HL Deb 14 March 1935 vol 96 cc122-35

THE MARQUESS OF ZETLAND had the following Notice on the Paper:—To call attention to the Report of the Select Committee on the South Downs Preservation Bill and to move, That it is desirable that the Minister of Health should make an Order under Section 4 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1932, providing for the constitution of a joint committee of the authorities, other than the Corporation of Brighton, interested in the preservation of the downlands.

The noble Marquess said: My Lords, I am sure that everybody who is interested in the preservation of the South Downs will share with me and with the National Trust, which I represent in this matter, our feelings of profound regret that the Select Committee which considered the South Downs Preservation Bill, to which your Lordships gave a Second Reading early last year, should have felt obliged to recommend to your Lordships that the Bill should not be proceeded with. May I very briefly remind your Lordships of the circumstances in which that Bill came into existence. Development in the neighbourhood of the South Downs, and threatened development, have created for some years past grave apprehensions in the minds of the public, and various steps of a rather tentative character have been taken with a view to preventing further undesirable developments of that kind. In 1926, for example, the Corporation of Eastbourne acquired downland in this neighbourhood with a view to preserving its amenities; and in 1931 the National Trust secured some 400 acres of downland between Beachy Head and the Cuckmere River, embracing two of the famous Seven Sisters cliffs, and having procured those 400 acres proceeded by means of negotiations with the landowners of adjacent tracts to secure so far as possible restrictive covenants for that land.

Then, coming further west, in 1926 the Brighton, Hove and District Town Planning Joint Advisory Committee came into existence and, after pondering on this question for six years, reported in 1932 in favour of the preservation of the Downs. But, as your Lordships know, an advisory committee of that kind, established under the Town Planning Act, has no executive authority, and its report merely consists of recommendations. That was the position when, in 1933, apprehension was once more aroused by the revival of a proposal for the construction of a motor-racing track just outside the boundaries of the Brighton Borough Council. I am not now pronouncing any opinion upon the merits or the demerits of that particular proposal; all I am doing is to refer to the fact that it did create a great deal of apprehension in the minds of the public. There was a wide agitation in regard to it, and it was objected to by a number of the constituent bodies of the Brighton, Hove and District Joint Town Planning Committee. Indeed the Corporation of Brighton, who sponsored the proposal, were asked to refer it to the Joint Advisory Committee. They were unwilling to do so, and eventually they resigned from that body.

It was in these circumstances that the East Sussex County Council introduced their Bill for the protection of the South Downs. The Bill went before a Select Committee. The Committee held a large number of meetings, but it became clear as the examination of the matter proceeded that there was a fundamental difference of outlook with regard to the preservation of the Downs between the Brighton Corporation on the one hand and the rural communities on the other, and in July last the Committee, of which my noble friend Lord Redesdale was the Chairman, made a pronouncement. They declared that they were of opinion that efforts should be made immediately for the preservation of the Downs, but they went on to say that they did not think that that could be effected equitably by the Bill as it stood. They desired an agreement between the Brighton Corporation and the other interested bodies, and they gave the protagonists in the controversy until October to come to terms. They made various other suggestions for improvements in the Bill. The East Sussex County Council were prepared to meet almost all the proposals submitted to them by the Select Committee, and they at once entered into negotiations with the Brighton Corporation with a view to seeing whether an agreement between them was not possible. I regret to say, however, that the negotiations failed, with the result that when October came no agreement had been reached, and the Committee consequently, in accordance with their declaration, recommended that the Bill should not be proceeded with.

Everything that has happened since then goes to show that the difference of outlook between Brighton on the one hand and the rural authorities under the Town Planning Act on the other hand, has become greater rather than less, and only so recently as the end of last month the General Purposes Committee of the Brighton Corporation submitted to the Corporation certain proposals which they wished the Corporation to press for in connection with town planning schemes which had been provisionally drawn up by three rural district councils—namely, Chailey, Cuckfield, and Portslade-by-Sea. Among the proposals which they wished to press for was one that provision should be made under the Chailey Council scheme permitting the Corporation to erect on its land at High Park estate near Ditchling Beacon a hotel or tea gardens with roads and similar appurtenances; and they also proposed to press, in the case of all three of these schemes—that is to say, the schemes provisionally drawn up by these three rural district councils—for an interpretation of "downland preservation" which will include the following purposes: The creation of aerodromes and gliding grounds; the construction of such buildings as hotels, hostels, and hospitals; the laying-out of golf courses, tennis courts, and bathing pools; the use of land for agriculture, including forms of agriculture for which it may not at present be used; the creation of small holdings in carefully selected parts, and for works required in connection with the Corporation's electricity and water undertakings.

Your Lordships will see, therefore, that the view taken by the Corporation of Brighton with regard to the preservation of the downlands is a very different one to that taken by the other authorities. What the authorities desire is, so far as possible, to retain the downlands in their present natural state, and it was quite clear, therefore, that there was no hope, and there is no hope now, of any agreement between the two parties with regard to this matter. The Bill having failed, what is to be done next? There seems to be no other course which it is possible to pursue except to proceed under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act. The Town and Country Planning Act is very far from a suitable instrument for effecting the preservation of large tracts of country of this kind; and may I make one general observation with regard to the disadvantages of that Act which has come to my knowledge as Chairman of the National Trust? Under the provisions of the Bill which the East Sussex County Council promoted in this House compensation would have fallen upon the general county rate, but under the provisions of the Town and Country Planning Act compensation falls upon the particular authority within whose jurisdiction the land lies in respect of which compensation is claimed. Many of these authorities are small rural district councils whose land is of a very low rateable value, and it is quite obvious, therefore, that in many cases, if compensation is claimed in receipt of any restrictions which they may place upon their land, they are not in a position to meet it. That being so, they have no option but to agree to the development of the land to which they object.

The particular case which is under consideration at the moment provides a striking illustration of that disadvantage of the Town and Country Planning Act. The land on which the Brighton Corporation wish to erect a hotel near Ditchling Beacon happens to lie within the jurisdiction of the Chailey Rural District Council. The Chailey Rural District Council are mostanxious to avoid development of that kind in the case of land within their jurisdiction; but supposing they are faced with a large sum, as they might very well be, for compensation to the Corporation of Brighton for prohibiting them from electing the hotel or tea gardens, or whatever they desire, the Chailey authority will find that they are in no position to meet the bill, and they will therefore be forced, whether they like it or not, to agree to the demands of the Brighton Corporation. That is an example of the disadvantages of the Town and Country Planning Act when it is a matter of preserving large tracts of country of this kind. But, of course, there is another disadvantage. In the case of the Sussex Downs, there are something like twelve different authorities concerned under the Act, and it is inevitable, if you have to try to get complete agreement and uniformity of procedure with no fewer than twelve different bodies, some of them very differently circumstanced, you will have to put up with immense delay, even if you are successful in arriving at an agreement at all. It is for that reason that I have given the Motion which stands upon the Paper in my name this afternoon the particular form which it takes—namely, an expression of opinion that it is desirable that the Minister of Health should, acting under Section 4 of the Town and Country Planning Act, set up a joint statutory committee of all the rural authorities interested in this matter.

I am quite aware that there are various schemes for restricting development in this area which are at different stages of progress. For example, in the Eastern area, the scheme of the Hailsham District Council is in a very advanced state. It is, I believe, almost ready to be presented to the Minister of Health, and it might be thought desirable, therefore, that rather than ask the Minister of Health to create one joint statutory committee for the whole of the area, he might be asked to appoint one or more. Let him appoint the East Sussex County Council and the Hailsham Rural District Council as one statutory committee, since their scheme is much further advanced than the schemes of any of the other authorities. I am not wedded to the actual wording of my Motion. I should be just as glad to see more than one statutory committee appointed as I should be to see one committee appointed. The noble Earl who will respond this afternoon on behalf of the Ministry of Health will possibly tell me that the Minister of Health cannot act under Section 4 of the Act unless he is first requested to do so by one or more of the authorities concerned. If the noble Earl tells me that, I can assure him that if the Minister of Health declares himself to be willing to take action under that section the request will at once be forthcoming, as will be perfectly clear from a resolution which was passed by the East Sussex County Council only a few days ago.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, who, as I said, was Chairman of the Select Committee, has tabled an Amendment to the Motion which I have put on the Paper. The effect of his Amendment, if carried, would be that we should declare it to be desirable that the Minister of Health should appoint a joint statutory committee including not only the rural authorities but also the Brighton Corporation. I would like to put to the noble Lord this consideration. I feel convinced myself that if a committee of that kind was to be appointed we should simply reach a deadlock. I have already made it clear, I hope, to your Lordships that the outlook of the Brighton Corporation and that of the rural communities on this question are profoundly different. It is because they have been unable to come to an agreement that we have not been able to make further progress up to the present time, and is it conceivable that if you included these two antagonistic parties in one executive committee you would ever be able to make any progress at all? Surely the only result would be a continuation of the present deadlock, and in those circumstances is it not a much more practicable proposition that we should say: "Let Brighton in the circumstances go her own way"?

She has got a very large area for which she is the local authority—an area which only six or seven years ago was enlarged by five times—so that at the present time the boundaries of the Brighton Borough Council include no less than 3,000 acres of actual downland. I should object to see those 3,000 acres developed in the way Brighton would like to see them developed, but I admit that, within her own boundaries, she has the right. Let her develop her own land as she thinks right, but why should we put her in a position in which she can endeavour to force her will upon other communities outside her own borough boundaries? It is quite true that Brighton Corporation do own certain land outside their own county boundaries, but in respect of that land they are to-day, and will be in the future, in exactly the same position as any other landowner in the area. The Corporation will always have the right, if they object to particular schemes promoted by other authorities, to raise objection, to be represented and to be heard in any inquiries which the Minister of Health may decide to embark upon in connection with town and country planning schemes.

After all, Brighton has not done too badly. She has already got her motor track and that motor track is not within her own boundary. That motor track is within the territory of the Portslade Urban District Council. But that has been conceded to her, so that, as I say, she has not done badly. I do plead with your Lordships on behalf of those other far less powerful bodies, far less affluent bodies—namely, the rural district councils within whose jurisdiction falls by far the greater part of the downland, and who earnestly desire to prohibit undesirable development of that downland. I plead with your Lordships on their behalf. If the noble Lord wishes to press his Amendment to my Motion I confess I think that the situation would be worse than it is at the present time, and if the noble Lord, after what I have said on that point, still presses his Amendment to my Motion, I should prefer, with your Lordships' permission, to withdraw the Motion itself. I beg to move.

Moved, That it is desirable that the Minister of Health should make an Order under Section 4 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1932, providing for the constitution of a joint committee of the authorities, other than the Corporation of Brighton, interested in the preservation of the downlands.—(The Marquess of Zetland.)

LORD REDESDALE, who had given Notice that he would move to delete the words "other than the Corporation of Brighton," said: My Lords, the reason for the Amendment standing in my name on the Paper is, of course, the fact that I had the honour to preside over your Lordships' Committee when the Bill for the preservation of the South Downs was sent upstairs, and that I am absolutely convinced that the carrying of the noble Marquess's Motion in the form in which it appears upon the Order Paper would constitute a gross injustice to Brighton. I shall attempt very briefly to show your Lordships why. It is quite safe to say that everybody was in complete sympathy with the main intention underlying the Bill. That was certainly the attitude of the Committee and it was equally certainly the attitude even of learned Counsel who were appearing for the opponents. But there were three great questions to be decided: (1) Was new legislation necessary? (2) Was the suggested new legislation equitable? And (3)—and this, of course, is the most vexed question—What was to be meant by preservation?

As to the first question, it was contended by the opponents of the Bill that existing legislation—namely, the Town and Country Planning Act of 1932—afforded ample protection. The promoters, on the other hand, contended that the difficulties of working the Act are almost insuperable and that the danger resulting from inevitable delay was very grave. By "almost insuperable" they meant that they had so far failed to agree in the setting up of a joint executive committee, but of course that can be enforced by the Minister of Health under the Act; and as to the danger of delay, it was shown in evidence that in practice nobody does in fact proceed with any work in defiance of the refusal of an Interim Development Order for the obvious reason that they may be required to demolish any such work at a moment's notice.

As to the second question, whether it was possible to frame legislation in such a way as to attain the objects of the promoters without inflicting at least any undue hardship, in the case of this Bill it must be abundantly clear that there was no lack of people who considered that they would suffer very considerably under the provisions contained in it, because even the opponents agreed with the principle of the Bill and would obviously never have gone to the enormous expense of petitioning merely on the ground that they thought the. Bill an unnecessary one.

Then comes the third question. That is, what is meant by preservation. If preservation is to mean complete and absolute sterilisation for all time, for the enjoyment of the general public to look at, not to go on, that is one view and one which would undoubtedly please a section of the public. But it would be only a section, and I. venture to suggest a very small section at that. There are those who love solitude and to whom the mere sight in the distance of another human being really means the destruction of an otherwise perfect day. Speaking personally, I can quite understand their point of view. I do not know how many of this class could be catered for in the area included in the Bill, but the number quite certainly would not be a large one. Then there are at the opposite extreme people—I suggest to your Lordships far more numerous—who must have crowds and a variety of noises and so-called amusements. Now I am not for one moment suggesting that these noises and amusements should be imported on to the Downs for the delectation of these extremists—no one has ever suggested that—but I do say that if you are going to preserve the amenities of the Downs for the public it must be for the average public.

That was really not the intention of the promoters. The Downs were not to be preserved for the public. May I read to your Lordships a short extract from the minutes of evidence which will show you exactly what I mean? The witness in the chair was the chairman of the East Sussex County Council, and he was under cross-examination by Mr. Pritt, who was the learned Counsel appearing for Brighton. In reply to a question he said to Mr. Pritt that he definitely did not like to see people in any numbers going from the Dyke Hotel to the Devil's Dyke for the purpose of looking at the Devil's Dyke and walking on it. Then I asked him a question and I think I had better read exactly what is printed in the minutes of evidence: The CHAIRMAN: Colonel, the object of this Bill was to preserve the Downs for the public?—Yes. The CHAIRMAN: And for use, that the public should have the enjoyment of it?

Then Mr. Tyldesley Jones, learned Counsel for the promoters of the Bill, intervened and said: No, my Lord. May I say at once.

Then the report goes on: The CHAIRMAN: It is only the inhabitants, the people who live there. Mr. TYLDESLEY JONES: I hope your Lordship does not think this Bill is to turn this into a public place. It is not. We are not giving the public any rights; it is for the preservation of the Downs in the present state. The CHAIRMAN: The whole question is, who is to enjoy the Downs in the present state. Mr. TYLDESLEY JONES: Anybody who can go there lawfully or look at it, but this is not an area to be open to the public. The Downs are indeed just as much in view by people who do not walk on them as people who do. If you are at Brighton or Hove you can enjoy the view of the Downs whether you go on them or not. You can go on the public ways, but we are not making it public. The CHAIRMAN: It is to preserve them for the public to look at from a distance. Mr. TYLDESLEY JONES: And to go on them when they can. The CHAIRMAN: But how can they go on to them? Mr. TYLDESLEY JONES: We are not giving any rights to the public.

Your Lordships will see that those are not words uttered by a witness who might be a little flustered in unaccustomed surroundings. They are the words spontaneously spoken by learned Counsel who has immense experience at the Parliamentary, Bar, and who knows his case inside out and the intention of the promoters. By all means exclude the public from the Downs, but then you must not say you are preserving the Downs for the public. At least be honest and say you are preserving the Downs for the Society of Sussex Downsmen and the actual inhabitants of the Downs. It is some such rigid and inflexible treatment of the area right up to her borough boundary that Brighton would have to expect from a body set up under the Town and Country Planning Act on which she was not represented in any way, and in my opinion, as I have said, that would constitute a really grave injustice to Brighton. There is nothing to show that Brighton is less worthy of confidence in the matter of development and preservation than any other authority. But she certainly was singled out for special treatment. Sir Herbert Carden gave it in evidence—and I have never heard a better or fairer witness upstairs—that Brighton had spent over £400,000 mostly for the purpose of preservation. Surely, my Lords, that is some indication of the intention of Brighton. Is it likely that after spending so vast a sum on preservation Brighton would allow the destruction of the Downs by plastering them with little houses or anything else of the kind? And in any case the sanction of the Minister of Health would be necessary.

Brighton has expressed over and over again not only her willingness, but her anxiety, to join a joint committee and—this is worthy of notice, my Lords—on the committee she would join she would only have four votes out of sixteen. It is probably perfectly true that Brighton caters for a more varied class of visitor than is the case with certain other seaside resorts. But supposing she does is she to be penalised for that? There must be hundreds of thousands of people who are very glad indeed of the existence of Brighton and grateful for the facilities they have at Brighton which enable them to enjoy their holidays in the way they prefer. Many of these people have only too short a time in which to indulge in any form of amusement. Many of them probably only have the four Bank Holidays. Any attempt—and in saying what I am going to say let me point out that it has no reference to anything which has fallen from the noble Marquess—any attempt to point a finger of scorn at those who provide facilities for these people to enjoy the few moments they have for recreation in their own way, or any attempt to curtail the provision of such facilities is, in my opinion, very much to be deprecated.

Reference was made by the noble Marquess to the motor track. Let me say this much, without entering into any detailed argument on that subject, because it is too late for that, that if any noble Lord had wished to do so he had a perfect right between July 12 and November 1 to move in your Lordships' House for recommitment of the Bill. I understand it was even contemplated, but nothing of the sort was ever done. If it had been, of course I should have been perfectly prepared to advance arguments, but now I do not think it would be suitable, and I am sure your Lordships do not wish for arguments about this race track. I honestly believe it is no exaggeration to say that every member of your Lordships' Committee, when he first went upstairs, had a feeling almost amounting to indignation at the very idea that it should ever have been suggested to put a race track on the Downs, but after hearing the arguments and evidence on both sides, and, above all, after inspecting the proposed site, the Committee were unanimously of the opinion that the track should be allowed, and that it would not interfere with the amenities of the Downs proper.

On that view the motor track, of course, is part and parcel of what is described as the northern approach to the race track. That is a road which it is proposed to build to give access to the north. This has undoubtedly a very unsavoury sound, or it may be made to have. It is not difficult to conjure up a vision of a great arterial road, cutting the beautiful Downs in halves—a road swarming with chars-a-bancs and the noisiest forms of so-called sports cars. But what are the facts? How many of the critics who write to the Press have made the least effort to ascertain what the proposal really is? Let me tell your Lordships in two words. The motor track lies just to the south of the Dyke Hotel. The Dyke Hotel is, to-day, reached by a road which runs very nearly south towards Brighton. There is a service of omnibuses running up and down this road to-day, and in the summer, when we went clown to look at the track, there was an incessant line of cars. This idea of the northern approach, which has been described as a nightmare, will consist of nothing more nor less than a road running from the northern limit of the track area to the Dyke Hotel, where it will join the existing omnibus route, which I have just described, and turn south to join the main London-Brighton road. The total length of that road will be about 400 yards, and it will run practically on an old road, which has been a right of way for hundreds of years, and is so to-day. It is part of an old Roman track.

Further than that, this northern approach, about which there is such an outcry, has actually been approved by the East Sussex County Council. During the time of the adjournment, that is, between July 12 and November 1, when the parties were trying to get together, the clerk of the East Sussex County Council addressed a letter to the clerk of Brighton, and in that letter are tabulated the differences between the two parties. The third difference is this—the motor race track, as it is called. This is what Brighton proposed: The Corporation propose that so much of the land which they have agreed to lease to the racing company which is in the green area and the intended approach roads from north and south should be excluded from the provisions of the Bill. That was what Brighton wished, and the County Council in their answer state: The County Council are willing to amend the Bill so that nothing in it should prevent the construction and use of the track and the intended approach roads. Therefore you will see, my Lords, that it cannot now be said that the East Sussex County Council are seriously opposed to that road, and I do not think many of your Lordships will be after you have heard what it really amounts to.

Unfortunately the interests in the area in question are harshly divergent, but I am perfectly certain that with reasonable unselfishness, and a little give and take, all these matters are capable of adjustment. It would be perfectly simple to relax rigid sterilisation in certain areas without materially interfering with the main bulk of the Downs. Brighton is a very large landowner in the County of East Sussex, and would therefore contribute largely to any joint scheme. How, then, is it possible to deny Brighton a voice in the scheme, without inflicting upon Brighton, as I have said, a gross injustice? Brighton would naturally be apprehensive that any body set up, and excluding Brighton, would produce a scheme equal in every respect to the Bill right up to the borough boundaries. If Brighton is to be excluded from any scheme, then ordinary justice, it seems to me, would demand that she be given elbow room—that is to say, complete liberty of action—subject only to the Minister of Health, for a radius from the Town Hall, not necessarily confined to her borough limits. Some such arrangement as this would be the only equitable method of carrying the Motion of the noble Marquess into effect without my Amendment.

There is just one other thing which I should like to point out. The noble Marquess has referred to it, and it is this: I do not believe the Minister could make an Order, as a result of the noble Marquess's Motion, even if you agree to it, because under Section 4 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1932, it is laid down that the request is to come from one or more of the authorities, and even then, if such a committee were set up under Section 4, under Section 5 Brighton could apply to be included in the joint committee—an application which could only be refused by the Minister, who would, I imagine, find some difficulty in refusing it. I can only say that the Amendment which stands in my name is what I believe to be the only fair thing to Brighton, and I very much hope your Lordships will support it.

Amendment moved— Leave out ("other than the Corporation of Brighton.")—(Lord Redesdale.)

THE LORD CHANCELLOR acquainted the House that His Majesty had issued a Commission for giving His Royal Assent to several Bills agreed upon by both Houses of Parliament.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.