HL Deb 27 February 1951 vol 170 cc616-22

3.47 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, in rising to move the Second Reading of this Bill, I am sure your Lordships will not be surprised to see the title— namely. Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Bill. Judging by the speeches to which I have listened in past debates, I imagine the surprise will be that this Bill has been so long delayed and that it does not contain many more amendments. It is rather interesting to note that we have present the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, who was responsible for piloting the principal Bill, a rather technical and comprehensive Bill, through all its stages in another place. I do not think he will feel it his duty to intervene in this debate, but I believe the day will come when the noble Lord will feel like intervening in a debate on town and country planning. This Bill has two very simple purposes to achieve—namely, to correct two errors that have come to light in the 1947 Act. That is bound to commend itself to noble Lords opposite. It has been discovered that there are two drafting errors in the 1947 Act which must be corrected. The first deals with the restoration of war damaged property, and the second refers to the period during which a local planning authority can take action against unauthorised development, or to enforce observance of the conditions subject to which planning permission has been given.

I can take the first point very briefly— it is not necessary to delay on either point. There will be general agreement in your Lordships' House, and I think there has been for a long time, that the centres of our great cities should be made as attractive as possible. That has not been easy because many years ago they were built up areas. In this regard we were helped by the war. Many of the centres of our main cities were destroyed by enemy action, and it is possible to deaf with the question of rebuilding on more generous lines than hitherto. That was the purpose of the 1947 Act in this matter, but we have found that the wording does not carry it into effect. The noble Lord, Lord Llewellin, will be well aware that to do this and to redevelop on a big scale would interfere to some extent with private individuals who were anxious to restore their damaged or destroyed buildings to their prewar condition. Until recently it was thought that the power existed to deal with that situation, and I am advised that so long as the 1943 Act was in force the local authorities undoubtedly possessed the necessary powers, and it was intended by Parliament that they should be retained in the 1947 Act. But my two right honourable friends, the Minister of Local Government and Planning and the Secretary of State for Scotland, have now been advised that planning permission is not required to restore a damaged building to its pre-war condition, so long as any part of the building remains standing. Such a gap in control obviously threatens all plans for redeveloping our great cities, and the purpose of Clause 1 is to close that gap.

Another aspect of Clause 1 may disturb your Lordships, in so far as that clause imposes a requirement which deals only with war damage. It may be thought that this is to discriminate against the victims of war damage. In practice, however, only damage from enemy action is extensive enough to present any opportunity for replanning. To extend the clause, I agree at once, would achieve consistency, but I am assured that it would do so at the cost of too greatly and unnecessarily widening control. Such a course, I know, would not commend itself to your Lordships.

There is one other aspect of Clause 1 which I should mention, as it may be causing some uneasiness to your Lordships. As the Bill stands the smallest works could be controlled—they could be controlled no matter how small they were —but the practical effect would be something altogether different. Application for permission to restore war damage will in future be necessary only in the main damaged areas, where the local planning authority, with the Minister's approval, have resumed control by means of a direction. The normal practice in these directions has been to exempt works below a certain cost from control; the level of exemption has been adjusted to the circumstances of the particular area. Your Lordships will agree, I am sure, that a higher figure is clearly appropriate where the property is substantial or redevelopment is not imminent. This practice is to be continued, and I am authorised by my right honourable friend to repeat the undertaking which he gave in another place that he will review the directions which have already been made. Outside the blitzed areas the restoration of war damage is already permitted development under the General Development Order and will continue to be so.

As to Clause 2, I have indicated that it is concerned with the period during which a local planning authority can take action against unauthorised development, or to enforce observance of the conditions subject to which planning permission has been given. It will be remembered that when the 1947 Bill was considered in your Lordships' House an Amendment was accepted by the Lord Chancellor providing that there should be some limit to the period during which a developer was at risk. Under that Amendment the local planning authority could act only within four years of the carrying out of the original development. It has now been found that the effect of this Amendment would be to deny the local planning authority any opportunity of enforcing certain types of conditions. That was never foreseen at the time of the acceptance of the Amendment. For example, if permission has been granted to use premises as offices on condition that the office use is discontinued at the end of say, seven years, no question of enforcement can arise until the seven years have elapsed. Your Lordships will see at once that, owing to the Amendment which we accepted in this House. it would then be too late. Clause 2 is designed to remedy this defect by providing that where the enforcement of conditions is concerned the four years shall reckon from the date of the alleged breach of the condition. Clause 3 simply amends the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act in the same way that Clause 1 amends the principal Act. I think that I have said sufficient. I feel sure that your Lordships will find this Bill acceptable and will give it a Second Reading. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.— (Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor.)

3.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure we are all obliged to the noble Lord for the way in which he has explained this measure to us. He almost took words out of my mouth when he said that he was surprised, in view of the speeches which he had heard, that there was not a more comprehensive measure before us than the present one. I think that this Bill, so far as it goes, will be acceptable in all quarters of your Lordships' House, but I hope that we shall not have to wait much longer before we have a measure which will put right some of the patent injustices which are now taking place under the Town and Country Planning Act. I am not going into them to-day, but I can assure your Lordships that many people who were in favour of the good planning of our countryside are so disturbed about what is happening under the 1947 Act that they are becoming non-planning minded. And that is a bad thing. In a small island like ours, good planning is necessary, but, as I say, the working of the present Act is certainly setting a large number of people who were formerly in favour of it against the whole idea.

To come to the provisions of this present Bill, I think that we are all agreed that where there has been substantial damage, either at the centre or on the outskirts of some town or city, that gives the opportunity of replanning the area as a whole. And I believe that there is no dispute in any part of the House that such an opportunity ought not to be missed. It is true that in some cases local planning authorities are not paying sufficient attention to the just schemes of those who had buildings in bombed areas before the War. Some instances have come to my knowledge in which the authorities are not being sufficiently sympathetic towards the tradesman who asks to have his shop, even if it is a building of a different type, on the same site, or near the site, where he built up his goodwill. That point certainly ought to be looked at by the Ministry concerned, for it is only right that such applications should be sympathetically considered.

I think we are all at one on the general principle underlying the Bill, but it is rather odd that although the 1943 Act made water-tight provision so that that on which we were all agreed could be done, the 1947 Act, as I understand it, slipped up, the result being that if a part of a house is still standing, small though that part may be, the work which it is proposed to do upon it comes to be defined as rebuilding rather than new building, and so no development permission is necessary because it is war damaged property. This means that, however hideous, inconvenient and old-fashioned a building may have been, the owner can proceed so long as he rebuilds it on the same lines and does not alter it at all, even though it will be completely out of conformity with what proper planning ought to provide upon that site. We did not intend that, and the Act which was introduced in 1943, when I happened to be a member of the Government, made water-tight provision against it. It is a pity that the Act of 1947 was not quite so water-tight. At any rate, we are all agreed now what should be done, and this Bill puts matters right. I understand that owing to the shortage of building materials and building labour not much of this work has yet taken place, so despite the slip in the 1947 Act no great damage should have been done.

I should like to mention Clause 2, which this House insisted should contain a limit —as the noble Lord, Lord Macdonald of Gwaenysgor has put it—to the time when a person who builds without proper planning permission or, even more so, those who buy from him, should be at risk of having the building pulled down. When the Bill came to your Lordships' House there was no time limit, and any person who had not received planning permission was under the risk of having a demolition order made years afterwards. Some of us took the line that local authorities ought to be more vigilant than that, and we suggested a time limit of two years. The noble and learned Viscount on the Woolsack said he would accept a limit of four years. Accordingly, my noble friend Lord Carrington moved an Amendment, which was accepted. I see that the Minister of Local Government and Planning, as he is now called, said in another place that there was a too amiable acceptance of a somewhat plausible-looking Amendment moved in another place, and he went on to say: Therefore we propose to restore the law to what it was before one of my noble friends so rashly accepted the Amendment in another place. We all know the amiability of the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor, but I have not often found him to be extremely rash. I find that when we were discussing this Amendment—I came into it; I seem to come into most of these town and country planning debates—I said: I should have thought that the right thing to do was to put in this period of four years which the noble and learned Viscount the Lord Chancellor has offered at this present stage, realising that if the noble and learned Viscount feds that this should be reconsidered, he can propose some amending words at the Report stage. The Lord Chancellor said: That is quite satisfactory to me, if I may reserve my liberty to come back to the matter on the Report stage. I should have thought that those warning words of the noble and learned Viscount and myself would have shown the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, and his Department the yellow light, if not the red light, and that they would have looked at this point very carefully before Report stage.

They had another opportunity to look at it when the Amendments made to the Bill in your Lordships' House were considered in another place. I see that there was no discussion whatever about this Amendment. I think that the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Town and Country Planning summed up the situation more amiably than the Minister himself. He said: The fact is that in all good faith a noble Lord moved the Amendment, and that in all good faith it was accepted. The intention of the Amendment was good; it was that a person who had committed a breach of the law, either knowingly or unknowingly, should not for all times be put in peril of being pulled up for it. It placed a limitation on the period of time in which a local planning authority could call for redress from a person who had evaded planning permission. What happened was that the four-year limitation took effect from the time that planning permission was acted on. The words proposed, and accepted, have made it almost impossible for any planning authority to give temporary permission for a building, at any rate for longer than three and three quarter years. That was not the intention of the noble Lord who moved the Amendment; it certainly was not my intention in supporting it; and I imagine that it was not the Government's intention in accepting it. I suggest, with great respect to the noble Lord Lord Silkin, that he and his Department should have taken a look at this matter between Committee and Report stages and perhaps at that period made the amendment which I think we shall all be glad to accept to-day.

Of course, this matter is not controversial. I am glad to think that by this amending Bill we now have a limiting period, which is common ground between us, as was said in anotlier place, although we did not wish to do it in such a way as to prevent local planning authorities from giving temporary permission, as they often should do. I am prepared to accept this measure, with the assurance, given by the Minister in another place, and repeated by the noble Lord this afternoon, that the Minister will look through all these directions and see that small repairs to war-damaged property, where they are not part of a comprehensive scheme, do not require the owner to go through the rigmarole of getting permission. I am not prepared to move any Amendment on this point, because I have: no doubt that it will be done, and that where amendments should be made in the regulations they will be made. I advise noble Lords to give an unopposed Second Reading to this measure.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the Whole-House.