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29 Jan 2003 : Column 896—continued

Mr. John Burnett (Torridge and West Devon): In the light of her statement, will the Secretary of State explain her Government's policies towards multidisciplinary professional practices, and does she believe that the description of an individual or a firm as an accountant or accountants should be reserved for those who have achieved professional qualifications, are subject to rigorous rules of practice and have adequate insurance?

Ms Hewitt: As I think the hon. Gentleman knows, there is nothing in law at the moment that prescribes the use of the term "accountant" in the way that I think he is suggesting. This is really a matter for the professional bodies to take forward.

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Greenbelt Protection

1.18 pm

Mr. John Baron (Billericay): I beg to move,

In my constituency of Billericay and district, we are very concerned about the various threats to our green belt. One of the growing dangers is that of unauthorised development, especially by the travelling communities, who buy land and then, very quickly, develop it without planning permission.

A recent example at Sadlers Farm roundabout involved travellers digging a 6 ft earth mound around the perimeter of a field on Friday, laying hardcore on the Saturday and then moving caravans in on the Sunday. By the time that the council reacted with enforcement and stop notices, the development was complete. Consequently, we have now entered a lengthy planning and appeals process. Meanwhile, the illegal development continues. Similar situations have occurred in Hovefields in Wickford and Oak road in Crays Hill. Such unauthorised development often occurs on highly visible areas of the green belt, and causes a good deal of resentment among other residents.

When trying to combat the situation, Basildon council—whether Labour or Tory—has found the existing law inadequate. The Bill attempts to put this right, by giving local authorities additional powers to stop unauthorised development of greenbelt land.

Before I describe my suggested measures, may I first make two things absolutely clear? First, no one is looking to discriminate against a minority, but it is only fair that all those who live in a community should abide by its laws and regulations; otherwise, it is the majority who are discriminated against. 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. We have no problem with the law-abiding traveller. Indeed, latest figures show that there are more than 100 authorised sites for the travelling and gypsy communities in our district, while some neighbouring districts have none at all.

We believe that it was wrong that the statutory duty on local authorities to provide authorised sites was removed in 1994. It is only right that the way of life of the law-abiding traveller be recognised. However, for reasons that I cannot fully explain, there has recently been an increasingly large number of cases of travellers, new to the area, 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 among the settled community but among the more established gypsy communities.

The second point is that this private Member's Bill is the product of a long consultation exercise in which party politics has played no part. It has included numerous discussions, site visits, public hearings, and

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public meetings with residents, travellers, councillors, the police and Basildon council planning department. Here I should like to pay particular thanks to Councillor David Dadds, Mr. Clive Simpson and Graeme Bloomer of Basildon council. I have consistently stated that the law needs changing, whichever party is in control of the council.

In addition, in an attempt to engage the Government in debate, these suggestions were inserted by way of amendments to the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Bill when it was in Committee.

The Bill has support on both sides of the House and, whatever the outcome, I should like to take the opportunity to thank all sponsors for their support. It is in that spirit that I present the Bill.

Two key problems face local authorities when trying to deal with this issue. The first is that local authorities have difficulty in acting quickly to prevent unauthorised development. If an injunction is granted, it can be difficult to serve on the owner or occupier as they can often be difficult to pin down, particularly if land is being quickly sold on and individuals are being unco-operative.

The second problem is that although local authorities can issue stop and enforcement notices, rights of appeal and retrospective planning applications unnecessarily prolong the issues. The reality is that the planning and appeals process can take many months, if not years. Even when it is exhausted, it is often the case that local authorities have then to resort to the courts to reinstate the land, and that can be a long process that does not necessarily result in the clearance of the land. Some planning departments believe that decisions go against local authorities because there is inadequate provision of sites.

I have three suggestions for the House on specific details. The first is that, to share the responsibility of site provision for the travelling community, the Bill would introduce a requirement for all local authorities to provide authorised sites. The target figure should be identified by central Government in consultation with regional bodies, county councils and local authorities. The allocation would be based on the level of local need, and take into account the generation of new sites, likely immigration, outstanding commitments and the ability of local infrastructure to cope with additional growth. In return, the travellers would pay a fair rent for the time they spend at the sites and use the council's services; otherwise, it would be unfair to local taxpayers.

Secondly, the Bill would introduce powers to enable local authorities more easily to obtain an injunction by allowing it to be served on a landowner whose identity is unknown to the local planning authority. Although a similar power already exists to a lesser extent, it is hardly ever successfully exercised by local authorities because of the heavy burden of proof required. By entirely removing that burden of proof and serving the injunction, in effect, against the land, local authorities will be able to obtain an injunction far more speedily, and so quickly nip in the bud any unauthorised development. The injunction would be registered at the Land Registry as a charge against the land and would give local authorities the power to enforce the injunction against any new owner or occupiers.

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Thirdly, local authorities would have a further power to serve a notice to remedy, the aim of which would be to reinstate the land to its original condition. That would be a discretionary power available to local authorities, the guidance being that it should be used only when, in the opinion of the local authority, significant harm is being caused to green belt or greenfield land under its control. The aim of the guidance would be to ensure that, where a minor breach of planning laws had taken place—for example, Mr. Smith accidentally deviated by 3 ft from planning permission when erecting a garage—the normal planning regulations would apply. But where, for example, a whole field was developed without planning permission, local authorities could consider that to constitute significant harm and would then have the option of instigating a notice to remedy.

Should a notice to remedy be exercised, it would stand apart from the normal planning procedure and have to be complied with. Once the land had been reinstated, the owner and occupiers would be allowed to seek planning permission through the normal planning process. If the land were not made good within the specified time frame, the local authority could arrange to put it right, the costs being reclaimed from the perpetrators where possible.

To conclude, it is important to stress that apart from the provision of authorised sites, the additional powers in the Bill are not mandatory. They would be additional options available to local authorities to choose if they so wish. Local councillors, democratically elected, would make the decisions. I do not deny that I have not covered all the details in the past eight or so minutes. There may well be technical issues to address, but I hope that they will not get in the way of what the Bill's sponsors and I believe are common-sense policies that, if sufficient political will exists, would tackle the problems. By ensuring that a sufficient number of authorised sites are provided and giving local authorities additional powers to combat large-scale unauthorised development, whether or not it is by travellers, I believe that the proposals will create fairness for all, and I commend the Bill to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John Baron, Mr. Colin Challen, Mr. Jim Cunningham, Mr. Jeff Ennis, Mr. Mark Field, Mr. Chris Mullin, Mr. Kerry Pollard, Hugh Robertson, Mr. Andrew Rosindell, Andrew Selous, Mr. Mark Simmonds and Angela Watkinson.

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