HC Deb 21 May 1991 vol 191 cc903-10

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

12.2 am

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

Before starting the Adjournment debate, I should be grateful if, as chairman of the all-party Indo-British parliamentary group, I could put on record the heartfelt sympathy of British parliamentarians for the people of India in the grievous blow that they have suffered tonight with the brutal assassination of Mr. Rajiv Gandhi.

I am grateful for the opportunity to discusss the role of public opinion in planning decisions, whether taken by local councils or Ministers. Planning applications to construct large, new buildings almost always give rise to strong feelings, whether for or against. Often, there is much at stake, such as a conflict of interest between the prosperity of one group of people that clashes with the view or quality of life of others.

Parliament has enacted rules and procedures to try to ensure that decisions are fair. Public inquiries are set up to be something like law courts with lawyers. But there is a difference. Law courts are not democratically accountable to the public for their decisions, but local councils or the Government, in the value-judgments that they make when taking planning decisions, are. The public, who are increasingly consulted, expect planning authorities not only to take local opinion into account, but to act on it, especially if that local public opinion happens to lean heavily in one direction and if the planning arguments for and against an application are more or less equally balanced.

To establish some general principles relative to the role of public opinion in planning decisions, I should like to ask my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment some questions. First, can he give clear confirmation that, in his view, public opinion ought to have a role in planning decisions; that it in fact has a role; and that this will remain Government policy? Secondly, may I draw his attention to a document published by his Department PPG1, dated January 1988 and entitled "Planning Policy Guidance: General Policy and Principles"? Under the heading The purpose of the planning system", paragraph 18 contains the following passage: Any relevant views expressed by third parties, by local residents and other neighbouring occupiers of land should be taken into account in determining planning applications … While the substance of local opposition must be considered, the duty is to decide each case on its planning merits … on its own, local opposition to a proposal is not a ground for the refusal of planning permission unless that opposition is founded upon valid planning reasons which are supported by substantial evidence. Can my hon. Friend say whether the converse is true—whether, if local opposition is founded on valid planning reasons which are supported by substantial evidence, local opposition is a ground for the refusal of planning permission?

Thirdly—given the growing tendency for local councils all over the country to consult local residents for their opinions, whether in writing or through their speaking before planning committees or sub-committees—can my hon. Friend confirm that that trend is welcome to the Government? Fourthly, if local consultation is seen as desirable, does it not follow that weight should be given by planning authorities to the opinions of the public? In other words, there is no point in consulting unless one intends to give weight to the views derived from that consultation.

Fifthly, if when it is considering a planning application it is desirable and proper for a local planning authority to consult local public opinion and then give weight to it, is it not equally proper and desirable for the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Ministers in his Department who advise him, when acting as a planning authority on appeal or following a call-in, to give just the same weight to public opinion as they would expect a local council to do? Sixthly, if so, when the Secretary of State is deciding on a planning application, or on an appeal, should not this concept of consultation include evidence given by local people to the public inquiry? Otherwise, the inquiry inspector has no direct means of consulting the public.

Seventhly, can my hon. Friend confirm that, as stated in my debate on the application for a heliport in central London a year ago, the proportion of those cases where on appeal the Secretary of State decides differently from the recommendation of the planning inquiry inspector is still about 10 per cent.?

I wish to illustrate these general points on the role of public opinion in planning decisions with reference to one particular planning application by Marks and Spencer to construct large buildings in a conservation area close by a beautiful stretch of the River Thames at Twickenham. As the decision of the Secretary of State for the Environment is pending—which puts all Ministers in the Department of the Environment in a quasi-judicial position—my constituents will understand that I cannot ask my hon. Friend at this stage to say anything whatever about the merits of the case for or against. I can only ask him to take note of my views. I should add that I am not introducing any new material that was not available to the inquiry, at which I gave evidence.

The Department of the Environment is aware of the great concern of my constituents, since on 22 October I asked to see my right hon. Friend the Member for Bath (Mr. Patten), who was then the Secretary of State for the Environment, to request him to set up a public inquiry so that my constituents could make their views heard—whether for or against—after which the inspector would make a recommendation to the Secretary of State. Richmond upon Thames borough council, which had reached some agreement with Marks and Spencer, had obviously made up its mind, come what may, to grant planning permission to Marks and Spencer, despite growing local opposition to the scheme. I should say that that opposition related to the site. People liked the idea of a Marks and Spencer shop somewhere in Twickenham, but many people thought that it would be on the wrong site if it were beside the historic conservation area close by the River Thames.

In asking the Secretary of State to call in the planning decision—so that after the planning inquiry he, not the borough council, would have to decide—I argued that the application was not only of local concern but of wider regional interest. I quoted to him the Greater London development plan of some 20 years ago, which said: The Thames constitutes perhaps the greatest of all London's areas of special character. Its condition and future are matters of strategic concern to the whole of London". I showed the Secretary of State the map, illustrating the fact that, within Greater London, along the Thames there are three stretches of exceptional interest or beauty—at Greenwich, in central London and from Kew to Hampton Court. The site in question at Twickenham is near the centre of that stretch.

I turn now to the public inquiry, which took place between 5 and 11 February. There were eight witnesses in favour of the application, of whom six were consultants paid by Marks and Spencer for the purpose of giving technical evidence in support of the application; the seventh was a representative of the chamber of commerce and the eighth was the borough planning officer of Richmond upon Thames borough council, which was committed to support the scheme.

More than 40 witnesses gave notice to the inspector conducting the inquiry that they intended to give evidence against the scheme. They were discouraged by the inspector from overlapping or repetition, but more than 30 witnesses gave evidence. They included representatives of most of the main local amenity societies in Twickenham —for example, Mr. Beccles-Wilson, who is chairman of Strawberry Hill residents association and chairman of the Twickenham Town Committee; Mr. Plummer, chairman of the Twickenham Society; Dr. Payan, who is chairman of the York House Society; Mr. Greenwood, who is chairman of Richmond upon Thames Arts Council; Miss Schooling, who is secretary of the Twickenham Town Committee and founder of Friends of Radnor Gardens; Mr. Parton, representing the River Thames Society, which goes beyond my constituency; Dr. Helen Baker, who is chairman of the Pre-school Playgroups Association, which has a playgroup on the site; and Mrs. Pamela Moore of the East Twickenham and Riverside residents association.

The opposition stretched across all political parties. On the Conservative side, I gave evidence, as did the former mayor, Mrs. Ford Miller. Three representatives of the Twickenham Labour party gave evidence, including my prospective opponent in the general election. On the Liberal side, Mr. Bamber Gascoigne, the well-known broadcaster who lives locally, gave evidence. In addition, some eminent local individual residents gave evidence, including Professor Sir John Hale, the former chairman of the trustees of the National Gallery and also professor of Italian history at London university. Evidence was also given against the scheme by Mr. Richard Rogers, who is one of the greatest architects in the world. A considerable number of individual constituents also gave evidence against the scheme. There can therefore be no doubt about the range of local opinion against the scheme.

As the merits of the scheme will, I am sure, have been assessed impartially by the inspector, who impressed everyone by the way in which he handled the inquiry, it would be best if I continued on the theme of the strength of local opinion. A majority of local public opinion in Twickenham is now against the application. Originally, that was not the case. The borough council carried out a planning exercise in the consultation of February and March 1990. At that stage, there was a slight majority in favour of the scheme, but opinion locally has changed during 1990 and I believe that that has continued in the early part of 1991.

The change can be assessed from six different measures. Taken separately, perhaps, each falls short of being conclusive, but taken together they amount, as far as I can judge, to a clear sign that opinion is against the application. By 22 September—the evening when the council intended to decide for the scheme—the borough council had received 157 objections and 14 letters in favour —a ratio of 11 to one against. On 18 September I had chaired a public meeting that I had called and, after a full discussion, 154 people voted against the application and 11 were in favour of it.

By 22 October the Secretary of State for the Environment had received 120 letters asking him to call in the application, and only three asking him not to call it in. Of the latter, one was from Marks and Spencer, one was from Richmond council and there was one other. As the call-in would provide the only chance for a refusal of the application—whereas a decision not to call in would, because of the council planning committee's contingent decision on 22 September, result automatically in planning permission—it can be assumed that the 120 were not in favour of the application, while the three who wrote in against the call-in would have been in favour of it.

A form of survey conducted by two local newspapers resulted in a vote of 91 in favour of the scheme and 120 against. Letters to the Richmond and Twickenham Times totalled 35 against the scheme and seven for it. At the inquiry, about 40 witnesses were against the scheme and eight, to whom I referred earlier, were in favour.

I am therefore satisfied that there is overwhelming public opposition to this scheme. I hope that the Department of the Environment will decide against the scheme and that it will give such a decision as soon as possible in order not to prolong the uncertainty.

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

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) on obtaining this opportunity for raising an important issue which is a source of concern to many people. As my hon. Friend acknowledged, I cannot comment on the merits of the proposal to develop the Twickenham swimming baths site as it is currently before my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment for decision. However, I want to deal with the general issues that my hon. Friend raised about public participation in the development control process and I will try to answer as many of his specific questions as possible. I pay tribute to the vigour with which my hon. Friend champions his constituents' interests. I have no doubt that he always takes full account of the strength of local opinion in his constituency.

The issue of public participation in the planning process was debated on 16 April during the Committee stage of the Planning and Compensation Bill. During that debate I said: There is a need to ensure continuing public confidence in the development control process so that individual decisions are taken in the full knowledge of local opinion even if, as occasionally happens, those decisions do not reflect the wishes of the majority of local people."—[Official Report, Standing Committee F, 16 April 1991; c. 146.] We all want planning decisions to be well informed and fair. To achieve that, it is essential for the process to be seen to be fair. That means, first, seeking to ensure that people who are likely to be affected by a development proposal are made aware of what is proposed. Secondly, it means giving them a chance to submit their views. Thirdly, as my hon. Friend has said, it means giving due consideration to those views in the decision-making process.

A local planning authority, in considering a planning application—or the Secretary of State in considering a called-in planning application or appeal—is required to have regard to the provisions of the development plan, so far as they are material to the application, and to other material considerations. The Government have made it clear that an up-to-date local plan will carry considerable weight in reaching such development control decisions. We believe that the preparation of development plans—unitary development plans are currently being prepared in London—provides the opportunity for the expression of local choice in planning matters. When preparing its unitary development plan, the planning authority is required to give publicity to its draft proposals and to provide an opportunity for the public, whether as individuals or interested organisations, to express their views on them. In this context I note that the London borough council of Richmond has just published, on 13 May, its draft unitary development plan for consultation, and that neighbouring Kingston has recently completed the consultation stage on its plan.

The Government's long-held view has been that it was unnecessary to require publicity for every planning application in England and Wales. We took the view that any such statutory obligation would be bureaucratic, would place an unnacceptably large burden on the resources of local planning authorities, and would conflict with our policy of streamlining the planning system.

Recently, however, research has indicated that about 75 per cent. of local planning authorities in England and Wales undertake some form of neighbour notification, on the commendable ground that people should be made aware of what is happening in their areas. Furthermore, there is evidence that local authority involvement in the process of publicising planning applications need not be burdensome, with the increasing use of computers in local authorities' planning departments.

Accordingly, I announced to the House on 10 May that the Government had accepted the principle of publicity for all planning applications. My Department and the Welsh Office will consult publicly about what method or methods to adopt. We will issue a consultation paper by the end of June. I have already invited comments from the Scottish Office and the Northern Ireland Office about their experience in this area. In pursuing this path, we must be mindful that the requirement, which will be introduced in the general development order, will need to apply to development proposals for garden sheds as well as for town centre redevelopments. We will seek views on the merits of making developers responsible for publicising their proposals, or for putting the onus on planning authorities. We will invite comments on the pros and cons of newspaper advertisements, site notices and individual notification of neighbours.

Whichever options we go for, I am sure that public confidence and respect for the planning process will be enhanced, and that there will be far less cause for people to complain that development proposals have been approved by their local council without local residents having had the chance to make their views known.

My hon. Friend is interested in the question of the rights of third parties at public local inquiries. Under rule 11(2) of the Town and Country Planning (Inquiries Procedure) Rules 1988, third parties are able to make their views known at public local inquiries at the inspector's discretion. In practice, inspectors will listen to anyone who has something relevant to say, but we accept that the position may not be entirely clear from a reading of the inquiry rules. Consequently, a consultation paper, "The Review of the Town and Country Planning Inquiries Procedure Rules", issued by my Department on 26 March, contained the proposal that rule 11(2) should be recast to ensure that an inspector shall not unreasonably withhold permission for third parties to appear at a local inquiry.

That brings me to the points raised by my hon. Friend about the extent to which third party representations should be taken into account by local planning authorities and the Secretary of State when reaching decisions on planning applications. As my hon. Friend inquired on that point, I should say that the same weight must be placed whether the decision is being reached by the local planning authority or by the Secretary of State when the decision is being made.

The Government's guidance on this is set out in paragraph 18 of planning policy guidance note 1. That makes it clear that any relevant views expressed by third parties, by local residents and other neighbouring occupiers of land should be taken into account in determining planning applications. However, it goes on to state that, on its own, local opposition to a proposal is not a ground for the refusal of planning permission unless that opposition is founded upon valid planning reasons which are supported by substantial evidence, and that while the substance of local opposition must be considered, the duty is to decide each case on its planning merits.

Therefore, I hope that the message is clear. The views of local residents and other third parties should be taken into account as material considerations in the consideration of a planning application, provided those views are relevant to land-use planning matters. However, I must emphasise that, while relevant representations from third parties must be considered, they may be only one of many factors which decision makers in the planning process need to take into account.

Mr. Jessel

If consultation with the public has taken place, assuming that my hon. Friend accepts that the result of that consultation should carry some weight, does he accept that if public opinion is largely united and leans heavily in one direction it should carry more weight than if it is divided? Does he further accept that if the planning arguments are more or less equally balanced on a particular application, then public opinion, particularly if it leans heavily in one direction, would usually become more of a factor?.

Mr. Yeo

I am not sure. My hon. Friend is tempting me in directions along which I am not sure how far I can travel. It is clear that, if public opinion is soundly based on planning merits, the fact that it was substantially in one direction or another would clearly weigh more heavily in the mind of either the local planning authority or my right hon. Friend than if that public opinion was roughly divided in both directions. Provided that it is based on sound planning arguments, public opinion can give a clear signal.

The planning system is designed to reconcile conflicts between the need for development, which is necessary for the provision of jobs and the growth of the national economy, with the need to protect the environment and local amenity. That process comes together in the form of the elected local planning authority or, in some cases, the Government in the form of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

I know that my hon. Friend is also interested in the arrangements for notifying planning inspectors of relevant court judgments. In general, the Department's planning inspectorate ensures that inspectors are made aware of all judgments which have implications for the cases with which they are or are likely to be concerned.

On my hon. Friend's particular concern with the Twickenham inquiry, I can tell him that the inspector's report has not yet been received by the Department but that we expect to receive it shortly. I cannot say precisely when decisions will be issued on the case. The Department's aim is to reach decisions on called-in cases within 13 weeks of receipt of the inspector's report. However, because call-in cases are often, by their nature, the most controversial and complex of all planning cases, decisions can sometimes take longer to reach.

Mr. Jessel

Will my hon. Friend be kind enough to check that? He said just now that the Department had not received a report, but I was told by the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister of State, whom I asked about this during the second week in April, that it was due to reach the Department's regional office that week. Could there be some distinction between the regional office and the headquarters?

Mr. Yeo

There may be some distinction, but as the time for this Adjournment debate is running out I may have to write to my hon. Friend to clarify that point. However, I can assure him that the Department tries to reach decisions as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, the complexity of some cases means that we do not always achieve our target of dealing with cases that have been called in within 13 weeks of receipt of the inspector's report.

My hon. Friend raised a point, which he also raised in an Adjournment debate at about this time last year, about the number of decisions that the Secretary of State takes that involve overturning the inspector's recommendations. In the year 1989–90, the Secretary of State issued 299 decisions following planning inquiries. Of these, 21—or just 7 per cent.—were contrary to the inspector's recommendations. That is marginally lower than the figures and the percentage given to my hon. Friend in his Adjournment debate last year. The number of decisions taken by the Secretary of State that are contrary to the inspector's recommendations represents under 0.1 per cent. of all the 26,500 appeal decisions issued during the year I mentioned.

I hope that what I have said in this brief debate has reassured my hon. Friend that, as far as practicable, given the statutory duties placed on local planning authorities and on my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, the planning system takes full account of the need to involve local residents and communities in the decision-making process.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes to One o'clock.