HL Deb 13 November 1969 vol 305 cc760-3

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government why the Minister of Transport is imposing a code of secrecy and forbidding his agents to have any discussions with local and private interests—in some cases even with planning authorities—when surveys in connection with work on or improvements to trunk roads are being carried out on his behalf until such time as he is ready to publish a draft order.]


My Lords, I think the noble Lord has misunderstood the position. My right honourable friend the Minister of Transport invariably consults local authorities about trunk road schemes early in their preparation, and in many cases he uses local authorities as his agents. There may also be exploratory discussions with other interests likely to be affected. In limiting consultation at the early stages while proposals are still being formulated, my right honourable friend has in mind that he must be fair to everyone who may be affected by any alternatives and that he must also avoid causing unnecessary blight. His proposals are, however, published in draft, so that all concerned have equal and ample opportunity to make their views known; and there is, from that time, a statutory remedy for blight. My right honourable friend does not make his final decision until he has fully considered all the objections and representations made to him about the draft scheme.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that if I did misunderstand the situation I based my Question on his letter to me of October 24, in which he said that under the new procedure interested persons would not be informed of all that was in the Minister's mind until his proposals were ready to be put in the form of draft Statutory Orders, which seems rather late in the day? Would he not agree that while over-secrecy generally in Government administration defeats its own purpose, it is particularly unfortunate just at the time when Mr. Skeffington is going round the country urging a greater and earlier participation by the public in all forms of planning.


My Lords, what is happening is that surveys of alternative routes are being made, and the fact that surveyors are turning up with striped poles does not mean necessarily that the line of the road is going where they are surveying. That is one of the reasons why it is the policy of my right honourable friend that secrecy is maintained during the period of the survey, so that nobody gets any false ideas about what is happening and whether his land is likely to be blighted or not, and everybody is treated equally. But when the draft is laid it is at that point that public consultation starts. The Minister at that point consults the local public directly when he publishes his proposals in draft. He is at that point obliged to consider objections, which means that he is definitely not committed at that stage to his published proposals.


My Lords, in these circumstances would it not be well for the Minister to make this policy of his widely known, because there is disturbance locally when people with striped poles are going about and nobody quite knows what is happening and suspicion becomes rife? I should have thought a public statement at that time would quell at any rate some of these doubts and fears.


My Lords, in view of the fact that a friend of mine woke up the other day and found a house burnt down—the future of this house was under active discussion—would he draw the attention of the Secretary of State for Scotland to the necessity of close contact among all Government Departments, county councils and private individuals?


My Lords, may I first reply to the noble Lord, Lord Brooke of Cumnor? I think that what he says is of importance. I believe that among professionals this situation is in fact pretty widely known. The divisional road engineer in this particular case wrote to the surveyor of the Cumberland County Council before all this started, so the county surveyor was informed of the policy. I agree with the noble Earl that a little co-ordination among the various bodies concerned would be helpful.


My Lords, does the answer of the noble Lord mean that surveyors, with poles or without poles, will he going over the farms and property of farmers and landowners without getting permission?


No, my Lords, not without getting permission. They may even discuss with the land-owner the situation on his particular part of the land. But what is entailed in terms of planning will be kept secret until such time as the Minister lays the order.


My Lords, would the noble Lord make quite clear how far local government authorities can go in making alterations or new experiments without leave from the Ministry of Transport? Is the noble Lord aware of a certain action recently carried out by Banstead Urban District Council, which could well be quite lethal, at a very dangerous crossroads where a roundabout could be easily constructed, and where no warning whatsoever was given of the alteration?


My Lords, I will bring the noble Lord's point to the attention of my right honourable friend.


My Lords, reverting to the original Question of the noble Lord, Lord Inglewood, may I ask whether my noble friend does not agree that if secrecy is observed until the moment when the Minister has laid draft proposals, it means that alternatives are not presented to the public? That can hardly be called participation at an early stage, in the sense of the Skeffington report.


My Lords, may I say to the noble Baroness that the Skeffington report has not yet been accepted. Its recommendations are being considered. The report was careful to suggest that methods different from its general planning proposals may be appropriate for dealing with, for example, trunk road schemes. I would refer my noble friend to paragraph 221 of the report.


My Lords, does that mean that the Government do not accept the idea of participation by the public in decision making?


Of course not, my Lords. All it means is that they are considering Mr. Skeffington's recommendations.