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Motion made, and Question put forthwith pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(5) Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.
Column 574That the draft Cereals Marketing Act (Application to Oil Seeds) Order 1989, which was laid before this House on 7th June, be approved.-- [Mr. Durant.]
Question agreed to.
That, notwithstanding the practice of the House as to the intervals between stages of Bills brought in upon Ways and Means Resolutions, more than one stage of the Finance Bill may be taken at any sitting of the House.-- [Mr. Durant.]
To the Honourable the Commons of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in Parliament assembled. The humble petition of citizens of Great Britain and Northern Ireland showeth that we, the undersigned constituents and supporters of CLORS oppose British Rail's plans to route Channel Tunnel passenger and freight trains on the existing overground railway line through Clapham on the grounds that we will suffer intolerable hardship and environmental damage to our lives and property.
Wherefore your Petitioners pray that your Honourable House will urge the Secretary of State for Transport :
(1) To order an independent environmental impact study in full consultation with all affected residents and businesses in Clapham so that the hardship we will endure can be measured and recognised. (2) To hold a full-scale public inquiry into the entire British Rail Channel Tunnel rail project as it affects South London, before the Private Bill is presented to the assembled Parliament. (3) To ensure proper consideration of sensible alternative rail schemes to fulfil the rail transport needs of the country as a whole in the light of the Channel Tunnel.
(4) To ensure that full protection for your humble Petitioners from the effects of Channel Tunnel rail traffic and particularly of heavy freight traffic at all hours, is incorporated into any legislation authorising such traffic.
The petition has been signed by just over 1,000 petitioners in the Clapham area.
To lie upon the Table.
Column 575Property Developers (Code of Practice)
Motion made, and Question proposed , That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Durant.]
Mr. Peter Thurnham (Bolton, North-East) : This is the fourth Adjournment debate which I have been fortunate to have relating to the planning system, which shows the importance it has to my constituents and to many people in other constituencies. Indeed, it is only a few months since my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North-West (Mr. Malins) had an Adjournment debate on planning appeals in Croydon, when he said :
"People in north Croydon and elsewhere are beginning to feel instinctively that the quality of their environment is deteriorating. They believe that local democracy is gradually being eroded. They have an instinctive feeling that, whenever commercial pressures and environmental interests clash, commercial pressures will win the day."--[ Official Report , 17 February 1989 ; Vol. 147, c. 685.] In November 1987, the ITN "World in Action" Granada television series had a programme entitled "The Planning Game". The programme made a big impact on its audience. It listed examples of how property developers are getting their own way and how aggressive developers, determined to get what they want, can exploit loopholes. It showed some examples, one of which was in my constituency.
The first example was a building that was supposed to be a stables in the green belt which had mysteriously turned into a luxurious £750,000 bungalow. The second example was of a fine meadow in flower, which had been listed as a site of special scientific interest, but which had been sprayed with weed killer and turned into a building site.
The third example featured a well-known west country developer, Mr. Mike Robertson, who was shown getting away with all kinds of abuses, and happily paying fines of £5,500 when he cut down protected trees to develop a valuable site. The fourth example showed ancient verderers' rights in the New Forest being traded off with the council for development advantages, using the private Bill procedure. The fifth example showed Barratt as the developer using intimidating tactics with local councils to stop them objecting to its proposals. The sixth example, in my constituency, was Birtenshaw farm. It was an example of the developer--Barratt again--finding a legal loophole and getting the Secretary of State to grant planning permission, against the wishes of both the local council and his own inspectors.
I should now like to highlight the present position at Birtenshaw farm, where protesters are camped on the land preventing Barratt from moving its bulldozers, which arrived on Monday of this week. For the past 55 years, Birtenshaw farm has enjoyed the protection of a covenant restricting development on the land. My hon. Friend will be aware that I raised this matter in an Adjournment debate on 7 July 1987 and that in November last year the Government refused to waive the covenant when requested to do by Barratt. Unfortunately, Bolton council has decided not to defend the covenant, to the great dismay of the residents.
I have asked Mr. John Swanson, the chairman of Barratt, to meet me to discuss the situation, but unfortunately he has declined to do so. What sort of
Column 576behaviour is that, when Sir Lawrence Barratt, who is now life president of the company, says that he wants to become involved in inner-city charities or to take up public office? I appeal to him to respect the spirit of the Ashworth covenant and to give the land to the people of Bolton. I should be glad to recommend him for public office if he took that line.
In a letter to me this week the Prime Minister says :
"I can understand the disappointment of those opposed to the development of this land at finding that the covenant which they thought prevented it is no longer considered to be effective." It may be that local public opinion could persuade the company not to go ahead with the development, despite the planning permission, but this would be entirely the company's decision. Barratt should heed this, and call off its bulldozers.
I ask my hon. Friend what he can do to revoke the planning permission at Birtenshaw farm, which now has only 12 months to run. Can he not do more to strengthen old covenants? The 1934 agreement was not fully ratified because the second world war intervened, but would my hon. Friend look at the 1986 report of the conveyancing standing committee of the Law Society, which listed five options under the heading, "What Shall we do about Old Restrictive Covenants"? Option 5 suggests compensation for those who have lost out as a result of the failure of the Land Registry properly to record a covenant. Would not that help the residents of Birtenshaw? The Royal Town Planning Institute call for a time limit on covenants of between 40 and 60 years, but surely there should be provision for renewal of covenants where they still serve a purpose.
In January 1987 the Royal Town Planning Institute issued an agenda for "Improving the Planning System for the 1990s". The agenda lists 75 items. One of these--No. 64--was for the establishment of a Planning Assessment Commission, like the Audit Commission, to monitor lapses of performance by local authorities. Another, No. 57, calls for approval by Parliament itself whenever the Secretary of State attempts to override his own inspector's report. I should have liked to see both those courses of action implemented to help the residents before the "battle of Birtenshaw" had started.
The Council for the Protection of Rural England has strongly supported my call for a code of practice to encourage property developers to abide by the spirit of the planning legislation. Indeed, it goes further and asks for legislation to put teeth into a code of practice, to enforce the recommendations of the report in February this year by Robert Carnwath QC on "Enforcing Planning Control". This follows the 1987 report by the efficiency scrutiny team which called for "unlawful development notices," supported by a "guide to procedure," to curb property developers and to help local planning authorities.
As the Granada programme said, property developers today are getting a lot more confident about their ability to get round planning restrictions. To quote the former planning officer, Mr. Proctor, they are getting "extremely brass necked". My hon. Friend is already aware of the brass neck of another developer, Mr. Robert Horrocks, who was the subject of my Adjournment debate on 10 April. There is still no improvement in Harwood precinct, where the whole community is being denied a shopping facility for which planning permission was granted many years ago.
Column 577I call on my hon. Friend to bring in some really tough laws to deal with these abuses. Any property developer found flouting them should be struck off. In other words, he should not be allowed to become involved in any property dealing in any shape or form. Fines of a few thousand pounds are meaningless when millions of pounds are at stake. Covenants should be properly enforced, and the new computerised Land Registry should allow for compensation by the Lands Tribunal in cases where old covenants are found now to be defective.
The British Property Federation say that its objectives are, first--not surprisingly--to look after its members' interests, and secondly, to enhance its industry's standing in the community, but the president, Mr. Mallinson, advises that the word "developer" is deemed
"synonymous with rapacity and greed."
By contributing £14 million to save archaeology, the British Property Federation can point to the success of the 1986 code of practice in protecting archaeology. That is an example of how the Government can help bring about necessary improvements in developers' behaviour.
I shall list some of the points raised by Bolton council when I drew its attention to the fact that we were to have this debate. Under the heading "Some Difficulties Created by the Present Arrangements" the council lists the following :
1. The life of a planning permission is related to the commencement of the development within a fixed period. It has been established that the digging of a simple trench capable of taking a strip foundation amounts to commencement. Hence a developer can carry out minimal site works with no intention of proceeding further and thereby extend the life of the permission indefinitely. Local examples include a hotel development proposed in the green belt. 2. Unauthorised changes of use are notoriously difficult to resolve and can involve several years of enforcement action."
It lists examples from elsewhere in Bolton.
"Stop notices may be served but there are compensation issues which make local authorities reluctant to take such steps. The unauthorised users are able to exploit the situation whereby a use can continue for a long period before action is taken in the courts. 3. Trees which are protected may be felled by a developer to whom the development potential is worth more than the fine for unauthorised felling (£2,000) or the value of the tree whichever is greater). This can be a very small price to pay for an unobstructed site.
4. Duplicate applications have been submitted recently in respect of :-
1. The Shipgates development
2. Hill Lane, Blackrod for residential development.
In neither instance did this tactic have any bearing on the outcome of the application."
The council has not listed another tactic that some developers adopt, which is that of knocking down listed buildings.
I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the great depth of feeling in my constituency, about this issue and the related issues that I have mentioned. My constituents would like to know exactly what the Government's position is and what prospects there are for legislation in the forthcoming Session to put these matters right.
In conclusion, I refer my hon. Friend to the writings of Professor Hayek, who is now 90 years old. Writing in 1960 on housing and town planning, in his book "The Constitution of Liberty", he says :
Column 578"The practical problems which policy makers have are of great complexity, and no perfect solution is to be expected."
We understand the difficulties that the Government face, but we look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say.
I thank those who have helped me to prepare for the debate--the Library, the Royal Institute of Town Planning, the Council for the Protection of Rural England and Bolton council. I call on my hon. Friend to do what he can not only for the residents of Birtenshaw, but for all the people of this country, and bring in legislation to enforce the necessary curbs on those property developers who abuse the freedoms of the existing planning laws.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Christopher Chope) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, North-East (Mr. Thurnham) on raising this interesting topic. Once again, he has used an opportunity to raise issues of concern to his constituents, some of whom I understand are present to listen to the debate. My hon. Friend quoted Professor Hayek, saying that planning problems raise issues of great complexity and that no perfect solution is to be expected. That is helpful to me, because it means that my hon. Friend will not be disappointed by anything that I say in this speech.
I will say a few words later about the matter at Birtenshaw farm, but, before I do so, I will respond to my hon. Friend's proposal that property developers should be subject to a code of practice, and set that proposal in the context of the town and country planning system as it operates today.
Our system of town and country planning has its origins in the Town and Country Planning Act 1947. That Act was updated and consolidated in 1962, and again in 1971, but the essence of the system has stood up well to the test of time.
The 1947 Act took away many of the rights of an individual to develop his land in the way that he wanted. It gave local authorities primary power to decide whether planning permission should be granted. It has long been established that planning permission should be granted unless the development proposal would harm an interest of acknowledged importance, and reasons for refusal should always be well founded and clearly defined. In the 1947 Act, Parliament provided the right of appeal to the Secretary of State if the local authority turned down a planning application.
That right of appeal was in recognition of the fact that rights to develop land have been taken away. The 1947 Act took no rights from third party objectors. Indeed, it gave them a right that they retain today, which is the opportunity to express their views about development proposals, and to have them taken into account by the local authority or the Secretary of State when planning applications and appeals are decided.
My hon. Friend has argued eloquently the case for local opponents of development proposals. I should like to invite him to consider the planning system from the developer's point of view.
There are many types of property developer. A developer may be an individual householder who wants to extend his house to provide more space for a growing family. He may be a small business man who needs to extend his premises to expand his firm and provide more
Column 579jobs. He may be an industrialist wanting to modernise factory premises. He may be a retailer, keen to improve the quality of shopping space for the consumer. He may be a volume housebuilder providing houses in which people want to live.
Any developer has to put in an application for planning permission. If the local authority turns down the application or fails to issue a decision on it within eight weeks, the developer can appeal to the Secretary of State.
At present, largely because of the strength of the national economy, local authorities in England and my Department have experienced a considerable increase in the numbers of planning applications and appeals. The number of appeals received in the Department last year was 28,500, compared with fewer than half that number in 1983. Inevitably, handling a huge volume of appeals takes time, and a developer whose planning application is refused and who then goes to appeal is likely to have to wait many months, from the time he first puts in his planning application to the local authority to the day he receives a decision letter on his appeal.
For a developer who has purchased an interest in land, and so has capital tied up in his development proposal, such delay can be extremely costly. The Government wish to reduce the time taken to deal with planning applications and appeals, while ensuring that the quality of the decisions is maintained. I am sure that my hon. Friend will agree that a good decision is often the one that is taken swiftly. A decision is not necessarily improved by the months that are often taken deliberating over it.
Nevertheless, it is important that development proposals should receive both professional scrutiny and appropriate publicity. There is an opportunity for the public to participate in the planning process, whether by writing letters of objection to the local planning authority or the Secretary of State, or by taking part in a public local inquiry into development proposals.
The Government have advised local authorities that any relevant views expressed by local residents should be taken into account in determining planning applications. Nevertheless, on its own, local opposition to a proposal is not a ground for refusing planning permission, unless that opposition is founded upon valid planning reasons supported by substantive evidence. The substance of local opposition must be considered, but the duty is to decide each case on its merits.
It also has to be said that the purpose of the planning system is to regulate the development and use of land in the public interest. It is not to protect the private interests of one person against the activities of another. The material question is whether a development proposal would affect the locality generally and unacceptably affect amenities that should be protected in the public interest. I can understand that my hon. Friend wants planning legislation to be tightened up. He has referred to a code of practice to be enshrined in legislation, with the objective of ensuring that developers are more responsive to the views of local people. I have sought to explain how the planning system is already highly responsive to local opinion. The existing legislation makes local authorities responsible for preparing a local development plan for their areas, and for deciding planning applications. The Government want as many planning applications as possible to be determined locally. I am pleased to say that, at present, over 98 per
Column 580cent. of planning permissions are granted by local authorities. That means that fewer than 2 per cent. of planning permissions result from decisions by my right hon. Friend or his inspectors on appeal. Only one third of rejected planning applications go to appeal, and nearly two thirds of appeals are then unsuccessful. Those figures demonstrate that planning is a local activity in practice, as Parliament intended.
My hon. Friend will know that the Government are not complacent about planning legislation. In January, we published a White Paper entitled "The Future of Development Plans," which contained firm proposals for requiring local planning authorities to prepare local plans for the whole of their areas.
The existence of an up-to-date districtwide local plan, which will have been the subject of extensive public consultation, should ensure that the local authority's decisions on development proposals are far less susceptible to revision on appeal. It should also lessen the number of appeals. That would enable local planning authorities and the Department to give all the consumers of the planning system, including developers and local objectors, a better standard of service.
My hon. Friend referred to the issue of planning enforcement, and he is right to say that if we are to have a system of planning which enjoys the confidence of the people it must be backed by enforcement procedures that are seen to be effective. A review was undertaken by Robert Carnwath QC. He produced his report in February. It contained a number of recommendations, which have been widely supported, for improving the system. The Government have published a consultation paper about the recommendations, and we have received a number of comments on it. I assure my hon. Friend that we will bring forward legislation on those matters as soon as parliamentary time permits. I shall consider my hon. Friend's arguments about the need for a code of practice to regulate developers' behaviour. Inevitably, there will be some developers whose standards of behaviour fall short of expectations. That is why Parliament has provided enforcement powers. But it is not only some developers whose behaviour may fall short of an expected standard. The same is true in all sectors of human activity.
My hon. Friend referred to the issue at Birtenshaw farm. He has left no doubt that he and many of his constituents in the Bromley Cross and Bradshaw areas of Bolton strongly oppose that development. Local people showed that by their actions last Monday, when they succeeded in preventing the developer from beginning work on the site.
I can readily imagine the disappointment of local people when it became known that a covenant which was made in 1934, which seemed to ensure that the land would remain open, was not thought to be enforceable after all. That news must have been particularly depressing to local hopes for the site, because it came soon after the Secretary of State had rejected Barratt's request to remove the restriction contained in the covenant.
That covenant was an entirely separate issue from the matter of planning permission. The decision to retain the covenant did not affect the planning appeal decision to grant planning permission ; nor was it a comment on the merits of the appeal decision. Barratt is now left with a planning permission which it obtained after properly completing all the relevant
Column 581planning procedures. If there are no other legal restrictions on developing the land, which it now appears there are not, it is fully entitled to implement that permission.
I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said about the case, but it does not seem to me that there are any grounds for believing that Barratt has in any way acted improperly in the matter. My hon. Friend is entitled to his view of the scheme and to oppose it vigorously through all the legal means open to him, as he has done. Equally, Barratt is entitled to seek to carry out a scheme for which it has obtained planning permission.
Planning procedures provide opportunities for opposing opinions to be expressed and considered before decisions are taken. The trouble in the Birtenshaw farm case was not that such opportunities were not provided, but that the outcome was unwelcome to many local people. That does not indicate any fault in the planning system. Unwelcome decisions often have to be taken. Nor does it indicate to me a need for the imposition of a code of practice on top of the planning system. Indeed, I find it difficult to visualise a code that would operate to deter a developer from proceeding with work which he is entitled to carry out in accordance with a valid planning permission.
My hon. Friend asked whether my right hon. Friend would intervene to revoke the planning permission that exists for the development at Birtenshaw farm, or to convene a public local inquiry. I have heard nothing to convince me that such action would be justified. There are statutory powers available to revoke planning permission, but my right hon. Friend has used his power only extremely rarely. He takes the view that the power should be used where the original decision is judged to be so grossly wrong that damage is likely to be done to the wider public interest. I think that my hon. Friend knows that it
Column 582is open to the local authority to initiate revocation procedures. If the authority seeks to do that, there is a well- established procedure and, following on from that procedure, a system of compensation. Some people are under the misapprehension that if, for example, my right hon. Friend were to seek to revoke the planning permission himself, he would be landed with the bill for paying the compensation. I must tell my hon. Friend that, even if my right hon. Friend were to initiate the revocation procedure, the bill for any compensation that might result would have to be met by the local council--in other words, by the local ratepayers, or the community charge payers with effect from April of next year. If the local council and the local people want to start revocation proceedings, there is nothing to stop them doing that. I can understand that that might lead to a lively debate in the Bolton council chamber. I believe that in general the existing system of planning control provides sufficient checks and balances. Developers, local authorities or third party objectors do not have carte blanche to ride roughshod over the planning system. If there is to be a code of practice, it should surely be a voluntary one drawn up by property developers--for example, the British Property Federation. My hon. Friend has referred to the voluntary code that was drawn up to deal with sites of archaeological importance, which I believe is an important code of practice.
My hon. Friend also referred to a number of other initiatives which he believes could be taken to improve the effectiveness of the planning system. I assure him that some of those ideas are very much in the forefront of the Government's mind, as we move towards what we hope will be an early legislative opportunity to reform our planning system.
Question put and agreed to.
Adjourned accordingly at twenty-one minutes past Eleven o'clock.
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