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Mr. John Baron (Billericay): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise this issue in the House. I also thank the Minister for responding on behalf of the Government. He will be aware that yesterday, I sent him a summary of my speech in order to ensure that party politics takes a back seat in our discussions of this important issue and to give him some time to consider his response.
In my constituency of Billericay and district, we are very concerned about the various threats to our green belt and green fields. One of the growing dangers is the illegal development of greenfield land, especially by the travelling community, which buys land and then, very quickly, often in only a few days, develops it without planning permission. The council has tried to combat the problem, but without success. I believe that local authorities are hampered by the law, and during the next 10 minutes or so, I should like to put forward proposals for the Government to consider as to how the law could be updated.
However, I should like first briefly to describe the problem. I shall start by making one thing very clear: my constituents are simply seeking fairness for all under the law, but it is only fair that all those who live in a community should abide by the same set of laws. No one is seeking to discriminate against a minority. Partly because of our historic links with the pilgrim fathers and the Mayflower, as a community we recognise more than most that the mark of a civilised society is the extent to which minority interests are respected.
For example, in Basildon district alone, there are more than 100 authorised sites for the travelling and gypsy communities, while some districts have none at all. Indeed, many of us believe that it was wrong that in 1994, the statutory duty on local authorities to provide authorised sites was removed. As a society, we should provide an adequate number of sites with proper amenities, for which the travellers should pay costs; otherwise, taxpayers would be encouraging people to pursue a nomadic way of life and the settled community would be discriminated against.
In short, we have long accepted this way of life. Residents have no problem with the law-abiding traveller and gypsy communities. However, for some reason that I cannot explain, there is an increasing number of cases in which travellers who are new to the area are buying land, speedily developing it without planning permission and subsequently not living in harmony with their neighbours. That is causing much concern and anger not only in the settled community, but among the more established gypsy communities.
A recent example at Sadlers farm roundabout in Bowers Gifford involved travellers buying the land and then, on a Friday, digging a 6 ft bank around the perimeter of the field before laying hardcore over the centre and bringing in caravans over the weekend. By the time the council reacted some three weeks later with enforcement and stop notices, it was far too late. Needless to say, the enforcement notice is now being held in abeyance because
Consequently, we have now entered a lengthy planning and appeals process, which could take years. Meanwhile, the illegal development continues. Similar situations have occurred in Hovefields in Wickford and Oak road in Crays Hill. Typically, what happens is that the lives of neighbouring residents are made a misery. Many residents have complained of the local area and ditches being swamped with refuse, rubbish and excrement, which has caused flooding; of intimidation to the point of people being fearful to leave their home, with crime generally on the increase; and of nearby narrow lanes being plagued by under-age youngsters driving recklessly, or by noisy lorries, often during the early hours of the morning.
As the Minister can well imagine, I have received many letters about the issue, as feelings are running high. If the House will forgive me, I shall quote from just a few of them, although the names have been withheld because of fear of intimidation.
I do not believe that the council could have stopped the illegal development of Sadlers Farm roundabout in the early days as, by law, it had to take account of the personal circumstances of the travellers and ensure accurate drafting of notices for fear of the financial implications of adverse court rulings. A further factor that delays councils is the Human Rights Act 1998.
We may be making progress. The Government recently issued a press release, dated 5 July, entitled "A New Approach to Tackling Unauthorised Traveller Camps", which appears to accept that councils cannot deal with the issue alone. The initiative will apparently produce new guidance on managing unauthorised camping, and provide police with increased powers to move on unauthorised traveller encampments. [Interruption.]
However, it appears that the increased powers will apply only in cases of trespass. Will the Minister confirm whether that is the case? If so, the new guidelines will not help my constituency. [Interruption.]
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. There appears to be a problem with the sound system, which means that we have no recording for official purposes. I shall therefore suspend the sitting for five minutes.
Mr. Baron: I understand that guidelines will be issued in the autumn, and, with this time scale in mind, I would like to suggest three changes to the law. The first involves retrospective planning applications; the second, stop notices; and the third, injunctions. All are aimed at stopping illegal development early, as soon as it first occurs or is about to occur.
With regard to the first proposal, retrospective planning applications should be restricted where it could be shown that significant harm is about to be, or has been, caused to the greenfield site in question. The council would have discretion whether to act following guidance from the Secretary of State as to what constitutes "significant harm".
Under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, planning permission is required for the carrying out of any development. However, as we know, a retrospective planning application can be made where development has already been carried out without permission. When a retrospective planning application has been received, any pending or proposed enforcement action is suspended until the application has proceeded through the planning system and/or the courts. In other words, serious and costly delays can occur during the appeals process, and in some cases it can take up to six years, or even longer, before the processes are exhausted. Meanwhile, the unauthorised development remains. In refusing retrospective planning applications, a strong message would be sent out that speedy unauthorised development of greenfield land would not be worthwhile and would not be tolerated. Enforcement action could be immediately carried out in the knowledge that retrospective planning could not be allowed as a ground for appeal.
There is little doubt that the current enforcement system is unduly complex and cumbersome, but the measure would prevent those who seek to deliberately evade or abuse the planning system from doing so. The term "significant harm", as opposed to just "harm", would be appropriate, to ensure that any such amendment complies with the Human Rights Act 1998 and that minor contraventions of planning law were not necessarily penalised by the council.
The second proposal would involve no costs or penalties being awarded against councils who issue a stop notice in relation to any development where planning permission has not been granted. Currently, in part due to the Human Rights Act, inspectors' enforcement decisions regarding unauthorised traveller sites are increasingly being decided against local authorities, with hefty costs or damages being awarded.
That danger considerably discourages councils from using stop notices, or at least delays the issuing of those notices while councils prepare lengthy paperwork, during which time much damage can be done to the greenfield in question. If that danger were removed by preventing costs from being awarded against councils, it would provide a big incentive towards allowing councils speedily to enforce their planning powers where necessary by issuing a stop notice. Again, councils would have final discretion in that.
An additional problem is that, often, court sentences for contravening an injunction and for non-payment of fines are too lenient. Penalties available to the courts are limited and they do not act as a deterrent. That also needs to be put right by the Government.
In conclusion, Mr. Deputy Speaker, this is a real problem in my constituency, and it is causing much distress and anger. Whereas section 61 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994 can deal with trespass, the existing law is essentially ineffective against determined and unco-operative people who buy land and then speedily and illegally develop it.
That problem is getting worse, and it could escalate significantly. Local residents cannot sell their properties or land because of the location of many of those illegal sites, and greenfield land is being sold at knockdown prices to that new wave of travelling communities.
Clarification is required as to whether the Government's latest initiative deals only with trespass. I am also aware that the planning Green Paper has announced that enforcement powers and procedures are being scrutinised. We shall hear more in the autumn.
In the lead-up to the announcements, I urge the Government to consider those three proposals, which aim to put an end to the generally perceived view that there is a two-tier planning system operating in this country. There may be technical issues to address, but these should not get in the way of what I believe are common-sense policies, which, if sufficient political will exists, would tackle the problems.
These proposals would give councils the power to act quickly against the illegal development of land owned by the perpetrators, whether traveller or not, and would therefore create fairness for all. I await the Government's response with interest.