HL Deb 29 March 1979 vol 399 cc1667-78

3.51 p.m.

The Earl of KINNOULL rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they are satisfied with the public inquiry procedures for any new proposed terminal at the major international airports in the United Kingdom. The noble Earl said: My Lords, it is not often that at just about ten to four one comes on to an Unstarred Question. Perhaps I should explain after the excitement of last night, and in case I am accused of a lack of feeling of the House, I also wondered at the value of pursuing this Question with the ever-patient noble Baroness, Lady Stedman. However, by the time I had made my inquiries this morning, I discovered that I was a little late to withdraw and, indeed, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for being present to reply. The usefulness of this Question is that the problem will not disappear and although the noble Baroness cannot commit any future Administration, perhaps her Department can consider the arguments to see whether there is a basis for recommending some adjustment in the framework of procedures.

The Question really concerns the current procedures of public inquiries which are particularly looking into new terminal building proposals at our major airports. I would add that I have no intention of making any comment on the merits or demerits of the recent inquiry on Terminal 4 at Heathrow, as clearly this would be improper and facile. From the experience of that inquiry, one can ask usefully whether the framework of such an inquiry is serving the best interests of good planning with the twin responsibility of providing adequate facilities at our airports while looking after local needs.

The planning facts leading to the Terminal 4 inquiry are briefly these: that the British Airports Authority were granted powers by Parliament under the general development orders of 1977 for anything specifically connected with airport use within the perambulations of an airport. In other words, no planning permission was required for a cargo handling building but would be required if a hypermarket were suggested. There were several important exceptions under this order where planning permission would be required to be sought from local planning authorities. First, the extension of runways; hotel development within the airport; development of land acquired after 6th December 1968; and if any tenants of the British Airports Authority—the airline users or whatever—wished to put up a building.

Despite the general development powers that were granted to the British Airports Authority, they agreed, I believe informally, with the Secretary of State that they would consult local planning authorities —and, in the case of Heathrow, there are three local planning authorities—for anything other than minor developments. However, above all this, the Government retained power under that general development order under Article 4 which in essence gave the Secretary of State power to call in what he thought was a major development and on which in the public interest there should be a public inquiry. This I understand was the basis of the public inquiry of Terminal 4 and the judgment of calling it I have no quarrel or question—indeed I am sure—was a correct judgment. That inquiry started in mid-May 1978 and finished about mid-December of that year; in other words, seven months.

It took 93 sitting days, more days than the whole of the Roskill Committee spent examining airport policy. In fact, it was one day less than the massive Windscale Inquiry into the nuclear power station. The cost I am told to the British Airports Authority, to date, is £400,000, principally in legal fees; and it is estimated that the inquiry as a whole cost just over £1 million, which largely fell on either ratepayers or the taxpayer. If one looks upon the British Airports Authority and if one assumes that the Minister who makes the decision finally has an overriding duty to provide a facility at the airport, the delay to the British Airports Authority means something in the region of two years from the time that a new terminal could come into operation.

The best evidence that one has about that delay is that there will now be a two year gap between the exhaustion of Heathrow's present passenger capacity and the availability of a fourth terminal. I have no doubt on pure good planning grounds that all the costs, delays and frustrations are worth while if there is really a genuine open question. Is the fourth terminal really needed at the airport? I submit to the noble Baroness that with all the public statements and evidence on Maplin, the third London airport and, indeed, on the Government White Paper, there is now little room for doubt on the lack of choice open to Government and the acute and urgent need for providing additional terminals at existing airports to provide that extra capacity while the third London airport decision is being taken, if we are to avoid a very damaging thrombosis to what must be now one of our main arteries of commercial life.

I do not believe that anyone would argue, whether or not one lived near Heathrow, that Heathrow represents something like 13 per cent. of all that we buy and sell in this country and is indeed the very nerve centre of our tourism and trade. When one looks at such public inquiries as Terminal 4 and sees the sometimes often repeated evidence by separate local authorities—indeed, four local authorities in this case—being involved, and the time-scale it took together with the enormous costs against the apparent sheer necessity for having this terminal, I hope that the noble Baroness will consider it fair of me to ask: Is the framework of such inquiries really meeting the needs of good planning? Should more precise terms of reference be given to an inspector handling such inquiries? This is without removing, of course, the proper right of people to hear and submit relevant evidence. Is there a need for three local authorities to give evidence separately but the same evidence? Could they not combine a case? Does it really take six months to mount an inquiry of this nature? Those are the questions that I seek to ask the noble Baroness today. They are nothing to do with the inquiry itself but simply the procedures.

3.59 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to support what the noble Earl has been saying about the cost and duration of these public inquiries. I have recently become interested in the problem of securing access to Gatwick Airport for those who live to the east of it. The noble Baroness who I surmise is going to reply for the Government has very kindly interested herself in this matter and has been most helpful on it.

The problem is complicated by the time taken for these inquiries. Any normal person would have thought that a small roundabout was all that was required outside the staff entrance at Gatwick to enable people travelling from the east to avoid driving an extra four miles all round the countryside to get into Gatwick. In fact the proposal is to make a small spur to the motorway. This is an extremely acceptable solution for those who are affected, but unfortunately it requires a public inquiry and the matter is going to drag on so long that there is no hope that this small spur of, I think, less than a mile in length can be opened before 1982 or 1983. I think we make too much heavy weather of this. Anybody who objects to anything in this country is allowed to go on objecting, whereas it seems to me that the public interest ought to take precedence.

Another example I can give is the question of the route for the M.25 in the area south of the Dartford Tunnel. There the objectors turned up in such force that the inquiry was disrupted and finally had to be abandoned. I think it is highly undemocratic: it is not at all the way that it should be done. In this admirable country in which we live issues ought to be settled on their merits. The fact that the motorway looks like having to go through some rather beautiful country does not excuse totally undemocratic proceedings of that order. The village of Eynsford suffers absolutely colossal lorry traffic going through its narrow streets to the great detriment of the inhabitants, and especially children, and makes it clear what a terrible business this is. I do not know what the ultimate solution to that will be, but certainly that part of the motorway has to be constructed. The noble Baroness made a most interesting and forceful speech on this subject not long ago. However, I do want to support the noble Earl in expressing the hope that a better procedure can be found for these public inquiries. Anyone can see that they are necessary and that they ought to be conducted in a swift, sensible and objective manner. And disrupters, I think, ought to be thrown out.

4.3 p.m.


My Lords, perhaps I may intervene to make just a few short observations on the Question tabled by my noble friend. I hope your Lordships will forgive me if I do not speak at very great length this afternoon. That in no way attempts to detract from the importance of the matter which has been raised, but perhaps your Lordships will agree that some of us have had other things to consider and I was not aware until just an hour or so ago that this Question would in fact be taken.

I think one has to recognise at the outset that the terminal developments referred to in the Question do indeed have a very considerable impact not only on the airport itself—that surely is selfevident—but also upon the surrounding countryside, because they inevitably lead to a substantial increase in the traffic of the airport concerned. For example, there is presently under consideration—indeed a planning application has recently been made for it—a second terminal at Gatwick. That, if and when it comes to pass, will increase the capacity of the airport, at least in the minds of the British Airports Authority, from 16 million passengers a year to 25 million passengers a year, with a related increase in the number of aircraft movements. Therefore it behoves us to make sure that all the people who live in the surrounding districts get a reasonable chance at least to make their views known; but I share some of the concern expressed by my noble friend regarding these present procedures.

As my noble friend explained, it is the case at present that on land which is already owned by the Authority no planning permission is, strictly speaking, required for facilities needed for the purposes of the airport. Thus the second terminal at Gatwick could have been built without any planning application at all, so I understand. However, the Authority have decided in the public interest—I think quite properly, but to their own detriment, at least as was exhibited in the case of the fourth terminal at Heathrow—to make the appropriate planning application. The Secretary of State certainly called in the application for the fourth terminal at Heathrow in order to arrange for a public inquiry in that case. I have no doubt that the Secretary of State, whoever he may be, will also call in the application for the second terminal at Gatwick. That application was lodged only a week or two ago and, so far as I know, the Secretary of State has not yet announced his decision in the matter; but I think we can assume that it will be called in in due course.

As my noble friend said—and the noble Lord, Lord Hankey, made further reference to this—some of these inquiries tend to be disrupted by all sorts of people who seem more concerned with advancing their own careers in inquiry obstruction than in forwarding the cause of good planning or the cause of democracy in these matters. I think that my noble friend is right to suggest that these procedures need review. Having said that, I have no doubt that the review will be difficult because it is not possible—for me at least—to imagine how we can alter the procedure without depriving worthy people of the right to say their piece. However, I do not think I can add anything more to this beyond saying that the procedure does need review but that the review will not be an easy one and will no doubt take some time. Certainly I should have thought that it would not be possible to complete any necessary legislative changes before the inquiry into the second terminal at Gatwick comes before an inspector, as doubtless it will in the near future.

4.7 p.m.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, the Question the noble Earl has raised today is a very interesting one. It is particularly apt that he should raise it since much public attention and discussion has recently been focused upon the nature and form of our major inquiries into proposals for public development of one kind or another. Interest in the procedures adopted on the one hand in the Windscale Inquiry and more generally in motorway inquiries has been considerable and often lively, and we have had most recently the long inquiry into the proposal for a fourth terminal at Heathrow.

Much of the interest has concentrated on the rights of the parties at an inquiry to examine in full and satisfactory detail issues they consider to be vital to the ultimate decision of the Secretary of State, in particular the major issue of need—something which in times past has tended to be taken for granted. The trend of this modern awareness and concern is thus rather in the direction of larger and more elaborate inquiries than in the direction of constricted inquiries of the kind about which the noble Earl was speaking.

What the noble Earl has done has been to put a perspective on the planning inquiry system, which is a valuable contribution to further consideration about the way that system ought to develop in major cases. Just to set the scene, there are some thousands of planning inquiries held every year. Many of these are of only local interest and are concerned with comparatively modest proposals. Proportionately the number of those which I would call of general local significance is fairly small, perhaps a few hundred. But the number of those which may be said to affect us all and are of national significance (as Windscale was) is, I should say, perhaps only two or three a year.

In this group I would place the type of inquiry dealing with proposals for new terminals at major international airports that the noble Earl has mentioned. It is in this area, as he rightly says, that proposals arc usually made against a background of declared Government policy. It is, of course, necessary for the Government to take policy views about new projects coming forward in the development of our larger nationalised industries. It is important that the industries, the particular promoters and the public in general should be aware in advance of what the Government are prepared to entertain. But this is not to say that the decisions on granting planning permission for these projects have in any sense been pre-empted. Let me instance, in fact, what the Command Paper on Airports Policy said about Gatwick. It said: The Government sees no objection to the BAA bringing forward for examination through the appropriate planning procedure proposals for the development of Gatwick during the 1980s as a two-terminal airport". There are three main principles on which the planning inquiry system has rested. First, it is for Government and Parliament to determine national policies against which specific proposals are brought to inquiry. Secondly, against the background of declared national policy there should be, when a planning application results in a call-in (or following an appeal against refusal of planning permission) a full and fair inquiry conducted by an inspector to consider whether the reasons for supporting the proposal are sufficient for it to be allowed to proceed or whether it should be turned down. Thirdly, it is for the Secretary of State, under the powers granted to him by Parliament, to make his decision in the light of the inquiry and the inspector's report.

The kind of criticisms that in recent times have been made of the statutory procedure applicable to these inquiries have rather been aimed at greater thoroughness and examination of detail than at the time they are taking, or that they have been going into matters which should be taken as read. It has been said that they can frustrate those who want quick decisions but, on the other hand, there are also those who complain that their point of view might have prevailed if only further exhaustive studies could have been made into all the implications, and particularly the environmental effects. I have every sympathy with the noble Earl's view that inquiries should proceed with efficiency and, if that can be maintained without detriment, with a degree of despatch, and it is naturally undesirable that we should be burdened by the extra cost of inquiries that are unduly prolonged.

The noble Earl raised a particular point about the terms of reference, which he thought might be so drawn as to limit the evidence produced before the inquiry and yet still give people a chance to air their views. This certainly could be one approach, if we were so minded to adopt it. But, in fact, a planning inquiry has no terms of reference as such. The inquiry is into the planning application itself, but in major inquiries into proposals which are called-in for the Secretary of State's own decision, he provides the inquiry with a statement made under Rule 6 of the Planning Inquiry Procedure Rules, indicating the issues which he considers most relevant to his own decision. I must stress—


My Lords, will the noble Baroness forgive me for interrupting for one moment? There is a new departure in this, which is quite helpful. Not only does he do that, but he has now started to introduce a pre-inquiry meeting where people may argue about the terms of reference, rather than the merits of the subject matter. So that you can settle, once and for all, beforehand what it is that you are going to talk about. This is, I think, a comparatively new procedure, and it is one which is likely to be very helpful.

Baroness STEDMAN

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Viscount for that intervention, and I accept that what he says is what happens now. We hope that it is a move along the right path in making these things much easier for everyone to understand and take part in. But I must stress that even then the inspector is not confined to the matters within that statement. He can allow evidence and examination on other matters which he regards as relevant to the decision on the application.

It is therefore most important that not only the Government but the public at large should be wholly satisfied that all matters relevant to the Secretary of State's decision should be thoroughly ventilated. There is no means of laying down standard rules about this, which could apply to the range of major inquiries that take place. The proposals before inquiries each have their own characteristics, and this is why it is left to the inspector in each case to make sure that the evidence produced is the evidence that will be needed for the decision, and is relevant, well examined and well assessed. In short, inquiries must take their natural length and must not be fitted into some kind of very tight straitjacket.

The noble Earl also referred to the costs of public inquiries. We accept that voluntary organisations, in particular, have tremendous difficulty in raising the money in order to pay the fees of the experts who put their case, and that sometimes lengthy public inquiries can impose quite considerable strain on those taking part. My right honourable friend and our Department are already considering this question, in the light of representations that have been made to us before today. I hope that either I or my successors can continue with considerations of that kind in due course.

The noble Lord, Lord Hankey, referred to delays, and was more concerned with getting the road spur at Gatwick. The noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, also drew attention to the delays resulting from the implementation of planning procedures in the provision of airport capacity. I do not believe he is suggesting that we should sweep aside these procedures and undertake airport developments without any regard to planning and environmental considerations. But, nevertheless, the noble Earl is right to draw attention to an issue which goes considerably wider than airport development, and involves other considerations as well. There is no doubt that the implementation of our planning procedures takes time, and sometimes we would argue that it takes too long. I am a great believer in public participation, but I also believe that there comes a time when someone has to say, "Enough is enough and we will get on with the job", and we have to decide at what point we say that and who says it. But the decision to call in the planning application and hold a public inquiry into the fourth passenger terminal at Heathrow was announced on 4th August 1977, the inquiry started on 31st May 1978, and ended on 15th December 1978. My right honourable friend now hopes to receive the inspector's report some time after Easter, which is certainly a very long time. Clearly in a matter of this importance whoever is responsible will wish to consider carefully the inspector's conclusions before reaching a decision. So about two years will have elapsed between the announcement to hold the inquiry and the actual decision being known.

The House will appreciate that I cannot today anticipate what the decision might be on the fourth terminal at Heathrow. But if the decision was in favour of the development, there would then be a further period for a detailed planning application and for obtaining planning permission, and for the letting of contracts, which might occupy yet another year before construction of the terminal could begin. The noble Earl has emphasised the delay, but we have also to recognise that our planning procedures involve considerable costs for industry and for all others concerned, an extended period of uncertainty and the deployment of scarce management resources in work associated with the planning procedures. What we have to find, and we ought to be trying to find it quickly, is how we strike a balance between these factors and the planning and environmental considerations. I think that I shall have the noble Earl's agreement when I say that I believe that should be our objective.

I hope that what I have said will convey to your Lordships the view of Her Majesty's Government on the principles on which major public inquiries should proceed, and the great importance that we lay on securing inquiries which result in decisions that will be seen as fair and acceptable in themselves, even to those who set out to oppose the proposals in the first place. I should like to finish by quoting from a speech made by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, in Manchester last September, on this very subject, when he said: We are a democracy: and we govern by consent. It is our duty to ensure that that consent is justified and to make it possible for the public to feel and to know that the ultimate decisions reached are as wise, fair and acceptable as we are able to make them. This is what we owe to ourselves and that is the responsibility we bear for the future".

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