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As my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir John Stanley) and my hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Sir Sydney Chapman) said, the real problem is that the planning system cannot react sufficiently quickly. One therefore has to consider solutions allowing local authorities to take quicker action to stop unauthorised development dead in its tracks and to require land to be reinstated. Not only the hon. Members who have spoken tonight, but other hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison), my hon. Friend the Member for Billericay (Mr. Baron), who has made some proposals about this matter, and my hon. Friend the Member for South-West Bedfordshire (Andrew Selous), have experienced similar problems, and we must find a solution. If the Minister had any doubt that the problem that we are considering is serious, it has surely been well and truly drummed home tonight that action needs to be taken.
I can propose a number of solutions. Following the excellent debate initiated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling on 5 June, I raised the same matter in Westminster Hall having received information from my cousin, Antony Clifton Brown, who sent me copies of his correspondence with the hon. Member for Braintree (Mr. Hurst) about the activities of Gladwish Land Sales in the parishes of Stisted and Greenstead Green in Essex. Eventually, as in the case raised by my right hon. Friend, the council issued an article 4 direction and obtained confirmation from the Secretary of State.
That is one method that the Minister could profitably consider, if she were listening to me. As I suggested in Committee, however, the presumption about an article 4 direction needs to be reversed. Currently, such a direction has to be confirmed by the Secretary of State once it has been issued by the local planning authority. I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling said in his debate that it had taken his local authority six months to obtain the Secretary of State's confirmation. If the presumption were reversed, so that the direction took effect immediately after the local planning authority had issued it, whether or not it would remain in force, but then had to be confirmed by the Secretary of State, the situation would be considerably altered.
Of course, compensation would be payable in such circumstances if the Secretary of State subsequently ruled that the direction had been applied unreasonably. In the cases raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling and other hon. Friends, however, the authorities would have issued directions in reasonable circumstances. The Secretary of State could, if necessary, take several months to confirm the directions, but the activities would have been stopped. That is one useful method that we could consider.
There is also a second method that we could consider. There is a requirement on change of use involving planning permission when agricultural land is converted into gardens or amenity land. If former agricultural land has been converted into quasi-suburban, derelict or discontinued land, or land of whatever classification is given after it has been subdivided, I can see no reason why planning permission should not have to be sought. A fairly simple change could be made in planning law in that regard. If an applicant applies for retrospective planning permission that is not granted, as would happen in the cases that I have mentioned, and also fails at appeal, the council could have a right to ensure that enforcement action begins immediately. Currently, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling has made clear, developers can string a local planning authority along in respect of such difficult developments for months, if not years. Their appeal against the retrospective planning application has to be followed by their appeal against the enforcement notice. Those hearings each take several months, by the end of which a year or so could have passed. There is no reason why a small change in the law could not be made to ensure that if a retrospective planning application is refused on appeal, an enforcement action can start immediately.
The problem is how to get the land reinstated. If the action is clearly in contravention of planning controls, a mechanism can be found to stop it immediately. Stop notices issued under section 188 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 might be useful, but require compensation. The mechanism adduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Souththe section 215 noticeis fine, but it requires an appeal to a magistrate. That takes time, and even if the magistrate finds in favour of the local authority, the applicant receives only a level 3 fine. I have not had time to look up what that isI shall probably be told that it is £3,000, which may be correct. That is inadequate, given that Gladwish Land Sales and others are making profits running into millions from the subdivision of fields.
I have often suggested to my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling that it may become necessary to consider imposing criminal sanctions in certain exceptional cases. I say that with a heavy heart, because I am one of those who believe that criminal sanctions should be applied only in the most serious cases. There would have to be proper due process beforehand, because the threat of an indictable offence is a very serious one. An associated problem is that where criminal sanctions are involved, the burden of proof is increased to that of beyond reasonable doubt. It is not an entirely straightforward matter.
As the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) says, planning authorities can compulsorily acquire such land under a section 226 notice if it is in the interests of proper planning in their area. However, the problem is that the value of the compulsory purchase will be equivalent to the value of the land when the subdivision took place, so the local authority would have to pay the enhanced value, which it would find unacceptable.
The only other mechanism that I have come across for stopping this procedurewe should explore all the mechanisms, and I hope that the Minister will respond to them allis to issue an injunction under planning law against a person or persons unknown by posting a notice on the land. My local planning authority has done that. We have to deal with two problemsfirst, stopping the unauthorised development from getting worse; and secondly, reinstating the land to something akin to its former rural agricultural state.
In dealing with this problem, albeit only tangentially, the appropriate Department must examine the issue of how land sales are promoted on people's websites, although I accept that that might not involve the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. There seems to be a suggestion that the advertising code does not apply in such circumstances. I have here a letterprocured by my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, Southfrom one Beverley Gibbs, a complaints handler at the Advertising Standards Authority, dated 28 August 2003. She states quite clearly:
I hope that one or two of the methods that I have suggested to the Minister will find favour. This is a serious matter, and I hope that she will be able to give the House some comfort tonight. This issue will not go away, and it will affect more and more Members. If the Minister does nothing about it, we shall find ourselves having more debates of this kind, so I appeal to her to find a solution to the problem.
Yvette Cooper: As many hon. Members have pointed out, we have discussed these issues extensively in Committee. They have also been raised in Adjournment debates, in correspondence and in meetings between Ministers, hon. Members on both sides of the House, officials and local authorities. The Department is therefore giving them considerable thought, and I would like to set out for the House the point that we have reached in that regard.
I raised concerns on new clause 7 in Committee because the planning system is intended to decide what land should be used for and has nothing to do with the sale of land. Planning permission is not required for the subdivision of land for genuine agricultural reasons, and there is no problem with someone selling off a plot of land if it will remain in use as agricultural land. An issue
Hon. Members have put forward evidence that the subdivision of agricultural land can be unsightly and can lead to even more harmful longer-term effects. For example, if a developer buys a plot of land and planning permission is not granted for the use that he had in mind, there is a danger that the plot could fall into disrepair or neglect. Other problems can arise when a subdivision of land becomes the trigger for a series of unauthorised developments. That could involve something as simple as unsightly fencing pegs or posts being put up, or something far more substantial involving significant intensive development over a short period of time.
Permitted development rights enable individual plots to be marked off by fencing pegs or posts without the need for planning permission. Local authorities can remove these rights by means of an article 4 direction, and the guidance sets out the circumstances in which such directions can be used. Many of the other examples to which hon. Members have referred involved cases in which permitted development rights would not apply because there was clearly unauthorised development and planning permission would be required.