HL Deb 14 March 1935 vol 96 cc135-50

Debate resumed.


My Lords, as I am connected with this part of the world, both as a landowner and as a member of the local authorities, perhaps I might be allowed to say something, not as representing the Ministry of Health, but just as an ordinary member of your Lordships' House. As the noble Marquess who opened the debate stated, now that the Bill has failed we are thrown back on town planning. I must say I think it will be not quite so easy to preserve the Downs under town planning as under some form of Bill, for the reasons which the noble Marquess gave, and also because under town planning we have little control over agricultural buildings, and one of the difficulties which we have had is the development of small shacks and tin huts which are often associated with some form or other of agriculture. But, in spite of all these difficulties, I do not think we need despair of doing a good deal under town planning. As has been stated, although the interval has been very long, there has been control under the interim procedure, and the development which is taking place to-day is certainly of a more orderly description than that which took place immediately after the War.

Again, it is rather encouraging to notice that in this large area- the landowners on the whole are, I think, in sympathy with the objects of preservation. The controversy that took place about the motor track somewhat obscured the fact that out of some 350 notices that were served under the Bill, only about half-a-dozen landowners objected on principle to the provisions of the Bill, which of course were more rigid than those under the town planning schemes. The cooperation of landowners is tremendously important, because although there is machinery provided under town planning for settling disputes between landowners and the local authorities, nevertheless, if every landowner insisted on obtaining every penny of compensation to which he would be entitled, the burden on the local authorities would be very great, and the legal formalities in negotiating between owners and the local authorities would drag out proceedings to an almost impossible extent.

Another hopeful sign, I think, is that there is considerable agreement between the planning authorities as to what ought to be done. Although, as I have said, most of the landowners are in agreement with the objects, and many of them are not claiming compensation, nevertheless there is bound to be some compensation to be paid, and it will no doubt be beyond the means of most of the small rural districts to meet these claims out of their own revenues. Therefore, it is necessary that there should be an agreement, not only between the various planning authorities themselves but also between the planning authorities connected with the Downs and other authorities in the rest of the county; because, unless that agreement exists, unanimity between the County Council and the rural districts will probably not be forthcoming. At the present moment I think it is hopeful to know that on the whole there is unanimity between the rural districts and the County Council.

I have been referring to compensation, but there is a class of owner whose objections to schemes that may be made are not likely to be met by compensation, I refer to the municipalities as owners of land within the boundaries of other local authorities. The dispute between Brighton and the County Council on the Bill did not turn on the question of compensation, it turned on the restrictions that were to be placed on the use of the land. The question of the motor-racing track was settled by the Committee, but if other points of dispute still arise, I do not think anybody need be surprised or alarmed. We must all realise that these important watering places depend for their existence on their tourist traffic, and we can hardly blame the representatives of these boroughs if they try to do their duty by the ratepayers who elect them. At the same time, it must be realised that the difficulties of the rural districts in planning this land are very considerable. They have to negotiate with large numbers of private owners; they have to appeal to these owners to allow all kinds of restrictions to be placed on their land; and, in the interests of the ratepayers, they have to appeal to these owners to claim as little compensation as possible. Appeals of that sort are going to lose a good deal of their force if it is known that land belonging to corporations is going to be treated in some different way, and given exceptional facilities as corn-pared with the land of private owners.

Everyone realises that facilities must be given for essential public services, but if you are going to appeal to the ordinary landowner to allow restrictions to be placed on his land so that he should not be able, it may be, to build a house for his own occupation on his own land, he may not be entirely convinced by that sort of appeal if a few hundred yards away hotels and tea houses are being erected for the benefit of boroughs whose boundaries may be a long way off. Indeed, I think the moral effect of that sort of concession is going to be greater than the harm caused to the amenities by buildings erected in that way. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has been discussing the question of Brighton, but it ought to be remembered that Brighton is not the only big watering-place in the district. There are several others, and if a precedent is set, there is no reason why one of the other boroughs should not ask for the same facilities. I am not trying to convince your Lordships that either the one authority or the other is likely to take an unreasonable view in these matters. I am all for conferences and settling as much as we can by agreement, but what I am trying to do is to show your Lordships that, however you organise or re-organise these authorities for the purpose of planning, when you start preserving a great area like this it may well be that there are genuine conflicts of interests between one group of ratepayers and another, and if they do emerge the sooner they are settled by arbitration, as provided under the Act, the better.

In spite of the fact that the decision on the motor track went against us in Committee, I think most of us would have been perfectly prepared to accept the arbitration of that Committee on the other issues between the County Council and Brighton. It is a somewhat unfortunate thing that after some twenty thousand pounds of ratepayers' money in Sussex has been spent, the only contribution Parliament has made for the preservation of the South Downs is to sanction a motor track on it. But we must realise, and I do realise, the limitations of Standing Orders, and we must all thank the noble Lords who sat on that Committee for the care and labour with which they executed their task. The noble Marquess has suggested a joint committee exclusive of Brighton as the best step to solve this problem. That is an idea which has considerable support in certain quarters, and may eventually prove to be the most feasible way of dealing with this problem; but speaking entirely for myself, I should prefer to go on a little longer with the present arrangement whereby the rural districts are each trying to negotiate agreements with owners in consultation with the County Council, because after the experience we have had of committees over such a long period I am somewhat apprehensive of yet another committee.

The work that is being done is very intricate and detailed, and I feel it is important not to interrupt it and not to form a joint committee until all the authorities involved have expressed themselves in favour of it. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, assumed that Brighton would wish to be represented on such a committee, and would feel aggrieved if it were not included. I do not know if he speaks with the authority of any of Brighton's representatives, but I have no reason to believe that that is an absolute sine qua non. As I have stated, I do not know if all these difficult points that exist between Brighton and ourselves will be solved by a joint committee of this sort, and I do not know whether Brighton thinks they will be. I personally believe that if any of our authorities do ask for a joint committee, either on the lines suggested by the noble Marquess in his Motion, or in one of the alternative forms which he mentioned, my right honourable friend the Minister of Health will, in view of the interest taken in this matter in the county and also in your Lordships' House, be most ready to consider the question sympathetically.


My Lords, I shall only occupy a few minutes, and I should not have risen to address your Lordships if it had not been for the fact that I was a member of the Select Committee on the South Downs Preservation Bill, which was presided over so admirably by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale. For that reason I most emphatically support his Amendment. The Committee sat for twenty-two days—I am speaking from memory—with a very long adjournment for several weeks, indeed months, in the middle in order to see if the various parties could come to any agreement. As your Lordships know, they came to no agreement, and therefore it was with the very greatest reluctance indeed that the Committee decided that the Bill could not proceed. So far as I am personally concerned, that decision was reached with the very greatest reluctance. The Committee did not reach its decision in a hasty manner. Those of your Lordships who have sat upstairs in these Committees realise that the learned Counsel engaged leave no path unexplored and no stone unturned. Every single thing that could be said for and against the Bill was said there, and still we were bound to come to the conclusion that the Bill could not proceed. I feel quite convinced that if any of your Lordships had sat there hour after hour, as we sat, listening to the examination, cross-examination, and re-examination, you would have come to the same decision.

Brighton is the most vital factor in the South Downs. She is, I think, the largest and the richest town on the South Downs. She is also one of the largest landowners of the Downs. By that I do not mean in her area, but she has purchased, as the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale said, land outside her own boundaries, and she has purchased that land for one reason and for one reason only, and that is to preserve the amenities of the Downs. It would be idle to imagine that any scheme, even a scheme under the Town and Country Planning Act, could possibly be successful unless Brighton was a willing participant in that scheme. You must get a willing and contented Brighton or the scheme will fail. Without that it is just as though you were trying to drive a coach with one of the wheelers kicking over the traces all the time. There is an idea that Brighton wishes to destroy the amenities of the South Downs. This is quite false. Brighton is just as anxious to preserve the natural amenities of the Downs as the most rabid Sussex downs-man. But it is perfectly true that the visitors to Brighton are perhaps of a different kind from the visitors at other parts of the Downs. They are mostly town dwellers, perhaps from London, who prefer the amusements and enjoyments of a town to the peaceful solitude of the Downs. The Corporation of Brighton is bound to cater for those people; it can do nothing else; and it is essential that those persons who come from the industrial North of England, which they do—we have plenty of evidence about that—to Brighton should find what they expect to find there. It is deplorable, and many of us feel sorry about it, but it is a fact, and we have nowadays got to face facts.

I want to mention for a few seconds the question of the motor track. I do not know if any noble Lords have been to see where it is. I should like first of all to tell your Lordships that there is a railway station, which was built some years ago, in the middle of it, and a railway line. I do not know if there was much opposition to the building of the railway line and station. The whole place is studded with small shacks, empty tramcars and things of that sort. The race track is going to have turf sides and will not be a bit like Brooklands. It is not going to destroy the amenities of that particular place at all; in fact I think most of us came to the conclusion that it would improve the place. I will not elaborate what the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, has said, but if any of your Lordships would go and see the place you would see there is nothing at all in the agitation against, the motor track.

An extraordinary amount of misrepresentation has gone on in the Press, and I am astounded at the crime I am supposed to have committed in playing a small part in supporting that the Bill should not go forward. I only want to repeat that it is quite evident that no scheme of any sort or description for the preservation of the South Downs can possibly hope to work smoothly and properly unless Brighton is included. Of that I am quite convinced, and on those grounds I sincerely hope your Lordships will support the Amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale.


My Lords, I should be inclined to treat the first part of the noble Lord's speech as leading to a rather different conclusion from the one he put forward. If he had concluded his speech halfway through I could have expressed the hope to Lord Redesdale that on reconsideration, after this announcement to you of the views and impressions of the Committee, the noble Lord would waive his Amendment in favour of the Motion of my noble friend beside me, because the statement of the noble Lord who has just sat clown as to the effect upon the minds of the Committee greatly strengthened my opinion-that Lord Zetland's Motion should be accepted by your Lordships. Throughout I have had the impression that adjacent areas have not been adequately considered. Their good will in the matter in Sussex has throughout been manifest, while the local landlords have really behaved splendidly in allotting their land to permanent open spaces for the good of the public. In many cases they are not asking for a pennyworth of compensation.

I should like to say, rather in criticism of Lord Redesdale's attitude, that it is good for the general public as a whole, and most of all for the urban population, that these great open areas should be maintained. There is ample scope for every kind of amusement and enjoyment within these towns themselves, and when the noble Lord, a member of the Committee, said just now that they have got to cater for visitors from the North of England and so on, by all means let Brighton do so. Brighton owns three-thousand acres of downland within its own borough area. Why go outside and invade the area of these local authorities which do not want them when Brighton itself is perfectly able to do this entertaining of these visitors? The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, made a remark which, I think, is worth repeating. This is not a question of Brighton alone. There are many of these great urban authorities along the coast, and if all of them follow the precedent of Brighton from the east of Kent to the west of Sussex, before very long there will be one continuous line of urban development. And does anybody suppose that is going to be good for the visitors from the North of England?

On the contrary, the thing to do is to keep the balance of town and country in these two beautiful counties for the benefit not only of the counties themselves but also of everybody who goes there. The real trouble is that during the last few years there has grown up a spirit of competition between one town and another for amusement centres, as they call them, what everybody else would call road houses. One town competes with another. They visit one, another to see what novelties their neighbours and competing towns have, and it becomes a positive obsession amongst them to attract what Lord Gage very euphemistically calls the tourist traffic. It is nothing of the kind. This is done not merely to attract the working men from the North of England, as the noble Lord below the gangway seems to think. The effort of these places is to attract the most expensive type of visitor, and these amusement places are being prepared almost entirely from that point of view. I recently heard of a resort in which one of its amusement centres almost on the sea was a bathing pool that was thirty-five feet in diameter. I merely have to give the measurement to show how absurd it is to talk of its being a bathing pool for the hard-worked people from the North of England who want to come to the South of England to bathe.

I must say I think Lord Redesdale very abundantly deprecated that kind of argument. It really is a very serious problem—I mean the influence upon the towns themselves which are engaged in this kind of work. Some of them are properly trying to withstand this invasion, but they are, and cannot fail to be, influenced by the pursuit of novelty next door, and they then fall into this vulgarity and ostentation. I say very seriously that there is a real danger of these towns becoming purely parasitic communities and that fifty years hence at this rate a real condition of demoralisation will exist. It is incumbent upon local authorities who have to look after these large communities to take heed in time.


My Lords, I should like to be allowed to intervene for a few moments in regard to this question. I was not lucky enough to hear the speech of the noble Marquess in introducing the Motion, but I have listened with attention to what has fallen from various noble Lords since I came into the House and I am connected—not financially in any way—with the motor race track. Of course I pay great attention to what was said by the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, and the noble Earl, Lord Crawford, but I think it is quite clear that the opposition to Brighton and the whole difficulty surrounding this Bill is connected entirely with the motor race track. That and nothing else was the real reason why this Bill ever saw the light. The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, made the remark that the matter was settled so far as the race track was concerned, but I have some reason to think that those who are behind this Motion to-day are interested in digging a new ditch—perhaps the last one—on the Downs in which to die over this matter of the racecourse.

The question of the preservation of the Downs, to all those who know them, is a question of vital importance, but I think there is a danger in trying to carry objections on æsthetic grounds too far. The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, has told us that the ratepayers have already spent £20,000 of their money on this matter. It is very much the same story as in the case of Waterloo Bridge, as the rate payers of London know well to-day and will know better in the future. We are going to have a beautiful bridge which will not interfere with river traffic as the old one did, and London will have to pay for it. If people had not pressed their objections on æsthetic grounds probably a large contribution would have been forthcoming from the Road Fund. Therefore we see how much æsthetic objections can cost the ratepayers.

As I have said, I was not fortunate enough to hear the arguments used by the noble Marquess in moving his Motion, but it seems to me that to exclude Brighton in the way proposed would be most invidious. The noble Viscount, Lord Gage, referred to the existence of other great local authorities in the area. I suppose he referred to Eastbourne and, perhaps, to Seaford. It seems to me that to exclude Brighton in this manner and not similarly to exclude other local bodies would be to increase friction and prevent agreement. Here I agree with what was said by the noble Lord behind me. I am one of those associated with the motor race-track proposal, and I repeat what I have said before that the objections to that race track have been greatly exaggerated and are really without serious foundation. I can assure your Lordships that those who are behind the race-track proposal—and I am in close touch with them—have every intention of preserving the Downs. They are just as interested as any noble Lord in this question. They are not going to spoil the Downs. Every safeguard is being provided and everything they can do will be done to remove reasonable objections to the track.

I am perfectly certain that we can dismiss the race track as a factor likely to impair the beauty of the South Downs. Any buildings in connection with the track are going to be put at the bottom of the valley, where nobody can see them until they get close to them. I hope that the Amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, will be carried, because, as has been said by other noble Lords, Brighton is one of the most important, if not the most important local authority in the area. To treat Brighton in the way proposed by the noble Marquess would be most invidious and would be very much resented, I imagine, by those who are able to speak for the town.


My Lords, my noble friend who has just sat down has had my friendship and admiration for so long that I am sorry to give him the negative direct. The noble Earl said that those who support this proposal are really concerned with the motor track. As a life long resident in Sussex I can assure him that that is not the case. Ever since the War there has been a very uneasy feeling that a great part of our beautiful county was undergoing serious deterioration unchecked. It was first manifest in the growth of Peace haven and in various other developments, and it is quite true that a stimulus was given to this feeling by proposals for the construction of a motor track. Undoubtedly that was the case, but it was by no means only on account of that proposal that we were alarmed. It was by the feeling that there might be no end to this kind of development of the Downs. However that may be, that is past history and the only thing connected with it that remains is the quite subsidiary question of the northern approach. That may or may not be a good thing, but it is quite a, subsidiary issue. I am bound to say with regard to that, that when the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, said that the County Council had agreed to it, that was only true in the sense that they offered to throw it in as part of an arrangement if Brighton would meet them on other points.


They never said so.


I think that what is felt in Sussex is that these Downs are not merely a county asset but a national asset. It is not only for the delectation of those living in Sussex but as a national asset that they must be preserved. What does preservation mean? It does not mean entire sterilisation, but neither, in the view I think of all those outside the Brighton Corporation and their supporters, does it mean the kind of preservation which consists, as the noble Marquess said, in providing aerodromes, swimming pools, hotels, tea gardens, and—a thing which the noble Marquess did not mention—with one restriction as to value and the surrounding acreage, an apparently indefinite number of private houses, eligible residences which would presumably attract the kind of people Brighton would want to have in her neighbourhood. To admit Brighton to a joint body would bring people face to face who on the question of preservation have not been able to meet all these years and there is not the smallest likelihood that they will ever meet.

There is another point I would like to mention. It has been said that Brighton is entitled to sit on this joint authority because Brighton is a large landowner outside the borough. I should have thought that an argument against, because obviously the Brighton representatives would have a divided interest. They would have to think on the one hand of the two or three thousand acres which they own outside the borough and of the effect of the development of that land on their rates, and to think of the public interest on the other hand; and it surely is most objectionable to have on a public body some representatives who have divided interests of that, kind. Lord Redesdale said that this would be a gross injustice to Brighton. Where is the injustice? Brighton was enormously enlarged. I happen to know about that, because I was Chairman of the Unopposed Bill Committee in another place, and in that sense was responsible for the enlargement. They made an excellent case for it on the ground of general public policy, but if I had known what policy they were going to adopt, I should have been loth to be responsible for the passing of that Bill. Brighton now, I am informed, has over twelve thousand acres within her boundaries, not to mention land outside, and not one-fourth of that is built up. How can it be said, then, that Brighton is cribbed, cabined and confined, when she has this enormous area still undeveloped?

What does this Motion ask? It asks that people who are agreed on a general line of policy should be constituted the authority for their own area, and no other. There is a provision that if any body outside wishes to come in, they shall have a right to be heard. You are not asked to take any final decision. You are merely asked to say that it is desirable that the Minister of Health should make an Order. Everyone is agreed that something ought to be done. Six years have passed and nothing has been done. A Bill was brought in, and I am not criticising the Committee for a moment—it may have had excellent reasons why it could not recommend the Bill to the House—but the decision they made was not, "If you fail to agree we will make a scheme for you," but it was, "If you fail to agree, the Bill will not pass." That meant giving a decision in favour of Brighton, which they were not slow to use. I think we should take a step which believe everyone agrees is public policy. An inquiry will be held, all parties will be heard, and the facts will be before an impartial Minister of Health. He may, or he may not, decide to appoint a committee, but do not let us drift on without making an attempt at this, which is part of a wide public policy.


My Lords, I have been asked to reply to the Motion put on the Paper, to-day, for the reason that my noble friend Lord Gage, as he himself has stated, is connected in some form or other with this subject, by being a resident in the County of Sussex. I hope the noble Marquess will not expect me, in replying to his Motion, to go in detail into the history of the whole of this very complicated case, nor, indeed, do I desire to detain your Lordships for more than a few minutes with the very short statement which I have to make. Section 4 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1932, can only come into operation upon a request made by a local authority or county council for the constitution of a joint committee. No request has in fact been made, and in the absence of such a request the Minister has no power to take the action which the noble Marquess suggests in his Motion. But, supposing that such a request were made, and that it was submitted to the Minister, it would still remain a question whether he could, in the terms of the section, think it "expedient" to set up a joint committee, in the absence of evidence that there is a sufficient common ground and good will among the authorities concerned to ensure that a plan which would secure the general support of the authorities concerned could be prepared with reasonable rapidity. Apart from this, the suggestion of the noble Marquess that in approaching the question of the establishment of a joint committee, the Minister should exclude any possibility of the committee including representation of Brighton, is one which, both on the ground of my right honourable friend's semi-judicial position in the matter, and on the ground that it is by no means clear that the exclusion of Brighton would really be in the best interests of the situation, he could not in any way, at present, endorse.

My right honourable friend has been watching, with great care, the planning position of the South Downs, and, so far as is practicable, he has been keeping in touch with the interests concerned. I think it is quite clear that a considerable degree of co-operation between the County Councils and the other local authorities concerned is essential, if the planning issues involved are to be successfully dealt with, especially when consideration is given to the fact that restrictions on buildings on the Downs will necessarily involve a liability to pay compensation, which may be of an amount beyond the means of the separate local authorities. I understand that informal discussions, directed to the securing of unified action by authorities covering sufficient area and of sufficient financial strength, are now in progress, and my right honourable friend the Minister of Health is anxious to give every possible help in furtherance of those discussions; but at the moment there is no further direct action open to him. In the meantime, the only part that the Minister can play, and he will continue to take it, is to be a friend to all parties concerned in this case, and to encourage in any way possible the co-ordination of the down-lands.

My remarks have been very brief, and I hope the noble Marquess who has moved this Motion will not think me in any way discourteous in not replying at greater length; but I am concerned that nothing should pass my lips which would add fuel to the furnace, and further complicate a task which already appears some times to be quite unsurmountable. I hope that my noble friend Lord Redesdale will withdraw his Amendment, and give an opportunity to the noble Marquess to withdraw the Motion which stands in his name.


My Lords, in answer to the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, let me say at once that I hold no brief for Brighton, and do not represent Brighton in any way whatever. What I have said, and the action I have taken, are entirely prompted by a desire to see justice done, and nothing else. May I just say, with great respect, about Lord Rankeillour's remarks, that I think he is not right. The Committee did not refuse to make a scheme; it was not competent for them, within the four walls of the Bill before them, to make a satisfactory scheme, and in no circumstances could they go outside the four walls of the Bill.


Perhaps I did not express myself properly. What I intended to convey was this, that by saying to the parties, "Unless you agree, the Bill cannot go forward," they were really giving Brighton art advantage in the negotiations which were then entered upon.


I am sorry; I understood the noble Lord to say that we had refused to make a scheme. I can only repeat that the action I am taking in this matter is taken in the firm belief that that action is in the interests of justice. I shall have to ask your Lordships to support me or to do the other thing.


My Lords, I have listened with great interest to the debate, but at this late hour I have no desire to reply to the various points which have been raised. I was, however, very much impressed with certain sentences that fell from the noble Viscount, Lord Gage. The noble Viscount is, of course, in a very special position to know precisely what the situation is with regard to the planning and preservation of the Downs. I rather think that he is the Chairman of the East Sussex County Council and the Town Planning Committee. If I understood the noble Viscount rightly, what he said was that negotiations are in progress at the present time between the County Council and various other authorities under the Act. He said that, though it might be possible that in the long run the solution which I proposed by means of my Motion this afternoon might be the most desirable solution, yet he would like further time before he gave a final opinion on that matter. The impression left upon my mind by that statement of the noble Viscount's was that he is at least hopeful that the negotiations which are proceeding between 'various parties may bear fruit. In those circumstances, my Lords, if I am in order in doing so, I should like to move that the debate on this matter be adjourned.

Moved, That the debate be now adjourned.—(The Marquess of Zetland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to, and debate adjourned accordingly, sine die.