HL Deb 17 May 1965 vol 266 cc275-91

2.48 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Rhodes.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD MERTHYR in the Chair.]

Clause 1:

Development requiring office development permit

1.—(1) This part of this Act applies to any development of land which consists of or includes—

  1. (a) the erection of a building containing office premises, or
  2. (b) the extension or alteration of a building by the addition of, or the conversion of premises into, office premises, or

(3) Subject to the following provisions of this Part of this Act, an application to the local planning authority for planning permission to carry out any development to which this Part of this Act applies on land within an area to which this Part of this Act applies shall be of no effect unless a permit (in this Part of this Act referred to as an "office development permit") in respect of that development is issued under this Part of this Act by the Board of Trade, and a copy of the permit is furnished to the local planning authority together with the application.

(4) In exercising their discretion to issue or withhold office development permits, the Board of Trade shall have particular regard to the need for promoting the better distribution of employment in Great Britain.

LORD DRUMALBYN moved, in subsection (1)(b), after "office premises" to insert: other than premises required solely to comply with the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 apart from section 5 of that Act,".

The noble Lord said: The effect of this Amendment will be that the clause will read: This Part of this Act applies to any development of land which consists of or includes—

  1. (a) the erection of a building containing office premises, or
  2. (b) the extension or alteration of a building by the addition of, or the conversion of 276 premises into, office premises, other than premises required solely to comply with the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act 1963 apart from section 5 of that Act".
The Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act is expressed in the Long Title as An Act to make fresh provision for securing the health, safety and welfare of persons employed to work in office or shop premises", among other premises. That Act lays down broad standards as to sanitary conveniences, accommodation for clothing, temperature, ventilation, and lighting, and authorises Ministers to prescribe standards by regulations for all or any class of office premises.

I recognise that it will be only rarely that structural alterations exceeding 3,000 square feet gross will be required in cases like this. Nevertheless, alterations which do not exceed that amount might have to be treated as related development unless they are specifically excluded by an Amendment such as this, and I think it would be unfair that one should have to take into account something which is imposed by law in considering whether or not a permitted amount of development is exceeded—and that permitted amount in the Bill is 3,000 square feet. It seems to be wrong in principle that the Bill might have the effect of impeding or preventing, or delaying, such improvements.

I recognise that, so far as overcrowding is concerned, it might be possible for an abuse to arise if we were to include Section 5 of the Act, because it would then be possible for a firm to induce voluntary overcrowding, extend their premises in order to meet that overcrowding, and then do the same again. That is why in the proposed Amendment, I say "apart from Section 5 of that Act". In any case, I think that it is reasonable to assume that steps to reduce overcrowding, where it existed, have been taken in anticipation of the appointed day and should now have been completed, and therefore I do not think it would be reasonable to take Section 5 into account. Although this is a relatively small matter, I think that it would be an improvement in the Bill, although, of course, as usual, I do not attach great importance to the actual drafting of the Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 1, line 12, at end insert the said words.—(Lord Drumalbyn.)


May I congratulate the noble Lord on the brevity with which he moved this Amendment?—quite different from what happened in another place on this very Amendment. This Amendment seeks to exempt from the need to obtain an office development permit any extensions or alterations carried out solely in order to comply with the provisions of the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963, other than those of Section 5 which concern overcrowding and which the noble Lord specially mentions.

In the first place, may I say it is clear that this Amendment would at once introduce a considerable element of uncertainty about the scope of the office control? Local planning authorities would have to make the difficult judgment, in each case of a planning application for an extension or alteration creating office premises, of whether that extension or alteration was needed specifically in order to comply with one or other of the various standards for working conditions laid down in the 1963 Act. I am afraid that this would introduce an entirely new concept into the task of local authorities. The job of their inspectors under the 1963 Act is to see whether the existing premises meets the required standards, and not to specify what extension or alteration is needed. Quite apart from complicating the task of local authorities, there would be the danger that one authority would make a different judgment of similar cases in different areas. The right course is to make the scope of the control absolutely clear in the Bill itself, and we believe that it is best to centralise its administration in the Board of Trade.

This does not mean to say that we do not accept the need for offices to be brought up to the standards required by the 1963 Act as quickly as possible. I can assure the noble Lord that this will certainly be an important factor, which we shall take into account in exercising our discretion to grant or refuse permits in particular cases where more than 3,000 square feet of new office space is needed. But this will not necessarily be a decisive factor. We shall be particularly concerned in administering this control with the distribution of employment, and it may well be that extensions or alterations needed to provide, for example, satisfactory washing facilities or central heating will not generate additional employment. I think the noble Lord would agree that that is reasonable. We should naturally look sympathetically at cases of this kind. But in other cases the locality concerned may already be severely congested and we shall not be able to accept unsatisfactory working conditions as sufficient grounds for granting a permit. In cases of this kind it might make better sense for the applicant to consider moving elsewhere rather than to improve his existing premises, particularly, for example, where these may be houses which have been converted into unsatisfactory offices. These are matters which can best be decided case by case when we consider individual applications for permits, but we cannot afford automatically to exempt all the extensions and alterations which may be put forward on the grounds that they are required to meet one or other of the various standards covering virtually every aspect of working conditions which are laid down in the 1963 Act. I would ask the noble Lord to accept my explanation on the basis that we shall treat very sympathetically cases which are brought to our notice.


I had hoped that the noble Lord would not say that the requirements imposed by the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, 1963, would be used in certain circumstances to "winkle out" (if I may use the phrase) existing occupiers of offices and get them to go elsewhere, rather than allow them to improve the offices in which they are. He started by saying that the Board of Trade would naturally be willing to consider applications sympathetically. Then he went on to say that there were circumstances in which they would use the fact that improvements were required in existing premises to get occupiers to move elsewhere. I am not certain that this is really the right way of dealing with this matter.

I would have thought that where premises were capable of being improved, it would be a mistake to use action of this kind, especially, as I have said, when a great many of the premises are unlikely to exceed the 3,000 square feet mark. Therefore, in the main, requirements for extra space will rank only as related accommodation, as related development, and not as development requiring an office development permit. It seems to me unfortunate that they should be considered in this light. I should have thought that it would not be all that difficult to get inspectors, whenever any application is made, to see whether it is reasonable in relation to the premises in question. Of course it involves an element of judgment; but an element of judgment is involved in regard to every planning application, and I should not have thought that this introduced any insuperable difficulty in the way of exercise of judgment.

I would ask the noble Lord to consider this again. In this Amendment, I have pared down, so to speak, the concession to what seems a very reasonable minimum. I have excluded the overcrowding element, which is obviously liable to abuse. I should have thought that it would be possible for the noble Lord to reconsider this matter to see whether it would not be reasonable at least to exclude this kind of application by allowing it not to be taken into account as related development. I think this is a point that was not adequately considered in another place, and it is one that is worthy of consideration.

It will mean, of course, that where an application for what I might call a straight expansion of office premises by way of extension comes before the Minister, because there has been some previous development to comply with the Offices, Shops and Premises Act he will be able to disregard that side of the application. So it may well be that some applications will not come before him at all, because they will not then exceed the 3,000 square feet limit. I suggest to the noble Lord that we should consider the question of office development permits purely in relation to expansion of employment, and not in relation to the improvement of conditions of employment. This is the case here, and I would ask him to be so kind as to consider this between now and the Report stage.


I must say that I have a good deal of sympathy with this Amendment. I feel that we ought to do nothing to discourage the improvement of bad conditions under which people to-day are working in offices. I believe that there might be a deterrent if one had to make a planning application, with all that is involved in the way of delay and so on. I hope, therefore, that my noble friend will be prepared to look at this again, if necessary making any amendment to the Amendment which would preclude the possibility of abuse. I know that the noble Lord has gone some way in extending Section 5 applications, but it may be that there ought to be some more said about related premises.

I was a little disturbed to hear my noble friend talk about this being used as a means of forcing people to get other accommodation. For one thing, this is not the way to do it; but for another, there is nothing said about what is to happen to the existing premises. There is no reason why they should not be used again by some other person. Naturally, anyone who has offices which have involved him in expense will want to re-let or find somebody else to occupy them before he is prepared to go (even if he is prepared to go) elsewhere. What we shall be doing by this means is merely proliferating office accommodation, rather than doing what we want to do, which is to restrict it. I hope it may be possible to look at this Amendment again with a view to restricting any possibility of abuse, but, nevertheless, accepting the principle that nothing should be done to deter a bona fide person from seeking to improve the accommodation.


I think the noble Lord in charge of the Bill would be well advised to give this a great deal of thought, because his present attitude will be regarded as highly inequitable to anybody who happens to be victimised by it. First of all, a Government come along and say, "You must do something about your office premises; they are inadequate", and so on and so forth. Then the next Government come along and say, "We will not let you do it there. If you want to do it, you will have to go somewhere else." This may be all part of the noble Lord's Party business at the moment, which is, "Having inherited thirteen years of Tory misrule, we must now take unpopular decisions." They have inherited the Offices, Shops and Railway Premises Act, but it is really quite unnecessary to take this type of decision. It will only make them extremely unpopular with anybody who happens to be hit by it.


It so happens that the noble Lord, Lord Hawke, has hit on a very appropriate period. I can assure him that the Gowers Report was brought to the notice of the late Government ten years before any action was taken upon it. I would say to the noble Lord that this is not a matter of victimising anybody. It is not a matter of putting words into my mouth and saying we are forcing people to do this, that or the other. It is not the desire or the intention of the Board of Trade to be vindictive, and I am confident that nothing will be done in a vindictive manner. It is true to say that if we accepted the Amendment the applicant would be exempt. Then he would have to decide between the local authority and himself whether or not an office development permit was needed. I would ask the noble Lords to think of the confusion that this would cause. Local authorities might have different views.

I would, further, ask noble Lords to consider this point. We are not putting a ban on all office development it is a control. This in a measure has been done before by the Location of Offices Bureau, who have contrived over the time that they have been in operation to move offices out of Central London. I think it is overstating the position to say that this will apply in a tremendous number of cases. I can see that in some cases it may happen that they will be asked and assisted, and the matter will be discussed with them. But I do not see any difficulty about this. I would ask the Committee to refuse to accept this Amendment.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

3.10 p.m.

VISCOUNT COLVILLE OF CULROSS moved to add to subsection (3): and if, notwithstanding the provisions of this subsection planning permission is granted in pursuance of any such application, that permission shall be void. The noble Viscount said: This is a somewhat technical matter, but I hope that I can explain it briefly. In future, if you wish to build an office building or carry out office development, two documents are required: first, the office development permit, and, secondly, planning consent. Under subsection (3) of Clause 1 of this Bill you will not be able to get planning consent unless you have first obtained an O.D.P. There is nothing new about this. The same situation has applied to industrial development certificates for some time now. But the technical situation involves a certain number of complications. Your Lordships will see that subsection (3) says: …an application to the local planning authority for planning permission…shall be of no effect unless an office development permit has been issued. That is the same wording as in Section 38(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, and it is perfectly clear what it is intended to mean. The planning authority will have nothing with which to deal. A planning application put in for an office building will be null and void, and they will not have to decide it, unless the requisite consent from the Board of Trade accompanies it.

Unfortunately, it does not always work out quite as simply as that. Both the old system of industrial development certificates, and the new system under the Bill involve the most remarkable complications of fact as to when an O.D.P. is required and when it is not, and sometimes the local planning authorities get a little confused—and who can blame them? Sometimes they make a straight mistake, and, one way or another, there have been cases (and I put this Amendment down because I happened to meet one only the week before last) where, notwithstanding that an I.D.C. or an O.D.P. ought to have accompanied the planning application and did not, a consent was given. When that happens it leads to a situation which is quite astonishingly difficult to unscramble. Supposing that the consent is issued to the person who made the application. He then has a valid consent to build the building or to change the use, whichever he wishes to do. The record of the consent goes down upon the local planning register, and if the consent was given subject to any conditions, those conditions, and, I should think, the consent as well, go upon the register of local land charges, and certain legal effects will follow.

Once the planning consent has been given, it is not a personal matter; it runs with the land. If somebody comes along and buys that land, he finds that he has a valid consent to build the office or the industrial building, although in fact, under the law, the planning application itself is said to have been of no effect. How does one unscramble this? If the person goes ahead and seeks to carry out the development he wishes, the local planning authority may serve an enforcement notice. But they will then be countered, under the provisions of Section 46 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, with a ground of appeal that a planning consent for this development has been issued. So it has; and the owner of the land can produce it. It is down on a piece of paper and in the register of planning consents held by the local planning authority. Indeed, I think it would be very difficult for them to say that they had issued no consent, when no doubt the clerk of that authority had himself signed the piece of paper which is brandished before the inquiry. What does the Minister do in such a case? Is he to say that, although the planning authority issued this consent, and although land has been bought upon the basis of it, and money spent, and all the people concerned put to some expense and difficulty, the planning application was null and void, therefore any consent issued by virtue of it is equally null and void?

There is a considerable problem here. It is the same, of course, as in the case of an industrial development certificate, and it may well be that (as I am thankful to see) a certain amount of tidying-up is being done in this Bill. I think this would be an appropriate opportunity to deal with this small point that I raise in the case of I.D.C.s as well. At any rate, would it not be very much more straightforward to have in this Bill an absolutely clear expression of what is the law. If a mistake was made, everbody would know exactly where he stood. The local authority would be able to say, "I am sorry we have made a mistake and, although we have issued this consent nevertheless, by virtue of the Bill" (which would, I hope, by then contain the Amendment) "it is no consent, after all, and you must not proceed upon the basis of it." They would also be able to say, if the enforcement notice was served and a petition was brought against it, that no person had in fact a consent after all, and the ground of appeal to which I have referred would not be applicable. I believe it might be sense, and I hope your Lordships will agree that it is at any rate worth discussing the question of clearing up this small technical matter at this stage of the Bill. I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 2, line 18, at end insert the said words.—(Viscount Colville of Culross.)


With respect to the noble Viscount, I think the present position is perfectly clear, and I agree with what he said at the beginning of his remarks. It is perfectly true that, except in the case of a development order, you cannot have a planning permission without a planning application; consequently, if there is no planning application, or if the planning application has no effect, there is no effective planning permission. It does not make matters any clearer to say that—it is perfectly clear already. For that reason alone, I should have objected to the Amendment. But the noble Viscount put his points with singular clarity and succinctness, and I want to go on to give a further reason why, in this particular case, it would be not only rather a pity to put in this phrase, but would lead to confusion.

The language of this Bill follows at this point the language in the 1962 Act, to which the noble Viscount referred, with regard to industrial development certificates. If we are to correct it, as he suggests, though I cannot admit that it is a correction—let us say if we are to alter it in this case but not in the other—the immediate conclusion is that there must be some reason for doing it here which does not exist in the other case. In fact, it has been perfectly clear for a long time that industrial development certificates issued without an effective planning permission—


It is the other way round.


A planning permission issued without an industrial certificate would be of no effect.

Quite, shortly, if I may follow his own case a little further, the noble Viscount said that at present there may be confusion because there will be a signed consent and no-one would know that it was void. The signed consent would, however, be there just the same if these words were put into the Act, and the only difference would be that the voidness of that planning consent was twice expressed in the Act, instead of being once expressed. I prefer one single expression, therefore, to avoid an unnecessary addition and to preserve the uniformity which one wants to preserve between the treatment of industrial development certificates and the office development permits we are considering in this Bill. I must say to the Committee, with great respect, that this Amendment not only is unnecessary, but would actually do some harm.


I am very much obliged to the noble Lord for that explanation. Of course, I entirely follow the argument that he has put, and it was not one of which I was unaware. On the other hand, there has been in some localities considerable difficulty in interpreting the situation under the present industrial development certificate code. For instance, the town clerk might well he uncertain whether he would be correct to strike this consent off the register of planning consents. Would he, furthermore, be acting properly if he were to strike it off the register of local land charges, particularly if a notice had meanwhile been given by the registrar to somebody interested in the land which would have the effect of binding people as against anybody interested in the land in favour of the entry in the register? There are considerable practical difficulties when you get a mistake of this sort made.

I wonder—although I am perfectly content not to press it further this afternoon—whether the noble Lord would get the Department, for which he also answers, I think, though it is probably not his own, to take a further look at the administrative difficulties on the occasions when this happens, to see whether one of those invaluable circulars might not be issued which would put everything right and make everybody quite certain what had to happen. If the noble Lord will do that, I shall be glad to withdraw the Amendment.


I am sorry to disappoint the noble Lord, but we have done it already, and the conclusion reached, not only by those who advise me but, I am bound to add, by myself, is that, whatever the difficulties may be, this would make no difference whatsoever. It is for that reason I reject it. If I thought it would help I would gladly look at it again, or consider whether a circular was necessary; but I do not think the addition of this otiose phrase would help at all. In some of these cases the difficulty is that people imagine there is a valid planning permission when in fact there is not. Where the developers have acted mistakenly and carried out development in these circumstances, it may be difficult for the local authority to take action, and it may be difficult to ask the local authority to take action; and as the local authority has a discretion it might appear, looking at the matter afterwards, as if there were some doubt whether a valid planning permission had been issued.

But there is no doubt that if there has been no valid planning application, then, except in the case of the development order, there cannot be a valid planning permission. There is no obscurity about it. I am afraid the effect of this Amendment, or, for that matter, the effect of circulars about it, would not be to elucidate it at all.


I hesitate to intervene in this highly technical matter; I am not a lawyer. Can the noble Lord assure me that the local authority would not be liable to a purchase notice in respect of land that had been planned for offices or industry if it is found that, by reason of the withholding of the consent, that planning consent was completely ineffective?


The only assurance I can give the noble Viscount is the one I have given already; that is, that the addition of these words would not make any difference. One can think of cases in which there might be liabilities or might not be liabilities. All I am saying is that to add these words would not help the position at all. That is the advice I have had, and it is my own opinion; and, with great respect to all concerned, I think it is really a clear case.


Might I ask my noble friend this question, which perhaps would clarify the matter? If a planning permission is given after an office development permission has been issued, will that permission recite the fact that there has been an office development permission?


I do not find anything in this Bill about the terms in which the planning permission is to be given.


It is perhaps hardly for me to say anything more, but if the precedent is going to be the I.D.C., the answer certainly would be, No, because there is no mention of an I.D.C. in an industrial permission.


When I was at the Board of Trade and a case of this kind arose, I felt it was at least anomalous and rather embarrassing to leave the position as it was. That is to say, the mistake had been made, the building had been set up and the building was there as a standing mistake. One does not want to see a difference as between the office development permit procedure and the I.D.C. procedure, and anything done for the one no doubt should be done for the other. But to the ordinary layman the obvious and sensible answer is that there should be some power to validate the mistake by retrospectively giving permission, giving the office development permit or I.D.C. as the case may be.


This is an Amendment to add some words and the effect of the words is that a planning permission in certain cases will not be a planning permission because no valid planning application has been made. That is all it is about. You really do not make the thing any clearer, when you have said quite definitely that in those circumstances the planning application shall be of no effect. That really concludes the matter. I think that the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn, may have in mind a particular case of which I was told, which he had to consider when he was a Minister and the circumstances of which I tried, perhaps in a rather confused manner, to indicate when I was talking to the Committee on his noble friend's last speech on the matter. This is simply a question of whether or not these words add anything to what is already in the Bill. It is already perfectly clear, and to add additional words, especially if you do it in only one case out of two cases, would make it no clearer. I hope that the Committee will now feel satisfied that this Amendment is unnecessary and might do some harm, and I hope we can proceed.


I was not suggesting it was anything else, but I think the noble Lord misunderstood me. I was not aware there was a circular. Perhaps afterwards he would tell me the number of it.


I did not mention a circular.


I thought the noble Lord said there was a circular which gave some sort of instruction upon this matter. I am sure he said that. Perhaps it was a slip. I will read the OFFICIAL REPORT to see what he did say. At any rate, I do not wish to press it further. I am sure the noble Lord said there was a circular about this.


What I intended to refer to was a decision. Perhaps I used the wrong word inadvertently.


The noble Lord used the word "circular". If the noble Lord could tell me what the decision is—not at this stage but at some later time—I shall be happy to study it. Meanwhile, I beg leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

3.29 p.m.

LORD DRUMALBYN moved, in subsection (4), after "promoting" to insert "efficiency and". The noble Lord said: I think it might be convenient to your Lordships if we took Amendments Nos. 4 and 5 at the same time, as they really hang together. I am not going to make a Second Reading speech on this, although quite obviously, when we are dealing with what is the purpose of the control and the formula and basis on which the Board of Trade is going to have to defend and justify the exercise of its powers, these things are near to the core of the matter.

Perhaps I may start by referring to the words in the Town and Country Planning Act, 1947, Section 14(4), dealing with industrial development certificates where the Board of Trade has to administer its powers: …consistently with the proper distribution of industry. Here we have something quite different; we have "the better distribution of employment". On the face of it, one would have thought that "the better distribution of employment" was a function of the Ministry of Labour, and possibly of the Department for Economic Affairs, rather than the Board of Trade. After all, what are we talking about here? We are talking about the need to provide office employment near where people live, in the metropolitan region in the first place, instead of bringing people into London; and, in the second place, in other parts of the country rather than bringing them down to the South-East. I think that is the general purpose.

I do not foresee any great movement of population away from the South-East as a result of this control, for one reason because, according to the Location of Offices Bureau Report, three-quarters of the firms who have moved out of London have found no difficulty in getting clerical, or even executive and specialist staff in the places to which they have moved. So moving out of London will enable executive and specialist staff to obtain office employment locally instead of having to come to London for it. I am not going to argue to-day whether the Bill is necessary to achieve that result. But the question surely is, assuming the control, what it should be about. I am saying that it should be about office employment, and not about employment in general.

The second point is that "better" is a highly subjective word. For the purposes of efficiency, for example, in our export effort, some say it might be better if the present trend to the South-East continued. This is a view that is strongly held in some quarters; so I think that is a highly subjective word. I personally agree with what I understand to be the Government view on this, that on broad grounds of policy it is better if office employment is more evenly distributed; and if by "better" we mean "more evenly", then I suggest that we should say so.

Lastly, there is the question whether the better or the more even distribution should in every case be regarded as the overriding consideration, for when a department is enjoined to have particular regard to something it is apt to be treated as an overriding consideration. I recognise that office premises are often built to let, and outside London perhaps even more often than for the firm applying for planning permission to occupy themselves. Even if they are built to let, efficiency must be a potent consideration Efficiency must be a potent consideration, in considering whether or not to give an office development permit—for example the cost of communications, the ease of travel, the concentration of that particular kind of work, and the need for that kind of work in a certain place.

But where a firm has decided to establish itself or its headquarters in a certain place and applies for planning permission to build there, consideration of efficiency must surely be at least on a par with the general desirability of promoting the better distribution of offices, if not even an overriding consideration, because, after all, efficiency must be the dominant note in our economy to-day. I would concede right away that it is a consideration much more difficult for the Board of Trade to evaluate than in the case of factories. But I do not think that is a reason for not putting "efficiency" into the Bill. It is possibly an argument against having the control at all, but I do not think it is an argument, if you have the control, for not putting "efficiency" into the Bill. If you have the control, it is, I submit, a consideration which must be overriding, and therefore I believe it should rank with the other consideration already put in the Bill: promoting, as I would have it, the more even distribution of office employment in Great Britain. I think it should rank equally with that and should not be overridden. For that reason, I beg to move.

Amendment moved— Page 2, line 21, after ("promoting") insert ("efficiency and").—(Lord Drumalbyn).


I beg to move that, for the purpose of dealing with the Statement, the House do now resume.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.