HL Deb 26 July 1985 vol 466 cc1469-76

11.39 a.m.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Transport.

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement about the by-pass of Okehampton on the A30. The House will know that earlier this year the Government's compulsory purchase orders for a route for the by-pass to the south of the town were referred to a Joint Committee of both Houses of Parliament under the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act 1945. That committee, by a majority of 4 to 2, recommended rejecting the orders, and proposed instead a route to the north of the town. This recommendation was contrary to that of the independent inspector who held a 96-day public inquiry during which all the issues were exhaustively discussed. He endorsed the southern route, which has been the route preferred by all successive Administrations since 1976. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I agreed with the inspector, that the balance of environmental and economic advantage lies in favour of the southern route, and we proceeded to make the orders.

"Mr. Speaker, one thing is clear: everyone is united about the need for a by-pass, although I am fully aware of the strong and conflicting opinions which the route of the proposed by-pass has aroused, both in Parliament and in the South-West of England. This issue must be resolved once and for all.

"The Joint Committee believe that a route to the north could be constructed quickly. I must tell the House that it takes on average 13 years to plan and build a road. With the best will in the world and no difficulties arising I doubt if we could complete a northern route in much under eight or nine years. It could be much more if there were difficulties, or if the inspector was again to recommend the southern route. For the people of Okehampton and the people of Devon and Cornwall the long delay and the uncertainty would be intolerable, when the southern route could be completed in three years.

"Parliamentary Select Committees make reports to Parliament, and it is for Parliament to accept or reject them. In this case a procedure for doing this is laid down in the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act. It provides in Section 6 for a confirming Bill to be brought in. Accordingly, the Government will introduce such a Bill at the earliest opportunity to confirm the southern route."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the House will be grateful to the Minister for repeating that Statement. But the only thing on which I believe there will be universal agreement is the recognition of the need for a by-pass at Okehampton, not only for the people of that town, but for the road users—and I have had some experience.

The Statement refers to the acceptance of the argument of this inspector on the environmental and economic advantage of the southern route. Does this mean that the Government are now abandoning the 1976 circular, which has been accepted by successive Governments, that there be no main trunk road development in the national parks? Does it also mean in the reference to economic advantage that where farming land is affected that will not be regarded as an alternative route? If so, does that mean that many other proposals will be considered again by the Government, not least the development at Stansted? Is this not a slap in the face for the Joint Select Committee, which I believe spent some 15 days hearing counsel and witnesses before it made its recommendation to reject the order? Clearly, as the Government have not dealt with the points I raised on the 1976 circular and the alternative route, the time factor is a specious argument. I believe the Government themselves visualise that a Channel tunnel could be built in four years, and surely one could deal with a road more quickly than is suggested here, particularly in view of the praise we gave only recently to the speedy work done on the reconstruction of the M.1.

This is not a political matter. It is not a matter for a general debate, but I hope that all noble Lords will read the debate held in this House on 3rd December (at cols. 1151 to 1178 of Hansard) before this Bill comes to the House. We can assure the Government that the Bill will be strongly contested on non-political and all-party grounds.

11.45 a.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I should like to endorse that last remark of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that this is not a party matter. It will certainly cut across party lines and people will find themselves on different sides of the argument. As he earlier said, there is no doubt that Okehampton must have a by-pass and there is general acceptance of that on all sides. Certainly, the people of West Devon and of Cornwall are well aware of the fact that there should be a by-pass but there could have been a by-pass in existence already if successive governments had not chickened out to the farmers. We could have had a northern route some years ago. It is because of that that we find ourselves in this pickle. As the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has rightly said, this contravenes the Government's policy on national parks as set out in Circular No. 41/76, although I think he was unfair in not quoting the full wording of that circular which said, "if no alternative exists". Nevertheless, I argue that an alternative does exist in the shape of the northern route. I find it difficult to accept that the Government believe in their own heart that it could take 13 years, or even the eight or nine years referred to in the Statement. I am convinced that with the work that has taken place already on this subject, with the knowledge that everybody has of the facts of the case, there could be some way of short circuiting the planning cycle. If not, then by Jove! it is about time we considered carefully our planning inquiry system.

Finally, I think the cavalier way in which the Government have overturned the decision of the Joint Select Committee of both Houses, which is a quasi-judicial committee, is intolerable. There are two aspects of this case with which we disagree. On this I speak for all my noble friends. The first is the dangerous precedent which is set by taking a new road through a national park in this way, and the second is the way in which the Select Committee of both Houses has been treated. To suggest that because the independent inspector spent 96 days on a public inquiry and the Select Committee spent only 15, then somehow or other his judgment is better than theirs is nonsense because the committee had all the results of that inquiry before them when they took that decision. It was a clear decision by 4:2, and I am sure that if the Government have a 2:1 majority on anything they do not consider that is a weak decision. It is a sad day in my view both for procedures in this House and for national parks while at the same time recognising that West Devon and Cornwall need this by-pass, especially the people of Okehampton. So surely there is a better way.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I shall try to answer one or two of the points raised by the noble Lords, Lord Underhill and Lord Tordoff. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me whether this meant an abandonment of the principles of the 1976 circular. I should remind him that the route proposed was announced in 1976 after the circular had been issued by the Administration of which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, was a member and it is not for me to speak on their behalf.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, I was a supporter.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I beg the noble Lord's pardon. It is unwise to assume that that Administration did not consider in the interaction of national roads a national parks policy before reaching their decision. There is no question that a decision by Parliament to proceed with the southern route would ruin the national parks policy. The Government have to consider the balance of advantages and disadvantages when policies interact as they do in Okehampton. We decided that the balance lay in favour of the southern route and, following exhaustive debate, the inspector agreed. Both noble Lords in effect asked me whether this was not a slap in the face for the Joint Select Committee. Not at all. The 1945 Act, under which the Joint Committee considered this matter, also provides for a confirming Bill procedure. An Act of Parliament can hardly be considered unconstitutional or a slap in the face for the Select Committee. Furthermore, there is a precedent for this and it has already been used in 1949 in the case of the Mid-Northamptonshire Water Board Authority.

Regarding the timing of the new route, I must disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, that we could hope to achieve a northern route in much under the eight or nine years that I mentioned. This would only mean that we could do it without a public inquiry on the northern route. I assure the noble Lord that a public inquiry on the northern route would be bitterly contested, not only by farmers but by environmentalists as well. This is because the northern route would take the road through land which is just as attractive—if not more so—as that lying on the southern route.

For those reasons, I do not believe that an inquiry will be likely to be available before mid-1990 unless those affected or interested by it waive their rights of objection; and I can see no possibility that that would be the case. As I have said, that would mean that the road could not start much before 1992 or be completed before 1994. The southern route, on the other hand, could be completed within three years of now if Parliament decides to pass the confirming Bill that we propose.

Lord Molson

My Lords, do the Government recognise that by introducing this Bill they will be breaching the undertakings given to me by the late Arthur Greenwood when Lord Privy Seal on the Report stage of the Bill in order to facilitate its passage? I was speaking for a body which called itself the Conservative Active Back-Benchers and we were much concerned about the very wide powers which this Bill contained. We did not object to it in principle but it was agreed by the Government, and in emphatic words by the Lord Privy Seal, that they would not use a majority in the House of Commons in order to override individual rights as expressed to joint committees of both Houses upstairs. That principle has been observed with meticulous correctness by all Governments for the last 40 years and, until today, by the present Government. There is now a departure from what has been a constitutional respect for the promises given by the Minister in charge of that Bill at that time; and this departure is being made in order to breach the policy laid down in Circular 4 of 1976.

I hope that the Government will give further thought to this and will continue to respect what has become an established constitutional principle and recognise that in a certain sense the Joint Select Committee of both Houses acting under the Statutory Orders (Special Procedure) Act is analogous to (shall I say?) the Law Lords sitting and acting on behalf of the House and advising the House. I would ask the Government, even at this late stage, to reconsider the matter rather than to go back on an established custom which has been observed by both parties for so long.

I would only add that it will be necessary for us to oppose the proposal in principle. It is not that we are going into the details of the route; that is a matter that has been gone into fully. This is merely a matter of raising two important constitutional issues.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am afraid that I cannot entirely agree with my noble friend. First of all, I have quoted the precedent of 1949, when the confirming Bill procedure was used. Secondly, I should like to quote from Hansard (column 2181 of 14th November, 1945) the words of the then Lord Privy Seal. He said: I should like to make the position of this Government, and I think of any other Government, clear in this matter. The present Government are just as anxious as were the previous Government, which first introduced this Bill, that all interests which ought to have a hearing shall be heard but—and I do not think that honourable Members opposite can dissent from this—it must rest with the Government of the day, whatever its complexion, to advise Parliament whether a particular issue raised on a Ministerial order is or is not one of policy on which the Government may feel bound to use their Parliamentary resources in support of their point of view. I should imagine that would be accepted by the Front Bench opposite. I gather that it was certainly in the mind of the previous Government when the Bill was under consideration by them". Again, I repeat that I cannot believe that it is unconstitutional to continue with the Joint Committee procedure through to bringing in the confirming Bill, which will be laid before both Houses of Parliament and both Houses of Parliament will have opportunity to debate and make their decision on it.

Lord Mulley

My Lords, while understanding the concern of the noble Lord that Ministers have decided to overturn the recommendation of a Joint Committee, nevertheless I welcome the decision because this is an outstanding delay in the construction of a most important road. I should like to get the Minister's assurance that this could mean the beginning of a revision of all the archaic, exhaustive and exhausting procedures that have to be gone through before road decisions can be taken—which, in my view, are a public scandal.

With respect to the point of the noble Lord, Lord Molson, events have moved—except for our road system—since 1945. Frankly, it is a disgrace that so many important road developments particularly, for example, the M.25, have been held up for an interminable time and at enormous additional cost by prolonged and very often quite irrelevant aspects of public inquiry.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Mulley, for his remarks. I can confirm that we are looking at the planning procedure in general terms and I do not know how close we are to reaching any sort of conclusion. I should like to repeat the assurance that I have given the House that in no way does that alter our attitude to the national parks policy of Circular 4 of 1976.

Lord Renton

My Lords, can my noble friend say what is the length of new road that would require to be built for the southern and the northern by-passes respectively, because that must affect the timetable? Can he say whether this breach of the principle of the 1976 circular is to be regarded as a precedent giving freedom to Ministers to breach it again in future, or is it to be regarded as a rare exception?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, in answer to the second point which my noble friend raised, it certainly will be regarded as very much the exception hut I would point out that the circular itself says: Application of the policy to some parks does, however, give rise to particularly difficult considerations because of their geographical locations". I should have thought that, in this case, that particular sentence in the circular was fairly relevant. Regarding the difference between the mileages between the southern and northern routes, the proposed northern route would be longer by some five miles.

Lord Stallard

My Lords, will the noble Lord accept that, as a member of the joint committee in question, I can assure him that the committee took the decision very seriously? We were all much aware of the possibility of delay and the effects that any delay would cause. In fact, we included in our recommendation a mention of the delay and our concern over it, though some of the delay had been the fault of the inspector originally and was unavoidable because of illness. Since then, there has been a great deal of delay caused by Government actions. In fact, the Joint Committee reported in April. We are now in July, so there has already been three or four months' delay added to that. There was this concern.

The noble Lord seems to be brushing aside the 4:2 majority on the committee and rather downgrading the committee. I imagine that there will be a great deal of consternation among people who are interested and involved in this road project—as there was in my own case when I learnt this morning that there was to be a Statement. We have become quite accustomed since 1979 to major policy Statements on a Friday. But to make one on a Friday when the House of Commons has risen and this House is half risen, I think is taking matters much further. It is not really the time or opportunity to mention major policy. It is a major decision even if some noble Lords do not think so. The decision to override that Joint Committee will be regarded as a major problem throughout Parliament.

The noble Lord mentioned Circular 4/76. The committee went into that in great detail and we examined witnesses for days. It is quite true that it was after the issuing of the policy, but nonetheless there was a firm commitment in that circular that no new trunk roads would be extended or constructed through a national park. On that basis, the DoE recommended the northern route. Everyone was aware of this; and had they acted on that decision the road would have been built by now. Whose fault caused the delay in that instance? The committee discussed the environmental objections, which included an evaluation of the land, and so a great deal of the work the Minister has mentioned—that the value of the land, and so on, would have to be gone into—has to a large extent been done. We also visited the area and saw for ourselves the shattering effect that the type of construction would have on that unspoilt and very precious part of England and of a national park. We were very much aware of that.

In regard to the constitutional problem—and I have not had a great deal of time to check on this—I understood that to override a Joint Committee is in itself very unusual. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Molson, said he did not recollect within his experience that that had been done, and the noble Lord has far more experience than I have. It is certainly unusual, to say the least, and I should have thought that will be hotly and fiercely debated in both Chambers when they deal with it. I also understand that it would be very unusual for any Bill that is produced to do other than support the committee. According to my understanding of what is being discussed, it is because of that that the Bill will be deemed to have had its Committee stage and that in fact it will be introduced at its Report stage. The noble Lord will correct me if I am wrong. It is deemed to be like that because the proceedings of the Joint Committee are alleged to be accepted as the Committee proceedings. Therefore there are a number of issues which are going to be contested, I can assure your Lordships, when the House is fuller and when the other House is in session. There will be many questions to be answered, and not least the question of delays and what has caused them.

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, we are of course grateful for the work which the Joint Committee did. Many of the matters the noble Lord has raised, as he quite rightly said, will no doubt be hotly debated when this Bill comes before your Lordships' House. I can confirm that the Bill will reach us, as it were, at the Report stage and we shall then have a Report stage and Third Reading; so there will be at lest two opportunities to debate the matter. It will be a very short Bill—a matter of one clause only, I understand—so the issue will not be difficult to decide.

With regard to the timing of the Statement today—incidentally, the other place is sitting today and my right honourable friend has made the Statement there this morning—this was a matter for the usual channels in the other place yesterday. We were originally going to take the Statement yesterday, but I gather that the usual channels in the other place thought yesterday that the thorny problems of rate support grant would probably occupy much of their afternoon.

Perhaps I may take this opportunity to correct one answer which I gave to my noble friend Lord Renton. When I said that the northern route would be five miles longer than the southern route, I was incorrect. The southern route will be approximately five miles and the northern route will be six miles, so the northern route is only one mile longer.

Lord Renton

My Lords, in view of the correction my noble friend has made, will he explain how it is that the southern route would take such a very much shorter time although it is not a much shorter distance?

Lord Brabazon of Tara

My Lords, because, subject to these two compulsory purchase orders (which is really what we are talking about today), the rest of the line of the route is decided and construction can start as soon as, or if, the two compulsory purchase orders are agreed to by both Houses. As regards the northern route, time would have to be taken on a public inquiry and we would need to establish a new line of route. I would also point out—although this is probably a matter to be dealt with when the Bill comes before us—that there are important engineering difficulties to be dealt with on the northern route.