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Sir John Stanley (Tonbridge and Malling) (Con): I am glad to follow my hon. Friends the Members for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) and for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) on an important and increasingly worrying planning issue. Both their new clauses would represent a considerable improvement on present planning legislation, and if either of them wishes to press his new clause to a Division, I shall be pleased to support him.
The new clauses do not go far enough. My hon. Friends mentioned cases in their constituencies. However, the process to which they referred has been carried far further in my constituency in the locality known as Deer's Leap in the parish of Hever near Edenbridge. I gave a full account of what had happened at Deer's Leap in the Adjournment debate that I held on 5 June. That situation has exposed in a blatantly clear way the inadequacy of both the judicial protection and the planning legislation protection against those engaged in a deliberate, gross, large-scale abuse of development control.
What happened at Deer's Leap was the division of green belt land into sub-plots. An application was made to the Secretary of State for article 4 directions. They were obtained but proved to be totally useless. A few days after the conclusion of the final land plot sale, what took place was nothing short of an invasionan invasion of lorries carrying hardcore, fencing and then mobile homes on to the sub-plots.
The inadequacy of the courts was rapidly exposed. Although Sevenoaks district council went for an injunction, that takes a little time, and the legal system works in such a way that if an injunction is obtainedand one was successfully obtained by Sevenoaks district councilit does not require the land to be returned to the state in which it was before the abuse of development control took place. It merely stops the development at the date on which the injunction is issued. That creates a perverse incentive for those minded to carry out such gross abuses of development control to maximise the development, for which there is no planning permission whatever, until such time as the injunction is obtained.
Following that, the acute weaknesses of the existing planning system were exposed. As those in occupation put in a retrospective planning applicationwhich, of course, was turned downthe local authority must now deal with the planning appeal. An enforcement notice was issued and appealed against, and the local authority is still waiting for an inquiry into the enforcement and planning appeals. We are nine months on from when the invasion took place and the local authority has already had to spend substantial sums of council tax payers' money to deal with the situation that has been created. As I said in the House on 5 June, if there is such a situation and
I have raised the matter with the Under-Secretary and was grateful for her latest letter to me dated 21 November. It was a pity that representatives of Sevenoaks district council were not invited to the meeting that took place in her Department on 31 October because their presence would have been valuable. I am glad that she has told me that she remains open-minded about the possibility of applying the criminal law in such cases. That is the only alternative left to deal with land speculation companies such as Parker Fields and others that follow in their wake by trying to obtain development rights by force.
I hope that the Under-Secretary will decide that applying the criminal law is necessary. Her letter said that we should focus on prevention rather than the penalties that might be applied. I, too, wish to focus on prevention, so I put it to her that the really worthwhile prevention would be the availability and application of criminal sanctions against such land speculation companies and those who set out blatantly to bust the planning control system. Such people are engaged in nothing short of robbery because achieving development rights by force is robbery and, like all forms of robbery, it must be met with a criminal sanction.
Sir Sydney Chapman: I shall detain the House only briefly. I add my support to new clause 7, which was tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). I also listened with interest when my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) spoke to new clause 18, which he tabled.
The problem is relatively new but very great. It has not been experienced in my constituency, where the metropolis meets the countrysideit is basically suburbiabut it has affected Hertsmere, the constituency next door. The whole purpose of having unspoilt land is for it to remain unspoilt, and it should not remain unspoilt only for the enjoyment of those who live near it because townies as well as countrysiders should be able to access it. If there are deliberate attempts to visually ruin such land, I believe that we have the right to pass a measure to deal with that problem. I enter the caveat that new clause 7 refers to agricultural land, but the problem can apply to land in the countryside that is not necessarily agricultural.
I emphasise a point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South. Seventeen years ago, the Select Committee on the Environment held an inquiry into the metropolitan green belt. At that time, the average cost of an acre of land for agricultural use was about £2,500. I apologise, but I cannot metrically adjust the figure at my age, so I hope that the House will make allowances.
If that land was subject to building or development permission, the price of £2,500 increased to about £250,000 an acre. Today, 17 years later, my guestimate is that on average the agricultural value of the land has decreased from £2,500 to £1,500. However, if that land
Although this is not related directly to the new clause, one dodge in my constituency was to get a farm holding changed into a pig farm. That did not need any planning application because the change was from agricultural to agricultural. Unfortunately, it was on the windward side of part of my constituency so it was not long before many of my constituents complained about the smell. At the appropriate moment, a developer came in to try to get planning permission. Public opinion was evenly divided. I am told that, on the narrowest of cases, the Secretary of State, or the inspector appointed by him, decided to grant planning permission for a limited residential development. That had not been completed before the developer tried to enlarge his estate, but that was put paid to by the planning inspector turning down the subsequent application.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) said in an eloquent intervention, that sort of thing is a gross violation of the development control system. As, by and large, that system is subject not to criminal law but to civil law, I think that there are already exceptional cases where such violations should be made a criminal offence.
I have read carefully the planning powers that are available to try to deal with these matters, either for the Secretary of State or the local planning authority. My hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South referred to an article 4 direction. That is not sufficient because it is limited and can be applied only in certain narrowly defined situations. There is a possible alternative course that I think I mentioned to the Minister in Committee: to use powers that local planning authorities have in certain circumstances to require an owner of land to tidy it up if it has fallen into gross disrepair or become an unsightly plot. However, I believe that that is insufficient. Under an article 4 direction, fences can be put up to define the imagined or hoped for plots, but not in every case. A site is made unsightly not only by the possibility of caravans, for example, coming on to it, but also by the ability of the potential owner to dig up the turf and put a few bricks on to the land, if not built bricks, and thoroughly despoil the area.
Even as a person who likes to think that we all fight for individual rights of freedom, I like to think that this is a case where the Government rightly should intervene to change the law to ensure that the practices that we have been talking about do not spread as they have in the recent past.
Matthew Green: The hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner) has done the House a service once again by tabling the new clause, but I suspect that the Minister will rightly say again that it is not the approach that will work. We are dealing with what is clearly a severe problem in many parts of the country. Indeed, 14 counties have had the problem, and it is spreading.
There are essentially three different problems and that is why this approach probably will not work. First, there is the problem that has been touched on of how these pieces of land are sold. That might be a matter for trading standards legislation, but it is not really a
One problem is that all the routes open to local authorities leave the authority bearing some considerable cost, which in turn is borne by the local council tax payer. Fences can be compulsorily removed using an article 4 direction, but then the local authority has to pay compensation to the people affected, costing the local tax payer a considerable amount. There is the possibility of using a discontinuance order by virtue of section 102 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, but again there is a liability to pay compensation to the people concerned. Therefore, there is no easy way of getting the fences removed without it costing the council a considerable amount of money.
Degradation of the land is in many ways an even more serious problem. The council can issue an untidy land notice under section 215 of the 1990 Act, but that takes a considerable time, involves going to the magistrates court, places quite a cost burden on the local authority and is by no means a quick procedure. In some instances, particularly if the land involved was agricultural, change of land use enforcement notices can be used. Again, that is a slow procedure that involves considerable officer time and cost to the local authority. The only other option is compulsorily to purchase the land, for which there is a provision under section 226 of the 1990 Act if it is in the interests of proper planning in the area. Clearly, compulsory purchase will cost the local taxpayer considerable money. All those costs are forced on the local taxpayer by the profiteering of a handful of companies.
The solution of the hon. Member for Isle of Wight is probably not the sensible way forward. The way to hurt the companies involved is by imposing a financial rather than a criminal sanction, although a financial penalty can be imposed in criminal cases. Where local authorities are being made to bear the costs of any of these methods we need some way to recover the costs from the people who have made the money out of the site, so reducing the attractiveness of taking such an approach.
One of the easiest routes open to the Minister would be to remove the right to compensation under the article 4 direction. That might reduce some of the costs, but it would not give councils the means to pursue the companies involved for financial recompense for the costs involved.
The hon. Gentleman has once again done the House a service in tabling the new clause, as has the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Richard Ottaway) in tabling new clause 18, but this is not a practical way of dealing with the matter. However, it has been forced up the agenda and I hope that the Minister will say that she will continue to look for ways to deal with it. I suspect that the removal of the compensation part of the article 4 direction will be the most immediate route to take.