HL Deb 08 December 1977 vol 387 cc1793-821

5.24 p.m.

Lord DUNCAN-SANDYS rose to move, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the Town and Country Planning General Development (Amendment) Order 1977 (S.I. 1977 No. 1781) and to make another order in its place which would not have the effect of relaxing existing planning controls in respect of conservation areas, listed buildings, national parks and classified areas of outstanding natural beauty. The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name. In so doing, let me emphasise that this is, of course, an entirely non-Party issue. Concern for the protection of our architectural and natural heritage is shared in all parts of your Lordships' House. In this connection, I should like to express my warm appreciation of all the good work in this field which is being done by the Department of the Environment and, in particular, by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk.

There are two provisions in this new planning order to which I wish to draw special attention. First, it raises the basic level of permitted enlargement for all dwellinghouses from 10 per cent. to 15 per cent.; secondly, it almost completely removes planning control over the construction of free-standing garages. While alterations to listed buildings will still require what is called "listed building consent", the increase from 10 per cent. to 15 per cent. will mean that the compensation which the local authority might have to pay to the owner if it refused its consent would be correspondingly increased. This would inevitably tend to influence local authorities in the direction of permitting more extensive changes in the appearance of listed buildings than they might otherwise have been prepared to do.

But the consequences of this proposed change in the law would not, of course, be confined to listed buildings. The cumulative effect over the years of allowing a 50 per cent. increase in the volume of permitted alterations and extensions to buildings which, though not listed, harmonise well with their surroundings, coupled with the mushroom growth of little garages for which planning consent will no longer be required, must increasingly erode the distinctive and homogeneous character of conservation areas. The order will have the same damaging effect on the appearance of our national parks and upon what are called "areas of outstanding natural beauty".

Over the last quarter of a century, there has been growing interest in the quality of the environment in all its aspects. In 1967, the Civic Amenities Act, which I introduced as a Private Member's Bill, established the concept of a conservation area. Since then, some 4,500 of these areas have been designated in England and Wales. In 1974, the protection afforded to conservation areas was still further strengthened by the Town and Country Amenities Act and successive Governments of both Parties, as well as local authorities throughout the country, have by legislation and administrative action increasingly demonstrated their support for this policy.

The new order which we are now discussing runs counter to this whole trend. Apart from the direct consequences of its specific provisions, to which I have referred, it would inevitably have the indirect effect of giving planning authorities the feeling that there had been a change of emphasis in national policy and that less importance was now attached to the protection of the quality of the environment in town and country.

In the Press statement announcing the laying of this order, the Department of the Environment explained (and I quote) that: the main objective of this order is to ease the burden on local planning authorities". In considering the question of the degree of planning control which it is desirable to exercise, I quite accept that one must take account of the administrative work involved. But, leaving aside the adverse consequences of this order to which I have referred, it is by no means certain that it will, in fact, have the result which it is designed to achieve.

It is, I think, significant—and I would emphasise this to the House—that the very people whose interests the order is intended to serve, namely the local planning authorities, are by no means happy about it. The Association of Metropolitan Authorities has stated that it is: concerned at the consequences likely to flow if this draft order is implemented in its present form". Again, the Association of District Councils, in a circular to district councils, has likewise expressed its opposition to the order. It has expressed the view that, far from reducing the administrative burden on planning officers, the likely effect will be to increase it.

The Association of County Councils, having seen my Motion on the Order Paper, has written to me to say that it, too, considers that there should be special provision for high amenity areas—that is to say, conservation areas, national parks and areas of outstanding beauty—and in its letter it adds that this Motion consequently has the Association's full support. Finally, we have the expert advice of the Royal Town Planning Institute, which speaks on behalf of the whole planning profession. In a recent public statement, the Institute expressed the opinion, that the changes proposed are not regarded by the planners as changes for the better". In the light of the considerations which I have presented, and of the overwhelming weight of adverse opinion among local authorities and planners, I most earnestly hope that the Government will consider withdrawing this order and reintroducing it in a form which would exclude from its operation conservation areas, national parks and classified areas of outstanding beauty. My Lords, I beg to move.

Moved, That this House calls upon Her Majesty's Government to withdraw the Town and Country Planning General Development (Amendment) Order 1977 (S.I. 1977 No. 1781) and to make another order in its place which would not have the effect of relaxing existing planning controls in respect of conservation areas, listed buildings, national parks and classified areas of outstanding natural beauty.— (Lord Duncan-Sandys.)

5.32 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support the noble Lord very strongly. The noble Lord who has moved this Motion has done so much in these matters. I am not sure whether we are talking about the first Motion, or should include in what we say, the second Motion that he may move. Perhaps the noble Lord could enlighten me.


My Lords, it is not the custom of the House to press Prayers for the annulment of orders of this kind: therefore the noble Lord may assume that I will not be pressing the Prayer.


My Lords, I am most grateful. I did not want to speak exclusively to the first Motion without giving myself a chance to say something on the second. I agree entirely with the noble Lord. But I go further because I do not think the first Motion goes far enough. The exemptions that it allows to the general development order, which are made available to householders in particular, leave us open to great erosion of the whole idea of the general development order. Any diminution of bureaucracy is to be welcomed, and I know that my noble friends take that view. But there are very great dangers, as the noble Lord has explained. He has pointed to a couple of the most difficult problems in this order. There are many things in the order with which we would all agree. In particular, the fact that some of these matters have indefinitely to remain upon the books publicly is a good point. The fact that Grade II listed buildings no longer need be dealt with by the Minister but can be handled by the planning authorities is a good point, too. But there are too many erosions for this to be a safe policy. I know that we can all point to a number of very foolish decisions by bureaucratic councils, but I am inclined to think that those obvious errors in judgment—and sometimes taste—which have been most frustrating to a number of people, are outweighed by the advantages, that we have in our planning system which, despite many slownesses, is probably one of the best in the world. There cannot be planning—and, after all, planning is relatively new—without a degree of slowness because slowness is the very essence of the kinds of safeguards that we wish to promote.

Why I think that the noble Lord's first proposition does not go far enough is that it deals only with designated areas, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national parks, conservation areas, and so on. This order opens up not only designated areas but everything else as well. There are many areas which are not conservation areas; they are not areas of outstanding natural beauty, and they are never likely to be designated so anyway. These rely very often for their charm, for such beauty as they have, on the protection which the existing legislation allows. It would be a great pity to prevent changes being made only to the designated areas. That is why I want the annulment of this order because it will damage a great deal of what we already have.

It is unfortunate that these proposals contradict advice which has been given to the Government, and contradict statements that the Goverment have themselves made. Regarding undesignated land and the advice given by the Dobry Report, your Lordships will remember that that was the Review of the Development Control System. Dobry considered and rejected the possibility of precisely such an enlarged GDO exemption in undesignated areas as have now been brought forward. These are the words that he used: I feel able to recommend that the tolerance under the general development order should not be substantially altered". That is what he said about undesignated land. Regarding the House of Commons Expenditure Committee, the possibility of relaxation of the GDO was raised on several occasions by developments in evidence to the recent inquiry of the Environment Sub-Committee of the House of Commons Expenditure Committee into planning procedures. It is significant that, despite those urgings, the committee made no recommendation on the issue. Implicitly therefore I think that we can say that they endorsed the status quo. That is as far as undesignated land is concerned.

The same thing has been said even more forcefully so far as designated land is concerned. Here I come back to Dobry. He said that the designated areas, such as national parks, conservation areas, area of outstanding natural beauty, and so on—and this was even before the amendment in the present order—provided for too lax a form of control. In regard to development control in such areas, he said: Evidence submitted indicated considerable dissatisfaction with the effect of GDO permissions and [with the] number of local authorities seeking Article 4 directions to restrict such permissions". He went on: On the basis of this and of advice given to me by the planning boards of two national parks, I believe that the lack of control over development, arising from exemptions under the GDO, can cause harm to the landscape or to the character and appearance of these areas". He said finally: I conclude that there is good reason to question the degree of protection which can be given to special environmental areas so long as there is no control over the permissions granted automatically for such developments under Schedule I of the GDO". I want to stress that Dobry's categorical criticism of the GDO was made long before the present amendments were proposed. In the face of these categorical statements by Dobry, the line that has been taken by the House of Commons Expenditure Committee and the statements made by the Government over the Sand-ford Report on national parks, I am surprised to see what has happened. I should like to read a line of what the Government said, because I think it is apposite. They stated: The Secretaries of State endorse the Committee's view "— that is the Sandford Committee— that in the face of growing pressures stricter development control policies need to be applied in national parks. There we have very strong advice to the Government both as to designated areas and undesignated land, from Dobry, from the House of Commons Expenditure Committee and from Sandford, which the Government specifically endorsed. The noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, has already told your Lordships of the weight of opinion from local government authorities suggesting that this is a bad change. He has demonstrated conclusively that, whereas it is supposed to take the load off local planning authorities, in fact it does nothing of the kind. It seems to me that in the face of this sort of criticism the Government ought to think again about relaxing the general development order and about relaxing it as substantially as they propose. I hope very strongly that there will be sufficient support for the noble Lord when he moves his second Motion for this general development order to be annulled and for the Government to think again.

5.43 p.m.


My Lords, in the Motion which is before us this afternoon, my noble kinsman Lord Duncan-Sandys has performed a very valuable public service in drawing attention to this draft order. It is quite clear that here is a case where the Department of the Environment has a different view in one half from the other half. It is quite clear that the policy of "loosening of nuts and bolts" was not intended at an earlier stage, and I was particularly glad when my noble kinsman, who was of course the founder of the Civic Trust 20 years ago, said he was broadly in support of certain of the Department's policies. I assume he meant that he was in favour of the speeding up of development control procedures so far as Mr. George Dobry's proposals were to this end.

However, I think we both entirely agree that what we have before us now is something of a quite different nature. The effect of the draft order on conservation areas—and, as they have been referred to, there are more than 4,500 of them in all—is going to be in precisely the opposite direction from that which the Government intended; yet another example of Ferrers' Law. I should like to refer to page 17 of a departmental circular which will be well known to the noble Baroness opposite; it is No. 113/75. If I may paraphrase it, Mr. George Dobry made it clear that he considered Article 4 directions to be the simplest and most effective way of having tighter control in areas of national importance, and particularly national parks. It is interesting to note that at page 17 of this particular circular, the Secretary of State agreed with Mr. George Dobry in that regard.

But, my Lords, we are looking at the draft order, and that completely ignores the recommendation which was acknowledged by the Secretary of State. It is rather interesting, because under the signature of the noble Baroness's right honourable friend on 1st April this year, an order was brought into effect: it was called The Town and Country Planning (Listed Buildings and Buildings in Conservation Areas) Order 1977, S.I. 228.

These regulations were supported at the same time by a most interesting circular—and from these Benches, I should like to say how valuable we have found it, because in this further circular, No. 23/77, the Department consolidated all the existing circulars on the subject. There is one small part I should like to quote to your Lordships, which refers to the setting of a listed building. I think it follows on what the noble Lord, Lord Henley, said. I quote from paragraph 25: The setting of a building of special architectural or historic interest is often a central feature of its character. It is important to consider the effect that proposed development may have on such buildings. In addition many attractive streets or villages owe their character not so much to buildings of great individual merit but to the harmony provided by a whole range of complex buildings. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, referred to undesignated land, and I assume by that he carried with it undesignated buildings, of which there are very many—not necessarily outstanding buildings, but buildings in which one can see a character, perhaps, of a village or part of a district or town. I think that anyone reading Circular No. 23/77 would agree that a vast amount of consolidation has been done by the Department, which forms a source of encouragement to all those who are particularly enthusiastic, as my noble friends are, to support the conservation concept. However, I am afraid that this circular from which I quoted cannot have been in the minds of those who produced the draft order. I think it is quite clear that this discernible change of policy, if indeed it be that, was noted by all those local authority associations—and the House has already heard how unanimous their view has been—and also that of the Royal Town Planning Institute.

Finally, I should like to broaden the scope of this matter a little by referring to a Green Paper on housing which your Lordships have not so far discussed; that is, Cmnd. 6851. Quite early in that Paper the Government refer to the supply of houses of the right type, and in paragraph 208 they stress the priority of rehabilitation and repair in the use of housing stock, as follows: … will often be as important as new house building in dealing with bad housing conditions and providing for new households. It is a most welcome fact that the Green Paper on housing gives a rather higher degree of priority to rehabilitation than has been discernible both in the document concerning the policy for inner cities and other recent thinking, but I feel that what we have in the general development order, so far as the arrangements for certain listed buildings are concerned, will be an unhappy situation.

So far as the question of shared households is concerned, a note of warning should be struck. As chairman of a building preservation trust, I know of cases where a listed building has been internally divided to the great detriment of its decoration, fittings and structure. One can say exactly the opposite in certain notable and striking cases. I am thinking of one of the most pre-eminent, the Nash terraces in Regent's Park, where the whole of the internal structure was removed and a new building was constructed behind. Nevertheless, the listing of a building very often includes the listing of its interior, and if, under this general development order, it will be permitted to sub-divide a listed building, possibly into multiple occupation, without reference to the Secretary of State, we think that it is a matter of very serious concern.

5.51 p.m.

Baroness WHITE

My Lords, I feel that I should voice the sentiments of the Principality in this debate, as the order covers Wales as well as England. I wish my noble friend to know that I do so partly because, at the recent delegate conference, on Saturday last, of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales, it was unanimously agreed that all possible representations should be made in the other place and in this House against this order in the form in which it is now before us.

I think my noble friend will be aware that, with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, as Chairman of the Council for the Protection of Rural England, and the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, as the founder-President of the Civic Trust, we can fairly say that in England and Wales we represent the senior voluntary amenity bodies, all of which, I believe, are greatly disturbed at the possible consequences of this order as it is now before us. I am not saying that there are not one or two good points in it. For example, the fact that the conditions attached to planning consents are in future to be included in a public register and open for inspection is admirable. I dare say that certain people may take some satisfaction from one little item which provides that development within 800 metres of the Tower of London will in future involve the planning authority consulting the Secretary of State as if the Tower were a Royal Palace or Park. One speculates as to whether the fact that the current Secretary of State for the Environment represents Tower Hamlets inspired this addition to the order.

But, seriously, we should be sympathetic to what I assume is the reason behind the order, which is an effort to speed up planning procedures. One must take this seriously, because there is a most appalling delay. I find this in my work as Chairman of the Land Authority for Wales. We can work with a fair degree of speed, but we are hampered, as is everyone else, by the backlog of planning applications which have not been determined and which, very often, are not determined for months rather than weeks. So that I, personally, have a certain sympathy with the general aim of this order.

But it is also perfectly plain from what has already been said in this debate that what might be an overriding consideration in certain circumstances or in certain localities—perhaps in Willesden—is not applicable in many other parts of the country, where speed is not so much of the essence as what we are going to leave to posterity. One has different values in different circumstances, and no consideration whatever seems to have been given to this in the order which is before us. That is why, although I have a certain sympathy with the feelings of the noble Lord, Lord Henley, I am also most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, for suggesting that we could reach at any rate a reasonable compromise on the matter, and that we should take care of the sensitive areas.

After all, what is the point of designating a conservation area, a national park or an area of outstanding natural beauty and then allowing the kind of relaxation which is suggested in the order before us? This could do considerable damage, often unintentionally—but it is none the better for that. Therefore, I hope very much indeed that my noble friend will take extremely seriously the fact that both the local government associations and the voluntary bodies are united in their disapprobation of the order.

I made it clear to some of my colleagues, that, if it were necessary—I hope that it will not be—for the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, to press his first Motion, I should feel constrained to vote with him against the Government. I could not in conscience do otherwise. It really seems wrong to those of us who, after all, spend a great deal of our time and effort in trying to preserve the very areas which the Government have designated as being specially worthy of preservation, that the Government should come along with an order which may look innocent enough, on the face of it but which one realises, when one begins to analyse it, could do damage.

I do not want to weary the House by going into some of the highly complicated details contained in the order, but the extensions really could be quite serious. For example, if you can build a freestanding garage up to 50 per cent. in area of the curtilage of a dwelling, that could be a building which might have a very deleterious effect upon an area which was otherwise harmonious, and the planning authority would be virtually helpless. Similarly, I am very much concerned as regards the national parks about the proposals for industrial buildings, because, while one is most anxious that there should be more suitable industry in the national park areas, the way in which it is provided, the appearance of the building, the proper siting and so on is extremely important. But, as noble Lords will be aware, where industrial buildings are concerned, it is not half as much again, but double the extension which will be allowed. One will now be allowed up to 20 per cent.—that is one-fifth—of the cubic content of the original building, and up to 750 square metres of floor area. That is a quite considerable area in a rural situation.

I find from studying the order that one can also aggregate two or more original buildings comprised in the same curtilage—I am speaking now of industrial buildings—if they are used as one unit for the purpose of the undertaking, and, … the reference in this permission to the cubic content shall be construed as a reference to the aggregate cubic content of those buildings"— one or more— and the reference to the aggregate floor space as a reference to the total floor space of those buildings. If I were determined to extend my factory, I should find a good way of showing that it was regarded as one unit and escape planning permission.

The planning officers, also, are very much concerned that it will not be within their authority to object if, for example, someone who wishes to escape having to apply for planning consent extends his premises over an existing car park, so that cars may then be parked in adjoining streets or roads. Or he may build over a landscaped area, which was possibly part of his original planning application, but, so far as we can understand it, if it is now built over as an extension within the permitted limits of the existing building it will be out with the planning procedure.

I do not wish to take up your Lordships' time by going into further details, some of which are fairly complex. But I hope that I have said enough to make it quite plain to my noble friend that those of us who spend a good deal of our leisure time, if I may call it that, in striving to preserve the amenities and the values of our countryside would be very unhappy indeed if the Government persisted in enacting this order without the reservations proposed in the first Motion of the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys.

6 p.m.


My Lords, I venture to speak today in support of my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys who, as we all know, founded the whole concept of conservation, wearing two hats: first of all, as chairman of the Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies and, secondly, as a member of the Historic Buildings Council for England which is now spending an increasing amount of time on advising the Secretary of State regarding the spending of nearly £2 million a year on: … any work which preserves or enhances the character and appearance of a conservation area. In this role, I am very gravely disturbed that these proposals may harm, I venture to think, the very valuable work only now getting under way with the help of public money. After all, it is very worrying to think of the possible effect of the relaxation of the general development order on unlisted buildings in the conservation areas. Even what may be described as a small extension to a building in an historic town can have a totally disastrous effect.

May I say a word about the Joint Committee of the National Amenity Societies. We have received many representations about this order from local amenity societies, architects and private individuals. Perhaps not enough has been said about the rather delicate question of building up enthusiasm for conservation areas; the idea is comparatively new. My experience has been that enthusiasm has to be pushed along very gently. Therefore, the relaxation of this order might prove to be a very serious, retrograde step. Think, my Lords, of the feelings of a gentleman who owns a house in a conservation area and who then sees work being done which he must know will have a damaging effect on the street but which nobody can control. It might do untold damage. I do not intend to detain your Lordships further. However, I should like most warmly to support the Motion of my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys.

6.2. p.m.

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, may I begin by supporting most enthusiastically the tribute my noble friend the Duke of Grafton has just paid to my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys for his initiative and leadership in matters of conservation over the past 20 or 30 years. It has been tremendous. I remember reading about an Oriental potentate in the Middle Ages who was very keen on architecture. It was said of him that he used to drive around his country in a chariot and that whenever he came across development of which he did not approve he would lop off 20 or 30 heads and then pass on without further comment. I wish my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys could be endowed with those powers; I am sure that they would be well used.


My Lords, it is an interesting thought!

Viscount AMORY

My Lords, I should also like to pay a tribute to the services in the same field which have been rendered to the Council for the Preservation of Rural England by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. I know how enthusiastic he has been, too. I confess that normally I have a strong bias in favour of an order which, contrary to so many, relaxes controls or regulations which are held to be unnecessary. When, therefore, the Government bring forward an order with the aim of saving the time and trouble of individuals and officials, in order that then they will be able to concentrate on more important matters, normally I feel that one ought to give at least three cheers. It may be, indeed, that there are planning matters which are too small to justify the present amount of intervention. In fact, I believe noble Lords will agree that the principle of de minimis non carat lex is generally sounder. Whenever I quote Latin I look around, hoping that a noble and learned Lord is present. I cannot see one at the moment, although I am never quite sure who is a noble and learned Lord.

The areas about which in this case serious doubts arise are, as my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys has made clear, the extension of any development in conservation areas, national parks and areas of outstanding natural beauty. I do not quite agree here with the noble Lord, Lord Henley. In areas other than those which I have mentioned, I should have no general objections to the aims of this order. However, in those areas, as I am sure noble Lords will agree, quite small developments, if misjudged, can do damage to scenery and amenity which is out of all proportion to the size of the development. It is in these cases that serious worries arise.

Other kinds of problems arise from this order, to which. I shall not refer now. However, it has been mentioned to me that if an area currently used as a car park is proposed to be used for permitted development, it may throw traffic on to neighbouring roads, to the aggravation of traffic problems. As my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys has indicated, I believe that all three local government associations are against this order.

The Department have not failed to consult the associations. However, I do not believe that the representations made by the associations have had much effect on the Minister's views, judging by the order as it now appears. I can speak only for one of these associations—the Association of County Councils. So far as they are concerned, I can say that they would be immensely relieved if the Government were to accept the advice of my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys and take back this order for further consideration of its application within the special areas I have mentioned. Because I feel so strongly about this, I have no hesitation whatever in saying that I shall support my noble friend's Motion in any way that I can.

6.9 p.m.


My Lords, I apologise for not putting down my name on the list of speakers. I shall speak only very briefly. I intervene because I am the chairman of a new town corporation. A new town corporation has planning powers that parallel those of a local authority. I am chairman of a planning committee which every month has to judge the applications submitted for development in a conservation area, the Ironbridge Gorge, which is an area of great beauty and one which may well be damaged by the order which is before the House. I want very briefly to relate to my noble friend the experience I have had and the way in which my colleagues and I on the development corporation, have tried to use our powers.

We are in a double dilemma. I should say, first, that we are not happy that the target of our remarks this evening is my noble friend, whose passion for historic buildings and whose devotion to conservation areas is known and to whom we owe a great debt for her energy in this part of her duties within the Department of the Environment. It gives us no pleasure to be hurling these remarks at my noble friend who has so distinguished herself and who, quite properly, prides herself in this role.

Our second dilemma is the one posed by the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, when he said that of course we applaud the motives. We applaud the motives, which are less delay and less restriction, and our problem is at the borderline where, in the view of many of us, that is going to lead to dangers to districts, to the environment and indeed to our national heritage. We are faced with a difficult dilemma on that count, too, so I join with other noble Lords in restricting my remarks to the conservation areas.

In an area like mine—in the Ironbridge Gorge, which my noble friend knows very well because she has visited it and I know she takes pride in what we are doing—we are rescuing it as one of the most outstanding areas of industrial archaeology, and for the preservation of the buildings and the houses of that period, in this country—indeed, if not in the world. If in that area we had not had a very strict planning control, it is perfectly clear that by now that area would have been dilapidated and changed out of all recognition by additions and odd buildings, many of which we have cleared away in our work of conservation.

We went so far as to publish a booklet, like many which the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, is familiar with and indeed is responsible for, showing photographs of the buildings in the Ironbridge Gorge, showing how hideous extensions had in fact been built and where they are particularly prominent because they are all on the side of a gorge. If you stand on the iron bridge in Telford today and look up, there are additions to almost every house you see, and if somebody takes undue advantage of this enormous relaxation of powers in regard to garages and extentions on that gorge side, a great deal of our conservation work will be ruined and will come to naught.

Moreover it is not the case that there is any need to fear delay or the restrictive use of powers in this matter. I spent part of last week visiting one factory in the Ironbridge Gorge where they wanted to build an extension which might well be covered by this order. I was there saying, "Well, we do not want to refuse you; we would like very much to talk with you about the best way of accomplishing your aim within the general limit of preserving the environment of the gorge". Because we had behind us the planning power we were able to reach a very happy agreement with the factory owner, and it was all done with the complete goodwill of everybody concerned.

So it is not the case that bodies like mine, or indeed local authorities, use their powers in a wholly restrictive and bureaucratic manner. We are sensitive to the needs of the area; we are sensitive to the freedom that local people want to extend their dwellings. We simply want to have that slight push behind us when we come to negotiate about the details which will make all the difference between real conservation and the dangers of ruining an area by something which sticks out like a sore thumb as totally inappropriate for the district.

Therefore, I say to my noble friend, with all the earnestness at my command, that if she cannot take away the whole order in the sense of totally redrafting it I hope she will agree to consult with her noble friend on the point that there must be some greater protection in the relaxation being proposed for the conservation areas. This is the real danger point where I would part company with my noble friend and, like my noble friend Lady White, I would feel it very hard to support the Government on this issue.

6.15 p.m.


My Lords, I rise to welcome once again an initiative by my noble friend Lord Duncan-Sandys in this field and to assure him that if he feels it necessary to press his first Motion I for one would want to support him. I owe the House an apology for speaking without having put down my name, but the fact is that I was not at all sure that I should be able to be present for this debate. I have a number of interests in this field, one of which is that I am a vice-president of the Association of District Councils which, like all the other associations, is united in opposing this order; but I have perhaps a more general interest in being the predecessor of the noble Baroness in her present office and in as good a position as anybody to admire the distinguished three years' service which she has given to that office. It is that fact which leaves me somewhat at a loss to understand what is going on in the Department. There are explanations in this order in the Explanatory Note—two pages of them—but they do not explain any of the matters which are of real moment and which we have to consider in this debate. It is those that I hope the noble Baroness will be able to explain to our satisfaction.

There are four points. The first is that having appointed Mr. Dobry specifically to look at the whole development control process with a view to speeding it up and simplifying it, how is it that he comes to the conclusion that he is not prepared to recommend any general extension of the exemption granted by the general development order, and the Department which appointed him then ignores that advice? That is the first thing we want to have explained. The second is how, when the committee which I had the honour to chair, represented to the Secretary of State that there should be stricter control in all the national parks, and the Department at that time agreed that the whole planning process had to be simplified and speeded up, they nevertheless agreed with us that in the national parks the planning procedures and the development control procedures needed to be tightened up, not to be relaxed with any of the others? That is the second explanation which is due to us, and it is an explanation which would not be necessary if my noble friend's recommendations were accepted.

The third point which requires explanation is this: the present Government agreed with the previous Government that there should be no relaxation in the requirement that planning permission to alter listed buildings should be referred to the Secretary of State. There should be no relaxation in that requirement unless and until the Secretary of State was satisfied that the local planning authorities concerned, either county councils or district councils, had between them staff of sufficient calibre and suitable qualifications to take those decisions for themselves. How is it the Department has come to the conclusion that that can all go to the wind and that any authority can have the right to give itself planning consent in respect of listed buildings, regardless of whether or not they have adequate staffs and advice available to them?

The fourth point which my noble friend touched on at the beginning is: how is it that an order can be introduced specifically to make life easier for the local authorities in the exercise of their functions under the planning Act and result in a united opposition and objection to all four of them, to say nothing of the objection of the joint committee of the four amenity societies, the CPRE and the CPRW? I have seldom known any Government introduce any order against such united advice and, in this case, it is from the very bodies that the order is designed to help.

6.19 p.m.


My Lords, I also apologise for not putting my name down but I rise to support the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, and I have an interest to declare as I have the honour to be the president of the Dorking and Leith Hill Preservation Society which is supporting the Mole Valley District Council in their protest over this Order. The Mole Valley District is an area of special planning restraint because it is close to the London conurbation, and consequently the extension of existing properties in the neighbourhood is very lucrative.

Under the proposed regulations many small properties will, therefore, be enlarged, and this will probably put the cost of them right outside the means of the local people, for whom there is a very great housing shortage. This order will also have the effect of upsetting decisions on applications which have rightly been turned down in the past, probably because of overlooking or obstruction; it will now make them permissible, which will cause hardship and injustice to neighbours. Also there are many examples in this district of large buildings which have established office or industrial uses in the area; these would become capable of further uncontrolled expansion, causing serious problems of parking and access, and again would be detrimental to the character of their surroundings, as there would be no control at all over the style and materials used in the extensions. I understand that in certain cases this will also apply to Grade II listed buildings. Therefore, I hope the Government will give further thought to these problems.

6.21 p.m.

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, first of all, I find my task extremely difficult, because it is not really pleasant being at odds with people on all sides of the House who are not only friends but whose work is so well-known and distinguished in the various organisations they represent. My noble friend Lady White quite rightly pointed out that the heads of three of the important conservation societies and the noble Duke, the Duke of Grafton, from the Joint Amenity Societies, have all come down on the same side. At first glance it looks for me an extremely sticky wicket.

I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, for his charming remarks when he introduced his very annoying Motion, also to thank my noble friend Lord Northfield for his kind remarks before he stuck his gentle and charming dagger in as well. Nevertheless, having listened very carefully to everyone who has spoken, and spoken very much to the point and briefly, I feel that there has been a considerable amount of misunderstanding about the effects of these amendments—a misunderstanding which has resulted in, I believe, quite unnecessary alarm. I want, first of all, to try and clear up these points.

First, permissions to extend buildings are of a once-and-for-all nature. Once the allowance has been used up then planning permission must be sought in the usual way. It is not allowed, for example, to make successive extensions to a dwelling-house each of 15 per cent. of its cubic volume. Similarly, the permission to use one house as two can only be used once; in other words, the amendment order does not give permission either for use as more than two dwellings or for each resulting dwelling itself to be divided again. I think I should point out here that the old order, the order to which this is an amendment, provided for extensions of 10 per cent., which lasted for 30 years, and this is just an increase of 5 per cent. on that. Put in the way that my noble friend Lady White did, it sounds enormous, but I think when it comes down to the percentage figure it is very much less frightening.

Secondly, the new relaxations do not give freedom to extend listed buildings; express grants of planning permission will not now be needed—it was just to resolve that anomaly—but these will still remain under the control of the local planning authority, because listed building consent must be obtained for any alterations that affect its character. This relaxation applies only to Grade II buildings; if it is Grade II or Grade I then it has to come to the Department for permission.

The application of the amendment order to national parks, conservation areas and areas of outstanding natural beauty is nothing new. This is entirely consistent with the present order, which applies nationwide throughout England and Wales The background against which these amendments to the general development order have been made is obviously familiar and has been touched on by most speakers. There has been a welter of complaints from all quarters about the slowness and inefficiency of the development control system. In 1973 Mr. George Dobry was asked to undertake a review of the development control system precisely to look into this problem. In the final report (paragraph 9.20) he says: Relaxation could only be accepted if we were to regard it as the price of freeing the planning control system from too much clogging detail". Then he goes on to discuss less substantial changes.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, asked for reasons for rejecting of accepting the Dobry recommendations. These reasons were given at length in a Statement made by the Secretary of State two years ago. Each individual recommendation was commented on. I do not think this is the moment to spell all that out.

More recently, the House of Commons Expenditure Committee, during its investigation of planning procedures, recommended measures which might be taken to speed up the planning system and make it more efficient. At paragraph 89 it says: We consider that at present the planning system is obliged to deal with too many minor alterations and we broadly welcome the Government's proposals for widening the GDO. This is very important because it stresses what the Committee considered was the matter of central importance and urgency. The planning machine had become bogged down. Dealing with a host of minor matters has meant delay and frustration; there is less time to look carefully at those development proposals likely to have a significant impact on the environment or to deal speedily with developments, large or small, where delay really means very serious cost penalties and real loss of economic growth or foreign investment producing additional jobs.

Incidentally, I would point out that in the conservation field, which is not only my work but also something very close to my heart, it is also true that all the delays that cover the rest of the field do spill over there, and do mean that where there are inquiries or appeals that delay is transmitted to these buildings to the detriment of buildings which are already sometimes in a fairly perilous state.

It was against this background that it was decided that amendments to the general development order were required. The package of amendments now before the House has not been arrived at frivolously, or in a philistine manner. We have had to balance the need to maintain control over development which will have a significant impact against the need to relieve the burden on the development control machine. There are those who would like to see even tighter controls, and there are those who would like further relaxation of control.

There has been very wide and lengthy consultation on these proposals, and although the noble Viscount, Lord Amory, pointed out that the representations of the local government associations were not completely accepted, I must point out that many amendments originally considered have been dropped and others have been modified as a result of these consultations. It is obviously clearly impossible to please everyone; there are so many varying interests involved. Noble Lords will I am sure, recognise that this is a basic dilemma of the planning system, a dilemma which was well summed up in evidence to the House of Commons Expenditure Committee. Here I quote Vol. II, page 558 of the report: A system that has to balance the rights and wishes of individuals with the public interest, preservation with change, and quality with economy, is not likely to be thought perfect by all who are affected by it. Sometimes it has to try and reconcile the irreconcilable. Sometimes its application has been inflexible or petty or inconsistent. Sometimes its processes have been unwarrantably slow with insufficient regard to the difficulties this can cause the applicant whether property company or householder". I think that sums up the problem admirably and I daresay the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, will not only agree but will recognise the quotation because it formed part of the Memorandum submitted by the Civic Trust. What the Government have tried to achieve is a well balanced compromise between these very difficult areas of polarisation.

Now, I turn to some of the benefits which should come about as a result of these changes. We have heard more about the other side of this. First, the planning machine will be troubled by fewer minor matters. This should leave more time for the careful and efficient control of those proposals which are of greater significance to the community; it should allow generally for speedier decisions and result in a saving of time and money for the general public, planning authorities (and their ratepayers), industrialists, architects, planners, house builders and surveyors. The fact that there are differences of opinion between the individuals in these categories does not, in my opinion, necessarily damn the whole scheme.

The relaxation of control over small-scale development will reduce the frustration felt by people wishing to extend their own homes who have previously found themselves caught up in the planning system. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, not only local authorities but my Department also are inundated by these people. It will also be of benefit to small firms proposing to extend their premises. To be able to turn a single dwelling house into two will make for better utilisation of the housing stock and I should think that this would be welcome in a situation where it is essential to increase our housing stock as rapidly and economically as we can. I envisage that this will be particularly useful where large older houses are under-occupied and it may even result in an improvement of environmental standards. The maintenance of a large house can be an intolerable burden for a single family whereas conversion into two makes for more manageable units and could result in a higher standard of repair and maintenance.

I hope that noble Lords will be convinced from what I have said that the amending order will not have a catastrophic effect on conservation areas. I have already explained that control over the alteration and extension of listed buildings will not be removed—listed building consent will still be required for these. In addition there are the various specially designated areas which the noble Lord wants to exclude from the order. What the Government say is this: we sympathise with this objective and there is no difference about that at all. This was one of the recommendations of the Expenditure Committee, since we do not want sensitive areas to suffer. Our view is that the right mechanism is for the local planning authority, where it sees trouble, to deal with it by an Article 4 direction. The circular to local authorities will make this plain and the Secretary of State will consider their applications sympathetically where his consent is required.

The effect of an Article 4 direction is to rescind the permission granted by the general development order. The great advantage over the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, is trying to achieve this is that such a direction can be used to regain control over all permitted development. This gives far greater control than the noble Lord's proposal, because the control will be not only of the extra 5 per cent. but also of the present 10 per cent. I am sure that the use of this provision to retain control over minor development in selected areas is preferable to the very cumbersome proposal of a general withdrawal of permitted development over wide and disparate areas.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Baroness? Would not the procedure she is mentioning add greatly to the amount of paper that would have to pass between the local planning authority and her Ministry?

Baroness BIRK

Not necessarily. So many other cases which were not in sensitive conservation or other designated areas would have been freed from the need to get planning permission that it would more than balance out. The greater speed would be important. No noble Lord who spoke on this order made reference to the other side of the picture, which is that there is a weapon at hand ready to use to deal with this in a very much more expeditious and discriminating manner than would be achieved by making a rescinding and general relaxation of the whole order.

If the Motion moved by the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys, were accepted, it would exclude about a quarter of England and Wales from the proposed relaxations. The planning system is complicated enough without introducing two systems: one where the current proposals operate and one where they do not. I do not think it would be defensible to suggest that all of those living in the special areas referred to by noble Lords should be denied rights available to other citizens.

Baroness WHITE

We already have two systems. We have particular conditions in national parks and conservation areas. There is nothing new in that.

Baroness BIRK

If this were rescinded we should be adding another layer to it. By this Amendment we are now adding 5 per cent. to the general area and if you then make a general relaxation you are breaking it up even more. If this is not clear I can write in detail to my noble friend. The designation or declaration of areas of this sort is not a sufficiently precise basis upon which to decide where control over minor development should be applied and where it should not. There may be particular areas or individuals building where more detailed control would be fully justified, and this can be effected by the use of Article 4. Automatic and wholesale discrimination against everyone who lives there cannot be fair. Incidentally, if it were done the other way, you would see the other side of the coin; where Article 4 directions under the system that the Government are proposing should operate—and speakers have made references to neighbourhoods and localities which may not be in conservation or specially designated areas or national parks—it would be important that they should be treated as sensitive cases. The Article 4 direction could do that. However, if it is not used but a general blunderbuss is wielded, that could produce the result which noble Lords are anxious to stop. People living in the areas referred to by noble Lords and which they want excluded from this order may already extend their houses and factories by 10 per cent. without specific planning permission. All we are discussing is a further and relatively small increase in this allowance. Dividing lines are almost always arbitrary but it is difficult to argue that 15 per cent. is intolerable whereas 10 per cent, is quite acceptable.

Baroness WHITE

It is 20 per cent. for industrial buildings.

Baroness BIRK

An ill-designed, badly executed development will be unsightly whatever its size; a well-designed extension can be an asset to a neighbourhood. One has to be fair and look at what can be positive improvements that may come about through this. The Amendments to the general development order will not alter this situation one way or another. What we must aim for—and I believe it is already happening—is that individuals should have greater awareness of their environment so that they will be interested in preserving and enhancing the character of the place where they live and will not propose building operations that will harm its appearance.

I believe that bodies like the Civic Trust, the Council for the Protection of Rural England, the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales and all the amenity societies, have already achieved a great deal in this sphere. I am sure that their continuing role of education, propaganda and encouragement is likely to provide the best defence of those places which we especially value for their appearance and also to make sure that the Article 4 direction is used where necessary.

To sum up, the amendments to the general development order are not as far-reaching or sinister as some noble Lords may have feared. They have been made, after very careful consideration and an acknowledgment of all the various points that have been raised, in order to improve the operation of the planning system in the public interest. Where that interest requires the exercise by the local planning authority of detailed control over minor matters, then the Government's approach is that this should be put into effect by Article 4 direction. However, I am sure that for the general run of small-scale development it is right for individuals to have the freedom which is now proposed.

I acknowledge that it is difficult to find the best way of lightening the burden of the planning machine while at the same time safeguarding the public interest and giving freedom to the individual. The Government's method of reconciling these directives represents a fine balance between what is effective and what is environmentally acceptable. I hope that noble Lords will carefully consider what I have said and come to the conclusion that this really is a better way of obtaining the objective about which, there is no doubt, we are all agreed—I am not arguing about that—than supporting the Motion of the the noble Lord, Lord Duncan-Sandys. However, I should go further and ask the noble Lord whether, in view of what I have said—I know that he is a very reasonable man—he will not reconsider and decide to withdraw his Motion.


My Lords, before the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, sits down I should like to press my point about listed buildings. If I may say so, the noble Baroness has completely misunderstood our concern about those buildings. I do not think that any of the noble Lords who have spoken in the debate ever supposed that the need for development control over listed buildings would be withdrawn. That is not the point. The point is that the requirement on local planning authorities to seek the consent of the Secretary of State before approving a planning application has been withdrawn by the order. It seems to have been withdrawn without any assurance that the planning authorities in question have the necessary staffs to advise them. Will the noble Baroness please deal with that point?

Baroness BIRK

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Sandford, is as aware as I am that local authorities are able, apart from the order, to decide on alterations themselves as regards a grade 2 building. The noble Lord, Lord Sandford, asked a rather extended question. The letter giving the 1976 direction withdrew individual directions previously given to some authorities which, because they had suitable specialist staff, had been given authority themselves to decide applications for alterations and extensions. These directions sometimes included grade 1 and grade 2 buildings. Only the GLC has been given this authority. The Association of County Councils has been protesting ever since that some authorities are worse off as a result of the 1976 direction. This is really just a way of saying that we cannot please everybody. As regards the listed buildings, all that has happened is that the planning point—an anomaly in the Act—has been brought into line. There would still have to be listed buildings consent from the local authority for alterations to listed buildings, as it is now, and has been since last spring.


My Lords, the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, has said that she hopes that we shall give most careful consideration to the explanations which she has given. I hope, and I am confident, knowing the noble Baroness, that she will ask the Secretary of State to give most careful consideration to the unanimous views which have been expressed by all speakers in the debate. I believe that the best way in which we can strengthen the hand of the noble Baroness is to record our views in the Division Lobby.


My Lords, that is unreasonable.

6.46 p.m.

Resolved in the affirmative, and Motion agreed to accordingly.