Finally, there is a separate issue that complicates the matterthat is, the fragmentation of land. In the area of Waldens farm and Layhams road, the two major unauthorised sites, the ownership of land has become very fragmented, which means that the ownership is
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unclear. We established at one point that the Treasury owned some of the land at Waldens farm. Such fragmentation enormously complicates the problem, because there is no sense of ownership. That encourages Travellers to feel that they can do what they want. For that reason, the council has been thinking about compulsory purchase, an expensive option.
Irrespective of the Traveller issue, fragmentation of land in the green belt is a problem. People buy up little plots of land, something unfortunate or unsightly happens, and the general attitude is that it does not matter very much because it is only a small plotbut eventually the whole green belt is subsumed in untidy, unhygienic, unsightly plots.
The consultation finishes on 19 March. I will be responding to it, as will local residents in Orpington. I have asked to see the Minister about the matter on a number of occasions, and the Minister for Housing and Planning replied:
"I have indicated in previous letters to you that I am unable to comment on the merits of specific planning applications and appeals because of the appellate responsibilities of the Secretary of State. It would therefore not be appropriate for me to meet in person with members of the local community surrounding Waldens Farm because they will have a direct interest in the outcome of any planning case."
I am happy to give a commitment to the Minister that I would discuss not particular issues, but general issues, if she or the Minister of State were willing to receive a deputation of local residents.
As part of the consultation process, it is not enough for written evidence to be collected from various stakeholders. We need some flesh and bloodsome real people talking to the Minister and taking part in the consultation, people who have to put up with the problems on a daily basis and who personally experience the noise from generators, the filth, the mess, the despoliation of the environment and so on, which is a daily part of their life, as well as the intimidation and the other problems that I have mentioned. Ministers should hear of their experience from their own mouths.
The housing policy of the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister is also causing problems in the green belt. I showed the Minister the size of the green belt in Orpington and Bromley. She may be aware that the council has estimated that the capacity for house building in Bromley is about 500 a year, and it has been giving permissions accordingly. Developers are not quite meeting that figure but are getting close to it. That has been the situation for some time. However, following the Barker review of housing, we seem to have gone backthat is the only way we can interpret itto a predict-and-provide approach. The Mayor of London has produced estimates of future jobs in London, which involve a certain amount of housing, so it seems that he, too, is in a predict-and-provide mode.
We have gone back to that rather old-fashioned method of looking at housing, which I thought was outdated, rather than looking at the capacity that exists
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in the borough of Bromley to provide housing. As a result, the council now faces Government and mayoral demands for higher density, which may be entirely inappropriate. If more high-rise property is suddenly imposed on a little square of 1930s or 1950s bungalows, such as Oregon square in Orpington, the character of such an area is destroyed. In addition, the so-called sequential test has been introduced, whereby the council must examine all its land, starting with brownfield sites, and then say, "We can't get enough housing on the brownfield or infill site, so we'll have to consider green belt land." That is a further threat to the green belt, although we do not know how extensive it may be. It is a consequence of trying to put more into Bromley than it can take because of some alleged need, the basis of which we question.
My council therefore recently passed a motion in the council chamber saying that it does not accept the Mayor of London's annual housing target for London of 30,000 new homes per year, as his plan suggests, and that it notes with concern the sustainability of large new developments without the necessary and additional infrastructure and the impact that that and the suggested higher density would have on Bromley. Infrastructure is therefore also a problem. Not enough mention is made of the fact that new housing needs new schools, health centres, roads, public transport and so on. None of that seems to be examined in the plans.
I also note that the Environmental Audit Committee, of which I am a memberit is of course all-party and has a Labour majoritysaid only last week that the Barker review of housing supply represents a direct attack on the principles of a democratic planning system and that many of the sustainability measures in the sustainable communities plan are little more than window dressing. The MPs found it astounding that neither the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, which has regrettably been sidelined on the housing issue, nor the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister has done anything to assess the overall environmental impact. There is a conflict between preserving the quality of the environment in a sensitive and important area such as Bromley and Orpington and the endless drive for more housing with which we are confronted.
As I have shown, it is vital that we protect the green belt, which has now existed for nearly 50 years. It performs a vital function as the lungs of London. Government policies are damaging it, by neglect in the case of Travellers, and by possible future threat in the case of their housing policy. That is unacceptable to the people of Orpington. There must be a better way. I have every intention of carrying on the fight to keep the green belt in its present state until we can find a better way of dealing with these problems.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper):
I congratulate the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Horam) on securing a debate on the green belt around his constituency. Obviously, the issues that he raised are important to him and his constituents. I want to try to respond to many of his points. As he is aware,
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I cannot comment on the individual cases that he has mentioned, many of which are currently in the planning system. He will know that the role that Ministers play in the planning system makes it inappropriate for us to comment at an early stage on any individual planning cases, but I am keen to try to address some of his general points and some of the principles that have arisen.
The Government recognise that there are serious problems in some areas with unauthorised encampments and developments and where there are tensions between local Gypsy and Traveller groups and the neighbouring settled community. Interestingly, while the number of unauthorised encampments has stayed roughly steady, although varying from season to season, over a series of years, the number of unauthorised developments has increased significantly where Gypsies and Travellers buy up pieces of land where planning permission has not been granted. That obviously causes a series of problems for Gypsies and Travellers and for the local residential community, which is why we set up a significant review of Gypsy and Traveller accommodation across the country.
In the course of that review, it has become clear that there are two underlying problems in the planning system. First, it is simply not delivering enough sites for Gypsies and Travellersthe independent research has confirmed that. Secondly, local authorities do not have sufficient enforcement powers to act swiftly to prevent damage on inappropriate sites. We cannot deal with one aspect and not the other: we need to address site provision and enforcement side by side, and that is what we are doing.
The hon. Gentleman's remarks about the consultation documents that have been launched recently suggest that he has misunderstood the current system and the measures that we are taking forward. I shall try to respond to the points that he made and to set out the Government's approach.
We need to deal with the areas where there are problems. Sometimes they involve antisocial behaviour or community tensions. Sometimes Gypsy and Traveller groups face prejudice and discrimination. Sometimes people who are travelling from place to place cannot find a place to stay for any extended period and have difficulty in getting access to health care or education for their children. We should also recognise that there are plenty of areas where sites work very effectively and there are good relationships between communities.
On the enforcement regime, we are keen to address two issues. First, problems can arise as a result of the way in which the land is subdivided and parcelled off into separate units, perhaps with separate planning permissions or fencing having been put up inappropriately. Parts of greenbelt sites may be sold off and fenced in, leading to problems with further development and planning applications. In theory, local authorities can respond to some extent by placing article 4 directions to prevent certain aspects of the development. However, in practice that is often cumbersome because of the need to serve article 4 directions on a person, whom it may take some time to identify. In addition, article 4 directions are subject to a process whereby they have to be confirmed by the Secretary of State. We hope to consult shortly on changes that would allow them to be served on sites rather than people and widen the circumstances in
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which they do not need the Secretary of State's approval. That will address only one aspect of the problem, but it might be a helpful step forward in certain circumstances.
Secondly, development can often take place very quickly in inappropriate locations before the council has a chance to react or implement planning enforcement measures. Local authorities have a wide range of planning enforcement options, including planning contravention notices, enforcement notices, stop notices, breach of condition notices, court injunctions and powers of entry on to the land. They also have the power to enter and remove unauthorised development undertaken in breach of an enforcement notice if the action has not been taken by the landowner within the period allowed for compliance and to recover expenses from the landowner.
Certain local authorities respond much more swiftly than others. Some have 24-hour operations and can apply for injunctions and take enforcement action extremely quickly, while others do not have systems in place to be able to respond quickly when there are breaches and developments occur in inappropriate locations. There is a gap in that respect, and we see wide variations across the country. There is also a gap in the enforcement powers of local authorities, which is why we are introducing a temporary stop notice. The hon. Gentleman mentioned temporary stop notices and I believe that he has misunderstood the position on them.
Temporary stop notices are not yet in place. They were introduced in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 in response to concerns that hon. Members raised in our debates on the measure. We recently completed the consultation on the detailed implementation and hope to introduce the new powers shortly. It is therefore wrong to say that they have failed or been ignored, because they have not yet been used.
I stress that we are considering new powers that which local authorities can use. We have consulted on them and believe that they will make a difference, because they allow local authorities to take swift action without recourse to the courts. They can then consider the circumstances and determine further action such as long-term injunctions or other sorts of enforcement and stop notices. Local authorities often feel that they do not have time to prepare such action fast enough while the development is already happening. Temporary stop notices will fill a significant gap in local authorities' powers.
Temporary stop notices do not get round the need for local authorities to have the right skills and expertise to tackle such matters but they give them a new and significant power to prevent damaging development in inappropriate locations. However, we must acknowledge that such powers will not be effective in the long term unless we simultaneously do more to provide somewhere for Gypsies and Travellers to go and ensure that there are enough local and regional sites.
The hon. Gentleman asked about Irish Travellers and whether there was an increase in their number because of action that had been taken in Ireland. I had heard that point previously and we asked Office of the Deputy Prime Minister officials to consider it. Some went to Ireland to examine provision there and hold detailed
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discussions. Their experience does not support the hon. Gentleman's points. I am happy to write to him with further details but it does not appear that a response to specific measures in Ireland has had an impact here.
We must recognise that we need to ensure increased accommodation and sites for Gypsies and Travellers. Accommodation should be treated with other housing needs in the mainstream of the housing and planning system. Instead of attempting to give special treatment to one group or another, we need a fair system that treats everyone in the mainstream. That is why we have said that Gypsy and Traveller accommodation needs to be part of the housing needs assessments that local authorities conduct for everybody. We are also consulting about a replacement for circular 1/94, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.
That replacement would not be an alternative to temporary stop notices but something that must go alongside them. We want an expansion in site provision to accompany improved enforcement and local authorities' tighter enforcement powers through temporary stop notices.