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.