Amusement Arcades (Planning Controls)

– in the House of Commons at 2:21 pm on 21st June 1985.

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

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge 2:30 pm, 21st June 1985

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of the role of planning law in controlling and regulating the proliferation of amusement arcades.

Two appeals against planning refusals have been granted for amusement centres in my constituency in the past year. They were granted not only against the wishes of the planning authority, after they had been advised by their own professional officers, but in the teeth of strong objections by local residents. The objectors considered that the use was inappropriate in a mixed residential and commercial area, and they felt that it was likely to produce environmental problems.

Teignbridge district council refused an application to change the use of a shop at 17 Piermont place, Dawlish, into a "family leisure centre"—that, apparently, being the latest euphemism for what the rest of us would call an amusement arcade. The inspector's appeal decision report states: The council refused their consent on the grounds that the proposal is a major attraction leading to increased congestion in an area which is busy in the holiday season, thus, in turn, creating an increase in pedestrian movements across a main road; it would conflict with the intention to enhance and protect the environment of the Conservation Area in which the site is located; there is no need for more amusement facilities in the area, and the loss of retail floorspace is detrimental to the main shopping area of the town. Despite such clear and cogent considerations, the inspector allowed the appeal in June 1984, albeit having imposed certain conditions, including limiting the hours of opening and requiring sound-proofing work.

Nevertheless, my constituents are still subject to aggravation from noise and congestion, and have had imposed on their town a development that was overwhelmingly opposed by the local community.

In August last year, an inspector allowed an appeal, again with conditions, at 7 Queen street, Newton Abbot, against Teignbridge district council's refusal of an application for change of use from a cafe to a family leisure centre. The district council had opposed the development on several grounds, which included its being in an area shown on the town map as being primarily for shopping use; being in a part of the town where the traffic is already grotesquely congested; that it would create an undesirable increase in the demand for car parking in a street that was already part of a one-way system, and the fact that the footpath was narrow, and the pavement, at that point, already congested.

All those objections were overruled by the inspector. Admittedly, since then an appeal involving an amusement centre has been turned down. But the trend nevertheless appears to be showing an increase.

There are, of course, many who believe that amusement arcades are inevitably an undesirable feature and that they should be opposed on all occasions. There is certainly evidence to the effect that local authorities all over the country are worried not simply about the environmental effects—particularly where such centres adjoin residential areas—but about the adverse effects on young users of the premises. In some city centres they are considered a major menace, and in London some local boroughs have formed a special group to deal with the problem. Their sense of frustration can be imagined when it is considered that in Nottingham eight refusals by the city council have been promptly turned over on appeal.

All this is, of course, well known to my hon. Friend the Minister, but let me hasten to assure him that these are not the considerations that I bring before him today. It occurred to me that when this debate was first announced his initial response, or that of his officials, might have been that, although I did not really know it, I was really concerned about the operation of the gaming laws. Let me hasten to assure him that I do know what I am about, and it does not involve the operation of the gaming laws. The issue is not primarily one of law and order. Obviously different situations can pose different policing problems. Two old ladies feeding pigeons in a public park do not have the same potential for utilising police resources as an amusement arcade. But both activities are perfectly legal, and I am not suggesting for a moment that either of them should be made illegal. If one adopts a modest and unhysterical approach, the system will be considered with planning controls in mind.

The present Secretary of State for Defence, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, said in a major speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute summer school in September 1979 that he accepted, too, a planning process in which the individual citizen, whether alone, or acting in a pressure group, has a fundamental right to influence the direction taken in the area in which he lives. Those are splendid words, as would be expected from my right hon. Friend, but over 90 per cent. of appeals are now decided not by the Minister but by inspectors acting under delegated powers in the Town and Country Planning (Determination of Appeals by Appointed Persons) (Prescribed Classes) Regulations 1981.

As a result, the Secretary of State is no longer amenable to political pressure. The particular danger is that more and more appeals will be successful as a result of the Government's otherwise laudable determination to speed up their procedures and to use the planning mechanism to create jobs. The danger is that the principle of public participation in such decisions, which was so strong some years ago, will be further eroded.

People appear to be increasingly doubtful about the Government's commitment to local participation. The principles of the Skeffington report are being increasingly ignored. The Town and Country Planning Act's provisions for public consultation begin to have the air of a charade, Disquiet is therefore expressed by a number of organisations that, while lip service may be paid to the consideration of their views, there is no real intent that their views will be fully and properly reflected in the decisions that emerge.

The pity is that, if that is right, the trend runs contrary to Conservative philosophy which embraces care for and pride in one's community. All too often that does not appear to be reflected in decisions handed down from on high and for which we will be held responsible.

What should we do to ensure that local people's real and well-informed views are given due weight? Calls are constantly made for a community right of appeal to give objectors the right to demand an appeal against a planning authority's grant of permission and even against an inspector's decision on appeal. At first sight that might seem admirable or even beguiling, but on closer examination one can see that the problems are formidable. Such a procedure would not only delay the planning process but would involve a great deal of extra time and money for both parties. Those added expenses would probably have to be paid for by the ratepayer.

Another approach might be to ask the Secretary of State nominally to take more decisions himself rather than their being taken by a delegated authority. That would mean that my right hon. Friend would be amenable to representations by hon. Members who have a far better grasp of their community's needs and desires than an inspector who makes only a brief visit.

I believe that the answer to the problem is relatively straightforward, provided that all districts and regions tackle the problems at source, even before a specific planning application is made. In connection with amusement arcades, the reversal of refusals at district council level is greater than for other types of applications. By contrast, if a local authority has already adopted a leisure policy based on regulations rather than prohibition, the inspector must take that into account. Some recognition of that, at least in substance, was given in the Department's control policy note 11. However, more needs to be done.

I am asking my hon. Friend today whether he agrees that the way to constructive development lies in the direction that I have described. He should issue further, more specific guidance to local authorities on how they should approach the problem in a local leisure plan. He should also advise them so that the considerations to which I have referred and which are set out in the development control policy note are properly reflected in the findings on appeal.

I could have entered the Chamber ready to regale my hon. Friend the Minister with a great populist tirade on amusement arcades being Satan's playgrounds where vice and depravity proceed unabated. If my hon. Friend feels the need for some light relief after the debate is over, I could do so even then. However, when he replies, I hope that he will appreciate that I did not succumb to the temptation to adavance that argument. Had I done so, it is possible that the Chamber would have been even more crowded that it is now. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that I have highlighted something which is a cause of real grievance and concern to many in their local communities. I hope to have done so constructively and to have given some signs of where we might go from here.

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam 2:40 pm, 21st June 1985

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge (Mr. Nicholls) for initiating the debate and I congratulate him on the constructive way in which he introduced it. I suppose that on a Friday afternoon we are all in need of some light-hearted relief after the rigours of a week in Parliament. The debate that my hon. Friend has succeeded in raising on the Adjournment will be of inestimable help to his constituents in the longer term.

I congratulate my hon. Friend also on the diligent way in which he has kept behind my Department on this topic. I am certain that he has done the same with my colleagues in the Home Office. The issues, which concern both our Departments, are closely intertwined. However, I must confine my remarks to land planning use rather than moral issues.

I am well aware of the contentious issues which are aroused in people's minds and which become the subject of heated discussion in a parochial and a national sense. It is well understood that leisure centres are a matter of great concern to those in most parts of the United Kingdom, especially in the tourist area that my hon. Friend represents in the south-west of England.

I must confess that, like most hon. Members, I have not heard the term "family leisure centre" used in the sense in which it has found its way into the debate. With my ministerial responsibilities for sport, the term conjures up squash courts, indoor tennis centres or swimming pools, which are items that do not come within the term "family leisure centre" in the sense in which it has been employed by my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend has a fine record of ensuring that the subject is brought to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

The siting of amusement centres is very much the sort of issue to which planning control should be addressed. My hon. Friend mentioned two appeal cases—one in Dawlish and one in Newton Abbot—and outlined the arguments which he said were raised by the district council in its case for the refusal of planning permission. I think it only fair to point out that the inspectors appointed to determine appeals are obliged to take into account all the evidence presented to them, not merely the views of the local planning authority. It is not, of course, sufficient to say that, because the local authority did not like the amusement centre, no centre should have been permitted. Like all other planning cases, these must be considered in the light of all the relevant and local considerations.

There has, I know, been some disquiet over the past few years about the proliferation of amusement centres, and about the role of my Department on planning appeals in particular. It has been felt in some quarters that my Department has been allowing a much larger proportion of appeals against refusals of permission for amusement centres than against refusals of permission for other kinds of development. We do not yet have the firm information within my Department on which to be able to base a real assessment of that suggestion. However, as a result of the debate I intend to follow that up and to return to my hon. Friend in due course and, similarly, to respond to others of my hon. Friends who have raised this issue with me and who represent different parts of England.

The concern which was felt publicly was enough to cause me to decide to issue a new development control policy note, making clear the policy of the Government on planning control over the development both of amusement centres and other kinds of service use in shopping areas. The policy note covers a range of functions in our towns and cities and it contains great detail in one of the annexes about amusement centres. It may raise similar considerations to those raised by amusement centres in respect of other functions. A draft of the new note was widely circulated for consultation in March 1984, and my Department received a very large number of responses from consultees. A much amended version of that draft was published in January this year as the new development control policy note 11. I hope that the publication of the new note has served to set a clearer and better framework for the decisions of local planning authorities. It is a comprehensive paper.

It is very important to make sure that planning control is used to deal with planning issues and not with other things. Planning is about land use matters. It is not proper to refuse planning permission for reasons which have nothing to do with planning control. It is, of course, important that there should be controls over gambling, for example, or that public order must be maintained, but gambling and public order are not in themselves planning matters. Planning cannot be an all-embracing control. Its concern is with the use and development of land, and there I think it must remain. This distinction is one that I emphasise not least because, in seeking to deal with amusement arcades—I refrain from calling them family leisure centres—the system of planning controls is not the only instrument at the disposal of local authorities.

The Gaming Act 1968 provides that, in addition to obtaining planning permission for the premises, the occupier must obtain a permit from the local authority. Although local authorities must act reasonably, the Gaming Act leaves at large the considerations which can be taken into account in deciding whether to exercise their discretion to refuse to grant gaming permits. In addition—this may be more relevant to my hon. Friend the Member for Teignbridge and to other Members concerned about the effects of an arcade on the local environment and on residents nearby — local authorities may make byelaws under section 75 of the Public Health Act 1961. That byelaw-making power was intended primarily for application to pleasure fairs moving from site to site. Unquestionably, that must be a feature of the sort of seaport town that my hon. Friend represents. The Home Office has concluded that local authorities would be acting within their powers if they sought to make byelaws covering amusement arcades under that heading.

For those local authorities attracted to the idea of byelaws on amusement arcades, there is the prospect of being able to provide for the closure of the arcades in the evenings and for the premises to be supervised by at least one person while open for business. The byelaws may seek to control any noise nuisance and apply safety standards, including those relating to fire.

Hon. Members who have followed the debate over amusement arcades in the past year or two will know that my right hon. and learned Friend has concluded that there is no clear evidence of problems which would justify fresh controls over amusement arcades in Home Office legislation. In reaching that view the Home Secretary had the existing remedies under the Gaming Act and byelaws very much in mind, and I hope that local authorities will similarly keep those opportunities for action in focus. Certainly it would be a mistake to assume that the existing law outside the planning field is a dead letter in seeking to deal with amusement arcades.

I know that my hon. Friend will not expect me to go further into those matters this afternoon, since they are not matters for my Department, but they impinge upon the theme and the theories behind my hon. Friend's speech. Therefore, I will elaborate on the policies set out in the development control policy note, which are the policies which we follow and which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will follow in his appeal decisions, subject to any material policies in the development plan for the area and to any other material considerations in each case.

There is a fundamental planning policy that planning permission ought to be granted for any development unless there are sound, relevant, and clear-cut reasons for refusal. We said that in circular 22/80. Amusement centres can and do give rise to such sound, relevant and clear-cut reasons for refusal. Very often they include problems of noise, disturbance and road safety issues—the very point that my hon. Friend brought out. The sort of issues which may be relevant can depend on the kind of amusement centre involved.

The term amusement centre can cover a wide range of activities, including cash bingo — which is usually played in bingo clubs—prize bingo, amusement-with-prizes machines such as fruit machines and amusement-only machines, ranging from the traditional pin-tables to video games such as space invaders. Where a centre forms part of a pleasure fair or is on a seaside pier or promenade, it may include more obtrusive amusements such as shooting galleries and fairground rides. The response of the planning authority to the application will clearly vary, depending on the type of amusement centre which is proposed.

Cash bingo is rather like this place—it is almost always sessional—and applications for such a use will therefore usually raise questions posed by peaks in pedestrian movement, by vehicle movements, noise and disturbance and road safety problems which they can create. Other kinds of amusement centres, however, may not generate pedestrian or vehicle traffic which is different in kind from that caused by neighbouring uses, especially if the proposal is for a centre to be sited in a busy shopping area. That is part of the problem. Traffic and road safety issues will always be most prominent in the case of proposals for amusement centres to be sited on busy routes or near to busy road junctions.

Questions of noise and general disturbance are likely to depend, to some extent, on the kinds of amusement proposed and the expected clientele. Where an amusement centre is proposed close to residential flats or near to other residential property, its effects on amenity may be higher in the evening, when general noise levels in the neighbourhood are lower, and in such circumstances, a limitation on opening hours may reasonably be imposed by the local planning authority.

The development control policy note spells out in detail that noise is likely to be the most common effect of amusement centres on amenity generally, and it may be that noise problems in themselves can justify refusal of permission. Noise can sometimes however be attenuated by the imposition of suitable conditions—dealing, for example, with insulation, self-closing doors, the enclosure of the front of the premises or the prohibition of external loudspeakers. Shooting galleries are particular noisy, and will generally be prohibited, except in their traditional seaside or fairground locations. Account will always need to be taken of the amount of noise already generated by shops or other establishments in the area; it would not normally be reasonable to require amusement centres to be quieter than their neighbours.

The advice in the policy note is that amusement centres are most likely to be appropriately sited in secondary shopping areas or areas of mixed commercial development. An amusement centre will not be acceptable near residential property, nor near schools, churches, hospitals or hotels, if noise and disturbance may be intrusive. Again, an amusement centre which is likely to affect visual amenity will normally be out of place in conservation areas or other places of special architectural or historic character. Different considerations may, however, arise in resort towns, where the seafront or pier may be preferred locations.

Another point is that the installation of a small number of amusement machines in premises used for other purposes—for example, cafes or hotels—may not be significant enough to amount to development requiring permission under the planning Acts. Such use might be ancillary to the primary use, or insignificant in planning terms, in which case they would not need planning permission; that would depend upon the facts. Amusement-with-prizes machines always require a permit, however, whether or not planning permission is needed.

A further point of significance is that, quite apart from the possible amenity problems which an amusement centre may present, it may also be necessary to refuse permission for that centre on the ground that it is a service use which might not be allowed in a shopping street. Guidance on when this might be appropriate is again given in the new note. It might typically occur in a primary shopping area where the overall number of service outlets had already reached a level at which further changes from retail shop use should be resisted. Whether or when such a point is reached is a matter for the judgment of the local planning authority.

But that is not a judgment which should be made solely by reference to numbers of outlets, proportions of floor space or lengths of frontages, and it should always take account of the type of shopping centre, the trends in usage of that centre and the views, as far as they are known, of both those who trade there and those who shop there. Authorities should be aware that the question whether the number of amusement centres in an area is already sufficient to meet the demand will be a matter for commercial judgment, and not material to a planning decision.

At the same time, however, it must be borne in mind that amusement centres can constitute "dead frontage" within a shopping area—that is, an interruption to the retail frontage either in terms of appearance or in terms of the attraction of shoppers—which it may be necessary to break up, and this can also, depending on the site, lead to the refusal of permission for an amusement centre.

My hon. Friend mentioned a statement in 1979 by the the then Secretary of State for the Environment about the role of public participation in planning decisions—a statement which I am glad to reaffirm. It is, of course, essential that people should have a proper opportunity to have their say in questions of development which would affect their lives and their neighbourhoods, and that their views should be given proper weight, not least as evidence of the possible effect of a proposal on local amenity. But planning control has to be exercised reasonably. Decisions must be made on proper planning grounds, and not on the basis of opinions which, however worthy, are not directed solely at land use planning matters. In the end, it must be for the public authority responsible to take the decision in the light of all the circumstances of the case.

Photo of Mr Patrick Nicholls Mr Patrick Nicholls , Teignbridge

Does my hon. Friend agree that in that process it would greatly help the inspector and probably increase the chances of an acceptable decision being handed down if the local authority had a leisure plan so that it had properly addressed the problem of leisure instead of simply responding to an individual application?

Photo of Mr Neil Macfarlane Mr Neil Macfarlane , Sutton and Cheam

Yes, that is a most important definition. Again I hesitate to commit myself fully because there are varying categories of leisure definitions and it is necessary to exercise one's mind carefully when considering that definition. But in view of what my hon. Friend said, his suggestion is one that I shall want to research and I will get back to him about it. He has raised a number of matters that are worthy of closer scrutiny.

My hon. Friend puts forward several suggestions for action. He suggests that fewer appeals should be transferred to inspectors for decision, and he suggests further advice from my Department. I wonder whether he has fully considered the implications of his first suggestion. Appeals decided by the Secretary of State inevitably take considerably longer than those which can be transferred to inspectors for decision—and the latter now account for about 95 per cent. of all appeals. It would not be reasonable to change the procedure for amusement centre appeals alone, and the effect of a change would be to cause substantial delay to many projects which ought to be getting off the ground and creating jobs.

Moreover, the decision on the appeals would hardly be likely to be different. My hon. Friend suggests that a change in the procedure would make the case more amenable to political pressure. But appeal decisions must follow rigorously the rules of natural justice, and must take only land use planning issues into account. I am bound to say that this suggestion does not seem a good way forward.

On the question of further guidance from my Department, I think that the answer lies in the new version of development control policy note 11, which I issued as recently as last January. I believe that the new version of the note—which was issued after the appeal cases to which my hon. Friend referred—sets out clear policy advice along the lines I have described.

The way in which national policy falls to be applied in local areas is, of course, a matter for local authorities themselves—and the note emphasises the role of local authorities' development plans in this respect. It makes it very clear that sound and well-judged policies in a local plan will provide the best framework for decisions on applications for amusement centres. The matter is therefore very much in the hands of individual district councils. If they incorporate suitable policies in their local plans, policies which are apt to secure proper land use planning objectives such as those set out in the policy note, and accord with the general advice in circular 22/84 and the memorandum on structure and local plans, such policies will be very relevant in appeal decisions. If the advice in the policy note seems insufficient in some way, I would be happy to look at it again. But I think that more than a few months' experience of the working of the note is needed to give it a fair trial, and I urge my hon. Friend to study the document in detail with his local authority representatives, and, if they wish to come back and make any comments. My door is open.

I acknowledge again the constructive way in which my hon. Friend introduced this topic. It has provided a useful opportunity to discuss the issue. I recognise that there has been some uncertainty, and I do not underestimate the deep disquiet which it has generated in many towns and cities throughout the country. But I hope that our new note will have clarified matters. It was greatly welcomed by the local authority associations. In local areas where uncertainty still exists it is very much a matter for local authorities to set the context for applications by adopting appropriate policies in their local plans.

I again congratulate my hon. Friend on introducing the subject and on being so diligent on behalf of his constituents.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at two minutes to Three o'clock.