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Mr. Turner: My hon. Friend is right. The mischief of subdivision, if we define it as development, could of course be dealt with under the planning Acts, but the mischief of the physical manifestation of subdivision amounts to development so it should already be covered by a requirement for planning permission. Obtrusive divisions such as the erection of fences, the positioning of caravanseven if they are occupied for only 28 days a year or less they are on the site for the whole yearthe erection of patios or the planting of gardens can all transform a hitherto rural area into one that it would be generous to describe as suburban.
The problem does not manifest itself only in the physical division of land but in the division of ownership. Maintenance of agricultural value and maintenance of landscape are much more difficult to enforce, even in an area of outstanding natural beauty, where ownership is divided into penny packets, so that is another reason to deal with that mischief[Interruption.] I see that my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) is nodding.
No one has yet proposed a perfect solution, but I am sure that the Minister will agree that the issue needs to be taken seriously and dealt with urgently. In Committee, I received certain responses that indicated the difficulty of the issue so I have tabled the new clause so that, if possible, a solution might be foundI accept that it may be difficultthat is satisfactory and can be incorporated in the Bill before it leaves the other place.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): I rise to support my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I do not know whether it is relevant, but I declare an interest in that my wife has been engaged in successful litigation over a right of way on a piece of land that was originally sold by Gladwish Land Salesin my view, in a deceptive way.
As my hon. Friend said, the matter is extremely complex. My new clause was tabled as a probing clause and I acknowledge the Minister's problem in coming up with a solution. In my judgment, there is no easy solution.My hon. Friend set out the problem clearly. It is a scamno less, no more. Large, attractive pieces of land are bought at prices that verge on the agricultural rate. The fields are marked out with pegs and subdivided into small plots in a way that suggests to the gullible and unsuspecting that they can be developed. It has to be acknowledged that the people selling the land do not actually say, "You will get planning permission and get through the development barriers"; they say, "You may get planning permission". As the House knows, many political issues turn on the word "may". Like my hon.
Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman is being generous to some of the companies that sell such plots. For a time, at least one such company suggested on its website that it was unethical for prospective purchasers to approach the local planning department to find out about the development potential of the land before completing their purchase. I understand that that statement has been removed, but it shows the lengths to which some companies will go.
When I took the hon. Gentleman's admirable intervention, I was about to discuss a piece of land called Kenley pastures, which is next to Kenley house, a grade 2 listed building. There are not many such places inside the Greater London boundaries. The land is outstandingly attractive and the Greater London Authority has confirmed that it is not only in the green belt, but in a nature conservation site, so that gives some indication of its quality.
The 37-acre site was used by the local community for recreational purposes. Local families rented plots where they kept horses or ponies. The land was a centre for equestrian activity. It was sold for just over £250,000, which was just above the agricultural rate. It was split into a number of small plots of about a quarter of an acre and marketed at £20,000 to £22,000 an acre. To save hon. Members the task of working it out, if all the land were sold at that rate it would raise £3 millionpurchased for £250,000, sold for £3 million. Of course, unsuspecting people are funding that scam.
It is said that a fool and his money are easily parted, and of course it is incumbent on anyone purchasing a piece of land to take legal advice. However, I understand that the companies tell people, "Don't worry, we will even pay your solicitors' fees for you. Better still, we will provide you with legal adviceyou don't need to commission your own." Extraordinarily, people fall for that.
Mr. Clifton-Brown: My hon. Friend has great knowledge of the company in question. Does he know of anyone who has tried to complain to the local trading standards office about misleading information given out in relation to the sales?
Richard Ottaway: My hon. Friend pre-empts me. Inquiries have been made to the trading standards office, the Advertising Standards Authority and the Financial Services Authority. I shall deal with their replies shortly.
It is clear that planning permission will not be given and that there will be no development of the land. People find out the hard way that they have been ripped off. In consequence, they abandon the land and what was well-maintained recreational land falls into disuse. That is the problem, and the thrust of my new clause is that in such circumstances the local authority should have power to order that the land be maintained.
My hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) asks whether the trading standards authorities have been involved, or whether they have any powers or controls in this respect. The admirable Kenley greenbelt action group raised the matter with Croydon council, whose reply was that the matter
Mr. Clifton-Brown: Before he moves on, will my hon. Friend provide some clarification? Is he actually saying that one can put any information one likes on one's own website and it is not subject to any form of control on misdescription from any authority?
Richard Ottaway: I would hate to make a definitive statement, but it seems that any information contained on a website in such a manner is not subject to the authority of the ASA as enshrined in the relevant legislation.
Reference was made to the Financial Services Authority to establish whether it had control over an investment in land. The FSA replied that investment in land was not within its jurisdiction and that it could not help either.
It seems that the activity is almost completely unregulated, with very little protection for the consumer. I give credit to the Government for the fact that the Government office for London issued an article 4 notice, which prohibits the fencing of the land in the way that was happening, so all the pegs and so on had to be removed. That was much appreciated.