HL Deb 13 February 1969 vol 299 cc655-8

7.9 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. This Bill which comes to us from the Commons has the single purpose of raising by £300 million the overall amount which may be advanced to development corporations and to the Commission for the New Towns, in order to sustain the New Towns programme. The present limit authorised by Parliament is £800 million, and on the last day of last year £750 million had already been committed for development approved by my right honourable friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government on New Town building in England, and by the Secretaries of State for Scotland and Wales for New Towns there. Therefore, we expect to reach the present limit of £750 million in the current Session of Parliament. The extra £300 million should be enough for another three years or so.

I would remind the House that this is a cumulative provision. Successive Governments come before Parliament from time to time to ask for a raising in the absolute total ceiling of money which may be kept in play for the purpose of the New Towns programme. I do not think that the House, thinly attended and at this time of the night, would wish me to give any account of that New Towns programme. It is not so very long since we debated it at considerable length, and I think it would be best if I sat down now and answered later any points which may be made. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Kennet.)


My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we have had a debate on the New Towns fairly recently. On this Bill itself in another place the opportunity was taken by a very large number of honourable and right honourable Members to discuss many aspects of the New Towns programme. Many of them did so against the background that they had in their own constituencies a New Town, and they were able to discuss these matters with first-hand knowledge. I do not think that I have anything to add to that debate which so recently took place in the House of Commons, but I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, to deal with the only point on which I believe no answer was given by the Government spokesmen at any stage there. It was a point raised by my honourable friend the Member for Runcorn, and it related to the procedure at inquiries when a designation order is made.

May I deal very briefly with what happens? The designation order setting out the area for the New Town is made by the Minister, and if there are any objections to it an independent inspector, who has nothing whatever to do with the Ministry, is in due course sent to hold an inquiry into them. At the beginning of the inquiry a member of the New Towns Department of the Ministry comes to give a short statement and to answer questions of fact, although he is not allowed to go into questions of Government policy. If I may pay tribute to those in that position whom I have heard do this, I think they acquit themselves extremely well in that position. They are always very full and frank in their answers, and most helpful. But the difficulty arises in this way. It may be that there is a local authority or somebody else there who wishes to support the designation order that the Minister has himself made and about which the inquiry is being held. Most of the people, however, will be there to object to it in one form or another. If there is nobody there who supports it, then the whole thing is completely one-sided. As your Lordships can imagine, all the people get up and say that there is something wrong with the order, and there is nobody there who has any incentive to criticise their criticisms or to examine them to see whether they are valid.

The inspectors, who come from outside—sometimes they are clerks of local authorities; they are men of great eminence and great experience—must, I think, find it extremely difficult to make a fair assessment of the weight of those objections on which they have to report and recommend to the Ministry, if there is nobody there who has anything but a one-sided view of the matter—if there is no challenge, in fact, to the views which are put forward. I am not certain that I know what the answer is, because I can quite understand that it would be wrong for the Minister (who, after all, is going to make the decision on the designation order) himself actively to promote the order, as would happen, for instance, in a compulsory purchase case. It occurs to me, however, that there are procedures in the courts whereby, if there is a difficult point, the court can appoint amicus curiœ who will argue the case out, really for the benefit of the court, if there is nobody else to take that particular side, and who can be of great assistance in crystallising the issues and in testing the views of those who come before the court or the inquiry.

I would ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, not of course for any answer on this matter to-day but to see whether there is any validity in what I have been saying and whether inspectors have found themselves hampered in doing the difficult job that they have to do in listening to these inquiries and in reporting on them arising from the fact that in some cases, at any rate, there is nobody except the objectors present. If they do find that it is difficult, I wonder if the Department might consider whether there is any possible way—I do not think it would need legislation—to put the matter right; some arrangement which would have the effect of better informing the Minister about the strength of the objections. At the moment, the failing is really one of information. The Minister himself cannot judge from the inspector's report how strong and how valid these points of objection are because they have never been tested.

My Lords, that matter was briefly raised in another place; but I think all the other points—and there were many of them—which arose on the general subject of New Towns were examined and were answered by the Government, and I do not wish to go into them again. There is therefore that one point that I wish to ask in welcoming the Bill and hoping that your Lordships will give it a Second Reading.


My Lords, I fully take the point of what the noble Viscount, Lord Colville of Culross, has said, and will go into it and examine the matter together with my right honourable friend. I should not reply immediately off the top of my hat, but it seems to me that there may be a difficulty in the way of appointing a friend of the court, or of inventing some person to grill the objectors, because under the New Towns Act itself designation order inquiries are held with respect only to the objections. They are not held to inquire into the desirability of having a New Town there: they are held to enable the Minister to be fully informed about the nature and the strength of any objections to the designation order before he finally takes his decision on it. So he is not in the position of someone who comes along to say to the inquiry, "I think this would be rather a good idea; now let us discuss it on equal terms." He has already made a draft designation order as an act of Government policy, and it is then his duty to sit back and listen for a while to see what objections there are and whether he can amend the order a little to meet the objections. So it is not as if there were two equal parties before a neutral judge, arguing the pros and cons of the case and cross-examining each other, as one has in courts of law and in other types of planning inquiry. But, having said that, let me repeat that I will indeed go into the suggestion which has been made to see whether, in the opinion of inspectors and of those who follow this matter closely, this is a defect or a weakness in the procedure which might be amended.

On Question, Bill read 2a; Committee negatived.