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Petrol Station, Wilmington (Planning Application)

Volume 652: debated on Thursday 1 February 1962

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

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

10.25 p.m.

I am grateful for this opportunity of drawing attention to the case of Mr. Furneaux, a constituent, living at Wilmington, who has been refused planning permission for an agricultural and engineering workshop, with petrol facilities, for his customers only in that village. He has, in effect, been refused permission to carry on his business as a motor engineer and now faces not only the loss of his livelihood but complete financial disaster. I should add that Mr. Furneaux has five children, of whom two are still his dependants.

I make no apology for inviting my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to reply, since this is a case in which the Ministry of Transport, rather than the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, has the final word, and a case in which an ordinary citizen, completely unbacked by the immense power of any financial interest of the big oil companies, or anything like that, is about to founder in which I might call the entanglements of the jungle of our administrative law.

As my hon. Friend will be aware, the case has a long history. Mr. Furneaux has been in the motor engineering industry and in the heavy engineering industry all his life. In 1956 he became permanently disabled as a result of spinal trouble. He then came down to Devon and settled in the village of Wilmington, which is quite a small village on the A.373 trunk road, half way between Honiton and Axminster. There he opened a small engineering works and, within four years, had built from nothing at all a good small business—an admirable example of private enterprise, and of determination in the face of adversity.

Unfortunately, the ownership of the premises changed hands and, for reasons into which I need not now go because they are irrelevant to the case, he no longer had access to the main road. The premises are now only useful to him as a store, and are used for that purpose. Faced with that threat to his livelihood, Mr. Furneaux immediately purchased an acre of land nearby, hoping to continue his flourishing small business. His sole source of income at present is carrying out, on the premises of his customers, repairs to tractors, agricultural machinery and engines, and so forth. In 1960 he had to refuse a contract worth some £300 or £400 a year because he had no premises of his own on which to carry out the work and was unable to provide oil or petrol. As my hon. Friend will know, my constituent has been applying and negotiating for permission for the last three years.

The site of his new land, which consists of an acre of grassland and orchard, is near the end of the village. There is a depth of 260 feet and a frontage of 160 feet. It lies between gradual slopes where the road goes downhill towards the east—to Axminster. The roadway here is 22 feet wide. I can, from my own knowledge of the village, confirm that there is an undoubted need for petrol for farmers and other local inhabitants. There used to be petrol facilities in the village, but there are none now. In my opinion, there is no danger to vehicles leaving the western access of the proposed workshops, there being a clear view for 200 yards to the east and 130 yards to the west. Vehicles leaving the eastern access have visibility for 202 yards to the west and 161 yards to the east.

Mr. Furneaux made application for planning permission for workshops and petrol in 1959. This was refused. An appeal was made, and that, too, was refused. The inspector recommended that the site was physically suitable and that from a planning and strictly aesthetic point of view it was the least detrimental site in the village. He did, however, express the opinion that the said lengths of visibility were insufficient to ensure reasonable safety. I do not want to dwell on that aspect unduly, but I would say that so far as I have been able to ascertain there has been no serious accident there. The only incidents of which I know have been breakdowns of vehicles in the village. There is no speed limit set by the Ministry and there is no white line. Both of those one would expect were it such a dangerous place.

The inspector found as a fact that the local farmers required the services of a workshop and supplies of fuel oil, but he thought that a trunk road was not suitable for the purpose. I do not think that anybody who knows the village can find any more suitable place which would serve the landward area round the village owing to the nature of the country. In short, the inspector, although finding that there was a local need, did not feel that he was justified in allowing the appeal in what he considered to be a place potentially dangerous to road safety.

Mr. Furneaux then made another application for an engineering workshop alone on the site. This was granted subject to the access conforming to conditions. However, the local authority refused permission for the provision of petrol pumps, and my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will realise that the provision of petrol and oil for a business of this sort was economically essential.

On 1st January, 1960, Mr. Furneaux applied for permission in respect of
"engineering repairs and welding to tractors, machinery, engines and road transport."
In April, planning permission was received from the Honiton Rural District Council in respect of the engineering workshop, on condition that the access was in accordance with the plan accompanying the Minister's letter of 31st March of that year. Petrol pumps were refused, and Mr. Furneaux then gave notice of appeal and tried to negotiate with the local authority. These negotiations were carried out between the applicant's solicitors and the Devon County Planning Department.

Some four months after the meeting between them the Devon County Council wrote saying that they had had to wait to hear from the Ministry of Transport, and in that letter it was said:
"The Divisional Road Engineer has been seeking advice regarding the question of siting petrol pumps at the rear of the proposed agricultural workshop and a condition that such petrol pumps should not be advertised in any way."
The opinion expressed in the letter was that it would be difficult to frame and enforce such a condition, although the Clerk to the County Council was of the opinion that a condition regarding advertising could be imposed and enforced.

The letter continued:
"The Minister of Transport has the last word in the terms of his direction and the Divisional Road Engineer considers that any undertaking which the applicant is prepared to give to limit the use of the pumps to workshop customers only cannot be made legally binding."
Mr. Furneaux got in touch with me and I wrote to the then Minister of Housing and Local Government in January, 1961, and received a reply from the then Parliamentary Secretary, which included the following words:
"Our lawyers think, however, that a suitable condition might be framed to limit sales of petrol to those incidental to the repairs of vehicles but this could only be tested in the courts. The control of advertisement would be best effected under the advertisement regulations and not by conditions proposed on a planning permission."
I wrote to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Transport and received a reply, once again, from the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, in which he said that my hon. Friend had pointed out that the imposition of conditions was the concern of the Ministry of Housing and Local Government rather than the Ministry of Transport and that he would, of course, be guided by the Ministry of Housing and Local Government lawyers. Clearly they had already given an opinion on this point.

Mr. Furneaux's solicitors then got in touch with the County Council again. The Clerk wrote in June, 1961, as follows:
"Whilst the planning authorities' sympathy for your client extends to an earnest desire to negotiate with him, they are completely bound by the direction of the Ministry of Transport."
This direction was given in Article 7 (2) of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order, 1950. Here I again quote the County Clerk,
"… to which I think the Parliamentary Secretaries of the two Ministries have not given their attention to the exchanges."
He adds that the local planning authority is compelled to give effect to the directions of the Ministry of Transport.

It was then suggested that Mr. Furneaux should appeal once again and get a legal decision. He consulted his solicitors and he consulted me, and both the solicitors and I strongly advised against this, mainly on financial grounds and in view of his steadily deteriorating financial position and of the long and rather unhappy history of his efforts to earn his livelihood and to continue his business.

In conclusion, I am asking my hon. Friend to look closely at this case yet again. He will readily agree. I think that it is a case involving real human hardship. Mr. Furneaux is in real difficulty. He is a man who has had his moments of adversity and who has shown great courage and enterprise in getting on to his feet in a small business. I think that my hon. Friend will agree that it is a case in which an ordinary citizen, unbacked by large financial resources and by large companies of any sort, has been caught up in the tangle of administrative law and has found the greatest difficulty in making his way through that tangle. I ask the Minister to see whether there is not some means whereby he can advise the Minister of Housing and Local Government that a limited grant to meet the local needs in Wilmington for a workshop of this sort, with unadvertised oil and petrol pumps perhaps at the back of the workshops, should be made.

If it is said to be dangerous, I point out that there would already be precautions in the village by way of a speed limit and a double white line. I submit that the decision as it stands is ineffective and futile for two reasons. First, the grant has been made for a workshop, which would, of course, involve the entry and exit of tractors and other vehicles in any event, and it is those tractors and vehicles for which the facilities for supplying oil and petrol are sought. Any increase in the existing danger—if there is danger—is therefore negligible.

The second reason is that many years ago there were two kerb-side petrol pumps in Wilmington. These pumps were in position until 1959. That site is immediately opposite Mr. Furneaux's property. There are, therefore, established user-rights for a petrol filling station, with two pumps and a kerb side filling station already in existence. There is no doubt that if Mr. Furneaux had the money he could buy the land opposite and re-start that filling station without any difficulty at all—and there is great need for such facilities.

I ask my hon. Friend to look at the situation as it is. It is a sort of "Alice in Wonderland" delirium of red tape, in which Mr. Furneaux is caught. I think that my hon. Friend will agree with me that it is extremely unjust that the ordinary citizen, the small man, should, through the complicated administration of the various Acts of Parliament and instructions from Ministries, be so frustrated in earning his living and running a small but progressive business in what many of us like to see as a progressive property-owning democracy.

10.40 p.m.

My hon. Friend the Member for Honiton (Mr. Mathew) was kind enough in raising this subject on the Adjournment tonight to apologise to me for having brought me here to answer. I assure him that I have no complaint against him for having done so. We in the House all know how assiduous in the interests of his constituents my hon. Friend is, and tonight he has given one more example. If I may say so, I personally deplore the insulting and quite unjustified attack made upon my hon. Friend in the Daily Express this morning. It was quite untrue.

Before turning to the details of the case my hon. Friend has raised, I can, I think, help the House by putting on record the considerations which we have in mind when planning applications are in question relating to development alongside a trunk road.

A local planning authority is required to consult our divisional road engineer before it grants permission for that sort of development, and its decision on the application has to follow any direction restricting consent which the divisional road engineer, acting on behalf of the Minister, may choose to give. He does this, of course, under Article 7 (2) of the General Development Order, 1950. But the planning authority, if it wishes, may add further conditions to any which are prescribed by the divisional road engineer, and it may itself refuse planning permission whether or not it has consulted him. The actual decision on any planning application is the direct responsibility of the local planning authority, and the Minister has no statutory right to intervene once a decision has been given.

As a rule, local planning authorities are required to decide planning applications within two months. If a trunk road is involved, this period is extended to three months. Unless an applicant agrees to an extension of time, he can appeal to the Minister of Housing and Local Government if a decision has not been given within the time required. When an application is referred to the divisional road engineer under the Town and Country Planning Acts, he considers each case entirely on its merits within the framework of the policy of the Ministry as laid down for the protection of our trunk road system. This policy is to restrict frontage development along main trunk roads so far as is reasonable because the provision of new accesses or the increased use of existing accesses on trunk roads can cause interference with safety and the free flow of traffic as a result of vehicles moving in and out of the traffic stream and parking on the carriageway.

We give guidance on general policy to our divisional road engineers but we do not normally intervene in their consideration of individual applications. The reason for this is that, if planning permission is in fact refused, an applicant has a statutory right of appeal to the Minister of Housing and Local Government. If he exercises this right, that Department may consult us on the highway aspects of the case after all the relevant facts have been ascertained by public inquiry or by the statements of the parties concerned. We at the Ministry then seek to give an impartial and considered opinion, without having in any way prejudged the issue before all the facts are available.

I turn now to the physical background of the present case. As my hon. Friend said, Wilmington is a small and rather straggling village on the A373 road between Honiton and Axminster. I do not take quite the same optimistic view as does my hon. Friend about the safety of the road. It is only 22 ft. wide. There is a slope at this point from west to east, and the site where it is sought to build the filling station is on a gradual curve. There is no speed limit, but this means that traffic speeds are usually rather high. We estimate that about 4,000 vehicles a day use the road. The number is as high as that.

There are already in the vicinity no less than four petrol filling stations. On the south side of the road there is one 1¼ miles to the west and another 4½ miles to the east of Wilmington. On the north side of the road there is one 3¼ miles to the west and another 2½ miles to the east of the village. Since 1955, on no less than six occasions applications have been made for permission to build or develop petrol filling stations in and around Wilmington.

In all these cases, our divisional road engineer has directed refusal on road safety grounds. There are three main reasons. First, as I have said when talking about the general doctrine, there is the risk of vehicles drawing off or on to or across the trunk road and so interfering with the flow and safety of the traffic. Secondly, there is no doubt that the visibility is not good. I am told that between 300 and 400 feet is the maximum visibility that a vehicle passing along the trunk road could possibly have of the site. Thirdly, as I have indicated, there are in the vicinity four petrol filling stations already. When our divisional road engineer directed the local planning authority to refuse planning permission, in each of the six cases the police and the county surveyor of Devon agreed with his view.

In two of the cases, appeals were lodged and local inquiries were held. Both appeals were turned down by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. One of these appeals, as we have heard from my hon. Friend, was made by Mr. Furneaux in October, 1958. In January, 1960, he made a fresh application and on this occasion he applied for planning permission for a workshop with petrol and oil supplies. As we have heard, he is an agricultural engineer and is conducting a business at the site.

In the light of the safety considerations that I have mentioned, and also the thin evidence of need for a new petrol filling station in the district, which is already fairly well supplied, our divisional road engineer directed that the planning authority should refuse its consent, and accordingly it did so. On that occasion, Mr. Furneaux did not appeal. Instead, his solicitors opened negotiations with the planning authority and with the divisional road engineer. On 21st July last year, a meeting took place on the site between all the parties. To me, what exactly took place is a little obscure, but I understand that the situation was broadly as follows.

Mr. Furneaux and his representatives offered to submit to two conditions if planning permission would be granted. The first condition was that the pumps should be located in such a position that they would not be easily visible from the road, if visible at all; and the second, that the sales of petrol and oil would be made only to those people who brought their vehicles there for repair. A third point was raised, and on this a similar undertaking was given by Mr. Furneaux, through his representatives, that no advertisements would be displayed to the effect that petrol was on sale.

The difficulty faces me as to whether any or all of these conditions to which Mr. Furneaux is prepared to submit could be validly enforced. My hon. Friend will appreciate the difficulty of my right hon. Friend and of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government. It is all very well saying that an applicant is prepared to submit to conditions, and it may well be that one can draw up legally binding conditions, but enforcement of conditions is sometimes difficult. We have to bear in mind not only the personal circumstances of the present applicant, Mr. Furneaux, with whom we have every sympathy in his difficulties, but it might well be that in course of time he might sell or assign his business to some other person, who might be in an entirely different personal position. Therefore, whatever we decide here must run with the land, to use a lawyer's expression that my hon. Friend will remember from his conveyancing days.

I am in no doubt that any condition which was imposed relating to the advertising of petrol sales would be extremely difficult to enforce. I am not so certain that it would be as difficult to enforce a condition attached to the planning permission related to the siting of the petrol pumps.

In the light of what my hon. Friend has said tonight and the cogent and moderate case he has deployed on behalf of his constituent, what I should like to do is to have another look at the whole matter. I cannot give any further undertaking than that.

If there is a way in which we can help this man I would certainly like to do it, because I have sympathy with him, but I cannot say tonight that we will find a way through the somewhat difficult legal problems. We will approach any fresh assessment of the case with goodwill, and I hope that with that undertaking from me my hon. Friend will feel that this debate has been worth while.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at ten minutes to Eleven o'clock.