HL Deb 20 March 1980 vol 407 cc346-54

3.17 p.m.

The CHAIRMAN of COMMITTEES (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I beg to move that the County of Kent Bill be now read a second time. This is another Private Bill in the series of Bills promoted by county councils as a result of Clause 262 of the Local Government Act 1972—one of those Bills that have come to be known as"jumbos ".

If this Bill gets a Second Reading this afternoon it will be sent to the normal committees: that is to say, the clauses that are petitioned against will go to an opposed committee and the remainder will go to an unopposed committee. However, as your Lordships will see, there are on the Order Paper two Instructions standing in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, and the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard. If your Lordships accept these two Instructions then they, too, will be sent to the Select Committee.

I have suggested to both noble Lords that it might be more convenient for the House if they were to speak to their Instructions in the course of this short debate on Second Reading, and I hope that will be convenient to all your Lordships, so that eventually, when it comes to the Instructions themselves, they can be moved formally. I beg to move.

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


My Lords, this Bill has 158 clauses and seven schedules for the better ordering of affairs in Kent, and I wish very briefly to draw attention to only two clauses. It will be seen from the Order Paper that in the event of this Bill being read a second time I am to move an Instruction to the Select Committee on the Bill. As the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees has suggested, it may be convenient to the House if I speak now on Clauses 97 and 98 and then formally move the Instruction on the second of those clauses when the time comes to do so.

Clause 97 seeks to ensure that where trees which have been subject to a tree preservation order have been felled in contravention of that order, they are replaced by new planting—a reasonable enough aim on the face of it. But in amending, as the clause does, the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 specifically for Kent, the effect of such an amendment could be to compel the owner of a parcel of woodland where trees have died off naturally to carry out operations which would not be in accord with good forestry practice. This minor point is now recognised by the promoters who have, I am glad to say, agreed to amend their Clause 97 so as to hit the right target and not the wrong one.

I now turn to Clause 98, and here I must be more critical. The note in the margin of the clause says that it is to deal with the control of leisure plots.Had those words not been printed, it would not have been apparent on reading Clause 98 that that was what the clause was trying to achieve. I think I know just enough about the sale of leisure plots in Kent to be aware of the problem in the county, and to be sympathetic with the council's desire to control it. Small pieces, each often no more than a few square yards in area, of perfectly good agricultural land or of woodland, or in some cases of river bank, are sold off so that the purchasers can use the plot for a caravan or for a picnic at weekends. A field containing a number of such plots can rapidly deteriorate into little more than a desert of weeds, and other undesirable consequences can follow.

In order to try to control this use of land, the county council are saying in Clause 98 that no-one in Kent shall use land for recreation without a licence. This is a very sweeping provision. For example, it would seem to include the use of a tennis court. One hundred and one other recreational uses spring to mind, and for all of these uses you have to get a licence. To legislate in such very wide terms must be undesirable, and, indeed, the way by which it is attempted in this clause might well result in its missing altogether the man who is seen by the council as the offender in the matter.

For example, there appears, at first sight, to be a contradiction, in that"land"is defined in Clause 98 as, …land which is predominantly in use for agriculture". This land may not, without a licence, be used principally for"the specified purposes ". These are defined as"purposes of recreation"and so on. Either land is predominantly agricultural, or it is principally recreational. I cannot see how it can be both. So the offender might well escape by reason of defective drafting.

I, a Yorkshireman, have no wish to interfere in the affairs of Kent, but I feel—and I hope that I may have the support of your Lordships—that if a local authority seeks to promote legislation by means of a private Bill, and in doing so includes a clause such as this one whose drafting may be suspect, and under which a large number of citizens may become subject to controls that go far wider than is necessary to achieve the object of the promoters, then this should be brought to the attention of the Select Committee on the Bill. The Instruction that I shall ask leave to move, in the event of this Bill being read a second time, will go further, in that it will ask the Select Committee not to allow Clause 98 unless they are satisfied that it is workable, having regard to the extremely wide terms in which it is drawn.

3.23 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to thank my noble friend from Yorkshire, for so very adequately explaining the clauses in the County of Kent Bill. I thoroughly agree with everything that he has said. I, also, shall follow my noble friend's procedure, in that I shall move my Instruction after the Second Reading debate has been concluded.

I should like to draw your Lordships' attention to Clause 100 in the County of Kent Bill, and to say, first, that I have no interest to declare in this Bill, apart from the fact that I have a home in Kent and I like to support recreation for young people. I consider that this clause to licence metal detectors exerts an unnecessary control over a harmless pursuit. May I read Clause 100(1) which states: If any person uses a metal detector in any open space in the county without the consent of the local authority he shall be guilty of an offence ". To start with, the definition of a metal detector in this Bill is extremely wide. In subsection (5) that definition is given as: metal detector ' means any device designed or adapted for detecting or locating any metal or mineral in the ground ". That is far too wide. It could be said that an iron rod or a spade can detect metal in the ground, and I object to the very wide description.

May I also refer to the definition of an"open space ". An open space includes any park or recreational ground, picnic site, disused burial site, any common ground as defined under the by-laws, or any land as respects which a local authority may make by-laws under section 41 of the Countryside Act 1968 and any land acquired by a local authority for the benefit, improvement or development of the area ". One might say that that really includes any public land, or any land in the con- trol of or under the management of a local authority.

As your Lordships know, some young people partake in crime, and I am quite sure that one of the reasons for that is that they do not get enough opportunity for indulging in various pursuits which contain some element of adventure. Metal detectors, which are very popular among young people, introduce some element of adventure and, in a way, I compare them with fishing. I know that that seems an absurd comparison, but in fishing you have the unknown; you do not know whether you are going to catch a minnow or a monster. It is the same with metal detectors. They are very exciting for young people in that, although they may come across only a Coca Cola can, they may, on the other hand, come across a George III coin or even a Saxon gold coin.

As I shall show in a moment, it is a harmless pursuit. The ordinary metal detector as sold to the public causes no material damage at all. It can only detect metal at a foot down, so it does not disturb land to any extent. It is also quite silent—far more silent than a pedal-cycle. I do not know of any instances in Kent where metal detectors have harmed an area of historical interest. As your Lordships know, Kent is a great area of archaeological and historical interest. I have allowed young people to use metal detectors in my park, and no harmful results at all have come to light. We have in Kent many clubs which indulge in this recreation, and they stick to a code of practice by which they cause no public nuisance.

The law already contains ample safeguards against the irresponsible use of metal detectors. For instance, legislation in 1979 already bars metal detectors from protected places and areas of archaeological interest; they are also barred from sites of ancient monuments. In such places metal detectors can be used only with the permission of the Secretary of State. Furthermore, we have to consider the Criminal Damage Act 1971 and the Theft Act 1968. Under the provisions of the latter Act any objects that are found and are traceable to the owner must be declared to have been so found by the finder. If not, a penal offence is committed. We must also consider the law of treasure trove. Again, where gold or silver is found the authorities must be told. It is an offence to conceal such finds.

I believe that there is no need to license metal detectors. There is another aspect which I should like to mention. At Ashford in Kent we have probably the largest manufacturer of metal detectors in the world. Indeed, about 25 per cent. of these metal detectors are retailed throughout Kent. If these detectors are to be licensed by the county council, I fear that it will seriously affect the sales and might even cause unemployment. I believe that the average person would not purchase a metal detector for use in Kent if he were not sure that he could have the use of it on public land. Therefore, in that sense it would have an adverse effect.

Many amateurs who use metal detectors have been very helpful in restoring to individuals property which they had lost. Amateurs have also made great historical finds which have escaped geologists and archaeologists. Quite recently in Ireland an amateur using a metal detector found an amazing treasure trove, including a Saxon chalice and other gold objects of the eighth century.

Therefore, I believe that to seek to curtail this healthy and harmless outdoor pursuit by bureaucratic control would be an infringement of people's enjoyment. I consider they should be perfectly entitled to use these machines so long as they do not cause a public nuisance. They are inflicting no harm on society. Therefore, if the Bill gets a Second Reading I shall move the Instruction.

3.35 p.m.


My Lords, at the risk of tedious repetition, I wish to say a few words about street processions and about the clause in the Bill which relates to the notice of such processions. I have ventured to address the House on this topic on other occasions when we have discussed local authority Bills. My view is that notice of street processions is not as helpful as is claimed by some police authorities. My plea is that if one examines the principle of the matter, the local authorities, with the opportunities afforded to them by the wholesale revision of local Acts following the reorganisation of local government in 1972, should at least attempt to secure some degree of uniformity. It is my view that, following the agreement of the West Midlands authorities to modify a clause in a private Bill affecting that area, other local authorities should undertake to consider such a solution and to see whether it could be incorporated in other local Acts.

When I made that point on a previous occasion, I was taken to task for having given the relevant local authority no opportunity to do very much about the matter because so little time had elapsed since the passing of the West Midlands provisions. I was told that even if such a local authority were minded to do so It would not have time to incorporate it in its own legislation. Perhaps the County of Kent reached its conclusion on spontaneous demonstrations some time ago to be recorded ex post facto However, I sincerely hope that the county will re-examine this matter in the course of proceedings on the Bill, and 1 hope that it will take my point into consideration.


My Lords, I have been invited by the promoters of the Bill to answer on their behalf, and I speak as a member of one of the local authorities in Kent, in which all of the authorities have given a two-thirds majority in support of this Bill. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, for informing me of his intentions, and I am happy to tell him that the point he made about trees that die will not be included in the Bill; the promoters are only too happy to exclude that situation. The promoters are concerned with the protection of woodlands, with preventing people felling trees in contravention of tree preservation orders and with accepting fines as a way of moving from woodland to farmland.

The issue of leisure plots is a serious one in Kent. Two years ago there were about 34 plots and a total of 1,500 acres of land were affected. Noble Lords who have already spoken have indicated the seriousness of the matter and have expressed their views on the narrower issue. It was necessary to draw this clause rather widely to ensure that those whom we wished to bring under control should be caught within the net, but it is not the wish of the county council to place restrictions on boy scouts, girl guides, the Salvation Army, nor the representatives of all the other good causes which have recreation as their main activity. I give the assurance on behalf of the county council that in Committee the county council will be prepared to consider exemptions of this kind. Therefore, I regard as entirely proper the Instruction which the noble Lord, Lord Middleton, proposes to move.

The subject of metal detectors was mentioned by the noble Viscount, Lord Massereene and Ferrard. This is a difficult problem. I should explain that two years ago there was found in Dartford a glass bowl which was unique. It is called the Darenth Bowl; it is a perfect example of a glass bowl dated 450 A.D. It was only 18 inches below the ground, and indiscriminate use of a metal detector would have destroyed that bowl for ever.

One has some sympathy with the view that people should not be unnecessarily restricted. Let me point out that the restrictions are placed only on land owned or controlled by the county council, and ornamental gardens and the like. I am sure that the county will be careful when considering this aspect. However, they are not seeking automatically to restrict. It is the valuable archaeological sites which are of concern. So long as they are protected, then on private and perhaps, indeed, on some county council land it would be perfectly proper for metal detectors to be used. However, in Committee the county council will certainly be prepared to look at quite a number of exemptions.

I am very happy to give the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, the assurance that the Bill will conform to the pattern set by West Midlands. It is entirely appropriate that we should have uniformity throughout this kind of legislation. One might hope that public legislation would cover this matter. If it does not, there is a lot to be said for ensuring that private Bills do not seek to go way beyond what is appropriate and what is the consensus of opinion on Bills generally of this kind. With those assurances, I hope that your Lordships will give a Second Reading to this Bill.


My Lords, I am very grateful. I have listened carefully to all that has been said in this debate and I think that the noble Lord, Lord Irving of Dartford, has answered most of the points which have been put forward by those of your Lordships who have spoken. I can only say that in the case of both clauses to which there are Instructions—that is, Clause 98 on leisure plots and Clause 100 on metal detectors—there are already petitions against those clauses. Therefore they will both be heard by a Select Committee. If your Lordships pass the Instructions, then those Instructions will also go to the same Select Committee. I can only say finally that I will ensure that all that has been said in the House this afternoon is also available to the Select Committee.

Bill read 2a, and referred to the Examiners.


My Lords, I beg to move the Instruction as printed on the Order Paper.

Moved, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill that they should not allow Clause 98 (Control of leisure plots) unless they are satisfied that it is workable having regard to the extremely wide terms in which it is drawn; namely, that it shall be unlawful, without a licence, for any person to use land principally for certain purposes which include"recreation ".—(Lord Middleton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.


My Lords, I beg to move the Instruction standing in my name on the Order Paper, upon which I have already spoken.

Moved, That it be an Instruction to the Committee on the Bill that they should not allow Clause 100 unless they are satisfied that the use of metal detectors constitutes such a serious public nuisance as to require statutory regulation.—(Vis-count Massereene and Ferrard.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.