HC Deb 01 July 1991 vol 194 cc140-6

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

11.20 pm
Mr. Ken Livingstone (Brent, East)

I am delighted to be able to raise a matter that pertains specifically to my constituency. It concerns the way in which the Department of the Environment's planning appeals mechanism works in practice—which, to local residents, seems beyond belief.

Last year, a planning application in the name of Mr. I. J. Reed to run an amusement centre at 60 High road, Willesden, was refused by Brent council. Mr. Reed appealed to the Department of the Environment, and the appeal was heard on 4 April 1991. CETRA—the local residents' association, which is very strong and has the support and respect of all the local political parties—objected to the application on the grounds that the centre would add nothing to the environment or to shopping facilities, and that both the Willesden green plan and the unitary development plan discouraged such use in a primary shopping area.

On 31 May, the Department issued its findings—that such use would be allowed, on certain conditions. Mr. Reed stated that no person under the age of 18 would be admitted, although that condition had not been laid down by the Department. The premises now need a licence, issued by a Brent council sub-committee, and CETRA has submitted an objection to the issuing of a licence.

CETRA must show that Mr. Reed's other amusement centres are not complying with the conditions of planning permission and/or licensing regulations. His other premises are in Harlesden and Burnt Oak: he also has an appeal under way in regard to premises that he wishes to open at 10 Bank buildings, Harlesden.

At the inquiry, the Government and Mr. Reed seemed to be on the same side, as the inspector's report shows. According to paragraph 5, on behalf of Mr. Reed, it was contended that a range of complementary services are necessary to support the shopping attractions, and these can positively contribute to the vitality of shopping centres. Such uses include financial and professional services, cafes and restaurants and, increasingly, amusement centres. This view is in accordance with the advice contained in …Circular 13/87". Many of my constituents have still to be persuaded of the benefits that an amusement centre brings: certainly, those benefits cannot be classified in the same category as professional services, cafes and restaurants.

In quite a fair account, the report also gives the views of the council and the residents, who were in agreement: The Council considered that an amusement centre would be disruptive rather than complementary to the shopping centre. This was also the view expressed in most of the letters of representations. If there is an underlying ideology for the inspector's decision, it appears in paragraph 8, where he states: The centre would offer an opportunity for leisure and recreation for shoppers in the same way as a cafe or restaurant, providing a complementary function. I hope that the inspector will pop along to Willesden high road to see many harassed shoppers pausing to spend a few bob in the local amusement arcade before staggering backwards and forwards with their shopping in an area that is poorly served by public transport and that suffers from the most appalling congestion. Most people simply want to get in and out of the area as rapidly as possible and complete their purchases. I do not think that many people set out from the Willesden green area to spend a delightful half hour on the machines before flogging their way around Gateway supermarket. Perhaps the inspector does not do his own shopping.

The public's perception is contrary to that rather remarkable view. The reputation of amusement arcades is not such that they are an equivalent addition to the amenities of an area's financial services or restaurants. In many areas—I am not saying that this will inevitably happen with this proposed arcade—amusement arcades lead to a concentration of prostitution, where young people make their bodies available to people who are attracted in the knowledge that that service is freely available. In many arcades, drugs are distributed and they are constantly under surveillance by the police and are a constant source of problems to them. In addition, they tend to act as a magnet for local petty criminals. That is why all the schools in the area object to the arcade. In other areas of the country, the last thing that a local school wants is for an amusement arcade to open in the vicinity.

Uniquely on Brent council, all the political parties agreed. They unanimously rejected the application, as they have rejected several others in the past decade. To get the Conservative party, Liberal Democrats and the Labour party in Brent to agree on anything, other than that they do not like my criticisms of the council, is almost unique.

Such unanimity should count for something. The council's planning officer says that in his recollection the Department of the Environment has not refused an appeal against the council's dismissal of a planning application for an amusement centre in the past 10 years, with the result that six now operate in the borough. Some people would include the town hall and make it seven, but one does not have to pay to get in there.

The position is quite remarkable. The Government created the poll tax to improve local accountability, but they will not let a local authority decide whether a shop should he used as an amusement centre. One wonders what earthly point there is in having a remaining form of local government if it cannot be trusted to make a decision based on its intimate knowledge of the locality. The political unanimity resulted from that local knowledge, which is shared by all members of the local authority.

The Government have rightly made strict rules on the need to consult residents when councils draw up planning policy and district plans. The unitary district plan currently being drawn up by Brent firmly rejects amusement centres in primary shopping areas. Many local people at meetings that I have attended have said, "Why bother? What is the point of trying to mobilise arguments, of persuading the council and of trying to persuade the inspector when the Government decide to override the local authority?"

After discussion, the local residents' group, CETRA, has advanced what it thinks—I share its view—is a much more sensible approach, certainly to relatively small planning applications such as this. The Chapel End Tenants' and Residents' Association said: Would it not be possible for appeals to the DOE to be restricted in the same sense as an appeal in a criminal case would be, ie further evidence has to have come to light, or there has to be evidence of 'jury nobbling', or misdirection by the judge …planning applicants should not be able to go to appeal just because they don't like the verdict; if they can show that they were prejudiced against in some way, or the Officers withheld vital information from Councillors then that of course would he a different matter. There should also he an appeal system for us as the system is loaded against us at the moment. If Councillors have been 'nobbled' and approve a Planning Application that is contrary to the wishes of the majority of people, we really have no right of redress. In certain cases we may be able to go to the Ombudsman but generally we don't have the same right to have the application heard again in front of an independent third party. That is a sensible approach when dealing with small and much less controversial planning decisions. I well understand that Secretaries of State find difficulty in calling in vast planning applications involving the South Bank or controversial matters that consume the interest of the nation. As one can see from the absence from the debate of most hon. Members, this issue does not consume the interest of the nation. If it did, the Chamber would be full. It is nonsense that these decisions are considered at this level of government rather than being left to local authorities.

The residents now can object only to the licence being granted on the narrow grounds that the person concerned is unfit to hold such a licence or the premises are unsuitable. Unless the residents operate their own policing system, they will find it difficult to investigate an applicant's suitability.

This brings me to a side issue which I raised in another Adjournment debate—use orders. The residents state: Willesden High Road is full of premises with A3 use—every other shop seems to be a restaurant of some sort. Kilburn is now packed with what are ostensibly pubs but by my definition are nightclubs and the trend is working its way down Willesden Lane. We already have one pub in Willesden where no planning permission was needed …because it was previously two restaurants. Two premises may be knocked together and a pub may appear without local residents being able to object. The pub to which I referred has now applied for a licence until midnight, 7 days a week. As people are not queueing up to buy shops in the High Road, I"— CETRA—

predict that a number of them will become pubs/wine bars within the next year or so. The Government are still pondering the review of the A3 use group as the system is obviously not working. I hope that it will not he long before the report is published and there are further restrictions.

More pubs, wine bars and amusement arcades will mean the death of what is still a central shopping facility for a local, family community. Willesden high road has been badly affected by the recession over the past few years. One shop after another is closing. Often people purveying alcohol or running amusement arcades seem to be the only ones interested in opening in the face of the recession.

The area has suffered from the general rundown in grants to the local authority. It needs much spent on it to enable it to improve and to attract new jobs, yet traffic remains congested. The contemptuous way in which London Transport has ignored local residents and introduced one-person bus operation means that the street tends to be congested, with buses often causing long delays as people try to get on and the operator issues tickets, answers questions and so on. The area is declining. The last thing it needed was the Government saying, "Here comes the amusement arcade." That is another nail in the coffin and will be seen as such by every local trader. It is an unhelpful sign for a shopping precinct that is struggling to survive in the midst of a grim recession.

I conclude by raising an issue that I raised earlier: what is local government's role if we cannot trust local councillors to take such decisions? No one would deny that there must be a system of inspectors hearing appeals to prevent a completely unrepresentative, or even corrupt, clique operating a council's planning system for personal advantage. Generally, one thinks of the fraud squad dealing with such circumstances.

The idea of an inspector overturning local political opinion, the opinion of local residents and of local schools leads one to ask the fair question, would the inspector, Mr. Geoffrey Hill, want an arcade in his street? I strongly suspect that the answer would be, no. I suspect that if he were told that an amusement arcade was to be opened near where he lived, he would be one of the first to object to the local planning committee and to mobilise support against the idea. He would be right to do so because it would damage his area and would probably reduce property prices.

I strongly suspect that the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, the hon. Member for Suffolk, South (Mr. Yeo), would not like one next door to his property any more than I would. If we do not want them next door to us or in our local shopping centres, why do we operate a nonsensical system which overrides all local opinion and which means that Big Brother Government decide that people must live with them, whether or not they want to do so? That is not a sensible planning system.

The Government should take on board the quotation that I read from CETRA. They should consider whether they operate the best system for conducting such appeals, a system that can be properly understood only by local people and in which local opinion should be paramount.

11.36 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tim Yeo)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brent, East (Mr. Livingstone) on obtaining the opportunity to raise this issue. I am grateful to him for giving me advance notice of the subject.

I listened with great interest to what the hon. Gentleman said about amusement arcades. I know that he examines closely the impact of planning decisions and of planning legislation on his constituency. I also know that there is considerable local opposition to the opening of the proposed amusement premises. Therefore, I am glad to have the opportunity to reassure him about the care taken by the planning inspectorate in deciding planning appeals and to try to explain the position of amusement arcades in relation to town and country planning legislation.

At the outset, I must explain that I have to confine my remarks to the general issues raised by these cases. I cannot discuss a particular decision taken by a particular planning authority or any decision taken on appeal. That restriction is especially relevant to the appeal decision involving No. 60 Willesden High road. Under section 288 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 there is a period of six weeks following an appeal decision during which it is open to any party to challenge that decision in the High Court. In the case to which the hon. Gentleman referred, that six-week period has not yet elapsed. Therefore, I must be careful to avoid any possibility of prejudicing my right hon. Friend's position. Nevertheless, I hope that the hon.

Gentleman will agree that the right to challenge appeal decisions and thus to subject them to the scrutiny of the courts demonstrates that all such decisions must be taken only after very careful consideration of their planning merits.

The purpose of allowing a disappointed applicant to appeal against the refusal of planning permission is to enable a developer to have a second chance for the planning merits of his proposal to be considered by an independent and impartial person. At one point, I thought that the hon. Gentleman implied that, because appeal decisions might turn out to be different from those originally taken by the local planning authority, no right of appeal should exist. When planning control was introduced after the war, it effectively removed the right of individuals to develop or, indeed, to use land or property that they either owned or rented in the way that they wanted unless they had obtained permission from the local planning authority. Under those circumstances, it seems reasonable that a right of appeal should exist.

Appeal decisions are made only after a very careful evaluation of the planning merits of the cases involved. The inspectors' points of reference—in terms of legislation, Government planning guidance and any relevant provisions of a development plan—are identical to those which would have been considered in the first instance by the local planning authority. The position is the same for appeals against the failure of a planning authority to determine a planning application within the required period. There can be no sense in which appeal decisions are more lenient on the developer than local planning authorities' decisions; the issues to be taken into account are the same, and the record shows that a very substantial proportion of appeal decisions uphold the original decision taken by the local planning authority.

However, I know that there is a particular problem with cases involving amusement arcades in terms of the way they are perceived by third parties and sometimes by local planning authorities. Much opposition to amusement arcades centres on the expectation that they will attract noisy and unruly adolescents and, in some cases, act as a meeting place for young people, encouraging anti-social or even criminal activity, as the hon. Member for Brent, East suggested. Those who oppose amusement arcades from that point of view find it difficult to accept a decision to grant planning permission that seems to have taken little note of their concerns about the likely clientele of the arcade. The difficulty of accepting a decision to grant permission may be greater where that decision is made by an inspector following an earlier decision, taken at a local level, to turn down the application. I shall refer to the expectation that an amusement arcade will attract disreputable and disruptive clients as a "moral" concern.

I have to make it clear that such a moral concern, whether or not it is well founded, is not a land use planning consideration, and, as such, should not be taken into account in the decision whether to grant planning permission. All planning decisions should reflect the judgment of the courts that planning controls should not be used to prevent lawful forms of development on the ground that they are felt to be socially or morally undesirable. That point is reflected in my Department's development control policy note 11 "Service uses in shopping areas". Planning inspectors, therefore, cannot uphold local authorities' decisions that they believe to have been based on local opposition rooted in prejudice against an amusement arcade per se.

A local planning authority determining a planning application for an amusement arcade should consider what aspects of the proposal need to be subject to planning control. Development control policy note 11 identifies several typical planning considerations. They include the creation of unacceptable noise and disturbance. An arcade should not be allowed in a residential area or near schools or hospitals if it can be shown that the noise that it would create would be obtrusive. That deals with the hon. Gentleman's question about objections that an individual —for example, the hon. Gentleman, a planning inspector or me—might have to an amusement arcade near his home. Our objections might be well founded if it was proposed to site the arcade in a residential area where it would create an obtrusive degree of noise. Appearance is another relevant issue, especially in conservation areas. The kind of amusement proposed can also be relevant: if it is of a sessional nature, traffic and parking issues can be involved.

All those points may be "material considerations" to be taken into account in any planning decision about an amusement arcade. However, every planning decision must have regard to the provisions of the local development plan. Relevant policies in an up-to-date development plan carry considerable weight in development control decisions, and the Government have repeatedly made it clear over the past few months, during the passage of the Planning and Compensation Bill through the House, that we wish to move to a more plan-led system, which will give greater coherence and predictability to planning decisions.

We have emphasised the importance of development plans in the whole decision-making process. We have stated that, where there are clear, up-to-date policies in development plans, which are consistent with national and regional policies and relevant to the proposals under consideration, they will carry considerable weight with the Secretary of State and his inspectors in dealing with planning appeals. In effect, the development plan will be the starting point for deciding planning applications and will provide the framework for local decision making in a greater proportion of cases in the future. In the longer term, we hope that comprehensive coverage of the country by up-to-date local plans will help to reduce the number of appeals. The overall effect will be to enhance the role of the local planning authority.

At present, the London borough of Brent has no specific local plan policy on amusement arcades. I have had the opportunity of discussing with the hon. Gentleman—on another occasion and in a slightly different context—the role that will be played in future by unitary development plans, and I believe that he shares my hope that the borough's emerging unitary development plan will contain clear and soundly based policies that address issues of local concern, which may include the intensity of the large number of amusement arcades in Brent.

None of what I have said about the scope of planning control over amusement arcades should be construed as diminishing the importance of what I have identified as the "moral" concerns about amusement arcades. This is not the context in which to consider the effects of such arcades on young people. However, I stress that it is because of concern about the possible "moral" or social implications of amusement arcades that the granting of planning permission is not in itself enough to allow an amusement arcade to become established. Under the Gaming Acts, amusement arcades that offer prizes require permits. Local authorities concerned at the spread of such premises in their areas therefore have a means of control, even when planning permission has already been granted. I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary keeps a very careful watch on the effectiveness of this legislation and on the whole question of the social consequences of amusement arcades.

Under the Gaming Act 1968, premises with amusement-with-prizes machines require a permit and considerations that may be irrelevant to a planning application or planning appeal may nevertheless be valid factors for a local authority to take into account when deciding an application for a permit. Although there is not a great deal of case law, I am advised that among the grounds that can be used for the refusal of permits either alone or in combination with other grounds are demand —which may already be met by other existing premises in the area; fire safety; the possibility of under-age people entering; and trouble in the locality as a result of the congregation of young people which would encourage truancy and delinquency. Another ground is the possibility that undesirable people might be attracted to the arcade. Social problems may be worse and there may be difficulties for the police. Another consideration may be the suitability or otherwise of the proposed manager.

All those grounds suggest that the power to refuse a permit can be useful for local authorities concerned about the growth of amusement centres in their areas, irrespective of whether planning permission has been granted. Local authorities may make byelaws under section 75 of the Public Health Act 1961 covering such matters as safety, fire precautions, public order and avoidance of nuisance. Byelaws can regulate opening hours and require the manager not knowingly to permit the premises to be the habitual resort or place of meeting of reputed prostitutes. They can also require the manager not knowingly to permit the entry of any person who is drunk or disorderly. The Home Office published and circulated model byelaws to local authorities in October 1989.

I said at the outset that I could not comment on the specific case referred to by the hon. Gentleman. However, I hope that my general remarks have shed some light on the principles involved in relation to the particular problem that has arisen in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.