Planning Permission, Northwick

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 17th April 1967.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. McBride.]

11.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr Frederick Corfield Mr Frederick Corfield , Gloucestershire South

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise a question relating to a planning decision which has caused great concern to my constituent, Mr. Pople, and it is one which seems to me to be so wholly nonsensical that I have found it quite impossible to offer any words of comfort by way of explanation. Indeed, I have been deeply concerned lest Mr. Pople should allow his sense of injustice to damage his health, or even lead him to inflicting on himself a personal injury by way of protest.

Although my experience of the hon. Gentleman's Ministry is such that I would not suggest unfairness in the sense of bias or failure to try to judge these matters on their merits, all I can say is that, having visited the site, the decision makes so little sense that it is inevitable that the applicant feels aggrieved, and it is quite impossible for me sincerely to try to put any other view, and even if I tried, because I could not be sincere, quite impossible for me to be convincing.

I think that I can claim some expertise in these matters. Apart from my period in the hon. Gentleman's office in which I was responsible for planning matters, I have a professional practice which has enabled me to hear countless so-called planning experts, and certainly I have heard perhaps all, or at any rate most, of those most eminent in this field in the country.

But when to my inability to see the sense of this decision is added the fact that Mr. Pople is wholly unfamiliar with the niceties either of planning or of planning procedure, it is inevitable that he should feel a sense of grave injustice for which, in the circumstances, no one can blame him, least of all the local planning authority, who in my opinion has acted in a ham-fisted manner in the extreme.

I have corresponded with officials only, and I understand that the Gloucestershire County Council is reluctant to make known the membership of its committees for fear that they should be lobbied. This is a curious concept, both of public service and local democracy, and one of which I profoundly disapprove. They are responsible, and they should be seen to be responsible for decisions of this nature.

Very briefly, the history of this case is that Mr. Pople purchased two adjoining cottages known as Rose Cottage and Ivy Cottage near the village of Northwick in my constituency. His intention was to renovate Rose Cottage and modernise it and demolish Ivy Cottage to provide space, among other things, for a garage. He sought and obtained byelaw approval from the local authority and went ahead because at that time he had no intention of altering the external appearance of the building, so no planning permission was required.

However, in the course of carrying out repairs to the roof he found that the timbers were rotten. He decided to strip it, and on further investigation he thought that while he was about it he would make a first-class job by demolishing and inserting a damp proof course. I should add that although Mr. Pople is a builder, and had intended to do this work himself, he is a builder in a very small way, mainly concerned with maintenance, with no experience of building from scratch, hence his ignorance of planning procedures. I have already indicated that I doubt whether, even if he had that experience, he would have been much the wiser in understanding this decision.

At the same time as he discovered the condition of the roof timbers, the question arose of seeking planning permission for access to the site of Ivy Cottage to form a garage. It was here that the local planning authority came in. By the time its representative had visited the site demolition had proceeded to an extent that the view was taken that it was no longer a question of restoration or renovation but one of rebuilding upon the same site, and technically speaking I dare say that that was a quite correct decision. Mr. Pople was told to apply for permission to rebuild, and this permission was refused on the grounds that the site was on a proposed development line in the green belt and the development did not fall within the limited area of development which it was the policy of the local planning authority to permit. Mr. Pople accordingly appealed, by way of written representations, first, because he did not feel competent to present the case himself and, secondly, because he could not afford to instruct someone to do so on his behalf. I cannot therefore refer to the inspector's report, because there was none. I have had to rely upon the representations put forward by the county council. Reading under the heading "The Site and Surroundings", I note that it is said: The two cottages are at the present time virtually demolished. I cannot contest that. Certainly when I visited the site they were in a state that could be described as virtually demolished, but we all know that deterioration rapidly sets in in these circumstances, and when I visited the site it was some months after the event.

The representations continue: The site is outside the limits of any established village and clearly standing in open country. This is only partially true, although it depends on what one calls "open country". There are a number of houses and bungalows in the immediate vicinity, and I very much doubt, from my admittedly somewhat cursory inspection, whether all are post-1947 Act.

An interesting point arises in that there is no mention in the representations by the county council of the nature of the countryside in this area, or of its merits from a scenic or any other point of view. It is therefore curious to find in the Minister's decision letter, dated 6th January, 1967, that: The appeal site lies in attractive countryside. I may be biased. I have the good fortune to live in the Cotswolds, and the even better fortune to have been born and bred in the Stretton Hills, in the most beautiful county of Shropshire.

Although I admit, as a countryman, that I find most countryside relatively attractive, particularly compared with the efforts of the planners as opposed to those of the laissez faire speculators who produced Bath and Cheltenham. Nevertheless, in the league of purely rural areas, this must come pretty low down the list. I wonder how that passage came to be in the Minister's letter. It is not in the evidence, and though my experience leads me to respect the Minister's inspectorate, if that arose from the comments of the Minister's inspector after visiting the site, I can only disagree and invite him to inspect the Cotswolds or Northumberland or even Clunton and Clunbury, Clungunford and Clun. It does not make it any easier to explain to Mr. Pople that he has been reasonably and sensibly treated.

Reading on in the Minister's letter, we find that the best the Minister can say is that It is felt"— that does not sound very convincing— that the local planning authority are right to restrict further development … By what conceivable stretch of the imagination or abuse of the English language replacing a building can be regarded as further development is wholly beyond me.

The letter goes on: … to land within the confines of existing villages in order not to spoil the appearance and character of the countryside". It is difficult to imagine how one spoils the appearance and character of the countryside by replacing something that is there with something better, rather than by leaving a derelict pile of stones.

In the representations of the county council there is, first, the stated policy of the local planning authority which is said to be in accordance with "the circular", but that depends on the way in which the circular is interpreted. The county council's letter states: Inside a Green Belt, approval should not be given, except in very special circumstances, for the construction of new buildings or for the change of use of existing buildings for purposes other than agriculture, sport, cemeteries, institutions standing in extensive grounds, or other uses appropriate to a rural area". There is no question in this case of a changed use or the construction of a new building; and how one applies that paragraph in these circumstances is not immediately clear. The letter goes on: It is clear from the fact that demolition was necessary that the existing cottages had reached the end of their useful life and therefore the work proposed constituted the erection of a new dwelling". If ever there was a non sequitur it is that, because very few houses over 100 years old have damp courses in this country. Certainly they do not in the Cotswolds, where the charm of the ancient villages adds to the beauty of the countryside rather than detracts from it. I do not believe that the inhabitants of those villages feel under-privileged or that they are suffering hardship because of the absence of a miserable damp course. The letter continues: The previous existence of a dwelling on the site is not in the view of the Local Planning Authority sufficient reason to warrant the granting of consent contrary to their Green Belt policy, and it is considered that where such circumstances exist the cost must be considered as if it were for the erection of a dwelling on a virgin site". Even if that is so, what harm would be done to replace the building? Anybody who looks at the site cannot but agree that no conceivable harm would be done. The letter goes on: The site is well outside the limits of any village and within the open countryside forming part of the Bristol Green Belt. Further development"— note the word "further" whether additional houses or replacement of dwellings which have outlived their usefulness and unrelated to the agricultural needs of the area must be contrary to the aims and intentions of the Green Belt". Is this really so? Does this really make sense? There are, after all, a large number of people who want to live in genuine countryside; and that, by definition, means living outside the confines of any towns or villages. Why should they be prevented from doing so? Naturally if one gives free rein to development in the green belt or on white land one will destroy the open countryside. But in this case it is not being suggested that that should be done, because there is no question of new dwellings being erected. It is merely the replacement of a former or existing dwelling.

It follows that if we are to prohibit the replacement of these old houses as they end their useful lives—they are bound to reach that point eventually, but most of them will outlive the buildings being erected today—there will be a smaller and smaller number of places in which people can live away from either village or town. There is no evidence that the proportion of the population which wishes to live like that is decreasing. Even if that were the case, the mere fact that the population is growing means that the number of people demanding that sort of life is increasing. In any case, my impression is that the proportion of such people is also increasing. Yet it is the policy of the local planning authority—apparently supported by the Ministry—to decrease that demand wholly artificially by refusing permission to allow these buildings to be replaced. The authority's letter adds: The adjoining cottage to the south, Diamont Cottage, and referred to in paragraph five of the appellant's statement, has been renovated in the past by minor works which were not sufficient to require planning consent. One need only look at the adjoining house to see that it has the appearance of a modern building containing a few old materials.

This is one of those occasions when one regrets one's inability to act as advocate for one's constituent and to cross-examine the planning officers who write this sort of nonsense I have been quoting and put to them the question that ought to be put. I maintain that this sort of thing is an abuse of the written representation procedure, which is designed to save trouble and expense, not merely to the applicant, but to local planning authorities as well.

I have advised my constituent that he must put in a new application. As soon as he does so, I appreciate that the Parliamentary Secretary will be in some difficulty, because as soon as it is put in the application will be sub judice and the hon. Gentleman will be in the impossible position that he cannot judge its merits, which it is his duty to do, and at the same time prejudge the case by giving me a definite answer tonight. But I would ask him for the assurance, which I am sure he will give me, that if there is an appeal, the case will be looked at again, not merely completely afresh but with sympathy.

I hope that I can flatter myself to the extent of hoping that he will bear in mind that I have looked at the site and that I can assure him that by no conceivable stretch of the imagination could the rebuilding of that house do any harm. There is not in this case even the planning authority's perpetual hoary old bugbear of precedent—I suppose the most overworked argument in planning. The chances here of similar cases arising are remote, and the prospect of any number arising is non-existent.

I hope that in this case the Parliamentary Secretary will be prepared to make it clear to local planning authorities that this sort of rigid application of rules made for quite different purposes is wholly contrary to commonsense and the ordinary rights of the individual who is I submit, entitled to live where he wants to live, certainly within the sort of limits I have tried to outline.

11.58 p.m.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

The hon. Member for Gloucestershire, South (Mr. Corfield) has spoken with a knowledge and experience of both sides of the planning problem gained from holding my job before me and from being a very distinguished member of the planning Bar. I am sure that his constituent must feel that his case has been put forcibly and well, and with all the power and strength with which it could be put. I want now to put the aspect of this case that influenced us in coming to our decision.

Although the hon. Gentleman opened the door by saying that this decision was obviously a mistake and that I could therefore reasonably slide out of responsibility for it, I must make it clear that this was a very carefully thought about decision, and a very difficult decision to make, and that when we made it we appreciated that it would look an odd decision to the applicant and would cause him a certain amount of pain.

In planning appeals, however, it is very important to keep some sort of balance of decisions. To give an illustration of that point, I would point out that the hon. Gentleman mentioned the annoyance felt by Mr. Pople because the owner of Diamond Cottage seemed to be able to get away with it. The owner of Diamond Cottage got away with it, as the hon. Gentleman knows better than anyone else, though his constituent probably does not, because within the definition of the law it was not development. It therefore could be done without planning permission. That is a question of law on which I am advised the county was right. This applies to other types of planning appeal. People look at the cases very carefully, compare them with their own, and criticise the decisions as such.

The hon. Gentleman did rather casually mention that this building was in the green belt, but this, of course, is the nub of the problem. The last Government established green belts, they supported them, and carried out planning decisions in the context of green belts. We have done the same, and this green belt, although it had been proposed for some time, was approved by my right hon. Friend in 1965.

The problem of the green belt is that everybody recognises that it is important, if we are to keep the countryside, that we should stop sporadic development, and everybody recognises that if one looks at certain parts of the countryside one can say, "There is country that is ruined because there was no control and because there was sporadic development." It is one thing to say that, but quite another to say in any particular case, "It is fair that my particular bit of development should not have been allowed". As the hon. Gentleman put it—and it is an argument which must have been put to the hon. Gentleman when he had my job—"What earthly wrong is there in allowing this particular development?" The point is that one has to have rules governing development in the green belt and they must be fair as between applicant and applicant.

The hon. Gentleman may remember "New Houses in the Country". I do not think he wrote it, but at any rate he used it, and this makes it quite clear that in the green belts there is very strict control over development. That is their point. Control of development must be specially strict. In some villages, it will not be allowed at all. In others, it may be allowed in particular places. Away from villages, even the filling in of small gaps in ribbons of small houses may have to be prevented, as may be the building of one or two new houses in the grounds of existing houses. It is no good the hon. Member decrying his constituency and saying that it is not all that beautiful; but it is at least the best they have got. They have decided in their wisdom that it should be green belt. This decision was taken before this appeal was decided.

Photo of Mr Frederick Corfield Mr Frederick Corfield , Gloucestershire South

I am grateful, but we are talking about replacing an existing building. A lot of my constituency is very beautiful, but this does not happen to be the most beautiful part of it. This green belt is designed to stop the expansion of Bristol and is not due to any particular merit of the countryside.

Photo of Mr James MacColl Mr James MacColl , Widnes

The planning authority having decided that this should be green belt, and my right hon. Friend having approved that it should be green belt, whether it is preserving intrinsic beauty or giving a lung to the people of Bristol, amounts to saying that there is special control over development, unique and different from anywhere else, and it is the first duty of anyone thinking of development in an area of this sort to find out precisely what is allowed and what is not allowed.

In this booklet, also, there is a reference to alterations. It says: In some cases planning permission is needed for the improvement or extension of an existing house. It goes on to say: It cannot be assumed that planning permission will invariably be given for a new or substantially new house on the site of an old one. This is the generally recognised principle from which green belt control is adminis- tered. Clearly one reason for this, and a reason why one has to be careful in these cases, is that the very fact of having a green belt puts great site value on a building in the green belt. The fact that one has a green belt both makes it a very attractive area for a new house and makes it a common thing for people to acquire an old house and try to modernise and to add as much as possible within the law, without coming within the definition of development, and if one says, "Where-ever you have an existing house, you can replace it," one has a situation where virtually derelict houses are acquired and one could go on and provide houses which would last for a very long time. Therefore, we would get not only a continuation of building in an area where it was not desirable to encourage building, but there would also be a feeling of injustice between the people who had been able to do this and those who had not.

I accept that Mr. Pople was not a skilled builder, in the sense that he did not know the ropes. He did not know about finding out whether this was green belt and finding out what was involved in that. I think it is a pity he did not make all the inquiries. He said that he was going into this as a commercial operation, that he was not building something for himself—not at that stage, anyway, though subsequently he changed his mind. It is important that people who go into this kind of operation should find out what are the limits within which they can do what they want to do.

The hon. Gentleman said that there was nothing wrong in this house, except that it needed a damp-proof course. That was the reason why it had been necessary to treat it in this drastic way. What Mr. Pople said in his statement was: The property was in a very bad state of repair. It also had creeping damp. The only thing I could do was to put a damp course in. This I intended to do, and this is why I took part of the building down. In fact, the evidence we have is that it was completely down at the time when the appeal was considered. The hon. Gentleman suggested one thing that Mr. Pople could do. He said he would advise him, no doubt with his great skill, how to do it. If he did this, it would of course be examined with great care and dispassionately, without regard to any previous decisions assumed about it, but I would be misleading the hon. Gentleman if I implied that I could make a bargain and say, "This is a formality. It will go through." We took this decision, looking at the site and considering it most carefully.

There are two other possibilities. First, he might serve a purchase notice. I am sure the hon. Gentleman could advise him about that, and I will not take time explaining the technicalities. Secondly, he might be able to sell the site to the owner of Diamond Cottage for incorporation in the curtilage of that dwelling.

I would like to end by saying that I am extremely sympathetic to Mr. Pople. I can understand the great disappointment 11,, had and the great worry that this has caused him, but I must say that in the time I have held this job—a job which the hon. Gentleman also has held—I have more and more come to the conclusion that in deciding planning appeals—it is a public duty which we are performing for the community—one cannot be too far influenced by personal cases and by personal difficulties. We have got a duty to support a planning authority where it is carrying out a clearly laid down policy. There was a development plan. The authority defined the kind of development which could be allowed. We approved of that. This project did not conform with it. It would have meant bringing a modern building with a long life into an area which the planning authority thought ought to be Green Belt and ought to remain so.

Photo of Mr Frederick Corfield Mr Frederick Corfield , Gloucestershire South

I wonder whether I might point out that, as I understand it, there was never any intention to increase the size of the dwelling. In fact, the intention was to decrease it.

The Question having been proposed after half-past Nine o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour. Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at ten minutes past Twelve o'clock.