I think it is appropriate that the last debate on the last day before the House goes into Recess for the summer should be the time when Parliament gives consideration to an urgent plea from a small group of private citizens in my constituency who have suffered an injustice.
I want to refer to a very small development which is taking place in a small, quiet close, called Gideon Close, at Belvedere. It is a quite little area where there are only 12 houses and 12 ordinary families involved. It lies at the foot of a steep embankment under an undulating plot at a higher level. It is that other plot of land which is now being developed by a builder, with between 50 and 60 further housing units.
It is because of the activities of that builder that I am raising this matter this evening, because there has been a complete disregard by the developer of the planning permission which was originally granted by Bexley Council, and it has resulted in the peace and the security of my constituents being shattered by the erection of a bleak, monstrous, concrete wall about 13 ft. in height which was erected 12 ft. out of the approved, planned position.
The facts are these. The site in question, called Regent Square, Belvedere, received planning permission in August, 1966 for development. Since then, there have been a number of further plans submitted by the developer which have caused certain modifications from that originally given planning approval. In January and May of 1967, and then again in November, 1967, further plans were submitted, and approved by the council. All these plans, the chopping and changing of the layout, were submitted by a firm called McKinlay Williams Estate, Limited, who are the builders doing this development and from these plans—there are five in total—two salient facts emerge.
The first is that all the plans submitted confirm this monstrous retaining wall as being 12 ft. back from the position it now occupies dominating this quiet close. The second fact which has emerged is that, again, all the plans submitted by McKinlay Williams Estate Limited, show the boundary of the Regent Square site and Gideon Close in the precise position my constituents claim, and this is now being disputed by McKinlay Williams Estate Limited.
Another important fact I would ask the Parliamentary Secretary to bear in mind, because this supports the claims of my constituents, is that drawings prepared by the borough engineer and surveyor under Section 40 of the Highways Act, 1959, confirm that this wall is 12 ft. out of position and also confirm, once again, the boundary of the Regent Square site.
So blatant has been McKinlay Williams Estate Limited's disregard for the approved position of this retaining wall that the Bexley Council, on 20th March of this year, served on the developer an enforcement order requiring that this wall should be removed. The developer, needless to say, appealed, and the Minister of Housing and Local Government appointed an inspector to hold a local public inquiry, and the date was fixed for the hearing, 16th July, 1968.
My constituents were told of their rights to be heard at the inquiry. The residents were delighted. Here, at long last, they thought, justice was at least within sight of being done; they would have an opportunity of presenting their case, presenting the facts to an inspector at a public inquiry, and all would be well.
The Bexley Borough Council, as the body responsible for the enforcement order, prepared the necessary documents to submit to my hon. Friend's inspector and displayed them at the local town hall.
I was about to quote from the council's document. Under the heading, "A case for a planning authority ", the paragraph reads:
A retaining wall situate at the end of Gideon Close might cause some detriment to the visual amenity of the properties in Gideon Close, whatever the precise position
of the wall. However the originaly approved position overcame the injury to amenity by providing that only 6 feet of the wall be exposed, and the remainder would be screened by replacement of the original earth bank which would be landscaped. As now erected the wall is quite unscreened, and presents a most unattractive blank face to Gideon Close. It is the Council's view that the most satisfactory solution is that the Minister should uphold the enforcement notice, so as to secure the removal of the wall from its present position. It is essential from an engineering point of view that there should be a wall, and if the appellant follows the approved plan, the detriment to amenity will be almost obliterated.
The Minister is, therefore, requested to uphold
the enforcement order and to dismiss this appeal.
A strange thing then happened. The town planning committee met on 4th July of this year and completely changed the council's policy in respect to this site. It granted permission to the developer for the retaining wall and added a condition that there should be erected in front of that monstrous wall a small 5 ft. high screening wall which could be planted out behind to help hide this bleak concrete face. This permission was given only 12 days before the people in Gideon Close were to have the opportunity of having their case considered by an independent inspector appointed by the Minister of Housing and Local Government. The council's approval meant that the enforcement notice lapsed, and that my constituents were denied the opportunity of appealing for justice at a public inquiry.
That is bad enough, but it is not all. The town planning committee, setting itself up as judge and jury in the case, approved that 5 ft. screening wall on land that was owned by the occupants of Nos. 11 and 12 Gideon Close, despite the fact that those owners had written in December of last year, and again in June of this year, informing the council that the land was in their ownership, and despite the fact that the five plans already submitted to the council by McKinlay Williams Estate Limited had shown the land in question to be outside the boundary of the Regent Square site owned and being developed by that company.
Another significant factor emerges. The final plan that was approved on 4th July by Bexley Council was not submitted by McKinlay Williams Estate Limited. For the first time in all these planning submissions there came into the picture a company called Holmglen Investments Ltd., a small company with only £100 paid-up capital, owned by the same shareholders as McKinlay Williams Estate Limited, and with the same directors.
Bexley Council, in granting Holmglen Investments Ltd. approval for the screening wall on what they knew to be someone else's land, laid down a condition that the developer should be responsible for the maintenance of the wall for a period of five years. What is to happen after that five years? I should be asking this of Bexley Council. What is to happen even before that five years is up if Holmglen Investments Limited, as some fear it will, turns out to be nothing but a straw company and winds up its affairs? The unfortunate residents of Gideon Close will be left holding the baby. They will have to face the aftermath of the blatant disregard of planning approval and planning permission by McKinlay Williams Estate Ltd. and the aftermath of Bexley Council's dubious activities in this case.
Any subsequent legal action by the residents of Gideon Close could involve equally innocent people who might be unwise enough to purchase houses at Regent Square, Belvedere, from McKinlay Williams Estate Limited, Holmglen Investments Limited or another company formed by the same people, Danson Road Enterprises Limited. Anyone buying a house from those sources might find himself in dispute over the maintenance of this wretched wall. I am told that a block of dwellings is being erected by the developer immediately above Gideon Close on this site and several feet out of the approved position. It may be that because of the chopping and changing that have taken place other blocks of dwellings will be built. My constituents' land is being flooded by water coming down from the higher land because of inadequate drainage of the site.
This case calls for a thorough investigation. It is little wonder that the people of Bexley are beginning to mutter veiled remarks about the possibilities of unusual happenings in relation to this Regent Square development. I beg my hon. Friend to see that an inquiry under the powers given to his right hon. Friend is set up to ensure that there is a public hearing of this case. My constituents have suffered an injustice. They deserve to have a fair, independent hearing. The circumstances surrounding the whole issue are such that there is growing public disquiet in my constituency. Suspicion has been aroused in the minds of the people that all may not be well in regard to other aspects of the scheme. Only a public inquiry can restore public confidence. I ask that the Minister should step in and see that justice prevails.
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Erith and Crayford (Mr. Wellbeloved) on the very concise way in which he has summarised the rather complex history of this planning application and thereby saved my time in setting it out. I am most grateful to him.
I am sure the whole House admires, as I do, his persistence in this matter and his pressing on something which he believes causes great disadvantage to some of his constituents. Although there are not many, the families living in this close who bought houses there—no doubt on mortgage—want to protect the surroundings of those houses. They are entitled to "quiet enjoyment", which covers amenities. Although this matter does not affect many people, it gravely concerns the welfare of these families. If in any of these planning matters we overlook, neglect or do not pay sufficient attention to the human aspect the planning processes can justly be criticised.
The central issue here is that it is alleged that a substantial wall, 12 feet high, has been built in a way which is offensive to a number of people and is not in accordance with the original planning permissions given by Bexley Council. This was the subject of justified complaint. As my hon. Friend said, the council at one stage took such a serious view of this transgression that it issued an enforcement notice which would have required the developers to have pulled the wall down.
Under the planning law, there are two ways of dealing with such a situation. Sometimes it is suggested to a developer or builder who has gone wrong that the common-sense solution would be for him to put in another application, which could be properly considered by the council; objections could be made, but if on the whole the matter went through these processes to the stage where the council felt able to give permission the fault is put right and everything is above board.
This course has the merit of commonsense in many cases, because on the whole public opinion does not support either the planning authority or the Government if when something has been erected the developer or builder is told to take it down. It seems rather absurd sometimes that when this has occurred all the work has to be done again, with the consequent waste of time and money. Where sometimes a council has felt that it must insist on this, and where the council's attitude hes been supported by the Minister, we have often got a hostile Press, because often the Press does not understand what the basic facts are and represent the matter as some rather frivolous piece of bureaucracy, whereas in point of fact it may be a serious infringement which will affect the convenience or welfare of a considerable number of people.
Sometimes that course can be adopted. In this case, the Bexley Council finally, instead of proceeding with its enforcement notice, upon the receipt of another application gave permission for the retention of the wall where it was, although it is clear that it has not been built where permission was originally given for it to be.
I think that my hon. Friend realises that when that happens there is no procedure for an inquiry, because there is no enforcement notice before the Minister. The case must then be dealt with on its merits. The case has gone through the necessary stages and planning permission has been granted. The procedure with the local authority is exhausted.
It is possible in certain circumstances for the Minister, even at this stage, to intervene under Section 207 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, and to withdraw the planning permission. This leads to an inquiry, on the report arising from which the Minister decides whether he should go to the full length of the powers he has under this Section. This is a very important constitutional point: the powers under Section 207 have been very rarely used since 1947. The Minister has initiated proceedings under Section 207 in 11 cases connected with mineral workings, which have all kinds of different connotations, largely connected with compensation.
In only about 16 cases of normal development since 1947 has the Minister intervened. Sometimes these have been over very large areas of the country and the Minister has intervened perhaps to prevent a development from even starting. On the whole, this has been justified, but it is a rare power.
I must put it on record that for the Minister, at this stage in any planning permission, to use his powers under Section 207 he must be absolutely assured that it is justified in the public interest, although the public interest can be 12 families, as here, and not 200,000 people. The whole tendency in our belief in representative Government and in local democracy is that Whitehall should not interfere with the local authority unless this kind of consideration arises. I am sure that, when my hon. Friend was leader of the Erith Council, he would have been the first person to lead deputations here and to have some sort of Motion moved in the reverse sense to his present one were the Minister to interfere too often.
I must make clear, therefore, that it is only in the most exceptional cases—I am sure that we are supported here by public opinion and the whole House— that the Minister will intervene in this sort of case, Parliament having clearly given to the local authorities power to decide day-to-day applications. Anything I say further must not detract from this general position which the Minister has taken up and the general constitutional position which, I think, is accepted by everyone.
However, what my hon. Friend has told me today leads me to believe that, without going so far as to say that the Minister should proceed under Section 207, there are certain factors which suggest that at least we should have further consultations with the local planning authority. I think that that will be the proper and fair way to proceed. For example, my hon. Friend raised the question what is to happen at the end of five years if the new retaining wall is built in front of the other retaining wall and the space is filled up with trees and shrubs. Is the maintenance cost to fall upon the, residents? They have not been responsible for creating the problem or obstacle.
The maintenance of the wall by the builders was under the condition to be for only five years, and I do not quite know why that five-year period was put in.
Second, as I understand it, there is considerable argument about whether the amelioration proposed can be carried out because the new suggested wall may not be built as it would have to be built on the property of those who are complaining. When the local planning authority granted permission for the new proposal, with the slight amelioration of the wall in front and the landscaping, I do not know whether it realised that the ground upon which it was to be built may be in dispute. If there is any doubt about whether this second wall can be built, it seems to me that there may be doubt as to whether the first proposal ought to have been allowed, and whether the existing wall should be permitted to stay.
In view of these new factors—new factors as far as I am concerned—I think that the proper course will be for the Ministry to have further consultations with the borough council. I shall be in touch with my hon. Friend after that to see whether any further steps should be taken.
I appreciate the point which my hon. Friend has raised, so much so that, although I cannot do this in connection with all the appeals coming to the Ministry in one way or another, I should like to visit this site. I do make visits from time to time. Within the next month or so, I shall hope to visit the site myself. In the meantime, I shall see that my officers get in touch with the borough council. As I say, we appreciate the point, and it is the desire of all of us, including the borough council, I am sure—I want to be quite fair to the council—that justice must be seen to be done in these matters which affect the family life and convenience of my hon. Friend's constituents. I propose, therefore, to proceed in that way.