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Column 613

Private Members' Bills


Hon. Members : Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 10 February.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members : Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 17 February.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members : Object.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Second Reading what day? No day named.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members : Object.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Second Reading what day?

Mr. Robert G. Hughes (Harrow, West) : On behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden (Sir G. Johnson-Smith), Friday 10 February.

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Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members : Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 17 February.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members : Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 17 February.


Order for Second Reading read.

Hon. Members : Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 10 February.


Hon. Members : Object.

Second Reading deferred till Friday 10 February.


Order for Second Reading read.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Second Reading what day? No day named.


Order read for resuming adjourned debate on Second Reading [27 January].

Hon. Members : Object.

Madam Deputy Speaker : Second Reading what day? No day named.

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Pig Farmers

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn-- [Mr. Garel-Jones.]

2.38 pm

Mr. Bowen Wells (Hertford and Stortford) : When laws passed in Parliament are used by greedy, unscrupulous developers--advised and abetted by equally rapacious lawyers--to threaten and blackmail vulnerable people going about their lawful business, Parliament is the only institution to which those people can turn to protect their rights and interests. In those circumstances, it is Parliament's duty to change the law if justice is not available from our legal system. It is my duty to bring such a case to the attention of the House and to try to persuade the Minister to act.

The case is simple. It involves a conflict of interests in which the developer has failed to respect the social and property rights of those who adjoin his development.

A developer bought a long-since disused railway station at Much Hadham in Hertfordshire, in my constituency, for housing development purposes and was given planning permission. The developer, who is not known locally and who is very difficult to locate, has been traced to a company called Bockle in the Isle of Man, whose local representative is one of the new mega-estate agents known as GA. The houses he is developing are expensive and are expected to retail at about £350,000.

Next door to this development is a 180-acre farm owned by Michard Munday and his brother, who are well-educated young farmers. During the past 10 years or so, the farm has been devoted to purely arable use as the price of grain was high. With the fall in the price and profitability of barley, wheat and rape seed, the Mundays have reverted to mixed farming--a form of farming which is much more healthy for the land and for the preservation of the countryside. They elected to go in for pig farming in the traditional manner--that is to say, on a free-range basis, not in an enclosed factory- type building such as those in which pigs in many places are made to live.

The Mundays started with 10 little piglets, whose run was in full view of the housing development, now seductively renamed Miller's View. The Munday brothers had planted, with trees supplied under the county tree scheme, a 200 foot buffer zone on their land to protect their farm from the houses, but this has been destroyed by the builders' machinery and refuse.

Imagine the Munday brothers' surprise when theyreceived a peremptory demand from their friendly developer's lawyer that they remove the piglets and their modest housing because of the nuisance and the smell that they caused. Pigs, of course, do not smell ; they are clean animals when they are able to live in a free-range manner and if they are kept clean. What, of course, does smell--and some urban dwellers have smelt it when in the countryside--is the concentrated pig manure removed from pig styes when it is spread on arable farms to feed the crop.

I went to the farm, and I can attest that the pigs are in good condition. They are clean, and there is no offensive smell whatsoever. I doubt whether the lawyers or the developers, undeterred by such small details, have actually been to see the farm. The developer has demanded a 200 yard buffer zone on which no livestock will be kept and has taken the young farmers to court. Lawyers advising the

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Munday brothers advised them to settle out of court because of the legal fees, which are likely to be over £200,000 and could force them to sell their farm.

That is the story, and that is the scale of the injustice involved. Because a developer, naturally, wants to sell his houses for the highest price, he is prepared to mislead his potential clients by having all livestock activity removed from the vicinity of the houses. In short, he wants to mislead those to whom he is selling. As to forcing the sale of a 200 yard strip, he has never asked for that, but, of course, it would be to his advantage.

Madam Deputy Speaker (Miss Betty Boothroyd) : Order. May I ask the hon. Gentleman if the case to which he is referring has been set down? I think he knows that this matter might be sub judice and that he has to be very guarded in his comments. Has the case been set down?

Mr. Wells : I have asked the Clerks about the position, and I have been told that I am allowed to discuss the matter in the way I am doing. I am not exactly certain whether the matter is set down, but an injunction has been brought against the farmers and it is to be heard at some stage. I am told that until a date is laid down, it is permissible to talk about the matter.

What can the Minister and Parliament do to protect farmers from such monstrous abuse? If the farmers concede, they could not keep livestock anywhere on their farm as most of it is within 200 yards of existing dwellings, the occupants of which, far from objecting to their keeping pigs on the farm, support them. The school in Much Hadham and the children are also protesting and supporting the farmers, who have lived in the village for many years. They are supported by everyone except the developer.

I should like the Minister to state categorically that the Government are opposed to any extension of controls or restrictions on the use of land for agricultural purposes ; to uphold the principle of farmers and other property owners to farm and use their land as they wish and as farmers must ; to caution developers to think twice and sensitively about the rights of other property owners ; and to undertake that unless the threatening and bullying behaviour of developers using their financial power ceases, the Government will seek legal powers from Parliament to restrain their activities, to preserve the civil and human rights of comparatively humble impecunious fellow property owners and citizens.

2.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Hertford and Stortford (Mr. Wells) on raising a subject which concerns many people who live and work in areas of the countryside that are subject to intensive development pressure--particularly, but by no means exclusively, in the south-east of England. My hon. Friend's constituency is in the front line of such pressure and it is understandable that his constituents should ask what can be done to ease--and, one hopes, to resolve--the conflicts of interest to which this gives rise.

My hon. Friend's speech described the difficulties experienced by a farmer at Much Hadham following the building of new houses next to his farm. I am aware of the interest that this case aroused last year in both the local and national press, and my hon. Friend has given the

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House further details this afternoon. However, as I am sure he appreciates, I cannot comment on the specific case. Should any aspect of the case formally come before the Department, for example as a planning appeal, I can assure my hon. Friend that any views that he and his constituents put forward on the land use implications will be taken fully into account.

We can be justifiably proud of the contribution that the south-east of England has made, and continues to make, to the revival of the economy which has taken place under this Government. However, the more economically successful the region becomes, the greater are the pressures for development and, in turn, the greater the potential for conflict between developers who wish to share in that success and those who wish to call a halt. Some of those in the latter group allege that there is a tide of concrete spreading across the south-east, but if they check the facts they will find that, outside London, urban areas in south-east England currently cover just 12.6 per cent. of the total land area, a figure that we estimate will increase to only 13.7 per cent. by the year 2001. In contrast, green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty cover 42 per cent. of the same total land area.

Other critics suggest that the Government should direct new development away from the south-east to other, less prosperous areas. That is not our policy. Such a policy of central direction would deny business the choice of where to locate and people the choice of where to live. In the longer term, it would deny communities the ability to adapt to sustain their economic wellbeing, which must be a prerequisite of their ability to preserve and enhance their environment. Moreover, turning development and investment away risks losing it, not only for the south-east but for the country as a whole.

A much more constructive approach is to design policies that encourage developers and conservationists to coexist harmoniously. The town and country planning system, which has served this country well for more than 40 years, has an important part to play in this process. Its purpose is to regulate the use and development of land in the public interest. To achieve this purpose it has to reconcile the need to encourage development with the continuing need to protect and enhance the environment.

Hon. Members will be all too well aware that this is anything but a simple task. They will no doubt be able to point to specific instances where one party or another has emerged from the planning process much aggrieved by a decision of the local planning authority, or of one of my Department's inspectors. But that decision will have been reached only after the most careful consideration, often of finely balanced issues. Planning decisions inevitably involve such judgments and it is unrealistic to expect them to reconcile the irreconcilable, though they must try their best.

The Government have a range of policies designed to encourage development in areas where it will be welcomed--in particular, in the inner cities, where since 1979 we have committed some £4 billion in grants for urban regeneration and have attracted much more than that in private investment. One consequence has been that, in recent years, about half of all new housing has been on derelict, recycled or unused land in urban areas. That is a record of which this Government are proud. However, not all development can be accommodated in this way, and some new sites will need to be found for development in

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the countryside in ways that ensure the continued protection of the green belt, areas of outstanding natural beauty and other specially designated areas.

In addition, we have recognised that, at a time of agricultural surpluses, it does not make sense to preserve particularly the lower grades of farmland solely for their productive value. Our policies acknowledge the decline in agricultural employment and the growing diversity of economic activity in rural areas that has resulted from this trend. The need now is to encourage and sustain a healthy rural economy by increasing new employment opportunities. A healthy rural economy, in which enterprise and initiative can thrive, is not only the best long-term protection for the countryside but also the basis for enhancing the quality of life in rural communities.

This need to accommodate a rising number of households in the south-east, and the demand for new housing which accompanies new employment opportunities, must be catered for in ways that are sympathetic to the environment, whether in town or country. The planning system provides a framework within which sensible decisions about the site and location of new residential and other development can be made. The system has two elements--the preparation of development plans and individual development control decisions. At both stages there is ample scope for local residents and businesses to contribute their views.

Earlier this week we presented to the House our proposals for simplifying and improving the development plan system in England and Wales. The main feature of the new system will be comprehensive district development plans, to be prepared by district councils. The plan preparation process will provide for the views of the local community to be taken fully into account, and relevant policies in up-to-date plans will carry considerable weight in individual planning decisions, as they do now in those areas where properly adopted local plans are in force. Moreover, it is long established that planning authorities, when considering development proposals, must take account of any views expressed by members of the public. So there is ample scope within the planning system for local views to be represented.

The Government can and do set up procedures for thorough consideration of development proposals, but those who live and those who work in the countryside have to play their part by being willing to appreciate each other's needs and priorities. That was the burden of my hon. Friend's speech. Let me for a moment turn the subject of this debate around and ask what are the implications of pig farming, or other types of farming, for those who live in the country? Farmers have, for many years, enjoyed what some people regard as a privileged position in the planning system. The use of land for agriculture is excluded from the definition of development and so from the scope of planning control. In addition, the general development order confers permitted development rights on a wide range of farm buildings and farming operations, so specific planning applications are not needed. Despite the scale of the changes affecting some parts of the farming industry at the moment, agriculture will continue to be the predominant land use in the countryside and so will continue to be responsible for shaping much of the countryside that we cherish as part of our heritage. The Government are keen to minimise the burden of controls and regulations on all developers, including

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farmers. We therefore have no plans for a wholesale extension of planning control to agricultural development. I am sure that that will be good news to my hon. Friend. I have to say, though, that the case for continuing to exempt many agricultural developments from planning control becomes more difficult to defend if a few farmers insist on putting up farm buildings that make no attempt to blend with their surroundings and without any thought for the amenity of the neighbours.

Since taking over my planning responsibilities last July I have received numerous complaints about insensitive agricultural development. It really is up to a minority of farmers to adopt a more responsible attitude when exercising their permitted development rights. Without such an attitude, there will be unnecessary conflict and the arguments for increased controls, to which we are at present opposed for the reasons I have mentioned, will become harder to resist. This is undoubtedly a case where an irresponsible few could jeopardise the long-standing freedoms enjoyed by many.

Those farmers who seek to diversify into other activities will need to become increasingly familiar with the planning system. If they do not have it already, they will need to develop an awareness of potential sources of conflict with their neighbours and of the importance of sensitive design and siting of buildings in the countryside. The recently published guide, "Planning Permission and the Farmer" encourages farmers to talk to their neighbours and to the local planning authority and be prepared, if necessary, to modify their plans to meet justifiable concerns. I commend this principle of good neighbourliness to farmers who have aroused the anger of those who have written to me about insensitive permitted development. While we have no plans for extending planning control to farming generally, we shall not hesitate to introduce new, well-targetted controls where we are convinced that they are justified and necessary for the protection of the environment. We recognised some time ago that additional controls were needed to deal with the nuisance of noise and smell that can sometimes be caused by livestock units and associated structures such as slurry tanks and lagoons. After public consultation, when our original proposals were criticised as not strong enough, and following much further discussion, the new controls came into operation with the new general development order in December. They mean that all new livestock units and associated structures proposed to be built within400 metres of most residential or other property now require specific planning permission. The new controls are not intended to prevent livestock units being built, merely to make them subject to the same scrutiny by the planning system that already applies to many other types of development. In addition, we encourage farmers to minimise the scope for nuisance from livestock units by operating them in accordance with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food's guidelines for housed livestock.

If the keeping of livestock causes nuisance and the matter cannot be resolved by discussion and co-operation,

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there are remedies available under the Public Health Act 1936. This requires local authorities to take action against, for example, noise or smells if they amount to a statutory nuisance. Wherever possible the aim should be to find ways of abating the nuisance while enabling the farming or other business to continue in operation. Individuals are also empowered to institute proceedings under the Act. We are currently considering responses to a consultation paper which proposed some strengthening of these provisions, for example, to enable action to be taken before nuisance occurs.

So far, my remarks have emphasised the responsibility that the rest of the community expects from farmers, but those expectations are mutual. It is equally important that planning authorities and those living in the countryside adopt a responsible and co-operative attitude to farmers and others who work in the countryside, which was the point that my hon. Friend was making. Farming is a business that makes a very important contribution to the national economy and it is in the national interest that agriculture, like other businesses, should remain efficient, competitive and as free from bureaucratic control as we can make it.

It is all too clear from my postbag that some members of the public have a somewhat unrealistic idea of the countryside, with green fields, contentedly grazing sheep and so on. I do not doubt that when millers were living in the countryside in large numbers, their view was of countryside with pigs, sheep and cattle--although my hon. Friend has said that there is possibly the suggestion that in Much Hadham the millers' view would have been mainly of open fields, with no livestock. The countryside will change, as it has always done, in response to changing circumstances, and we must ensure that the often parochial attitudes of some newcomers to the countryside, keen to preserve their picture-postcard image of rural life, are not allowed to block the very development that is necessary to sustain that life.

Just as we recognise the kind of problems that can arise when livestock units are sited near houses, so we accept that new houses built close to established livestock units and other farming activities are a potential source of conflict. The circular that we issued last October about the new general development order acknowledged this point and made clear that local planning authorities should look particularly carefully at proposals for new housing close to existing livestock units to minimise the risk of conflict between neighbouring land uses.

My remarks have illustrated the kind of issues that the planning system is required to resolve. Conflicts of the type mentioned by my hon. Friend are, unfortunately, not uncommon. The remedy lies in the adoption of a reponsible and constructive attitude by all those concerned with the future of the countryside. The planning system provides the means for resolving some conflicts of interest, but it will work effectively only when matched by reason and co-operation at the local level. I hope that this useful debate, initiated by my hon. Friend, has highlighted the benefits of that approach.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at one minute to Three o'clock.

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