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Planning Restrictions and Crime Prevention

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

11.3 pm

Sir Anthony Meyer (Clwyd, North-West) : I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister of State for being here at this hour and I apologise to him for not having been able to let him have the text of my speech in advance, although I am quite sure that he will provide me with a satisfactory reply.

It is not my purpose to indict Departments, although it may appear that I am being a little critical of them. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to confirm that all Departments recognise the importance of crime- prevention measures and the need to ensure that petty bureaucratic restrictions in the name of planning do not get in their way.

The story starts with a chap who runs an antique shop somewhere in my constituency. I am being careful not to identify him because I do not want the press to go sniffing round him. If my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of the man's name, I hope that he will not mention it. His shop has been broken into three times over about the past year ; much stock was stolen and much damage done. The cost of insurance was to be so huge that it would have put him out of business, so, sensibly, he installed some iron shutters. There is nothing unsightly about them ; they are painted dark green and tone in with the rest of the street. A chap came round from the council and told him that he should not have put up the shutters without planning permission. Council officers cannot authorise such planning permission. It must be put on the agenda of the next planning committee, which inevitably would lead to a delay of a couple of months and allow time for at least one more break in.

I did not intend to raise the matter with the council because it appeared that there was an issue of principle that should be taken up, Accordingly, I wrote to my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and sent a copy to my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. The Department of the Environment replied 15 days later and stated that it had referred the matter to the Welsh Office. The Welsh Office replied another 15 days later and said that it was busy trying to discover the name of the chap concerned. I did not want it to find out his name, so I wrote, almost by return of post, a mildly reproving letter. I wanted a statement from whatever Department was responsible that burglary prevention devices should not be subject to rather footling planning restrictions.

I received a letter on 23 June from my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Office, about which I was rather unhappy. It began : "Thank you for your letter about one of your constituents who put up iron shutters to prevent his shop being burgled."

The second paragraph said that if my constituent wanted advice about how to protect his shop against burglary he should contact his chief constable. He had already put up the shutters and therefore did not need advice from the chief constable. All he wanted was no interference from the local authority.

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I replied rather tartly to my hon. Friend, for which I apologise because I have the highest regard for his qualities and abilities as a Minister. He is one of the Ministers whom I most admire. His reply to me was manifestly a little hurt. The last paragraph said : "You may be interested to see a copy of the enclosed circular". The circular was not enclosed, so I had to ring up to obtain it. My hon. Friend's reply was rather good, but once again he was trying to discover the name of the chap, which is neither here nor there. In fact he referred to him by name, but I shall not do so.

In his reply, my hon. Friend said :

"Under Section 22(2) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971 planning permission is required when the proposed changes would materially alter the external appearance."

I maintain that putting in steel roller blinds of a colour that harmonises with the rest of the building does not materially alter the external appearance. I hope that after the debate my hon. Friend will have a word with the Department of Environment to make it accept that and to instruct local authorities that this should not happen. This case seems to run counter to everything that the Home Office says. An excellent circular dated 30 January 1984--a little old, I suppose--refers to the need to take effective measures to discourage burglary. These actions run counter to the spirit of that message. Pettifogging local bureaucracy is getting in the way of the admirable efforts of my hon. Friend the Minister to reduce the spate of burglaries.

I want to raise another matter and, for once, no blame attaches to any Government Department. Mrs. Banks, a splendid lady from Kinmel bay in my constituency, brought all her neighbours together to organise a neighbourhood watch scheme--something that my hon. Friend the Minister strongly approves of ; indeed, the Department has issued an excellent circular to that effect. To make the scheme effective, Mrs. Banks discussed the matter with the local electricity board and put up signs according to lighting standards. The signs were in accordance with the board's requirements, being the correct size and height. They did not obscure any street signs and clearly stated that the area was a neighbourhood watch area.

The Welsh Office has been very helpful, saying :

"the Department has decided to give automatic approval to any Neighbourhood Watch (or Industrial/Business Watch) signs on trunk roads provided those signs meet simple criteria related to siting and size of signs."

The signs completely fulfilled those criteria. The local borough council, Colwyn council, agreed, but Clwyd county council's area surveyor then came into action. In a letter dated 2 March, headed "Neighbourhood Watch Signs", he said :

"I must advise you not to take any action with respect to the erection of the signs until you have heard from the County Surveyor."

In due course, on 18 April, Mrs. Banks heard from the area surveyor :

"My Assistant reports that most of the signs in question appear to have been attached to street lighting columns within the highway, and I must ask you to remove these signs immediately, and arrange for their re-erection detailed in the County Surveyors letter dated the 30th March, 1989."

The letter of 30 March said that any signs should be put in people's gardens. Obviously, burglars driving along the highway looking for a suitable area would not see signs in the garden but would see signs on the lamp posts.

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Once again--this problem is much easier--I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to make it clear that county councils should not throw their weight around in this way, especially when they are acting directly contrary, not merely to the spirit of neighbourhood watch campaigns, but to the explicit instructions issued by the Home Office about the signs. A press release dated 30 March 1988 makes it plain that the Home Office considers that, provided the signs do not obscure street signs and are the right size and height, no planning objection should be made.

I have given two instances of effective measures against crime that have been impeded, if not sabotaged, by the foolish application of planning regulations. I should be grateful to my hon. Friend for anything that he can say now or that he can undertake to do by way of further correspondence to ensure that this form of obstruction does not recur.

11.13 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. John Patten) : It is characteristic of my hon. Friend the Member for Clwyd, North-West (Sir A. Meyer) that he has taken up so much time to look into the welfare of two individuals--Mr. A, as I shall call the gentleman who my hon. Friend does not wish to have named, and Mrs. Banks, whose name may be spoken in the Chamber.

I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this Adjournment debate so that he can discuss the cases of his two constituents--one named and one nameless--and so that he can raise the important issue of crime prevention. My hon. Friend feels strongly about the issue and I and my 12 colleagues on the ministerial group on crime prevention feel just as strongly that the actions of individual citizens, such as Mr. A and Mrs. Banks, are the type of actions that have done so much collectively to reduce recently the level of property crime and hence to produce an overall decline of some 6 per cent. in crime during the past 12 months, which is the biggest single fall since Winston Churchill was in No. 10 Downing street. We have been saying for some time that a rising crime rate is neither inexorable nor inevitable. The work of individuals is beginning to ensure that that statement will be found to be correct.

The particular cases which my hon. Friend has outlined tonight show that there is still much work to be done. We cannot be complacent or congratulate ourselves when bureaucracies, either national or local, fail to deliver the goods or the requisite information in the way that my hon. Friend has the right to expect.

In the case of Mr. A, the proprietor's understandable wish to protect his livelihood put him at odds not with the

security-mindedness of the local planning authority, but rather more with its procedures. All organisations have procedures, regulations and routines and no place has more than the Chamber in which we are speaking tonight. Most have been introduced for sound reasons and some are beneficial. Some can also be tiresome from time to time. Misunderstandings arise and someone needs to step in to untangle the knot of misunderstanding, as my hon. Friend has.

I understand that, happily, the two sides in the case--the constituent of my hon. Friend and the local authority--are now talking to each other with a view to resolving the matter and it looks as if a satisfactory resolution to the case is in prospect. I and my hon. Friend

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the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales have done all that we can, as outsiders, to ensure that that is the case. Planning regulations run to the heart of this case. Planning authorities have to balance within their statutory powers the needs of the community at large against the wish of the applicant to receive planning permission. Developers or proprietors of shops are always wise to consult local planning departments and local police crime prevention architectural liaison officers so that crime can, as much as possible, be designed out of new buildings at an early stage. That is not so easy with old buildings when works involve rehabilitation or the bolting on of effective crime prevention devices. However, local authorities have considerable freedom and flexibility and owners contemplating improvements to the security of their premises should always talk to the planning department and to the police.

I will now develop my response to the argument in the case of Mrs. Banks before trying to draw the two cases together in response to my hon. Friend's wish that we should circulate further information. I am sure that people around the country wait eagerly daily for more Home Office circulars. My hon. Friend believes that we should circulate a further statement on crime prevention. The cases of the shop and the signs for the neighbourhood watch scheme both point to the need for more explanation.

Neighbourhood watch signs are an obvious expression of the activities of individual active citizens gathered together to do something to prevent crime. Alas, a few local authorities have taken overall exception to neighbourhood watch signs and have refused permission for such signs to be erected. As a direct response to that bizarre behaviour, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment made regulations early last year--described in the press notice of 1988 to which my hon. Friend referred--enabling organisers of properly organised watch schemes, established in co-operation with the police, to display signs without first having to obtain the local planning authority's consent--here is the twist in Mr. Bank's case--provided the sign is not placed on "highway" land, which has an existence in law. Therefore, the so-called "deemed consent" provision refers to everything in a local authority's area with the exception of highway land. However, my right hon. Friend has encouraged highway authorities to grant automatic permission for signs on the highway- -such as on lamp posts--unless they would cause a hazard to traffic or pedestrians. I have no idea whether the signs erected by Mrs. Banks could be judged to cause a hazard to traffic or to pedestrians--

Sir Anthony Meyer indicated dissent.

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Mr. Patten : My hon. Friend shakes his head--he feels that they are positively beneficial in their effect. If that is the case, I believe that it is well within the discretion of the local authority--here I speak as a humble Home Office Minister rather than as a Department of the Environment Minister, learned in these things--to allow such signs to be erected on lamp posts on highway land, unless they cause a hazard to traffic or upset pedestrians in some way. Driving around the country, I have seen many such signs, erected on lamp posts to the benefit of local neighbourhood watch schemes and thus of local communities. Provided that it is satisfied that no hazard is caused, I urge the authority to exercise its discretion as soon as possible. When we consider the shutters outside the shop, in the case of Mr. A and the neighbourhood watch signs that Mrs. Banks has caused to be erected in her area, we come up against the need to issue to local authorities and to other interested parties, such as the police forces, which are in the lead in crime prevention, some further refinement of the advice that we issued in circular 8 of 1984, which my hon. Friend eventually saw. My hon. Friend suggested that we should perhaps issue a circular to local authorities saying that planning permission is not required for crime prevention installations provided that they do not project on the highway or are not obtrusively unsightly.

That is a difficult proposition for me to answer tonight as I am not ministerially responsible for planning issues. However, I will take into account what my hon. Friend has said because I agree with the drift of his argument that it seems necessary to review and update the advice given to local authorities and others in the inter-departmental crime prevention circular 8 of 1984, issued five years ago. We are actively considering how new guidance might be framed, and we will be inviting views on our proposals in a few months' time with the hope of issuing something definitive before the end of the year. When the draft guidance is put out for consultation, I shall ensure that my hon. Friend is sent a copy and has the chance to make his comments. It may become clear that the important issues of detail such as my hon. Friend has identified should be dealt with in that guidance, and I will be happy therefore to consider their inclusion in that framework. I hope that my hon. Friend will take up that offer when he sees the draft guidance and has the chance to comment on it.

I hope that my hon. Friend is reassured by my words. I certainly do not treat his words about Mr. A or Mrs. Banks lightly, as I hope I have shown. My time has been well spent because I have had the opportunity to respond to questions about those two cases and to inform the House that we are intent on reviewing the circular and issuing new guidance towards the end of the year. We shall be guided and educated in that by my hon. Friend's excellent speech, to which I have been pleased to reply.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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