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University Hospital Of Wales

Volume 201: debated on Friday 20 December 1991

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Question again proposed, That this House do now adjourn.

I should say to the hon. Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones), that his debate will go on until noon, and the Chair will then call the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen), whose debate will continue until 12.30 pm.

11.32 am

I am glad of this opportunity to discuss the matter of the medicentre at the University hospital of Wales. I have referred to the issue three times in speeches in the Chamber. I also raised it in the Welsh Grant Committee last week. I make no apology for raising it again, and I shall continue to raise it for as long as necessary.

My objective in securing the debate is to persuade the Secretary of State to call in the application for the medicentre. I understand that the Secretary of State's powers to call in a planning application are contained in section 77(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. That provision appears to be so widely drawn that the Secretary of State can call in any planning application. Clearly, it would not be practicable for him to be able to do that, so there must be criteria.

The 1986 White Paper on the subject gave the best definition of the criteria to be used by the Secretary of State for calling in a planning application. The White Paper was published as a response by the Government to a report by the Select Committee on the Environment which pressed the Government to use their call-in powers more frequently. I fancy that the Committee must have been enduring the same sort of frustrations that I feel in relation to the medicentre at the University hospital of Wales. The 1986 White Paper said that decisions on calling in should be taken in the light of the circumstances of each case; that the Secretary of State must not fetter his discretion by the rigid application of any particular policy; that it should involve matters of more than local importance; and that it should apply where the local authority should not to be entrusted with the decision. It went on to refer to departure applications where the development was a departure from the structure plan.

On all grounds, there is an overwhelming case for the Secretary of State to call in this application. However, before outlining that case, I must impart an understanding of what else is going on at the University hospital of Wales. I shall comment on the relevant powers involved and how they are being used by South Glamorgan council, for the way in which it is being done is as important as anything else.

In a parallel case, Mr. Roger Knight, city planning officer for Cardiff city council, was so moved as to describe what South Glamorgan council is doing as being
"an abuse of the planning system."
He said that in the context of Corpus Christi school, and there are other examples occurring now in Cardiff. Apart from Corpus Christi school at Cyncoid, there is the Gardenhurst day centre at Penarth and the centre at Sully in the Vale of Glamorgan. They are not uncontroversial matters. The reverse is the case.

The Gardenhurst day centre is being taken forward despite considerable local objection in Penarth, not least because it is intended to place the day centre in the wrong place for the elderly who are expected to use it. The centre at Sully has members of the Vale of Glamorgan borough council up in arms, saying that what South Glamorgan council is doing is wrong, that it is not the planning authority and that it should not be acting as such. Corpus Christi school in Cyncoid, in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, Central (Mr. Grist), is another contentious matter. As well as parents being opposed to it, my hon. Friend has lodged objections with South Glamorgan council and Cardiff city council.

I am anxious that the Minister should be aware of the climate of opinion in Cardiff over those issues. The medicentre is not an isolated example. It is certainly not an example of the harmonious use of processes better to achieve a development that everybody wants. It is more another case of something being rammed through despite local objections.

As I said, it is also necessary to understand what else is going on at the University hospital of Wales. It is a large, fine teaching hospital with excellent staff who make a great contribution and who are constantly increasing and improving the health service in Wales. They are a great asset to my constituency, as they would be anywhere, but, much as they are of benefit to all my constituents, I fear that the hospital is the cause of significant problems for its immediate neighbours, numbering perhaps 10,000 people.

Our problems are mainly traffic, parking and pollution. The hospital was sited on the heath about 20 years ago and no special provision was made for traffic to and from it. There has been the inevitable increase in traffic over the years, but that has been exacerbated by the expansion in the health service at the hospital.

In line with traffic, parking has steadily increased, so much so that it has overspilled out of the hospital confines. It now affects many roads around the area. Local residents have not been able to park outside their homes and have often not been able to get into their driveways. It has become necessary again to impose a parking control zone on roads around the hospital, a development which was long fought for by Councillor Tony John, whom I congratulate on his efforts.

Possibly the greatest problem that local residents have had to endure has been that of pollution. That is the most emotive issue, concerning what has been emitted from the stack of the incinerator at the University hospital of Wales under a blanket of secrecy and Crown immunity. Complaints have been legion, involving deposits that local residents have found in their homes, on window sills, on cars and generally in the environment around the hospital.

We hoped that the situation would improve this year as the result of the provision of a new incinerator at the hospital, but, instead, the local community has been horrified to learn of a plan to incinerate not just the refuse from the University hospital of Wales but the refuse from practically every other hospital in South Glamorgan. After the community's experience of emissions from the hospital, there has been the greatest protest about that proposal. Letters have been written and petitions signed by virtually every neighbour living near the hospital.

The objections to the proposal have been led by local councillors, and I am pleased to report that Cardiff city council has refused planning permission for the development. I note that in considering the incinerator proposal, South Glamorgan council argued that it would have involved 20 round trips a day on weekdays and six round trips on weekend days. That obliged that council to tell Cardiff city council that the county council objected to the planning application on highway grounds and that the proposal would result in an unacceptable increase in the use of the surrounding road network.

If those problems were not enough, we have a newer problem—the noise of fans at a new boiler house. That is giving rise to renewed complaints from the local community.

As a response, the elected representatives, including myself, have been pressing for more parking and a new access for the hospital from Eastern avenue. I was heartened in October when I led a delegation to see representatives of the health authority. We came away with the commitment that there would be new parking at the University hospital of Wales and a new Eastern avenue access, but we were told that that could not happen for a least two years, at the earliest.

In an attempt to achieve a better understanding between the health authority and its neighbours—by then the health authority was admitting that it had not been a good neighbour to those living around the hospital—I urged a process of consultation. That was accepted by the health authority. A meeting was held last month and was attended by 300 local residents. We feel that consultation should be a two-way process. On that occasion, it was not a meeting of minds. Instead, it was more like trains passing on opposite tracks. That was not consultation and it has done nothing to improve the reputation of the health authorities among the local community. It is now the general view that those new proposals should wait for at least two years until the promised improvements are in place.

The medicentre application is for a two-storey building measuring 36,000 sq ft, 27,000 sq ft of which would be lettable. It will be 40 ft high and situated near residential properties in King George V drive East and one of the nurses' homes. It will occupy one of the last few open spaces within the site of the University hospital of Wales. It is intended that it will employ about 100 people connected with medical research, but no commitment guarantees that any, let alone all, of those 100 people will be involved with medical research. The project is clearly commercial. The national health service should certainly not be expected to pay or to subsidise the development and, if enough tenants involved in medical matters cannot be found, I can only anticipate that any commercial tenant prepared to pay the rent will be accepted.

Some 89 car parking spaces are to be provided, but there are already doubts about whether those will be adequate for the number of people using the medicentre. The planning application admitted that there was no intention to provide car parking spaces for the customers of the medicentre or for anyone else visiting it. Most incomprehensible is the idea that the traffic generated by the medicentre would be acceptable, because much more traffic will be generated by the centre than the incinerator. When Cardiff city council's planning committee considered the mater, it cited South Glamorgan council's opinion on the earlier matter of the incinerator as a ground for refusing the medicentre. For South Glamorgan council to argue otherwise is inconsistent or, some might suggest, hypocritical.

It is little wonder that when the city council came to a conclusion on the medicentre, it made a strongly worded condemnation that
"South Glamorgan Health Authority be advised that … Cardiff City Council … is strongly opposed to the principle of developing one of the few remaining open areas within the University Hospital of Wales … until such time as an alternative … access/egress via Eastern Avenue … together with comprehensive car parking arrangements has been produced."
Furthermore, it asks that the director of administrative and legal services write to South Glamorgan council on the use of procedures under regulation 4 of the Town and County Planning General Regulations 1976. That request is most important.

There is a certain familiarity about what the city council's planning committee recorded on the medicentre. It is almost exactly word for word what South Glamorgan's committee had said about its concern about the few remaining open areas within the hospital. At the environment (highways) sub-committee of the county council on 24 October 1990, it was recommended that
"a letter be sent to the Chairman of the Health Authority drawing attention to the problems created by the hospital, recommending that parking provision therein should be significantly increased, if necessary by using the area currently under consideration for a Medi-park development".
So important did the county council regard the medicentre that it was suggested that the area should be used for car parking. Again, there is an element of inconsistency or hypocrisy in that.

It has been suggested that the matter is urgent, but it is not new. The application has been hanging around for well over a year. The first application was made to Cardiff city council on 13 August 1990, but only two things have changed since then. There are now to be a few more car parking spaces and the name on the application has changed. It was originally made by South Glamorgan health authority whereas now it is being made by South Glamorgan county council.

The matter is regarded in Cardiff as a sham, a con and a disgraceful device. It is just a way of getting round the previous intention of Cardiff city council to object strongly to the proposal. People within both councils are expressing their misgivings, but, inevitably, those within South Glamorgan council cannot speak out. A legally qualified council officer has given a serious private warning in a personal note to one of the councillors. He said that what is meant by "carrying out the development" is not clear, but that he doubts whether merely handing out the RDF grant would constitute carrying out the development. He suggests that the county solicitor should confirm that the county council has no interest in the land and that South Glamorgan council does not intend to carry out the building work in a contrived way. He concludes that if South Glamorgan or any other health authority carries out the development purporting to rely on that deemed South Glamorgan planning permission, there will be no permission for the development, and the city council, as the local planning authority, could take enforcement action.

Those important questions have been pursued by Councillor Tony John, who raised them at the South Glamorgan council meeting on 12 December and asked what South Glamorgan council meant by "carrying out the development". He asked whether it was merely passing over the subsidy, but he has received no answers on those important questions.

I am glad that after much lobbying, I was able to persuade my hon. Friend the Minister at least to consider calling in the planning application. In the meanwhile, I thank him for issuing a direction to South Glamorgan council not to determine that application. The planning application was not considered at the planning and public transport sub-committtee on 11 December. Instead, at the South Glamorgan council meeting on 12 December, plenary powers were granted and the resolution was:
"The County Council intends to see this development take place and authorises and instructs the Chief Executive, in consultation with the Chairman of the Economic Development and Strategic Planning Services Committee, to so determine the planning application to give effect to this intention, should the Secretary of State decide not to determine the planning application himself."
That gives power to the very person who made the application. It originally came from the chairman of the economic development committee and he will now determine it. Would that any commercial developer were in that position of being both applicant and he who decides the planning permission.

Meanwhile, substantial objections have been expressed by me, the city council, local councillors in South Glamorgan council, Councillor Tony John and, as would have been reported to the sub-committee on 11 December, from residents of 219, 216, 8 and 2 King George V drive, 8 and 9 St. Anthony road, 30 and 75 Rhydelig avenue, 33 St. Benedict crescent, 20 St. Agatha road and 20 St. Angela road. None of those objections has been considered and there has been no pretence of considering any of them.

That fact has been confirmed. The county planning officer, Mr. Peter Cope, wrote to me on 17 December and told me that that application was not considered at the planning and public transport sub-committee on 11 December but that the resolution that I have quoted was passed. That was a most improper way to deal with such an important matter. The only consideration that appears to have been given was behind closed doors. The Labour group that controls South Glamorgan council has taken a political decision to force the development through in contradiction to the way planning is normally dealt with in Cardiff. Cardiff city council, which determines 99 per cent. of planning applications in Cardiff, maintains that not one of the political parties will ever put a party Whip on a planning application. It is a point of principle among the recognised planning authorities that no political decisions will be taken, but that is not the case for the Labour group of South Glamorgan council, which has total contempt for the objections. There is no chance for those objections to be considered. If my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State does not call in the application, the council has already granted plenary powers to allow it to go through. It will be a disgrace if the views of all local residents and elected representatives are ignored.

The grounds for calling in the application are that it should include matters of more than local importance; it could be a departure application; and the local council should not be entrusted. It is patently obvious that it must be called in, because only in that way will the objections be heard. Clause 77(5) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 authorises an opportunity for a public inquiry to which I recommend my right hon. Friend to submit the matter. The local council should not be entrusted because, by its behaviour, South Glamorgan council has forfeited its right to be entrusted with the matter. Clause 77(2B) allows for calling in a "class" of applications. My right hon. Friend could make that "class" all the applications that South Glamorgan council is considering.

It is a departure application because in the development plan, the area is designated as the hospital's use of open space. By no stretch of the imagination is the proposed development a hospital; it is a commercial development. I understand from the consultation paper which has been published that not only substantial departures from the development plan but all departures are supposed to be referred.

Above all, it must be a matter of more than local importance when it is clear that there is a process of abuse of powers as cited by the city planning officer. It is part of the climate and this is far from being the only example. It is a gross abuse that decisions are being taken politically behind closed doors. It is a grave abuse in that legal opinion suggests that the decision is a fiction that can be resolved only by the enforcement action of the planning authority. It must be a great abuse that there is not even a token consideration of objections.

All in all, there is the strongest case. I know that my hon. Friend the Minister cannot respond today to my plea for the application to be called in, but I ask him to allow appropriate time to reflect maturely on all that is involved. I know that the three ward councillors, Clive Milsom, Peter Donnelly and Granville Tatham, will probably want to make representations to my hon. Friend, as will Councillor Tony John, who represents the area on South Glamorgan council. Councillor Bernard Rees, the leader of the Conservative group on South Glamorgan council has wanted to come to the Welsh Office to meet my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State about the matter. There is the greatest disquiet that unless my right hon. Friend calls in the planning application, the abuse of the planning process will continue.

11.50 am

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, North (Mr. Jones) on securing the debate, which is much prized. It is an example of his assiduous, hard-working and caring role as a constituency Member that he has raised this matter which he feels is of great importance to his constituents.

My hon. Friend has raised a number of points in relation to the town and country planning process. It will be helpful to set them in the context of the legislative framework which we have applied for many years. I know that my hon. Friend will understand that I can make no comments about the merits of the proposal which is the subject of our debate or about the case for calling it in for determination by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. That would prejudice his consideration of the current application for a call-in and might also prejudice his consideration of the matter if it is called in. As a consequence, I will confine myself to the facts as I understand them. However, my hon. Friend can be assured that I have listened attentively to what he has said and his points will be considered carefully before a decision is made on whether the application should be called in.

Parliament has made local planning authorities responsible for day-to-day planning control, including the determination of planning applications and the initiating of enforcement action. For most categories of development, the local planning authorities are the district councils, but county councils also have limited functions as planning authorities.

Whatever reservations there may be about individual decisions from time to time, the basic premise that most planning decisions should be taken locally has never been seriously challenged. Local authorities are generally best placed to exercise the discretion that Parliament has judged appropriate in taking planning decisions. Development plans drawn up with public consultation provide an important framework. Central Government publish general advice on a wide range of planning issues through planning policy guidance notes and circulars. However, we believe that unless there are exceptional circumstances, it is for people with local knowledge to look at individual proposals and to decide them in the way that best meets local requirements.

My hon. Friend does not, I think, dissent from that, but he has questioned local planning authorities' deciding planning proposals that they themselves have originated and in particular the position of the county council in relation to the district council. Again, that is not a haphazard system, but one which our legislation has recognised for many years under successive Governments. If elected local authorities are fit to draw up development plans and to judge the vast majority of planning applications, it would be odd to say that they were not fit to judge their own development proposals. It is, of course, right to require them to adopt certain procedures to ensure that the public and the full range of interests represented by the authority have the opportunity to contribute to the consideration. The regulations provide for this in certain circumstances and we are considering how to improve the detail of the procedures. As I have already said, day-to-day planning control is for local planning authorities and it is not the role of the Secretary of State to become involved in that as a general rule.

However, there are two circumstances in which Parliament has seen a role for the Secretary of State. The first is in relation to the need for an applicant who is aggrieved by the decision of the local planning authority on his application to have a right of appeal. In practice, the great majority of appeals are now decided by inspectors appointed by the Secretary of State for that purpose.

Again, I think that the great majority of hon. Members would not dispute the need for a right of appeal. Nevertheless, there are people who argue that local planning authorities' decisions best reflect local circumstances and should not be overruled by the central Government or their appointed planning inspectors. That is a point of view which I understand, but which I should not commend against a background in which Parliament, when removing the unfettered right of a land owner to develop his land as he wished, thought it right to enable a land owner to get a second opinion if the local decision on his application was adverse.

Others argue that if developers have the right of appeal to the Secretary of State against a local planning authority's decision, so should other interested parties. That argument minimises the fact that it is the local planning authority's role to represent the general public interest. The more practical implication is that if such a wide-varying right of appeal existed, the likelihood is that the whole planning system would become totally bogged down.

The second circumstance is that planning legislation has given the Secretary of State the power to take applications out of the hands of local planning authorities and to decide them himself. It is quite clear against the background that I have described that it was intended that it should be an exceptional power and that it should be used only when there are no other ways in which the individual applicant may consider the case himself through the planning process. There is always a danger that if the regulations are overused by the Secretary of State, he will find that his business and duties in planning will become bogged down.

Regulations provide that if local planning authorities are minded to approve a proposal, but judge that it involves a material departure from the provisions of the development plan, they are required to refer the matter to the Secretary of State for him to decide whether he thinks it fit to call in the matter for his own decision.

It is possible for the Secretary of State to direct that a certain category of development should be referred to him if local planning authorities are minded to grant permission. Such a direction has been issued, for example, in respect of a large-scale retail shopping development. The Town and Country Planning (Shopping Development) (England and Wales) Direction 1986 applies when proposals include areas of gross shopping floor space of not less than 250,000 sq ft or 23,325 sq m. The Secretary of State may receive representations in the light of which he may decide to require a particular application to be referred to him for decision.

Successive Governments have adopted the policy that individual decisions should be taken out of the hands of local planning authorities only if they raise issues of more than local importance. It follows that decisions to call in will not be frequent. It also follows that in looking at whether to call in, Ministers do not consider the planning merits of the proposal, but only whether the kind of issues that need to be decided are more appropriate for consideration in a wider than local context by the Secretary of State. I should make it clear that when it is decided to intervene in a local authority's own proposed development, the local authority is required to apply to the Secretary of State for planning permission. The kind of questions that might be asked in the context are whether the proposal could have wide effects beyond the immediate locality, whether it could give rise to regional or national controversy and whether it could conflict with national policy.

I turn, briefly, to the case of the medicentre proposal at the Heath hospital, Cardiff about which my hon. Friend is concerned. The proposal is being processed by South Glamorgan county council under regulation 4 of the Town and Country Planning General Regulations 1976. The project consists of a high specification, purpose-built research centre on land within the site of the University hospital of Wales.

My hon. Friend made certain representations about the proposal to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in the course of a discussion last month. Following further approaches from my hon. Friend, a direction was issued to South Glamorgan county council on 11 December requiring it not to approve the proposal until the Secretary of State had had more time to consider whether to call in the matter for his own determination.

I emphasise that in taking that step, we have not formed any view on the planning merits of the proposal. What now needs to be established, in accordance with our usual policy, is whether the proposal raises issues of more than local importance or whether the matters in question justify a departure from the policy that matters of local importance should be dealt with by local authorities.

I assure my hon. Friend that we look forward to receiving any further written representations that he has in addition to the cogent case that he has put before the House today. Such representations will be considered as quickly as possible in deciding whether we should call in the application. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising an important constituency point. I look forward to receiving further representations, if he has any, in addition to his important arguments today.