§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Rossi.]
§ 10.25 p.m.
§ Mr. Thomas Torney (Bradford, South)
I wish to draw attention to a very serious matter affecting a number of my constituents. It seems to them and to me that the normal procedure of being able to get wrongs adjusted has been completely ignored and indeed is impossible in this case. In the limited time at my disposal I will attempt to outline the case.
The matter concerns planning permission for some private housing development in the area known as Greenacres in Shelf. Shelf is a small place which lies between the City of Bradford and the town of Halifax in the West Riding of Yorkshire. As my constituency covers part of the City of Bradford and part of this area of the West Riding, I am dealing with the case tonight.
It is a very pleasant area where the old nestles alongside the new. The properties concerned are a new development. There is a crescent of rather pleasing houses and bungalows, and their owners are understandably proud of the properties in which they live. They are their pride and joy. They are young people and, not surprisingly, there are numerous young children abounding in the area. At one corner of the site a new school has been built.
When the builder, Terry's of Bradford, built the original block of houses, applicants for the properties were told that two houses in the crescent either were not available or were already sold. However, those two houses have never been built. The sites were left by the builder, presumably in the hope that they could be used as a means of access to the field behind the houses which he might be able to develop in the future. This is what gives rise to my problem and the feeling which has been aroused among my constituents.
The builder went through the various procedures seeking permission to build houses on the field to which I have referred. The area is in the green belt. 511 After considerable protest by the people living in the existing crescent, the then Minister of Housing decided to set up a public inquiry, and one of his inspectors was appointed to conduct it.
The Ministry's inspector went into the matter carefully, as is the normal practice. He found:The site clearly forms part of open country separating Shelf from Bradford and is therefore justifiably included in the green belt. Moreover, access to the site through Brow Wood Rise is inadequate, and through traffic would destroy the seclusion of Green-acres. The suggested second access through the school site would be tortuous and cause some odd shaped plots. Permission for this proposal should therefore be refused.One would have imagined, therefore, that right had won the day, that my constituents had proved their point and that, quite naturally, the proposal would not go ahead. However, the inspector went further. He said that, seeing that there were problems concerning the permission which had been granted, he would leave it to the Minister to make a decision about whether the building could proceed. An employee of the urban council, the planning authority, had made a mistake and issued the permission to the builder before the inspector's report. I have had a considerable file of correspondence with the Minister, and I am sorry that he has not upheld our views.
This is the mother of Parliaments, where we pride ourselves on our democracy, and it is right that this matter should be ventilated here. I beg the Minister to do something even at this late stage. He says he is in a dilemma:First, the local planning authority can consider whether or not to make an order.This is a revocation order.If they do, and there is an objection, an inquiry has to be held by the Secretary of State.So he is saying that the only way to give my constituents justice, as the inspector recommended, is by a revocation order.
It is very strange. I have had correspondence with both local authorities, and the other local authority says more or less the same in reverse. So it is a case of, "Heads I win, tails you lose". We cannot win either way. The clerk to the West Riding County Council writes:Two points immediately occur to me—first, that it is probable that very substantial 512 amounts of compensation would be claimed by the landowners, and this would have to be paid by the local planning authority. The second point is that, in all probability, those entitled to the benefit of the planning permission, including the landowners, would object to the revocation of the planning permission, so that the Secretary of State would be involved once more.This is a prize example of buck passing. The Minister says that it is up to the local authority to decide whether to revoke and the local authority hides behind the fact that ultimately the Minister would have to hold another inquiry.
This is ridiculous. The Minister has said in correspondence with me that a mistake has taken place and that it was serious. He seems in this correspondence to favour the person who will do the building. Although the hon. Gentleman appears to have said "We cannot revoke once permission has been given", he has not shown the same concern for hundreds of my constituents who feel that they have been greatly wronged in this matter.
I therefore appeal to the Minister, despite the lateness of the hour, to think again with a view to helping my constituents. After all, this is not a political or party matter. Nor am I attacking the Government or the Conservative Party. Indeed, the vast majority of the people for whom I am pleading tonight are probably not supporters of the Labour Party. But they are my constituents and are entitled to a voice in this House.
A gross injustice has been committed and somebody somewhere appears to be hiding behind the law instead of putting the error right. I am not a lawyer but it is clear that a mistake has been made by one or more local authority workers. Shall I call them lesser civil servants? It cannot be beyond the comprehension of the many legal wizards who advise the Minister to find a way to put this mistake right and so come to the assistance of my constituents.
I trust that the hon. Gentleman will not fob us off with the sort of jargon that has appeared in the letters I have received from officials about this matter. Private builders will make considerable profits by building these houses, and little concern has been shown for those who live in the existing houses and who do not want to lose their green belt and the amenities it provides, in addition to exposing their children and the children 513 who attend the village school to the hazards of the increased traffic that will flow through the estate on roads which are not fit to take it.
I appeal yet again to the hon. Gentleman to find a way out of this difficulty. I urge him not to give meaningless explanations but to do something concrete and, above all, to change his mind. Please, I ask him, look at this flatter afresh and put this mistake right. A serious error has clearly been made by an official or employee of the urban district council.
§ 10.37 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Paul Channon)
The whole House will wish to congratulate the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Torney) on having raised this issue in the first possible Adjournment following the return of Parliament after the Summer Recess.
Whatever the outcome of this case, his constituents will feel that they have a doughty champion in their hon. Member, who has continually pressed this matter. I assure him that the most careful consideration has been given to the points he raised, and I will try to give him a meaningful answer tonight.
I am sorry that I shall not be able to take up the points he made about the planning merits or demerits of the development which is proposed on this site, but there is still before the local planning authority an application for approval of details reserved by the disputed permission. As long as there is any possibility that that application could give rise to an appeal or indeed as long as there is any possibility that the local planning authority might initiate proceedings to revoke or modify the original permission, I must be careful to avoid any comment on the merits of the case which might be held to prejudice the Secretary of State's further consideration of the matter. However I can make some comments on the legal and procedural aspect.
It is very important that local people should show the sort of concern over development in their neighbourhoods which the hon. Gentleman's constituents have shown over this rather unfortunate case.
Perhaps I may outline the facts as they are known to the Department. In Nov- 514 ember and December, 1969, the West Riding County Council informed the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, as it then was, in the normal way, of two applications for development which constituted substantial departures from the provisions of the approved development plan. These proposals were examined and the Department came to the conclusion that they ought to be examined at a public inquiry. The then Minister of Housing and Local Government accordingly called in the applications for his own decision and in the normal course of events in January, 1970—a long time ago—instructed the local planning authority to forward the original application forms to him so that he could take the necessary steps to order an inquiry.
It was then that the county council informed the Ministry that a mistake had occurred in the early handling of the applications and that the urban district council had notified the applicant of the grant of planning permission but that the notification had been recovered. Eventually the Ministry received a letter in March, 1970, setting out the facts and asking for the view of the Ministry on whether the applications were still alive.
The hon. Member will appreciate that this was long before I or any of my colleagues were at the Ministry, but I am informed that on the information and advice available at that time it appeared likely that the permissions were not valid and it was therefore decided to proceed to inquiry.
When the inspector's report was received it contained an account of the detailed argument put forward at the inquiry about the validity of the permissions that were said to have been granted. The applicants had argued very strongly that these permissions were valid and that therefore there was nothing for the Minister to decide. In the light of all the information and the arguments put forward at the inquiry the Minister concluded that after all the balance of probability was that the applications had been validly determined.
This of course created a dilemma, as the hon. Member has pointed out, because here were two proposals which had been the subject of a public inquiry for which objectors had come forward, made their case and, in relation to one 515 site, had convinced the inspector that the balance of advantage lay against the development of the land in question. But if the planning permissions which had been given were in fact valid, then my right hon. Friend had nothing in front of him on which he could give a decision. I must stress this point because it is a very important one.
It is often thought that the Minister responsible for town and country planning has some general power which enables him to exercise an oversight over local planning authorities, and district councils exercising delegated responsibility.
This is not the case. A Minister has those powers which Parliament has given him. In the case of planning applications Parliament has decreed that the responsibility for dealing with them shall rest with the local planning authorities and that the Secretary of State should have power to intervene only by calling in an application before it has been decided by the planning authority. So far as it can be seen, the applications had been decided in June, 1969, and therefore, as I have already said, there was nothing on which my right hon. Friend could give a permission. Nor, of course, was there any way—at that stage—by which he would refuse permission.
Again perhaps I could make to the hon. Member another comment about the position of the responsible Minister in planning matters. The legislation relating to town and country planning gives local planning authorities the power to revoke planning permissions if they think it expedient to so so. If they decide to revoke a permission they are liable to pay compensation and in most cases revocation orders have to be confirmed by the responsible Minister. In the general run of cases the normal control by local planning authorities, the provision for the responsible Minister to call in specific applications, and the power of local authorities to revoke a planning permission when they think it necessary to do so cover all the eventualities that arise in this field.
In this case the fact that the local authority made a mistake in the initial stage of this case was, of course, most unfortunate. The system employed by the county council and the district council 516 for considering planning applications for development which constituted substantial departures from the development plan does not appear to have been sufficiently different from that used in normal cases to ensure that the departures were always treated differently. A warning was pinned to the document conveying the county planning officer's advice which stated that permission should not be given by the district council until the departures procedure had been carried out and the Minister had been notified of the application. This warning note was usually effective and nothing went wrong.
In this case, however, the system failed and a resolution was passed by the district council's planning committee in terms which appeared to constitute a grant of planning permission. After careful examination, the Department concluded that this resolution must be construed as a decision on the application, and that a valid planning permission had been granted by the district council. When the full extent of the difficulty that had arisen in this case was appreciated, we naturally took up the question with the West Riding County Council and, as a result, their procedures have been amended to prevent a recurrence of this sort of situation.
I know that will not be a great comfort to the hon. Member but it shows that the county council is doing, its best to operate development control fairly and efficiently. I know how concerned about this case the hon. Member has been, and in his letter of 10th September my hon. Friend discussed this and some other cases in considerable detail. I think it is relevant that I should inform the House what was said in that letter. He said:Revocation is therefore the only way in which the permission could now be nullified. It is for the County Council first to consider whether the development permitted by the erroneous action of the delegate planning authority would have such a marked effect on the locality as to justify the extremely serious step of making an order to nullify that permission; I assume that you have approached them directly with a suggestion that a revocation order should be made. As you know, the Inspector expressed the view that because of access difficulties and the position of the site in an open space area planning permission should be refused for the Greenacres site. His recommendation was based on the assumption that the planning permission did not exist. Whether he would have felt that these reasons would have proved adequate for revocation are not known. If an order were to be submitted by the local planning authority then the 517 circumstances would need to be considered from that angle.That remains the position.
I understand that the local planning authority is, in fact, still considering the whole matter in the light of an application for approval of the details of the proposed development. I realise that the hon. Member is quite clearly not satisfied that this is enough, but it would be misleading if I were to encourage him to think that the Secretary of State is likely to intervene in this case.
I hope that the hon. Member will study what has been said and will decide what course of action he should pursue in the future. I am only sorry that I cannot 518 tonight go further than I have gone and give him information which would be more encouraging to his constituents. All I would say is that in view of his representations, this matter has been carefully considered on a number of occasions, and I can assure him that what I have said tonight is based on very careful legal advice which I am sure the hon. Member would wish me to take.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at twelve minutes to Eleven o'clock.