Patrick Nicholls – 1985 Speech on the Roads Programme

Below is the text of the speech made by Patrick Nicholls, the then Conservative MP for Teignbridge, in the House of Commons on 4 July 1985.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak about the roads programme, although many other subjects might be more popular. High rhetoric and declaratory speeches about road transport and motorways do not trip neatly off the tongue.

An inferior road system has an effect on local communities and on the quality of people’s lives. To make my central point, I do not need to discuss the Government’s road programme at length. The importance that the Government attach to the subject has been clearly shown in the White Papers that they have published, in particular that of 1983. In that White Paper, the Government set out their national and local priorities. There is no doubt that the Government know what they are doing. If one considers the progress that has been made since 1979, the details given in the White Paper on Government expenditure and in my hon. Friend the Minister of State’s announcement as recently as 25 June about 51 further projects at a cost of about £300 million. one begins to see that those priorities are being fulfilled. However, when one studies those matters, I believe that one finds that one ingredient has not received the degree of prominence that it merits.
In 1977, the present Secretary of State for Social Services produced what might be described as a seminal document setting out the attitude that a Conservative Administration would take to transport. The paper stressed that a Government implementing such a programme should seek to ensure that decisions were taken by and for the users rather than the providers of transport. In matters concerning local communities it is vital to ensure that local people’s views are properly taken into account. That problem certainly arises in the context of planning legislation, and I have raised it in the House more than once.

The procedures adopted must pay more than lip service to local people’s views and ensure that local opinion has a real effect on the policy adopted. When one considers the way in which road traffic policy is implemented at the local level it is clear that, despite our rhetoric before we came to power, local communities do not always feel that they have the input that they want.

The specific problem that I have in mind concerns the road traffic system in Newton Abbot, a substantial market town in my constituency. Devon is the third largest shire in England, with more than 8,200 miles of road—more than twice the total for any other county. There is no doubt that Devon and the west country generally have seen substantial improvements in terms of major capital projects. For instance, there has been the dualling of the Plymouth-Exeter road. There is now dual carriageway virtually from the end of the motorway to the Tamar bridge. In terms of major projects, the west country has benefited greatly and it was well entitled to do so.

Improving motorways and dual carriageways, however, may simply move the bottleneck further down the track. It thus becomes even more important to ensure that the traffic is dealt with properly when it leaves those main arterial highways and comes into market towns.

It would be all too easy for me to say that those responsible for planning the traffic system in Newton Abbot do not know what they are doing. I could make a ​ splendid speech. The Gallery would become packed and reporters would be hanging on my every word. I do not go so far as that, but there is no doubt that the people of Newton Abbot feel that the needs of their town are not properly reflected in the traffic system provided for them.

These days everything has become a speciality. Even politics, which in our British tradition should be the province of the true amateur, has become professional. Traffic management, too, has become a speciality. There is certainly a feeling among my constituents, especially those living in Newton Abbot, that the specialists have designed a traffic system which is all very well for them but which simply does not work.

A specific example is the Penn Inn roundabout where priorities were altered in such a way that traffic arriving at the roundabout found that it had precedence over traffic already on the roundabout. By any stretch of the imagination, it was an extraordinary decision. Public protest was such that eventually the highway authority, to its credit, while not actually admitting that it was wrong, did the next best thing and changed back to the old system.

The system in Newton Abbot has not been completed yet, and those of us who are optimists are wondering whether, when the t’s are crossed and the i’s are dotted, the system will work. For the time being, the local people are faced with a system of one-way streets and mini-roundabouts, by which the authorities seek to control traffic. A person trying to get through Newton Abbot in a hurry on a weekday had better take a deep breath, because it takes some time to do so. On one occasion—this was not during the high season or at a particularly busy time of day—it took me 20 minutes to get across the Penn Inn roundabout.

Clearly, if local people are asked to design a traffic system, they will have many ideas. The fact that they may not be able to achieve a consensus does not detract from the basic proposition that, at times, traffic in this market town is being brought to a standstill and the common-sense views of local people on what should be done are not being properly reflected.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

I have the advantage of knowing the hon. Gentleman’s constituency extremely well, having lived there for many years. I am following his argument carefully. What exactly is his point? Is he suggesting that the previous Conservative-controlled county council, which presumably channelled the views of the inhabitants to the traffic planners, failed in its duty? Is he suggesting that that is why those Conservative councillors were deposed in the shire county elections?

Mr. Nicholls

The hon. Lady makes a particular political point. If she casts her mind back, she will recall that her stay in the west country was brief as, having succeeded in being re-elected in one parliamentary election, she was promptly deposed at another. I do not think that her reflections on how we act in the west country are especially helpful.

I come to the point that I would have made if the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) had been able to contain her exuberance. One cannot be certain whether the traffic planners in a town such as Newton Abbot have got it right. The present structure makes it impossible for local people to ensure that their views are taken into account. A planning analogy is the best analogy ​ that I can offer the hon. Lady. What happens if the local community does not have the right to appeal once a planning application has been granted? It is too simplistic to say, “That means that it must be the fault of the local councillors.” Of course it is not necessarily their fault. Whatever their political persuasion, local councillors properly give a great deal of weight to the advice that they receive from professional officers. The planners in Newton Abbot may be getting it right, but their views cannot be put to the test. Those living in areas where the traffic does not flow freely face considerable hardship. Their hardship may be exaggerated, but one must emphasise the stress faced by the travelling public in using a complex traffic system that is not working properly.

We can note the Government’s priorities and the spending on major projects and can compare the record of this Administration with that of their predecessor. This Government are getting it right.

In the end, one must come down to local level and ask oneself: “Can we be sure that there is proper control, so that those who are responsible for road planning are providing transport systems that are there for the benefit of the people, dictated by the people and created in the light of their experience, or is it a case of transport systems being thrust upon them from on high?” That is the point that I wished to make to my hon. Friend.

Patrick Nicholls – 1985 Speech on Amusement Arcades

Below is the text of the speech made by Patrick Nicholls, the then Conservative MP for Teignbridge, in the House of Commons on 21 June 1985.

I am grateful for this opportunity to raise the question of the role of planning law in controlling and regulating the proliferation of amusement arcades.

Two appeals against planning refusals have been granted for amusement centres in my constituency in the past year. They were granted not only against the wishes of the planning authority, after they had been advised by their own professional officers, but in the teeth of strong objections by local residents. The objectors considered that the use was inappropriate in a mixed residential and commercial area, and they felt that it was likely to produce environmental problems.

Teignbridge district council refused an application to change the use of a shop at 17 Piermont Place, Dawlish, into a “family leisure centre”—that, apparently, being the latest euphemism for what the rest of us would call an amusement arcade. The inspector’s appeal decision report states:

“The council refused their consent on the grounds that the proposal is a major attraction leading to increased congestion in an area which is busy in the holiday season, thus, in turn, creating an increase in pedestrian movements across a main road; it would conflict with the intention to enhance and protect the environment of the Conservation Area in which the site is located; there is no need for more amusement facilities in the area, and the loss of retail floorspace is detrimental to the main shopping area of the town.”

Despite such clear and cogent considerations, the inspector allowed the appeal in June 1984, albeit having imposed certain conditions, including limiting the hours of opening and requiring sound-proofing work.
Nevertheless, my constituents are still subject to aggravation from noise and congestion, and have had imposed on their town a development that was overwhelmingly opposed by the local community.

In August last year, an inspector allowed an appeal, again with conditions, at 7 Queen street, Newton Abbot, against Teignbridge district council’s refusal of an application for change of use from a cafe to a family leisure centre. The district council had opposed the development on several grounds, which included its being in an area shown on the town map as being primarily for shopping use; being in a part of the town where the traffic is already grotesquely congested; that it would create an undesirable increase in the demand for car parking in a street that was already part of a one-way system, and the fact that the footpath was narrow, and the pavement, at that point, already congested.

All those objections were overruled by the inspector. Admittedly, since then an appeal involving an amusement centre has been turned down. But the trend nevertheless appears to be showing an increase.

There are, of course, many who believe that amusement arcades are inevitably an undesirable feature and that they should be opposed on all occasions. There is certainly evidence to the effect that local authorities all over the country are worried not simply about the environmental effects—particularly where such centres adjoin residential areas—but about the adverse effects ​ on young users of the premises. In some city centres they are considered a major menace, and in London some local boroughs have formed a special group to deal with the problem. Their sense of frustration can be imagined when it is considered that in Nottingham eight refusals by the city council have been promptly turned over on appeal.

All this is, of course, well known to my hon. Friend the Minister, but let me hasten to assure him that these are not the considerations that I bring before him today. It occurred to me that when this debate was first announced his initial response, or that of his officials, might have been that, although I did not really know it, I was really concerned about the operation of the gaming laws. Let me hasten to assure him that I do know what I am about, and it does not involve the operation of the gaming laws. The issue is not primarily one of law and order. Obviously different situations can pose different policing problems. Two old ladies feeding pigeons in a public park do not have the same potential for utilising police resources as an amusement arcade. But both activities are perfectly legal, and I am not suggesting for a moment that either of them should be made illegal. If one adopts a modest and unhysterical approach, the system will be considered with planning controls in mind.

The present Secretary of State for Defence, when he was Secretary of State for the Environment, said in a major speech to the Royal Town Planning Institute summer school in September 1979 that he
“accepted, too, a planning process in which the individual citizen, whether alone, or acting in a pressure group, has a fundamental right to influence the direction taken in the area in which he lives.”

Those are splendid words, as would be expected from my right hon. Friend, but over 90 per cent. of appeals are now decided not by the Minister but by inspectors acting under delegated powers in the Town and Country Planning (Determination of Appeals by Appointed Persons) (Prescribed Classes) Regulations 1981.

As a result, the Secretary of State is no longer amenable to political pressure. The particular danger is that more and more appeals will be successful as a result of the Government’s otherwise laudable determination to speed up their procedures and to use the planning mechanism to create jobs. The danger is that the principle of public participation in such decisions, which was so strong some years ago, will be further eroded.

People appear to be increasingly doubtful about the Government’s commitment to local participation. The principles of the Skeffington report are being increasingly ignored. The Town and Country Planning Act’s provisions for public consultation begin to have the air of a charade, Disquiet is therefore expressed by a number of organisations that, while lip service may be paid to the consideration of their views, there is no real intent that their views will be fully and properly reflected in the decisions that emerge.

The pity is that, if that is right, the trend runs contrary to Conservative philosophy which embraces care for and pride in one’s community. All too often that does not appear to be reflected in decisions handed down from on high and for which we will be held responsible.

What should we do to ensure that local people’s real and well-informed views are given due weight? Calls are constantly made for a community right of appeal to give objectors the right to demand an appeal against a planning authority’s grant of permission and even against an ​ inspector’s decision on appeal. At first sight that might seem admirable or even beguiling, but on closer examination one can see that the problems are formidable. Such a procedure would not only delay the planning process but would involve a great deal of extra time and money for both parties. Those added expenses would probably have to be paid for by the ratepayer.

Another approach might be to ask the Secretary of State nominally to take more decisions himself rather than their being taken by a delegated authority.

That would mean that my right hon. Friend would be amenable to representations by hon. Members who have a far better grasp of their community’s needs and desires than an inspector who makes only a brief visit.
I believe that the answer to the problem is relatively straightforward, provided that all districts and regions tackle the problems at source, even before a specific planning application is made. In connection with amusement arcades, the reversal of refusals at district council level is greater than for other types of applications. By contrast, if a local authority has already adopted a leisure policy based on regulations rather than prohibition, the inspector must take that into account. Some recognition of that, at least in substance, was given in the Department’s control policy note 11. However, more needs to be done.
I am asking my hon. Friend today whether he agrees that the way to constructive development lies in the direction that I have described. He should issue further, more specific guidance to local authorities on how they should approach the problem in a local leisure plan. He should also advise them so that the considerations to which I have referred and which are set out in the development control policy note are properly reflected in the findings on appeal.

I could have entered the Chamber ready to regale my hon. Friend the Minister with a great populist tirade on amusement arcades being Satan’s playgrounds where vice and depravity proceed unabated. If my hon. Friend feels the need for some light relief after the debate is over, I could do so even then. However, when he replies, I hope that he will appreciate that I did not succumb to the temptation to advance that argument. Had I done so, it is possible that the Chamber would have been even more crowded that it is now. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that I have highlighted something which is a cause of real grievance and concern to many in their local communities. I hope to have done so constructively and to have given some signs of where we might go from here.