§ 4.8 p.m.
§ Lord Elton:
My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.
The Bill is designed to achieve a limited number of simple purposes within existing government policy. I shall in a moment describe them to your Lordships in the order in which they appear in the Bill. But before I do so I should like to reassure your Lordships that the Bill is not as long as it seems. That is because where it proceeds by amending existing legislation it does so where possible and appropriate by deleting the whole of the section to be altered and reproducing the whole of it in its amended form. This should make for easier work in this Chamber and easier comprehension by practitioners under the resultant law.
Part I of the Bill deals with housing. The Government are firmly committed to the encouragement of owner-occupation and to promoting it by means of the tenant's right to buy. Following the Housing Act 1980 and the Housing and Building Control Act 1984, sales to sitting tenants are running at about 100,000 a year and already total nearly 1 million altogether. Very few of the buyers, however, are people who live in flats. They make up only 4 per cent. of the total. This suggests that the terms of the scheme, and the way it is run, ought to be changed for their benefit.
Clause 1 accordingly increases the maximum discount available to tenants of flats from 60 per cent. to 70 per cent. after 15 years tenancy. This is the third time in six years that we have had occasion to use primary legislation to vary those percentages, and at a 851 later stage we shall therefore be asking your Lordships to approve a simpler means of making such alterations should that prove necessary. The clause also reduces from five years to three years the period during which the purchaser of a dwelling under the scheme who sells it is liable to repay a proportion of the discount.
Of those people who have already bought flats under the scheme, a number have later been surprised by the extent of the service charges that they have later had to pay. Clause 2 therefore provides that the landlord will in future be required to give to a tenant who proposes to exercise his right to buy an estimate of service charges in respect of repair costs incurred in, broadly speaking, the first five years of the lease. The estimates will be binding apart from an allowance for inflation. The clause also limits the contributions that leaseholders of flats may, under their leases, be required to pay towards the costs of improvements. We shall ask your Lordships to amend the clause in Committee to make those provisions easier to operate in practice.
Clause 3 empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations giving the tenant of a flat, who has exercised the right to buy, the right also, in prescribed circumstances, to a loan in respect of service charges for repairs during the first 10 years of the lease. Regulations may also be made empowering certain public sector landlords to make such a loan in cases where the right to it does not arise.
However many public sector tenants we enable to buy the houses in which they live, a great many people will still need to rent their accommodation. The experience of thousands of them who are already tenants of local authorities has shown that some local authorities are appallingly bad landlords. Where such an authority is prepared to dispose of its tenanted housing to another landlord that can, therefore, bring benefits to the tenants. But such sales should not deprive those tenants of the right to buy and the associated right to a mortgage. Until now, rather complex legal agreements have been needed to achieve that. Clause 4 and Schedule 1 do away with that complexity but specifically preserve those rights. They preserve also the requirement that it must have the Secretary of State's consent for that purpose.
Many housing estates desperately need renovation and modernisation. That is often impossible while the tenants are in the building. Clause 5 will now enable a public sector landlord to seek possession where it is intended to dispose of the property to the private sector in connection with a specific renovation or modernisation scheme. The tenants are protected by two conditions. First, the Secretary of State must approve the scheme. Before he does so, he must take into account the views of tenants and the scope for them, or for those on the waiting list, to buy or rent the housing. The second condition is that suitable alternative accommodation must be provided. Where both those requirements are met and the scheme goes ahead, Clause 5 will allow home loss payments to be made to eligible tenants.
One way for a local authority to achieve more responsive local housing management is to delegate it. At present local authorities can delegate their housing management functions only to a tenant management 852 co-operative and to no one else. Clause 6 enables them to delegate those functions to any body or person by means of a management agreement. Both the body and the terms of the agreement will have to be approved by the Secretary of State, and tenants will remain local authority secure tenants with all their existing statutory rights. The authority will delegate its powers but not its responsibility. It will remain legally, politically and financially accountable for the actions of its agent. One of the amendments we intend to bring forward at Committee will, if your Lordships agree to it, give tenants the right to be consulted individually on any such proposals.
Delegation can transform over-centralised or unresponsive management, but it relies on the local authority taking the initiative. Clause 7 provides tenants with a say in the future of their housing. It requires local housing authorities to consider proposals from a qualifying tenants group either for a management co-operative or for the disposal of the properties to the tenants group. It requires the authority to give a reasoned response to those proposals within six months. That will put co-operatives on the political agenda and give the Government a clearer idea of the extent of any frustrated demand for management or ownership co-operatives.
Clauses 8 and 9 deal with the assured tenancy scheme, which allows bodies approved by the Secretary of State to let newly-built dwellings outside Rent Act controls. Although market rate rents may be charged, the tenant retains a measure of security. The limitation of the scheme to new dwellings has reduced its impact, and Clause 8 extends it to existing dwellings that have been substantially improved or repaired, or have been converted at a cost greater than a prescribed amount. Those dwellings must meet a basic standard of fitness and must also have been empty when the works were carried out.
Clause 10 provides for a new type of home improvement grant available towards the cost of works required for the improvement and repair of the common parts of a building containing flats. The detailed provisions are in Schedules 2 and 3 of the Bill. Your Lordships will recognise that some provisions in that part of the Bill will encourage new forms of housing management. It is likely, especially where tenants themselves are involved, that they may need some specific training initiative and that financial support may be needed to get them off the ground. That is provided for in Clause 11.
Clause 12 and Schedule 3 make minor and consequential amendments to housing legislation. We propose at a later stage to introduce to that part of the Bill a provision facilitating the transfer of new town housing stock to a permanent owner other than a local authority. We have particularly in mind housing associations and private sector trusts. At Committee stage I shall ask your Lordships to add provisions to promote shared ownership, which is one route by which the private sector can help to widen housing choice. I shall also ask your Lordships to make provision to allow registered housing associations to provide agency services in connection with the repair and maintenance of homes.
853 I now turn to the planning provisions in the Bill. Many of your Lordships have emphasised to me the slowness and the expense of planning procedures. They provide a necessary protection and we have already done much to accelerate them, especially in contested cases; but they are still too slow and we have already seen that where they can with safety be curtailed, economic benefit follows. It is for such cases that we make formal provision, in Part II of the Bill, by means of simplified planning zones. In those zones a scheme will specify the types of development that can be carried out, without the need either to apply for individual planning permission or for the payment of fees. It will be made by the local planning authority and the details will be subject to consultation and, normally, a public local inquiry.
The main provisions are in Clause 13, which introduces three new sections and a new schedule to the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. Those provisions place a duty on local planning authorities in England and Wales to consider the need for simplified planning zones in their areas, and provide the powers necessary to establish and alter them. There are equivalent provisions for Scotland in Clause 14; Schedule 4 sets out detailed procedures.
SPZ schemes will last 10 years, thus giving developers a considerable degree of certainty and freedom of action within the terms of the scheme. They can vary in size and content to suit the area in question. They will be particularly appropriate in run-down urban areas needing a stimulus to renewal; but they will also be useful elsewhere. The Bill contains a power for the Secretary of State to direct a planning authority to prepare a simplified planning zone scheme. That power will be available if, and only if, a planning authority has failed to do so at the request of someone else. It is intended for use where an area quite clearly has development potential and the authority's refusal is without good reason. It would still be for the authority to prepare the detailed proposals for the scheme; the requirements relating to public consultation and public inquiries would still apply.
I know that your Lordships are very anxious that the protection of normal planning procedures shall not be lost where they are most needed. Section 24C(1), added in another place, prevents simplified planning zones from being established in national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, national scenic areas, conservation areas, sites of special scientific interest, or a green belt. Under that clause the Secretary of State also has power by order to prevent particular areas or types of development from being subject to SPZ provisions.
In Committee we shall ask your Lordships to agree to amendments to enable local planning authorities to serve completion notices to ensure that development that has been started but not finished when a SPZ scheme expires is finished within a reasonable time, and to make the same provision for enterprise zones. Another amendment will prevent authorities from reversing the intended effect of these zones by imposing restrictions detracting from the freedoms of the general development and use classes orders.
Your Lordships are, I am certain, well aware of the formidable problems with which the retreat of 854 traditional industries faces us in our cities. In departing they leave behind not only unemployment but also the debris of outmoded production. Abandoned works, like abandoned workings, are not only an eyesore; they obstruct development and new employment. Part III of the Bill adds to our armoury for dealing with this. It confers on the Secretary of State a widely drawn enabling power to give financial assistance towards urban regeneration. The text of Part III needs little by way of explanation. It is self-contained and provides well precedented flexible powers. Our immediate intention is to use them to establish a new urban regeneration grant. We want the private sector to tackle comprehensively the great swathes of land left derelict in the role of industrial decline and to bring them back into use. To start with up to £20 million will be available for this purpose.
Part IV of the Bill is concerned with hazardous substances. Its purpose is to ensure that land may be used for a purpose involving the presence of a significant quantity of any of those substances only after both the safety implications and the wider implications for the community have been considered by the responsible authorities. The provisions proposed arise from recommendations made by the Advisory Committee on Major Hazards which was set up by the Health and Safety Commission following the Flixborough disaster. At present the Health and Safety Executive assesses the risks but it does not control the location of such installations. In 1984 the advisory committee recommended that the planning system should be used as the means of controlling location. This followed from its view that, while it is the function of HSE to keep to a minimum the risks entailed by any proposals to use hazardous substances at a particular site, the decision whether those risks are acceptable at that site should be taken by a local authority. At present it is possible within the existing planning permission to introduce a hazardous substance onto land.
Part IV of the Bill, therefore, provides by additions to the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 that such a use of land requires "hazardous substances consent" from the planning authority. It will be administered in parallel with normal planning control, and where both planning permission and hazardous substances consent are required the two applications will normally be handled together. Clause 18 provides that the local planning authority which deals with planning applications for any land will also be the hazardous substances authority. The detailed provisions are in Clause 19, which introduces 12 new sections into the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. I particularly draw your Lordships' attention to the new Section 58A on page 35, which sets out the scope of new control and defines its limits.
Consent will be needed when any one of a list of specified substances is present on land in a quantity greater than the "controlled quantity". Both the substances and their controlled quantities will be specified in regulations. We intend to specify the kind of substance which is highly toxic, reactive or flammable and which, in an accident, could seriously affect areas surrounding the land on which it is kept. The Government will look to the Health and Safety Commission for professional advice on precisely 855 which substances to specify. I understand that the starting point for their consideration is likely to be the list of substances and quantities contained in the 1982 notification regulations.
Where there are effective controls already in existence we do not intend that this Bill shall either duplicate or replace them. Our intention is simply to deal with hazardous substances that are not otherwise controlled. The consent procedure will not, therefore, be applied to explosives, because the keeping of explosives already requires a licence from the HSE under the Explosives Act 1875. Equally the keeping and use of radioactive substances and the disposal of radioactive waste are already strictly controlled under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960, which need not be duplicated here. For those reasons we intend to make regulations to exempt waste substances as defined in both the Control of Pollution Act 1974 and the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 from control under this Bill.
Clause 20 of the Bill provides for the service of contravention notices. There will be a right of appeal and a power for the local planning authority and the Secretary of State to apply a stop notice. Clauses 21 and 25, together with Schedule 5, deal with consequential amendments to other legislation.
Clause 22 contains transitional provisions designed to ensure that existing lawful uses of hazardous substances can continue unless specific action is taken to discontinue them. If such action is taken, compensation will be payable. The CBI is concerned that the detailed provisions of this clause do not provide adequate flexibility for existing users; we hope to be able to meet its concern at Committee stage. The CBI also expressed concern that the new Section 58C, in Clause 19, would give a local authority responsibilities beyond that authority's expertise. Again, we intend to deal with this point at Committee stage when we will also put down amendments making special provision for ports and harbours and for public gas suppliers.
Clauses 23 to 26 make equivalent provisions for hazardous substances control in Scotland. Your Lordships will not wish me repeat it all.
Part V of the Bill deals with opencast coal. The provisions in Clause 27 and Schedule 6 amend the Opencast Coal Act 1958 to complete the transitional arrangements for bringing opencast coal working under planning control, which are set out in Circular 3/84. They also remove an unnecessary duplication of consent by repealing Sections 1 and 2 of the 1985 Act. Consequential amendments to other provisions of the Opencast Coal Act are set out in Schedule 6.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, if I may, I should prefer to reflect on the noble Lord's question as I depart one minute late from platform five and give him an answer in the wind-up speech.
Arriving at Part VI and Clause 28,I should say that this clause is, in effect, an index to the amendments 856 concerning listed buildings and conservation areas found in Part I of Schedule 7.
Paragraph 1 of the schedule, on page 134, deals with an anomaly. At present if you want to put up a new building within the curtilage of a listed building, you can do so without listed building consent. But if you want to knock it down again, you have to get listed building consent. The paragraph removes that necessity if the new building was put up later than 1st July 1948.
Your Lordships will, I think, be more interested in paragraph 9. The background to it is that although the Secretary of State is empowered, under the existing Act, to make directions as to which planning applications local authorities do not have to refer to him, the Act specifically prevents him so directing when it comes to applications for consent to demolish a listed building. I should make it clear that demolition, in this context, does not mean only knocking down the whole of a building, but also knocking down any part of it. Even if you want to knock down a small part, such as the top of a chimney entirely out of public view, the local authority must forward your application to the Secretary of State; it cannot decide straight away itself. The result is that no less than 2,057 applications came to us last year, and only 34 of them proved substantial enough for us actually to call them in for the Secretary of State's decision. As relisting proceeds the number of applications is certain to increase further and the delays and expense of the procedures will increase with it. Our proposal is to delegate decisions on applications only for partial demolition of only unstarred Grade II listed buildings and only to local authorities of the Secretary of State's own choice. In Committee I shall also undertake, if your Lordships agree, that he will not do so at all without first consulting English Heritage—the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission for England.
Much of the remainder of the Bill is made up of more than 20 detailed amendments to planning legislation designed to simplify and improve procedures. In legislative terms they are relatively minor, but they have a useful contribution to make toward achieving policies relating to speed, efficiency and simplification, as set out in our White Papers Lifting the Burden and Building Business Not Barriers. I shall not detain your Lordships by going through each of them but I should mention that the amendments that I shall put down for the Committee stage will include a redraft of Clause 30 in order to make the provisions clearer and easier to understand.
With the exception of Part I the provisions of the Bill extend to Scotland as well as to England and Wales; but Clauses 36 to 38 relate specifically to Scotland. Clause 36 introduces amendments to listed buildings and conservation area legislation. These either bring Scottish legislation into line with that for England and Wales, or make amendments equivalent to those introduced by Clause 28. Clause 37 enables the Secretary of State for Scotland to give grants towards the cost of repairing buildings of architectural interest in town schemes. Clause 38 introduces a number of minor changes to the Scottish planning legislation. One or two of these are purely Scottish. In particular, a definition of national scenic areas is added to the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) 857 Act 1972, and there are amendments to provisions for the enforcement of planning control in Scotland. When we come to the Committee stage the Government will be tabling an amendment covering the termination of certain specific planning grants in Scotland.
I realise that some of your Lordships will be anxious about your preparations for the Committee stage, given that, thankfully, the House is to rise tomorrow and will reassemble only shortly before we return to discuss the Bill. The Printed Paper Office will of course be open on working days throughout the Recess except. I should mention, on 26th August. However, I intend tomorrow to table most of the substantive government amendments relating to housing—that will be first on our agenda when we return—and indeed a fair proportion of the remainder of all our amendments. I also intend that if there are no unforeseen difficulties, we shall have tabled all our substantive and other amendments to the Bill by 27th September.
As one found in the Bill, the total volume of these amendments will seem a good deal larger than it actually is. This is, firstly, because every amendment to any part of the text to Parts II, IV and VI has to be reflected by a similar amendment for Scotland, though the principles are the same for each. Secondly, it is because in a couple of instances we are proposing to reprint the amended passages entirely rather than to deal with them piecemeal, which I think your Lordships will prefer. Thirdly, it is because in a technical Bill of this kind we are, inevitably, discovering that quite a number of small adjustments are needed to the drafting. In the main these do not alter the intended effect of the Bill, but they often bring a shoal of amendments in their wake. Of course, some of what we shall propose will be substantive, but I ask your Lordships not to be daunted or deceived by the volume.
The remainder of the Bill consists of formal provisions. I wish to draw attention only to Clause 40. [ should have said this before I launched into the passage exhorting your Lordships to be of good heart in the holidays, but as I did not do so, I shall say it now. It relates to the commencement. A number of provisions in the Bill cannot be brought into operation until regulations have been made, and we therefore propose to table an amendment at Committe stage to provide that the whole of the legislation, except for certain technical provisions, will be brought into operation by commencement order, so that we can commence as appropriate.
My necessarily rather dry summary of the Bill introduces a measure of some practical importance. It will increase the numbers of those who will buy their council flats. It will improve the management of many housing estates that z`are now run by local authorities. It will encourage shared ownership. It will provide a release from unnecessarily detailed planning controls where they are least necessary and most damaging; it will give a new impetus to urban regeneration; it will provide for better control of hazardous substances; and it will do much to improve other planning functions as well. It is a useful measure. I beg to move.
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord a question before he sits down? I understand that this Bill does not apply to Northern Ireland. I am rather surprised and should like to know why not?
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, as always, I prefer to answer questions at the end of the debate. No doubt the noble Lord does not wish to keep himself in anxious doubt for so long, and indeed he may have a train waiting. I think my answer is that the planning regulations in Northern Ireland are a good deal different from those in the rest of the United Kingdom; but really 1 should like to give him the right technical answer, which I can do only later.
§ Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Elton.)
§ 4.35 p.m.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for explaining this long Bill to us. and I have listened to the reasons he gave for its length. I should also like to thank him for telling us that we shall have the amendments in fairly good time, though I am a little daunted to hear that there will be so many of them. Even so, it is a long Bill. There are 42 clauses and 10 schedules.
However, I have to say that in spite of its length I think that this Bill is a gigantic irrelevance in face of the actual situation in the country today. Its provisions do nothing, literally nothing, to combat the crisis in housing which confronts us today—and "crisis" is not too strong a word. There are over 1 million households registered on local authority waiting lists and the numbers are growing. New house building in the public sector has fallen from 133,000 completions in 1975 to 33,000 in 1985. The condition of the housing stock, both public and private, continues to deteriorate. The DoE's own estimate is that £ 19 billion needs to be spent on the public sector, and the condition of the private sector is even worse, with an estimated £26.6 billion needed. There are 344,000 houses in multiple occupation and 53 per cent. of those are in unsatisfactory condition. The number of families who have been accepted as homeless by local authorities rose from 53,110 in 1978 to 93,980 in 1985. The DoE's own information bulletin Press Notice of 1 lth July reported local authorities as accepting responsibility for 25,230 households in the first quarter of 1986 compared with 23,590 in the last quarter of 1985. We all know the huge cost of bed and breakfast accommodation. The net cost after recovering money from families, housing benefit and so on, rose from £8 million in 1982–83 to £15 million in 1984–85—almost double. I wonder whether the Minister can give us a figure for 1985–86.
What a ridiculous waste of resources that expenditure represents! Those resources should be put into new building of houses and hostels. We have had two major reports in the last year, those of the Duke of Edinburgh and the Archbishop of Canterbury, but they seem to have made no impression on the thick hide of this Government.
In the light of all this, it is not surprising that even the Government seem to have shown no enthusiasm for this Bill. It must be shaming to have to produce it. 859 It emerged from another place on 1 st May and now, three months later, at last we have a Second Reading, the date of which has been changed five times. Clearly it is the Bill that the Government were most prepared to lose and no doubt thought that they might have to lose, owing to the congested state of the parliamentary timetable. We on these Benches should not at all have minded it being lost, for not only does it fail to do anything to improve the housing situation; it does a certain amount to make it worse.
The Government are concerned that so few flats have been sold under the right to buy legislation. By making it easier to buy council flats—in fact almost giving them away—the local authorities' stock for renting will be further reduced. We cannot agree to the increased discount, nor to the acceleration of discount entitlement, nor to the proposed reduction in the discount pay-back period. Not only that; local authorities will be forced to carry future liabilities in respect of service charges and will also be forced to make loans to prospective purchasers.
Surely it is not unreasonable to expect prospective homeowners to carry out a proper survey before they purchase property and not expect the local authority to pick up the tab for future problems. Will the Government consider the possibility of giving local authorities a discretionary power to make a loan and not make it a mandatory duty? Presumably such loans would have to count against local authorities' increasingly scarce HIP resources. I wonder whether the Minister, when he comes to reply, will respond to that.
Our strongest objections are to Clause 5, which gives local authorities the legal right to remove tenants from their homes simply in order to sell the property to private developers. Those sales could be subsidised by central government through urban development grants. Local authorities have not asked for those powers; indeed, most would oppose them.
It is of course possible that a housing authority may want to rehabilitate a whole terrace of houses or block of flats. For that reason it is sensible to move a tenant temporarily and to give him the chance to return when the work is done. But there should always be consultation and negotiation. To be able to evict a secure tenant in order to sell to a private developer seems entirely wrong, and indeed wicked, to us.
These are tenants' homes. I am aware that there can be home loss payments, but those are usually only for a few hundred pounds and tenants who have not lived in the area for five years can claim nothing. I am also aware that courts may order possession only if suitable alternative accommodation is available, but the stories that one has heard do not lead one to have any confidence that that will be at all satisfactory. Tenants must be consulted before estates are sold off and a majority must be in favour. We shall be moving amendments in Committee to make provision for that.
It was alarming that the Court of Appeal ruled in the case of Mrs. Eileen Short v. Tower Hamlets that a council did not have to consult or even inform tenants on its Waterlow estate in Bethnal Green before putting out to tender the refurbishment for sale of their homes by a developer. I have had a number of documents in 860 the past few days showing how strongly tenants and tenants' associations feel about that.
We are not opposed to management agreements with other bodies, as proposed in Clause 6, provided that there are adequate safeguards. In fact, the more that tenants can form their own co-operatives and manage their own properties and lives the better. But if local authorities transfer the responsibility to outside agencies, there must be consultation and a majority of tenants in favour. I understand from what the Minister said just now that the Government are going to bring in an amendment to effect that consultation. We are pleased about that.
But we want to make sure that there are adequate safeguards and, if there is a transfer of ownership, we do not want the remaining local authority tenants to suffer, because the right to move to that other estate will be lost, and, what is even worse, they may find themselves subsidising the transferred estate through the writing-off of existing debts. We believe that there should be the right to a public inquiry if there is strong opposition to a handover. It is clear that in some schemes already undertaken—for example. Stockbridge Village Trust in Knowsley, Merseyside— there was insufficient detail available and consequently few safeguards for tenants agreed in advance.
Members of your Lordships' House have during the passing of various housing Bills been very anxious to keep local authority housing for rental when that housing was suitable for the elderly, even if it was not originally built specifically for them. It would seem that the amendments that we have passed to previous Acts to ensure that have been undermined by the operation of the exemption schemes. Appeals to the Secretary of State have been too readily agreed for what would appear to be quite ridiculous reasons. I understand that the Minister has refused 84 per cent. of applications for exemption from the right to buy. The amount of correspondence involved is fantastic, and I shall have pleasure in recounting the details of the Burnley case in Committee.
In a Birmingham case, the department asked for information in as much detail as possible on the following:You state that there are steps on the approach to the bungalow; could you please inform us on whether a handrail is provided?In what way (if any) are the WC and bath specifically designed for safe and easy use by an elderly person? Are handgrips provided beside the WC?Please state the distances to nearby bus stops. (Please be precise). Also, please supply information on the frequency of the services and the destinations. Is the walkway from the dwelling to the shops or bus stop uphill?What are the precise heights of the kitchen working surfaces, shelves and cupboards?".and so on. Some people must have quite a lot of time to spare in order to compose such letters. I hope that when we move amendments in Committee to strengthen the position of housing authorities we shall have the same support from all around the House that we had on previous occasions.
Before I finish with the housing section of the Bill, I should like to ask why the Government have not seen fit to introduce a new clause or two to implement the recommendations of the Nugee Report. It would seem to have been an ideal opportunity.
861 I turn to Part II of the Bill, "Simplified Planning Zones", which were forecast in last July's White Paper, Lifting the Burden. They are an extension of some of the concepts first tried in enterprise zones and are part of the Government's strategy of assisting enterprise by removing and simplifying administrative and legislative regulation. I think that we should be wary. There is no evidence that the relaxed planning regimes in enterprise zones have encouraged development or job creation.
The June report from the Public Accounts Committee on those zones is not encouraging; indeed, it is very critical. The idea was for new firms to be set up, but existing firms got windfall benefits amounting to £50 million over 10 years for rate exemption alone. In the second round, tighter boundaries and smaller zones helped to limit uncovenanted benefits, but those still seem likely to cost the Exchequer a further £20 million for rates exemption, making £70 million in all. Between 4 per cent. and 12 per cent. of wholly new firms might not have started but for the zones, but about 75 per cent. to 85 per cent. of incoming firms would have been operating in the same county or region had there been no zones.
The Department of the Environment in its analysis showed that warehousing, which does not provide many new jobs, accounted for as much as 46 per cent. of occupied space. All those facts suggest caution. Local authorities will find the preparation of SPZ schemes complex and time-consuming. As my noble friend Lady Nicol is to speak on them, I shall leave her to develop the theme.
I turn now to Part III of the Bill, "Financial Assistance for Urban Regeneration". The objective is admirable. We all want the dead areas of our cities to be regenerated. Can the Minister tell us whether those grants will be used for areas of deprivation and dereliction not in inner cities? Can he also tell us whether those grants will be in addition to the existing urban development grants? I understand that those grants will be paid direct to private enterprise, and that marks a considerable departure from normal practice. Until now, the local authority has acted as the agent for urban programme grants, except for specific areas which have come under urban development corporations. In a way, that is a further erosion of the local government interest. It bypasses the partnership principle, which has been looked on as a good way forward.
Can the Minister assure us that there will be proper consultation with the local authorities before the Secretary of State uses his powers under Part III of the Bill so that there will be no danger of conflict with or duplication of existing local initiatives? We believe that anyone requesting financial assistance under Section 15 should have to send a copy of that request to the local authority concerned when submitting it to the Secretary of State, and that the Secretary of State should not decide to make that financial assistance available without notifying the local authority so that that the local authority will be fully informed of what is happening in its area.
I want to ask the Minister whether the estimated expenditure of £10 million to £20 million in 1987–88, 862 which is mentioned in the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, will be new money or whether it will be hived off from other schemes. I hope that he can answer that.
Part IV of the Bill has the heading, "Hazardous Substances". So far as I can see, this part of the Bill in strengthening overall control under the town and country planning legislation is to be welcomed and greater confidence is given to the public. I know that the Royal Town Planning Institute has been pressing the Government strongly since 1981 for planning control over hazardous substances to be properly dovetailed with health and safety legislation. It is of course pleased at the outcome, but it has some concerns about the additional staffing requirements that will be placed upon local planning authorities and the Health and Safety Executive. It is also anxious that special pleading by the industry might cause the provisions of the Bill to be emasculated. It would be good to have some reassurance from the Minister when he replies on that point.
Part V of the Bill is entitled, "Opencast Coal". Again, we can give a welcome to this part of the Bill as it reverses what has been happening with this Government. Clause 27 will end the requirement that British Coal should apply to the Secretary of State for authorisation of opencast sites and remove his power to grant deemed planning permission for them. The responsibility will lie with the local authorities. They will have more say in the choice of sites and will ensure that the NCB's forward programme is taken into account in general planning considerations. Our only anxiety is about the repeal of Section 3 of the 1958 Act which makes British Coal have regard,to the desirability of preserving natural beauty, of conserving flora, fauna and geological and physiographical features of special interest, and of protecting buildings and other objects of architectural or historic interest".We shall propose that that section be not deleted.
We shall have a few points to raise on Part VI of the Bill, the miscellaneous provisions part. In fact, as I listened to the Minister, it seemed that this is a miscellaneous provisions Bill. But there are a few minor and worthwhile amendments in this part. There are, as the noble Lord said, a number of matters to deal with listed buildings and local plans where we shall be bringing forward amendments. But as I know that my noble friend Lord Stallard is to speak on these matters, I shall not take up the time of the House by mentioning them myself.
Well, my Lords, I have found a few things to praise. But the major parts of the Bill will have taken up a great deal of parliamentary time for very minimal impact. This is a cumbersome Bill that will do nothing to alleviate the chronic housing shortage in the country, to improve the massive number of dwellings, public and private, in need of repair, or to improve the lot of millions of people, either homeless or living in unsatisfactory and often insanitary conditions. Houses should be homes.
On the planning side, the new measures, besides reducing still further local authority powers, which will not improve the already poor relationship between central and local government, will not be powerful or well enough funded to regenerate derelict areas of our cities. The Bill tinkers with the country's problems. It 863 is not surprising to me that the Government are so backward in bringing it forward.
§ 4.51 p.m.
§ Baroness Stedman
My Lords, from these Benches we, too, should like to thank the Minister for the way that he has explained the Bill and for the assurances that he has given regarding amendments and the timing of them. I speak as a somewhat inadequate substitute for the late Lord Crawshaw who was going to handle the Bill from these Benches. I lack his housing expertise and knowledge. I shall, however, do my best to fill the void. On a happier note, I look forward to hearing the maiden speeches of the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, and of my noble friend Lord Davies, who brings to the House a lifetime's experience in civil engineering and the building industry. We welcome his intervention in our deliberations, and we look forward to his taking an active part in the Bill as it proceeds through the House.
The right-to-buy has been very successful in respect of semi-detached houses with gardens. It has been less successful in respect of council flats. We can understand the Government wanting to sell more flats. In that sense, we can understand their approach to increasing discounts and trying to deal with the problem of service charges. But we still believe that people will be reluctant to buy flats because of the general environment of the average blocks of council flats. Citizens are not going to put up their life savings or mortgage their future where blocks of flats are continually vandalised, where the lifts do not work, where graffiti abounds and where the services for which they pay are not available. Many of these properties are in desperate need of renovation. Indeed, the Building Employers Confederation has said:Only if substantially more public resources are provided specially targeted to the renovation of flats is the rate of sales of council flats likely to increase".On these Benches, we are strongly in favour of devolving management of council housing. We would also like to see decentralised management with mangement co-operatives giving tenants real control over their estates and their environment. We would welcome the establishment of trusts involving tenants and outside interests. We shall watch with interest the progress of the Thamesmead Trust.
This Bill also floats the idea of complete privatisation of ownership. We believe that there is a continuing need for rented housing. But we doubt whether the private sector can be assured of what it would deem an adequate return on capital investment involved in purchasing and renovating rundown estates. Only last year, the building societies were warning that rent control would have to be abolished to make it financial sense for them to take over tenanted council estates and to continue to provide rented accommodation. There is a risk that the Bill might only aggravate the demand for what council property. will remain. There is still no compensation for local authorities for loss incurred when additioal housing stock is sold under the right-to-buy. I believe that this is a fundmental defect in the right-to-buy programme. Local authorities desperately need that money, and they ought to be able to spend their capital receipts.
864 The housing side of the Bill is mostly about management. Given the state of some housing management, we do not quarrel with the importance of approaching some of the problems that flow from it. We would encourage the housing co-operatives as a useful contribution towards giving people more control over their own homes. We welcome the acceptance of assured tenancies and of the need to find new forms of rented accommodation. But we do not believe that the extension of the discount range by 10 per cent. on the sale of flats will achieve what the Government are after. It might work in attractive three or four-storey blocks where tenants still have a sense of community. But we doubt if it will result in any greater number of flats in tower blocks being sold.
I too do not like Clause 5. It attacks the rights of tenants, with councils having the power to remove tenants from their homes so that whole estates could be sold with vacant possession. That is, I believe, going too far. It reduces substantially the bargaining power of tenants. We have to remember that tenants are not just numbers placed in units of accommodation. They are real people living in their own homes in the real world.
I turn briefly to the part of the Bill dealing with hazardous substances and opencast mining. Basically, the proposals on hazardous substances seem to have met with general approval. But the local authorities are still concerned about the scope allowed to the Secretary of State in defining substances and the quantities of those substances to which the provisions should apply, and also the exemption in the Bill for hazardous substances in transit. Earlier this year the Health and Safety Commission undertook a consultation exercise proposing lower levels of notification to it. Surely, those regulations might be more appropriate for the implementation of the written consent procedures. There is also concern in local authorities about the use of the phrase "temporary presence" relating to storage of hazardous substances while in transit. There is only a limited provision of lorry parks specially designed to cater for vehicles carrying dangerous loads. We shall return to that matter at Committee stage and try to persuade the Government to be more specific about the time period in which the "temporary presence" of hazardous substances can be allowed.
As to opencast coal mining, we would prefer to see Section 3 of the Opencast Coal Act 1958 retained. The Bill removes the need for the Secretary of State to give consent to opencast working. It puts those developments under normal mineral planning control. This will inevitably increase the workload of the local planning authorities. There is considerable concern about whether county councils will be able to cope. Opencast mining is one of the most environmentally destructive operations that goes on in our country. During the Committee stage, my noble friend Lord Hanworth will no doubt raise some of these questions.
We also concerned that paragraph 1 of Schedule 9 paves the way for the abolition of the local highway authority's power to refuse planning permission or impose conditions on road safety grounds. The existence of this power has not led to any delay for developers. I believe that the local highway authorities have made wise and effective use of it over the years. 865 In effect, the Bill transfers that responsibility to planning authorities who do not have the same interest or the expertise to assess the potential hazard to road safety of the design and siting of access and new developments to the highways. In European Road Safety Year this is surely not the time to take such a serious retrograde step for road safety.
The Government have not produced any realistic evidence to support the idea that essential development is being hindered by the existing planning procedure. It is unrealistic to point to the enterprise zones because they involve a tax incentive. It would have been more sensible to try these simplified planning zones perhaps in inner city areas where there is a real need to encourage new employment and development. The tools to do something about the regeneration of our inner city areas are available with the current winding up of the new town development corporations. On all their staffs there is the expertise of their small planning and marketing team who are used to putting together packages involving private and public investment. Over the past 20 years or so these small teams have built on their skills and expertise. I believe that they ought to be kept together and used to help in our depressed inner city areas.
Part III concerns urban regeneration. Perhaps we should be doing more to use public money and investment as a lever to attract more private investment. However, the financial provisions of the Bill refer only to the £10 million to £20 million in 1987–88, which will not do very much towards solving problems in our inner cities. May I also ask the Minister this question about this sum of money? Is it extra money or will it be at the expense of the other urban programmes?
There is no evidence that planning zones as proposed will be an incentive to investment in the inner cities. We are concerned about the possible misuse of the power of the Secretary of State to direct the making or alteration of the scheme in Schedule 4. It seems unreasonable to us that an individual should be able to apply direct to the Secretary of State for a direction that the local authority prepare an SPZ scheme. It could lead to vexatious and sometimes frivolous requests. On these Benches, we would rather see this power dropped altogether. But if it is to remain, will the Government consider that it might be accompanied by a considerable fee, following the precedent of the planning application charges, or the use of planning appeals machinery, if a local authority refused the request? We are worried that the Secretary of State can make the ultimate decision, whatever the view of the local democratic planning authority.
The president of the Royal Town Planning Institute is on record as saying:SPZs do not represent a relaxation of planning. In fact they increase its importance while at the same time reducing the need to make planning application".Mr. McDonic went on to say:Research into the effects of enterprise zones show that a reduction of planning control has not been a significant factor in attracting development in most cases. Fiscal advantages have been far more important".866 He argued that there is nothing to suggest that the SPZs will guide development where there are existing development pressures, and the SPZs, I believe, are not of the central importance that the Government ascribe to them.
At present, environmentally sensitive areas may not be the subject of an SPZ. This includes, as the noble Baroness and the noble Lord said, the conservation areas of the national parks, areas of outstanding natural beauty, and the SSSIs. But when such land is identified, after an SPZ has been adopted, it is not automatically excluded from any SPZ within which it may lie. To do this we would have to go through the procedures outlined in the Bill to alter the SPZ scheme. I think this is just another layer of bureaucracy to investigate the same proposals twice.
The Government have said that they want to lift the burden. They want to make the planning system less onerous and to prevent hindrance to economic development. But we believe that the SPZ will prove to be just another complication to an already complex system of controls. Companies and developers will have to discover whether the sites are within the SPZs, and what conditions or limitations are to be attached to them. They will have to consider making representations when SPZs are proposed so that they are drafted in a manner which may be more helpful to them. Companies established within the proposed SPZs may have conflicting needs to firms which are seeking to establish themselves under a new relaxed regime. These processes could prove much more onerous than obtaining planning consent for particular developments.
The SPZs have no fiscal incentive attached to them. Without a financial incentive, will the companies be flocking to establish themselves in the simplified planning zones? I believe that companies are more concerned with corporation tax, income tax. VAT, employment regulations, site conditions and what grants are available than with planning regulations. I do not believe that the SPZs will do very much to redirect development pressure towards the depressed regions. Neither will they act as a catalyst to generate any job-creating development. They are irrelevant to the real solution for our economic problems.
The local authorities are not happy about them, but if we have to have them they would rather see their designation for a trial period of five years—which is the period of validity for full planning proposals—than for the 10 years as proposed in the Bill. We shall be returning to that at Committee stage.
The department of the Environment is undertaking a review of the effectiveness or otherwise of the enterprise zones following doubts which were raised by the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and, indeed, by the Commons Accounts Committee. Will the SPZs in due course also be subject to such a review? The relationship between them and local and unitary development plans is unclear. I believe that it would be better if consultation about these special zones took place as part of the local plan exercise. Then the public would be better able to assess the problems of the area and the options that were available. The local authorities do not like giving powers to the Secretary 867 of State to override the wishes of the democratically-elected local councils and the views of the public which have been established by them through consultation.
The enterprise zones have financial incentives. These will be absent from the SPZs. The local authorities again believe that there is evidence to suggest that funding institutions prefer strong development control powers which protect the value of their property investments. In essence, the local authorities believe that the SPZs will be very complex but that they will be ineffective and that they will duplicate the existing local plan procedures. The Committee of Public Accounts in another place has also been examining the Comptroller and Auditor-General's report on enterprise zones which was set up in 1981. I know that they are different from the proposals in this Bill for the simplified planning zones. But I think that their success or otherwise might influence our thinking. It would seem from both reports that it is too soon to evaluate properly the benefits and the costs. Both reports also stress the need for special attention to any adverse effects of an enterprise zone on the other areas.
The same problems may also arise in respect of the simplified planning zones. We are sceptical of these proposals. We believe that the Government are expecting far too much from them. We doubt that they will make as big a contribution as the Government are expecting.
At present, the local planning authority can grant permission only in response to an application by a developer except where the land belongs to the local authority, or the authority itself is the developer. This means that the local planning authorities cannot plan positively or implement actively, especially where the potential development sites are not within their ownership. Surely a much more practical way to achieve the Government's objective would be to relax the restrictions on the local planning authorities' powers to grant permission. Local authorities prepare the local and the action area plans, and the detailed development briefs that go with them, so surely it would be a logical step for them to have wider powers to make planning applications for development within their area which accord with their adopted local plan.
I am sure that we shall want to return to this matter in considerable detail at Committee stage. I hope to persuade the Government that the suggestions of the Royal Town Planning Institute for off-the-shelf planning, as they call it, may well be preferred to the most cumbersome plans for the simplified planning zones. Planning control is a matter for local determination. The simplified zones will be subject to ministerial control. This is central government intervention in local development issues and I believe that it is both unnecessary and undesirable. We should like to see planning control where it belongs—with the local authorities.
§ 5.11 p.m.
§ Lord Hesketh
My Lords, I crave your indulgence for this my maiden speech. Having a small interest in development, I thought that this debate would be easier than some others in which to make my maiden speech. However, having risen to my feet I am now somewhat uncertain!
868 I welcome the Bill before your Lordships today. It takes the first steps in carrying out some of the proposals laid down in the two White Papers Lifting the Burden and Building Business not Barriers. My only regret is that a number of the excellent ideas laid out in those two documents are not incorporated in the Bill.
The more that I have had the privilege of being in this House, the easier it has become to understand why Rome was not built in a day. Changes—particularly when it comes to planning—are a source of extreme nervousness to all people of all dispositions. It is an intersting development that all local newspapers now appear to be obsessed with planning, whatever one's point of view. It is a righteous concern. My only concern is that there are many things that have not happened in this country that could or should have happened. They are not big things; they are probably small things.
I know that the defence of our heritage, our countryside and the environment of the individual citizen is paramount. However, at the same time I believe that we must view planning as an object not only to protect but also to proceed with—that is, to proceed with in the development of a healthy, robust and financially successful country. Over the years the complexity of planning regulations when taken together has proved to be more of a problem than the intentions of each individual change in the regulations. One only has to look at the size of the documents required if investigating a planning application to appreciate the problem with which the smaller man, or woman in particular, is faced.
Medium and large concerns have been able to respond to this increase in regulation and complexity by the fact that they have the resources to employ the professionals who are required to provide the assistance and lay the trail through the maze to achieve an objective. My concern is the smaller entrepreneur, the self-employed man or woman, the small business that is starting out—for they do not have the resources, or, put more plainly, the money to go to hire an expensive solicitor or adviser when dealing with a more difficult problem. Moreoever, they would wish to engage all their time, if they could, in developing their business.
I know that talking about small businesses is sometimes like speaking to farmers about marketing—their eyes glaze over. However, it is important, particularly as in the last few years the expansion of employment in this sector has been extremely large. Indeed, 600,000 more people now work in this sector than did three years ago. I feel that, if at all possible, the difficulties that are faced by these people should be eased. Half the problems have been taken away from small businesses by new technology, which is a most exciting development. You can now buy a small cheap computer which will do your PAYE, national insurance contributions, tax, stocktaking and paperwork. That is very good for any small business because it removes the unproductive overhead, the element of cost which has for many, many years been the undoing of small companies in this country.
However, the gentleman who wishes to find and set up a workshop to employ himself or one or two others 869 is faced with a problem—a problem not of the planner's making but of the world which exists in this country today. The problem is this. If a planner and a developer get together and decide to create an industrial park which will be for the benefit of the community and which will fulfil their duties to provide employment, the developer will probably go to his bank manager to borrow the money. His bank manager will not lend it to him unless he will build the kind of factories that he can let on a reasonable covenant. The developer, having let the buildings, will not be able to sell them to an institution or pension fund unless they also have a reasonable covenant.
There are tens of thousands of people in this country who wish to start their own business. Their only assets, if they are lucky, are the part of their house which they own which is not already mortgaged; their savings, if any. and a loan, if they have a friendly bank manager. They certainly could not sign a 21-year lease for a factory on a new industrial estate without risking everything they have and their families.
The difficulty which they then face is how they can set up in business on their own premises. The laws and regulations are extremely complex in this regard; indeed, so much so that I would only recommend a planning officer who was taking early retirement to consider setting up in business on his own premises! It is a problem which is becoming more important because work practices in this country are changing. Twenty years ago no one would have thought that British Aerospace would use seven engineers and seven different houses connected by computer modems to do a design project together without ever meeting each other. That is the reality and it will increase and not decrease.
People using their own premises for their own work, whether it be as employees or as self-employed, will face an ever-increasing problem because they are existing as illegal people. They do not want to be illegal. Many of those to whom I have spoken would very much like to pay rates. I am sure that other businesses which do pay rates would be very pleased to have those rates paid and the burden lowered generally across the board. At present, although the White Paper suggested those changes—and I am sure that they will come—they are not with us.
The phenomenon of working from home will increase as the years go by. I just hope that this House will see before too long the arrival of something to make it that much easier. However, what I have already seen in the Bill goes at least part of the way. Even more important, what is in the White Paper is really encouraging stuff. Therefore, the key that I find in the Bill is this. An important part of freedom is choice. The Bill increases choice, and because of that I hope very much that it will receive your Lordships' support.
§ 5.19 p.m.
§ Lord Stallard
My Lords, it is my privilege, as the speaker following the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, to congratulate the noble Lord on his maiden speech. I certainly do not think that he need apologise, as he seemed to do at the beginning of his speech, for lack of knowledge, because as he developed his speech I certainly gained the impression that he has a great deal 870 of knowledge about the matters in the Bill and he has obtained much of it from personal experience. I look forward to his further contributions on this Bill and on many other aspects of our work in this House.
The Bill begins its process through this House against the backcloth of the worst housing situation this country has faced for many decades past. The noble Baroness, Lady David, gave some telling statistics that I shall not repeat, except to add that capital spending on public housing has fallen by 43 per cent. in real terms since 1979–80, and council house building is at an all-time low of 20,000 new starts in 1985. It is estimated that it would require £50 billion to urgently repair houses in all sectors that are in a state of dilapidation. They are relevant statistics in any Bill dealing with housing.
The proposals appear to be more concerned with accelerating the right to buy of some properties and facilitating the disposal of public sector housing to new types of landlord, who will have no accountability to the local authority or to anyone else, than with seeking to do something to deal with the situation that I have mentioned and which has been described by previous speakers. I am only too well aware from previous experience in other places of the campaign, for instance, for council tenants' security of tenure and the long arguments that took place on that. Certainly this Bill seriously undermines the progress that has already been made in that direction.
Part I seeks to strengthen the rights of tenants to buy local authority rented housing, particularly in the case of flats. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, dealt with some of the worrying aspects of the purchase of some flats. It also introduces new powers to evict council tenants if the local authority wishes to sell a block of flats or an estate.
Speaking to the Institute of Housing in June 1985, the then Secretary of State for the Environment declared that the age of council management was over. I think that this Bill seeks to enshrine the spirit of that declaration in legislation, with all that that means to the new-found security of tenure for council tenants. No wonder that there is widespread concern over the proposals contained in Clauses 4, 5 and 6, and that tenants' organisations, local authorities, and voluntary organisations are almost at one in their protests against the proposals which, if implemented as set out, could result in the loss of thousands of rented homes in areas where there is desperate need for cheap, rented accommodation.
Age Concern, for example, has expressed deep anxiety about the fate of many of the estimated 3 million pensioner council tenants who could lose their security of tenure, and are likely to have to leave their homes against their wishes. This is a traumatic experience at any age. During the Committee stage in another place, the Minister gave assurances that the consultative process involved would be strengthened. I should like to ask the noble Lord three questions on that.
First, is the Minister able to give more details about possible government amendments in this direction? Secondly, can he assure us that disposal of homes will definitely not occur where the majority of tenants are opposed to it, and will this be written into the Bill? 871 Thirdly, will transferred tenants to private ownership from public ownership retain the right to rent in the same way that other tenants have the right to buy under Clause 4? These are only a few of the many questions that remain to be asked arising from these clauses. Together with other noble Lords, I look forward to the more detailed discussion that will take place during Committee stage.
I should like to pass to the planning proposals contained in the Bill. I had some experience as a member of a local authority for nearly a quarter of a century, and for part of that time as chairman of planning and development operating the old 1947 planning system. That was fairly new when I first went into a local authority and was developing through experience. It is that system of planning, and planning controls, that the Government, under the now familiar guise of simplification and improvement, are seeking to alter quite drastically, if not demolish in parts. It is an important change.
The most important change has already been mentioned. That is the establishment of simplified planning zones—SPZs—as part of the Government strategy to assist enterprise by removing, or simplifying, administrative and legislative regulations. This strategy was set out in a White Paper last July, Lifting the Burden, which has been mentioned by previous speakers, and therefore I shall not bore your Lordships with the appropriate paragraphs. It is, however, Chapter 3, paragraph 6(1). They propose to introduce these SPZs to extend to other areas the type of planning regime already established in enterprise zones. Again the noble Baroness, Lady David, dealt with that aspect in her excellent opening remarks, and I shall not repeat what she said.
On the question of simplification, it is worth listening to a few other opinions. For instance, the Royal Town Planning Institute, in a paper I read recently, said this:It has been suggested that the only thing which is simple about Simplified Planning Zones is the catch title of SPZs as the procedures included within the Bill are likely to prove so complex and lengthy that they will do little to secure the Government's stated objectives and may raise false hopes with would-be developers. Nevertheless, concern must remain that SPZs could be seen to be the thin end of the wedge for further wholesale deregulation if the Secretary of State liberally utilises the reserve power to direct local planning authorities that SPZs shall be prepared.That is the RTPI on simplification.
Writing in the Estates Gazette—which is a paper that comes to me and other noble Lords fairly frequently—in December 1985, Adrian Stungo, who was the chairman of the Royal Town Planning Institute's development control panel, writing in a personal capacity, considered these SPZs in detail. He wrote:if SPZs are meant to lift the burden of additional legislation, they clearly fail. New legislation will be needed.My Lords it is here. He said:no existing controls will be eliminated. Instead a new type of planning area will be created to add to the plethora of special areas… each of which is subject to a different and distinctive planning regime.He contended that,procedures will become more, rather than less, complicated.872 He went on to say a lot more about the SPZs. He and other experts obviously do not agree that the Bill succeeds in simplification and improvement, as said by the Government spokesman.
What I find equally worrying is the proposal that any individual can request the Secretary of State to direct a local authority to declare one of these SPZs. I read recently another quotation from a review of the consultation paper in July 1984 when it was first discussed. It was in an issue of the Journal of Planning and Environmental Law. This compared SPZs to the American system of zoning control. It concluded:The SPZ scheme is certainly worth a try. It offers to developers the certainty of a planning permission, prior knowledge of its terms, and relief from payment of application fees. The only difficulty we see is the relationship of SPZs to development plans.I should like the noble Lord to tell me whether a developer or his agent, fearing a refusal of planning consent from a local authority, could request the Secretary of State to make that site, or sites, an SPZ, thus giving the DoE, in effect, planning power over these SPZs? Is that a possibility as the Bill stands? It seems to me at first reading that it is. Even though at all stages of the procedure to create SPZs there are consultative provisions, at the end of the day the Secretary of State retains great powers of intervention in this matter.
The Minister mentioned at the beginning use classes orders, which are not exactly contained in the Bill. I find it difficult to separate any changes in the use classes orders and the proposals for SPZs and the other changes in the planning laws. I think the two are bound to intermingle. I am concerned about and interested in the proposals that the Government intend to make to change the use classes orders. I understand that the consultative process ends in the middle of our Recess, on 15th September. I am not saying that was deliberate. I should like the Minister to tell me, if he can, whether the outcome of the deliberations on that consultative process will be ready before we reach the Committee stage of this Bill. I believe they are relevant. Can he confirm, too, that the proposals to allow small businesses to set up in residences, if the number employed does not exceed five persons, have been dropped? I should be grateful if he could give me some information on that.
I want to conclude quickly, but before I do I should like to mention some of the miscellaneous proposals that are tucked away at the end of the Bill under Part VI, "Miscellaneous Provisions". It contains a number of very important proposals concerning listed buildings. Clause 28 and Schedule 7 would remove from listed building control free-standing objects—in his opening remarks the noble Lord mentioned this—as long as they were erected since 1 st July, 1948, within the curtilage of a listed building.
However, he did not mention whether the Bill proposes to control the erection of new free-standing buildings within the curtilage of a listed building. For example, the owner of a single family house which is a listed building may wish to erect a new modern garage. This would be permitted development under the general development order, but it might have a very adverse effect on the general appearance of a listed building. I think we ought to consider this, and some of us will be proposing an amendment for listed 873 building consent being required for the erection of such a free-standing structure if its appearance and location were likely to affect the character of a listed building, unless the Minister can say at this stage that that is already in his mind.
Clause 29 and Schedule 7 involve almost the complete rewriting of the legislation on local plans. We are all concerned about this. For example, quicker procedures are to be introduced for the adoption of relatively uncontentious local plans. I have never heard of a plan that was uncontentious. In my experience, to put up an advertisement panel anywhere has always been contentious. There is no such thing as an uncontentious local plan. I should like to hear the comments of the noble Lord the Minister on that.
We are also concerned and some of us have had correspondence (I certainly have) from conservationists who are worried about the enabling provision allowing demolition permission to be given by local planning authorities in respect of listed buildings. I do not know whether this is something that the Government intend to press, but it is hoped that the Minister will listen to representations being made to him, I believe, by the Historic Buildings and Monuments Commission, on the new procedures it would like to recommend to lighten the many workloads and to speed consents with safety, before the Committee stage of this Bill.
I have one final word on paragraph 8 of that schedule, which suspends the obligations on the Secretary of State to make decisions upon listed consent applications within 28 days. In effect, this gives the Secretary of State unlimited time to deal with the applications for listed building consent. This is in direct constrast to the various pressures that are being put on local authorities from central government and elsewhere to speed up decision-making. The decision to give the Secretary of State unlimited time at the same time as that seems totally illogical to many of us, and I hope the Minister will remark on that. It also contrasts with a new power that the Secretary of State has in the case of written representation appeals and called-in applications.
I hope that the Government, having had second thoughts on this matter, may bring forward suitable amendments. All in all, I consider that the Bill amounts to a further dramatic erosion of local democratic planning powers. I can agree with some of the powers, but not with the erosion of the local accountable controls. The powers of the Secretary of State will certainly operate to the detriment of the social and environmental considerations, which he cannot possibly understand as well as the local people. I hope we can reduce by amendment the potential damage that this controversial omnibus Bill will inflict if it goes through unamended. I look forward to the Committee stage.
§ 5.36 p.m.
My Lords, it is a great honour to be addressing your Lordships for the first time. I must first declare an interest in that I own and manage a construction company operating in rural mid-Wales which may be affected in a small way by some of the 874 welcome improvements to the planning system contained in the schedules to the Bill. It will not be affected by the main thrust of the Bill, which is directed to urban areas.
I must also apologise to your Lordships if, in catching the last train home, I miss the end of this debate. But before leaving the rural areas I should like to bring to your Lordships' attention one glaring anomaly in the planning system which much affects rural mid-Wales and other such areas. The Upper Severn Valley is not an area of outstanding natural beauty in planning terms, although it would be so described in the language of ordinary people. Planning permission is required for the most humble dwelling and is virtually ruled out outside the existing villages and towns—quite properly. In the adjoining national park a hotel sign, perhaps visible from 100 yards, is refused planning permission. Yet no planning permission or any other permission has been required for the hundreds of miles of rural farm roads which have been built throughout the whole of rural Wales largely at taxpayers' expense, at a cost in the year 1984–85 of £5½ million.
Some of these roads have caused great gashes across the hillsides which can be clearly seen for tens of miles. This desecration has largely ceased due to the changes in grants, but the scars remain. I urge that provision should be made and funds provided for the Countryside Commission to be responsible for identifying the worst offenders and at least alleviating the scenic effects by applying grass-seed to the exposed surfaces, which would have the added benefit of assisting with the protection from erosion of a substantial investment of taxpayers' money.
Returning to the urban areas and the main thrust of the Bill, I am sure that all sides of the House will support the Government in their attempts to encourage and promote urban regeneration. However, the size and scale of the problems are immense and the solutions proposed in this Bill can best be described, like the waves at Blackpool, as piddling and small. It would appear that no extra resources are to be committed to the cause, but only moved around within the existing urban aid programme.
It is doubtful whether the simplified planning zones proposed in the Bill will either be used or be successful without the financial incentives of enterprise zones. But we must ensure that the bureaucratic business of their designation cannot become so longwinded and time-consuming that the areas in question become blighted for any development for a substantial period while that is being done. Otherwise, we shall cause the opposite effect to that intended, in the same way that the housing repairs grant scheme is now doing. When the grants were first announced, large numbers of householders put in grant applications and many worthwhile housing repairs were undertaken. But now the money has all but run dry, while large numbers of grant applications still await acceptance. The result is that much work which, in the normal course of events, would be undertaken is held back by the householder in the hope that the grant will eventually be forthcoming. I urge the Government either to release a steady flow of funds into the scheme or to redefine the scheme so that the present log-jam can be released.
875 With regard to the clauses in the Bill concerning assured tenancies, it is doubtful whether the changes proposed will have any more success than before in bringing rented accommodation on to the market. But is they are to be helpful, it would surely make sense if the scheme were to be open to properties owned by approved persons as well as approved bodies. If there are empty properties awaiting the improvement which this clause intends, surely that are as likely to be owned by persons as by bodies. Surely it is not being suggested that bodies are potentially any less wicked than persons.
Can we be assured that if the clause turns out to be a success the department has sufficient resources to issue speedily the necessary approvals? The extensions of the rules for financial assistance for urban regeneration to give support directly to persons must be welcomed. But we have been told that no extra money is to be forthcoming, and the amount earmarked for this clause is £20 million to £30 million—not nearly sufficient to make any real impact. In addition, we have the extraordinary and perhaps unique caveat that consent from the Treasury must be obtained in each case. I can readily imagine the "Yes, Minister" interdepartmental bargaining which went into the drafting of that.
The problem posed by the decay in our housing, in our urban environment and in our infrastructure is growing and will have to be tackled sooner or later. Now must be the time really to start that process. We have the manpower, we have the industrial capacity, and we have the resources. If we leave it until the time, if it ever comes, when the economy is really expanding and the PSBR is a relic of the past, the capacity and manpower will be applied elsewhere and any attempt to pump more money into this process then will simply rekindle the old fires of inflation. If we were to leave it until after the oil ran out, resources would no longer be available and we would be condemned to continuing and increasing decay.
May I ask the Government just how much in total they intend to commit to the urban regeneration programme? We have read much press speculation about the urban taskforce. Can the Government tell us when it is going to be announced and assure us that it will be provided with real powers and resources to undertake the huge task before it?
§ 5.43 p.m.
§ The Marquess of Salisbury
My Lords, it is my good fortune to be the first speaker to follow the noble Lord, Lord Davies, on the occasion of his maiden speech. I say this because he has given us a notable contribution to our considerations today. He clearly has a very deep knowledge of the subjects we are discussing and he has made many useful comments which I have no doubt will be taken fully on board by the Minister when he comes to reply. I should like to add my personal congratulations to him and I should also like to congratulate my noble friend Lord Hesketh, whom I have known for a great many years. I am delighted to see him here. Again, he has made a considerable contribution to our discussions today, and I hope that we shall have the pleasure of hearing many more contributions from both noble Lords in the future.
876 I want to speak on only one smaller area of the Bill, and that is Clause 28 and Schedule 7 on the listing of buildings. Here I must declare an interest. I should also like to ask your Lordships' indulgence if I am unable to stay until the end of the debate. I hope to do so, but it depends upon how long it goes on. As your Lordships are aware, almost any building more than 100 years old can be listed as a result of previous legislation. We are faced with a situation under which an inspector comes round and looks at the building, or wall, or whatever it may be. He does so without notification to the owner and the first that the owner knows about it is a letter, addressed probably to the occupier with a request that it should be passed on to the owner, notifying him that the building, or wall, or whatever has been listed and that he is to take note that he may make no changes without permission.
Furthermore, it is possible for the owner to be ordered to maintain the building at his own cost and he has no recourse but to obey that order. If he does not do so, he may find that the local authority takes over the job and sends him the bill afterwards. Either course can be very expensive. It therefore seems to me that the time has come when we should review the present situation and that we should try to find a more satisfactory solution. For instance, it is not always so that the inspector gets the right answer. I have personal experience of two inspectors in different areas listing walls which I myself had put up and which I feel sure do not come within the area of the Bill. Furthermore, one of them is a chalk wall and, so far as I know, the art of building chalk walls is a lost one. I cannot see the point in listing a building or whatever which cannot be restored or rebuilt. I would hope we can have a rather more satisfactory arrangement in the future.
I have had a very considerable correspondence with the noble Lord, Lord Elton, and I should like to thank him for the very sympathetic response that I have received. Indeed, he has offered a code of conduct under which new arrangements would come into force by which inspectors would have to give proper notification before visiting a site and would also be given certain instructions on how they should behave. This seems to be a notable advance, and I am very grateful to him for the offer. I suggest to your Lordships that in this matter which affects personal rights it would be better if these arrangements were incorporated in an Act of Parliament because we know that times change and that otherwise, perhaps at a later date, the code of conduct could be altered. It does very little more in many respects than instil a code of good behaviour, of courtesy and of good manners—something which one might have expected a schoolmaster to teach the third form or lower in early days.
The other thing in respect of the code which I hope could be incorporated is this. At the moment there is no standard throughout the country and it would surely be preferable to have some uniformity. In some areas rather odd things happen. For instance, in Nottinghamshire there was a Victorian cottage, or what appeared to be one, for which planning consent was asked to improve it and put it in order. This was granted. On subsequent inspection it was found to contain an earlier building of Elizabethan origin. The order was amended so that the instruction was that the 877 whole building had to be rebuilt more or less as it might have been in Elizabethan times, at a very substantial cost—approaching £100,000, for a building which was probably lettable or saleable only at a considerably reduced amount. There was a case of a very similar kind in Bedfordshire.
I believe some authorities more or less automatically list any building over 100 years old, whether that is desirable or not—and, as your Lordships will know, many of these buildings are not of very high calibre. This seems to me to be a case of the bureaucracy taking the opportunity to seize as much control over these matters as they can.
I also think that we should consider whether we ought not to have the right of appeal against listing. It is surely a normal democratic right that one should be entitled officially to express one's view; one might almost say that in this case it is an appeal against a sentence under which one is compelled to spend a great deal of money. The noble Lord, Lord Elton, has kindly pointed out that there is a means of appeal within the ministry, and I am very pleased to hear it. However, all I can say is that I have never heard of it; nor has anyone I have asked about it. So there does not seem to be very much advantage in it.
I do not know how this would work, but I know that in the case of my chalk wall I wrote to the ministry over two months ago. I have had two acknowl-edgments, but I still have not had an answer, and it does not seem to me that this is a very good basis on which the appeal might be regarded.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, if the noble Marquess will let me have the dates of his correspondence, I shall ensure that he does get an answer swiftly.
§ The Marquess of Salisbury
My Lords, I am most grateful.
I should also like to ask: what is the position about the listing of gardens? This is a comparatively new development, and I believe it came up under the countryside Act. The procedure is similar to that of listing buildings. In the past I have received certain guarantees from the late Lord Avon, which appeared to be entirely satisfactory, being covered also by a Question for Written Answer and by a letter from the noble Lord, Lord Montagu, as chairman of English Heritage. Since then a pamphlet has been produced by one Professor Bodfan Gruffyd on gardens in Oxfordshire, where he proposed the listing of a substantial number. He suggested that they should be compulsorily looked after and maintained and that if the owner had not the means to do that, grants should be available for the purpose. That seems to me to have some bearing on the matter because the suggestion is supported by the Garden History Society who, in turn, are used by the department in an advisory capacity. I would ask whether the guarantee given by the late Lord Avon is still valid.
Finally, I should like to ask what the position is about grants for these buildings because, so far as I know, the grants bear no relation to the costs of carrying out repairs and maintenance. So it is possible to have an order which compels an owner to spend a great deal of money which is entirely uneconomic and 878 against which he has no recourse. If it is as important as that, it is only reasonable that central government should bear some reasonable proportion of the cost of carrying out the repairs; at any rate, I would hope that would be so. I heard the other day of a church which had been listed as Grade 1, which presumably means that it is of national importance; but an application to English Heritage for a grant was turned down on the grounds that it was not of sufficient interest. It seems that there are two conflicting views on that type of building.
I do not think I am asking the Minister for very much. He has already conceded the principle in the points I have made, and I very much hope that he will be able to see his way to incorporating something along these lines in the Bill at the Committee stage.
§ 5.54 p.m.
§ Viscount Craigavon
My Lords, I should like briefly to raise a fairly minor matter which is not dealt with in the Bill as it now stands, and that is the environmental blight which is caused by estate agents' boards. The problem occurs mainly in London and seems to have been exacerbated by the recent large increase in property prices. This has caused estate agents generally to lose any gentlemanly insticts for fair play that they might still have possessed. So much is at stake, especially when agents are trying to expand their businesses, that such things as voluntary codes of practice are quite inadequate. I understand that many, if not the majority, of estate agents would welcome major restrictions on boards, or even a total ban. But if a few agents behave irresponsibly, others often feel that they have to behave in the same way.
There are two aspects to this problem. First, there is the difficulty, in terms of manpower and time, of enforcing the existing regulations. Secondly, there is the question of whether those regulations are themselves adequate. There have been a steadily increasing number of complaints from the public, who usually do not know what is technically legal and what is illegal. So in fact complaints are received about boards in both categories.
Like many of your Lordships, I have been able to witness this problem in many parts of London, but I have detailed knowledge particularly of Westminster and of the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, where I live. Part of my interest in this matter stems from the fact that I happen to live in an area which is also a conservation area, a small part of which has recently been allowed to be declared an experimental board-free area.
Since the trial period of one year started on 1 st June, I have personally been able to see a marvellous transformation around the square in which I live, following the total disappearance of all the boards. My enthusiasm is shared by all those neighbours I have talked to. For the first time one is able to see whole vistas as the architects intended and to realise what a disfigurement were the enormous boards we had been brought up to believe were a necessary part of the scene.
May I congratulate the noble Lord the Minister and his department on allowing some experimental board-free areas to be designated, and may I say I hope that 879 they will now feel freer similarly to designate further and larger areas—and also perhaps to do it slightly more quickly?
My interest in this matter stems also from being the friend of an architect who is one of the organisers of a small but effective pressure group in this area called CLASH, which stands for the Campaign to Limit Agents' Signs and Hoardings. Obtaining members and support from all over London, they have been active in encouraging people to articulate their individual and general complaints to the right quarters, as well as feeding back what they hear on to a more political level, to town halls and politicians.
They have also attempted, with little success, to approach some of the worst-offending estate agents directly. The aim of CLASH, as can be seen from their title, is a limitation and not a total ban on boards. Also, I believe they think, as I do, that in the present climate estate agents have shown themselves unable to impose any form of effective voluntary self-restraint. And with so much at stake financially, the roguish attitude of some agents, not to mention the separate firms of board erectors, makes it increasingly difficult to enforce the existing inadequate regulations. To prove a single offence in court requires considerable manpower and time from a planning department that has many better uses for its resouces.
In practice it is widely accepted that one of the main effects of boards is as free general advertising; and some of the worst abuses of boards arise when an agent (sometimes a seemingly respectable one) is expanding into a new area and simply floods it with boards—quite illegally. This area of the law is in danger of becoming like parking regulations—continually flouted because enough manpower and court time is never going to be available to enfoce the regulations, however sensible they may seem to be on paper.
My Lords, why should we allow free advertising to disfigure our streets in this way? I believe it is accepted that most estate agents are in favour of boards disappearing. The public, as is shown by the level of complaints, is becoming increasingly aware of the environmental blight caused by boards under the present regulations. I am sure that it is no part of the policy of the Government to allow a small group—namely, estate agents—to benefit from what is mainly free general advertising at the environmental expense of the rest of us. If not through this Bill, then with more stringent use of existing regulations, I hope that the Minister will encourage his Department to move faster in this area, even perhaps towards the general banning of boards.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, like my noble friend Lady Davies and my noble friend Lord Stallard and others who have spoken, I would say that the Bill will do nothing to create one new house to benefit those thousands of people who are on local authority waiting lists and the homeless.
The figures that I give will be brief. If we consider local authority approved tenders for 1985 there were 14,000—less than half the 1983 figure—so within two years there has been a cut of 50 per cent. of new 880 housing provided by local authorities. That is not the only cut in houses to rent. The annual report of the Housing Corporation, which is a government quango, also reflected a cut although not of the severity of the cuts in local authority spending. When the Housing Corporation was launched in 1979, it had 40,000 starts. That dwindled to 33,000 last year, only 25,000 of which were for rent. As the chairman of the Housing Corporation, Sir Hugh Cubbit, said in the annual report:Increasing demand is coming from the elderly, single people, low income and one-parent families, ethnic minorities and rural communities".This is exactly the same demand that the local authorities are trying to meet, only the local authorities are having to meet it with both hands tied behind their backs and the housing corporations with only one hand tied behind theirs.
Taking into account the sale of council properties, I would ask the Minister whether the sale of those properties has not reached saturation point. Does he really expect to sell many more properties, given the suggested increase on the rebates that he announced today?
I can give him some interesting figures that come from Birmingham. In 1981, housing benefits were being received because people were unemployed because they were working tenants on low wages or because they were on supplementary benefit. In 1981, 54 per cent. of tenants living in council houses were in receipt of rent rebates. In 1985–86, that number has risen to 76.9 per cent. of the people living in council properties in Birmingham who are on supplementary benefit or on the standard rent rebate schemes. That leaves a very small percentage of people who can purchase properties.
An interesting figure, of which the Minister may not be aware, is that when rent rebates are being given to a city the size of Birmingham, the annual rent roll which is collected comes to £157,800,000 per year. It has to receive back from the Department of Health and Social Security in the form of the means tested benefit £93,800,000. One can see that the higher the rents the Government are asking local authorities to put on their tenants the larger amounts of money they are having to pay out in housing benefits.
With regard to the selling of council flats, I ask the Minister what research has been done to lead the Government to think that an increase in discount will bring about more buyers. The largest percentage of flats will be in the large cities—in Manchester, in Sheffield, in Liverpool and in Birmingham. I hear one of my noble friends say Camden, but I said the large cities, and Camden is surely part of a large city. Some of these flats obviously will be included for demolition, and some are unsafe or too costly to repair.
If I may give figures regarding flats in Birmingham, all 429 multi-storey blocks have been surveyed. Over 80 blocks have been identified as being in need of urgent attention. Two blocks are in the process of being demolished, and a further 126 have protective scaffolding to the base of the blocks to prevent falling debris from injuring the public.
One would ask oneself: is a tenant going to purchase a flat in Birmingham? In my view any local authority 881 has a responsibility to tell a tenant when he seeks to purchase the potential problems that will arise in the structure of high rise blocks and that that might make future management an extremely costly business. Five years is nothing in management costs; it is a question of what will happen in 10 to 15 years' time. Conditions like this will obviously make it very difficult to sell one's property.
The Minister is no doubt fully aware of the difficulties raised by members in the other place regarding the various types of concrete houses built in Birmingham. The people who bought them in good faith under the Government's buy scheme are in a difficult position in that they have crumbling blocks of cement round them instead of housing and cannot sell them. All these difficulties continue to occur because the Minister has not accepted that all the different types of building involved are entitled to consideration for compensation.
How does the Minister envisage a satisfactory way of building consultation requirements into disposals? Is it the Government's intention to draft a code of conduct to ensure that all tenants are properly consulted? When the Minister is taking disposals into consideration, will he consider not only the very important needs of the tenant, but also the needs of the local community—in particular, the provision for the homeless and the badly housed, bearing in mind that housing for people with special needs now accounts for one third of all public sector starts?
It used to be said that the Englishman's home is his castle. I feel sure that there are some noble Lords in the House who come into that category, although I hasten to say that I am not speaking for myself. The removal of security of tenure takes away a fundamental right; in other words, the Englishman's home will not be his castle in future. Surely it is more equitable that possession should continue to be sought by consent and through negotiations. If local authorities have well-tried and satisfactory means of consultation, will they have to adapt or change their methods to conform to the relevant clauses in this Bill?
I speak as a previous chairman in Birmingham, and the arrangements that we made, when we doing a terrific amount of slum clearance, were some of the best possible on consultation procedures, on removal expenses and on the initial furnishing with carpets and curtains. The very fact that people were being compelled to move out meant that there was some of the best consultation. One hopes that that pattern will not have to be destroyed by this Bill. For the elderly, a move for possession can be especially traumatic and I sincerely hope that the patterns of consultation, where the social services and the housing departments work in liaison, are not lost.
Somebody described assured tenancies to me as a very inferior form of security of tenure. Because they are based upon market rents, those tenancies will be beyond the means of most people whose housing needs are greatest. As assured tenancies will have rents higher than the present controlled tenancies, will it follow that people will not be considered for housing benefit? Will people not be able to claim housing benefit, because they have gone into an assured tenancy of higher rented property?
882 In my view, the Bill is irrelevant to solving the housing problem and it fails to meet the known housing need. I forecast that the long-term intention of the Government is to break up local authority housing as it is known and appreciated by the thousands of people who lived in council houses for many years and were so satisfied that they bought them. I feel sure that it is the Government's intention to transfer local authority housing into social service housing, providing only for the welfare groups in our society, which is against all the philosophy of a social mix as we know it.
Turning to the planning part of this Bill and the simplified planning zones, there is concern that the Secretary of State proposes to reserve for himself the powers to create an SPZ if a local authority refuses to create one. Obviously we see the whole of that part of the Bill as an attack on local autonomy.
Financial assistance for urban regeneration is an important part of the legislation. We already know that the Secretary of State for the Environment will be having the same power to provide direct grant-aid to the private sector as have the Secretary of State for Trade and the Secretary of State for Employment. I hope that they get their act together, because normally when anything goes wrong it is because the various departments have, somehow or other, gone up different gum trees. Any legislation that increases the amount of money being spent in the inner areas of our large cities, so long as that money is a net additional resource, is to be welcomed. In other words, we welcome the net additional amount, as long as other programmes are not reduced to enable urban regeneration grants to be offered.
I am a little concerned and a little unclear as to the relationship between the URGs and the Secretary of State's intentions regarding urban development corporations, because to a certain extent the urban regeneration grants and the urban development corporations will be working in the large cities. Perhaps the noble Lord the Minister could say how those two might clash. I may know better tomorrow, because I understand that the Secretary of State is visiting Birmingham today and his speech will no doubt be relayed on the local radio, as well as contained in the local paper. So if the Minister does not have the answer tonight, perhaps I shall read it tomorrow. The noble Lord the Minister said that the URGs could be small or large. I do not know what he meant—
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I think that the noble Baroness is recalling something I said about simplified planning zones, not about the urban renewal grant.
§ Baroness Fisher of Rednal
My Lords, I apologise. Finally, coming from an area with large inner city problems which require massive funding to bring them up to a developable state, I consider that SPZs should be regarded as a specific and a further tool to be used in very specific conditions. If those conditions are connected with the very large derelict land sites in inner cities, because factories have been demolished, and if industrial development can take place on those sites, we hope that in the long term—if this Bill is 883 enacted—there will be an increase in employment prospects for thousands of people. So I give the Bill a guarded welcome if it is to achieve those desires.
§ 6.18 p.m.
§ Lord Bellwin
My Lords, may I begin with an apology to your Lordships and to my noble friend, because I fear that I, too, may not be able to stay until the end of the debate? I add my congratulations to my noble friend Lord Hesketh and to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, on their maiden speeches. I, too, thought that they were quite splendid and that they augur very well for what we look forward to hearing from them for, I hope, a long time to come.
I want to talk about just three aspects of the Bill—a subject which, as I am sure your Lordships will appreciate, is very close to my heart. First, I want to say a word about the planning proposals; secondly, about housing, and, finally, about the urban regeneration factors; and is it not nice for me to be able once again to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Fisher, in debate?
As regards planning, I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, who said that planning is not really a problem generally; but I have to tell her, and anyone who thinks like that, that it simply is not so. You have only to attend any meeting of a federation, of a conference or of people concerned with building of any kind, to know that it is the delays in planning which are almost the major problem with which they have to contend as an industry.
Indeed, I recall that on coming into government in May, 1979, we then estimated—and the figures will undoubtedly have changed now—that there were some £8 billion of building contracts for which planning applications had been made at any one time. We figured out that if one could increase the whole proceedings at the rate of 10 per cent., it would mean that there would be an additional £800 million of work in the country at any time—and what a bonus and prize that would be! I do not know what the figure is today; it would be interesting to know just what it is. If this does nothing else, it highlights that planning is a desperately important aspect of what concerns us.
I, too, have my reservations about the proposals in the Bill for simplified planning zones—not about the intentions, because anything that will speed up the process has to be right. But I fear that the procedures in preparation for zones being specified will lead to drawn out delays in time and that the benefits everyone in your Lordships' House should like to see may not come about to the extent that the Government hope. If I am wrong, I should be delighted because I certainly welcome the intention behind the Bill.
Perhaps I may make another observation about the present position where there exists great concern which I have already mentioned. I refer to the written representations made when applications are turned down. A report came out in May on which the Government will give us their observations shortly; but I have to say that while the average time being taken to deal with appeals has come down from about 23 weeks to 19 weeks, that is only the average. The larger applications for planning which involve more 884 jobs and more investment take much more time. It is important for us to take this opportunity to ask the Government to look at all aspects of the planning process and the time it is taking because this is having such an adverse effect on so much that is going on and it creates enormous frustration. All of us would like to see that done.
With regard to the housing proposals in the Bill, on the right to buy we always knew that flats would be much more difficult to sell than houses. I hope the record will show that I said that when I had the privilege of introducing the right to buy in the Housing Bill 1980 which later became the Housing Act. I hope the record will show that I said that at the time; I certainly thought it. Of course there are problems pertaining to buying flats which do not arise when you buy a house. Nevertheless there is no doubt that it is an important part of the right to buy and I am glad therefore that the Government are bringing forward these proposals.
I think that there ought to be one or two additional safeguards in the proposals. For example, where authorities sell to a tenant in a flat in a block, part of the proceeds ought immediately to be put into some kind of sinking fund which could take care of some of the costs of maintaining the common parts and even deal with structural repairs that may be called for as time goes on. This is something the Government might think about. I think also that where even one flat is sold in a block, from that moment on the whole of the management of the block should be turned over to the tenants or to the private sector. There are some marvellous examples of the private sector managing public housing. I am all for it. It works, and it is good, and I should like to see it extended in regard to the purchase of flats. We might well look at that.
I have to get used to the fact that in speaking in debate I am not answering all the points that others have raised as I used to have to do so much in my former incarnation, if I may put it that way. I shall try to resist that inclination. Generally, I welcome what is proposed with regard to the sale of flats under the right to buy. I also welcome the right to a loan. I say "yes" to the new improvement grant proposals. I welcome most of the other proposals. I think that the assured tenancy scheme after renewal is very good.
I should like to say a few words on the other housing points that have been raised. I welcome the urban regeneration scheme for grants. That is good. I was, and still am, a very staunch advocate of the urban development grant which, as your Lordships may know, for an outlay of £87 million has levered (if I may use that American term) just under £400 million from the private sector. That is the answer to the noble Lord, Lord Davies, who said that on the urban regeneration figures that have been put about we are talking of only about £20 million or £30 million. The test of its success will be how many more millions of pounds it produces by way of income from the private sector. That will be the test. If it does that, that is fine. If it produces five to one, six to one, seven to one or eight to one, you are talking real money. If it does not, it will not succeed and it will not achieve what Government hope for it.
One of the weaknesses of the urban development grant, with nearly £400 million, was referred to by the 885 noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, when she said that she wanted to see flexibility. The one thing we have not had in the urban development grant is flexibility. It has not achieved the recognition and the acceptance in the private sector that many would have wished for it. Part of the reason is that it has to go through the procedure of obtaining local authority approval as well as obtaining Government approval. While this may have virtues of the kind mentioned already, it means that the procedure is tortuous and drawn out and takes time. The kind of people who want to invest and undertake developments are not the kind of people who want to hang around for months or for however long it may take.
I know all the arguments. I sat there in another capacity and had to adjudicate on many of the applications when recommendations were made to me. Therefore I know the reasons. Some of them are very proper, and one has to be very careful when applying public money to something that will benefit the private sector. So I understand; but I still say that the lessons we have learnt from the urban development grant really ought to be considered when we contemplate what will happen with the new scheme.
The new scheme is far broader and wider. It is meant to cover larger areas. I welcome it very much, but I hope that the facilitators and the appraisers who are at present needed to help government with the urban development grant will be equally available in the application of the new grant that is proposed. I am sure that my noble friend Lord Elton will give that some thought.
I do not want to make a long speech, but I wish to say a few words about the inner city scene generally. One hears so much debate about it. It is such a critically important part of what we are about. It is what urban regeneration grant and all the other grants are about. In its paper Faith in the City the Church carried out an excellent analysis of the problem. The hopelessness and despair were very well brought out and were well conveyed. However, what that paper did not do was give solutions that were practical and serious. That is often the case in the whole matter of inner cities. There is no one answer, and anyone who believes that there is is deluding himself. But there are major steps and attitudes that the two main sides—that is, local and central government—must be willing to adopt if we are to solve the problem. Because time is short, I make no mention today of the other sectors such as the voluntary bodies, housing associations and so on, although they have a very important role to play, and I acknowledge that.
The local authorities must, first, stop expecting government to do it all for them. They will not do so because there is not the money. If anyone had said seven years ago that we would put up £1 billion—that is, £ 1,000 million—into the inner cities, then everyone would have said that it was marvellous and magnificent that at last the Government were putting some money down. In that time, £2.2 billion has gone into inner cities. Does anyone say that that will solve the problem? Of course not. That is because no one factor will solve it. I say again that local authorities must be prepared to consider the use of every agency. 886 They must do something to stop people moving out of the suburbs and into other areas.
The way to do that and to encourage a good mix of people in our inner cities is to make land available to builders. I do not care if they are small builders or large builders. Local authorities must make land available, in many cases before the houses are sold, to pay for when the houses are sold. They must enable the building of houses for new, first-time buyers, for starter homes. That is the way to tackle that aspect of the problem.
Local authorities must be willing to stop all the nonsense of pouring money down an open drain. I refer to ridiculous committees that have nothing whatsoever to do with local government. Your Lordships all know of them. Your Lordships know of the nonsensical peace committees, nuclear committees, women's committees (and what about men's committees?), equal opportunities committees, police committees and gay committees. There is massive spending on public relations, with millions of pounds poured down the drain on campaigns. That whole area is a nonsense in terms of local government. How can we complain about lack of resources to repair property and return it to a state of habitation, and how can we moralise and talk about caring, when we know that such committees are a priority for spending? Meanwhile, there is property left empty and not being brought back into use.
If one wants to deal with the problem of waiting lists, one must look at the thousands of houses that are already vacant. I know of one local authority in London that has several thousand empty houses. They have been empty for so long that one could weep. What does that local authority do? It spends more than half a million pounds on public relations and on campaigns. It spends vast sums of money on such items. That must stop if we are seriously to talk about the money that we need to solve the real problems of the inner cities.
Local authorities must be willing to keep rates down. Anyone who says that rates do not matter is living in a dream world all his own. Only time prevents me from quoting case after case of people in area after area who say that they will not move into local authority areas where there are massive rates imposed. That situation affects jobs, employment and investment, which we must get back into the inner cities.
Central government, too, have their role to play. For example, I am one of those who, like others who have spoken today, would like to see an increase in the 20 per cent. use of capital receipts. If there is a problem with the Treasury—and I know that there is—then at least some kind of percentage increase would have a great psychological impact upon local authorities, who would come to feel that the Government really are prepared to do something. I know the limitations upon my noble friend in making any movement in that direction, but this is something that I would commend to the Government: to consider that aspect within the limitations that exist. I believe that is a priority.
887 I would also plead for the lifting of VAT on house repairs. That imposition has had an adverse effect upon the rehabilitation and repair of housing. I know of so many people in the industry who are sad that that has come about. I wonder what it means in terms of money to the Treasury. I wonder whether there is any way in which we might achieve some alleviation of that tax, which would also help very much in what needs to be done.
I am all for more urban development corporations. Bearing in mind what has happened in the docklands and on Merseyside, which were in the main cleared sites, I acknowledge that such development will not be easy in areas where there are great numbers of people in occupation. That is why I would ask that an approach be made only to those authorities who actually want to see development; authorities that really are concerned about bettering the lives of people locally, rather than about political indoctrination and activities of that kind. There are many such authorities. I could quote Labour authorities having marvellous leaderships who would be only too delighted to consider such development. I commend the example of Teesside to my noble friend. That is an area where there are wonderful people who would do anything to improve the lot of their community. That is their concern, and I would encourage such local authorities.
I should like to go on, but I hope that I have taken a broad view of the subject. One thing is certain—that solutions will not be found in the short term. The problem did not come about quickly and it will not go away quickly. If we raise expectations too high, we shall be disappointed. But if the will is there and if everybody will abandon the old shibboleths and start to consider what must be done, then a solution can be found.
§ 6.37 p.m.
§ Viscount Ridley
My Lords, I refer to Part V of the Bill, which deals with opencast coal and states that the Bill will repeal Sections 1 to 3 of the Opencast Coal Act 1958. The repeal of Section 1 ends the special provisions giving British Coal power to apply direct to the Secretary of State for Energy for authorisation to work land for coal, thus bringing coal into line with all other minerals. That must be correct. It is a very desirable end and it is much to be welcomed.
Although I realise that a Bill of this size cannot at this stage be drastically changed, I am sorry that the opportunity has not been taken to consider the 1958 Act as a whole. For example, even if British Coal now needs planning permission, like anybody else, to work coal, it still has a monopoly under the 1958 Act that empowers it to license private operators for any site over 25,000 tonnes. Furthermore, it levies a royalty of £16 a tonne on such operations. One wonders why it is able to do that. Also, it can refuse a licence and it has compulsory powers to acquire or requisition land. As far as I am aware, those powers have never been used since 1958.
888 It surprises me very much that that side of British Coal's operations has never been a target for privatisation. Leaving that aside, I merely note that private operators now account for about 10 per cent. of the nation's opencast coal output. However, licences are not infrequently refused by the Coal Board, but when it does refuse because British Coal itself wants to work the land at some future date, there can be considerable uncertainty. Planning blight can be an intolerable burden for any owner or occupier of such land, sometimes for many years.
I hope that the Government will at some stage take the opportunity to force British Coal—and I apologise for getting its name wrong; but it has only just changed and that is a little unfair on us—to acquire the land on the open market only by agreement and to work it with planning permission over a given period; to license it within another certain period; or, thirdly, to ensure that the planning authority should have power to say that such a site will never be available for working and so stop the blight.
So far as concerns Section 3 and protecting the environment during the working as well as during the restoration, I find myself not for the first time in agreement with the noble Baroness, Lady David, who would like to see that section retained. I shall not read it out, as the noble Baroness has already done so, but both the Association of Metropolitan Authorities and the Association of County Councils are very dismayed at the prospect of the loss of this section which has given local authorities considerable power to enforce conditions and to protect, for example, listed buildings. The record of the National Coal Board, as it was, on consultation is not such that we should lightly withdraw this protection.
Open cast coal is a very emotive and destructive process. Neighbouring communities suffer from the noise, dust, and blasting; as I well know myself. They must be protected as far as possible from both public and private operators. I very much doubt whether the circular which the Minister promised in another place during the Committee stage in March will be an adequate substitute for an Act of Parliament. I should like to see this section kept in being as important, too, in the law. I would further add that repealing Section 3 will give the impression that the Government are relaxing their controls over these workings after they have satisfactorily, or more or less satisfactorily, operated for the past 28 years.
I have had over 40 years experience of open cast coal working and over 600 acres of my own land has been affected one way or another during that time, and so I speak from some experience. Indeed, I still live on top of a great coal deposit. It takes at least 20 years, even with the best possible restoration, for restored land to return to its former agricultural state. Without constant and detailed supervision the Coal Board or its contractors can easily cut corners and the land can be almost valueless for a longer period than that. We cannot afford to relax protection in respect of open cast coal because it is, if only due to its vast scale of operation, different from other minerals in its extractive processes. As former chairman of a county 889 planning committee dealing with much detailed work on this matter of Coal Board applications, I can recall the difficulties of getting protection established. Therefore, I ask seriously that the Government think hard before they repeal Section 3 of the 1958 Act.
I turn briefly to the question of listed buildings, to which my noble friend Lord Salisbury referred. There is considerable concern at the moment because almost everything that does not move is getting listed. There is much feeling that things should not be listed without the approval, or at least the knowledge, of the landowner or the owner of the buildings concerned. It is right that we should have a statutory provision that listing should be a process in which the owner has a right to know and, if necessary, is consulted at the time. I am not sure whether an appeal should be possible.
In conclusion, I should like to give an example. Recently, in tradition which I hope is appropriate to a backwoodsman from this House, I constructed a Gothic folly in the garden, partly as an exercise for an apprentice stonemason. It was only by the merest chance that it was not listed six months later. I think it would have been listed had the stonemason not carved " 1985" on the back of the building and had the authority not found the man at his work.
My right honourable kinsman the Secretary of State for the Environment was himself at one time an apprentice stonemason, but even he never had the distinction of having his buildings listed. I hope he will see the force of the argument and agree that we should not forget the landowner when listing is likely to happen.
§ 6.43 p.m.
§ Baroness Nicol
My Lords, I wish to confine myself to Part II of the Bill regarding the simplified planning zones. At first sight the concept of the SPZs seems a useful addition to the tools of a local planning authority. Clause 13 sets out the framework for the creation of SPZs, and their subsequent management and termination, in reasonably clear and unexceptional terms. But we agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, that the time allowed—namely, 10 years—for what is an untried scheme is too long. We, too, will be returning to that in Committee.
We welcome the list of exclusions from SPZs in Clause 13, but we are concerned with one provision which I hope the Minister will be able to clarify when he winds up. I refer to the provision on sites of special scientific interest. The Bill states on page 29, at line 27:Where land included in a simplified planning zone becomes land of such a description"—that is, a SSSI—subsection (1) does not have effect to exclude it from the zone".That sounds fair enough until one realises that there are large numbers of sites of special scientific interest which had been declared before the 1981 Act but which have not yet been renotified under that Act because of the backlog of work which the NCC has had to do.
890 Therefore, it seems that a special effort should be made to exclude these particular sites from the provisions of the Bill. I am sure that the Government would not wish that those sites should be lost. Perhaps the Minister can answer that. If he agrees with me that the Bill reads as I believe it does, will he say whether or not he means to bring forward an amendment in Committee to correct it?
We then turn to Schedule 4, which explains the provisions of Clause 13 and gives the further provisions. If we include Scotland, which we do in all our remarks, we have 15 closely written pages of further provisions. I do not propose to read them at length, but I shall paraphrase them, as quickly as I can, because it is important that your Lordships should realise the complexity of what is proposed. We find that an authority which decides to make or to alter an existing SPZ is required to give adequate publicity to their proposals and that all persons who may be expected to wish to make representations about the proposals are made aware of their right to do so and are given adequate opportunity to exercise that right. Their representations must be considered in the prescribed period.
There is then a complicated and lengthy procedure of lodging documents with the Secretary of State and with superior local authorities; and, where appropriate, highway authorities. All action is to be reported to the Secretary of State, who will satisfy himself that the procedures carried out are correct and that adequate consultation and publicity have been secured. If the Secretary of State is not satisfied, he can order further steps to be taken. Where objections are made by the public, the local authority must hold a local inquiry or other hearing by a person appointed by the Secretary of State in the usual manner. All this is right and proper, and my reason for emphasising it is to remind the House that the creation of a simplified planning zone is not, in itself, a simple operation. It is not a quick and easy job.
Against that background there are major faults in the proposals. The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, has already pointed out to your Lordships that it only requires "a person" to ask a local authority to make or amend a SPZ scheme. It does not have to be a person who is normally resident in the area or who owns property in the area, or even a person who has an interest in the area—simply "a person". If, following the request, the local authority refuses or fails to make a scheme within three months of being asked then, on the request of "a person" the Secretary of State can, after ascertaining the authority's reasons, instruct the authority to make a SPZ.
We must remember that under the provisions of Clause 13 every authority will already have been obliged to consider its whole area with an instruction to make SPZs where appropriate. So, if they have not done so, that is a conscious, informed local decision. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, and my noble friend Lord Stallard have so ably reminded the House, there are many local considerations affected by these proposals about which the local authority would know the most. If it has made a decision, for any reason, not to have a SPZ, there is usually a good reason for that.
891 Another point to remember is that nowhere in the schedule is there guidance on the minimum size of a SPZ. Presumably this means that it could be one household, one plot. The dangers are obvious. Any person can decide that it would suit him to have his holding declared a SPZ, thereby avoiding planning restrictions and charges. He could set in motion the whole expensive and cumbersome machinery which I have outlined. Any person could challenge the decision of the local authority not to create a SPZ, and by doing so he would give the Secretary of State the power to override the wishes of the local authority to whatever extent the Secretary of State wished.
As I read the provisions of Schedule 4, once he has gained the power to override the local authority, the Secretary of State is not bound to stick to the boundaries of the original proposal made by a person, but can then do whatever he likes. This cannot be right. Local authorities must be allowed to conduct their affairs for their own communities. After all, if they do not like the way it is done they can change their representatives at the next election. They always have that right.
Finally in regard to SPZs, discussions in another place on whether or not declarations were to be obligatory produced a categorical statement from the right honourable Minister which I think is worth quoting. In response to one of the Members for Dorset he said:I understand the deep concern of those of my hon. Friends who represent counties such as Dorset. I appreciate that they do not wish planning powers to be abused. In responding to an earlier intervention. 1 attempted to explain that it will not be the duty of councils to define simplified planning zones at all costs. It will be their duty to ascertain whether any areas within the borough or district would benefit from simplified planning zone status. That is the whole, complete and utter story."—[Official Report, Commons, 4/2/86; col. 161.]That seems to me to be a very categorical statement and when the Minister replies I hope that he will say whether or not the Government still stand by it or whether the rights of a person will perhaps be used too often to override the local authority.
As the Bill is drafted at present it could give such sweeping powers for deregulation to the Secretary of State on the intervention of just one person in each local authority—or even from Dorset. Vexatious persons are not hard to find, nor are ambitious ones. We are concerned that such reassurances as were given during proceedings in another place were all aimed at Conservative authorities in the south of the country. Are we about to embark on yet another attack on local authorities whose politics are not to the liking of the present administration? If any noble Lord present is disturbed by my question, I beg him to study the progress of this Bill in another place before we reach Committee stage in this Chamber. The Minister has much to do to reassure us and I hope that he will make a start this evening, because what on the face of it is a useful planning tool could so easily become yet another weapon in the Government's armoury against local democracy.
§ 6.53 p.m.
§ Lord Margadale
My Lords, first of all I should like to refer to the speech of my noble friend Lord 892 Salisbury and to support him very warmly in everything that he has said, and also to support my other noble friend Lord Ridley in what he said towards the end of his remarks. I should like to raise a small point with regard to the listing of buildings and gardens. This matter came to my notice when I received a lengthy document, stretching to three foolscap pages, with comments on my house, garden and the surrounding area. This was the first time I knew anything about this point. My house was completed only 12 years ago, and the garden, though it is quite a nice garden, is not a historic garden. I saw no reason whatever why either the house or the garden should be listed as an historic fact, because they are not historic. If a list of historic places is being compiled, there is no point in putting in information which is inaccurate.
So I had these sheets of paper with a lengthy description of all kinds of things, and there were inaccuracies in every other line. I did not know what had happened—indeed, it happened behind my back—but it appeared that some people had been sent down from Yorkshire and had carried out a survey. They were very bad indeed—that is all I can say. I have had an apology from Lord Montagu and one from Doctor Thacker, who was the man in charge then, though not to begin with. I asked him, "Why don't you speak to people about this and then you might get it right?" He said, "It was laid down—though now it has all been changed—that we are not allowed to speak to anybody". I think that is very silly, if I may say so. They are more likely to get their facts right if they speak to people.
So I have had my grumble. I am very glad to learn from the remarks of my noble friend Lord Salisbury, that he has received a letter from the Minister which seems to be a step in the right direction. When I look at this "little book", which we are starting to discuss on this third day of what might be called a parliamentary holiday, I hope that the Minister will go a little further than his statement in that letter—otherwise it could be a longish time before the Bill goes through.
I do not wish to detain the House any longer. I was brought up by my father who sat in another place for 13 years and during the course of those 13 years made only one speech. He said: "If you are ever foolish enough to try to get into the House of Commons, remember two things—never speak for more than 10 minutes and, when you are supporting a government"—and I am supporting the Government, funnily enough, although I am criticising it—"preferably speak for much less than that".
§ 6.56 p.m.
§ Lord Foot
My Lords, I shall bear those last words closely in mind and try to adapt myself to the noble Lord's proposition. First of all, however, even though it is some time since we had the pleasure of listening to them, I should like to join in the congratulations which have been so deservedly offered to the two maiden speakers. It does not often happen in this House that in one debate we have the pleasure of listening to two maiden speeches of such quality, demonstrating such thoughtful understanding of the subject of this debate, and, if I may say so, delivered with such eloquence. In 893 particular, I want to welcome to these Benches my noble friend Lord Davies and to congratulate him upon his speech.
I owe the noble Lord the Minister an apology, because owing to a misunderstanding of the timetable on my part I unfortunately missed his opening speech. I regret it for the obvious reason that one always regrets missing any speech from the noble Lord. However, on this occasion I was particularly anxious to hear what he might have to say—and I shall now have to wait until tomorrow to read . it in Hansard—about the part of the Bill with which I am solely concerned this evening, which is Part IV dealing with hazardous substances. I particularly wanted to hear what the noble Lord had to say about that topic because of the anxieties that have been expressed about this part of the Bill by the Planning Law Committee of the Law Society, which is the committee that is specially charged with advising the Law Society upon matters of planning and environ-mental law. It has very carefully considered this part of the Bill and has expressed considerable concern about some of its terms.
The main concern of the Planning Law Committee is that this part of the Bill, as it thinks, does not measure up to the problem which confronts us in the control of dangerous and hazardous substances. I think that it will be generally agreed that it is most important in this area that the law should be clear and the responsibilities of the different authorities which control and manage dangerous substances should be clearly denned. I do not suppose that there will be much argument about that. But the other proposition is this. As matters stand today, there is a great deal of uncertainty in the law. The Law Society at any rate takes the view that it is a great pity that the opportunity has not been taken on this occasion to rationalise and consolidate the law and in particular to bring all the law affecting hazardous substances into one enactment, so that the areas of responsibility of the controlling authorities and the obligations on all persons concerned in dealing with and managing dangerous substances are clearly denned.
One reason for our concern is the way in which the matter is being dealt with in Part IV of the Bill. The control of dangerous substances is only marginally a planning matter. Planning law has to do with the use of land. But the law on dangerous substances is primarily concerned with public safety and the protection of the public. That is matter of scientific expertise, and yet Part IV of the Bill sets up a whole new scheme of control by the curious device of making a series of amendments to the Town and Country Planning Act 1971. No fewer than 18 pages of the Bill (pages 34 to 52) are new sections to be slotted in in different places in the 1971 Act. There has been no attempt whatever at a comprehensive restatement of the law or a consolidating enactment.
All that is happening is that on the present procedure and on the present system by which we control dangerous substances there is being superimposed yet another layer of authority in the form of what are called dangerous substances authorities. The law is complicated enough on this matter, for a variety of reasons. First of all, there are a 894 whole host of enactments and statutory instruments which deal directly with or impinge upon the matter of dangerous substances. There were the Explosives Acts of 1875 and 1923, which are no doubt largely out of date but unrepealed. There is the Petroleum (Consolidation) Act 1928 and the Radioactive Substances Act 1960. The Minister shakes his head.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, I was merely reflecting that the Act of 1875 is alive and well, and then recalling that the noble Lord was not here at the beginning to hear me say so.
§ Lord Foot
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that intervention. The only other Act to which I need refer—but it is one of the most important ones—is the Control of Pollution Act 1974. How does the system work now, with this multiplicity of enactments, all bearing upon the subject, and of course all the planning legislation which relates to hazardous substances?
Let me give the House two brief examples. When an application is made today for planning permission for some kind of hazardous development, there is an obligation on the plannning authority to seek the advice of the Health and Safety Executive. That is quite right, and everybody would agree that it is proper. It is the Health and Safety Executive which is responsible for seeing that the installation, whatever it may be, complies with the requirements of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974.
Similarly, under the Control of Pollution Act of the same year, the issue of waste disposal licences is a matter for the waste disposal authority. Here again the planning authority is concerned only with the general planning considerations—landscaping, visual amenity and the like. But it is the waste disposal authority which has the obligation and duty to consider when it is proper to issue such a licence.
That division of function between two bodies in the consideration of any application relating to hazardous substances and the importance of defining clearly the responsibility of each body has been long recognised. In more than one government circular attention has been drawn to it. It may be sufficient if I quote from Circular No. 55 of 1976, which relates to disposal licences:It has long been accepted that planning control should not be used to secure objectives for which provision is made in other legislation, and conditions attached to new planning permissions should not therefore extend to matters which are more appropriate to the disposal licensing system".How do those new provisions contained in this part of the Bill affect that situation? Do they in any way simplify it? Do they make it any clearer where the lines of responsibility between the different authorities are to be drawn? Do they in any way assist the individual to know to whom he should make an application or to whom he should apply for permission? I think that they do not help at all.
As I understand it, the duties and powers of the various authorities remain just as before. The Bill has superimposed upon those authorities, with their disparate obligations, yet another layer of authority by 895 the creation of these new hazardous substances authorities, empowered to issue hazardous substances consents. The Bill sets out in elaborate detail how they are to perform their duties and obligations.
As I understand it, the new creation is not intended to supersede the existing authorities but is to operate side by side. There will be at least four authorities which will be intimately concerned with the whole question of control. One is the new authority, another is the planning authority, another is the waste disposal authority and the fourth is the Health and Safety Executive. Normally the new hazardous substances authority will be the same authority as the planning authority. How in the world it makes it more simple to understand or makes it better to give the same authority two separate names in two separate obligations, I do not understand. I hope therefore that when we come to this part of the Bill in Committee, the Minister may be able to allay some of these apprehensions.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ Baroness Faithfull
My Lords, in the area of social policies—housing, health, education and unemployment—housing policies can positively affect health, employment and education. There is ample evidence, too, that many of the unemployed who wish to be in work could move to areas where there is work but for the lack of housing. Bearing in mind the basic importance of housing, may I ask my noble friend the Minister a number of questions? Some arise specifically out of the Bill. Others are connected with housing and planning, but are not perhaps specifically mentioned in the Bill.
On the question of planning, I speak with some diffidence. There have been so many good speeches, and our two maiden speakers are both experts on planning. I should, however, like to ask a question in respect of the simplified planning zones. Do not the proposed procedures for declaring simplified planning zones duplicate existing local plan procedures especially with regard to consultation? Would it not be better if consultation concerning SPZs took place as part of a local plan exercise where it would be easier for the public to assess the problems that the area faced and the options available to resolve them? Like my noble friend Lord Bellwin, I have been involved in local consultations. Unless there is acceptance and consensus among local people on plans, something is bound to go wrong. I should like to ask my noble friend a small, simple question. If the SPZs go forward, does it mean that there could be planning that would be against the interests and against the feelings of local people? If a factory, built near to where people live, causes noise or bad smells, what right have local people to express their views?
Schedule 9, paragraph 1 removes the powers of county councils as highway authorities to direct local planning authorities to refuse planning permission on highways grounds. I come from Oxford, a small place, really, in terms of its population of 110,000 and consisting of an area of 13 square miles. What occurs on surrounding highways affects very much what happens in the city. If a local authority is allowed to 896 develop within the city without reference to the highways and to the county councils, will this not mean a great deal of trouble? Would not county councils be unable to ensure that developments did not prejudice road safety, disrupt traffic conditions or create environmental problems? Would they not also lose the means now available to them as a strategic planning authority to ensure that structure plan transport policies are not undermined? What will be the financial implications?
Part III of the Bill deals with housing. I am given to understand that my noble friend the Minister, at a later stage of the Bill, is to introduce—I hope that this is the case—a very imaginative plan called the stay put scheme. Under this scheme, the powers of the housing associations will be extended to provide services of any description for owners or owner-occupiers of houses in carrying out works of maintenance, repair or improvement or encouraging and facilitating the carrying out of such work. Should my noble friend bring this forward at a later stage, it will be welcomed by many people.
During the war, when I worked with local authorities, it was necessary to requisition properties. As the noble Baroness, Lady David, I believe, mentioned, there is in the country the most enormous number of empty properties. Local authorities have 2.3 per cent., of the empty properties and housing associations 3.8 per cent., while those that are privately owned amount to 4.2 per cent. But the central government proportion is 6.9 per cent. I recognise that many of us would not want to live in Centre Point. Nevertheless, there are these empty properties. Would it not be possible under the Bill, bearing in mind the need to house homeless families, to consider requisitioning empty properties—houses that are deteriorating in both the public and private sectors—and use them to house homeless families? Unless we build more houses, everyone agrees, I am sure, that we shall be in trouble. I acknowledge the Government's present policy of not allowing all the money that is paid into local authorities through the sale of council houses to be used. At the moment 20 per cent. can be used, I believe, towards the capital programme, but no more. I wonder whether my noble friend the Minister is willing to consider whether this figure could be raised. I realise that it cannot be raised to the maximum, but it would help local authorities enormously if it could be raised to some extent.
As regards the problem of homeless families, I believe that local authorities—I say this with much diffidence—are wasting an enormous amount of money on bed-and-breakfast accommodation. This is happening when they could be requisitioning local houses both in the public and private sector. The local authority could become the tenant and let the houses to licensees. I make these suggestions simply because it is vitally important to meet a housing problem that is a very real problem. I recognise that everything cannot be done within one Bill. But it would have been a wonderful opportunity if the Bill could have been extended in order to deal with those problems.
§ 7.19 p.m.
§ Lord Auckland
My Lords, this is a complex Bill. The more housing legislation that is introduced—this 897 happens under governments of all political complexions—the longer the Bills seem to become in respect of both clauses and schedules. I intend, however, to be brief. I shall confine my remarks to a few observations about Part IV of the Bill. I have an indirect interest as vice-president of the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents, which is concerned about matters linked to all kinds of hazardous substances. At least 38 pages of the Bill are taken up with this. Although my noble friend the Minister has I think stated that there would be some amendments in Committee from the Government Benches on this matter of Part IV, I hope that there will be some definition of hazardous substances. In none of the 10 schedules to the Bill is there any indication of this.
I am not very clear as to which authority will be empowered to enforce this part of the Bill. I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Foot, made an extremely apposite point when he urged for consolidation of this whole question of hazardous substances and allied problems. There has been a great deal of legislation concerning pollution and hazardous substances, but this does not seem to fit into any particular Bill and it seems to cover a number of Government departments.
As far as I am aware, this is the first time in a housing Bill that we have had a very detailed exposition of hazardous substances. With the growth of the chemical industry, and with more of these substances being used by both local authorities and private house owners, I think that part IV of the Bill is to be widely welcomed.
I also hope that the Government will clarify Clause 20, which seems to be very difficult to follow, with regard to who will enforce this part of the law and what "hazardous substances" really means. Both local authorities and private owners—whether it involves factories, waste disposal units, or people working in their gardens—must emit these substances. Although we have 38 pages on this part of the Bill, I must say that some of the drafting is obscure, at least to the layman. I hope that by the next stage of the Bill we shall have some clarification as to what is a very vital part of this long and far-reaching measure.
§ 7.23 p.m.
§ Viscount Falmouth
My Lords, I shall not be very long at this very late hour. I must congratulate the two maiden speakers on their excellent contributions. It is the lifeblood of this House which courses through our veins that we have specialists among our Members. That is the one factor which creates the greatest possible respect outside this House. There is always somebody here who knows what he is talking about.
I must declare an interest in regard to this Bill. I shall talk, but only for two minutes, on Part VI of this Bill—the miscellaneous provisions—which deals with listed buildings. All I shall say, following my noble friend Lord Margadale, is that I completely agree with what my noble friend Lord Salisbury has said: that the owners of these buildings should be served with a statutory notice of an intention to survey a property with a view to inclusion on a list. This would mean 898 that a building could not be pulled down or altered until the decision was made as to whether the building should be listed or not.
Secondly, as my noble friend suggested, there ought to be a right of appeal in law against listing. For someone who has a building listed it is probably his greatest possession—his own home. He should have a right to a fair hearing before a tribunal independent of the Secretary of State.
My last point is that too much listing debases the currency of listing. A most responsible owner—who is, I believe, a Member of your Lordships' House—has just written to me and said that when a field worker was asked the reason for listing a farm building, the only reason given was that it was slurried. It seems that putting cow dung on the roof of a building makes it liable to be listed. At least the owner was obviously consulted there.
I shall say no more, except that the wording is that the Secretary of State, before listing, will have consulted those persons who to him are appropriate as having special knowledge and interest in such buildings. This must surely include the owner. He must be regarded as the principal in all such cases.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Lord Dean of Beswick
My Lords, first, I wish to join previous speakers in complimenting and congratu-lating our two new Peers, the noble Lord, Lord Hesketh, and the noble Lord, Lord Davies, on what I think we all agree were excellent contributions to this debate, We hope that on numerous occasions in the future we shall have the benefit of their wisdom and experience.
If I were to pick out one point from the maiden speeches of the two noble Lords, I would say that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, encapsulated what is perhaps the chief component of our present poor housing situation when he talked about the need for resources, without which the situation will continue to deteriorate.
Noble Lords will forgive me if I confine my remarks to those parts of the Bill which deal with housing. The parts concerned with planning were adequately and excellently covered on behalf of my party by my noble friend and colleague Lady Nicol. I do not think therefore that I need to spend any time on that aspect.
I have, I regret, to begin my remarks on the same note as the noble Baroness, Lady David, when she opened this Second Reading debate on behalf of my party. The Minister said that it was not a Bill that contained major proposals, but that it dealt with existing legislation and brought it more into line with the Government's thinking. I think it is regrettable that the Bill does nothing at all to deal with the housing problem which we are now experiencing.
Over the past two years a succession of not only overwhelmingly non-political organisations but organisations with expertise as regards housing have concluded that urgent government action and assistance is required to deal with the problem. I shall 899 certainly not read out the extensive list of those bodies. However, three of the most important reports which came out recently were the Audit Commission's report (the Government's report); the Duke of Edinburgh's report last year; and the report entitled Faith in the City.
Those reports all pointed the same way and said that there was a deteriorating situation which required government action—in other words, an increase in government financial assistance. Not all of those reports just called attention to the serious situation in the public sector housing stock. They also drew attention to the fact that the owner-occupied sector, which in percentage terms accounts for 62 per cent. of our housing stock, was sliding rapidly into the same state of disrepair. Although those properties are owner-occupied, if that trend continued it would cause an erosion of one of the basic wealths of the nation.
It is regrettable that the Government's record and response so far certainly does not give the impression that they are not aware of the situation, do not understand it or, by deliberate political decision, do not want to do anything about it. I understand that just before his departure, the last Secretary of State put in a bid for £1.25 billion extra to deal with the situation. I also understand that the first action of his successor who is now in office—Mr. Nicholas Ridley—was to reduce that sum by a quarter of a billon pounds. That is happening at a time when local authorities have had their bids for financial resources considerably reduced. I shall give two examples to indicate to your Lordships the dimensions of what is happening.
For 1986–87, Manchester asked for £109,500,000. It received a government allocation of £27.8 million—a quarter of the bid which it submitted. The same can be said of Leeds. Leeds asked for £81.4 million and received £22.4 million. There is no point in the Government making out that the main culprits of the deterioration of the tenanted section of the public sector is the local authorities, because had they been accorded over the past seven years the financial support which they were receiving in 1979, I suggest that most of the houses which have deteriorated most would certainly be in far better condition. It is a little naughty for certain people associated with the Government continually to use the local authorities as their whipping boys in this connection.
It is regrettable, but I wonder whether we are right in assuming that this Bill will be the last major housing Bill in the present Parliament and that the Government do not intend to take any further major action to deal with the present situation. Let us consider the main provisions of the Bill. I must express my appreciation to the Minister for the concise way in which he explained a very complicated Bill in the time available. He did it in his usual first-class manner. The main provision of the Bill is to increase discounts and to provide financial benefits to council house tenants to enable those who have not already done so to buy their council houses. As the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, pointed out, we are talking mainly about flats. Could it be that this is just a naked attempt to arrest the decline in the sale of council houses now that the better properties have been sold off?
900 One does not need to be a genius or to have any hindsight to say that we now find ourselves in the situation which many of us said we would be in when the policy concerning the sale of council houses was put into operation. We predicted that the first properties to go would be the better council houses and that people would be extremely reluctant to buy council flats. I point out to your Lordships that in some of the London boroughs and in other big cities—certainly in a large area of Manchester—60 per cent. of the people are receiving partial or total support towards their council rent and they live in what we call deck access flats. I suggest that not one of them will ever be sold.
It is not a situation in which the first buyer of the property is involved just in buying a home. Do not forget that when we buy our own homes we consider whether it is an investment. I suggest that if a person were fool enough to buy some of these council flats he would be loading himself with an albatross, because when it comes to resale he would not have a customer. I had experience of that when I was a Member of Parliament for Leeds. People tried to sell their council houses, the building of which had been semi-industrialised. The properties had been deteriorating and they had put them right. However, nobody wanted to touch them even though they had been fully vetted by a variety of estate agents and valuers and found to be perfectly sound. So far as buyers were concerned, they were a dead duck.
The Minister said that the Bill dealt with existing proposals and put them in line with the Government's present thinking. The most dangerous proposal is the one regarding the disposal of council houses or council estates to a private developer. I listened as carefully as I could to what the Minister said. Naturally, the Minister will understand that I shall have to read the detail of what he said in Hansard tomorrow, but there is no doubt that the biggest worry that the Bill has engendered among ordinary people concerns their security of tenure.
A few weeks ago, in one of your Lordships' committee rooms, I had the privilege of chairing a meeting of that type of tenant. I can give your Lordships every assurance that it was not a meeting of Rent-a-crowd. They came from a wide area. Some came from the London boroughs, some from Sheffield and Leeds and some from the smaller communities in Lancashire, such as Accrington and so on. Some of the people were middle-aged. Some of the men had gone through the last war and had been lucky enough to get a council house on their return from the army. They were scared to death that they would lose their security of tenure and become the tenant of a landlord not of their own choosing.
With your Lordships' permission, I shall read a few lines of a letter which I received in the post this morning. It begins: "Dear Lord Dean and Lord Scarman". I do not know what connection the writer thinks I have with the noble and learned Lord, unless he thinks that I am his PPS! However, it says:Dear Lord Dean and Lord Scarman, Please, please do not let the developers buy our houses. We have been in our house 32 years and we are in our 60s. We have always paid our rent and do not want to move".901 I can assure your Lordships that that is a genuine letter. To prove that it is not from any form of revolutionary, at the conclusion it says:PS. What a lovely Royal Wedding. I am very proud of our Queen and her family, and everyone was so happy".That is the type of person involved. There are hundreds of thousands of such people in our council houses and this particular piece of legislation is scaring them to death.
As I have said, 1 shall have to read what the Minister said, but he indicated that the Secretary of State would have reserve powers. My noble friend Lady David, when opening the debate on this side of the House, said that we would be looking at the situation in the Bill quite carefully and would possibly try to write into the Bill an absolute copper-bottomed guarantee to people in council houses that, as they have assumed quite rightly throughout history, if they behave themselves and are reasonable tenants and pay their rents, they will have a home for life. This is the first time in living memory that legislation has threatened them in that situation.
I want to put another point to the Minister. The noble Lord said that certain facilities would become available—the right to apply for loans, management co-operatives, that type of thing, and that financial assistance would be forthcoming. In the brief time we have available, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether it would be correct to assume that this money would have to be found by the local authorities? If it has to be found by the local authorities will this be something else that comes out of their diminishing, in real terms, housing investment programme? If it does, I would think it absolutely and grossly unfair.
The Bill has had a good debate today. It is a much more complex Bill than it appeared to be when it was in another place. I am going to finish shortly because of the time factor, and because I think that during the Committee stage your Lordships will debate in depth most of what we have been talking about. However, I should like to give notice that we are not in any way convinced that the proposals regarding assured tenancies contained in this Bill are of any benefit whatsoever. They will increase the growing pool of people who will once again find that their security of tenure is threatened.
We believe, and I think most people believe irrespective of their political persuasion—and a growing number of the Government's supporters believe—that the answer is to put more government money in, pound for pound with the local authorities, and to release on an increasing scale the frozen £6 billion held by the local authorities in order to help them deal with their problems.
There are a number of organisations whose professional credentials are beyond reproach and who are expert in their analysis of what is happening. The most conservative figure being used as necessary to correct the damage at present, or arrest deterioration, is £19 billion just for the public sector. But, as I have said, instead of getting increased allocations, the financial resources allowed by the Government this year in real terms are a substantial decrease on last year.
902 I am not so blind as to believe that there are not faults with local authority housing. I was a chairman of a large authority myself. But the overwhelming number of tenants who live in council property have had the benefit over the years of being in good, or reasonable, houses with good landlords, although sometimes they could be better. However, historically certainly better than landlords in the private sector.
The deterioration of thousands of flats and houses is due to two factors. Some of the accommodation should never have been built. However, there is no question but that the acceleration is coming now in houses where an investment of £5,000 to £6,000 could give another 30, 40 or 50 years of life. If the Government are not prepared to do it, there is no evidence that the private sector will unless the Government step in on a partnership basis.
I would accept that private money has to be brought into the urban development corporations, but it would be a disastrous way for the Government to proceed to attempt to create non-elected boards that could take decisions vitally affecting the people in those areas without consultation, or without forming a partner-ship with the elected local authorities who represent the people of those areas.
We shall have an interesting time on the Bill in Committee. I hope during the Committee stage we may be able to persuade the Government of our major fear regarding tenants of long standing—and they are not rent-a-mob tenants but hundreds of thousands of genuine people—and we hope that when we have finished the Bill they will know that they have the guarantee that the home they occupy cannot be disposed of against their wishes.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Dean, promises an interesting time in Committee, I recall that in classical times the worst thing you could be wished was to be born into interesting times. I hope he has a friendlier approach than that.
In rising to reply to this interesting debate I should like first to echo Lady Stedman's regret that we have not today heard, as we had hoped and expected to hear, the voice of our late noble friend Lord Crawshaw of Aintree. He was a good man, and we regret his passing. The noble Baroness herself, however, did very well in his place—perhaps rather ominously well from my point of view.
Two voices we heard, and for the first time in your Lordships' House, were those of the noble Lords, Lord Hesketh and Lord Davies. I join other noble Lords in congratulating them on their first voyage on the waters of your Lordships' House and the success of those voyages, and I hope they often find the journey necessary in future. I would also raise my metaphorical hat and make a courteous bow to the seat of my noble friend Lord Bellwin. It was a pleasure to hear again that familiar and persuasive paeon, and to imagine for a moment that I was privileged to recline on the Back Benches while he suffered the rigours of replying from this Box. To save time, I refer the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, to the transcript of my noble friend's speech for the answer to the first part of his.
903 I am departing from my usual practice because there are so many points of substance that your Lordships have raised. A great deal of what I have to say in the remaining minutes will be stitched together from notes. But I ought to say that this is a Bill dealing with a variety of important subjects, and that the housing provisions affect both the public and the private sectors. They seek to promote the sale of flats under the right to buy. I drew your Lordships' attention to that at the opening of this debate. The noble Baroness, Lady David, in her opening of the debate, asked for figures on housing, and in particular the number of households in bed-and-breakfast accommodation. At the end of the first quarter of 1986 the figure was 4,940, and I take no pleasure in that.
To pick up a point that she made shortly afterwards, I would say that her claim that the loans that local authorities will be obliged to make under Clause 3 in respect of service charges for repairs will be an added claim against authorities' HIP allocations is not exact. The local authorities' HIP allocations set a limit to the capital expenditure they may incur, but the right to a loan will not cause them to incur capital expenditure. In the case of a local authority tenant, it will be a right to leave the service charge outstanding and pay by instalments. The authority will thus be kept waiting for its money, but it will not have to make a cash advance.
§ Baroness David
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that. It was not a claim that I made; it was in fact a question I asked.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, if the noble Baroness pays as much attention to the small print in Committee as she does at Second Reading, we shall indeed have a perfect Bill when we finish.
The noble Baroness, Lady David, and the noble Baronesses, Lady Stedman and Lady Fisher, spoke on the general issue of housing. Sales to sitting tenants are still running at about 100,000 a year. The Bill is aimed at selling more flats. Fewer than 3 per cent. of tenants of flats have so far bought. That is hardly a saturation point, as I think one noble Baroness suggested, and 97 per cent. of the 14 million council tenants who live in flats I think contain a number who are interested in buying.
As to special needs, we have asked local authorities and housing associations to concentrate their investment programmes on special needs. Housing capital expenditure has held up better since 1980 than under the previous Government. Right-to-buy receipts have substantially augmented capital allocations. In effect, proceeds from the sale of general needs housing are being recycled to meet special needs.
Our stock position survey showed a backlog, but it was off 19 billion and not the £50 billion estimated by the local authorities, as I think I heard one of the noble Baronesses say. Authorities are spending more than ever before on renovation and maintenance, currently £2,500 million. Resources have increased by £200 million this year to help them tackle this problem, but we urgently need to tap more private sector resources, 904 as the noble Lord, Lord Dean, himself agreed, to help tackle the problem of renovation in the public sector stock, and this is one of the aims of the Bill.
My noble friend Lord Bellwin sought an increase in the proportion of a local authority's capital receipts which can be added to the capital expenditure allocation in one year. He received some support from the other side of the House. Local authority capital expenditure increases the PSBR, even if it is funded from capital receipts, so the use of receipts has to be phased. Receipts not used are not lost and they can be used both to redeem debt and, or I should say or, to be invested and to earn interest.
Your Lordships will recall the extended discussion on the procedures for exempting elderly persons' accommodation from the right-to-buy, on which the noble Baroness, Lady David, made some weighty comments. It is difficult to arrive at what is suitable for the housing of elderly people, as the Act requires, without discovering whether an elderly person can reach the top shelf or get up the steps without falling over. I accept that this is a cumbrous procedure, but we have to go through something like it.
Clause 5 has within it a power to obtain possession which rendered Lord Stallard very anxious. The power will not be used to dispossess large numbers of tenants, I can reassure him. It can only be invoked when the Secretary of State himself approves a development scheme and where he is satisfied that vacant possession is necessary. Even then (and this is the assurance that I think the noble Lord put more trust in) the court has to grant an order for possession, the court will take account of the tenant's circumstances and the court will need to be satisfied that alternative accommodation is to be provided.
Transfers of tenanted property to the private sector also require the consent of the Secretary of State. I can give a firm undertaking that we shall introduce amendments to require consultations with tenants before such transfers take place and to provide that the Secretary of State cannot give consent if he has evidence that a majority of tenants oppose a transfer. In other words a right of veto for the tenants of local authorities in those circumstances affected by the transfer proposals will be provided.
I ought now to turn to the provisions in the Bill which relate to urban areas. If we are to tackle the problems of those areas we need not just the resources of the private sector but also its ingenuity and responsiveness. Since we came to power we have taken a series of initiatives aimed at encouraging the private sector to invest in urban areas. These include the introduction of enterprise zones, urban development corporations and urban development grant. Urban regeneration grant will complement these initiatives by encouraging area based renewal led by the private sector. The powers in Part III will enable the Secretary of State to respond flexibly to particular problems without needing further legislation.
It has been apparent from the large number of questions on SPZs that I did not offer a satisfactory explanation of them in the introduction to this debate. Your Lordships know the general development order very well. Special planning zones are in effect general 905 development orders applying only to the zones for which they are set up. In all cases, whether the Secretary of State is involved or not, they will be prepared by the local authority in question and that local authority will itself have to consult locally. We must not forget that SPZs will be conferring planning permission. It is therefore important as my noble friend Lady Faithfull said that all those who might be affected by such permission should be able to object to such proposals before they can be adopted and that all relevant issues should be given an airing. The procedures are similar to local plan procedures, but many local plans are up to date and in existence and it would not serve our purpose if we were to call them all in and tell local authorities to start again simply to pick up the PSZ points.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, said that, once an individual has brought him in, the Secretary of State can do as he likes. I hope I have briefly reassured her with the paragraph I have just delivered to your Lordships, but in addition I can repeat the assurance given by my noble friend in another place, which she asked me to do.
I next assure the noble Baroness, Lady David, that almost if not quite all her concern about SPZs, as I understand it, was misplaced, because her concern rested not upon changes to the planning procedures, which they would bring about, but changes to the fiscal arrangements, which they cannot. It was to enterprise zones not planning zones that the Public Accounts Committee report—to which she referred—addressed itself and that was a question of the fiscal, not the planning, regime. We must always be cautious, but not quite so cautious as the noble Baroness wanted us to be, and certainly not so downright cagey, suspicious and incredulous as was the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman. I hope we shall enlighten her on the subject in Committee. To relieve her mind during the holidays I should say that SPZs enable local authorities, whose interests she wishes to defend, in all cases to determine what consents shall be made unnecessay in a zone in their area, even if they are making the zone under direction from the Secretary of State.
Having said that planning zones will not carry with them fiscal incentives as do enterprise zones, I ought to add that it will be possible for local authorities to combine them with other measures in some of the more depressed areas. For example, the simplified planning regime could be packaged together with derelict land grant, urban development grant or the new urban regeneration grant. This will, as the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, generously accepted, provide another useful tool for local planning authorities to use.
I want to say only one thing in defence of the planning system, because I agree with noble Lords that it works slowly; it is very difficult to run; it causes a great deal of frustration and the longer it takes the more expensive it gets. I want to thank my noble friend Lord Bellwin for referring to the fact that we have a number of reviews in progress. They are yielding dividends. He referred to the shortening of the median time for appeals by a further week in the first quarter of this year. So that we get full value from his compliment I should tell your Lordships that the rate 906 of appeals has gone up 16 per cent. in the last year and this acceleration has been achieved against the current of that river. We have not finished; we must do better.
I have considerable sympathy with what my noble friend Lord Hesketh said in an admirable maiden speech about the needs of small businesses. Planning is very difficult for them. That is why we have produced a very commodious and simple guide for small businesses of which I shall send him a copy after this debate. I think he will agree that it makes life easier for them.
The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, I have already referred to the statement. I do not need to reassure her again on that.
The noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, suggested a fee for an application for SPZs to deter frivolous application. I think it was to be a hefty one. But one of the attractions of the SPZs is that there will not be a fee payable for planning application. It would be inequable to expect those who wish to precipitate an SPZ to pay when exercising their right to ask for a direction from the Secretary of State. I think we can sort out frivolous applications as well as the noble Baroness could when she was behind this Box. If I have trouble I shall ask her to help. One of the other attractions of an SPZ is the stability of the planning regime that they offer to developers. For that reason I cannot really look with favour at the suggestion that their span should be reduced from 10 years to five.
The noble Baroness was also concerned that my right honourable friend would use his power to direct or be triggered by frivolous proposals. I will only say that he will only give a direction to make an SPZ scheme where there are clear reasons for doing so; that is, where a person has identified valid developmental potential in an area but the authority had refused—and I emphasise—without good reason to make a scheme. But, as my noble friend Lady Faithfull would wish, they can with good reason refuse.
To the noble Lord, Lord Stallard, I say that I think that one of his specific questions, of which he was kind enough to give me notice, has already been dealt with in what I have said. He was anxious about the use classes order. The deadline for comments on the Government's proposals for modernising the order, as he said, is 15th September. I expect to be considering the responses to the consultation document during October and consulting with colleagues in other government departments as necessary. I do not think that the linkage with the SPZ provisions of the Bill is such as to make this a difficulty. I rather wonder whether it is not the GDO provisions, which we are not changing, which the noble Lord had in mind.
We have decided not to change the law on working from home. My noble friend Lord Hesketh, in spite of his anxieties, will I think agree that there is a fair degree of flexibility already; and we drew attention to this in Circular 2 of 1986 and our booklet to which I have already referred. The noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, is concerned with the effects of SPZs on sites of special scientific interest. She is quite right to point out that any existing SSSIs not renotified under the Bill would not be automatically protected from an SPZ; 907 but I can assure her that the Government will wish in practice to ensure that an SPZ is not set up on a site which has not yet been considered for renotification.
If an SSSI was so threatened, the Secretary of State has two defences for it available without the further amendments which he thought might be necessary. He can either make an order under Section 24C(3) (which is referred to in Clause 14 of the Bill) excluding the area from being designated as an SPZ, or he can make a nature conservation order under Section 29 of the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981. That gives the area the equivalent of SSSI protection. I hope that this will set the noble Baroness's mind at rest.
The noble Baroness, Lady David—and this has come slightly out of sequence—wanted the local authorities to be informed of grant direct applications and payments. My department is very ready to discuss with representatives of local government how Part III will be administered. Indeed, my officials had a meeting this morning on this subject with representatives of the Association of District Councils. Part III does not affect planning controls. Developers carrying out schemes which receive Part III assistance will still require planning permission in the normal way. I do not envisage that individual application will be the subject of consultation. Applications for grant will contain commercially sensitive information. As is normal with the Government grant regimes, we would respect that confidentiality.
My noble friend Lord Ridley was concerned that there was a need for a wider look at the Opencast Coal Act 1958 and the policy in this area. In the consultation paper issued by the Department of Energy in July 1984, it was proposed to repeal Section 15 of the Opencast Coal Act 1958, which deals with the temporary closure of rights of way, and to retain the NCB's (British Coal's) compulsory rights and powers for a limited period only. However, it had then been intended that these proposals would form part of a separate Bill on opencast coal. In the event, this was not possible and it was decided to include just the essential provisions in the Housing and Planning Bill to effect the administrative arrangements already put in hand whereby the board applied for planning permission for their opencast proposals to the planning authority.
Section 3 puts on the board a duty to have regard to the preservation of amenity in formulating proposals and restoring sites, and my noble friend was anxious about that. I can tell him that the requirement will not in my view be necessary any longer as the whole intention of the provision is to bring the NCB's opencast operations wholly within the ambit of the planning system. They will then be determined by mineral planning authorities in the same way as for other mineral operations. Mineral planning authorities already have power to refuse permission or to grant it subject to conditions including those designed to minimise environmental disruption and ensure that proper provision is made for the restoration of the site. I reserve my views on the level of opencast mining results by simply saying that the planning implications, as I have just explained, are minimal.
908 The noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, asked about Northern Ireland. I shall write to him, because he is no longer with us. The noble Lord, Lord Stallard, was concerned about new provisions for local plans and referred to the proposal in Clause 29 to substitute new provisions about local plans for those in Part II of the 1971 Act. May I emphasise that most of the new material in Part I of Schedule 8 simply re-enacts existing procedures. I tried to explain why it was such a long Bill, if your Lordships will remember, in my opening. The intention is simply to clarify the present law, which is becomig encumbered with many amendments and some dead wood and needs the sort of codification that the noble Lord, Lord Foot, has been urging us to carry out.
I shall have to discard a certain amount of material but I think that I should say to the noble Lord, Lord Foot, that he will find that my opening speech does reassure him in most of the matters on which he expressed concern almost in terms. Therefore, I pass on (or back) to the noble Baroness, Lady Stedman, who keeps us on the hazardous substances matter and is concerned about the temporary presence of substances in transit. We considered this matter very closely and carefully in drafting the Bill. I actually considered it myself.
There is a difficulty, because what is temporary varies from case to case and imposing a single fixed time limit could lead to very unsatisfactory results in some instances. But many of the instances which I suspect occurred to her as they occurred to me relate to substances in transit and I remind her of the fact that hazardous substances in vehicles and vessels—by which I mean sea-going or river-going vessels—are subject to effective control under other powers even when they are in sidings or tied up at a jetty.
The noble Baroness was also interested, as was the noble Lord, Lord Foot, and my noble friend Lord Auckland, that the definition of hazardous substances should be apposite and precise. As I said earlier in this debate, we agree that this should be the subject of professional advice and we shall be advised by the Health and Safety Executive on what should be included. The regulations will be subject to parliamentary scrutiny in the normal way. It is our intention in responding to the representations of the CBI to ensure that industry is restricted only so far as is necessary for the protection of neighbouring land. We are consulting the local authorities associations and the RTPI on the main amendments which we have in mind.
As I draw to a conclusion, I will say that I listened with close attention to my noble friend Lord Salisbury and to the speech of my noble friend Lord Margadale. I am happy to bring forward a code of conduct for field workers engaged in listing buildings for the Secretary of State. I think there would be disadvantages in writing it into statute with which your Lordships perhaps are familiar from many debates on this subject. I hope to persuade them in fact that a voluntary code will be as effective as or more effective than a statutory code because they will be able to improve it as it goes along—which you cannot do with a statutory code unless you wait sometimes for years and years.
909 My noble friend also raised the question of appeals against listing. He rightly said that such an appeal exists. It is true that it is not generally known. I was advised that this was the case when I took office and I then arranged that everyone whose house was subsequently listed should be advised that if he felt it was wrongly listed he had but to send his reasons to my right honourable friend to have it reviewed and, if appropriate, struck off the list. I believe that is quicker and cheaper than anything which could be achieved by statute.
My noble friend pressed me on the matter of grants. I must remind him that these are now made by English Heritage and it is entirely for them to determine each case and the amount to be paid—usually calculated as a percentage of the actual cost. On the question of historic gardens, I am happy to repeat the assurances given by my late noble friend Lord Avon.
The Bill, it is true, changes the time limits on the Secretary of State for giving his decision on listed building consent appeals. That is because at present he can extend the period of 28 days, but only once. In order to be certain that he does not overrun and get caught in the open, as it were, he has to set a very long period. That of course is not conducive to swift action by officials in the department who see a lengthy date ahead of them. It is better to have the flexibility so that we can set a realistic and shorter date, and thus expedite the process.
I regret that convention means that I ought to leave out much that I would otherwise say. There are times when I do not like the support of my own Front Bench in that matter. However, in concluding, I must refer to the speech of the noble Viscount, Lord Craigavon. I understand and share his concern about the detrimental effect which the unrestrained display of estate agents' boards can have. Nevertheless, the noble Viscount will be pleased to know that this is one of the issues that we have recently been examining, and my department is today publishing a consultation paper setting out proposals for amending the regulations. These include proposals to reduce the permitted area estate agents' boards that may be displayed with deemed consent for sale or letting of residential property, substantially to ensure that not more than one such board may be lawfully displayed for each sale or letting. "The measles"—as I think he might have called them—from which his area suffered, will be cured, I trust.
My Lords, I apologise for giving you a thing which isa thing of rags and patches",but I hope that it has answered the concerns of many of your Lordships. I spare the House the rhetoric with which I reaffirm my conviction that this is not only useful but beneficial legislation; and, with your Lordships' patient but not, I hope, dilatory help in Committee, I believe that we shall have it even better by the time we have finished.
§ On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.