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The matter which I wish to raise tonight concerns the development of about 52 acres of land at Crofton, Orpington, in my constituency. I may summarise it by saying that in the summer of 1955 my right hon. Friend the then Minister of Housing and Local Government decided that there should be no development of these 52 acres and approximately two years later that decision was changed, in so far as a substantial part of the land was concerned and permission to develop was given. It is not so much the fact that the decision was changed, though that is an important matter, as the circumstances in which it was changed which have perhaps made people feel this to be a travesty of natural justice.
My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government has already been very courteous and patient with me in this matter, but I find it necessary to outline the dates although he is probably very familiar with them. The position was that this land was divided into approximately half—about 29 acres and about 23 acres. It might be convenient if refer to the 29 acres as the Ideal Homesteads land and to the 23 acres as the Davis Estates land.
In January, 1953, Kent County Council granted outline consent for the development of 29 acres. In October, 1954, the Minister wrote saying that it was proposed to revoke that permission relating to 29 acres and to hold an inquiry jointly with an inquiry into an application for development of the 23 acres. On 11th November, 1954, a local inquiry was held. Local residents were represented and they objected to the development of the whole of this area of 52 acres. It was some time apparently before a decision was taken hut, on 28th June, 1955, a decision was given by the Minister that the Davis Estates development of the smaller part of the land was revoked; that is, the for the development of the larger portion of the land was revoked. That is, the Minister refused to allow development on that part of the land.
On 9th January, 1957, after there had been some delays over certain matters which I do not think are particularly relevant now, a purchase notice was served upon the Orpington Urban District Council in relation to the 29 acres. On 15th March, 1957, the Minister let it be known that he proposed to confirm the purchase notice, but substituting the Kent County Council for the Orpington Urban District Council. The position was, as I understand, that neither of those two authorities was in any way anxious to be the purchasing authority and to have to find the substantial sum of money involved.
As a result of that, there was a hearing before a Ministry inspector on 22nd May, 1957. It is with this matter that I am concerned. The hearing was to determine whether the purchasing authority should be the Kent County Council or the Orpington Urban District Council. Both authorities were represented, as one would expect. So, indeed, were the would-be developers. I make no comment about that. But the local residents were not represented and were not given an opportunity to be represented or, so far as I know, even told that there was to be such a hearing. There would be no criticism of that at that point, because the only matter to be determined would be who should be the purchasing authority. So far as that went, provided that the land was purchased by one or other of the local authorities, the local residents were not concerned.
That is where this matter began to go wrong. The only question should have been which of those local authorities was to be the purchasing authority. However, the outcome of the hearing was that development was allowed, by my right hon. Friend's decision, upon the 29 acres, which was the area of land with which the hearing was concerned as to the purchasing authority. What happened was that the hearing, having been, as one would think, convened for one purpose, a decision was given completely changing a previous decision made by the Minister about two years previously, and that was the result of a hearing at which the local residents were not present.
Two important matters of principle appear to me to be involved. The first is that there should be a change of policy of that sort after a space of two years when the facts had not changed at all and the only question was a financial one, that of compensation in respect of the land. If decisions of that sort are to be changed in a matter of two years, without changed circumstances, it makes it of little value to residents or anybody else to get a determination in that way, and one might think that it makes nonsense of planning.
Far more important than that, perhaps, was the fact that the residents were not there, and there was a denial—I am sure that it was quite by mistake, as things happened—of natural justice. It is as if a plaintiff had gone to court against two defendants and had won the day, and at the end of the day the judge had said, "There remains only the question of costs as between the two defendants. I will decide that tomorrow. It is not necessary for the plaintiff to be present", and then, when the morrow came, he had said, "It is too difficult to determine the question of costs. Nobody wants to pay. Therefore, I will now say that the plaintiff has lost." That is the position of the residents in this case. It would be too absurd to suggest that it could actually happen in the courts, but it is something which should never be allowed to happen at inquiries held in this way.
When the decision was made known, I immediately took up the matter—on 5th July. 1957—with my right hon. Friend the Minister, and in September I led a deputation which was received by my hon. Friend. I understand that the outcome is that the decision cannot be changed. The residents want to ask, through me, why that is. I think that I know why, but it is not for me to say. However, perhaps the residents can be told once and for all why it is that if a decision can be changed once, as has been done here, it cannot be changed back again, so to speak, in their favour.
The second thing the people would very much like to know is what is to happen to the other part of the land—I have been dealing with the 29 acres, which leaves the decision about the 23 acres unresolved. At the moment, the decision of two years ago—that the land should not be developed—stands. Can one be told that that decision will continue to stand and that that land will remain open country?
I hope that if the debate has done nothing else it will have made sure that such a situation will never be allowed to arise again. I am not concerned with the merits of this development. Clearly, the country there needs to be preserved and we also need to provide homes. That has now been decided on both sides. I am concerned with the principles and with how the residents feel that they have been treated and I hope that they will be given some explanation.
In conclusion, I express my thanks to my hon. Friend for the extreme patience and courtesy he has shown to me and which he also showed to the deputation which I led to see him in September, and in all other ways connected with this matter.
I am obliged to my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Mr. Sumner) for the manner in which he has presented this case this evening. I reciprocate the kind words he used about me. He himself has been most patient and understanding of our difficulties in this matter. He has raised what is by any standards a most unusual and complicated case, and it might be as well if I sketch very quickly the facts of the matter for the record.
In the Greater London Plan, this land was shown as one of the green wedges associated with the Metropolitan green belt, and in Part A of the Kent County Council Development Plan, which was prepared later, it was allocated for residential development. No objections to its allocation for residential purposes were received against the Development Plan, and, therefore, it was not discussed at the public inquiry which dealt with the objections to the Kent Plan.
In January, 1953, Kent County Council, as the planning authority, gave New Ideal Homesteads Limited outline planning permission for residential development, and a little later the owners put in a detailed application to build about 220 houses on the land. At that point, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government decided to make a draft Revocation Order in respect of the original outline planning permission.
A public inquiry was held in November, 1954, and at that inquiry Kent County Council and the Orpington Urban District Council both supported the firm, that is, the firm which wanted to develop the land, but the then Minister decided to revoke the planning permission, and he also refused permission to an application from another would-be developer, Messrs. Davis Estates. That is the first phase of the complicated story.
Later, however, a purchase notice was served on the Orpington Urban District Council on behalf of New Ideal Homesteads in respect of the firm's interests in the Lynwood Park Estate. My right hon. Friend felt that he ought to confirm that purchase notice. The two local authorities were informed. The Kent County Council entered a formal objection against confirmation of the purchase notice. A hearing was arranged, at which the representatives of the parties directly concerned were invited to state their case.
When my right hon. Friend came to consider the report of his inspector on the hearing, and after having taken into account all the evidence available, including the report of the 1954 inquiry—at which, by the way, the two local authorities had supported the application for development—he decided that some development should be allowed and directed that, in the event of an application being made, planning permission should be given for the erection of houses at a density not exceeding four to the acre. This decision was final.
I now turn to some of the questions which were raised by my hon. Friend. Why did the Ministry, after having decided to revoke planning permission, subsequently decide to allow development at a lower density? The refusal meant a substantial liability for compensation to the would-be developers, but this, I assure my hon. Friend, was not the main factor. Both Kent and Orpington had again pressed their views on the merits of the development, and the Minister felt that it would be possible to meet their case by allowing development at a lower density.
Secondly, how did it come about that the members of the public who were invited to the first hearing were ignored at the time of the hearing on the purchase notice? Legally speaking, I believe, there was no reason why objectors should have been notified. In any case, my right hon. Friend had, at that point, expressed the view that the purchase notice ought to be confirmed. It was known that this attitude was in line with that of the objectors. In the light of events, however, I agree that it was most unfortunate that those members of the public were not invited to the second inquiry, and I apologise that they were not so invited.
It was suggested by my hon. Friend that it might be possible to reopen the proceedings and allow the views of local residents to be further expressed. I am sorry that this could not be done, since my right hon. Friend has given his final decision and he cannot withdraw his direction. I am sure that my hon. Friend would agree that, even if my right hon. Friend were to do so, it would lead to a feeling of legitimate grievance in other quarters. My hon. Friend knows that the Orpington Urban District Council has made certain proposals, but we have not yet had the views of the Kent County Council on them primarily, this is a matter for the Council's consideration. We shall give very careful consideration to the County Council's views when they come before us.
I think that inadvertently I did not refer to that, or did not refer to it very clearly. Obviously, my hon. Friend is referring to purchasing the land by Kent County Council with a possible contribution from the Government. If, as I think, my hon. Friend is referring to that suggestion, will he say what, if anything, can be done about it?
I can put this part of the position quite clearly. Orpington Urban District Council, I understand, has made certain proposals which it has conveyed to Kent County Council. Whatever may have been the earlier views of Orpington and Kent, the view of Orpington now is that some attempt might be made to acquire the land from the existing developers and, by agreement, to pay compensation for the value of the land. My right hon. Friend has not yet heard from Kent County Council what its reactions to that are. But, if it should emerge that Kent County Council holds the same views as Orpington, that is to say, that it desires to purchase, and if a proposition were made to my right hon. Friend that the purchase money should be contributed one-third by Kent, one-third by Orpington and perhaps, one-third by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, that proposition would be seriously entertained by my right hon. Friend. But assuming that it was acceptable, the normal grant procedure in all probability would apply.
I should like to end by making clear, because I am sure my hon. Friend would like me to do so, that the alternatives here lie between the development proceeding on the lines which have been agreed, or an agreement on the lines I have just indicated. Speaking for my right hon. Friend and myself, I agree that this has not been a very happy business. It is an unusual case. Even now, if we are able to deal with the matter sympathetically, having regard to the views of local interests, we shall certainly do all we can.