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17 Dec 2002 : Column 771continued
Peter Bradley: The hon. Gentleman is reading from my script and, I am sure, that of many other hon. Members. Is he aware that his local authority would have the power to extinguish the planning consent that existed on the site to which he referred for 40 years, but in exercising it, would have to pay compensation at market value for houses that had never been built in that time? Does that not underline the importance of ensuring that those on the Front Bench, whom I am sure are listening very closely to this exchange, consider the Bill and find some way of accommodating the view that he advanced, which I support?
Mr. Llwyd: Yes, I was aware of that point. I am by no means a know-all, but I am aware of the issue, and I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why: in the Caernarfon constituency, the same thing happened in a little village called Morfa BychanHansard is going to have a fun day todayoutside Porthmadog, where the council opted to do just what he described. However, the process cost millions of pounds. As we well know, money is not in huge supply in local government. I appreciate the point that he makes and sincerely hope on behalf of not only my constituents, but all our constituents, that the matter is readdressed in Committee.
I read with interest the references to community consultation, which are welcome as far as they go. How is it intended that that consultation will take place? In other words, what will be the proposed avenues for dialogue? I welcome the idea, but how will it work? Anybody can see that the community council will have a role, but there will be other aspects and I would be grateful if the Minister could enlighten me about them.
Another matter that has concerned people in Wales is second homes. Concern is felt not only in Wales, but in Cumbria, Cornwall, the Cotswolds and anywhere else that anybody would like to name within reasonable commuter distances of towns and so on. The problem with properties that are used as second homes is that they undermine the viability of villages. I can speak of a village called Rhyd in my constituency, where only one or two local families are left all year round and the village shop and post office have gone. [Interruption.] I shall, no doubt, assist Hansard in due course; I promise to do so. The point is that the local shop has been undermined and the post office and village pub, church, chapel and school have all gone. The infrastructure has completely disappeared.
We need to consider how to tackle that problem, which affects many areas throughout the UK, but is of particular moment in Wales. Very often, the areas where it happens most are the economically inactive onesrural areas where there are houses to be bought and some people can afford to buy them, while youngsters cannot necessarily do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Ceredigion (Mr. Thomas) last year introduced the Housing (Wales) Bill in an attempt to deal with that problem among others, including homes in multiple occupation. One of the notions that struck us was a use classes order. We could consider introducing such an order and the question whether a property that is not occupied all year round should be deemed to be in a different use class from that of a full-time residential property. That might be one way forward.
I went to see Ministers about that issue before the White Paper was published. No names, no pack drill, but one Minister in particular was fully on board that it should happen. He said that he would put the matter in train, but unfortunately when the paper hit the Cabinet table, or a table slightly above his, the matter was stamped on and mysteriously disappeared. We were left with the odd and soppy suggestion of doubling the council tax. That does not go far when one is dealing with economic inequity and when the people buying the properties have more money to spend than the locals.
Peter Bradley: Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Rural Housing Trust, an extremely respectable and authoritative organisation in this field, believes that the receipts from the doubling of council tax could meet the shortfall in the funding of affordable housing? That would make a significant contribution to addressing the needs and problems to which he referred.
Mr. Llwyd: I have no doubt that the doubling of council tax will be beneficial, but it will not crack the problem. Perhaps I was wrong to call it a sop, because it is more than that. Clearly, however, it is not the absolute answer.
I wish to make two quick points. It is important to have a third party right of appeal because of potential bad neighbour applications. There should be a gateway to sift out the wheat from the chaff, and genuine grievances should be heard. Indeed, I am beginning to think that this may have a human rights aspect. I commend to hon. Members the way in which the model works in Ireland. It is a good model that does not create delay, and it is worthy of examination.
We have all got terribly worked up this evening about how good compulsory purchase will be. I wonder where the money will come from to effect compulsory purchase; my local authority can hardly pay for social services, let alone compulsory purchase. Of course there are resource implications, but in principle, the idea is good and should be welcomed.
There are some good aspects to the Bill, but many things need correcting. I hope that I am wrong in thinking that the dead hand of Westminster and over-centralisation are in the background. I hope that the Bill will be improved in Committee.
Mr. Clive Betts (Sheffield, Attercliffe): Had the Government proposed today a Bill that embodied the suggestions in their Green Paper, I would have been making a very different speech. I would have attacked the idea that we could have a planning system without plans and a local development framework that would at best have been described as woolly, with no opportunities for the public to engage in its formulation. I would have said that the infrastructure project proposals were unworkable, and that plans for tariffs or taxes were at best only half considered. However, the Government listened to the objections and concerns that the Select Committee and others raised, and made fundamental alterations. They should be given credit for that.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Bennett) said earlier, we should be proud of the planning system in this country. When it was born in 1947, it was a radical measure. Its fundamental principle was that the legal right to develop should not rest with the owner of the property. Effectively, it transferred the power of development from the individual to the community. Labour Members should have great regard to that and always make sure that we comply with it when considering changes to the planning system.
My hon. Friend the Minister for Social Exclusion, who introduced the debate, spoke about a step change. In reality, the Government should be saying that they are taking a small number of steps, mainly in the right direction, along the lines recommended by the Select Committee.
I particularly welcome the fact that we are to have public inquiries and community consultation and involvement in the local development framework. As I told my hon. Friend the Minister earlier, the requirement to have maps is important because it provides a degree of certainty and understanding to the community about what is intended in the area. Most of the development in Sheffield in the past 10 years has taken place in my constituency. People come to my surgeries asking me to stop development on fields next to their homes. I tell them that something called the unitary development plan for the whole city shows the acceptable development on any piece of land. They complain that they did not know about that, and I answer that the whole city was consulted at some point. They argue that they did not live in their house at that time, and I say that, had they gone to the local library or town hall before buying their house, they could have seen a copy of the plan and the likely development on the land.
People then begin to understand that there is a degree of fairness. They may not like the fact that houses will be built, but they at least understand that the system is fair. At that point, it is convenient for the local Member of Parliament to say that he can do nothing about the matter, but that consultation took place in the past. The measure gives certainty to the community because people can know what is likely to be built on land near their home and developers can know whether planning permission is likely to be accepted in principle.
Clearly, any system can be reformed. I welcome the changes to stop serial repeat applications and to reduce the life of planning permission from five years to three. If I heard the Minister correctly earlierthis is an important point of clarificationshe said that in future planning permission would not automatically be granted again once the expiry date had passed. That is important because, as the hon. Member for Meirionnydd Nant Conwy said, many permissions hang round for years and years, and they cause a perverse form of planning blight. If people know that once the planning permission has expired, it will not automatically be renewed, the system will become more certain, and I would certainly welcome that.
I wish to pick up an important issue that was referred to earlier: enforcement. It is not in the Bill, but if local authority decisions are to be carried through, enforcement is necessary. Developers will always try to get a bit more out of the scheme than they are entitled to.
The Mosborough village action group is an active body in my constituency whose members take a great interest in planning matters. They said that they knew that planning officers would always fundamentally be engaged in considering new applications and had no time to look for breaches in developers' conditions. However, as interested members of the community, the group could do that.
In neighbourhood watch, interested members of the community help their local police officers and are recognised for the role that they fulfil. Why could not we develop planning watch, so that interested members of the community could be formally recognised, have a direct link to planning officers, receive some formal training and thus play an important role in enhancing enforcement? That would help to ensure that developers did not get away with breaching conditions. It is an interesting idea. I accept that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary may not be able to respond officially to it tonight, but perhaps he could consider it. Involving the community positively and engaging it with the planning process could have great benefits.