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General Duties of Authorities

Part of Clause 17 – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th October 1975.

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Photo of Mr Timothy Raison Mr Timothy Raison , Aylesbury 12:00 am, 13th October 1975

This series of amendments constitutes an important part of the debate because it raises the question of the Government's approach to the planning implications of the Bill.

When the Bill appeared, the objections that were strongly pressed against it on planning grounds included three of particular importance. First, there was the conflict between the planning rôle of the local authorities and their new rôle under the Bill as developers with a clear financial incentive to development. That point has been made over and over again. Secondly, there was the absolute need to maintain planning standards and considerations and to consider the fact that this was in no way written into the Bill. Thirdly, there was the objection that the Government had never explained why the existing combination of local authority powers to draw up plans and to determine applications was inadequate.

One of the feeblest aspects of the Government's performance is that they have never got down to explaining what is wrong with the present set-up. They have relied on the age-old Socialist shibboleths as a substitute for what shoud have been considered arguments. We consider that the Government were pushed into this position by the way they rushed out their White Paper in a flood of pre-election documents which appeared in September of last year.

When the Minister was challenged on Second Reading, he said he did not care, he was not interested in achieving consensus, and he added that this was a radical measure of which he was proud. That complete lack of interest in trying to build up an agreed solution has led to the cascade of opposition aroused by this Bill. Everybody will agree that it has aroused more opposition from informed quarters than any other piece of legislation in memory.

The Minister took the view then that he did not mind. He should have said to all the relevant bodies "What do we need to produce more effective planning? What powers would you like?" It would have been reasonable for the Government to have adopted that approach. Many people would have said, if the Government had adopted that approach, that there was not all that much wrong with the present system. No doubt others would have had ideas for its improvement. Instead, the Minister produced the Bill, which aroused intense hostility, not least from the experts. As a result it had a long hot summer of sustained hammering.

We have now got concessions from the Government. There is no doubt that they are important concessions. Essentially they are, first, recognition of the desirability of securing proper planning. This is now to be written into the Bill. Secondly, the provisions of development plans have to be taken into consideration. Thirdly, so does the question whether planning permission has been refused and the whole question of planning application considerations generally.

The question is whether these concessions meet our objections. I want briefly to match them against the three general criticisms which I have put forward. The first is what might be called the rôle conflict. By that I mean the conflict between the planning duties of local authorities and their development ambitions which I suppose are kindled by the Bill. It is true that the planning rôle has been boosted and has been given safeguards, but the conflict is still there. There will still be a financial incentive for local authorities to develop. This may not be true in the big cities where, paradoxically enough, they are most likely to need the extra money and most likely not to achieve it. Overall the fact remains that there is nothing in these Government amendments which destroys the conflict between these two rôles. I hope that the Minister has seen the latest memorandum from the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors which makes this very point.

Secondly, there is the fact that planning considerations are written into the Bill. Clearly the position is improved by that. However, the Bill talks about having regard to the desirability of achieving proper planning. If the Minister is so dedicated to the notion of proper planning, why was it impossible to come up with a stronger phrase than having regard to the desirability"? That is about as feeble a way of expressing an intention as anybody could devise.

The third question was whether we need the Bill at all to secure better planning. This question has still not been answered. It is still not shown why all the apparatus, the bureaucracy, the expense, the compulsory acquisitions, are necessary for good planning. I remain entirely unconvinced of the desirability of bringing development land into public ownership. This is to be one of the considerations of the Bill, but it has never been effectively argued that it is needed. However much the Government may have modified their stance on planning in response to pressure in Committee from my hon. Friends and outside, the basic objection in principle remains. In particular, the duty to acquire from the second appointed day is as unnecessary as it is repugnant, with even the modified duty to acquire remaining fraught with dangers.

There are one or two other serious problems which the Minister must face. First, there is no doubt that this new scheme which the Government are putting forward will cause additional chaos in the planning system, in particular in the system of development control.

We had the expert report from Mr. George Dobry a year or so ago. Mr. Dobry came up with the proposal for new categories in the consideration of planning applications. The Bill also produces new categories—namely, exemptions and exceptions. Those categories will have to be fed into the planning machine. They will make it much more difficult to achieve reforms of the sort which most people accept are necessary and which were put forward in the Dobry Report. In other words, the new proposals will make our development control system a considerable mess.

Secondly, there is the difficult question of the damage which the present proposals will do to public participation in matters concerned with compulsory purchase. Under the Government's scheme a public inquiry will not always be required for compulsory purchase. That will have the effect that the countryside and amenity groups, for example, which are able to use the public inquiry system as it stands to make their views known, may well lose their chance to participate. Again, that is a grave objection.

A Justice committee has produced a report on this matter. It has made it clear that it is very concerned that the issue whether land is suitable for relevant development is entirely in the discretion of the local authority. The report reads: The Committee feel that the issue of whether land is 'suitable for relevant development' is of crucial importance and that there should be some procedure whereby, in cases of dispute, the local authority's opinion can be tested both by the owner of the land and by representative bodies of local opinion such as amenity societies. This means that at the compulsory purchase stage there must be adequate provision for public inquiries". I have tried to be brief, but I believe that the points I have put forward are of crucial importance in the consideration of the Bill. It is up to the Government to come up with some sensible answers to these problems. If they do not, the scheme can never command the acceptance which I think Ministers recognise is essential. We remain of the view that fundamentally the scheme is wrong. We welcome the concessions, but we think they will need much more discussion if and when they reach another place. I hope that the Minister will meet the points that I have tried to put to him.