HC Deb 03 July 1992 vol 210 cc1139-46

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

3.32 pm
Mr. Harry Greenway (Ealing, North)

The decision by the then Labour council of the London borough of Ealing in 1988 to grant permission to build a mosque and 22 town houses on Northolt's only industrial estate was based on a false premise and ignored the wishes of the overwhelming majority of the residents and industrialists.

In 1980, a Muslim sect known as the Dawoodi Bohra —a group of Muslims—bought a former Jewish boys' club in the Hanwell district of Ealing. Although the premises were to be used only for educational and social purposes, the sect soon started to hold large religious meetings on their land, which was surrounded by privately owned, semi-detached houses. The local people complained that there was amplified chanting and that the sect was using the area freely as a rubbish tip and causing numerous car parking difficulties. That led to the local authority closing down the premises under the Control of Pollution Act 1974.

The local elections in May 1986 returned a Labour majority on Ealing council. The then leader, Councillor Turner, and other councillors were urged to find an alternative site for the Dawoodi Bohra sect, even though very few of the sect's members were Ealing residents and scarcely one of them lived in Northolt.

A site was selected which happened to lie in the council leader's ward. That industrial site, known as the Sadia site, was positioned at the only entrance to Northolt's sole industrial estate. The Sadia site had been vacant for several years, but only four days after it was purchased by the Mowlem group of builders for immediate construction of small building units —and the provision of jobs—the then council purchased the land for twice the price paid by Mowlem.

On 10 October 1986, Ealing council acquired the Sadia site for £1.4 million. The reason given was that it was needed for council purposes. In May 1987, Ealing council advised that it had bought the land on behalf of the Dawoodi Bohra because it was alleged that religious sects were unable to find the money. I am indebted to the Northolt village residents association and its chairman, Mr. Bernard Furzer, the former chairman, Councillor Fred Richards, and others for their research.

Ealing council said that it was anxious to obtain the land in Hanwell which the Muslim group owned and therefore, once the necessary planning permission had been granted for the Sadia site in Northolt, the exchange of properties could be made between the council and the Dawoodi Bohra community. The Hanwell site, which, by March 1988, included two of the surrounding residential houses, was purchased by Ealing council for the Dawoodi Bohra community for £900,000. There was no agreed planning permission for that site. In return, the Dawoodi Bohra community purchased the Sadia site for £1.425 million, which meant that the Muslim sect had obtained a much larger industrial site by handing over about £500,000 for a 3.1 acre site, according to researches by the residents of Northolt.

Although Ealing council had used ratepayers' money to buy the site and held on to it for 18 months, when the council sold it to the Dawoodi Bohra community, no increase to allow for inflation was added to the original purchase price. Ealing's ratepayers therefore subsidised the purchase of the land, without the benefit of any interest being charged, for one and a half years. That was when property prices in the London area, particularly in west London, were booming. In short, the Hanwell property was valued in 1988 when purchased by Ealing council for £900,000. It has proved to be a white elephant, as the land cannot be used by the council because it infringes back garden development regulations that have been brought in by the present Ealing council. That could represent another considerable loss of cash to Ealing residents, and it is rather typical of the loony actions of the former Labour council in Ealing between 1986 and 1990.

Early in 1987, following Ealing's purchase of the land for council purposes, thousands of residents voiced their protests to Ealing council against the proposal to build a mosque and a Muslim housing estate at the entrance to Northolt's only industrial estate. The industrial estate is served by one road for all industrial units there, and that is linked to the A40 trunk road.

I shall briefly record my action in the matter. First, the Dawoodi Bohra community leaders approached me in January 1987 and said that they would like to build on the site. I advised them that they would be making a serious mistake and should not go ahead. Secondly, in 1987 I chaired a public meeting, at which the idea was discussed with the three local Labour councillors present. Hundreds of people attended the meeting, which unanimously opposed the development proposal. Thirdly, a public petition went to Ealing council via myself, containing thousands of signatures of those opposed to the proposed development. Similarly, thousands of letters went direct and via myself to Ealing council opposing the development.

Fourthly, under my chairmanship there was a joint meeting of residents and the Dawoodi Bohra community at which local residents' leaders pressed the Dawoodi Bohra community not to go ahead with its proposed development. Fifthly, I held a second public meeting, again attended by hundreds of people, which unanimously opposed the proposed development. Sixthly, my many letters to the Dawoodi Bohra community asking them to desist from going ahead were not answered. Seventhly, in June 1987 a third public meeting was held which leaders of the Dawoodi Bohra community attended. I begged them not to go ahead with the project because it was not acceptable in even the smallest way to local residents. Eighthly, the then loony Labour council pressed ahead throughout with support for the proposal and ignored all objections. Indeed, it did not answer them.

Ninthly, preliminary planning permission was given at Greenford hall by the area planning committee in 1987. Hundreds of people demonstrated at the meeting. They were held back by police and Alsatian dogs. That does not seem a happy way of granting any local planning permission. It represented a serious misreading of the public mood. Tenthly, the planning permission was ratified by the then Labour council. Eleventhly, a Conservative minority councillor's attempt to throw out the planning permission decision was defeated by the Labour majority.

The House will see that I took the view that the proposal would not gain acceptance in the local community and should not be proceeded with. I emphasised throughout and emphasise again today that freedom to worship, whatever a person's religion, is not in question. The problem is and has always been that to build the facility—if I might call it that—and the 22 houses on Northolt's only industrial estate would do serious damage to race relations and public morale in Northolt, where there is already high unemployment. It should not be proceeded with for that reason.

The residents complained that a mosque on the Sadia site would slowly but surely erode the industrial base of Northolt, on which many residents depend for their livelihood. They took the view that the arrival of possibly thousands of worshippers at the mosque in their cars could be misread by local people and others and could damage local industrialists' pursuit of their activities.

The owners of the factories might conclude that it was not economic to continue trading under such conditions. Their departure from the estate would only worsen the employment position for Northolt people. I repeat that Northolt has the sad distinction of having too high a number of unemployed people —more than we should like. Even though hundreds and thousands of my constituents implored the then Labour council to refuse planning permission, their pleas were ignored and were not even discussed. Detailed planning permission was granted at the end of 1988 by the council.

The greatest sadness in the series of events is that, but for the administrative incompetence of the Labour council when it purchased the Sadia site in October 1986, the whole sorry state of affairs might have stopped a t that date. In answer to a question put by the Northolt village residents association, the officers of the then council leader categorically rejected any suggestion that there was a restrictive covenant on the Sadia site. The residents had the impression that the council did not even investigate whether there was such a covenant. The statement had to be accepted at face value because at that time it was not possible for an outside party to make a search of the title deeds.

Only after detailed planning permission had been granted in 1988 for the Dawoodi Bohra community to go ahead and build its mosque and town houses were local residents able to discover that a restrictive covenant existed. It had been taken out in 1937. It strictly precluded on all those areas of land including the one in question any use other than for buildings for factory, or warehouse or workshop or offices. The Dawoodi Bohra community refused to accept the validity of the covenant and local industrialists took the matter to the High Court. There they were told that the covenant was valid. Their views on its validity were upheld. The judge said: one could not help falling over the covenant". Yet not one person in Ealing town hall in 1986 had thought to discover whether a covenant or casement had been placed on the Sadia site. Although the High Court upheld the covenant, it refused to allow an injunction to prevent the building work from taking place.

If the mosque is completed, industrialists could constantly be seeking damages for infringement to their businesses from the Dawoodi Bohra community. It might only be a question of time, and of how long a factory owner could continue to claim damages from a neighbour, before deciding to sell up and move the business to a site where operations would be easier.

My constituents were totally ignored by the former loony Labour Ealing council. As ratepayers, they have had to pay for the very thing that they opposed and still oppose —in planning terms. The very protection under law which would have assisted them to ensure continued employment on the Sadia site was denied them by the unwitting incompetence—that is what local residents justifiably call it—of people who purported to represent them at Ealing town hall.

In January 1991, at the instigation of Northolt village residents association, the Department of the Environment required the present Ealing council to submit a full report on the granting of this planning permission to the Secretary of State. Although requests have been made for that report to be made available to the residents association and to others in the local community, it has not been forthcoming. That is a serious indictment in terms of open government, which we seek both locally and nationally.

There are strong moral grounds for demanding a full independent inquiry to investigate why planning permission was granted in 1988 and why officers of Ealing council, under the direction and control of Ealing's Labour councillors —who were loonies—came to act as they did and to set up that complex on the only industrial estate in Northolt. That estate is the focus for local workers. If they do not have jobs, they look to that site and say that they ought to be employed there—but that cannot happen because of the mosque development. That is serious, and it is bound to be damaging and distressing to the community.

2.47 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Tony Baldry)

My hon. Friend, the Member for Ealing, North (Mr. Greenway) has raised an issue of concern to his constituents with considerable vigour. I know that it has created a good deal of comment on his constituency. My hon. Friend has pursued the issue assiduously since 1987. I hope that this debate will help those opposing the development to understand why the Secretary of State will not intervene.

The facts can be simply stated. In 1987, Ealing council received a planning application for the construction of a mosque, a community centre and 22 town houses. In considering that application the council was required, among other material considerations, to have regard to the local plan that was then adopted for the area and to the views and representations of neighbours, borough residents and other interested parties. Those factors were taken into account by the council and planning permission was granted. I understand that building work is well advanced.

I understand that the granting of planning permission was not welcomed by many local residents. Their main objections, I understand, were to the loss of land intended for industrial development in an area where there is little such land, and the possible noise and disturbance caused by visitors to the mosque. My hon. Friend has made very clear to me the nature of his constituents' concerns.

I suggest that, before coming to some of the more specific concerns it would be helpful if the House reflected for a moment on how such decisions are taken. For 40 years we have had a planning system that balances the rights of landowners to improve their land if they wish with the public interest in any changes that may affect amenity. The power to restrain the rights of landowners by requiring planning permission before certain changes are made was deliberately vested in local planning authorities. That means that local planning issues are decided locally by the people elected to represent local people. Those local representatives have a duty to take into account the views of people likely to be affected and, having done so, to decide whether planning permission should be granted.

Not only have the Government retained the primacy of local choice in planning decisions but we have deliberately taken the process a stage further. We have brought planning closer to the people it affects. The Planning and Compensation Act 1991 requires all local planning authorities to prepare and maintain a development plan —in London boroughs, a unitary development plan. It also requires that all planning decisions are made in accordance with the development plan unless material considerations indicate otherwise.

Mr. Harry Greenway

I take the points made by my hon. Friend the Minister, but may I draw his attention to the part of my speech in which I explained the enormous objections raised by local people at public meetings—two or three of which were chaired by me—and in petitions and letters? Proper attention must be paid to local people and their views before planning permission is granted. My contention and that of the community that I represent is that no such attention was paid.

Mr. Baldry

My hon. Friend has made his point. Obviously, it must be for local planning committees to give such weight as they feel appropriate to local views. That is important, because they have a duty to take into account the views of people likely to be affected.

Recent Government policy guidance has made it clear that an applicant who proposes a development that conflicts with the development plan would need to produce convincing reasons to demonstrate why the plan should not prevail. Essentially, that means that we now have a plan-led system.

In preparing their plans, local planning authorities are required to consult widely in their area to ascertain the views of the whole community about how future development in the area should be shaped. At every stage, the planning authority must consider the views of local people and if it feels unable to accommodate them in some respects it is required to justify its decision.

A good plan will establish much firmer guidance for all concerned about what development will and will not be acceptable in any location. The Government want people to become involved in the preparation of those plans over the next few years.

Of course, the test of the plan-led system lies in the decisions on individual planning applications taken in the context of plan policies. Decision-making is not a straightforward, mechanistic process. The process involves a careful weighing of the issues to arrive at a reasoned, justified decision. The process should be open and transparent. By openness, I mean that it must be possible for all material considerations to be brought to the attention of the decision makers. That is where local views again become important. Notification and consultation about individual planning applications, to let members of the local community express their views, have long been part of the system. They are essential parts of ensuring that decisions reflect broad public interest. They are important parts of local choice. By introducing compulsory publicity and notification for all planning applications, the Government have considerably increased the opportunities available to communities to influence decisions. Local people, therefore, can expect their views on planning considerations to play an important part in shaping local planning policies.

The question remains: in what circumstances can or should my right hon. and learned Friend interfere with what is essentially a local decision-making process? The answer is, very selectively, and only in those few cases where the issue is not a local one. If we do not respect that principle, we simply do not have local decision making.

Parliament has given powers to my right hon. and learned Friend to intervene where it is in the wider interests of the country for him to do so. He may call in a planning application for his own decision. In doing so, he is effectively taking the decision away from those elected to represent local people and substituting his own judgment in a particular case. That is a power which must be used very selectively. The then Secretary of State for the Environment, in May 1987, set out his broad approach to the use of this power in a written answer. It might be helpful if I repeat part of it: the Government's general approach is not to interfere with the jurisdiction of the local planning authority unless it is necessary to do so. Each case must be considered on its individual merits … We will therefore continue to be very selective about calling in cases for our decision. and applications will in general be called in only if planning issues of more than local importance are involved. Such cases may include, for example, those which in our opinion could have wide effects beyond their immediate locality, which give rise to substantial regional or national controversy which may conflict with national policy on important matters. and those where the interests of national security or of foreign Governments may be involved."—[Official Report, 5 May 1987; Vol. 115. c. 346.] That is the broad approach adopted for intervening with a local planning authority. It is the approach consistently adopted by successive Secretaries of State since 1981 to the present day. Some numbers may help to illustrate the very selective use that has been made of that power. In 1991–92 local planning authorities decided about 500,000 planning applications. In comparison to that, the number of occasions on which the Secretary of State calls in a planning application—using the guidelines to which I have just referred—is something over 100 each year. That represents about one application in every 5,000.It would be inconsistent with our general approach to local choice for any much greater proportion of cases to be dealt with in that special way.

The development in Northolt underlies this debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North has previously requested that that planning application should be called in for the Secretary of State to decide. However, my predecessors took the view that the issues raised by the development were, primarily, of local importance and that they should remain with the London borough of Ealing to decide. That is not to suggest that the issues it raised were unimportant. They clearly were important and have given rise to a great deal of argument on both sides. But the issues were essentially local and it was right that the decision should be taken locally. There was no issue of national or regional significance that would justify intervention by the Secretary of State.

Latterly my hon. Friend has gone even further and requested that the Secretary of State should revoke the planning permission. Secretaries of State have used their revocation powers only in the most exceptional circumstances. It would normally require a public inquiry. In the event of the planning permission's being revoked, not only would the development have to cease, but any building works might have to be removed. Very substantial compensation payments could arise, which would fall to be paid by the local planing authority. The House may be interested to know that the power to revoke has been used on only 18 occasions since 1955 and only once since 1973.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Does the local authority have the power to institue an inquiry into the way in which planning permission was given? I understand my hon. Friend's reasoning about why the Government will not institute such an inquiry, but does the local authority still have that power?

Mr. Baldry

The local authority granted planning permission and that permission is valid unless and until someone challenges its validity in the High Court and the court comes to a different ruling. It is open to any local authority to seek to inquire into any process, but any inquiry that the London borough of Ealing had into how any particular planning application came to be determined at any particular time would not in any way affect the validity of that application.

As I said earlier, building works have now started. To ensure their removal my right hon. and learned Friend would have to make a discontinuance order which again might attract a considerable compensation payment. That is scarcely surprising. As I have explained, if the Secretary of State intervenes with the jurisdiction of a local planning authority only in selective circumstances, the test for actually revoking one of its decisions must be even stricter.

Once again, the Government's approach to the use of those reserve powers has been reported to this House. In general, the Secretary of State's approach would be to revoke a planning permission: only if the original decision is judged to be grossly wrong, so that damage is likely to be done to the wider public interest." —[Official Report, 20 December 1989; Vol. 164, c. 327.] Those are the words used by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State in an answer he gave to this House in December 1989 when he was Minister of State, Department of the Environment. That is the test which has been applied to the Northolt development. The mosque proposals have aroused local controversy. However, that was not justification for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State to intervene in a local decision. Still less is that now grounds for my right hon. and learned Friend to apply the necessarily stricter approach to revocation. That is not just my view; it is the considered and consistent conclusion of my predecessors and successive Secretaries of State.

I realise that my hon. Friend and some of his constituents will not necessarily agree with the decision taken by Ealing council—clearly, they do not. I am, however, clear that it was a decision rightly within its competence to take and that, for the reasons that I hope I have made clear, it would be wrong for the Government to interfere.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute past Three o'clock.