HL Deb 25 March 1985 vol 461 cc766-74

2.55 p.m.

The Chairman of Committees (Lord Aberdare)

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

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

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, before the Bill is read a second time I should like to speak on one of the clauses and I trust that this is in order at this time. The Essex Bill is one of a number of Bills going through Parliament, many of which have similar provisions. I refer to the Leicestershire Bill and the Berkshire Bill. In the Essex Bill there are a number of matters which, in my view, are worthy of the time of the House. I am concerned particularly with Clause 10. The clause is entitled "Closure of insanitary food premises and stalls". My interest in this matter is prompted by my long association with the cooperative movement. I declare an interest here.

The co-operative movement is prominent in the provision of food and is affected by provisions comparable to those in the Bill. I also wish to refer to comments that I have received from the British Retailers Association and also from the CBI. I do not intend to impede the passage of the Bill. The interests in the Bill and in Clause 10 are well understood. It would be helpful if I quoted from Section 10 (1). It reads: In this section—'equipmene', 'food business'. 'open food' and 'stall' have the respective meanings assigned to them by the regulations having effect under section 13 of the Food Act 1984". The Food Act 1984 was substantially a consolidation measure, and of prime concern within that are the Food and Drug (Amendments) Acts. In Schedule 11 to the Food Act 1984, on page 109, is a complete repeal for the Food and Drug (Control of Food Premises) Act 1976 and the Food and Drugs (Amendment) Act 1982. Section 22 (2) of the Food Act 1984 reads, in relation to the granting of an emergency order: The court shall not consider an application under this section unless it is satisfied that at least three clear days' notice in writing of intention to make that application"— has been given. This is significant. As recently as 1984, the law of the land in relation to the closure under emergency provisions stressed "three clear days' notice". In the Essex Bill we read, in Clause 10 (3)(a): Where a complaint has been made under subsection (2) above the court may on application by the district council…". Then there are further matters alluded to, and subsection (3)(c) continues: Before making application under this subsection the district council shall give not less than 24 hours' notice to the person who is carrying on a food business…". The position, as I understand it, is that there are national provisions which govern these matters which relate to the offending premises and the owner being entitled to receive three days' notice. What is being sought in the Essex Bill—and I make no quibble about it except in regard to the procedure—is that so far as Essex is concerned the notice shall only be 24 hours. What is also intriguing is that this is being put forward at a time when the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are seeking the views of commercial interests as to whether it would be proper to change three days to 24 hours. In a letter dated 19th December. the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said: In November 1983 the Minister announced the Government's plans for a review of officials of food legislation in the United Kingdom. It then goes on: Amongst the issues covered in the document is whether three separate Acts should be retained or whether there should be only one Act for Great Britain and another for Northern Ireland. The document discusses most, but certainly not all of the main provisions in primary food legislation and makes numerous recommendations. One of the recommendations is as follows: The second change concerns the requirement in Section 22(2) of the 1984 Act that three clear days must elapse between a local authority's giving notice of an intention to apply for an emergency closure order and the hearing of the application itself. In exceptional circumstances, such a delay could endanger public health. It is proposed that 24 hours be substituted for three clear days. I repeat that co-operative commercial interests have always been anxious to satisfy the legislation of this country in respect of provisions of this kind. They have no objection to three days, and if the law was changed they would have no objection to 24 hours. But the puzzlement which I have is that while the national legislation is being reviewed—and I simply raise the question in a questioning manner—is it not something that ought to be looked at very seriously by the committees which consider these matters in order to allow clauses such as Clause 10 to be proceeding at the same time as national legislation is being considered? For instance, retailers and businesses which straddle Hertfordshire and Essex or Essex and any adjoining county will find that some of their premises are subject to three-day procedures and some are subject to 24-hour procedures.

The other point that I wish to raise concerns the procedure for Private Bills at this time. I have a submission from the CBI which they tell me has been sent to the Private Bill Office and is currently being considered by the Society of Parliamentary Agents. This is what the CBI tell me is their point of aggravation in respect of procedure: Private Bills are often deposited in Parliament without any prior consultation with or explanation to bodies or persons likely to be affected. The only explanatory material provided is the press advertisement and the long title. The long title sets out the objective of the Bill in extremely general terms. For example, the recent Leicestershire Bill cotained 140 clauses but was described in the long title simply as 'A Bill to re-enact and to extend certain local enactments in force within the County of Leicestershire; to confer further powers on the Leicestershire County Council and local authorities in the County; to make further provision with regard to environment, local government, improvement, health and finances of the county; and for other purposes."' It goes on: Private Bills do not distinguish between provisions which are re-enactments of previous provisions and provisions which amend previous provisions and provisions which are new; no reasons are given for seeking special local additions to or variations of national legislation, on such matters as highways, public health"— and so on.

I raise these matters because this is the prime opportunity for someone who does not wish to impede the passage of the Bill but nevertheless wishes to take the opportunity which Members of this House have of drawing attention to some unease outside the House in respect of both the procedure and also the worthwhileness of including provisions like Clause 10 in the Essex Bill. In Essex there are some co-operative societies: the Ipswich Society, the Colchester Society and the Chelmsford Society, and they certainly have no wish to do other than comply fully with the law in all respects. Yet apparently, until the law in general is changed, those societies and others that may be affected by the Bill—and, let me add. other traders—are expressing their anxiety that these provisions are unable to make progress while the national legislation is being considered. I very much hope that the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees will be able to say something helpful in regard to the interests that I have sought to represent.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, for raising one or two matters on this Bill. On his first point, referring to Clause 10, the closure of insanitary food premises, this is an unopposed clause in the sense that there is no petition against it. It will therefore be referred to the Select Committee that considers these unopposed clauses, and I can assure him that we shall give very careful attention to what he has said. I shall make sure that my colleagues on that committee have a copy from the Hansard report of what he has said about the Bill, and in particular whether the notice should be 24 hours or three days.

On the more general point that he raised about procedures in connection with Private Bills. I do not think that the CBI have anything to grumble about. They are an extremely efficient organisation. These large county council Bills result from the 1972 Local Government Act and it is very well appreciated by all major bodies concerned, including the CBI, that these are large, omnibus Bills—they have come to be called "jumbo Bills". They cover a mass of different parts of the private statute book where local authorities are required to renew any of the powers that they had prior to 1986, when all these powers will be no longer effective. So I do think that any body like the CBI will be perfectly able to go through a large Bill of this sort and pick out any particular points that are relevant to their interests. If the noble Lord wishes to take this matter up further with me, I shall be delighted to have a chat with him at any time.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I am most grateful for the assurance of the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees that the point I raised in respect of Clause 10 will be considered. In respect of large organisations who ought to be competent to perceive at the time a Private Bill is produced that an interest is affected, the noble Lord, I think, ought to take on board that the Greater Manchester Bill of 1981 carried a clause in precisely the terms of Clause 10 in the Essex Bill.

Because in fact that went through, and I understand from outside interests that it went through almost accidentally, that precedent in 1981 strengthens the likelihood of Clause 10 in Essex going through. What we are concerned with, quite frankly, is the establishment of precedents, and although large organisations are entitled to be looked upon as being able to look after themselves, I do not think that what the CBI is requesting—that is, better and clearer consultation—is asking too much.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, I do not agree with the noble Lord. I think that the provisions are perfectly satisfactory. There are very, very strict Standing Orders which the promoter of a Private Bill has to comply with in the way of advertisement; and again they are all in the Private Bill Standing Orders, if the noble Lord would like to have a look at them. We find no difficulty in dealing with these Bills. Of course, it is in the very nature of private legislation that they differ from one area to another. That is the whole reason for there being Private Bills as opposed to Public Bills. There is a nice distinction that has to be made. Where powers are asked for on any one particular point, we try to make sure that they are the same in one area as in another; but each particular promoter has to justify the local need for any particular provision in the clause. I think that that is as far as I can go this afternoon.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Select Committee on Opposed Provisions.

3.11 p.m.

Earl De La Warr rose to move, That it be an Instruction to the Committee to whom Clause 16 (Screening of land used by scrap metal dealers) is committed that they give particular attention to the unprecedented nature of the clause.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I beg to move the Instruction standing in my name. I shall try to do so as quickly as I possibly can. Very briefly, the clause gives new powers to district councils in Essex over the screening of scrap metal heaps. No one would pretend that scrap metal heaps are anything but extremely ugly, but I think that we must be careful not to denigrate too much the scrap metal industry. First of all, it creates centres where scrap metal which otherwise would be littering the countryside can be placed. Secondly, the scrap is recycled to foundries and thus helps the balance of payments by reducing the requirement for new raw materials. Thirdly—and this possibly is not very widely known—the scrap metal industry earns over £300 million a year in foreign exchange by the exporting of scrap.

This Motion refers to the "unprecedented nature" of Clause 16. By that is meant that there is no clause of this type to be found in any other local authority Bill. It is my belief—and I shall explain why to your Lordships in a few moments—that if such a clause appears in one county Act, it will be liable to become a precedent (and the noble Lord, Lord Graham of Edmonton, dealt with this) for other counties and gradually may become the law of the land by what I would call a back-door method.

Clause 16 provides that where a district council thinks that a scrap heap is damaging the visual amenities, it can require the user to screen it in any way it thinks fit. Bringing in the Public Health Act 1936 means that non-compliance will become a criminal act which brings with it a very substantial fine. In that way the scrap metal industry is singled out from all other industries that despoil the countryside—and there are many.

What your Lordships' House needs to take on board is the fact that the local planning authority already has all the powers that it needs under Section 51 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. It can revoke altogether a planning permission or it can insist on suitable screening. Why then, we must ask, is there this effort to by-pass the planning Acts by turning to these powers? I think that one reason, although there may be others, will suffice. Under the planning Acts compensation is payable to the user if he can show that as a result of a planning decision he has suffered damage either by the depreciation of the value of his land or by what in legal parlance is known as being "disturbed in his enjoyment" of the land.

Your Lordships are not being asked to make any judgment of Solomon about this attempt—dare I say this ingenious attempt—to avoid the danger of paying compensation by making a new local law. Neither are your Lordships asked to make a judgment about whether I am right, though I suspect that I am, in suggesting that it might become a precedent. All that this Motion asks for is agreement by this House that this clause deserves investigation by the appropriate Select Committee and that the committee should be instructed to give it their special attention.

Moved, That it be an Instruction to the Committee to whom Clause 16 (Screening of land used by scrap metal dealers) is committed that they give particular attention to the unprecedented nature of the clause.—(Earl De La Warr.)

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, the noble Earl has put his case across very fairly and in no way do I wish to oppose this Instruction. He emphasised the word "unprecedented" which, I think, is the word which is creating a lot of difficulties. As he mentioned, so I, too, should like to mention the importance of scrap dealers in this country. In this year and age if the number of motor-cars that go off the road, and the number of wireless sets and television sets and so on which pile up in the countryside were spread all over the place and not collected by scrap dealers, we should have quite a mess. I know this because we, as farmers, seem to accumulate an enormous amount of scrap in a very short time, and so we are very much obliged to the scrap dealers who come to collect it and keep our places tidy. Sometimes they do not pay us what we think is enough; nevertheless they do a useful job.

If anybody wants to see what is the situation in a part of the countryside where there are not enough scrap dealers, he should go to the Western Isles. It is really appalling there, with scrap cars lying by the roadside all over those beautiful islands. It just goes to show that we certainly must have scrap dealers. At present, the question of the care of the environment is very much to the fore. As a farmer, farming in Essex, in a very sensitive area right next door to Epping Forest, I know of the pressures to keep the environment as best as we can. The county council and the district councils under them have to protect the environment and that is the real reason for this clause in this Bill.

I am no lawyer and I do not want to go into the details of the clause, but I think that on the question of the word "unprecedented" the noble Lord the Chairman of Committees made the very real point that this is the whole idea of a Private Bill; that it is concerned with something different in a particular area. One may ask, "What is different in Essex from anywhere else?" Well, we are right on the border of what is perhaps one of the biggest conurbations in the world, with the result that, in that respect, the environment is very much hurt. I do not think that there is anything unprecedented about Essex trying to do something extra about this. In any case, if other councils take note of what Essex has done, well and good. What is good for Essex is good for the rest of the country, for that matter.

Mention was made of the retrospective side of this matter. A scrap merchant who has had planning permission for a particular site and has cars stacked up five or six high—and I have seen photographs of such places—would now be forced to screen that site. The problem regarding the retrospective aspect arises because no one, including, I am sure, anyone in this Chamber, could have visualised 20, 30 or 40 years ago, after the war, the number of scrapped cars that there would be in this country, the amount of scrap that there would be and the way in which it would be piled up. I have some photographs here, which I may put in the Library, which show in the Dedham Valley in Essex, of all places, almost half-a-mile of scrap cars, two or three deep. They can be seen from the A 12 road going north, and the Essex County Council definitely have a right to do something about the dreadful blight there. I do not think there were many scrap yards before planning permission was required, but there are some and something must be done about them.

There is the question of cost, which I do not think the noble Earl mentioned. Scrap dealers are worried about the cost. A few years ago I wanted to screen my tennis court and I bought Leyland Cypress conifers and planted them about four feet apart. They grow at the rate of three or four feet a year and they are not very expensive; they cost about £1 each. It will not be very difficult in rural areas to hide these appalling sights, which my photographs show, by that method. I know that in urban areas it is more expensive to put up walls, screens and so on, but it is necessary.

I do not want to say anything more, except that the council do not wish this Instruction to be opposed. But they have made it clear—and they have already made an amendment to their Bill at the behest of the scrap dealers—that they are perfectly prepared to look into the whole question, because they admit that it is a tricky proposition to put forward a clause to deal with this very difficult situation where people have planning permission. A situation has arisen where they must do something about it, and it is absolutely necessary that this should be looked at very carefully indeed.

3.22 p.m.

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, I rise very briefly to support my noble friend's Motion. There is really a question of principle here. Apart from the element of retrospection in this clause—an element at which Parliament has always looked with suspicion—there is a very important question of compensation, as my noble friend said. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, spoke about the low cost of screening his tennis court. It may not have occurred to him that there are some scrap firms in this country whose premises extend over dozens, if not hundreds, of acres and the cost is a very considerable element in their budget.

Surely, the point is that the time for imposing planning conditions is when planning consent is granted. There has never been any question of that and, if an attempt is made to vary the planning conditions afterwards, where substantial costs or losses may be involved, then compensation ought to be paid. Nobody doubts that the county council, or any local authority, has a right to say that anyone setting up a scrap yard in future must screen it. That is a perfectly reasonable condition to put on a planning permission. But when it comes to saying that a scrap yard which has been in operation for many years, and which may be a very large one, must incur the very considerable cost of screening, then there is no doubt in my mind that compensation is, and should be, payable and that an attempt to get round what has always been understood to be the planning procedure in law by deliberate legislation is wrong, and in my view the committee ought to deal with it.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, if scrap dealers had planning permission and were asked to put a 10 ft. screen around their premises, which they agreed to do, and then piled cars 20 ft. high, would the noble Lord give compensation to build a higher screen to cover them?

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, I did not understand the noble Lord's point. Will he repeat it?

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, if a scrap dealer gets planning permission which says that he must have a screen 10 ft. high, and then behind that screen he piles cars 20 ft. high, what will the noble Lord do?

Lord Maude of Stratford-upon-Avon

My Lords, I think that any sensible scrap dealer gets through his stock pretty quickly and we are talking about a fairly competitive and cost-effective industry. Obviously, if a dealer is told to screen a scrap heap and he puts up a fence 10 ft. high and then piles cars 20 ft. high, there is no question that, in order to carry out the original condition on the planning permission, he must make the fence 20 ft. high. But that is totally irrelevant to the present situation.

Lord Seebohm

My Lords, I hope that I may be allowed to make a very brief comment. I must say that I have an interest, because I live in Dedham, which is the centre of Constable country, and within a mile or so of my house is an old-established scrap merchant's dump, which until recently was not very easy to see and was perfectly satisfactory. But the extent to which these yards would grow was unforeseen. This yard is now visible. The dump is piled several cars high and they are getting higher, so there is now a real element of pollution in the area. I do not know whether visible pollution is the right term, but it is likely to become more and more offensive as time goes on. It is all very well to say that these scrap merchants will clear their stock. They can clear some of their stock, but I am certain that they cannot clear all of it and these dumps will definitely grow and grow. So I simply believe that there must be some requirement to screen or limit the growth of these dumps.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, it may be appropriate if, at this point, I intervene to give a very brief indication of the Government's view on the Instruction. While the Government have no objection to the Bill in principle, the powers sought in Clause 16 are a matter of concern to my department. We have drawn our objections to the attention of the promoters. Briefly, in our opinion, the clause generally seeks unprecedented powers to control a planning matter through public health legislation when adequate powers already exist in Section 51(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. That section gives a local planning authority the power to impose any condition on the continuance of a use of land. Moreover, Clause 16 makes no provision for compensation to be recoverable from the local planning authority, such as that which exists in Section 170(3) of the same 1971 Act. Depending on the outcome of negotiations with the promoters, my department will need to consider in due course whether or not to report to Parliament on the clause. I therefore support my noble friend's Instruction to the Select Committee.

3.27 p.m.

Lord Aberdare

My Lords, it would not be proper for me to comment about the merits of this clause, but perhaps I may say just a quick word again about the procedure. There are, in fact, three petitions against this Bill, but none of them relates to this particular clause. Therefore, this clause, Clause 16, will be referred to the same committee that I mentioned to the noble Lord, Lord Graham—the Select Committee set up to consider the unopposed clauses—and, if your Lordships accept this Instruction, which I have no reason to oppose, that committee will give very careful consideration to what has been said this afternoon in respect of that clause.

May I make one further point, which I have made before on these occasions, about Instructions. There is a well-understood procedure available to parties who feel aggrieved by provisions in a Private Bill to have their grievances considered by the House. This procedure enables parties to lodge petitions against the Bill, or against particular clauses, and the matter can then be fully examined in Committee with the help of counsel and with witnesses for and against the provisions in question. In this case, those who object to the clause to which the Instruction relates have chosen not to petition against it. The Instruction will therefore simply be considered, as I have mentioned, by the Committee on Unopposed Clauses. But I am bound to say that this is not, in my view, an altogether satisfactory way of dealing with a contentious matter, and I should have preferred to see those who object to this clause petition against it. But I have no reason to oppose the Instruction.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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