HL Deb 03 December 1963 vol 253 cc937-60

4.39 p.m.

LORD MOLSON rose to ask Her Majesty's Government how they reconcile recent decisions on appeal permitting development within the London Green Belt with the advice previously given by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government to the planning authorities and on which they had acted; and whether such recent decisions imply a new policy for the area.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, in order to ascertain exactly what is the official policy of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, I have had recourse to that Ministry's publication issued in 1962 called, The Green Belts. It explains what green belts are, their origin, how the Town and Country Planning Act of 1947 made them possible to introduce, and how it comes about that, of all the green belts proposed, only the London Green Belt has so far been finally approved by the Minister.

Page 7 of this publication states as follows: It is very difficult to get permission to build in the green belt. Anyone who wants to do so must be prepared to show either that the building is required for purposes appropriate to the green belt, for example, for agriculture, or that there is some special reason why it should be allowed despite the general presumption to the contrary. A cottage which simply fills a gap in an established village may well be permissible but it is not to be assumed that further houses mill be allowed on land adjoining any that already exist; nor is it enough to show that the building will be inconspicuous or will do no harm on the particular site, though these arguments can reinforce a case which has other merits. The green belt conception implies no further building except where there is a positive argument for allowing it.

The village of Bayford in the Hertford rural district is one of seven villages described as "pure green belt"; which means that they should have neither new building nor even in-filling. When a certain Mr. Berry applied for permission to build on his land, it was very proper, therefore, that the local planning authority refused him permission. He appealed to the Minister, who sent down an inspector to hold an inquiry. It was not surprising that the inspector recommended to the Minister that he should uphold the decision of the planning authority. What was surprising was that the Minister overruled his own inspector and the local planning authority. In this case no special reason was advanced why building should be allowed; but the Minister justifies his decision on the grounds that the site is central and its development would not have much effect on the Green Belt. In that connection I will quote again the sentence that I have just read from the authoritative booklet issued by the Ministry: … nor it is enough to show that the building will be inconspicuous and will do no harm on the particular site, though these arguments can reinforce a case which has other merits.

Perhaps I ought also to quote from a paragraph of a circular issued as recently as 1959 for the guidance of planning authorities in the London Green Belt. Paragraph 3 sub-paragraph (a) reads: In settlements not distinguished from the green background, the strict green belt policy is the rule and not even in-filling is normally allowed other than for green belt—for example, agricultural—purposes. From these two quotations from publications issued by the Ministry, it is surely quite clear that the local authority's decision was in accordance with their advice and also with the Development Plan. I am glad to have this opportunity of asking my noble friend the Parliamentary Secretary to explain how it came about that, on appeal, this decision and this recommendation by the inspector were overruled by the Minister.

I want also to refer to the case of a former farmhouse with one and a half acres of orchard and paddock on the edge of Limpsfield. An application for permission to build twelve maisonettes and garages on this agricultural land was refused by the planning authority; but the Minister allowed an appeal against that decision. In this case, the feeling of the local authority that it had been badly let down by the Minister was increased by the reasons given by the Minister for his decision in a letter written to the Member of Parliament for the local constituency, Sir John Vaughan-Morgan. In that letter the Minister wrote: However, the increasing pressure for houses calls for an economical use of land, and I came to the conclusion that the proposed density of development at 10 dwellings an acre was not excessive for the site and that the development need not harm the area, having regard to the fact that approval of the appearance of the building would be reserved to the council.

This is almost an admission by the Minister of "nibbling", which is exactly what the Minister was understood to say, in paragraph 66 of the White Paper of last February, he did not intend to do. These decisions will inevitably encourage landowners to appeal to the Minister against local decisions and will discourage local authorities—who have, so far, shown great courage in upholding the principle of the Green Belt—from standing firm any longer. These decisions on appeal make one think that the Minister is using his appellate position in order to alter the existing rules in the direction indicated by paragraph 65 of the White Paper without going through the appropriate procedure for doing so. This is exactly what I thought he undertook, by paragraph 66, not to do.

Many of us object strongly to paragraph 65 which reads as follows: Not all of this is essential"— this is referring to the Green Belt— to the purposes of the green belt nor has it all high amenity value. It cannot reasonably be maintained that none of this land should be considered for development, however serious the housing shortage may be and whatever this may mean in terms of hardship. The Government feel it inevitable, in the light of land demands that have to be met, that some changes may have to be considered. Any modifications which may be necessary are likely to be small in relation to the whole area of approved green belt and should, in the main, be on land with little amenity value. There is no question of allowing development on the fine countryside which forms an important part of the Green Belt.

The Green Belt is a different thing from the preservation of land of outstanding beauty. The idea of the Green Belt is that it should be kept as open land in the vicinity of towns. It is no adequate compensation for giving up land close to the built-up area to add additional areas, even though larger, if they are farther away. From the point of view of the Green Belt the value of land depends very largely upon its proximity to the built-up area.

Now, in addition to the general arguments against interfering with the Green Belt, I want to put forward a special one based on considerations of Justice and equity as between man and man. Ever since the 1947 Act came into force, there has been land where building has not been allowed, which has often been close to land where building has been allowed. It has always been one of the difficulties of those who supported planning legislation to justify the fact that under these plans the land of one owner might rise substantially in value because it was available for building, while the land of his neighbour did not increase in value because it was reserved for agriculture and for the Green Belt. But this anomaly has diminished steadily as time has gone past. Where land has been sold, the anomaly disappears entirely. The new purchaser has bought in the Green Belt, understanding that it is Green Belt land which can never be used for building. The purchaser of building land has paid a higher price, knowing that the land can be used for building.

If, after the Green Belt has been introduced, the Minister arbitrarily alters the Green Belt, and allows land which previously had always been assumed to be (to use an abominable word) sterilised and may not be used for building to be transferred from the Green Belt to building land, this means the sudden and arbitrary transfer of wealth into the pocket of the owner of that particular site. And this is exactly what happened in the Bayford case. Mr. Berry was quite frank about it. He did not like Bayford. He wanted to make money out of his land. He was prompted to apply for planning permission by the White Paper issued by the Minister in February last and, having won his appeal, he proceeded to sell land to a local builder at the enhanced price of £8,000 per acre.

Much harm has already been done by these two decisions. Much more harm will be done if the Woldingham appeal is decided in the same way. If the Minister wants to alter the London Green Belt, let him do so in a constitutional way by amending the development plans in due course, after due consultation with the local authorities and after going through the procedure laid down by Statute. I hope that the Government this evening will give an assurance that the Minister will not in future seek to amend existing rules and principles by decisions, given in his capacity as a court of appeal, reversing proper decisions given by local planning authorities in full accordance with the existing development plans and the advice given by successive Ministers of Housing and Local Government.

4.54 p.m.


My Lords, I am sure the House will be most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Molson, for having put this Question and for having given the House the facts on which the Question is based. It is most important to those of us who are concerned with planning and the preservation of green belts that we should be vigilant about any breach, or apparent breach, on the part of the Minister. Subject to what the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, may say, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Molson, has made an unanswerable case and one which is going to be very difficult to justify in respect of these two breaches of the general provisions.

I would emphasise one aspect of what the noble Lord said. The London Green Belt was created as the result of a series of development plans, which were decided upon, as the noble Lord said, after full inquiry, after opportunities had been given to the public to make representations and to oppose. The result was that substantial areas were defined and accepted as the Green Belt. It may be that the answer to these two inconsistencies is that they are not actually in the Green Belt but are in the proposed Green Belt. There is a very large area, equal in size to the Green Belt, which is shown in this White Paper Road Improvement, Housing and Land, dark green showing the actual Green Belt and light green the proposed Green Belt. It is just conceivable that either one or the other is in the proposed Green Belt; but, if they are not, then I would submit most strongly that the Minister is acting arbitrarily in departing from the plan that he himself has approved.

If he wants to depart from the plan, then he should have another public inquiry, give the public the opportunity of making representations once more, and then decide, in the light of those representations, whether the development plan should be amended or not. But to take it upon himself arbitrarily to amend the plan, which has been approved after full public inquiries, many of them lasting many days, and after a great deal of money has been spent by interested parties in putting their cases, is quite wrong, I think, on the part of the Minister. I would submit that this is the case, whatever may be the actual merits of the decisions. It could be that on merits the Minister might make some sort of a case, though on the facts which the noble Lord, Lord Molson, gave us I find it difficult to understand. But even if there were a case, I submit that the development plan should not be departed from without a further inquiry.

This debate could have been much wider, so that we could have discussed the whole question of Green Belt policy, but the noble Lord has wisely restricted it to the actual breaches to which he referred, and I do not propose to go wider than that. I would, however, refer to the inequalities between one person and another. In one case which the noble Lord mentioned, land which had been worth, presumably, £100 to £150 an acre as agricultural land became worth £8,000 an acre as the result of the decision which was made. Can there be any possible justification, from the point of view of public policy, for putting £7,850 into the pocket of an individual purely as a result of a planning decision?

If that land has increased in value, it is not as a result of the efforts of the applicant for planning permission—except in so far as he has made an application. It is due to the fact that there is a shortage of houses, that there is a public demand for houses, and that people are prepared to pay high prices for their houses. It has nothing to do with the individual owner of land. It makes one wonder why the present Government repealed the provision of the 1947 Act which gave to the community the actual increase in the development value of land. Why that was repealed I could never understand. This is one more forceful example of what that has meant. However, this is incidental to the main purpose of the noble Lord's Question.

While it is a serious matter if the breaches in the Green Belt are going to be substantial, as appears to be indicated, the real question is: having regard to the Minister's own policy, how has it come about that he commits these breaches, in one case even against the advice of the inspector who had actually seen the site and reported against giving permission and, as the noble Lord said, against the advice of the local authority itself? I hope that, whatever the noble Lord, Lord Hastings, may say—and I am sure he will make the best of a bad job—he will report to the Minister the feelings of those in this House who are concerned about the Green Belt and ensure that such things do not happen again.

5.1 p.m.


My Lords, I have no particular knowledge of the London Green Belt, but I am much concerned with the principle that my noble friend Lord Molson has raised. I think it is quite wrong that a planning authority, either in the Green Belt or elsewhere, should be encouraged to base what is sometimes a quite elaborate policy on assumptions which they have reason to believe are acceptable to the Ministry, and then, almost in a chance way, as the result of an appeal or some other inquiry discover that it is not acceptable to the Ministry. I speak here with some sympathy for my noble friend, because the authority to which I belong has had certainly one case rather analogous to that described and another partly of the same character.

I do not want to exaggerate my feelings. I am quite ready to agree that in 99 per cent. of the numerous appeals that every planning authority has to face the appeal machinery works perfectly smoothly. I am also prepared to admit that there are cases, often connected with some new technical development, which no Minister could be expected to foresee several years in advance. But, having admitted that, I still feel that there are cases when the only real change of circumstances that has occurred is a change of mind within the Ministry itself. There I feel that there ought to be better liaison than there is between the Ministry and the planning authorities.

This difficulty, it seems to me, may arise partly from the fact, as has been pointed out, that the Minister has the two functions; that is to say, he has the function of policy-making and also the judicial function I do not think these two functions always combine very happily. For example, if one gets one of these rather disconcerting decisions, it is no use going to the Ministry to try to discover the full significance of the decision: because one is told simply that the Minister cannot give guidance on a matter in regard to which there may be other appeals coming from the same neighbourhood. So one is driven to try to discover what the policy of the Ministry is by a process of trial and error. You put up a proposition, and if that is shot down, you put up another; and eventually you have some idea of what the policy of the Ministry is for the time being. But this is an expensive, wasteful and unscientific way of doing things.

I agree that in theory these doubts ought not to arise. In theory, we are all supposed to administer development plans. These development plans are often approved by the Minister, possibly after amendment, and they ought to provide fairly detailed guidance of what we should and should not do. But the trouble is, as everybody concerned with planning knows, that the whole process of making a development plan and getting it approved after inquiry is so long drawn out that by the time it is approved it is probably out of date in several important particulars and the time has come to make a further revision of the plan. Both my noble friend Lord Molson and the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, referred to these development plans, but I think the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, will agree that it is not the entire answer, because the length of time may be anything up to five years. They really cannot provide for everything that can happen during that time.


Does the noble Lord not realise that provision is made in the 1947 Act for a quinquennial review, and that if it becomes necessary to alter the development plan, the local authority are under a duty to make fresh submissions?


I realise that only too well. What I am saying is that by the time the quinquennial review or the original review, is approved, five years may have passed, and it may then be time for the next quinquennial review. I think that most Members of your Lordships' House who have had to deal with practical planning difficulties will agree that the period involved is usually quite a long one though perhaps not always five years.

I was going on to say that, as often as not, what the Minister is really interpreting is a White Paper which he himself has composed, and it is drafted in such wide terms that it might be capable of various interpretations. I think that is where the trouble arises. It is difficult for a Back Bencher to know exactly what the remedy would be, but I am hoping that, as a result of these regional surveys which I know the Minister has been conducting, he will be able to give local planning authorities a form of guidance of a much more specific nature—perhaps in the form of a regional White Paper. At any rate, I do not think the present system is working entirely satisfactorily, and I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Molson for bringing up this matter and lending his authority to its elucidation.

5.9 p.m.


My Lords, I, too, am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Molson. I hope your Lordships will bear with me if I take a rather wider sweep. The noble Lord's speech was particularly effective in the strong but narrow instances which he produced, but I think it would be valuable perhaps to look at this matter in rather wider terms. As some of your Lordships know, I have been in the amenities movement, as it is called (it is rather an unfortunate term, but one which has came to stay), for more than thirty years, and I think it should be realised by the Minister and his civil servants and by Parliament that there has been over the last months a growing despondency among all those of us who have made the preservation of England's green and pleasant land one of their main objects of public work over these last years. I think this is a most unfortunate thing.

The conception of the Green Belt to a large extent arose in the imagination of Sir Patrick Abercrombie, whom I had the honour of numbering among my friends, perhaps the greatest of our planners. When Mr. Duncan Sandys was at the Ministry, he took a strong line in his Circular to the local authorities, which gave heart to all of us. I should not like to say that the succeeding Ministers had done quite so well. Until the present one, I think most of us felt that the Green Belt project, not only in London but in other parts of the country, was being reasonably well carried through. But under the present Minister undoubtedly there has been a falling away, and I think that is the view of practically everybody who has given much attention to this matter.

As Honorary Secretary of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, I am in touch with the local branches of that organisation, who are closely in touch with the local planning committees and the planning officers. Our reports show clearly that all over the country there is the feeling that there is a recession in the Ministry at the moment, and more and more cases where the local planning authorities, having taken a decision in support of the amenities, are finding themselves overruled, which is very unfortunate. It is true that the Minister has uttered comforting words, as no doubt his representative here this afternoon will in due course utter. The trouble is that his decisions and his acts belie these words. It is quite clear that this is not only the feeling in the C.P.R.E. and the other amenities movements, but the feeling among many of those actually engaged in the work of planning. We heard this from the noble Viscount, Lord Gage, who we all know is very much concerned with these things. Again, the Chairman of the Hertford Rural District Council said in a recent letter to The Times that his Council, after loyally upholding the Green Belt for many years in accordance with Government policy, now felt that they were being betrayed and did not know where they stood. I suggest this is typical of the feeling which is prevalent all over the country, and it is a most unfortunate thing that that should be so.

On the other hand, as the noble Lord, Lord Molson, and my noble friend Lord Silkin have pointed out, the land speculators and the builders are overjoyed at what they also clearly recognise is a change in the policy. In this Woldingham case my recollection is that the appellant in his argument made this very clear. He said that it was common knowledge that Government policy had been changed, and it was the general expectation of himself and people like himself that in effect the Green Belt was no longer in any sort of way sacrosanct, and they proposed to cash in on this new policy. Some of your Lordships may remember that not so long ago a speculator purchased a large area of land in Surrey in the Green Belt area, and he said in an interview with the Press that he and his fellows would in due course force the Minister out of this stupid policy of protecting all this land from the building which he and his fellow building speculators were proposing to put up. That, of course, was denied at the time, but it looks as though the wheels are turning in that direction, and this man is no doubt chuckling that the speculation he made at that time will shortly be bringing him in an enormous profit.

Various cases have been referred to, but I imagine that almost every one of us who lives in the Green Belt area around London could give more than one instance of his local authority having been overruled by the Ministry. I live in Stanmore, which is under the Harrow Council, which has a good record in these matters but which has, unfortunately, found itself turned down time after time. Almost our last farm, on which the speculators have naturally had their eyes, has gone the same way within the last twelve months, under the specious plea that it is just in-filling. You can nibble out practically every hit of land there is left in any area in which there is housing by treating it as in-filling, until there is not much left to in-fill.

If what has been going on in the London Green Belt is typical—and what has been said this afternoon shows the position is slipping away—what is going to happen in other parts of the country?—because the London Green Belt is the only one which has legal protection. If the protection under the law is as uncertain as it is quite clear that it is here, what about Sheffield and Birmingham and the other great cities which have attempted to establish Green Belts around their own urban areas? These other Green Belts, of course, have not yet the support of the law, and in a copy of a letter which I have from the Minister to the Chairman of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, he refers to these other Green Belts as mere sketch plan proposals.

I know something particularly about the Sheffield Green Belt, because I have had the honour for a long time to be president of the Sheffield and Peak branch of the C.P.R.E. The Sheffield Green Belt goes back a very long way, and was in fact planned by Sir Patrick Abercrombie himself. It is quite true, of course, that it has not got the sanction of the development plan yet, and therefore is open to be hacked, cut and nibbled; and as the local authority find that they need houses, of course that is exactly what they tend to do. The Minister, as a rule, does not give them all they ask for, but he usually gives them a good slice, and by the time this compromising has gone on for another twenty years there obviously will not be much of the Sheffield Green Belt left to eat up. What there no doubt will be is a series of metropolitan parks, surrounded by dwelling houses on all sides. A sort of urban park area will have been secured instead of this very fine Green Belt which was proposed by Sir Patrick Abercrombie under the original plan.

One of the main reasons for all this is that we lost the Ministry of Town and Country Planning, over which my noble friend presided with such distinction in the early years after the war, and we now have a Ministry of Housing and Local Government, which includes as one of its least important functions the function of planning, which, to many of us, is at least as important as those other functions. I think the trouble is that to a large extent the Minister is a Minister of Housing first, and naturally, because of its political significance to any political Party, the function which appeals to him most is this function of housing, which is not always easy to reconcile with the most far-sighted and wise planning. Very often there is conflict between the needs of recreation and the wide conceptions of planning and the immediate pressure of people for new houses to be erected in the places where they can be built most quickly and at the least expense, which is very often in a Green Belt or some other area which should be protected for the amenities of the public. Therefore, I myself feel that until we get back to a position in which we have an independent Ministry concerned with planning, this situation will not be effectively handled.

One further point which I should like to make is that the Minister has from time to time said that for every piece of land which is taken away from the Green Belt other land will be given. The noble Lord, Lord Molson, referred to this, and said that it is not much use if you provide land which is too far out. That, of course, is true. But these again are rather specious promises. If every time a piece was nibbled out of the Green Belt another piece quite contiguous had to be provided before the original piece was, in fact, built over or taken out of the Green Belt, a certain amount of progress would be made. But these promises have now been made for quite a long time and very little has been done to implement them. I hope that the Minister will see that we cannot continue to accept his assurances unless he carries them out in a practical and more forthright way than we have experienced in the past.

5.23 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene only for a very short time on one specific case. I wish most strongly to support what has been said on all sides on the importance of the Minister sticking to principle in this matter of the Green Belt. The case where we have, it seems to me, the greatest detail and the greatest cause for alarm at what is happening is this case of Bayford, in Hertfordshire. Here we have the advantage of the information which has been given us in two issues by The Times, in the first case by a letter—none of the facts in which has been subsequently called in question—from the Clerk to the Hertford Rural District Council. I think it is important to see what, in fact, happened. If I may, I shall quote short passages from that letter.

He explained that the Rural District Council contains sixteen villages; five, in planning language, are "white"; four are Green Belt, but "listed", which means earmarked for a small degree of in-filling or central development. The remaining seven are described as "pure Green Belt". The letter goes on: The instructions received from the Ministry of Housing and Local Government via the Hertfordshire County Council for these seven villages are that there is to be no development at all except where it is justified by special personal or public reasons, as in the case of farm cottages and houses for police, district nurses, &c. These instructions have been followed for the last three years. That is the standing instruction. The letter continues: Bayford is the smallest but one of the seven villages and is included within a Special Scenic Reservation'. The Minister has just allowed, on appeal, development of a single site for which no special reason has been advanced. He comments that the site is central and its development would not have much effect on the green belt. (It was sold within three weeks by public auction for £2,000.) I think that the figure of £8,000 mentioned by my noble friend Lord Molson is the rate per acre. The site was a quarter of an acre, and it was sold for £2,000.

My Lords, those facts are given authoritatively and publicly by the Clerk of the Council, and not one of them has yet been denied. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister specifically whether any of the facts that I have just stated are now disputed; because, if they are not, the case becomes very serious indeed. It is perfectly clear, is it not, that if those facts are correct, the decision is not a decision which ought to have been taken, if the Minister was governed by the previous instructions from his Ministry which the letter cites. Nor can it be justified if the Minister pays regard to his own recent White Paper.

The relevant extract from paragraph 65 has been quoted by my noble friend Lord Molson, but, although he mentioned paragraph 66, I do not think he quoted it, and therefore it may be advantageous if I quote it, so that the House may be in possession of what the Minister specifically undertook on this subject, when describing his policy on the relaxation. This is what paragraph 66 said: They do not propose to allow 'nibbling' into the belt; a more selective approach is needed. The intention is that the planning authorities themselves should be asked initially to consider, in the light of the needs set out in this Paper, what additional areas would be suitable for housing. Any proposals put forward would be the subject of a public local inquiry. That is the Minister's own description of how the modification proposed in paragraph 65 is to be operated. But, of course, it does not go anywhere near foreshadowing, still less justifying, bringing in such a policy by allowing an appeal which, on the policy previous to the White Paper, would not have had any merit.

The depressing effect of this decision, which has been emphasised, I think, by all speakers who have hitherto spoken, is this. There were those who had the greatest fears for the Green Belt as a result of this White Paper, but they, at least, had the reassurance of paragraph 66. But what has happened in this case? In this case the applicant who eventually triumphed was inspired to put in his application by what he understood, and, as we all hoped, wrongly understood, to be the Minister's new policy. That was why he put in this application. The application was refused by the planning authority, and the Minister's own inspector advised against the grant of the appeal. I have given the facts as accurately as I can, on the basis of the documents that I have seen and the hitherto undisputed assertions by the Clerk of the Council concerned. If things of this sort can occur, what security remains for the Green Belt? I find it hard to discover anything.

My Lords, I would only say what my understanding is, as hitherto I have spoken only on the information that I derived from what has appeared in the Press. But I understand that Bayford is in the original Green Belt suggested by Abercrombie in 1944. I shared with the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, and others a long acquaintance and friendship, and, as a Minister, frequent consultation, with Professor Abercrombie. The inclusion in the Green Belt was confirmed in the Greater London Plan in 1948. It was included in the Hertfordshire Development Plan which was approved by the Minister in 1958. You could not get, it seems to me, a stronger case of an apparently safe village than Bayford. I understand that the owner of this property (I think it was his garden) saw a chance of making money, if he was allowed to sell it for development. On every public declaration previously made he had no hope of being given permission. He was refused permission. The inspector reported that the decision of the planning authority should be upheld. It was, in fact, reversed. I share the hope expressed by others that we shall receive an explanation.

5.30 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord's Question which he has put to Her Majesty's Government this evening touches upon a subject of extreme complexity and one also of considerable sensitivity, touching, as it does, the lives of many individuals who live in the countryside and also the preservation of the natural beauty and general amenities of the countryside itself. Yet this subject is, as I am sure the noble Lord will agree, but one aspect of the whole problem of town and country planning which affects now, and will in the future affect more and more, both the housing of our great population and the amenities which they will be able to enjoy.

The noble Lord has asked how Her Majesty's Government can reconcile recent decisions on appeal affecting the Metropolitan Green Belt with advice previously given to the planning authorities, and whether such decisions imply a new policy for this area. The short answer to the last part of the Question is a categorical "No"; but, of course, my noble friend will wish for a much more detailed explanation, and I therefore propose to analyse this problem and to clarify it as best I may.

I think the right starting point is the circular letter sent out to local authorities in the Metropolitan Green Belt from the Minister of Housing and Local Government on the 31st March, 1959, to which my noble friend referred in his opening speech. Paragraph 3 of that circular letter deals with villages and hamlets within the Green Belt and not covered by town maps. The aim of that paragraph was to produce a greater degree of consistency in the policy being pursued by different authorities at that time, and the Minister set down his views on the matter by way of guidance. It is in the cases that fall under paragraph 3(a), quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, which refer to pure Green Belt villages, that local planning authorities sometimes find the Minister's decisions on appeal hard to understand. General advice to local planning authorities, as laid down in the letter quoted and supplemented from time to time in discussion and by personal contact, has suggested that the strict Green Belt rules should apply to this type of village and that in-filling should not be allowed as a matter of course. This is what is meant by the advice in paragraph 3(a) that not even in-filling is normally allowed other than for Green Belt purposes. Then my noble friend quoted from page 7 of The Green Belts, where it is said that it is not to be assumed that further houses will be allowed on land adjoining any that already exist.

Some local authorities have tended to take this advice literally, and they have, in fact, refused planning permission as a matter of course, even where in-filling in obviously suitable sites was involved. I think that the circular letter which has been quoted, and what I have just said about it, must be taken in conjunction with the White Paper on London to which my noble friend has referred. The Metropolitan Green Belt is dealt with in that White Paper in paragraphs 64 to 67.

The first two sentences of paragraph 64 are of supreme importance and I will quote them again: The Government believe that the green belt should remain a permanent feature of the planning policy for London. They will maintain the approved green belt without substantial change and they will make extensive additions to it. Paragraph 65 points out that the approved Green Belt covers 840 square miles and that the proposed extensions would bring it up to nearly 2,000 square miles, and then it is stated—and I am repeating here what the noble Lord, Lord Molson, said; I think it is worth repetition: It cannot reasonably be maintained that none of this land should be considered for development however serious the housing shortage may be and whatever this may mean in terms of hardship. It is then made clear that any modifications that may be necessary are likely to be small, and on land with little amenity value; and it is added in paragraph 66 (which has been quoted by the noble Lord, Lord Conesford) that it is not proposed to allow nibbling into the belt, and that is an important point to which I shall certainly return in due course and about which Lord Molson has expressed grave anxiety.

It is here, in this paragraph 65 of the White Paper, that we come up against the realities of the situation as they have been revealed since 1959. They are too well known to require repetition. The increasing population and the pressure on land, especially in the South-East, and the problem of London itself in particular, are clearly revealed in that White Paper. The overall problem in the South-East will soon be made known in the Regional Study for that area. This is the general background against which Her Majesty's Government have to consider their policy on the Metropolitan Green Belt.

On the one hand, the Government will ask local authorities, as has already been stated, to re-examine the Green Belt in their area with a view to discovering whether there are any parts of it of negligible amenity value which can be made available for housing. The choice will be that of the local authorities, and it will be on a deliberate and highly selective basis.


My Lords, in this case it obviously was not. The local authority refused planning permission and they were overruled by the Minister.


I shall, if the noble Lord will allow me, make my own speech in my own time and in my own way. There is nothing arbitrary about this policy because the local authorities will be reviewing their own areas and they will be making the choices, which will be subject to public inquiry. And as to the question of the value of land, which, of course, was cited by the noble Lord, Lord Molson, and referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, this is not an arbitrary decision on the part of the Minister which is going to put money into the pockets of individuals. I want to make that quite clear. There will be no question when the local authorities are carrying out this review and this policy, of allowing a general demand for more and more land for housing to take charge of the situation and no question of allowing a policy of nibbling into the Green Belt to develop as a result.

On the other hand, the Government themselves are aiming to integrate the Green Belt policy into the general framework and into the general context of the need for housing the increasing population in the South-East. Their aim is to integrate the Green Belt policy into this framework in such a way that the importance of the Green Belt will become more rather than less relevant, and that the quantity as well as the quality of the Metropolitan Green Belt will be both increased and improved. In short, the Metropolitan Green Belt will be strengthened not weakened. So far I have dealt with general principles and with policy. These principles and this policy have not been changed. They have merely been brought up to date and integrated into the general picture of the South-East which is now available to the Government, and which calls for action.

I will now turn, if I may, to the applications of these principles and this policy to the cases to which noble Lords have referred. In the Bayford case the applicant, Mr. Berry, had applied for both a house and a cafe. The Minister agreed with the local planning authority that the cafe was undesirable in this pure Green Belt village; and he also agreed with the local planning authority that the site was in every way suitable for a house. I repeat that the local planning authority thought that the site was suitable for a house. They, however, refused permission because that house was not reserved for local needs. But the Minister took the view that refusal could not be justified solely for that reason. This was not at all an arbitrary decision. None of the Minister's decisions is arbitrary. Every case is dealt with on its merits and it is not always possible to fit individual cases neatly into the rules of a general formula. The background may be the same; it may be different. The details are invariably different. Every case is considered as an individual case on its merits, and the decisions are reached on that basis. That cannot be described as an arbitrary decision, because the Minister has a judicial capacity to fulfil. If decisions that he has taken are to be attacked as being arbitrary, it is virtually asking that the judicial position shall be taken away from him.


My Lords, I am most grateful for the careful answer that the Minister is giving, but for clarity may I say that I quoted from the Clerk's letter in which he said that the previous instructions were that they should not grant such an application except where it is justified by special personal or public reasons, as in the case of farm cottages, and houses for police, district nurses, et cetera." If the Minister wishes to alter that ruling, surely he ought to inform the planning authorities and not merely allow an appeal against a decision given in accordance with his previous instructions.


My Lords, I would refer the noble Lord to the earlier remarks in my speech, where I was dealing with the literal interpretation of the advice which had been given in the original circular letter of 1959, and subsequently in discussion and private advice. I drew a slight distinction between not allowing a development as a matter of course in such places, and refusing it as a matter of course, even where the site was suitable, and agreed to be suitable, for a house. If I may turn to the case of Limpsfield, this is really—


My Lords, before the noble Lord goes on with the other case, I would point out that he has repeatedly remarked that this case was dealt with on its merits, but he has not shown that there were any merits so far. Will he indicate what the merit was?


My Lords, the merit was that it was generally agreed that this site was suitable for a house, and the local authority agreed that that was the case.


That can be said of any case.


My Lords, the case of Limpsfield is really not a question of a decision being taken which goes against the Minister's declared policy for the London Green Belt. In this case the local planning authority had agreed that this site might be developed. Here the noble Lord, Lord Molson, said that that was not so; he said that they had refused planning permission for this site. Of course, if I am wrong—and I will inquire again—I will certainly inform the noble Lord at once, but my information is that the local planning authority had agreed that this site might be developed, and the only point at issue was the density of that development.

In view of the intense pressure on land in the London region as a whole, it is necessary that land should be used in the most economical way. It is therefore desirable that densities should be increased, where this is possible, by the use of good layout and good design without spoiling the amenities or character of the particular village. This is, of course, a problem which my right honourable friend has had to meet not only in the Green Belt, but also more particularly in urban development as well.

My Lords, I have a file of a selected number of cases where my right honourable friend has allowed appeals in the London Green Belt against the decisions of local planning authorities, cases which I understand have caused a certain amount of anxiety among those authorities, and about which we have received some complaint. I can find only one instance which could be described in any way as an expansion of the boundaries of a Green Belt village, and that instance was a case of allowing nine bungalows on a site of 1.86 acres at the edge of the village, a site which had been cut off entirely from farmland by a new road and which had become virtually useless to the farm in question. The site was also defaced by a particularly unattractive electricity sub-station. Nowhere, can it be said that a process of nibbling has started. And certainly nobody should believe that nibbling around pure Green Belt villages, in particular, or in the Green Belt as a whole will be encouraged, because precisely the opposite is the truth.

To sum up, my Lords, I have said that when the South-East Study is published, my right honourable friend will tell the local planning authorities that in the light of the problems presented to us they must take another look at their sections of the Green Belt, but only on a deliberate and selective basis, and without allowing a process of nibbling to develop. Meanwhile, we have to take appeals as they come along, and we have to decide them on their merits. I think that is the answer to my noble friend Lord Molson, when he says that he objects to individual decisions on appeal expressing a new outlook (he wrote this to me in a letter; I am not sure that he said it this evening) without a change in the development plan.

My noble friend Lord Gage made some relevant remarks about the development plans and the difficulties of review and keeping them up to date. I must demur, of course, about the expression "a new outlook", because, in point of fact, as I have tried to show, the decisions we have taken are still based on the same principles and policies enunciated in 1959. There must, I think, inevitably be room for disagreement in a small minority of cases. The whole purpose of town and country planning is to get the right development in the right places. But the purpose of the somewhat lengthy procedure is also to protect the interests of the individual.

We believe that in respect of the, Metropolitan Green Belt the local authorities are doing a first-class job, and we certainly do not wish to discourage them from continuing to do so. This point was brought out rightly and strongly by my noble friend Lord Gage, and emphasised by my noble friend Lord Conesford as well. In fact we hope that they will carry on in the same way, but exercising their discretion, as they think fit, in the light of what I have stated quite clearly is the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

There will no doubt continue to be a small number of cases where individual interests may prevail against the local planning authorities, but surely it would indeed be an unhappy situation, and an unhappy country, if the individual were never to stand a chance against any public authority, whether of local government or of central Government. That said, however, Her Majesty's Government are firmly behind the local planning authorities in carrying out the basic policies and principles of town and country planning within the Metropolitan Green Belt; and, as I stated, the Government are firmly determined to improve both the quantity and the quality of that Green Belt, not in spite of, but as a result of, the comparatively small modifications which I have indicated it may be necessary to make.

My Lords, I hope that my Answer will allay any anxieties felt by noble Lords. This debate will, of course, be given careful attention by my right honourable friend. If possible we will take even greater care in coming to our decisions in appeal cases, and we will consider whether it may be possible to give guidance of a more formal and specific nature to the local authorities concerned, as requested by the noble Viscount, Lord Gage. However, on the whole, I hope that I have managed to convince the House that your Lordships' anxieties, and those of the local authorities, are indeed not justified.

House adjourned during pleasure.

House resumed.