HL Deb 30 May 1968 vol 292 cc1263-74

4.20 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, may I first pay my personal tribute to the noble Baroness, Lady Serota, for the clarity and charm with which she has presented this Bill—the first Bill which she has had the responsibility of presenting to this House. On behalf of the Churches represented on the Churches Main Committee I should like to give a general welcome to this Bill. One of the outstanding features of the present day in this country is the widespread movement of population. New towns are springing up, town centres in existing areas are being re-planned, and whole sections of slum property are being pulled down and the residents moved to new estates. All these changes involve re-planning by the Churches of their provision for the spiritual and social needs of the community. The new system of structure and local plans set forth in this Bill is an attempt to streamline the planning arrangements with a view to saving time and possible administrative complications. Any move in this direction will be welcomed by the Churches.

In order to keep pace with these new developments the Churches are keeping their local arrangements under constant review. In nearly every diocese there is an area interdenominational committee representing all the principal Churches in that area. New towns have their special committees, while in the case of some of the more important areas special bodies have been set up to maintain close con- tact with the planning authorities and to carry on consultations between all the Churches. As an example I might quote the Greater London Consultative Group, set up by the Bishop of London to maintain close contact with the Greater London Council. A similar body has been set up by the Diocese of Southwark, called the Department of Religious Sociology, which has broadly the same purpose. These are only general examples of a good many arrangements which have been made towards greater planning and œcumenical arrangements in the local areas served by the Churches.

If these local bodies are to work effectively it is absolutely essential that there should be early and close contact with the planning authorities responsible for structure and local plans. To some extent this point has been met by the new clauses introduced by the Minister at Report stage in another place. But these clauses do not go far enough. It is not sufficient to provide the Churches with information about plans already formulated. They should be given an opportunity, at the stage where the plans are in process of being framed, of making known their views and helping to plan for the provision of church buildings or community centres on sensible lines, wherever practicable sharing projects and buildings on a partnership basis, as we are seeking to do in my diocese. We understand that a committee is at present sitting, under the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, to consider public participation in planning, and the Churches have lost no time in making their views known to this committee. We hope that the evidence submitted will be closely studied and that local planning authorities will be urged to take the Churches into close consultation at the earliest possible stage.

I now pass to one or two points in the Bill, which I will deal with as shortly as possible. I have already referred to the importance of early consultation in regard to planning, and I do not think there is any need to say more in regard to Parts I and II of the Bill. The main concern of the Churches is with Part V, which deals with buildings of architectural or historic interest. This Part of the Bill imports new provisions restricting the demolition or serious alteration or I extension of listed buildings. The Bill provides that these new provisions shall not apply to ecclesiastical buildings used for ecclesiastical purposes; that is to say, in general, churches, but not ministers' residences. There has been a movement in some quarters to repeal this exemption in favour of ecclesiastical buildings which, as the House may know, has existed for over fifty years. Naturally, the Churches have this matter under constant and close consideration, and at this very time there is a Commission sitting, under Professor Arthur Phillips, with the authority of the Church of England Assembly to consider the whole relations of the Church of England to the planning law of the country. Naturally, I cannot forecast what conclusions this Commission will come to, nor can I say whether the other Churches will revise their opinions. At the present time, however, there is no indication that the Churches Main Committee would in any way wish to see this exemption withdrawn or diminished. They will, therefore, be bound to oppose any proposal to amend the Bill in this respect.

This brings me to what is perhaps the most important point in the Churches' case. Churches exist primarily for the purpose of public worship, and this implies a congregation. If, owing to movements of population or for other reasons, the population has diminished or disappeared, the church in most cases becomes redundant. In that event, it ceases to qualify for the exemption in favour of ecclesiastical buildings in ecclesiastical use and becomes subject to all the provisions of Part V of the Bill.

The normal course that Church authorities would adopt would be to dispose of the church building which was no longer required and to use the money to provide a church in a new housing area or elsewhere where it is urgently required. At this stage, however, they may find that consent to the demolition and sale of the church building is refused. What then is to be the position of the church authorities? It is doubtful whether they have the power to maintain the building as an ancient monument, and in any case the question of financial support would arise. Contributions from the Historic Buildings Councils, even if they were forthcoming, are hardly likely to be adequate.

So far as I understand this Bill the only remedy is to claim that the property has become "incapable of reasonably beneficial use" and to serve a purchase notice on the local authority to buy the property. Unfortunately, it is notoriously difficult to say that a church building is "incapable of reasonably beneficial use". It can be uses for a large number of secular purposes, and, in any event, before making such a claim the church authorities would hive to satisfy themselves that no other denomination could use it. To some extent, the Church of England have met this problem in the Pastoral Measure which recently came before this House for Affirmative Resolution. There still remain, however, the buildings of the other Churches, many of which are involved.

Accordingly, I should like to appeal to the Government to consider this problem seriously, and in particular to see whether there is any way in which the words "reasonably beneficial use" can be explained and clarified. This could probably be done by making it clear that "reasonably beneficial use" is confined to the particular Church or denomination owning the property. In that case, all that would be required would be for the church authorities to prove that the church had ceased to be of any use to them in that particular locality, owing to movements of population, or for other reasons; it would not be necessary to show that there was no other secular or religious use to which it could be put. I can assure the Minister that this is a very real problem and involves the whole pastoral work of some of the Churches represented on the Churches Main Committee. They are particularly disturbed by the prospect that, as a result of the movement of population to which I have referred, they might be left with redundant churches which could not be demolished and sold and for which a purchase notice was rejected. I hope very much that the matter will be carefully looked at, and if the Churches Main Committee can be of any assistance, we shall be only too glad to discuss the question with the Minister or his officials.

My Lords, I think I have said enough to indicate the points in the Bill which are of special interest to the Churches; but, in general, I would repeat what I said at the beginning, that this Bill, which is an attempt to simplify and expedite the planning of new areas, has the support and good will of the Churches as a whole.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, may I first of all thank both my noble friend Lady Serota and the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, for the flattering, all too flattering, remarks that they made about the part that I played 21 years ago in connection with planning legislation. It is a good thing to be remembered with friendliness after all that period. There is a good deal of legislation passed 21 years ago that one would not think of in such complimentary terms, and it is nice to know that this legislation is still remembered in even more friendly terms than it was at the time when it was introduced; because I remember that at that time it was stated that nobody understood this legislation except myself and that even I had forgotten what it was all intended to be. But to-day it is, I think, regarded almost as a model of clarity compared with some of the legislation that we have been receiving of late. I do not know whether the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, could find any parallel in the 1947 Act to the extract that he read from one of the Schedules to the present Bill. But of course we have not finished with the Bill yet, and perhaps we can clarify it.

May I also congratulate the noble Baroness on her first effort in introducing a major Bill, and particularly in following the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, on the Countryside Bill in making it reasonably short. I think that she succeeded in explaining the relevant parts of the Bill, and those to which it was important we should have our attention drawn, without going into a large amount of elaborate detail, which would be quite unnecessary on a Second Reading speech.

After that, it would be rather churlish of me to complain about the speed with which this Bill has been introduced into this House. But I do think it unfair to noble Lords that a Bill of this complexity and length should have been introduced only three days after the Bill has become available. It could be said that we had an opportunity of reading the original Bill and could have gone through the Report of the Committee stage, and that we could have read the Report of the Report stage. But I would draw the attention of the House to the fact that the Committee stage of this Bill was spread over 24 sittings. The Bill was drastically amended, and it was physically impossible in the short time available to go through this Committee stage.

On the Report stage there were 244 Amendments, many of them introduced by the Government, and I would say, at a rough guess, that more than half of those 244 were either accepted on the subject of an undertaking that they would be considered and dealt with during the proceedings in this House. In these circumstances the Bill that comes up to us to-day is a very different Bill from the Bill that was first introduced and the White Paper upon which the original Bill was based. I am not complaining of the noble Baroness, nor of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. It is not their fault; nor that of my noble friend, Lord Beswick. I am not making a complaint about them.


My Lords, will my noble friend excuse my intervening for one moment? Had he been to discuss with us the difficulties, as the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, was good enough to come and discuss them, I should have explained to him, and I hope that I could have convinced him, that the present arrangement was, in the long run, for the greatest convenience of the House. The essential thing with a complex Bill of this kind is to give adequate time between Second Reading and Committee stage, and I am now hopeful that, as a result of our taking the Second Reading to-day, we can ensure that there is a satisfactory interval of time before we discuss the Bill on Committee stage. I put it to the noble Lord, whose influence is very great in this House, that the best service he could render to us is by putting these points to the other side of the Palace, not only to members of our Party, but, if I may delicately phrase it, members of his family.


My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that that part of the matter has already been attended to. But I am not so much concerned to-day with the convenience of my noble friend and of the business here as with the personal convenience of those who are taking part in the debate. I find myself in very great difficulty in saying anything worthwhile (I know that I have not done so so far) about this Bill, in view of the short time that we have had it available. I associate myself again with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, in the hope that we shall have adequate time to study any Amendments which the Government propose to put down, either at the Committee stage or at later stages of the Bill. We are bound to have a considerable number of Amendments, both in Committee and on Report, and we are not really serving any useful purpose to this House at all, in spite of all the flattering remarks that have been made about me personally, if one has not the opportunity of studying all that is being done and expressing a judgment on it. That is all I want to say on the personal side.

I welcome this Bill. I fully appreciate that after 21 years amendment to our planning procedure really was necessary. I should have preferred that it had awaited the time until the Government could legislate on the Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government, because I am quite certain that one of the essential things about our planning machinery is that a change is necessary in the formation of local planning authorities. I am quite certain that so long as we have our existing local planning authorities, with the system of delegation to the district councils, we shall continue to have an intolerable amount of delay in our proceedings.

May I deal first with this question of delay, because that was put in the forefront of the speech of the Minister in introducing the Bill in another place? He set out four matters with which he wanted to deal, but said that he thought the most important was the intolerable delay in getting decisions. This delay he took upon himself largely as a responsibility of the Ministry, but in fact a large amount of delay is incurred by the local authorities themselves. I know many cases, and I have had a considerable experience in recent years, where it takes from nine to twelve months before a planning application is actually dealt with by the local planning authority itself. One of the reasons is that there is this system of delegation to district councils: their views have first to be obtained. Quite often the views of the district council are not those of the local planning authority, and differences have, if possible, to be resolved, and the result is a great deal of delay.

I hope that in due course we shall have a more sensible system of local planning authorities, possibly on a regional basis, which would at any rate enable one body to give a decision and not have it referred from one body to another. I quite realise that it is going to be a long time before we can get legislation, and I am not in the least complaining that the Government have introduced legislation to-day to deal with what has become a really urgent problem.

I have referred to the delay caused by local authorities. But the delay caused in appeals is even more intolerable. I see that in another place the Minister referred to a period of some nine months from the time when an appeal is lodged to the time when the decision is given. I wish that were true. It is more likely to be double that period. From the many experiences that I have had (I am sorry again to refer to my experiences, but they are relevant), it may be as long as two years from the time when an appeal is lodged with the Minister to the time when the decision is given. Anything that will curtail that period will be most welcome.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, referred to the fact that the number of appeals has gone down from (I think he said) 14,000 some years ago to 10,000 in the last year. That is not surprising. In view of the delay in getting a decision a great many people have come to the conclusion that an appeal is not worth while and are prepared to put up with what they may regard as an injustice. But that is not the way in which we want to conduct our system of planning. We do not want people to labour under an injustice because they feel that the delay and uncertainty are intolerable. The Bill provides a number of means by which this delay can be reduced, but it does not deal with the delay by local authorities themselves, and, as I have said, that represents a quite substantial part of the delay. Without wishing to criticise local authorities harshly, I feel that many of them are unduly and exceptionally finicky about their approach to planning.

I regard our system of civil liberties in this country as one in which a citizen should be entitled to do what he likes with his own property, unless it is clearly against the public interest that he should do so. I understood that to be the whole basis of the control of development: that a man can carry out any development he likes if it is not against the public interest. I should have been prepared to give the developer the benefit of any doubt. If there is a genuine doubt as to whether a particular development is against the public interest, then I think he should be allowed to develop. Indeed, the only justification for refusing permission should be that to develop would be injurious to the public.

But, my Lords, that is not the spirit in which our town planning has been conducted. Indeed, I doubt whether it is entirely the spirit in which it has been conducted at the Ministry. If there is the slightest reason, the slightest case, for doubting the desirability of any development, then it is refused. Development is refused, for instance, because in fifteen years' time there may possibly be a need for road widening. I should not myself have thought that was a justification for refusing development to-day. But that is frequently what happens now; and if we want to improve the planning situation, I think that we must change our outlook on this matter and be prepared to give planning approvals much more readily, taking the risk, if need be, of having to pay compensation at some later date because we need to carry out certain improvements.

I should like to associate myself with practically all the preliminary observations which the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, made about this Bill and the various matters which he thought would require close examination. I must say that I admire the diligence with which he has been able to go through the Bill—which is more than I have been able to do—and to pick on points which he thought would require attention. He expressed the hope that I would take part in the Committee stage. I can promise him that I shall, although I do not promise that I shall always agree with him.

Clause 3 of the Bill provides for a new form of development plan—the structure plan and the local plan. I must confess that I have some doubt as to what the structure plan really amounts to. What sort of a proposal are we going to get? On the face of it, Clause 3(3) looks to me much too vague. If, as the Minister said in his opening speech, it is desired to induce more people to participate and take an interest in planning, and to express their views about it, then the substance and content of a structure plan ought to be made much clearer.

There is to be a written statement of a very general character indeed, and it could be accompanied by drawings—not elaborate drawings or plans, but some kind of pictorial statement. But statements of a general character like that are not going to be conducive to people taking a close interest, and if we really want people to come forward and say what they think of the structure plan, they have to appreciate how it is going to affect them, and there must be a certain amount of definiteness about the plan which will enable them to make fairly detailed criticisms.

If you say, for instance, that a road is necessary from A to B, and this is part of your structure plan, it is of no great interest to anyone— except perhaps in the case of Oxford, where there are amenity considerations—unless people know exactly where this road is going to be. That is the difficulty of distinguishing between the structure plan and the local plan.

One of the difficulties that we are going to be faced with may well be that people have not objected to or commented on a structure plan because they had some doubts as to how it would affect them, or because it was not clear. Then, when they have received the local plan they have found that it did affect them. But they have been already committed by the structure plan, and not having objected to that, they are not in a position to object to the local plan. I may develop this matter at a later stage, but if the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, can clear my mind about the distinction between these two types of plans, I shall be very much relieved.

I agree with all the criticisms that have been made about the nature of the development plan under the present legislation. It has become much too rigid and, as has been stated in another place by a number of speakers, it is a fact that in many cases it takes so long to get approval of a development plan that it is already out of date by the time the approval is given. I take it that the structure plan will be a much more flexible instrument and that it will be possible to put forward further structure plans from time to time and to review them without the detailed formality attaching to the present development plan. If that is so, it will certainly be an improvement.

I do not want to go right through the Bill. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, that the 1947 Act was much more successful in dealing with the control of the countryside than with control of urban areas. He has given some of the reasons for that. It is perfectly true that the control of the countryside is a much simpler matter. It is largely a question of negative control, whereas the development of urban areas is much more difficult in view of the tremendous growth in population and traffic. I am a little doubtful whether this local plan is the real answer to the problem and whether it will be possible, even by a combination of the structure plan and the local plan, to foresee many of the difficulties that are going to face us in the coming years, to deal with them and to give the public an opportunity of commenting on them. I think that those clauses of the Bill will require a good deal of examination.

Finally, I welcome the new form of inquiry which has been set up, the Planning Inquiry Commission under Clauses 54 and 55. If we had had that form of inquiry in existence at the time of Stansted we should have saved ourselves a great deal of heartache and should have been much further forward than we are to-day in the provision of a third London airport. I think it should work. At any rate, I compliment the Government on their courage and initiative in having put the proposal forward, and we shall examine it more closely as the Bill proceeds. I must express my apologies to the House for the rather scrappy nature of my remarks, but I have not had the opportunity of going through the Bill as I should have liked. I hope that in the course of the later stages the Bill will get the full examination which it deserves, and which is essential if we are to make a success of town planning in the future.

Our system of town planning has received compliments from all quarters. It has been stated to be one of the finest in the world and we want to enable it to continue to be so in the future. Everything will depend on the quality of the legislation which passes through this House in connection with this Bill. Therefore I emphasise again—and I am very glad my noble friend the Leader of the House is here—that we must have the fullest possible opportunity of examining the Bill and ensuring that it gets the greatest amount of discussion and consideration. I am much encouraged by the manner in which it has been received by the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor. There has been no element of Party politics in this. He has given it, as I believe, an objective examination, and I hope that the further proceedings of this Bill can be conducted in the same spirit.

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