HC Deb 15 January 1987 vol 108 cc487-94

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

8.41 pm
Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

I rarely take advantage of this procedure, but I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on an issue which has caused a great deal of local anxiety. It would be of assistance to the House if I explained the position of Talbot Green. It is situated at the mouth of the Ely valley and has been growing commercially and residentially. Many of its inhabitants travel to work to Bridgend in the west, to Pontypridd in the east, to Tonyrefail and the Rhondda in the north or, most likely, to Cardiff in the south. Because of the town's position at a junction, a large volume of through traffic uses the main roads.

The growth of the town as a residential and commercial centre is evidenced by the development there of the Newpark site. On this enclosed site has been placed a Tesco superstore and petrol filling station, a shopping precinct which is attached to the Tesco store with a precinct of smaller shops, and a CRS furniture superstore. These stores have their own car parks catering for about 500 to 600 cars with an average occupancy per day of about 400 to 500 cars. Houses have been built on the site, sheltered accommodation has been provided and there is a John Groom Association home which, as all Members will know, is a home for quite severely disabled people.

There is one access to the site from the A473 and one main egress on to the A4119. Elsewhere in the township of Talbot Green there are a large number of other stores and a bus station which carries passengers along the main routes of travel. It is quite clear that such a busy township will have a certain amount of traffic congestion anyway, and to that congestion has been added an open air market which by a typical error in the inspector's report is described as being at Pontyclun. That open air market operates on the south-west side of Talbot Green and in recent years has added considerably to the traffic congestion.

The market is in itself controversial, but what is beyond controversy is that it attracts customers in numbers which overwhelm its car parking facilities and the on-street car parking facilities in the immediate vicinity. On its own that market generates an extensive amount of pedestrian and vehicular traffic in the area.

To this already volatile situation has been added a proposal to establish a second market on the Newpark site about half a mile from the existing market. Very properly, the local authority rejected that proposal on planning grounds, but the appeal against the rejection was allowed by the Welsh Office inspector. To put it mildly, his decision caused consternation, anger and outrage. It seems to the people there to be explicable only as an abandonment by the Welsh Office of its duty to help secure a balanced community and it is seen as an abandonment of the residents.

I shall try to explain just how bad the Welsh Office decision was. The inquiry was defective both in the procedure followed for its convening and in the conclusions to be found in the report. The procedural defects were unfair to the public. People in the area immediately affected should have been given five days' notice of the hearing, but no one that I have spoken to had that. A very few had two days' notice but the vast majority of people living on the site had no notice at all.

None of the residents of Green park, Maestrisant, Llys Illtyd, Oak road, Ash walk or Cherry Tree walk was informed. Therefore, they had no chance to put in written submissions, and when one or two of them discovered the existence of the inquiry and attended and asked to be allowed to give oral evidence, they received a dusty reply from the inspector. Having thus excluded almost all the residents likely to be directly affected, the inspector arrived at wrong conclusions. That is not a mere matter of opinion, because there were errors on the face of the report and subsequent events have shown other errors in findings.

The inspector was rightly concerned about traffic congestion and traffic flows. His theoretical calculations are impressive, but, as the late Aneurin Bevan said, why should we look in a crystal ball when we can read the book. If my constituents had been given the opportunity to give evidence, such academic calculations would have been unnecessary. If the inspector had heard from the lady who telephoned me the other Saturday to tell me that because of street parking associated with the existing market it had taken her half an hour to cover the one mile between her home and her shop in Pontyclun, he would have known that. If he had read the letter from another lady who now must allow 20 minutes extra for her journey to Tonyrefail on a Wednesday to get to work and is often late, he would have realised that and would know that, whatever the theoretical pattern of traffic, in practice traffic dislocation in this township is now very great.

I appreciate that the Minister may well respond to that by saying that it is not too bad because the inspector has taken care to prevent the two markets from opening on the same day. In paragraph 12 of his report the inspector rules out the new market opening on a Saturday because the present one is open on that day. He describes dual opening as unacceptable and grants to the new market the opening days of Wednesday and Thursday. What he did not know or knew but overlooked is that, though the existing Yemms market then opened only on a Saturday, it had the power, if it chose to use it, to open on another day of the week. Since the report appeared it has, surprise, surprise, chosen to open on a Wednesday, and that is the reason for the extra time that my constituent must now allow to get to work.

If the dislocation that I have described arises when one market opens on Wednesdays, it will also apply when the new market is open on Thursdays and will be double when, as is now permitted, the two markets are simultaneously open on Wednesdays. Can the House imagine the chaos, the misery and the frustration that will occur when both open air markets are decanting their customers on to the same roads on the same day and mostly at the same peak times?

A market or markets will now be held on three days of the week and life in Talbot Green will be significantly dislocated. The effect of the ignorance or the oversight of the inspector in this vital matter renders his calculations largely valueless. His report is thereby fatally flawed. In paragraph 12 the inspector says that the existing market is to provide additional car parking, as he describes it, "to ease traffic problems". For a variety of reasons, that has not proved to be the case since the hearing. Indeed, less car parking is now available than when the inquiry was held. That is another point on which the inspector's report is wrong.

None of the parties to the inquiry could have foreseen another flaw. The appellant asserted, and it appeared to play a part in the inspector's decision, that the imminent construction of the Talbot Green bypass would halve traffic congestion in the village. Last week put paid to that assertion. The Welsh Office withdrew its grant of £8.5 million for the first year of construction of the new bypass. Also it asked whether it was necessary to build the bypass as the railway line was to be closed. Quite apart from the planning decision, that is a major blow to this area. It is a recipe for chaos. Once again, subsequent events have illustrated the unsoundness of the inspector's report.

The major argument is not about convenience but about danger to life and health. I was born in the town that I now represent. It has had an open air market since at least the 19th century. It is enshrined in an Act of Parliament. This is not the cry, therefore, of somebody who is unused to open air markets. I am thoroughly used to them. However, it cannot be denied that open air markets in villages result in people parking in the surrounding streets, often on both sides, even though car parking is provided.

The greater traffic flow into and out of the Newpark site for the new market means that the emergency services would be faced with a desperate problem if there were a fire on the site, or if somebody were taken seriously ill. Such incidents are even more likely where sheltered accommodation is provided. Indeed, incidents of that kind are highly likely at places like the John Groom home. There are far more emergencies to be dealt with, and the physical immobility of the residents means that they are vulnerable if there is a fire. Can it honestly be said that the inquiry took these factors into account? It contains no reference to the problem. It is a glaring omission in what I hope the Minister will agree is an unsatisfactory report.

Any planning authority, including the Welsh Office, must pay regard to shoppers' preferences. It has an equal duty to pay regard to the preferences of the residents. It must strike a balance between shops that open on six days a week and provide services as well as goods and those which operate on only one or two days a week and who can close at short notice. If the trading activities of the shops that open six days a week are weakened, the community is weakened. That is doubly the case when a market has a maximum life of only four years.

The inspector—an outsider and, because of procedural flaws, without knowledge of the views of local people—said that in his view the market would not weaken local traders. He could not have held that view for a moment if he had heard what local traders say. The existing market has hit trade hard on precisely the day when traders hope to do well. They will now be hard hit on two days when they hope to do well, but they will be particularly hard hit on Saturdays. Two markets would force some traders to close, while others would have to cut back.

Who would replace those traders? To whom could the local authority look for lost rating income? Who would serve the population on Mondays and Tuesdays when trade is as much a public as a commercial service? The decision to allow a second market, even for a limited period, would impose an intolerable strain on the community. It is the worst of decisions. The local community has not been adequately represented. The decision was based on grounds that were either wrong at the time or falsified by subsequent developments.

In the case of opencast mining in his constituency the Secretary of State has shown that he will not allow mere commercial considerations to despoil an area. What is good enough for Pembrokeshire is good enough for Talbot Green. A fresh look at this question and at the protection that my constituents feel has been denied to them so far should now be undertaken by the Welsh Office.

8.54 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Mark Robinson)

Individual local planning applications and the decisions made on them often give rise to concern on the part of interested parties, and I fully understand the wish of the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) to seek to raise in the House tonight the subject of recent planning decisions on Talbot Green in Mid Glamorgan which are of concern to his constituents. It is perhaps best to start by explaining to the House the background to the planning appeal that is at the centre of the issues which the hon. Gentleman has raised in the course of his speech.

In December 1984 Excrest Ltd. applied to Taff Ely borough council, as local planning authority, for planning permission to use an area of land at Newpark, Talbot Green, Llantrisant for two days per week as an open-air market with 80 pitches.

In a letter accompanying the application, the applicant's agent noted that the land was owned by the borough council, which had agreed to let it to Excrest, subject to planning permission being obtained. It was later explained that there was space for 220 cars to be packed, with an access point from the entry road to the district shopping centre, which includes a large Tesco supermarket. The application did not say on which two days of the week the market would open—this would be decided later.

The local planning authority then consulted various bodies about the proposal. They received a direction of refusal from the Mid Glamorgan county engineer and surveyor in the following terms: The development would result in a material increase in the volume of traffic entering routes A473 and A4119 and leaving route A473 and be detrimental to the safety and free flow of traffic using the aforementioned classified highways. Those familiar with the area will know that the application and the later appeal relate to an island site surrounded by the two main roads mentioned by the county engineer and the internal road serving the district shopping centre. In response to public notices, a large number of local residents wrote to the borough council expressing their opposition to the proposal. Some of them submitted a petition. Objections also came from the Tesco and Homeworld stores, which felt that very severe traffic and parking problems could occur if the permission were granted.

After due deliberation, the borough council decided to refuse permission. The notice of refusal, which was issued on 15 April 1985, contained four reasons, the first of which gave effect to the county engineer's direction. The second and third reasons, also suggested by the county engineer, related to lack of adequate car parking and possible danger to pedestrians. The final reason given was that the proposal was considered to be detrimental to the residential amenities of occupiers living in the vicinity of the site.

On 29 July 1985, the applicant appealed to the Secretary of State and indicated that it wished to exercise its right to be heard by a planning inspector. On a point of procedure, I should explain that, generally speaking, appeals against a refusal of planning permission are prescribed by regulations for determination by an inspector. My right hon. Friend, of course, has the power to direct that a planning appeal should be determined by him rather than by an inspector, but that power is used sparingly, where for instance, the proposal is for significant development or development of at least regional or national importance. This appeal was not considered to come within any other criteria for recovering jurisdiction over an appeal and so it was left to an inspector to determine. The decision in such cases is the inspector's alone.

Agreement was reached between the parties in November 1985 that a local inquiry into the appeal would be held in Pontypridd, commencing on 18 March 1986, the earliest date convenient to everyone. A Welsh Office letter to the borough council enclosed a copy of a notice of the inquiry and asked the council to give information about it to owners and occupiers of nearby property and to others who were considered by the council to be affected by the proposed development. The letter also indicated the Department's view that the press should normally be notified of local inquiries. I have no reason to believe that the council did not act accordingly. Indeed, correspondence received at this time indicated that the appeal was adequately advertised in accordance with standard procedure.

The inquiry opened as arranged on 18 March 1986. It was resumed on 24 and 25 April and again on 8 and 9 May. A great many documents were submitted to the inspector, including a letter from the hon. Member for Pontypridd, dated 17 December 1985. I have already given the hon. Gentleman a specific assurance in correspondence that this letter was taken into account by the inspector in arriving at his decision, and I am happy to repeat that assurance now. Indeed the letter, although not specifically listed, is contained in the bundle of documents numbered 16 by the inspector in his list of documentary evidence.

One of the matters raised in that letter was the special attention that should be paid to the needs of disabled people living at the Maestrisant home—the John Groom complex to which the hon. Gentleman has referred—a point which the hon. Gentleman came back to in his letter of 10 September 1986. In that letter, he said that he did not believe that this matter was at all properly conducted and considered at the Inquiry". While I accept that it was not specifically referred to in the council's refusal notice or in the decision letter of the inspector, the inspector was aware of the home's existence, and had regard to it in arriving at his decision. Reference to it is contained in the documents of evidence which are part of the public record and it is, of course, covered by the general reference to concern expressed by local residents in paragraphs 9 and 20 of the inspector's letter.

The hon. Gentleman made a further point in his second letter relating to the absence of any comment from the police authority about the application. As I said to the hon. Gentleman in my letter of 6 November last, it is entirely for the local planning authority to decide who needs to be consulted at the application stage. Official advice about the display of site notices and the scope for consultation was given in Welsh Office circular 134/73, which has stood the test of time and is still Government policy. If the police authority was not aware of the application for an open-air market, I can only suggest again that the hon. Gentleman should approach the borough council for an explanation.

At the appeal stage, a site notice was displayed and all the standard procedures were followed. As I said earlier, the council was reminded that the press should normally be notified of the arrangements for holding local inquiries. Certainly, I note that there were reporters present from two local newspapers. The inquiry was adjourned twice and, in accordance with the rules governing procedures to be followed at inquiries, the details of the reopening date and venue were announced by the inspector before each adjournment. In view of this, and the fact that the inquiry lasted for five days spread over a long period, I find it difficult to understand the suggestion that local people were not aware of it. With all this in mind, I find it hard to accept the hon. Gentleman's contention that people did not have an adequate opportunity to give evidence to the inspector.

Another point which the hon. Gentleman made was that another market operator had decided to hold his market on a Wednesday, one of the days mentioned in the permission given to Excrest. That decision by the market operator in question, who was not party to the appeal, has no bearing on the planning merits of the matter we are considering tonight, as the observations of the inspector in this or any other case do not, of course, bind persons not a party to the applications.

Mr. John

I apologise for interrupting; I realise that this is an Adjournment debate. That is not the point that I was making. The point I made was that the inspector specifically took account of the unwisdom of having two open-air markets on the same day and thought that he had avoided it. It now turns out that on one of the two days for which he gave permission another market is already open, so we will have the very thing that he counselled against.

Mr. Robinson

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will realise that inspectors hearing appeals can deal only with situations as they find them at the time. If circumstances change afterwards, that is not a matter that can lead to a reopening of an appeal decision.

I turn now to the inspector's decision on 22 July 1986. As far as procedures are concerned, I have carefully considered the hon. Gentleman's remarks but I ant not satisfied that there is any reason to alter the view I expressed during Question Time in the House on 8 December in response to his supplementary question, which is that I am not aware of any shortcomings in the procedures which were followed in this case.

The inspector's decision to grant planning permission for the use of this land as an open-air market for a period of four years was one for him alone to take, on the merits of the particular case. Planning legislation provides that an inspector must have regard to the provisions of the development plan and to any other material considerations. He must, of course, give reasons for each decision. The expression "material consideration" brings me to the question of planning policies—which are for the most part to be found in departmental circulars—and their relevance to the Excrest appeal.

I do not propose to read out all of the reasons given by the inspector in his letter of 22 July last. That letter is a public document which has been made freely available and it has to be left to speak for itself. Any impartial observer reading the letter would, I believe, be impressed with the thorough way in which the inspector approached his task. It is apparent from the second paragraph of the decision letter that the question of access and traffic conditions at Talbot Green was one of the primary concerns of the inspector. He considered that one of the main issues was whether the additional vehicular and pedestrian traffic movements likely to be generated by the proposed open-air market would have so serious an impact on the existing traffic conditions as to warrant a refusal of planning permission.

After weighing all the evidence on traffic and highway matters and observing the traffic flows at the site on the five days during which the inquiry was held, he formed the opinion that any increase in traffic congestion during the morning and evening peak flow periods at Talbot Green roundabout would be most undesirable and would not be in the best interests of the local community and road users. He referred to the traffic circulation pattern on the Newpark housing estate in which a home for the elderly is situated, and to the fact that the estate is served by a one-way traffic system in from the A473 Talbot road and out on to the A4119 highway. The question of access for emergency service vehicles was raised at the inquiry by both written and oral submission for consideration by the inspector in reaching his decision.

The inspector reached his conclusion that if market trading is restricted to between the hours of 9 am and 4 pm, and was permitted only on Wednesday and Thursdays, it would not generate customer traffic that would significantly intensify the traffic problems that occurred during the peak hour flows at the Talbot Green roundabout.

I note that there is concern about the risk of cars parking on both sides of the road but it will be seen from paragraph 5 of the inspector's decision letter that a car park for 100 cars is proposed for market customers and that the whole of the field adjoining the proposed market stall area could be used, if required, to cater for around 220 car spaces. The use of the field for non-operational car parking has been reserved by condition No. 9 of the planning consent.

These, then, were the inspector's conclusions on the operational aspects of the proposed development. He also dealt at some length with the implications of local and national policies. There is no time for me to go into all of these but I would draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to Welsh Office circular 38/85, which emphasises that there is always a presumption in favour of allowing applications for development, having regard to all material considerations, unless that development would cause demonstrable harm to interests of acknowledged importance. In the last analysis, each decision involves a balancing act, setting one argument against another and trying to arrive at a fair decision.

During his speech the hon. Gentleman referred to the proposed Talbot Green bypass. I think it would be helpful if I make it clear that the Welsh Office has not reached a decision about the principle and merits of the proposal. I assure him that it will be considered for grant along with other schemes in Wales if Mid Glamorgan county council include it, as I believe it intends to, in its bid for transport supplementary grant for 1988–89.

The hon. Gentleman has, of course, received a copy of the inspector's decision. With that letter the parties received a leaflet explaining the procedure for challenging the decision in the High Court on a point of law. The period of six weeks within which such a challenge has to be made has long expired. As I have already explained in correspondence, once a decision on an appeal has been made, neither the Secretary of State nor his inspector has any further jurisdiction.

I have done my best in this debate to cover all the detailed points which the hon. Gentleman has gone to some trouble to raise in his remarks. I appreciate that my response does not meet his wishes but I must emphasise that this is essentially a local matter which an inspector was perfectly competent to deal with, and that even after listening very carefully to the hon. Gentleman's speech as I have done this evening, I see no justification for questioning either the inspector's judgment or his handling of the inquiry. Certainly there is no question of re-opening the inquiry or of taking action to revoke the decision.

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