HL Deb 30 May 1968 vol 292 cc1277-302

5.5 p.m.

Second Reading debate resumed.


My Lords, it is always a privilege to hear the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, in a debate on town and country planning. It is less of a privilege to have to follow him, since one feels rather like an undergraduate following a professor. I should also like to add my support to the general plea that this Bill should be given plenty of time for the various stages through this House. It is an extremely complex Bill and the planning laws will be even more complex when it is passed into law.

I would give a general welcome to the three main objectives of the Bill; namely, the speeding up of decisions, the improvement in the quality of decisions, and the proposal to allow more people to become involved in those decisions. However, I personally believe that these objectives will be difficult to achieve under the Bill as at present drafted, and I hope that there will be some revision during its various stages in this House.

Anybody with any experience of planning applications and appeals must agree with the first main objective of the Bill, the need for quicker decisions. The present system of planning appeals is an almost exact parallel to this Government's legislative programme. It is the malaise of overloading the system, which leads to a strangulation of progress and ultimate collapse. How the Bill hopes to achieve the need for quicker decisions was explained to us by the noble Baroness, Lady Serota. It is a system with a two-tier structure—a phrase which seems to ring a bell. It is the second half of this two-tier structure, the local plan and the method of appeal against a planning refusal under such a plan, which has led to a certain amount of concern and which I should like to raise to-day.

The main concern is in relation to Clause 22, as to the way in which the local authority will be able not oily to refuse a planning application in the first instance, but to appoint their own inspector to hear the appeal. One knows that there are safeguards in the Bill, in Clause 20, under which the Minister can call in such an appeal, but where, when, and on what grounds appears to be most vague. For example, could the appellant appeal to the Minister for a Ministry inspector to hear the appeal? And where a local authority undertakes planning for its own use, would an appeal go to the Ministry inspector?

No doubt the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will have seen a letter in The Times last January, in which the Chairman of the Council for the Preservation of Rural England described the planning appeal proposals under the Bill as repugnant to the British sense of justice. I would not go so far as that, but I feel that decisions on planning appeals could easily become open to suspicion and doubt as to their fairness, for the simple reason that the local authority inspector, however fair he may be, will find it difficult, because he has been appointed by the local authority, to convince any aggrieved party that he is totally unbiased.

Another interesting comment on the local appeal system was made in page 48 of the Report of the Planning Advisory Committee, under "Planning Appeals." The view was expressed that more appeals from planning refusals under the local plan could well result from this Bill because, unlike the old development plan, the local plan will not have the authority of ministerial approval behind it. If there are more appeals—and there could well be—the result must surely be a large increase both in public expenditure and, most important of all, in the local rates.

The second fundamental objective of the Bill, public participation in planning, is one with which I am sure few people would quarrel. I do not think one can put the objective better than to repeat the words of the noble Lord's right honourable friend on January 31 in another place. He said: I want people to have a much better chance of being involved in the planning of the area they live in and of influencing it."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, Commons, 31/1/68, col. 1362.] Because I know that this was not just a lip-service paid by the Minister, and that it is the earnest objective of the Bill, I feel that I should advise the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, that during the Committee stage I plan to try to strengthen the Bill even more towards that objective by introducing an Amendment whereby the planning application requirement will include notification to the parish council in whose area the application is involved.

There are a number of sound reasons for this, of which I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, is aware. In the first place, a new development in a country village has a much more striking effect on the surroundings than a similar development in an urban setting. A second practical reason is that those living in a village are often in a much weaker position in regard to planning applications and decisions than those living in a town. The reason for that is that members of the rural district councils often represent two, three or even four parishes, and although they are acutely aware of their own parish they are sometimes less familiar with other parishes. This is borne out by recent examples of planning decisions which clearly show that members of planning committees were not fully conversant with the sites under discussion. I have two examples of this. There is the example of a sewerage system in Lincolnshire which was passed by the council. It was later discovered that the land was waterlogged, although the local inhabitants knew about it before the application was passed. The scheme was eventually abandoned having cost the taxpayers £9,000, yet at no point was the parish council consulted. The second example is in regard to a housing scheme in Berkshire, where the architect designing the scheme went to great pains and considerable cost to preserve certain trees. Again, the local inhabitants knew that those trees were due for felling anyway, because they were diseased and dying, or even dead, and yet again the parish council was not consulted.

At the present time, in 60 per cent. of the countryside, through the county councils there has evolved a practice whereby applicants have to notify parish councils. That demonstrates two important factors: first, that notification to parish councils does not gum up or slow down the process of planning; and, secondly, that the majority of county councils consider that such a procedure is an important part of the system of planning and a method of ensuring that local people have a say in local planning. For obvious reasons, I do not wish to advance any further arguments to-day in favour of this case. But I earnestly hope that the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, will be able at a later stage to accept this concept which, I am sure, as a countryman must be dear to his own heart.

There is one other question which I should like to ask the noble Lord, and that is on the future of Green Belts. As I understand it, some time ago the noble Lord's right honourable friend announced that there would be no further extension of Green Belts until local authorities could first show that proper provision had been made in their areas for housing needs. But, against this, many local authorities have awaited ministerial approval of their Green Belt proposals for many years; in fact, for almost a decade.

As the noble Lord knows, the Green Belt represents to many people a certain security of planning and a certain sanity of planning, in addition to helping to check the sporadic expansion of towns and cities. But it is at present in a very unsatisfactory position, in that the Minister is apparently not willing to approve Green Belt proposals. I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, if he can say whether the Minister intends to continue with this concept of Green Belts, and, if so, when he intends to approve the various outstanding Green Belt proposals.

I should like to end by repeating my doubts about whether this new Bill will really achieve the streamlining and the quality of decision which it sets out to achieve. It will certainly lead to many more appeals under local plans, and in many cases to dissatisfaction with the new appeal system. As town and country planning affects the lives of every one of us and, in the words of the White Paper, shapes the conditions in which we live together". I hope that this Bill will be given the most careful consideration and scrutiny as it passes through this House.

5.17 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to preface what I have to say tonight by joining in the expressions of appreciation, congratulation, or retrospective congratulation, whichever is the right word, which other speakers have offered to the noble Lord, Lord Silkin. I am sure we are all very glad to see him in his place to-night. I saw a good deal of the Act of 1947 in its early years. It was a most bold and imaginative venture. It has served this country well for twenty years, and even if it is now getting a little out of date that does not detract from the merits which it brought to national planning in the past.

We are getting into the habit of speaking of the Act of 1947 as though that was the first attempt to bring under comprehensive planning control all the land in this country. That of course was not the case. I am sure the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, recalls the Act of 1932 as clearly as I do. That Act sought to bring all the land in the country under effective planning control. It failed because it was too timid and because it was administered at too low a level, which meant that in many cases it was not administered at all. The Act of 1947 has, I think, proved to be unsuited to the conditions of to-day because it is too rigid. There is not a sufficient flexibility in the administration of the development plan; and I think it is that defect, which was pointed out by the Planning Advisory Group, which this Act seeks to remedy.

My Lords, the noble Baroness, when she introduced the Bill this afternoon, spoke of it as a very important Bill; and indeed it is a Bill of first-rate importance. It is a complicated Bill which requires much closer study than your Lordships have been able to give it hitherto. During the passage of the Bill in another place a great many assurances were given at different stages by the Minister in charge that the Government would look again at a number of provisions in the detailed Parts of the Bill. Of course, one welcomes those assurances, but they make it rather difficult to discuss this Bill tonight in any detail, because in many cases one does not know what the final provisions of the Bill are likely to be. Accordingly, I do not propose tonight to venture into criticism of the details of the Bill, or indeed to explore them at any great length. We shall have opportunities to do that later.

The Bill in its general aspects is welcomed, I think, by the local authorities. There are, of course, certain detailed criticisms which they will desire to make at a later stage, but generally speaking I think the Bill is acceptable to the local authorities. The Bill is to be carried out by the local planning authorities. As I understand it, what is called the structure plan will be carried out by local planning authorities, which means county councils and county boroughs. Local plans are also to be carried out by the local planning authorities, and all the authorities below the county councils and below the county boroughs appear to be excluded altogether. That seems to me to be a matter of regret. I should have thought that this was an opportunity when use could very profitably be made of the services of the non-county boroughs. I am fortified in that impression by the fact that the Planning Advisory Group recommended that the local plans should be made for urban areas having a population of 50,000. If 50,000 is to be selected as the unit to be covered, or as an approximation of the size of area which will be covered, by the local plan, I should have thought that use could have been made of the non-county borough. The non-county borough might well have been made responsible for the preparation of the action plans and of local plans, leaving the structure plan to the county council.

I agree, as the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, pointed out, that there is delegation by the county authorities to the non-county boroughs and to the urban districts, but it is not a satisfactory form of delegation because the decision has to come back again to the county council; and that, of course, adds still further to the delay in getting a final decision. I see no reason why a non-county borough having a population of, say, 50,000 or 60,000 should not be made the authority responsible for the local plan. I should have thought that another advantage of that arrangement would be that it would stimulate local interest, which is one of the purposes which the Minister has in view in this Bill. The fact that the local council were the people responsible for preparing the plan would have made a useful contribution to the amount of public interest taken in its preparation. My Lords, there it is; and I hope, though without very much real confidence, that the noble Lord may to-night give me some encouragement that at a later stage we may amend the Bill so as to make it possible for the non-county boroughs to play the part which they are anxious to play.

Now I turn from the administration or the Bill to the question of appeals. The present system of appeals is this. An appeal against a decision by the planning authority is heard by an inspector of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government. He is, of course, an official. He hears the evidence and takes a note of the parties' cases, but he does not decide the appeal. His recommendation goes to the Minister, and it is the Minister who gives the decision for or against the appeal, basing himself upon the material which the inspector has collected. That means that there are two minds at work on the solution of an appeal. But I have always felt a little uneasy about these appeals on planning matters, and I feel still more uneasy at the proposal that the inspector shall be the person who not only takes the evidence but gives the final decision. I do not think it is right that in matters which frequently involve large sums of money the final decision should be given, without any right of appeal, by a single individual.

At one time the Ministry considered setting up a local tribunal. I would not advocate that. I think it would be difficult to staff a local tribunal; and there are other reasons why I think that proposal would not be successful. In fact, it was condemned by the Royal Commission on Tribunals. But what the Minister was considering then was something rather different from what I am drawing attention to to-night. He was considering circumstances in which the hearing of an appeal would be before a local tribunal and the decision would be given by them. The proposal was rejected, and rightly rejected. But it is not right, in my view, that there should be no appeal from the inspector. I am quite sure that every tribunal does its work better if there is an appeal from its decision; and that, I think, applies with force to the hearing of these planning appeals.

My Lords, I make no reflection upon the inspectors. I have known many inspectors of the Ministry, and have appeared before them on many occasions. They are not, of course, lawyers, and they are not men who have been trained in hearing evidence and in the collection of material. But they do their work well, and I think they are generally respected by those who have to appear before them. But still the fact remains that the decision is the decision of a single person, without any appeal; and that, I think, is fundamentally unsound and fundamentally wrong.

I have one other matter which I desire to put to the Minister. The Bill provides that the amount of compensation which is payable under the present law to statutory undertakers if in fact they sustain loss by reason of planning decisions shall be reduced; and I welcome that. I see no real reason why a statutory undertaker should be given a special position in regard to these matters. Why should he be entitled to compensation when an ordinary person is not? I think it would have been much better if the Bill had gone a stage further and had said that the whole question of paying special compensation of this sort to statutory undertakers should be brought to an end.

My Lords, I should like to go a little further than that. One knows that statutory undertakers sometimes claim that they are not bound by town planning restrictions. I do not know. It is a question whether they are or are not. But it is quite clear that the Crown is not bound by statutory provisions. Crown proposals are not subject to local town planning consent. I think it would be much better if they were. There is no reason why a building erected by the Crown, or by one of its agencies, such as the Post Office, should be free from the planning control which would be applied to another applicant. It may be that the right way would be to do what I believe is done in some Departments today: that is, that the views of the planning authorities are ascertained by the Planning Departments and their views are respected. If they express views against the proposed development then the Department do not carry it out. When I was concerned to obtain premises for the public service I was quite free from town planning restrictions but I always consulted the planning authority. If there was an objection to what we proposed to do then we treated ourselves as ordinary applicants and gave up the project. That is the right way for a Government Department to act.

I should like to see planning control extended not only to statutory undertakers—if they are not subject to it at present—but to the Crown as well, perhaps in some modified form by voluntary arrangements between the different Departments involved. I have only those three points to put to the Minister tonight. I am sure that this Bill is a necessary one and a very welcome one. It will, I think, be readily accepted by the general public, and it will certainly be readily accepted by the local authorities.

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for speaking when my name is not on the list. The fault is not mine; I sent my name in, but it failed to get on the list. Three or four minutes will suffice for me to make the single point that I am concerned with to-day. The Bill has had a general welcome, and I shall not repeat other people's comments. I am interested in one point only, the point covered in Clauses 3 and 7 on public participation in planning—which is a very important idea and one which so far in this country has not reached a very advanced stage. Planning has fallen into some disrepute among the public because of its grievous delays; and one of the main objects of this Bill is to speed up the process. In this we are all behind the Bill. But as you speed things up, so you increase the danger of riding roughshod over objectors. What I like about the Bill is that it seems to me to be making a real effort to avoid doing this. Although it may be possible to improve the Bill in Committee, it shows willing in this most important aspect.

My Lords, we must provide for this opportunity for objectors all along the line—and the line is getting longer every day. First of all, there is the regional planning council. Then there are the structure plans described in the Bill, the occasional action areas and, finally, the local areas. It is essential that in each case the authorities should give an opportunity for objection; and the Bill lays down that in the structural stage and in the local stage they must take steps to secure that "adequate publicity is given". Just what that means is not, I think, made clear. It is here that the whole process could break down. The less people understand things, the angrier they get. The truth is that as things grow more complex and difficult, ordinary people react in the classical way of Pavlov's dogs who, as your Lordships will remember, continued to react accurately in distinguishing between stimuli as they got closer and closer until, finally, they were so close that the dogs went to sleep. I feel that there is a real danger that the public concerned with these complex affairs will become apathetic. We must guard against this.

I hope that we may get some real guidance from the Skeffington Committee, whose appointment we all welcome, and who were referred to in another dace on the Second Reading. The Committee has asked for evidence; but its setting up has been overshadowed by serious international crises, and I am afraid that it may have failed to get the publicity it deserves. It has, I think, approached one or two interested bodies; but we do not know which bodies. I should have preferred to have seen the Committee seek evidence more widely and more definitely than I believe it has.

My Lords, I should like to support—and at this stage with the due proviso that one may change one's views later on—the suggestion of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, of an Amendment in relation to parish councils. I think that in country areas this is important; though I doubt whether it will do much good in the urban areas. There is only one local authority—I think it is Bristol—that has considered communication with its citizens important enough to warrant a fully-fledged department of public relations. I think others will have to follow suit.

I should like to suggest one thing that I think the local authorities might be expected to do to bring their plans to the attention of the public. There should be in every major town and city an information department to publicise the council's activities and to handle the complaints, questions and suggestions of the citizens. It should be an important part of community life, situated in an accessible part of the town possibly in the shopping centre. It should not be pushed down into a local authority basement. We had an instance of this in my own area in the country where a village plan was brought to the women's institute and exposed for criticism—of which it received a great deal—for a week or two. In a country village this, I think, is adequate; but in a town I do not think it is. I feel that the citizens would be more likely to find out what the local authority intends to do, and get a chance to lodge their objections to it, if they could go to a centre of this kind and see a clearly marked and illustrated map describing the project. That is the only point I have to make. It has been a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Silk in who was my M.P. 35 years ago in Peckham, and to follow my noble friend Lady Serota on introducing her first Bill. I wish it every success.

5.40 p.m.


My Lords, the structure of town and country planning in this country is indeed old. For the sake of historical interest, I should like to remind your Lordships of the 1932 Town and Country Planning Act, the first Town and Country Planning Act ever to be passed by a British Parliament. I have just been looking at the Second Reading debate on that Bill, and I find that a Conservative Minister of Health proposed that there should be a system of compensation for those whose interests in the land were reduced by planning decisions, and that there should also be a levy on those whose interests in the land were increased. He proposed that the compensation should be paid by local authorities, and that the land levy—"betterment levy" as he called it—should go to the local authorities and not to the centre. This was a Conservative Minister introducing, as he said, a Bill which had been prepared by his predecessor, a Labour Minister. Thus far have we come. I wonder how easily we can imagine in present circumstances a Conservative Minister proposing that local authorities should levy a betterment levy. The Conservative Minister in question was my father; the Labour Minister was the father of my right honourable friend the present Minister—thus do the wheels of history turn.

My Lords, before going further let me congratulate, as many noble Lords have done, my noble friend Lady Serota on the skill and calm with which she introduced this enormous Bill—and it is enormous. When the Clerk said, "Lord Kennet" and my noble friend rose, I, like many of your Lordships, no doubt, was relieved. But here it is, and I am left to "catch the bits" at the end of what has been an extremely worthwhile debate. At this stage, I should like to extend an invitation to all Members of your Lordships' House. This invitation will, I hope, appear on the all-Party Whip; but let me extend it now verbally, because I think many of the difficulties which have been expressed by various speakers about understanding what is on can be solved by means of this invitation. It is that any noble Lord interested in this Bill should come to my Ministry on the morning of Thursday, June 13, and look with me at an exhibition, which we have arranged, of idealised, theoretical plans of the nature of those which can be expected to be brought forward under this Bill. Those who come will see a typical structure plan, a typical local plan and a typical action area plan, and they will be able to see how these plans interrelate.

I turn now to the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor. He complained, as did other noble Lords, about the short period between the introduction of this Bill and its printing and Second Reading. He said that if he had had a longer period to consider the Bill it would have been better; but I must say that I found his speech so full, and showing such a complete grasp of everything in the Bill, that I shudder to think what it would have been like had he had longer to consider the matter. Seriously, my Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord on what he was able to say about it after this admittedly rather short period.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, complained about the complications of the Bill and read out one example. Here, of course, we are up against a familiar point. I admit that it is complicated, but I would say to the House that, like all land law and planning law, it has to be complicated because we are not dealing only with small and simple people who wish to do small and simple things; we are dealing also with highly expert and utterly irresponsible land speculators, backed by enormous capital resources, who are able—as is any citizen, if he can afford it—to hire the best legal advice. It is simply no good for a Government to pass an Act, and then to say, "Whoops! Sorry, we had not thought about that one" when someone gets through the net with a clearly anti-social development. It is the need to consider the least socially minded citizens of the country, who are often backed by the biggest financial resources, that leads to the inevitable complication of measures like this.

I feel that on the whole we have had a rather short debate, given the size of the measure before us, and for that reason I hope to be able to answer a great many of the points which were made. I apologise in advance for the fact that I shall speak at some length in order to do this. The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, asked what was the need for local plans other than for action areas which clearly needed one to show precisely what is going to be done. What need was there, he asked, for local plans in other places? My Lords, the need is that it will be in accordance with these local plans that development will he controlled. It will be by reference to these local plans that the answer, "Yes", or "No", will be returned to a given application for planning consent. This I shall be able to make clearer to interested Members of the House on June 13 if, as I hope they will, they accept my invitation.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, asked what happened about local plans when the local planning authority appointed inspectors to carry out a public inquiry into an objection to them. He asked, does the local planning authority have to publish the inspector's report? Does it have to send the inspector's report to the Minister? My Lords, the answer in both cases, is, "Yes, it does", though the responsibility for the decision thereon is not that of the Minister but of the local planning authority. So the Minister will always know what is going on, and this will enable him to decide whether and when to bring into effect the powers which the Bill gives him in this respect.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke, spoke of the overburdening of the Whitehall machine, and I agree with him. This is one of the reasons which underlies the introduction of this Bill—one of several—but it is an important reason. The Whitehall machine is grossly overburdened. We have heard mention of delays of up to two years in getting decisions as being not uncommon. I do not think that is so in the majority of cases, as was said by my noble friend Lord Silkin. Nine months is still the average normal time, but there are cases of two years and I might tell the House that if we had not introduced—


My Lords, is my noble friend saying that the average is nine months? I wish he would look at that again. I am prepared to agree that the minimum period is nine months, but the average is considerably more.


My Lords, let us agree that the time ranges between nine months and two years. I am afraid that without notice I cannot engage in a debate about what proportion of the cases fall at which end of that spectrum, though I could with notice.

My Lords, if we had not introduced this measure, with its provisions for devolution, it would have been necessary just about to double the staff that the Minister has at his disposal for the settlement of these questions. In the present climate of opinion in which all sides of British political life agree that it is important to prevent the proliferation of central bureaucracy, that was one of the main reasons for the introduction of this Bill. According to what canons, and in what way, are those inspectors' appeals to be settled by the Central Government inspector to be separated from those to be settled by the Minister himself? The criteria which will be brought to bear on this are complex, but I will not hold up the discussion now by outlining what we have in mind. If any noble Lords are in doubt about this, I suggest that they put down probing Amendments at the Committee stage and I can give a fuller answer.

It will be a gradual procedure: only the simplest and most obvious categories of cases will be delegated in the first place. One hopes that more categories may be delegated as time goes on and experience builds up. The point about this is that, as the House knows, 97½ per cent. of planning appeal decisions by the Minister confirm what the inspector recommended. In 97½ per cent. of cases, the crawling over of the inspectors' reports by the central bureaucracy is unnecessary. We hope to build up this system gradually, though I think it may be unlikely to reach 97½ per cent., but when so much time is being wasted, we have to make a beginning and give responsibility to these inspectors, who without doubt have the confidence of the public and all parties who are engaged in these matters.

The noble Lord also asked about ministerial answerability for appeals which under the Bill are to be settled by the inspector and not by the Minister. The Minister will be answerable in Parliament for the overall operation of powers conferred on him and delegated to the inspectors under the Bill. Secondly, he will be answerable in Parliament for the general planning policies under which the inspectors operate in the exercise of their delegated functions. He will not be answerable for the rightness or wrongness of this or that decision taken by an inspector in the delegated area. This fact in itself will be a great incentive for the Minister not to delegate farther and faster than is justified by the general opinion of the way things are going.

The noble Lord also asked about cases which, although they may be quite small, arouse violent local feeling. One provision we have in mind here is that an inspector who starts out on a case which he thinks he may be able to settle himself, and then finds that it is something of a hornet's nest locally, will be able to report to the Minister that in his view the case ought to be settled in accordance with the old procedure. He will turn in a report and a recommendation, and the Minister will settle it. Equally, the Minister, who will know what is going on, can direct an inspector to submit such a case to him for decision.

The noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor, also asked about the compulsory powers being given to the Minister of Public Building and Works. I think his point was that the Minister had had compulsory powers for some time and they were being extended. That is not so. I know that in another place, at a late hour at night or at an early hour in the morning, there was a great fight about this, but as a matter of fact the Minister has not had compulsory purchase powers.


My Lords, that was not what I sought to say. I said that I thought the Minister had not these powers but that he was now being given them in almost all forms over almost the whole field of other departments, and that this was a question noble Lords would wish to probe. It may be right, but it is quite a substantial change.


My Lords, the matter was surrounded with some confusion in another place. The question of the Minister's powers is analogous to the compulsory powers of the Post Office. In order to save time now, I would suggest to the noble Lord that if he is in any doubt about whether what is being done is the right thing, he might be so good as to put down an Amendment and we can thresh it out on Committee Stage.

The noble Lord also asked about listed buildings, and what recourse an owner might have against the listing of a building if he thought that it had been improperly listed and the value of his interest in it had thereby been decreased. What should he do if he thinks his building is not worthy of inclusion in the list? This question will not strike him in any real sense unless he wants to demolish or alter his building. Then, presumably he will apply for a consent under the new procedure in the Bill. If he obtains consent, the question is answered. If he is denied consent, he can appeal against that refusal, and among the grounds on which he can appeal is the ground that a mistake was made and the building ought never to have been included in the list. An inquiry could then be held and the matter determined in accordance with the normal canons of planning law.

The noble Lord raised the question of local inquiries after the setting up of the new proposed planning inquiry commissions. He asked how can it be, if a commission is to compare the desirability of various alternative sites for a development, that there is only provision for one local authority at the end. The point of the first part of the inquiry will be to decide which is the best site, and when that has been settled there will be a local inquiry to take into account the interests of the people who are living on the site and beside it, and to see that all is done in the justest possible manner. If the noble Lord is not content with that proposed procedure, if he does not believe that the planning inquiry commissions can pin it down to one front runner after the general inquiry, no doubt he would consider putting down an Amendment to allow more than one local inquiry to be held at the end. I neither commend nor advise against this course.

Lastly, the noble Lord complained in general terms about the relationship between this Bill and the forthcoming Report of the Royal Commission on Local Government. I admit that this was a problem that the Government had to face. Much of this Bill depends on the devolution of powers and their devolution only to local authorities who are competent to exercise them. If the Royal Commission come up with a recommendation that there should be fewer but larger and more powerful planning authorities, then one would expect that a greater proportion of planning authorities would be competent to exercise the new devolved powers. But there is no certainty about what the Royal Commission will recommend.

In the meantime, there remains the pressing problem of the 10,000 appeals a year, the overloading of the Whitehall machine and the delays. Moreover, it is clear that there are already certain local authorities which are large enough and competent enough to exercise these delegated powers. It seemed to the Government right, therefore, to proceed with this Bill, whatever should be the recommendations of the Royal Commission. What appears to be unlikely is that the Royal Commission will recommend anything which will make this devolution appear less sensible than it does now. The degree of increased sensibleness which might arise out of the recommendations of the Royal Commission is all that is at stake—in other words, there seems to the Government to be no justification to wait to see what they recommend.

I turn now to the intervention by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Winchester, who spoke of the desirability of early consultation in the drawing up of plans between local planning authorities and persons affected—and, of course, in this field the Established Church is a "person affected"; that is the way planning law describes it. He spoke of the Committee chaired by my honourable friend Mr. Skellington, and of the difficulty of establishing beneficial use, or that there was a possible beneficial use, for a redundant church. I have one or two points to make about that. First of all, I am not sure that I go all the way with the right reverend Prelate about the difficulty of establishing lack of beneficial use. I believe that in four of the five cases in the last year it his been possible to establish a lack of beneficial use, and that seems to be a reasonable proportion.

Secondly, in all his speech he made no mention of the Pastoral Measure and the redundant churches' fund to be set up under it on the Church's side, or of the corresponding London Churches Bill which the Government will introduce to play their part. The most valuable redundant churches will no doubt go this way. Of course, I do not deny that there will be others, and that there are churches here for that "affected Person" which is the Established Church. I would remind the right reverend Prelate that not too long ago he wrote to my right honourable friend the Minister asking whether a deputation from the Churches' Main Committee would be acceptable on this point: my right honourable friend replied that it would, and he and I look forward to that meeting whenever the Churches' Main Committee wish to pursue the invitation.

I turn now to the speech of my noble friend Lord Silkin, whom I and the whole House always hear with the utmost attention upon anything to do with planning, because if he was not actually Abraham in this respect, he was at least the re-founder of the line of planning law in this country. I am coming to the nice bit in a minute. He complained about the short gap between the printing of the Bill for the benefit of this House and its consideration to-day. It is true that this was short. But the Bill was not guillotined in another place, and it will not be guillotined here; and his Bill was when he introduced it. So I hope he will tolerate the shortcomings of a later generation dealing with these complicated matters in the matter of hurrying the Bill forward. We all have to operate under the exigencies of Parliamentary speed. He had to do the same himself when he was introducing his great Bill of the 'forties.

My noble friend gave what I consider was a formidable catalogue of the reasons for this Bill. I think I have never heard the shortcomings and outdatedness of the present system more fully and authoritively indicated than they were by my noble friend. He spoke of the delay, not at ministerial level but at local level. I hope that some of this delay, which of course the Government must admit, will be able to be avoided by the proposal to permit the devolution of decision on certain classes of planning appeals by local planning councils to their own officers. This is a matter which arises out of the recommendation of the Working Party on the management of this matter, with which my noble friend is familiar, and, like the proposal to allow the Ministers' inspectors to settle certain cases, this proposal merely reflects the reality of the situation.

A large proportion of local planning applications are determined by the local planning council on the recommendation of an officer without discussion, without details presented, without any argument; it is a pure rubber stamp. In practice, the councils have that degree of confidence in their officers, and I think they are right to do so. It seems only managerial common sense to go one further and give statutory sanction to the right of an officer of a local council to determine certain carefully controlled categories of planning applications without reference to elected members at all. I should emphasise that all these categories, both at local level and at central level, will be most carefully controlled and most gradually introduced, and that the senior body, be it the local council, as in most cases, or the Minister in the central appeal cases, will be fully informed throughout of what goes on, and will be able to change the arrangements back to the former ones at the drop of a hat if they think the new system is giving rise to abuses.

My noble friend Lord Silkin complained of the delay imposed by the to-ing and fro-ing between the county councils and district councils. When I listened to this, I thought very much about the points which I assumed (and it turned out later that I rightly assumed) the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, was going to make about parish councils. It is difficult to get this matter right. If, as my noble friend says, there is already delay imposed by consultation with district councils, how much more delay would be imposed by adding a third layer, from county council to district council, district council to consult parish council, parish council to inform district council, district council to inform county council, appeal to the Minister. That would go against the whole purpose of this Bill, which is to speed things up in the interests of natural justice, which in itself contains an element of decent expedition.


My Lords, could the noble Lord explain that last statement?—because, as I explained in my short speech, certain procedures by county councils already take in the fact that applicants have to give notice to parish councils, anyway, and this in no way causes further delays in the process.


My Lords, I should be very reluctant to accept the statement that reference to a parish council in no way delayed a decision. Reference to anybody always delays a decision, does it not? But perhaps I may come to that when I come to the part of my remarks dealing with the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull.

My noble friend Lord Silkin asked whether the citizen would be in a position to object to a local plan under the Bill if he had not objected to the structure plan. Yes, of course he would. That is a point that I hope to go into more fully on June 13. But the structure plan is going to be rather vague as regards places. It will be purely diagrammatic. It may well be that the man looking at the proposed structure plan will not have a clue whether his own interest is affected by it or not. He simply will not be able to make it out, because it will be a small-scale map and a general statement. When it comes to the local plan the degree of precision will be greatly increased and he will be able to see whether his own interest is affected. It would be quite unjust, of course, to say that his vagueness on the first occasion precluded him from making representations about the precise proposal on the second, which did affect his interest; and that will not be the result of the present Bill.

I come now to Lord Kinnoull's intervention. I think he may have been confusing two things. He may have been confusing the right of the local planning authority to appoint its own inspector to hear objections against local plans with the right of the local planning authority to appoint its own inspector to hear appeals against planning decisions. The former is in the Bill; the latter is not. There has been a good deal of talk about local authorities being judge and advocate in their own courts. This talk, the importance of which I recognise, must be confined only to the question of local plans, and nothing else. This is the place where the local planning authorities will themselves appoint a person to hear objections and will consider the report of that person and will themselves decide. The present procedure for appeals to the Minister against planning decisions remains unchanged, except in so far as the Minister may delegate certain categories of decision to his, the Minister's, inspectors, or appointed persons. I do not know whether that removes the noble Earl's doubts, but I hope it does. This does not run across the whole field of any decision given by a local authority; only that one part of the field, the draw- ing up of the local plan after the structure plan, which is itself subject to confirmation by the Minister.

Lord Kinnoull inquired also about Green Belt policy and where we stand on that matter. It is not affected by the present Bill. I would rather concentrate attention on the Bill to-day. If he is worried about that, I think we could have a useful Unstarred Question or debate about it at a later time. Then he came to the vexed question of parish councils, the role of the parish councils in the drawing up of these plans. This is a difficult conundrum for any Government to face, because I think that any decent and human Government, whatever their political complexion, must have the utmost regard to the opinions of citizens organised in the smallest possible groups. That is what we mean by "grass roots"; and nothing at any time, and especially the present, could be more important than that. But we have to weigh against that the natural and healthy desire of all persons concerned to pay attention to the grass roots, the equally natural and healthy desire of all persons concerned, and certainly the Government, to introduce an element of speed into these decisions which will correspond with natural justice.

I do not know what the noble Earl thinks, but for myself I think one could not require copies of this and that to be sent to the parish council, then to have a pause while the parish council meet and consider them and formulate their views and send them back, and then another pause while the planning authority consider the parish council's views. We could not introduce this procedure without reverting to a very large measure of that delay which we hope to get rid of in this Bill. It is as simple as that. That is not to say that the Government set their face against the parish council coming in on it at all; we do not do that. We think that in a given area or in a given class of case it will be light for the parish council to come in. But it seems to us that the best judge of the class of case will be the planning authority itself, which is, after all, democratic and may well contain members of the parish. If it does not, it might do so. I would ask the noble Earl: do his parish councillors stand for the county council or for the district council when they have delegated planning powers? I hope they do. If they do not, they are on a weak wicket in dealing with this matter.

There is nothing in this Bill, there is nothing in the present law, which precludes the local planning authority from entering into voluntary, non-statutory arrangements with parish councils, or some of them, in their area, for consultation in the way the noble Earl has in mind. For my part, I think it will be better to continue with that freedom for voluntary arrangements between the two tiers we are talking about in this field, rather than to introduce a rigid requirement that at every stage one has to inform the parish council of a proposal and then wait until their views on it are received. I admit that it is difficult, but I myself am convinced that that is the right way to do it.

I turn now to Lord Ilford's speech. On the first question he raised of control of Crown development, the procedure for consultation with local planning authorities—this relates to Circular 100, which I think he knows better than I do—is not affected by the present Bill. I might just remind the House that Circular 100 deals with a kind of shadow planning procedure. In this case "the Crown" may mean certain Departments of State—I suppose the Ministry of Defence is the one we think of most easily. If it is the Crown or one of those Departments which proposes development, it does not have to go formally for consent to the local authority as a private developer does, because there is a certain inherent unseemliness in requiring it to do so. It is no more than that, and I expect the noble Lord would agree. But what it does is to let everybody know what is proposed, and if the local planning authority do not like it they hoist a flag of objection and the matter is then discussed, under the provisions of this Circular 100, which I think has worked pretty well. The matter is then discussed between the applicant for planning permission and the local authority, and the Minister of Housing and Local Government holds the ring. That means that in fact the Minister of Housing and Local Government has a pretty potent last say in what happens, exactly as he has with the public planning procedure, under the planning law which we are now amending. The arbitration will remain in future where it is now. I hope that that explanation contents the noble Lord on that point.

Lord Ilford also touched on the question of plan-making powers for district councils. The plan-making functions of these councils, as opposed to the control of development, never have been delegated under the present system at all. I am not quite sure whether the noble Lord was asking that they should be. It would appear to me difficult to do so, because normally speaking the second-tier authorities do not, in the nature of things, have the staff or the resources to draw up these rather complicated and sophisticated plans which are proposed under this Bill, any more than they did under the former one. They do, of course, in certain cases have delegated power to control development in accordance with the plan drawn up by the superior planning authority. The Bill does not propose to change that, and I should be reluctant to do it.


My Lords, what I was suggesting was that non-county boroughs with a population of, say, 50,000 might draw up the local plans and the action plans.


My Lords, what the noble Lord says falls within what I said. They do not have it now. As to whether they should have it in the future I am not at all sure, because it seems to me that when we are delegating so much more power, as we are, to local planning authorities in order to make a running in this we should not make a change towards delegating planning powers to smaller local authorities than those which have them at present. This is the obstacle I see.

Thirdly, the noble Lord, Lord Ilford, turned to the question of delegation of appeals, and the question of inspectors being empowered to determine appeals, on grounds that two heads are better than one. I think I have touched on this suggestion before. It is true; but it is also true that 97½ per cent. of all appeals to the Minister are determined in accordance with the way the inspector recommended, and somehow we must avoid the proliferation of central bureaucracy which we should need if we were to continue with that. My noble friend Lord Donaldson spoke of the desirability of local planning authorities receiving information from the Departments to cope with these matters. I agree with what he said. It is very much a part of this Bill that the local planning authority should draw the public into its confidence, should discuss with anybody concerned the plans that they are formulating, whether they are structure plans or local plans or that variety of local plans which will be called "action plans", at all stages. There are many provisions in the Bill to that end.

I should like to put that into context. Some local planning authorities already do it. They are the best, and they have been showing the way. It is the intention of the Government that all local planning authorities should do it. That is one of the functions of this Bill: to ensure that all local planning authorities attain the standard of the best in the matter of consulting people about plans while those plans are being drawn up. Whether or not a given authority should set up a special information department to do this is something which should be left to it to decide, and indeed my noble friend did not suggest that it should be incorporated in the Bill. Nevertheless it is an interesting way in which it could be done.

In general I perceive that this Bill has obtained a wide measure of agreement from all sides of the House. Nobody is against it. Some people think that parts of it are wrong; some think that it goes too far in one or two respects, and others think that it does not go far enough, but nobody is actually against it and I am sure the House is right in that. This Bill will be the first landmark since the Town and Country Planning Act 1947 for which my noble friend Lord Silkin was responsible. I think our planning system may be the best in the world. It is impossible to assess whether it is or not, but it seems to me quite possible that it may be, if we compare the degree of subsection to public interest which we impose upon the degree of economic pressure for uncontrolled development which exists in this country. If we compare that balance with the corresponding factors existing in other countries I think we may find we have the best planning system in the world, and I am confident that when this Bill goes on the Statute Book we shall have an even better system than we have at present.

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