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Wandsworth Borough Plan (Inspector's Report)

Volume 22: debated on Wednesday 28 April 1982

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. Lang.]

10.49 pm

I welcome the opportunity of raising a matter of concern in my constituency—the action of the Secretary of State for the Environment in connection with the inspector's report on the inquiry into the Wandsworth borough plan. However, it is my contention that the action of the Secretary of State is not only disturbing but has wider implications than for Wandsworth.

The sequence of events started with the publication by Wandsworth borough council of its draft borough plan in January 1980. It was an unusual borough plan. In many respects it was an intensely party political document put forward by the Conservative-controlled Wandsworth council.

Following publication of the plan, there were 1,450 objections and representations. The Secretary of State appointed an inspector, Mr. Woodford, to conduct a public local inquiry under section 13 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971.

On 10 February there was a preliminary procedural meeting at which the inspector described briefly the functions of such plans. He said:
"Essentially, a local plan formulates proposals for the development of land in the plan area, including measures for the improvement of the environment and the management of traffic.
It is only in respect of policies of proposals related directly to these town planning matters that an Inspector can properly make recommendations."
The inspector stated that the borough plan covered matters such as the sale of council houses, the extension of opportunities for home ownership, the disposal of other council assets, the taking over of responsibility for education and the increased private use of unused National Health Service facilities. He said:
"While they are important considerations, they are not policies relating to land use planning, nor are they site specific. They are not matters upon which I might hope to be helpful.
It is for the Council, who pay the Department of the Environment for my services, to decide whether they wish me to hear objections relating to such matters, or any others which amount to background information rather than items to which land use plans and policies directly relate. I can only advise at this stage that to spend time on these matters which are the subject of legislation, other than planning legislation, would be a waste of objectors' time and of public money."
The council apparently considered the inspector's reluctance to cover all the subjects that were dealt with in the borough plan, but about a week later, on 17 February, referring to the deputy leader of the council and chairman of the town planning policy committee, Councillor Heaster, the director of planning, in a letter sent to all objectors to the borough plan, said:
"Councillor Heaster confirmed that the Council welcomed the opportunity to hear the views of the people of Wandsworth who wished to object to any part of the Plan."
In other words, the inspector was reluctant to concern himself with all the issues raised in the plan because he thought that it was improper that the plan should extend to matters such as party politics, but the Wandsworth borough council wanted the inspector to cover those subjects.

The inquiry started on 24 February and continued until 3 July. Altogether there were 35 sitting days. Overall the inspector spent 63 days considering that inquiry. No one can say that it was not a thorough job.

The inspector produced his report, which was published on 23 December 1981. I shall quote some of the inspector's remarks because they are directly relevant to the subsequent action of the Secretary of State for the Environment. In his report the inspector said:
"My experience in holding the inquiry confirms the view that the extension of the functions of the plan into the expression of political policies and policies for a broad range of council functions principally governed by legislation other than planning legislation, serves to mislead members of the public".
The inspector went on to say that
"the Plan contains no proposal for the use or development of a precise area of land, whereby the policy statement might be seen to have a realistic planning implication."
He continued:
"in its present form, the Plan is misleading in that it extends over fields of local government activity which local plans under the 1971 Act are not designed to cover, and it is unlikely to carry public confidence."
He then said:
"better that the Plan should present reasonable objectives for improving the quality of life in the borough and fall short of full achievement, than that it should encourage and embitter local people suffering adverse conditions by a paucity of proposals and a lack of vision."
I mentioned earlier that the inspector was reluctant to be obliged to devote himself to the full range of issues covered by the plan. However, on housing, he said:
"Having been obliged to hear objections on matters outside the scope of the Plan, I indicated in paragraph 7 that in fairness to objectors I would consider myself entitled to comment on those matters, where evidence and argument were strong. I do so in respect of the council policy for the sale of council houses, despite my warnings at the inquiry that it was a subject on which I would not wish to comment. I recognise that the council is obliged by law to sell council dwellings to sitting tenants and I make no criticism of central government policy."
The inspector made a number of specific comments about the policy of selling council houses in Wandsworth. He said that this policy
"must be likely to prejudice the supply of satisfactory homes to a large number of disadvantaged families now living in high level flats, or in other unsatisfactory housing."
He added that
"it must be a serious mistake for the council as housing authority to continue to reduce its already inadequate stock of family houses available for rent."
Finally, he talked about the policy being
"inevitably … severely prejudicial to the most vital interests of the poorest families in the community. In my opinion it carries with it the prospect of adding to the causes of social unrest, and I have no doubt that it would be in the widest interests of the local community for this policy to be relinquished, until such time as the problems presented by the borough's general housing shortage have been solved."
Those were some of the comments made by the inspector. Wandsworth council then considered the report. Clearly the Conservative majority did not like it. It may be a coincidence that, at about the time the council was considering the report, the Secretary of State for the Environment visited Wandsworth town hall. The visit took placed on 19 February. Whether or not it was a coincidence, at about that time the Conservative-controlled council decided to approach the Secretary of State. This was revealed clearly in answer to a question asked by councillor Julian Proudman at a meeting of the council on 23 March. The answer to the question that was put to the chairman of the committee about the sequence of events was as follows:
"Members will recall that the Technical Services Committee at their meeting in February agreed, inter alia, that appropriate representations should be made to the Secretary of State upon the manner in which the Inspector had dealt with the Council's Plan.
Members will also be aware from the recent special meeting of the technical services committee that Councillor Chope"—
he is the leader of the council—
"wrote to the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State expressing the Council's concern at the chaos and confusion which has been generated by the Inspector's Report and that the reply he received confirmed that the Inspector went outside the proper bounds of his function."
I do not have the detail of the letters that passed between the council and the Department of the Environment, but the local paper quoted some extracts from a letter, sent by the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment to Wandsworth council, in which it is said that the inspector, Mr. Woodford, made an error of judgment, and it adds:
"He went outside the proper bounds of his function in his expressions of criticism of some Council policies, such as those on housing, and in particular the sale of council houses."
That was what was quoted in the local newspapers.

That sequence of events was confirmed on 21 April when, in reply to a question from me, the Under-Secretary of State said that it was for the council to decide what to do with the report. In reply to a supplementary question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), the Under-Secretary of State said:
"The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that in making that statement the inspector was exceeding his competence and made an error of judgment."—[Official Report, 21 April 1982; Vol. 22, c. 247.]
So there can be no doubt that serious criticisms were made of the way in which the inspector had reported on the inquiry, and that those criticisms were made as a result of representations made to the Department of the Environment by the Conservative-controlled Wandsworth council.

I suggest that the Under-Secretary of State has not behaved correctly in his approach to this matter. He has said on more than one occasion that the inspector, in carrying out the inquiry and in reporting, was responsible to Wandsworth council and was not responsible in any way to the Department of the Environment. In this whole matter the Conservatives at Wandsworth town hall have behaved very incompetently, but they were the people who raised the complaint with the Secretary of State for the Environment.

When the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment criticised the inspector, I suggest that that criticism was of the conduct of the inspector acting in a quasi-judicial capacity. The inspector was not acting as an administrator fulfilling the political will of the Department of the Environment. He is supposed to act in an impartial manner, to consider the representations and objections made to the inquiry, to weigh them in the balance, and then report to Wandsworth council on his conclusions.

Throughout this matter the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment has made no comment on the blatantly party political nature of the Wandsworth borough plan—something which has caused widespread concern throughout Wandsworth and which was referred to in many instances during the inspector's report and, indeed, during the inquiry sessions which the inspector held. I know that because I gave evidence at one of them and I know full well the dificulties that the inspector faced in having to deal with a plan which went so far beyond the normal bounds of such plans and strayed directly into the area of party politics.

What makes the conduct of the Minister even worse is that local elections are under way, and it seems to me that he has blatantly interfered in the local election campaign that is now taking place in Wandworth. It would normally be permissible for a Minister to make political statements, but it is not appropriate for him to do so when his own inspector has been carrying out a non-political function in relation to an inquiry on the local plan.

The matter is made even worse because under statute the Secretary of State has further powers in relation to plans of this kind. He can, for example, call in such a plan; that is to say, he can compel Wandsworth council to return it to him, presumably as a way of tearing up the plan altogether and asking the council to start again. I am not suggesting that that is his intention, but he has the powers under statute to do so, and it seems to me that he has made his own future role in this whole planning matter very difficult by having interfered at this stage in the way that he has done.

I suppose there is even the possibility that there will be litigation about the way in which the inquiry has been held and about the outcome of the inquiry, and again it seems to me that the Secretary of State has made his own position very difficult.

It is my contention that, in view of this incorrect—I am not sure whether I am allowed to use a stronger word—behaviour by the Minister, he has only one course open to him. He should, without reservation, withdraw all the criticisms that he has made of the inspector who carried out the inquiry, and then let the people of Wandsworth and the Wandsworth council decide, presumably after the local elections, how they want their local plan to be taken further.

11.5 pm

I have listened with increasing interest to the hon. Member for Battersea, South (Mr. Dubs). I note that he criticised me in particular over my role in the saga of the Wandsworth town plan. He also criticised me for making an intervention in the sensitive period of the run-up to a local election. I am astonished to hear that allegation levelled against me when the hon. Gentleman himself has placed an oral question before the Secretary of State and has obtained this Adjournment debate in this sensitive period of the run-up to a local election. I cannot believe that the hon. Gentleman, who is a man of supreme intelligence in many things, was not aware that he was seeking to exploit an opportunity for his own ends, just as he suggested I was doing.

If I may leave that on one side, the burden of the hon. Gentleman's speech concerned the inspector's report and how it came to be written up in the manner that he has described. He will understand if I cannot answer all the aspects that he has raised. I must reiterate that what is done about Wandsworth town plan is very much a matter for the council. I propose to explain briefly the focus and status of the plan and the role of the inspector and, indeed, so far as the topic for debate calls this into question, the statutory position of my right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State for the Environment.

The purpose of a local plan is to formulate the planning authority's proposals for the development and other use of land in the area covered by the plan; in this case it was for the whole of the Wandsworth borough council area. Although the drafting of the plan is a matter for the council, the Department of the Environment has laid down guidelines for authorities and also gives advice when requested.

I should make it clear to the hon. Gentleman that the relationship between the Department and the council in this case is in a very different capacity from that involving the examination of a planning appeal before an inspector, when the Department exercises on behalf of the Secretary of State a quasi-judicial role. This is not the case in regard to the public examination of a plan, which is not a judicial procedure so much as an exposure of arguments about what a council may seek to do, in planning terms, with the district over which it has authority.

It is true, as the hon. Gentleman suggests, that the general principle is that local plans should define the extent and location of future provision of land for housing, industry and allied subjects, and provide a framework for the guidance of developers and the exercise of development control, which the council as planning authority has power to do.

The plan should be confined to land use issues. Related but non-planning policies may be introduced as part of the reasoned justification for the land use proposals but should not be seen as an end in themselves. From this we have part of the genesis of the problems associated with the public inquiry and the inspector's action in respect of the Wandsworth plan.

My understanding is that the genesis of the Wandsworth plan lay in part with the previous administration which had produced a draft plan, which was found by the existing Conservative Administration on coining into office. Much of the previous plan dealt with non-planning matters. Therefore it was to some extent in draft in a form that was not related directly to land use matters when the present authority took over.

An authority is required, when it draws up a plan, to publish it and place it on deposit for public comment. If objections are made to the plan, the council is required to arrange for a public local inquiry to be held into it. The process of the inquiry is entirely a matter again for the local authority. It so happens that a local authority usually, but not always, invites my right hon. Friend to conduct the inquiry on its behalf, and to report his findings to it.

The inspector's objective is to discover and record the relevant facts, to report to the authority on the objections as presented to him, to set out his views on the merits of the objections and to make recommendations about possible modifications to the plan.

When it has received the inspector's report on the inquiry the council has to consider what action it wishes to take in the light of the inspector's recommendations, and in particular what modifications it proposes to make to the plan. The council then publishes the inspector's report and its proposed modifications. The council is not, however, bound to accept the inspector's recommendations, and indeed may challenge and refute them. But it must prepare a statement of the decisions and its reasons for reaching them.

It is true, as the hon. Gentleman said, that my right hon. Friend can at any time before the plan is adopted direct the council to submit the plan to him for approval. However, he uses these call-in powers only in exceptional circumstances, such as where the plan raises issues of national or regional importance, or where it gives rise to substantial controversy which extends beyond the area of the plan-making authority. Those are the only two general grounds on which the Secretary of State might intervene.

I turn to the precise matters raised by the hon. Gentleman. The draft Wandsworth borough local plan was formally placed on deposit on 14 November 1980. A considerable number of objections was received, and the Department was asked by the council to appoint an inspector to conduct a public inquiry on its behalf. That was done, and the inquiry was arranged to start on 24 February 1981. There was an adjournment to allow local objectors more time to produce the kind of evidence that they wished to present, and the inquiry recommenced on 28 April, concluding on 3 July.

It is true that in this case the inspector faced a considerable difficulty. The hon. Gentleman quoted from the exchange of views with the inspector before the inquiry. The council insisted upon the inquiry's considering all objections, whether relevant or not, and confirmed, to quote the inspector:
"that they welcomed the opportunity to hear the views of the people of Wandsworth who wished to object to any part of the plan and suggested that I could do no more than pass these views to you".
That was a generous and fair view taken by the council to try to allow as many people as possible to take part in a public discussion about the plan's content. It can in no way be suggested to be a narrow interpretation of the process of public consultation; it is an extremely wide interpretation.

The inspector was, therefore, in a great difficulty. He was asked to deal with material that clearly was not, on any reading of the matter, relevant to the kind of plan required under the Town and Country Planning Acts—a point that the hon. Gentleman made. The inspector was faced with a large body of objectors who, having been invited, presumably expected to have their views carefully evaluated.

There would have been no grounds for criticism of the inspector if he had merely heard, recorded and passed on those views, except where he could clearly see their relevance to the true purpose of the local plan. However, his statement that in fairness to objectors he held himself free to make comments and recommendations where evidence and argument appeared compelling—that is, even in conditions in which the matter under examination was not directly relevant to a local plan—must be regarded as an error of judgment. In all planning cases the inspector is required to deal with the facts and make comments on those that are related to strict planning issues. He cannot hold himself free to make general comment on the matters of comment placed before him, even though in an inquiry much comment is often passed.

The Minister is missing the point. What really happened was that instead of producing a plan the Wandsworth council produced a document consisting mainly of party political propaganda. The inspector pointed out quite frankly that it had done so, and now the Minister is blaming him for pointing out the facts. Surely, that is little more than the conduct of those who used to abuse messengers for bringing bad news.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman is stretching the credulity of the House even at this late hour, but his capacity to stretch our credulity is often a matter for admiration.

As the guidance for inspectors makes plain, an inspector carrying out functions, even on behalf of a council, is required to deal with matters of fact in relation to the Town and Country Planning Acts. Because of the content of this particular plan, there was clearly wide discussion and comment on political matters not related to land use issues. It was in holding himself free to comment on those political issues that the inspector exceeded his competence and therefore was in error in making his remarks and report to the council.

The council had certainly taken the view, as it was entitled to do, that it wished to hear the views of the objectors, while recognising that the inspector could do no more than pass those views on to the council. It was in the comments that he passed on in relation to those parts of the inquiry which dealt with non-planning use matters that he exceeded the normal rules applied to inspectors' actions in inquiries.

The plan document included a number of such policies, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, but the inspector exceeded the proper bounds of his functions in his expressions of criticism of some council policies, such as those on housing, particularly the sale of council houses. I need hardly add that they were council policies which accorded entirely with policies advocated by the Government.

As I have said, the inspector was placed in a particularly difficult position in this case and he took what he thought was appropriate action. In the light of this, I must tell the hon. Gentleman and the House that I am taking steps to ensure that the rules of conduct for inspectors are clarified to avoid the repetition of such a situation.

The hon. Gentleman referred to correspondence between myself and Councillor Chope, the leader of Wandsworth council, and I think that he criticised me for that. I remind him that that correspondence occurred before the visit of the Secretary of State on 19 February, whereas the hon. Gentleman seemed to suggest that it was a consequence of that visit. I was approached by the council in early February, drawing my attention to some of the criticisms in the inspector's report and seeking my advice on how the council should proceed with the plan. In my reply, I said:
"The report makes clear that the Inspector sought the Council's advice on whether he should hear those objections to the plan which related to matters which were not concerned with land use and development. In response the Council indicated that they wished to hear the views of these objectors, while recognising that he could do no more than pass these views on to them ….
It is of course for the Council to decide what action they wish to take on the Inspector's recommendations, and in connection with this decision you are at liberty to make public the views which I have expressed above."
I also said:
"It is, of course, a normal part of an Inspector's job not only to report the objections he hears at the inquiry but also to comment on them. In most cases he would indeed be failing in his duty to the local planning authority if he did not do so. However, his comments must be confined to planning matters relevant to the local plan proposals.
There is no doubt in my mind that, in the present case, he made an error of judgment. He went outside the proper bounds of his function in his expressions of criticism of some Council policies, such as those on housing, and in particular, the sale of council houses."
Those were the views set out in my letter.

In relation to this matter, the question of how inspectors should perform their duties is only one part of the problem thrown up by the Wandsworth plan. It also concerned what the content of a local plan should be. I urge other planning authorities preparing, or contemplating preparing, local plans to consider very carefully the structure and content of the plans, so as to avoid the pitfalls which occur when extraneous—that is, non-land use—issues are included.

I turn briefly to what should now happen to the Wandsworth borough plan and the inspector's report. The usual procedure is for the local authority to consider the inspector's report and recommendations and to publish it in due course with modifications. I understand that that is what the council intends to do.

As I have said, the council is not obliged to agree with the inspector. It can, when publishing its proposed modifications, challenge and refute any of his arguments or recommendations with which it does not agree. There is then an opportunity for persons to comment on or object to the proposed modifications.

The council may then, if it thinks fit——

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes past Eleven o'clock.