HL Deb 14 October 1981 vol 424 cc413-30

5.6 p.m.

Lord Kennet rose to ask Her Majesty's Government in view of the apparent breach of faith by the Beverley District Council in selling for housing land which its predecessor the Beverley Borough Council had brought under threat of compulsory purchase for public open space, whether they will now intervene to preserve the famous view of Beverley Minister from the south.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, let us turn our minds and imaginations to the town of Beverley in what used to be the East Riding of Yorkshire now known bureaucratically as North Humberside but known historically as that flat, romantic and beautiful part of England called Holderness. I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Holderness, is down to speak in this debate.

Beverley contains a Minster which by historical accident is not a cathedral; it is the sheerest accident that it should not be. It is a 13th century building and it has no rivals in this country except Salisbury Cathedral and Westminster Abbey. In my opinion and in the opinion of many who know all three buildings and have studied them, it is a cleverer building, a more coherent building and a more cheerful building than either of its two better known rivals.

It is largely unknown because Beverley is not on the way anywhere. It is on the way from York to Hull and nowhere else. Consequently, it is not on the tourist track. Immediately south of Beverley Minster there is a geographical feature which is unique in this country and very rare indeed elsewhere in Europe. That is an unbroken view of green fields and hedges straight from a cathedral out into the open country. There are no buildings whatever to the south of Beverley Minster. Forty years ago there was one and 200 years ago there may have been more. To a whole generation that is known as the unique view of what is in the opinion of many the finest Gothic cathedral in effect in this land.

It is now proposed to build on part of that site. Before coming to a more detailed description of what goes on there, I should like to state in one word that there is strong and possibly majority outrage among the people of Beverley about what is intended to be done. The purpose of this Question is to make known on a national scale in so far as I can from an Unstarred Question in this House the nature of the proposal and to suggest remedies.

I have in my hand a letter from the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of York which I will read to the House. He says: I write to add my voice to the many expressions of anxiety that you have received over the plans for the development of the area round Beverley Minster. There is a feeling that the local Borough Council is reluctant to stage an open and dispassionate inquiry into this particular development, and a fear that the opportunity for consideration will not recur if the proposed development begins. I therefore warmly support the desperate efforts being made, while there is still time, to stop this development taking place, and to press for a comprehensive enquiry. I understand that the Fine Art Commission, the Professor of Fine Arts at Hull University and my diocesan advisory committee in principle feel as I do. I hope your representations may be effective.—Stuart Ebor".

I have also received a letter from the former Archbishop of York, our colleague Lord Coggan, in broadly similar terms and I could occupy the time of the House for 10 or 15 minutes listing those from whom I have received analogous letters.

Let me now introduce the dramatis personae. First there is the developer, by name the St. Andrew's Street Housing Co-operative. This is a housing co-operative which desires to provide housing for old people and is in receipt of a Government grant from the Housing Corporation. That grant does not imply any approval for the plans; it is an automatic grant for intending house builders who meet certain qualifications, as this developer does.

Secondly, there is the Beverley District Council, formerly the Beverley Town Council, who are involved at every stage in the story. Thirdly, there are the local objectors, who are grouped in a forceful campaign and who are locked in a battle to the death, more or less, with the planning authority, the district council. In the old days one would have said that, fourthly, there was the county council, but that is no longer the case since planning powers are now devolved fully to the district council. Fourthly, therefore, there is the Secretary of State for the Environment, ably and, I hope, sympathetically represented today by the noble Earl, Lord Avon, opposite.

The story is as follows: In 1968 there was an application to build housing on that land. It was refused by the Beverley planning authority, the town council. There was an appeal and the appeal was dismissed. It appeared at that time—and I speak with personal knowledge—unthinkable that any such application should ever be permitted to spoil that view. Then in 1974—I think I have the date right—the Beverley District Council approached the owner of the land. The owner of the land was the owner of a school there which was closed. It was a charity called the Minster Old Fund and the Beverley District Council obtained the land from them at the low price of £4,000 by using the threat of compulsory purchase for public open space.

I should like now to introduce the fifth dramatis personae, the local Ombudsman or, more fully, the local Commissioner for the North and East Midlands of England, Mr. Patrick Cook, who works in York. He has made a report upon this matter; and he says, to cover the story so far— The schools' site and another small parcel of site were acquired by the Council in 1975 at a purchase price of £4,000. The price reflected the anticipated difficulty in gaining planning permission for any profitable development on a site so close to the Minster. In December 1974 a Chief Officer of the Council had written to the Charity Commissioners in London, who had been unwilling to consent to a sale at that price (which had been negotiated for the Council by the District Valuer). The Council sought to dissuade the Charity Commission from seeking higher offers in view of "— this is a quotation from a letter from the Beverley District Council— (a) the determination of my Council to acquire the site for open space purposes, by the use of compulsory purchase powers if necessary; and (b) the unlikelihood that my Council as District Planning Authority, would permit any alternative development of the site.

The Minster Old Fund, the owner of this small patch of land and this derelict school building, with the consent of the Charity Commissioners, gave in and sold at the low price. I will now continue to quote from the Ombudsman's report. He goes on to say that the Beverley District Council: had in mind to redevelop the land and an adjoining area. They prepared a draft development brief which showed the land as being developed for residential purposes. Although the brief and the opportunity to comment were not advertised formally by the Council, as is customary in planning circles, the Council say that newspaper reports of their proceedings at that time meant that the proposals were well known locally". That is as may be. At any rate, what happened next was that for £32,500 the council sold that land, with a commitment to planning permission for housing, to the St. Andrew's Street Housing Co-operative. That was in 1980, five years later. They are now the owners and have requested planning permission for development, and they have received it.

But now the plot thickens, and I wish to introduce another dramatis personae—a development company called Stepney, which is well known in that part of Yorkshire. Stepney have applied for planning permission for another part of that open field lying a little behind the land the Ombudsman reported on. This planning permission has not yet been considered by the Beverley District Council. The architect for both plans—for the St. Andrew's Street Co-operative plan (phase 1 as it is known) and the Stepney plan (phase 2), is the same. The project for phase 2 indicates much larger houses which would sell at £40,000 or £50,000 each, and it is believed locally, if permission is obtained, that they would be sold to Hull executives, typically, who would commute. It is a rather familiar situation where there is a virtuous old people's housing association going first and a bigger and altogether different project coming second.

How was this planning permission for phase 1 obtained? I turn again to the Ombudsman's report. He says that in submitting the matter for decision first to the development committee, as they call their planning committee on their council, and secondly to the full council, the officials did not refer to any planning proposals for the land prior to the planning brief formulation: that is to say, they did not refer to the proposal that it should remain in perpetuity as open space. Nor did they refer to the fact that there had been an application, a refusal, an appeal and a dismissal between 1968 and 1970. That is to say, the two earlier chapters of this sad history were not laid before the members of the planning authority when they decided to give permission now.

I continue now to the crux of the Ombudsman's report and I think it will be no surprise to the House to learn that the Ombudsman's opinion is this: that the attention of members of the council should have been drawn specifically to the decision on appeal which was given in 1970. He goes on to say: I think that the criticism can apply with equal or greater force to the events of 1976". He also points out that the Royal Fine Art Commission sent two distinguished members to meet with the council and the objectors to the plan. He goes on: In my opinion, Members of the Council were entitled to see and to consider fully the advice of the Royal Fine Art Commission".

Then the conclusion of this report is as follows: No Council should seek to treat a planning application more favourably because they have some financial interest or face some adverse financial consequence. Indeed, the avoidance of any impropriety is not enough; public authorities must seek also to avoid any occasion for suspicion or the appearance of impropriety. Hence my concern that the advice to Members"— of Beverley Council— placed undue weight upon the possible financial consequences of declining the application". The members were told that if they turned this down there would be adverse financial consequences. The final paragraph of the Ombudsman's report stated: I consider that there has been maladministration by the Council. … Had that maladministration not occurred, the complainants view— that is, those who complained to the Ombudsman— might have prevailed; or some acceptable middle ground might have been found. Therefore, in my opinion the Council's maladministration has caused injustice to the citizens of Beverley who have complained to me".

I think that that is a clear enough picture of what has happened, and that the House will agree that it was a fairly grave matter. The Ombudsman still has a shot in his locker. The Beverley District Council is required by law to let him have their observations on his first report from which I have quoted. He is then required by law to make a second and final report on the matter. Those two phases are still to be gone through and I cannot prejudge what either party will say.

One point to grasp about this whole story is that in Beverley there is no shortage of building land. It is a small town and is not rich. There is derelict industry and there are derelict sites within five minutes' walk of the land in question. If this plan is changed, nobody will be homeless. There is no question of hardship. There is only a question of convenience and, dare I say it at this stage, a certain stubbornness.

Who can do what? Let us consider the dramatis personae. What courses are open to them? The first, and most obvious, is that the St. Andrew's Street Co-operative, which apparently consists of small people living nearby who want new housing, or old people who want new housing and who have invested their savings and are backed, so far as the public knows, only by the Housing Corporation from Government funds, could change their plans and say to the planning authority "Look, there is such a fuss. Let's talk about building somewhere else."

Alternatively, the planning authority, although it has granted permission, could say to the applicant "Look, there is such a fuss. Let's sit down together and see if we can find a better solution." Or the local objectors, the people of Beverley, could seek an injunction against the development going ahead. If they were to do that, they would have a pretty good precedent in a case which recently happened at Hebden Bridge, which is not far away in Yorkshire, where local objectors to a development sought and obtained an injunction to prevent a development from going ahead. Because the Attorney-General was informed that they were rather poor and lacked what lawyers call "substance", the Attorney-General joined in the action and helped them to obtain their injunction. So there are other possible dramatis personae. They could win that injunction and that would change things, but that would mean another fight, and fights are undesirable.

Lastly, there is the great panjandrum himself, the big gun of Marsham Street, the Secretary of State for the Environment, who can annul a planning permission by an administrative act. If he does that, he will place a burden on the local authority of paying compensation to the intending developer. So that is a power which he very seldom uses. Its use in this case would not be unprecedented, however, but it is an extreme course which nobody would wish to pursue unless all others fail.

If none of these parties moves, a very great environmental outrage will be done—an outrage which the Ombudsman has already declared unjust—to the citizens of Beverley. The Secretary of State has his sledgehammer. The local objectors could get an injunction, but perhaps they do not have the money to go to court and maybe the Attorney-General will not help them this time. The council has given permission and has dug itself in and is not answering inquiries any more, though it could have second thoughts.

But it seems to me that the most likely and the most proper party to initiate the process of back-tracking and reconsideration is the developer. If the developer were to say, "OK, let's go somewhere else", everybody would unite to try to suit him. That would, I trust, include the town council; it would certainly include the Department of the Environment; it would include, in so far as relevant, the Church authorities; it would include all the objectors; it would include the Royal Fine Art Commission; it would include the local Civic Trust and everybody concerned. May we hope that they will heed this appeal; if not, I can only see the continuing dust of battle and, at the end of the day, a national disgrace in which one of the greatest churches of Europe will be deprived of one of the most extraordinary and unique settings for any church in Europe, and nobody will have gained housing thereby.

5.25 p.m.

Baroness Birk

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for raising what is an extremely important question and also for, as one expects from him, putting it in such a succinct, clear and comprehensive way. Very often—as he and I both know, having at different times served as Ministers in the area of the environment and housing—there is a tension and pull between the needs of housing in a local authority and the protection of the environment and the preservation of its valuable conservation areas and buildings. The responsibility of local authorities in this area is enormous, and even more so today because after some very dark periods around the 1960s and earlier, when whole areas of our towns and cities were bulldozed, there is an increasing awareness, certainly in central Government and on the part of people in local communities, whether they are acting as individuals or as members of local amenity societies, of the need to safeguard and preserve their own heritage.

When I was a Minister at the DoE, I tried, as much as possible, to encourage the setting up of conservation advisory committees which were meant to help to deal with these problems. The committees were composed of members of local amenity societies, who were then able to put a case directly and be kept in touch with events. There are some of these working in the country and, in many cases, they are working extremely well. Unfortunately, there are still not sufficient of them.

During the period 1974–79, I was the Minister responsible at the DoE for conservation, and large sums were given to Beverley, through the Historic Buildings Council, for its town schemes, because, as noble Lords know, Beverley is an outstanding conservation area. One fact that strikes me as not only odd but economically unsound is that, when sums such as these have been given to an area, and given on the basis of its conservation aspects and advantages, something is done, or is about to be done, which will, in many ways, cancel out the advantages that it has received.

As the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, said—and I think that it was due to him at that time—the permission to build houses in 1969–70 was turned down by the department. There was no further outline planning application until 1980, although, as the noble Lord also pointed out, a plan was circulated in 1976 which had been prepared by the Royal Fine Art Commission and the amenity societies. On that occasion, I think that they effected a small revision to their original plans. In 1977 a draft brief was approved by the local authority. Then in 1980 there was this outline planning application. As the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, pointed out, this went to the local ombudsman.

I hope noble Lords will bear with me if I repeat what the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, said about the findings of the local ombudsman. I do so because I think it is of enormous importance, for the Commission for Local Administration was set up in order to deal with cases of this kind, and other kinds, where there is a distinct dispute between the local authority and either groups of people or individuals who feel very strongly that something is being done in their area which is contrary to the public good. The local Ombudsman said that there should have been more time for consultation. Although I believe he did not specifically say that the proposals should have been advertised, my impression from reading what went on and from talking to some of the people involved is that there was not sufficient publicity. There was no form of advertising so that people would know what was being proposed in their area. However right the local authority may have felt about what they were doing—and obviously I concede they felt they were doing the right thing for their area—nevertheless they had a duty to make sure that people knew what was intended.

I repeat, because this is of tremendous importance, the paragraph in the local ombudsman's report where he says: No council should seek to treat a planning application more favourably because they have some financial interest or face some adverse financial consequence". Then he makes the point about the avoidance of any impropriety not being enough. Public authorities must seek also to avoid any occasion for suspicion. The avoidance of impropriety is extremely important". In other words, the local Ombudsman is saying that it is the duty of an authority to bend backwards so that it does not appear to be doing something which could be construed as either unjust or a form of maladministration. The local Ombudsman also agreed with the allegation of undue haste and also with the allegation that the council's maladministration had caused injustice to the citizens of Beverley who had complained to him. To be fair, one also has to say that in his report the local Ombudsman said that he thought the case may have been overstated; therefore, he had to look at it as an objective outsider trying to balance the different points which had been raised and the different interests concerned. However, his conclusions were quite specific: I consider there has been maladministration by the council even though the complainants may have presented an over-elaborate case". Because no building had yet been erected, one would have hoped that after that the council would at least have had second thoughts. Therefore I find it very disturbing that at the meeting of the development committee on the 7th of this month it was decided that no action should be taken. The leader of the council in supporting this action said that some of the objectors had not been alert enough to make their objections known at the appropriate time: They cannot expect us to go all the way back to give them a chance to make the representation they should have made years ago". Beverley Minster, as we have just been reminded, has been standing since the 13th century. It seems to me to be extremely odd to use the argument that one cannot go back and rethink what has been decided. Another councillor who was obviously concerned about this matter pointed out that any second report prepared by the local Ombudsman—and obviously there will be a second report—was likely to be much more critical. He believed that by ignoring the report the council was compounding the fault for which it had been criticised. He said: The full council should be recommended to revoke the planning permission, with a rider that the co-operative be indemnified for certain losses". Unfortunately, however, his proposal found little support.

The implications go rather wider than Beverley itself. There are serious implications for our heritage and also extremely serious implications for local government. Treating the local Ombudsman's report in this way means that the rights of citizens are affected and that the resulting benefit from creating the Commission for Local Administration is eroded. In its most recent report, the Commission states that at 31st March 1980 there were 132 outstanding reports upon which authorities were considering what action to take in the light of local Ombudsman findings. These referred to maladministration. By 31st March 1981, action satisfactory to the local Ombudsman had been notified in 85 of those cases. In 13 cases, although second reports had been issued, it was clear that there would be no satisfactory outcome. But there are 34 remaining cases. Second reports had been issued on three of them but the outcome was still awaited on 31st March 1981, when this report was produced.

As the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has pointed out, several options are now open both to the local authority and to the Government. The first, and I should have thought the most commendable, is for these matters to be sorted out amicably. The number of dwellings is not enormous. Taking together the flats and the houses, it is in the region of 100. They are being kept to two-storey buildings. It should be possible to come to an arrangement by which either some dwellings are put there but they do not impede in any way the view of the Minister or, as has been suggested, they should be put in a different place.

It seems to me that at this stage there would probably be some advantage in having informal discussions between the Minister and the local authority. One wants to solve these problems on a friendly basis and get the result that is best all round. One does not want to exacerbate feelings, which are pretty strong at the moment, between local authorities and central Government. That is not the way one would prefer to have things done. As I understand it, Ministers, except through correspondence with mainly the objectors, have not come fully into the picture.

One option is for the Government to take no action at all. I think that would be a mistake, as we are now getting towards the second report from the Ombudsman. The Government have other options open to them. Detailed planning permission has not yet been approved, so therefore there is some time, but not all that amount of time, and, going by past experience, I should have thought it was more than highly probable that the Housing Corporation would ask for a grant from the DoE in order to help with this building. I think that is something that the department must. bear in mind and not just give a grant automatically in a case like this where such deep local feelings have been aroused and where in fact on every basis there is a very good case for saying that we must find some other means of preserving both the proper look and setting of the Minster as well as building houses.

Finally, as the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, pointed out, there is of course the extreme measure of revocation of the planning permission. As he rightly said, that is not often used. It was used not so long ago, because, when I was at the department and Mr. Peter Shore was the Secretary of State, we were, as a last resort, about to revoke the planning permission on the Lyceum in Liverpool. Then the election came, and I am glad that the present Secretary of State followed that through and in fact revoked the planning permission.

It is true that this would involve the local authority in costs, but the local authority does not have to allow things to get to that stage because it seems to me that this is a case where there is still a great deal of flexi- bility if the local authority would recognise the situation as it is and, however some of the members may feel about it, would recognise that the views of its own citizens—of the people who elect them—are very divided about this. There are strong objections, many of which have now been supported by the local Ombudsman.

The increasing appreciation of the desperate need to safeguard our heritage will take a tremendous knock if the plans as they are now conceived by the local authority go ahead unchanged. It seems to me that it is quite unnecessary for this to happen. It is unnecessary for the authority to get itself in to the position where the Secretary of State for the Environment comes, however reluctantly, to the conclusion that, because not only of the local interest but of the national importance of the Minster, he has no alternative but to revoke the planning permission. With local authorities in such dire financial straits today I quite realise that they would not want to be faced with that type of compensation. I know that the matter is unresolved at the moment but I hope when the Minister replies we shall hear that the department is going to take some action on one or other of the options that I have suggested. There is not a great deal of time, but there is still time for action to be taken and for this very difficult problem to be resolved so that all sides are satisfied.

5.43 p.m.

Lord Gore-Booth

My Lords, your Lordships may be a little surprised to find me standing at this moment because I do not have any known connection with this case, but actually I was born in Doncaster and I feel that I have a very strong, direct, local interest in a right judgment finally being made on this particular argument. Perhaps before saying more on that I may say that I understand how the different interests get extremely worked up about this and I understand why people want to commit what I myself believe to be an outrage on this town. Having been born very near to that part of the world and having travelled through it and having been in it many times, I have a strong personal feeling about it.

It is an attractive town in its way; it may not be as beautiful as it was, but to put it very simply it is still important on account of its age and its character and important also in what is to be the future of these difficult cases, where people are perfectly entitled to argue on any basis they choose in order to try to get what they believe to be the best.

I have a great personal interest in this case because where I lived in Yorkshire until over the age of 20 this town was regarded (and quite rightly so) as a very important—not exactly ancient monument but ancient feature. It was seen as an historic and important town. In those days when the town had already got that reputation there would have been no question of its, for some reason or another, coming to an end and an attractive and important small feature of our landscape and our culture being abolished. I think the people who lived there at that time when I was in a neighbouring town would have been truly and rightly horrified that something should be done which did not just change the occupations of the people who lived there but really changed a small though not unimportant part of the Yorkshire character and the Yorkshire environment.

So I am enormously grateful for the opportunity to return here today in order to put in a word from Yorkshire against this particular proposal. I know that other more distinguished Yorkshiremen have also taken this line and I do not think it is really necessary for me to try to repeat the history which has been so fluently described by other Members who are more eloquent and important than I am. But, coming from that area, I strongly urge your Lordships to take the broad view—and indeed the modern view—that when we have these assets we do not just pull them down or alter them, which could happen if the present ideas were to go ahead.

So it is simply from the heart that I appeal to your Lordships' House to take the other way and to preserve what is there already and should be there for hundreds of years to come.

5.49 p.m.

Lord Holderness

My Lords, I share the gratitude which has already been expressed to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, for bringing to your Lordships' House a subject which, I entirely agree with him, is of enormous importance, and I share the gratitude which has also been expressed to him for the powerful case which he has presented for action in relation to the plans for development which are being considered by us this evening.

I am pleased also to follow the noble Lord, Lord Gore-Booth, because my interest in this whole matter, like his, is very largely personal. For all my life I have lived within a few miles of Beverley, and during the large number of years when I represented a constituency beyond Beverley I suppose that on average I passed that great Minster 50 or 60 times each year, and so I know its aspect very well. Apart from the comparable view of the Minster from a distance from the North West, the most precious closer aspect is the one we are considering tonight, the view from the South, which the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, has so richly and accurately described.

All democrats, whether social or otherwise, find some force in the argument that decisions about development, for instance that of Beverley, should be taken by representatives freely elected by the people of Beverley, to whom I prefer not to refer by the popular but ugly name of Beverlonians. I understand that this essential principle of democracy is the basis so far of the reluctance of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State to interfere with the council's decision, but as both noble Lords and the noble Baroness made clear, this decision is out of the ordinary for a whole variety of reasons, and in view of the noble Lord's comprehensive examination at the beginning of this debate, I shall mention only three. The first is the national standing of the Minster and, from conversations I have had, its international standing also. The Minster is of interest and importance to thousands of people living far beyond the confines of Beverley itself. This was proved by the enthusiasm for the restoration appeal with which my noble friend Lord Middleton was closely connected. That is the first reason why I think that this is no ordinary council decision.

The second is the clear commitment which the noble Lord mentioned, made by the present council's predecessor, particularly in the letter to which the noble Lord referred from Mr. Roy Gregory dated 16th December 1974. The only thing I should like to add to the quotation from that letter which he gave was that after mentioning his council's determination to acquire the site for open space purposes, Mr. Gregory then underlined that in the following paragraph when he mentioned, the restricted nature of the development which would be permitted".

Lord Kennet

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord stated that the letter was dated 1954 when it was, of course, dated 1974.

Lord Holderness

My Lords, if I said 1954, then I apologise, because I do not always speak as clearly as I ought to speak. That clear commitment is my second reason, and, in view of the particular question which the noble Lord is now asking the Government, it is one of immense importance in our whole consideration of this matter. But to my mind, and perhaps also in the mind of the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, the most important reason is the recent report of the local Ombudsman. If such a report is to be totally ignored, one begins to fail to see the point of this expensive and elaborate procedure set up by Parliament. As the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, rightly said, this was the whole point of the procedure. In my own experience Government departments, to give them their due credit, used to pay close attention to critical reports from the Parliamentary Commissioner and they would have been in deep parliamentary trouble if they had failed to pay such reports close attention. But if the report which we are discussing tonight is to be set so lightly aside I cannot see it other than fatally weakening the authority of the Ombudsman on future occasions.

The noble Lord, Lord Kennet, pointed to some of the conclusions which the Ombudsman had reached. Apart from pointing to deficiencies of maladministration, the Ombudsman in a recent letter suggested a gentle, constructive and civilised approach which he himself believed could be achieved with general goodwill, and from which he also thought other benefits would flow. I am deeply distressed by the council's rejection of this recommendation on the grounds, if one councillor was correctly reported, that the Ombudsman has come to the wrong decision. I think we are right". That statement at least has the merit of simplicity, but it is a direct contradiction of existing procedure, and apart from the present issue of Beverley I do not think we can allow that reply to go unchallenged. I, myself, would be happier if the borough council were persuaded to examine and achieve the objective out-lined in the Ombudsman's letter dated 1st October, which seems to me to be a civilised and constructive basis for a solution to the problem, however inconvenient this achievement would be for the council and its ratepayers. I do not believe it would be inconvenient for the co-operative itself or its future tenants because Mr. Cook, the Ombudsman, specific- ally points out in his letter that his suggestion would cause no loss in the proposed new housing.

If the co-operative does not take the action which the noble Lord suggested that it should take, and if the council cannot be persuaded in this direction, and subject to further opinions in the second report from the Ombudsman, I myself agree with noble Lords and with the noble Baroness and see no alternative in the very wide implications of this so-called decision other than intervention by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. I hope that my noble friend Lord Avon can promise that his right honourable friend not only will take a close interest but will be prepared actively to intervene to make sure that the voice of the people's protector, the Ombudsman, will finally prevail.

Lord Moyne

My Lords, I hesitate to say even a few words on this subject never yet having had the good fortune to go to Beverley, but I should like to lend my support to what has so excellently been said by the previous speakers. I was shocked to see that one of the councillors argued against the Ombudsman that he was not infallible. My Lords, which of us is infallible? At least by the very nature of his office the Ombudsman is unprejudiced and impartial; I believe that heed should be given to his views.

5.59 p.m.

Lord Seebohm

My Lords, I should like to make a very brief intervention. My excuse is that I lived in Yorkshire for 20 years. For the last six of those years I lived in the East Riding and my two great loves were York Minster and Beverley Minster. I have a feeling that, as is so clearly marked on the map of the district plan which I hold in my hand, on the very site we are talking about the letters "POS" standing for Public Open Space have some considerable significance in this argument. It may well have been that the original vendor believed that there was no chance that this site would be developed and that he was really contributing to the permanent open space around the Minster.

It seems to me that there may not be an irregularity or maladministration, but, if I may use the phrase, I think there is some odour at least on this matter. My own feeling about Beverley Minster, apart from the magnificence of the building, is its site, which is away from the town; it is in a wonderful country area with green fields all round it. It seems to me this was part of the whole object of why it was built there. It is not built in the middle of the city like York Minster. I feel, therefore, this is a case where some action really should be taken by Her Majesty's Government. I would say that, if we can do it by voluntary methods, all the better; but in this matter I am not a "wet".

6.2 p.m.

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, let me say at the outset that the Government recognise and share the special place that Beverley Minster has in the feelings of many people, and we appreciate very much this opportunity to express our view in answer to the Question put by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet. I agreed with virtually all he said, except his early remarks when he, I thought, rather apologised that it was a Minster and not a cathedral. Personally, perhaps because I spent much time in York Minster in my youth, I have always preferred the name Minster to cathedral and thought it gave an extra feeling. However, apart from that, I think I agreed with most of what the noble Lord said.

During the period of events which inspired the noble Lord's Question there has at no time been any threat to the fabric or substance or accessibility of this splendid building. The effect of the proposed development would be on a long distance view, from a particular and fairly narrow angle, of the lower courses of part of the southern facade. This, I recognise, is still a highly emotive and subjective issue, but I think it is important to keep it in its proper perspective. It should also be borne in mind—and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, touched on this—that on the other side of the balance is the provision of homes for people, some of whom have lived in the shadow of the Minster all their lives.

I should like just to put the background in a chronological sequence, which will in some respects cover the ground covered by the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, but I think it would be helpful for the record. The land on which development is now proposed was formerly the site of a school which, together with another small parcel of land, was acquired by the council in 1975 for £4,000, ostensibly for open space purposes. I think at one stage the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, mentioned a figure of £400,000, but I know he actually meant £4,000. The site is within the Beverley conservation area. The price reflected the anticipated difficulty in obtaining planning permission for profitable development so close to the Minster.

To the east of the school was an area of poor housing which the council originally proposed to acquire and demolish as unfit. At some stage following their acquisition of the school site the council resolved to change the allocation of the land to residential. I should say at once, in the light of some of the criticism of the council's handling of the matter, that a change of land allocation of this nature has in itself no sinister implications.

While the local development plan is a material consideration which must be taken into account when a planning application is being considered, it is by no means sacrosanct, and it is open to a council to make changes or to override its provisions. Obviously, they should have sound reasons and should give an opportunity for and take into account expressions of public opinion on anything but the most minor changes. But it must be accepted that policies do change. The council subsequently prepared a draft development brief in respect of land south of the Minster which provided for residential development in two phases and the provision of a tourist car park. The school site and the northern section of the existing residential areas of what is known as St. Andrew Street and Lurk Lane comprised Phase I. Phase II comprised mainly open land and the southern part of St. Andrew Street.

The draft brief was not advertised formally, but the proposals were said to be well known. It was circulated to various interested bodies including the Royal Fine Art Commission and Beverley Conservation Area Advisory Committee. The latter committee is made up of a number of private individuals and representa- tives of local associations and societies. Arising from the invitations to comment on the draft brief an alternative suggestion for the development of Phase I was put forward by two of the consultees and subsequently accepted by the council. This provided for the rehabilitation of existing properties to the east instead of total clearance, and some new development, which together would provide a balanced community and allow existing residents to remain in familiar surroundings. The residents formed a co-operative and engaged the York University Design Team to carry out a feasibility study into proposals to revive the area with a combination of improvement and new development.

The planning brief for the area was formally approved in 1977, having taken into account representations received on the draft. The amended brief showed a mixture of new development and improvement, with a car park to be provided behind the new houses in Phase I rather than at the front, as envisaged in the draft. The brief acknowledged the sensitivity of the site and the need to take into account the long distance views of the Minster in designing the development for both phases. The council regarded the formally adopted brief as amending the development plan provisions. Despite suggestions to the contrary, there is evidence that the development brief proposals were not particularly controversial at the time.

The council subsequently sold the school site with various smaller sites in the area to a housing association at a price which reflected residential development value, which Lord Kennet mentioned. An outline application for planning permission for Phase I was submitted by the St. Andrew St. Development Co-operative Limited and approved by Beverley Council on 23rd October 1980, just under a year ago.

The application aroused considerable opposition both locally and nationally because of the effect of development on the view of the south facade of Beverley Minster. I must stress here that the details have not yet been approved, which incidentally prevents me from commenting on the housing corporation grant. The site comprising Phase II of the development is at present the subject of a planning application to Beverley Borough Council. A decision has been deferred on several occasions because the council are not satisfied on certain aspects of the proposals.

A compulsory purchase order in respect of Nos. 58, 68 and 45 St. Andrew Street is at present before the Secretary of State for confirmation. These properties are said to be unfit for human habitation and are required along with other properties in St. Andrew Street owned by the Council to facilitate development of Phase II, which is to be undertaken by a private developer. The department are unable to progress the CPO because the planning permission to which it relates, that is for Phase II, has not yet been granted.

Since early last year the Department of the Environment has received many letters urging the Secretary of State to call in the outline application for development of Phase I by the housing association. These letters were from local residents, amenity societies and eminent personalities, Members of the other place, and last, but of course not least, Members of this House. Most objectors are totally opposed to any new development which would obscure any part of the south face of the Minster. Other objections relate to the close proximity of the proposed new houses to the Minster and would probably be satisfied by the adoption of a compromise scheme.

The application was not one which Beverley Borough Council considered should be referred to the department, and we have consistently taken the view, as emphasised by Lord Holderness, that the decision should be taken by the democratically elected members of the council. As explained, the proposals for this site and land to the south were the subject of a development brief amended to take account of representations at draft stage. The housing association scheme has been under discussion with the council over a long period. The council were clearly aware of the sensitivity of the site and of the immense asset to the town which the Minster represents.

As housing authority they were also in the best position to assess the housing needs and the availability of other suitable sites. Intervention in this case would have been inconsistent with the department's policy of non-intervention in local planning decisions. Because of sustained pressure on the department to intervene even after the outline permission had been granted, the issue was considered by the Secretary of State himself, together with my noble friends Lord Bellwin and Lord Skelmersdale. It was concluded that there was no way in which the department could effectively intervene short of the Secretary of State himself making an order to revoke the outline permission, which is almost without precedent, though the noble Baroness produced the one recent precedent.

Suggestions have been put forward to resite the new build element of the housing association scheme on land allocated for a tourist car park which it is understood is not now required. It must be stressed that any proposal for changes of this nature is a matter for the applicant in the first instance. It is understood that there may be difficulty in accommodating the number of new dwellings required on the car park site. The other option is to revoke the outline permission, a course of action which, as we have heard, the borough council are clearly unwilling to take and which the Secretary of State would be reluctant to impose on them by use of his default powers.

I turn now briefly to the case of the local Ombudsman, to which all speakers have referred. The complainants alleged that there was inadequate consultation by the council, and made specific allegations. The Ombudsman concluded that the allegations relating to the council's consultations were not found to be substantiated. Although, ideally, the development brief should have been advertised and additional bodies consulted, in practice the proposals were well-known locally. I have already mentioned who the consultees were. Arising from the consultations, an alternative suggestion for development of the area was accepted by the council. The amended scheme provided for rehabilitation of properties to the east instead of total clearance and the provision of a car park behind the proposed new houses rather than at the front of the site. The amended brief was approved by the council and this was regarded as amending the proposals shown in the development plan.

The Ombudsman is satisfied that members of the council in considering the planning application were fully aware of the scale and substance of the opposition, that there was no evidence of intentional misrepresentation and that any reference to support for the scheme by the RIBA was inadvertent. Referring to the fact that the history of the site was not fully reported to members, he considers that members' attention should have been drawn specifically to the Minister's decison on appeal in 1970 and furthermore that this should have been taken into account in the preparation of the brief in 1976.

He states that to argue that the appeal site was marginally to the south of the proposed development is to miss the significant and relevant ministerial statement in the decision letter that: the local planning authority's concept of a wedge of open space merging into country on this side of the town to provide a setting with a long range vista of the fine south front of the Minster has much to commend it and ought not to be lightly set aside for the sake of short term advantage in providing further land for building at Beverley". The complainants believe that the grant of planning permission for the housing association development precludes the achievement of these objectives.

Referring to the allegation, that there was undue haste in determining the application, the Ombudsman concludes that a decision could have been delayed for a short period to allow members to consider in detail the advice of the Royal Fine Art Commission following separate meetings of their members with council officers and objectors. In this connection, the chief executive told members that the commission had suggested a compromise but, in considering the feasibility of asking the housing association to redesign their scheme along lines suggested by the commission, the report to members questioned whether this would be acceptable to the housing association as, quite apart from the inevitable delay, they did not know whether the council would even then approve it; there was also a likelihood that a new scheme would not be funded by the Housing Corporation, and they did not know what compensation they might expect from the council.

The report to members recommended that if the council were satisfied, first, that the application was in accordance with the structure plan and the development brief; secondly, that it complied with the policies for the conservation area and, thirdly, that, having taken into account the representations, the development was satisfactory, the application should be approved. It was pointed out to members that the fact that some other development might be better is not, on its own, a planning reason for refusal. The council, on this advice, approved the application.

Regarding allegations on the sale of land by the council and their moral obligation to allow development—after formal approval of the development brief the land was sold by the council to a housing association at residential development value, subject to a covenant to develop the land on the basis of the development brief—the Ombudsman accepts that public authorities are entitled to sell land at a profit, but found that officers' advice to members placed undue weight on the possible financial consequences of declining to approve the application—a point which both the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, and the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, mentioned.

In summing up, the Ombudsman emphasises the need for councils to seek at all times to avoid any suggestion of impropriety in reconciling their role as planning authority and landowner. In so saying, he does not question the integrity of the officers who were advising the council. Although conceding that objectors may have over-elaborated their case he considered that, had the council acted differently, the complainants' view might have prevailed or some acceptable middle ground might have been found.

The fact that the local Ombudsman has criticised some aspects of the way in which the local authority have handled the development proposals is not a reason for intervention by the Secretary of State. In cases where it is found that injustice has been caused by maladministration the council must consider the Ombudsman's report and tell him what action they propose to take. Where a council's response does not satisfy the Ombudsman he may then issue a further report saying what should be done although, as noble Lords are now aware, even then he cannot compel the council to act if they do not decide to do so.

Having considered the Ombudsman's report, which was dated 5th September this year, it appears that there are three options open to the council. I stress that these are options which are open purely to the local council. They can revoke the outline permission and compensate the applicant; they can investigate with the applicant the possibility of changing the layout to leave an open space between the Minister and the new development; or they can do nothing.

I personally do not have the advance knowledge of the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, or of my noble friend Lord Holderness of what has been going on in the committees at Beverley. However, I must say that I was distressed to hear what has been reported. I might add that there is not a specific time scale by which they have to respond; it is just a reasonable period. If what has been reported is correct, it is therefore open to the Ombudsman to issue a further report saying what should be done and I am sure that the House will understand that it would be premature for the department to take any action until the Ombudsman's investigation is closed.

The short debate this evening will have provoked interest and illustrated to Beverley the concern felt by many people from all parts of the country, and particularly in the debate this evening from their local Yorkshireman. The suggestions made and the ideas put forward and the stimulating discussion which we have had will be carefully studied by my department. I shall certainly bring the debate to the attention of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State, who of course at the moment is on holiday at Blackpool. I am sure, equally, and perhaps even more important, that it will be studied very carefully by the people of Beverley. I hope that what I have said will have underlined to those present the Department of the Environment's close and detailed interest in the subject, and it is an interest I can assure the House which will continue until the matter is fully resolved. I am grateful to all those who have spoken for their helpful and constructive contributions.

Lord Kennet

My Lords, before the noble Earl sits down, will he comment on one matter? He has quoted quite extensively from the Ombudsman's report. However, the one piece which he did not quote was the last paragraph, where the Ombudsman concludes that the conduct of the Beverley District Council constitutes mismanagement and that mismanagement has caused injustice to the citizens of Beverley, or to some of them. Could he confirm that that piece is in his copy of the report as it is in mine?

The Earl of Avon

My Lords, I was trying in some way to paraphrase and not to repeat what the noble Lord has said. Yes, I do confirm that.