for the valuation of surplus Government land.

Those are our reasons for the urgent introduction of the Bill. It is clearly in the public interest that, when the Government are disposing of surplus land, the best possible price should be obtained. It would be quite wrong to allow the developer to make a windfall profit because the development potential of the land was not fully reflected in the purchase price. The best way in which to ensure that is to allow the land to be sold with the benefit of planning permission. That is what happens when land is sold by a private individual. The Bill will make it possible for Crown land to be sold in the same way. It will make it unnecessary for Government Departments to continue to use informal procedures which, because of their very informality, are open to the criticism that they do not properly protect the rights of third parties.

I shall now deal with the detailed provisions of the Bill. Its essence is contained in clause 1 which enables Crown land, or an interest in it, such as a lease, to be disposed of with the benefit of planning permission, listed building consent, consent for the demolition of a building in a conservation area or a determination about the need for planning permission for a particular use or operation.

Clause 1 enables the necessary application to be made by the Government Department or Crown authority concerned, or by any other person authorised to do so. I should stress that a private individual would not be able to make an application for planning permission for the development of Crown land without the written consent of the Government Department or Crown authority concerned. Any permission or consent would relate only to development carried out by persons other than the Crown.

It is only right that I should draw specific attention to subsection (8) which validates permissions or consents already granted in relation to Crown land in which there is no other subsisting interest. I know that the House is understandably wary of retrospective legislation but when planning applications have been made and determined in good faith and the development has already been carried out it would seem wrong that the planning position should be thrown into a state of uncertainty because of a technical problem which bears no relation to the merits of the development.

I know, for example, that my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Marland) is worried about builders who have purchased land from the Forestry Commission in the Forest of Dean. It was the commission's practice to require purchasers to obtain a grant of planning permission before the sale was completed, and those builders — and members of the public who have purchased houses from them—are now worried about their legal position.

There are also cases which relate to the sale of surplus hospital sites. I know of at least three—in Sheffield, Darlington and Battersea — where disposal procedures were already under way before last May's announcement and where the planning position must be resolved quickly.

There is a special problem concerning the Fazackerley hospital site in Liverpool in the constituency of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). Following a disagreement between the planning and hospital authorities about the future development of the site, the matter was referred to my right hon. Friend who ordered an informal public inquiry into the planning merits. The inquiry has been arranged but cannot now go ahead because of the High Court ruling, although the planning authority and the applicants are equally anxious for the applications to proceed to a decision. In a case such as that, it would be a waste of time and effort all round if the applicants had no alternative but to obtain some highly artificial short-term interest in the site and then to start again with a new application.

In a second Liverpool case, the Crofton hospital site in the constituency of the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton), planning approval has been given on appeal but the validity of the permission has been questioned. In London, the Royal College of Physicians is worried about the validity of the planning permissions for its major scheme at St. Andrew's place, Camden.

The need for the Bill is therefore clear, and it is extremely difficult to see how anyone will be harmed by it. I hope that the House will be willing to agree to it, bearing in mind the circumstances.

We have taken the opportunity provided by the Bill to deal with three other problems which relate to the application of planning legislation to Crown land.

Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I agree with what my hon. Friend is trying to do. An appropriate authority should be able to seek planning permission, before disposing of land, in order to get the maximum market value. However, I am still unclear, after carefully comparing clause 1(2) with clause 1(5), whether the appropriate authority, in the event of a planning application being refused, will have the right, as would any other applicant under the Town and Country Planning Act, to appeal to the Secretary of State against such a decision. Could my hon. Friend enlighten me on that point?

Mr. Macfarlane

I shall come to those matters shortly. The intention is that they should have that right.

Mr. Anthony Steen (South Hams)

Does my hon. Friend think that the passing of this legislation will help to release some of the 110,000 acres currently vacant on the register? Will it help to expedite the sale of publicly owned land held by health authorities?

Mr. Macfarlane

We have to be careful about the definition of "land". The lands on the registers are not all Crown lands. That is the main purpose of the Bill. On the other hand, the Bill will be of some modest help in achieving what my hon. Friend wants.

As I said, we have taken the opportunity provided by the Bill to deal with three other problems. The first relates to action against unauthorised development. Section 266 of the 1971 Act has the effect of allowing a planning authority to serve an enforcement notice where development has been carried out in breach of planning control by a person who has an interest in Crown land, such as a lease, and the Government Department or Crown authority owning the land agrees. The position is the same in Scotland. However, no such action can be taken if there is no private interest in the Crown land and development is carried out on the land by a trespasser.

It seems highly undesirable that a trespasser should be in a better position than a lessee in this respect. One example of the problem is where a mobile or semi-permanent snack bar is operating in a lay-by on a trunk road. In that situation my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Transport, Scotland and Wales have powers to intervene if there is a hazard to road safety on the highway, but quite often the objections are made on environmental grounds, for which planning powers are a better remedy. Some local authorities have expressed concern about their lack of enforcement powers in that situation.

Clause 2 would therefore allow a planning authority to issue a special enforcement notice where it considers that undesirable development has been carried out on Crown land by someone other than the Crown at a time when no one is entitled to occupy the land by virtue of a private interest in it. The service of such notice will require the consent of the Government Department or Crown authority concerned, and this is more than a formality. The authority would have to be satisfied before giving consent that it is right for such action to be taken. The right of appeal against a special enforcement notice would be more limited than in the case of an ordinary enforcement notice. As the action will normally be taken against a person who has no right to be on the land, we consider that he should not be able to raise issues relating to the planning merits or what he has done, but should be restricted to the factual grounds of whether what is alleged has actually taken place and whether it amounts to development.

Clause 3 relates to licences, or, in respect of Scotland, to contracts giving the right to occupy Crown land. A licence does not normally create an interest in land, and Crown land occupied by virtue of a licence is not, therefore, caught by the provisions of section 266 when no other person has an interest in the land. In Scotland, certain contracts in writing may create the same situation under corresponding Scottish provisions. We have discovered that quite significant development, such as drilling an exploratory borehole for oil, can be carried out by a person who is only a licensee. If the development is taking place on Crown land in which there is no other interest, it is at present exempt from planning control. Clearly that is a gap in the law that needs to be plugged. The clause therefore provides that a person who occupies Crown land by virtue of a licence or contract in writing shall be regarded as having an interest in the land for certain purposes of section 266 of the 1971 Act and the equivalent Scottish provision. That will bring into play the provisions of the 1971 and 1972 Acts relating to planning control and listed building control.

Consequently, when a licensee uses land in a way that is materially different from the Crown's use, the licensee's activities will be within planning control, and the local planning authority will be able to take enforcement action against any breach of control. The provisions of clause 1 in relation to applications in anticipation of a disposal of Crown land will also apply.

One other proposed modification to the present law arises from this clause. The right of appeal to the Secretary of State against an enforcement notice is available only to people who have an "interest" in the land to which the enforcement notice relates. At present, that interest does not include a licence. Because the Bill provides that a written licence is to be treated as an "interest" in Crown land for the purposes of planning control, it is logical that people with any licence in writing should have a right of appeal to the Secretary of State against an ordinary enforcement notice. Clause 3 so provides, and it will apply to enforcement notices, including those affecting land which is not Crown land, which relate to breaches of planning and of listed building control.

Clause 4 deals with problems which can arise over temporary changes of use carried out by the Crown. If an ordinary landowner, for example, wishes to make a material change in the use of his premises, planning permission is required, and the planning authority has the power to impose a time limit or to make the permission personal to the applicant. Because the Crown does not require planning permission to carry out development, no such condition can be imposed when the Crown makes a material change in the use of premises, even though both the Crown and the planning authority intend the change to be a temporary one.

The difficulty is that, once the Crown has made the material change of use, the new use is lawful for all planning purposes, and a third party may be able to step in and take advantage of it. We know of at least one case, involving premises leased to a Government Department, where the freeholder sought to do just that. Neither the planning authority nor the Department concerned was in a position to do anything about the situation, even though it had been agreed between them that the change of use would last only while the Department occupied the premises. To ensure that the planning authority is not left unprotected in that situation, clause 4 would empower the Crown and a planning authority to enter into a binding agreement which would prevent the use of land for a purpose begun by the Crown from being continued by some other person without a grant of plannning permission. There are provisions for ensuring that any purchaser is made aware that such an agreement has been made.

The remaining two clauses deal with incidental matters. Clause 5 contains the definiton of Crown land, to which I have already referred, and also includes a provision which will enable the Bill, when it is passed, to be applied to the Isles of Scilly. As there is no convenient way of incorporating the Bill into the existing planning Acts by way of amendment, the clause provides instead for the Bill's provisions to have effect as if they were included in that legislation.

Clause 6 provides for the legislation to come into force four months after enactment, rather than the normal two months, to allow time for the necessary regulations to be made, although clause 2, relating to special enforcement notices, applies to any development carried out after the passing of the Act. Finally, the legislation does not extend to Northern Ireland, where the Government are also the planning authority and the main problem does not, therefore, arise.

This short Bill makes some technical but necessary changes to the way in which the planning system applies to Crown land, but leaves untouched the position that has existed since 1948 in respect of the Crown's own development. It is urgently needed to ensure that, when surplus Crown land is sold, a proper price is obtained which fully reflects the development potential of the land, and the urgency has increasd by reason of the High Court judgment to which I have referred. As a result, there has not been time for the full consultation that we would ideally have wished to carry out before introducing the Bill, but we are more than ready to consider constructive suggestions about ways in which it might be improved.

I commend the Bill to the House.

5.17 pm
Dr. David Clark (South Shields)

The Bill could well be described as a rush job to save the Government considerable embarrassment.

The need for the Bill became apparent as a result of the Government's mistaken policy of actively encouraging the National Health Service to dispose of land and buildings, because of the financial constraints. It is ironic that this Government, who were encouraging the NHS to assetstrip—a policy to which Opposition Members strongly object—were caught out by their principal backers, the property speculators.

Let us look at the history of the events that led to the Bill and to the need for it, which we accept. The East Dorset area health authority brought the problem to light. It sought planning permission to increase the value of a disused children's home at Christchurch. As a result, doubts arose about whether the Crown, or its agents, could apply for planning permission post sale. The Government's Law Officers reached the conclusion that it could not do so, because section 266 of the 1971 Act precluded that.

In his aim to be brief, the Minister perhaps glossed over some of the Government's bungling. We are now asked to pass this legislation as a matter of urgency—which we accept—but it is strange that we have had to wait so long for it. It was plain, certainly last May, that the situation needed urgent action. The hon. Member for Pudsey (Mr. Shaw), who was the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, came to the House and urged local authorities to discontinue the system that they had been operating and to work under an old system.

The hon. Gentleman said then that the Government will continue, when disposing of land, to use the present informal procedures for obtaining opinions from local planning authorities on what development if any they would regard as acceptable. These are laid down for England and Wales in circular 49/63 of the former Ministry of Housing and Local Government". — [Official Report, 12 May 1983; Vol. 42, c. 463.] As the Minister mentioned today, almost in passing, that was bad advice. Indeed, it was unlawful advice.

This is a serious point, and it is worth looking at The Times law report of 22 November, when it was ruled that the Ministry had been acting unlawfully. Mr. Justice Mann said that the West Sussex area health authority had applied to Worthing borough council for planning permission and the borough council felt that it would be undesirable on grounds of overcrowding. It therefore told the area health authority that it would refuse planning permission.

The West Sussex area health authority subsequently applied to the Secretary of State, and amazingly enough: The secretary of state gave his opinion that he would have been prepared to grant such permission. Subsequently, a planning application came before the council for development of the site in accordance with the secretary of state's opinion, and the planning officer recommended that it grant permission as not to do so would be contrary to the intention of the secretary of state. In his Lordship' s judgment, the practical effect of such an opinion from the secretary of state would be to constrain a local authority to act in accordance with it and grant permission, thereby precluding the possibility of a local public inquiry or other appellate procedure and depriving local objectors of the rights and advantages conferred on them. It is important to state clearly that the Government were acting unlawfully. As a result of that judgment on 22 November, we are now forced to take urgent action.

The Opposition can understand the Government's difficulty. We disapprove vehemently of their policy on the NHS, from where the Bill has emanated. However, like the Government, we are adamant that if profits are to be accrued from the disposal of land, the benefits should go to the community or the Health Service and not to private speculators. Therefore, we are happy to help the Government to improve the Bill and to ensure its speedy passage.

This is an important constitutional Bill, and it is right and proper that it should be discussed in prime parliamentary time. It highlights the fact that many developments carried out on Crown land since 1971 have been unauthorised. The Sunday Times last week claimed that there were hundreds of cases, and that is probably right. We are all probably aware of various office developments, the Shell Oil drilling escapade in the New Forest and the operation of various private mines throughout the country. Consequently, this is a serious constitutional matter.

The Minister offered to be as open as possible and was sorry that the consultation period had not been as long as we would have liked. I am aware that there is concern in planning circles about the shortness of the consultation period. Is the Minister absolutely satisfied that the Bill rectifies the problem and puts matters right, especially with regard to permissions and developments that have taken place in the last 12 years? Some legal opinion thinks that clause 1(8) may be defective.

I have discussed this matter with lawyers, and I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) wants to develop this argument. It is vital to get the Bill right, because in rushing something through there is always a danger of making a slip. I therefore hope that the Minister will be accommodating to those who have doubts and will look at any suggestions that may be made by hon. Members and others.

Although we support the Bill's basic aim, I am surprised that the measure is not an amendment to the 1971 Act. It is a pity that the opportunity has not been taken to improve some other parts of that Act. For example, the Opposition would have helped to steer through measures relating to the control of hazardous substances. There was also a need to tackle the anomalous compensation provisions of the Act, and an amendment is urgently needed to the Opencast Coal Act 1958 to bring the NCB, the opencast planning procedure, within the ambit of local authority machinery. I regret that the Government have not taken this opportunity to make those amendments to the 1971 Act to improve overall planning procedure.

The Government contend that there will be only a minor increase in work as a result of the Bill. What is the current manpower level in the planning section of the Minister's Department? Has there been a great reduction? One suggestion is that there has been a 30 per cent. reduction in staff who deal with planning and other strategic issues. If so, I suspect that there will be more problems due to lack of staff at the centre to co-ordinate and check many of these pieces of legislation.

The Government should understand that much uncertainty is created by the fact that this is not amending legislation. Many people dealing with such matters are not lawyers, yet they will have to handle the legislation. That may cause difficulties.

The Bill will enable planning authorities to take enforcement action against trespassers on Crown land, and introduces procedures under which the use of land for the purpose begun by the Crown cannot be continued by some other person without the granting of planning permission. In both those circumstances the permission of the Crown—in most cases that means a Government Department — is necessary before the procedures can be brought into operation.

The Opposition can see no justification for a local authority having to seek the agreement of a Government Department in such circumstances. The local authority is responsible for development control, not a Government Department. This is yet another example of how local democracy is threatened. Such decisions should be taken locally and be democratically accountable. Therefore, we cannot understand why the consent of a Government Department needs to be obtained.

Another clause deals with special enforcement procedures for action against trespassers on Crown land and enables local planning authorities to take normal enforcement action against licensees operating on Crown land. We welcome and understand the ability to take enforcement action, but we are concerned about the complications that the Bill introduces.

Under the proposed arrangements, before taking enforcement action a local authority will have to do several things. First, it will have to establish that the land involved is Crown land. Secondly, it will have to discover whether the operator in question is a licensee or a trespasser on Crown land. Thirdly, if the operator is a trespasser, it will have to initiate special enforcement procedures and seek the agreement of the relevant Government Department. Lastly, it will have to take the necessary enforcement action.

There is a real problem with the existing legislation, but we have approached it in a rather complex manner. The Government have ignored the fact that many of the problems which the Bill is designed to tackle result from the Crown's rather anomalous position under planning and building control legislation.

I hope that the Government will give serious consideration to Crown developments. Many of the developments that are covered by the exemption are substantial and logically should come under planning and building control regulations. In some instances bodies that are effectively commercial organisations are placed in an advantageous position in comparison with non-Crown agents that operate in similar areas. Many Crown Office developments are no different from those undertaken by normal developers. Although the consultation procedures that are set out in circular 7/77 generally work satisfactorily, disagreements occur and anomalies result of the sort which the Bill is intended to tackle.

The association of the Government with the local authority should be much more flexible. Much more power must be retained by the local authority, which is the body especially familiar with the problems in its local area.

Many of the problems that arise in newly constructed National Health Service hospitals—for example, shallow drains and backfall gradients—could be overcome if the local building regulations were invoked and there were consultations with local authority experts.

The Opposition support the principle of the Bill and we acknowledge that there is a problem, but we are unhappy about the way in which the Government have handled the regulations over the past six months. We feel that they have acted in a dilatory manner, and we know that they have acted unlawfully. However, we shall do whatever we can to put matters right. We are worried about retrospective legislation and we hope that the Minister will act flexibly and accept some of our worries. We are prepared to help the Government place the Bill on the statute book, to put right that which is wrong and to ensure that the National Health Service and the community as a whole derive the full benefit of any proper development that might take place.

5.33 pm
Mr. Sydney Chapman (Chipping Barnet)

I think that the House will be grateful to my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the clear and agreeably concise way in which he introduced the Bill, which is a narrow and tightly drawn measure of a highly technical nature. I congratulate him on his performance.

It is a pleasure for me to see that the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clarke) has been re-appointed as an Opposition Front Bench spokesman for environmental matters. I think that he was a little unfair in some of his comments, but I shall say no more than that because we have an agreeable pairing arrangement which I should not want to disrupt.

It is interesting that in essence this is an amendment Bill rather that a full Bill. It is one of the occasions on which I wish one could speak on Second Reading to a short title. If that were possible, one could range over the entire prospect of town and country planning legislation and development control procedures. Alas, we must adhere to the description in the long title.

I have two queries to put to my hon. Friend and three issues that I want to raise with him. Before doing so I shall declare a professional interest as a non-practising fellow of the Royal Town Planning Institute. It is not a financial interest, which is a pity, as we are discussing Crown land.

I do not know whether the Bill seeks to give "appropriate authorities", as defined in section 266 of the 1971 Act, the principal Act, the right to appeal against a planning refusal. My hon. Friend said that those authorities, their agents or licensees, or those who have a contract to occupy Crown land, have the right to appeal against an enforcement notice. Having read subsection (2), it seems that they may have a right, but if that is so wider and fundamental issues are raised. I do not necessarily disagree with my hon. Friend, but I think that the right should be written into the Bill.

Mr. Macfarlane

Any application under clause 1 will be a planning application for the purposes of planning legislation, and appeal procedures will apply. The point that my hon. Friend is seeking to make is well qualified in clause 1(2). If he reads the subsection, he will understand that his point is covered by it. I am most anxious that we should make progress and I shall try to be as flexible as possible.

Mr. Chapman

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving the assurance that I sought. I am prepared to leave the matter there.

My second query turns on clause 1(3). This might be thought to be a Committee matter, but as I have an interest in trees I hope that I shall be excused for raising it on the Floor of the House. Does subsection (3) include applications to fell a tree or group of trees which may be the subject of a tree preservation order? The subsection refers to listed buildings and buildings in conservation areas. If I am permitted to use layman's language, if we are to have the grand slam, it might be thought appropriate to include applications to fell trees. I hope that such action will be taken as a last resort when the tree, or group of trees, is the subject of a preservation order. I had the great honour recently to be elected the president of the Arboriculture Association.

I have no objection to the Bill in principle. I welcome it, because I believe that it removes a serious anomaly, but I am surprised that it has taken 20 years for the courts to decide that Governments might have been acting unlawfully. It was circular 49/63 which expressed the conventions of successive Governments in these matters. Whether that is a reflection on the tardiness of lawyers or the ability of Ministers to get their own way, I leave in the hands of the House.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State said that "appropriate authorities" as defined in the Bill own substantial amounts of land. That has been confirmed by the hon. Member for South Shields. I am told that the National Health Service owns no fewer than 50,000 acres in England alone. It is clear that the quality of estate management of all this Crown land is crucial. Some of the land might be in urban areas and might be lying unused or underused, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Hams (Mr. Steen) has said. I believe that substantial tracts of land, especially NHS land, is public open space or land which forms part of what are confirmed as green belt areas.

While I believe in the quality of estate management, I do not believe that if the land is released it should necessarily be developed for urban purposes. It may be —I suggest that in most cases it will be—that the land should remain as a public open space for the enjoyment of all and sundry. Will my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary consider that matter, and confirm that substantial tracts of the land are in confirmed green belt areas?

Where Crown land is in the green belt, and where any "substantial" planning application relates to confirmed green belt land, there is a strong case, not for changing our development control procedures or amending our town and country laws, but for the Secretary of State to use his power under section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, automatically to call in such applications for consideration, which I hope will mean the holding of a local public inquiry. Will my hon. Friend examine the matter sympathetically?

Our development control system does not enable third parties to appeal against planning permissions. An aggrieved applicant can appeal against a planning refusal. If third parties were given the right to appeal against a planning permission, the entire system would probably grind to a halt. On substantial applications involving public open spaces or green belt areas, third parties can have the opportunity to make representations by the Minister adopting section 35 of the Town and Country Planning Act and calling in the applications.

In welcoming the Bill, I agree that appropriate authorities should be allowed to seek planning permissions and to appeal against planning refusals. However, should not there be a quid pro quo to the Bill? Surely it is reasonable that appropriate authorities, which I have defined loosely as Government Departments and statutory undertakers and planning authorities, should be obliged, as are other bodies, to submit planning applications on any other land. Such an important subject might be outside the Bill's long title, but will my hon. Friend examine the matter, because we are dealing with a crucial planning issue?

Although the Bill is narrowly drawn, it raises wider and more fundamental planning issues, and I accept that such matters are for consideration in Committee. I accept that the Bill will remove an anomaly. I welcome its purpose and hope that it will be given a Second Reading.

5.43 pm
Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower)

I am especially anxious about how the Bill will affect small private mines in west Glamorgan. A press release issued by the Department of the Environment on 12 May 1983 stated that planning permission cannot normally be obtained for surplus Crown land in advance of its disposal. The statement—which is one of the reasons why the Government have introduced the Bill—contrasts sharply with current practice.

An example of the problem is that the Forestry Commission insists that before it disposes of an interest in land a developer must have planning permission from a local authority. Such a practice is contrary to section 266 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. In the light of that anomaly and the way in which the Bill seeks to correct the position, will the Minister consider three points?

First, will he examine clause 1(8), because it does not deal with the problem of planning permissions or consents that were void ab initio? I seek an assurance from the Minister that the subsection includes purported permission or consent. For areas in which there are many small private mines, such as in west Glamorgan, it is vital that the Bill validates planning permission that has been granted. If not, it will destabilise the developers who have already opened up mines and they will face the future with fear and trepidation.

I believe that the subsection does not establish clearly why previous applications were invalid. The reason is not that the applications related to Crown land, but that they were rendered invalid because the developers had not acquired a prior interest in the land before submitting the application. I hope that the Bill will rectify the position.

Secondly, will the Minister re-examine clause 2, because I am not happy with the scope of the special enforcement notice? For a local planning authority to require the consent of the Crown agencies before the special enforcement notice can be issued is an unnecessary constraint.

Thirdly, clause 4 deals with land that has ceased to be used by the Crown for the purpose specified in the agreement. I seek an assurance from the Minister that a material change of use includes all mineral development as provided in the Town and Country Planning (Minerals) Regulations 1971 and building and other engineering operations.

If the Minister will do as I request, tremendous improvements will be made in the Bill and it will not cause the problems which the west Glamorgan planning authority will otherwise face.

5.49 pm
Dr. Ian Twin (Edmonton)

I broadly welcome the Bill, as, I am sure, do most hon. Members. It is a matter of regret to hon. Members on both sides of the House that it has taken 20 years for civil servants and those of us who have been involved in planning and education for at least half that time to discover that there is a problem. The Bill deals neatly with a nice point of planning law which has been a serious embarrassment to many people.

The Bill will make honest partners of procedures that have not always been the best, but have had to be followed because of the nature of Crown land. I agree with those who say that it is time for the Government— not, of course, in this Bill—to subject Crown land to the full rigours of planning legislation. There is no good reason why that should not be so.

Much of the land with which the Bill deals is held by health authorities. By the nature of developments in the NHS over the years, much of that land has been developed extensively and is on the edge of towns. Some of it is open space and it extends well beyond green belts into precious countryside in areas of outstanding natural beauty.

As a result of the Bill, a number of developments may occur, and it is important that there be the fullest possible public debate before a development is allowed to go ahead. With that proviso, I welcome the Bill's objectives.

5.51 pm
Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark and Bermondsey)

The Bill first saw the light of day on Friday and some of us were worried that we had not had an earlier opportunity to consider it. I understand that it is a convention of the House that two weekends are allowed between the publication of a Bill and its Second Reading, even when a measure is a rush job.

The Bill came upon us quickly and my hon. Friends share the anxiety about how the previous position was allowed to continue for so long. After all, there are people in the Department of the Environment whose job it is to monitor legislation day by day.

Will the Under-Secretary tell us how many applications, in respect of what acreage of land, will be affected by the Bill? The Sunday Times alerted us in the summer to the applications that brought the issue to light and I know from my own investigations that some people are extremely annoyed at having gone to great expense to take part in planning inquiries which lasted weeks, or even months, only to be told that the inquiries were a non-event.

The problems continued even up to last week. A joint development on a Crown estate just off Victoria street, along the road from here, was the subject of a public inquiry which has only just finished. The Under-Secretary has a duty to tell us how many developments which the Department has allowed to proceed illegally are to be put right by this unusual piece of retrospective legislation.

If we are given even only the most spectacular examples, we can at least ensure that nothing has been done that ought to be looked at again. There have been inquiries into some controversial developments, such as the drilling by Shell in the New Forest. We are to give the imprimatur of legality to such applications and we ought to know the implications of that.

The Under-Secretary mentioned specific sites about which anxiety had been expressed to him. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) was notified by the Minister that he would mention Crofton hospital, although my hon. Friend was informed only minutes after the debate had begun.

The land that we are most worried about is that belonging to health authorities. As the Minister has been honest enough to admit, one of the principal consequences of the Bill will be that regional health authorities will be able to obtain planning permission for land which they own, prior to its sale, and, if they are so minded, to realise large sums for assets presently owned by the NHS.

Events at Crofton hospital reflect our anxiety about whether there will be any guarantee that land used for public purposes will be protected once the legislation goes through. Crofton hospital, which is now a day care centre for the elderly, has been used for recreational purposes since 1922. It has been a play area for children and tennis courts have been provided for local people.

There are many other such sites, either currently used for hospital purposes or originally intended for that use, which are being used for more general purposes and could be sold with a much increased value.

The Minister must tell us what procedures will be adopted for the sale of such land. No procedures are spelt out in the Bill. Under the guise of a short piece of planning legislation, the Bill deals substantially with NHS land. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that there will be public consultation when land owned by a health authority is to be sold?

Regional health authorities may comply with Government directives to realise assets by selling land that cannot be used because of NHS cuts that force closures. There is an example in my constituency. St. Olave's hospital in Rotherhithe was closed by a vote of 10–9, with the casting vote being given by a chairman who was appointed by the Secretary of State. The decision took effect at the beginning of this month and the nurses' home is no longer used. Land such as that is lying idle, not because there is no NHS use for it, but because the Government are not providing the money for that use.

It is important that the public be allowed to participate in the debate about the future use of such land. Otherwise, there will be a straight forward realisation of assets by regional health authorities. They will seek to do the best that they can to compensate for the cuts in Government funding and will sell land to the highest bidder, for whatever purpose he wishes to use it, having first acquired planning permission for the most commercially viable development, whether that be office blocks, housing, road building or whatever.

Everybody is anxious about the NHS and we need to know that public land used for the NHS for decades or more will not be sold unless the public have a say in where it goes. The Minister has an obligation to make it clear to the House that the Government will not be content with a small piece of legislation with wide implications, but will make provision, perhaps by an amendment or a new clause, in Committee for there to be a traditional public planning consultation procedure before any such sales are realised.

Mr. David Alton (Liverpool, Mossley Hill)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising the question of Crofton hospital. Before he leaves this important subject, will he accept that the regional health authorities are placed in an invidious position when they are told to balance their books and they can do so only by selling land that is a much prized community asset? It is sharp practice—it could be regarded as downright criminal—that land that is used for allotments, tennis courts and other recreational facilities has to be sold off for speculative purposes. That practice is very undesirable.

Mr. Hughes

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's additional comments.

Although this is not the responsibility of his Department, I should like the Minister to look at the Health and Social Service Journal published on 1 December 1983. An editorial entitled "Property Developers" refers to the Bill. He will see that there is substantial concern that, unless considerably amended, the Bill will automatically lead to the NHS losing often irreplacable assets. Once the land is lost to the public sector, the public sector will not be given the funds to buy back again. Once lost to the public sector, that land will lose its usefulness to the majority of people.

I realise that the Minister may not be able to give me an answer today on the following point: will inquiries currently in progress be covered by the Bill, and will they be retrospectively validated by it? A public inquiry is in progress in the Limehouse basin, at the instigation of the British Waterways Board. There are a substantial number of public inquiries in progress which appear to me to fall within the category of inquiries on publicly owned land — either Crown land or land owned by public authorities. They are expensive inquiries and the people concerned ought to know how they stand, so that they do not continue to incur costs and find later on that their position is not covered by the legislation and they have to start again.

Reference has been made to the provisions in the Bill for the control of development on Crown land. I support the comments of other hon. Members. It is a pity —although although I understand the Government's position—that we have not been given the opportunity to debate the development of Crown land. We could still be given such an opportunity. I hope that the Minister will explain why the anomaly was not spotted in the past.

What is before us is a new Bill. It is not the amendment Bill that would have been a better vehicle for the proposals that we are considering. There will be an opportunity in Committee for the Government to widen the scope of the consideration of Crown land. I hope that the Minister will consider using the Bill as an opportunity for discussing other serious issues connected with the development of Crown land, planning permission for Crown land and public participation in planning. The long title allows for a certain widening of the debate, and such issues should be discussed. There should be an opportunity in this Session to deal with matters of concern to many people.

6.4 pm

Mr. Christopher Murphy (Welwyn Hatfield)

I welcome the Bill, which is clearly needed to clarify some apparent anomalies in the town and country planning system. That surplus Crown land scheduled for disposal should be permitted to attract maximum value is evident to all who wish to protect the interests of taxpayers. At the same time, some of the principles underlying the measure are worthy of attention—in particular, those relating to the more general applications of planning and listed building control, as outlined in clause 3.

It is incumbent upon the Government and their supporters to ensure that the words of the 1983 manifesto are kept before us: In our crowded country, the planning system has to strike a delicate balance. It must provide for the homes and workplaces we need. It must protect the environment in which we live. That delicate balance is essential to successful town and country planning. It can most satisfactorily be achieved by concentrating on developing derelict inner city sites and conserving green field sites. I trust that the proposed disposal of surplus Crown land will adhere to that approach.

The manifesto view has been strongly endorsed by those whom we seek to serve. It must therefore be right that clause 3 extends the requirement for planning permission before any development is carried out. Additionally, the provision of listed building control, if wisely applied, should help to safeguard our heritage.

It is also incumbent upon the Government to ensure that the concept of the green belt, which has such wide public backing and to which my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) referred earlier, remains at the forefront of policy making. My constituents would not wish there to be any weakening of that resolve. They would prefer it to be strengthened, lest Greater London replaces our countryside with a concrete belt. The proposed disposal of surplus Crown land must also adhere to that approach.

I have some reservations therefore about the effects of clause 3 and the right of appeal to the Secretary of State against the controls of local planning authorities. However, should this ensure even-handedness and consistency in development or non-development policy, any fears can be banished.

It is a source of regret that Her Majesty's Government have not taken the opportunity, while acting to overcome the difficulties involved in the proposed disposal of Crown land, to emphasise through the Bill an even firmer commitment to the green belt, which, once it has been designated, should stay that way. That is another factor involved in achieving the delicate balance of successful town and country planning. I should like to seek ministerial support for my Green Belt (Preservation From Development) Bill, through which I shall seek to achieve that aim. I live in hope.

However, the Bill is a further recognition of the vital importance of the town and country planning system that has been evident in the approach adopted since 1979 in environment policy. A full understanding of the need to ensure the best return for the taxpayer has also been evident, as the proposals for the disposal of surplus Crown land well illustrate.

Assuming the correct interpretation of clause 3 and the general applications of planning and listed building control, the measures should further enhance the Government's reputation in these fundamental matters.

6.8 pm

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I should always welcome the acquisition by the state of land the value of which has been enhanced simply because planning permission has been granted. For far too long the turning of virgin land into development land has often meant that someone earns a gratuitous fortune. The Bill will ensure that the fortune falls to the Crown and the Government Department if there is development of Crown land.

However, there are more factors to be considered than development planning. The Crown has always to a large extent been exempt. The Crown holds a large amount of land and that land has always been exempt from the general provisions of the town and country planning legislation. That has meant that the Crown, with its vast estates, has been able to use any land for any purpose. Very often, the use of land in certain areas has not been in keeping with the wishes of the inhabitants. Anything that tightens the procedures and enables local authorities to have a say in the use and development of the land is welcome.

The Bill does not, however, go far enough. Will the Minister study carefully the wording of clause 4 when the Bill is further considered? I can give an example which takes us away from those cited about local health authorities. There is a large mental hospital in my constituency which currently occupies two sites. The Minister probably knows the hospital about which I am talking. It is thought that the hospital will be reduced to one site, and that will release certain land. If the hospital were disposed of, it is right that its enhanced value should flow back to the area health authority, but that is not the only means of disposal. It has been said that if the Government can sell something they do, and that if they can privatise it they do. Crown properties are steadily getting into the hands of the public.

There are considerable problems. If we leave aside health authorities and consider, hypothetically, the Ministry of Defence, we know that it has various engineering workshops and other properties scattered across the country. Some of those properties are in areas of natural beauty where local planning authorities would not want engineering works. Under present legislation, if the Ministry of Defence were to dispose of an engineering workshop, it would be disposed of as such. The local authority would have little or no say in what happened to it in the future. Its existing Crown use could be continued. That causes me some anxiety. If we are to have good planning, it should extend to all land. That is the first of my two points which I hope the Minister will bear in mind when considering the Bill's effects.

The local authority should have some say in the future use of Crown land which is disposed of, when its use is contrary to the general structure plan of the area. I see that the Minister nods in agreement. I am worried about engineering works in areas of natural scenic beauty and various other properties belonging to the Ministry of Defence or other Government Departments.

My second great worry is about the wording of clause 4. The House will have noticed that line 2 of clause 4 contains the word "may". That is a weak word. The clause provides that a local planning authority may agree with the appropriate authority that subsection (2) below shall apply to such use of land by the Crown as is specified in the agreement, being a use resulting from a material change made or proposed to be made by the Crown in the use of the land. The clause would read far better if the word "shall" replaced the word "may", because it would remove the element of, "shall we or shall we not?" It would make the provision in clause 4 mandatory. It would provide that where there was to be a change of existing use the local planning authority "shall" agree. The local authority would then have control over a change of use.

Planning authorities should have some say in the use of land in planning areas. Clause 4 should provide that wherever the Crown seeks a change of use for the land, even when it intends to use the land itself or there is to be use by a licensee, a lessee or some other third party brought in to perform a particular function, the local planning authority should be brought into the matter. That would advance us some way towards unified planning control of land usage.

For the reasons stated by many other right hon. and hon. Members, I welcome in part the further extension of planning control in the Bill. I welcome the fact that the benefit will flow to the state and not to the individual. At the same time, however, my anxieties remain about the use of buildings by the Crown contrary to the structure plan. The Bill would give the House an opportunity to rectify that matter. I look forward to the Minister, perhaps in Committee, conceding that clause 4 needs tightening if the effect that he seeks is to be fully achieved.

6.15 pm
Mr. Robert Key (Salisbury)

Technicality will inevitably arise during discussion of a Bill such as this. I am sure that the hon. Member for St. Helen's, South (Mr. Bermingham) will not take it amiss when I say that it is just as well that all legislators are not lawyers and that there are some ordinary mortals among us.

I should like to address myself to what the Bill means to our constituents and communities. It is not a sudden decision to encourage health authorities to manage their estates properly, and sell surplus land for the benefit of the community. It is not a new process that has happened in the past six months or so. The error which has been unwittingly perpetrated by successive Governments has been with us for a long time. Most of us probably had our attention drawn to the issue first by a headline in The Times on 31 October 1983 which said: Sales of NHS land hit by legal ruling. That progressed through the Daily Telegraph on 2 November to Crown Land sale rule 'benefits speculators'. and then to The Sunday Times on 6 December where the headline stated: Red faces on Crown land building slip-up. The facts need to be studied carefully because they affect our constituencies. I shall give, if I may, a concrete rather than hypothetical example to illustrate the implications of the Bill for some of our communities, mine in particular.

On the edge of the city of Salisbury was an old hospital which was used primarily during the war but whose use dragged on. It was called Harnwood hospital. It was closed on 22 November 1980. In January 1981 there was a meeting of the regional health authority, the district health authority, the district valuer and others. They anticipated that planning approval would be given by June 1981 and that sale by tender would be finalised by September 1981. The district valuer stipulated that, assuming the site was sold for residential development, he would impose a minimum number of housing units below which he would withhold consent to sale. That was always, and remains, above the maximum number of units acceptable to the planning authority. There was an immediate dilemma. Plans were submitted to the authority and were rejected. The health authority appealed. The appeal was heard in October 1982—already two years since the hospital's closure.

While the appeal was pending, the district health authority submitted an amended planning application, seeking permission for fewer housing units. That application was rejected by the inspector in January 1983. He declined to give an opinion on the amended application. Therefore, the district health authority sought counsel's opinion and, on the basis of what, I believe, is the Wheatcroft case, appealed to the High Court as to the inspector's competence to make recommendations on the revised application.

The DHA lost the case in July 1983. The High Court ruled that the revised application was deemed to be a new application, not an amendment. Immediately the district health authority submitted an open planning application for a variable number of dwelling units. They clearly felt forced to gamble on the district valuer's minimum number of units in a desperate attempt to unfreeze the capital assets that they so badly needed. The application was again refused by the district planning authority.

On 12 October 1983 the district health authority became aware of the implications of circular 49/63 and all progress was immediately halted. We were back to square one, as has happened in so many cases cited in the House.

For much of this we have to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) who I know has been out of the Chamber at another meeting. I am glad he has now returned because it was he who disclosed the issue and encouraged the passage of the Bill in the first place.

As to the lessons our communities have learnt from this, first, the planning authority sees itself as a guardian of the community in preventing open development. The health authority also sees itself as a guardian of the community. The effect on my community over three years is that the community is substantially worse off even without the change in the Bill.

It seems manifestly absurd that the DHA could not and still cannot disclose the district valuer's conditions of sale and that the district planning authority refuses to negotiate upwards on environmental grounds. There will continue to be a total deadlock, to the detriment of the people of Salisbury, between these two authorities each of which is dedicated to the betterment of the community. I urge them to reach an agreement quickly, and I shall do anything I can to help.

Here is an example of what has happened over a three-year period in one small health authority. It cost that health authority approximately £10,000 in legal and other fees. The health authority had to spend a fortune in fighting vandals on the site over the three-year period. The district planning officer had to put an order on the district health administrator in person requiring him to make the site safe against trespassers. This cost the DHA £7,000 in demolition costs. The DHA then had to obtain from the planners a written declaration that the demolition required to comply with the planners' order would not prejudice future planning applications because of the de facto change of use back to undeveloped ground.

Here was a case of an anticipated capital site value of almost £500,000. Private developers would have been going berserk at the interest charges involved. The health authority in contrast has been forced to close down Tatum ward in the general infirmary, a front line surgical and specialist ward, to save a comparatively small sum of money.

The Bill seeks to amend the law to enable health authorities to maximise their resources for the benefit of the community. In that spirit I support the Bill wholeheartedly.

6.22 pm
Mr. Robert Adley (Christchurch)

First, I apologise to the House for not being present to hear the opening speech. Unfortunately, I was involved in a commitment elsewhere in the building, which was made before I knew the date of today's business. However, I wish to participate in the debate.

It is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) for the first time in a debate. It would have been immodest of me to invite him to read in full the reports in The Times and the Daily Telegraph to which he referred. However, he thereafter saved me the embarrassment of having to do so by mentioning my small part in all this.

My hon. Friend and I share a regional health authority, but have different district health authorities. Mr. Robin Hardie, the administrator of the East Dorset health authority, drew my attention in the summer to the problems that the East Dorset health authority was having over the disposal of a property called Capesthorne in Mudeford in my constituency. Mr. Hardie asked me to make every effort to get the law changed as quickly as possible.

I wish to thank the Government for acting so speedily and to congratulate them on having given this small but important Bill such priority. The Bill is undoubtedly in the public interest. I also thank the Opposition, who presumably have ensured that the Bill, which they, too, recognise is in the public interest, will be given a speedy passage.

I have one question only to ask my hon. Friend, although he may already have dealt with it. How could the House. with all its accumulated wisdom, pass an Act of Parliament in 1971 and wait until 1983 before the Law Officers of the Crown advised that everything that had been done in the past 12 years was probably illegal? I do not know how that can have occurred. I imagine it is pointless asking my hon. Friend to ensure that it does not happen again. I think this has serious implications. I do not question the wisdom of the advice. I ask only why the advice given in 1983 was not made available to the Government of the day in 1971 when the legislation was drafted. Twelve years is a long time. One wonders what has been done in the intervening years not just by the health authorities but by, for example, the Department of Transport in developments relating to motorways. Other examples, if they were sought to be uncovered, presumably would be legion. It is probably better not to look too carefully into them.

I am grateful to the Government for having introduced the Bill. One can only hope that such an event does not recur.

6.25 pm
Mr. Macfarlane

I am grateful for the constructive and helpful debate that we have had. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr. Adley) will forgive me if I do not follow him too closely down the historical path of appreciation of the way in which the legislation went in yesteryear. I can speak only for what has happened since 1974. We must make certain that we get it right this time. That point was made by the hon. Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark).

I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, South, (Mr. Ancram), representing the Scottish Office on the Government Front Bench, will have found the debate helpful and constructive in view of our joint and dual interest.

I hope that hon. Members will forgive me if I do not respond in close detail to every point that has been made. I undertake to consider all the issues that have been raised.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) was a little late in coming into the debate, no doubt for good reasons. I touched on a number of the points that he raised and if he reads Hansard he will find that I covered the points, I hope more than effectively.

There are many points with which I wish to deal at the outset. First, why is the Bill needed? There is clearly a degree of unanimity among Opposition Members, and this was shown by the hon. Members for Gower (Mr. Wardell), for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) and for South Shields. The Government want to ensure that a proper price is obtained on the sale of Crown land. The valuation advice which the Department of Health and Social Security has received is that an informal opinion that the planning authority will allow the land to be developed in a certain way after it has been sold is good enough.

There is a second reason for the urgency with which the Bill has been introduced. It relates to the High Court judgment given only last month to the effect that the circular 49/63 procedure is invalid in so far as it provides for the Secretary of State to consider disputes over the planning authority's opinion.

The hon. Member for South Shields referred to this and castigated the Government for the length of time that they have taken and for having got it wrong. Until last month's case, the technical illegality had not been contested. That technical illegality is relative to one aspect of the procedure only, and that is the Secretary of State's opinion. As soon as the issue was raised the Bill was introduced to put matters right, which we wish to do as quickly as possible.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South and several of my hon. Friends raised a number of points which I wish to examine more closely. For example, my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Chapman) asked about trees under clause 3(3). I congratulate my hon. Friend on his remarks. He has a wide knowledge of planning matters and I undertake to look at that question.

The hon. Member for South Shields referred to the article in The Sunday Times last weekend, which a number of hon. Members have discussed at various stages and about which they have written to me. As is commonly the case, while there is just enough truth in the article to identify the problem, there is also sufficient omission and inaccuracy to ensure that it generates more heat than light. Hundreds of developments carried out on Crown land over the last 12 years have not been technically illegal, as stated, but I acknowledge that there have been a few. Most surplus land has been sold under the circular 49/63 procedure, which is not referred to in that article. Under that procedure, only an informal planning opinion is obtained while the land remains Crown land, and a formal planning application is not normally made until the sale has been completed.

Furthermore, I do not accept that thousands of pounds, as the article said, have been wasted on public inquiries that should never have taken place. I think that I echo the sentiments of all hon. Members when I say that a public inquiry enables the public to be involved in the examination of the planning merits of a development. Inquiries can also be held under the circular 49/63 procedure. Indeed, that was proposed in the Fazakerley hospital site in Liverpool, the case to which I referred earlier. Some unnecessary inquiries may have been held because of this legal technicality, but I do not for a moment believe that the time spent on such inquiries has been totally wasted.

The question of enforcement notices was raised by a number of hon. Members, who argued that a planning authority should be able to serve a special enforcement notice under clause 2 without the consent of the Crown. However, there will be cases where the Government Department or Crown authority considers that there are good operational reasons for allowing the development to continue which outweigh the environmental reasons for taking action against it.

In those circumstances, we consider that it would be wrong to allow enforcement action to go ahead, particularly in view of the limited rights of appeal that are available against a special enforcement notice. It should be noted that section 266 of the 1971 Act, and its Scottish equivalent, already provide that an ordinary enforcement notice cannot be served on a person with an interest in Crown land without the consent of the appropriate authority.

The complexity of the enforcement provisions was mentioned by several of my hon. Friends. If the development is not on Crown land or is not carried out by a trespasser, there is no problem, because normal enforcement procedures apply, and I hope that that is understood by the hon. Member for South Shields, who also referred to the need for further planning legislation —he mentioned hazardous waste—and I assure him that I share his concern. Such matters are always up for consideration by Ministers in connection with the need for further planning legislation when the opportunity arises.

As for the availability of staff and the constraints and difficulties which the passage of the Bill will create to the Department, we are satisfied that, despite staff cuts—they have occurred everywhere since 1979—the number of staff employed on planning duties is sufficient and appropriate.

Hon. Members raised many points in connection with the Bill and we shall want to consider them. Many provisions in the measure are vitally important. For example, the calling-in procedure was dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet. The policy followed by successive Governments is that planning applications should be taken out of the hands of local planning authorities only if regional or national issues are involved and that local authorities should, by and large, be left to resolve local disputes. The hon. Gentleman referred, as did my hon. Friend the Member for Welwyn Hatfield (Mr. Murphy), to the green belt, and my hon. Friend reminded us of the 1983 manifesto commitment. Normal green belt legislation will always apply. However, these are important issues that we shall have to consider further.

The hon. Member for Gower referred to clause 1(8) and the hon. Members for St. Helens, South, and for South Shields referred to the same point. We do not see any difficulty with that provision, but I undertake to look at the matter again because I want to satisfy myself about it, too. I assure the hon. Member for Gower that he is not the only person to have suffered from the speed of introduction of the measure. It is not a cast-iron rule of the House; it is normally a formality to have two weekends for consideration. It is important that we should get on with this legislation and I therefore undertake to consider every point that has been raised, because we regard them all as important.

I do not believe that there is any problem over mineral workings, but we shall look into the matter, because it touches on the wider aspects of mineral developments, drilling bore holes and so on. A number of hon. Members have expressed concern — and have written to the Department — about the relevance of the Bill to the current New Forest oil case, and the hon. Member for South Shields referred to that. While it will not directly affect it, clause 3—this answers the question posed by the hon. Member for St. Helens — will prevent the recurrence of difficulties similar to those that have arisen in the case of the application for planning permission by Shell U.K. Ltd. to drill an exploratory bore hole to look for oil in the New Forest.

Hon. Members may be aware that that application was called in for determination by my right hon. Friend and that a lengthy public inquiry was held in the first half of 1982. However, subsequent to the receipt of the inspector's report of the inquiry, it has been established that the application was made in respect of Crown land in which there is no apparent non-Crown interest. The present effect of section 266(1)(b) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 is to preclude any grant of planning permission, so that it is open neither to the Crown nor to anyone else to apply for planning permission in such circumstances. The parties to the inquiry were informed of that last month, but if they so request, my right hon. Friend is prepared to give an informal indication of the decision that he would have issued had he the jurisdiction so to do.

Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson (New Forest)

The planning inquiry in the New Forest has been a matter of public concern for two years, since the inquiry completed its work. The people there cannot understand how the ruling that the Minister gave was not the same ruling that should have been given before the inquiry started its work. Can my hon. Friend clear that up?

Mr. Macfarlane

I hope that what I have said sets the historical record straight. It points to the legal technicalities that we have had to acknowledge in recent months. I can understand the exasperation that my hon. Friend feels, but he is aware of the correspondence that we have exchanged on the subject in recent months, and the issue was referred to in The Sunday Times article. I hope that what I have said puts the record straight and indicates how important it is to have this legislation.

The hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) asked how many cases there were. We do not believe that there are many because most appeals were under circular 49/63. He went on to ask whether Crown land would be protected from development. That is a matter for the Department or authority owning the land. I could not speak for the Secretary of State for Social Services, but if a planning application is made, it can be refused if the local planning authority disagrees with the proposal, and the normal appeal procedures then apply. Indeed, the Crofton case, to which he referred — I corresponded with the hon. Member for Liverpool, Mossley Hill (Mr. Alton) about it because I intended to mention it in the debate—is a classic example, and a public inquiry was held. The Bill will cover permissions granted before the measure comes into force.

The hon. Member for St. Helens, South asked whether circular 7/77 provided for consultation. The answer is that it does provide for consultation with the local planning authority as to proposals for development by Government authorities. Where a disagreement arises, the matter is referred to the Secretary of State and an inquiry can be held.

As for the point raised by the hon. Member for St. Helens, South about clause 4, it would be odd to compel the Crown to enter into agreements. However, that—like other points that have been raised in the debate—we shall have to consider further. Many of my hon. Friends have raised points of constituency interest, including anxieties about all sorts of erosions of Crown land and other difficulties that can occur.

The Bill is on the right lines. We shall want to examine it closely during its remaining stages and I am grateful for the assistance that hon. Members have given. It has been argued that the Bill should have gone further and brought all development on Crown land under total planning control. When a similar point was raised during the passage of the Town and Country Planning Act 1947, the then Labour Government in their infinite wisdom argued that co-ordination between the development of properties owned by Government Departments and the plans of local planning authorities could be achieved satisfactorily by administrative methods. I agree with that.

We believe that the arrangements by which the Government Departments consult local planning authorities about their proposals for development, and which are set out in circular 7/77, work well in practice; that piece of legislation passed by the immediate post-war Labour Government has certainly stood the test of time. However, as was pointed out in 1947, that proposal would raise an important constitutional issue affecting the position of the Crown over a wide field. In 1947 a decision was taken that the Crown itself should not be bound by planning legislation. The arguments have not changed and I can see no reason for that issue to be reopened.

I commend the Bill to the House. I believe it will achieve much of what most hon. Members in all parts of the House want. I hope we can make progress. I am grateful for the constructive support of Opposition Members. I shall consider all the points made by every Member who has participated and I shall let them have replies as quickly as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House. —[Mr. Douglas Hogg.]

Committee tomorrow.

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