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Rateable Value Limit (Small Businesses)

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): One of the consequences of the 2005 non-domestic rate revaluation, which comes into effect on 1 April, is that certain thresholds linked to rateable value limits also have to be raised so that small businesses are not disadvantaged.

I am therefore announcing today that we intend to raise the annual rateable value limit below which the owners of small businesses can serve blight notices and claim other types of compulsory purchase compensation. The limit was previously raised to £24,600 at the time of the 2000 revaluation, and it will now be raised to £29,200 from 1 April 2005. This reflects the changes in rateable values between 2000 and 2005, so that businesses that are currently eligible to serve a blight notice will continue to be able to do so when the new rating lists come into effect.

The same threshold also applies for businesses claiming compensation for loss of value under part I of the Land Compensation Act 1973 when their premises are affected by physical factors such as noise, vibration, fumes and artificial lighting from new public works such as highways and aerodromes.

This threshold also applies under the 1973 Act to enable proprietors aged at least 60 to claim disturbance compensation on the basis of the total extinguishment of their business when they are subject to a compulsory purchase order. This allows claimants of that age to retire if they do not want to re-establish their business elsewhere.

The statutory instrument necessary to achieve the change to the rateable value limit will be laid before Parliament shortly, in order for it to come into force on 1 April.
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Decisions and Fees Timetable

The Minister for Housing and Planning (Keith Hill): I have made the 4th commencement order to commence powers in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 and today laid the Town and Country Planning (Timetable for Decisions) (England) Order 2005. Yesterday I laid amendments to the Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) Regulations 1989.

The commencement order commences the timetabling provisions contained in section 55 of the Act. Schedule 2 of the Act requires the Secretary of State to make timetables for called-in planning applications and planning appeals recovered for his decision, and enables him to specify decisions, or descriptions of decisions, to which a timetable is not to apply.

The order clarifies the range of cases which will require the Secretary of State to set a timetable for issuing a decision. This will provide a greater degree of certainty for developers, local authorities and all those involved in planning decisions, as to when the Secretary of State will make a decision. The order will come into force on 1 April 2005, and will apply to cases where an inquiry or hearing closed on or after that date, or where a site visit was held after that date.

I am also introducing a draft instrument to implement increases to planning fees. This instrument makes amendments to the Town and Country Planning (Fees for Applications and Deemed Applications) Regulations 1989, which are themselves made under section 303 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. The instrument has been laid under the affirmative resolution and will be debated in both Houses, subject to approval the changes will take effect from 1 April 2005.

The Government's purpose in bringing forward this instrument is that fees should rise to provide sufficient financial resources for the planning service and to meet more fully the costs of handling planning applications. The increases will be across the board, but will be higher for the largest applications. A fee for a householder extension will rise from £110 to £135, while the maximum fee for a major development of houses will increase from £11,000 to £50,000. These increases are based on independent research carried out by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister, which established that the costs of determining planning applications were considerably higher than existing fees.

Temporary Stop Notice

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Office of the Deputy Prime Minister (Yvette Cooper): My right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Planning has made the 4th Commencement Order to bring into force provisions in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, and the Town and Country Planning (Temporary Stop Notice) (England) Regulations 2005 which have been laid before Parliament today.

The commencement order includes the temporary stop notice (TSN) provisions contained in section 52 of the Act. The TSN regulations have been subject to consultation.

The Act gives local planning authorities a new power to issue a TSN when unauthorised development commences to require the immediate cessation of a
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breach of planning control for a limited period of 28 days. TSNs can be used to impose a freeze on further unauthorised development. This will help to speed up the process of enforcement. TSNs provide local planning authorities with an additional enforcement tool to deal with a range of planning breaches.

The effect of the TSN regulations is to provide that those in caravans should be treated in the same way as those in buildings under normal circumstances. They can also be used exceptionally, where the risk of harm is so great as to require the immediate removal of caravans from the land.

The TSN Regulations will come into force on 7 March the same day as section 52 of the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004. We shall also publish a circular setting out more detailed guidance on the use of the temporary stop notice provisions, and the circumstances in which they can be used.


Natural Environment and Rural Communities Draft Bill

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): As the next major step in delivering the radical reforms set out in the Government's rural strategy 2004, a draft Natural Environment and Rural Communities Bill has been published today. Copies are available in the Vote Office and the Libraries of the House.


Assets Recovery Agency

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Caroline Flint): I am announcing today amended guidance to the director of the Assets Recovery Agency which came into being as a result of the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.

Under the Proceeds of Crime Act the director must exercise her functions in the way which she considers is best calculated to contribute to the reduction of crime. In considering this, she must have regards to guidance given to her by me. The guidance to the director broadly sets out the way in which the agency must operate. This includes a set "hierarchy" in the way the different schemes for recovering the proceeds of crime inter-relate; pursuing criminal conviction first with a consequential confiscation order, if that is not possible considering civil recovery, and if that is not viable, pursuing taxation proceedings. This refers equally to both investigations and proceedings.

The guidance guarantees that civil recovery and taxation will not become an easy option for the Assets Recovery Agency to pursue at the expense of criminal prosecution. Criminal investigations and proceedings remain the prime focus and objective.

However, the fact that the agency cannot commence any investigation into civil recovery until prosecution is ruled out has a detrimental effect on their operational capability and hinders their effectiveness in reducing crime. This is because the period of time between being able to apply the different schemes is one in which assets
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can be can be dissipated before the scheme is able to be enforced. This defeats the purpose of the Act and Government to recover the proceeds of crime. An example of the benefit would be in high risk prosecutions, where ARA are presently precluded any civil recovery action until the prosecution has failed, with the consequent risk of assets coming out of criminal restraint and being dissipated before they can begin civil recovery action.

The guidance is therefore amended to allow the Assets Recovery Agency to pursue civil recovery or taxation investigations in parallel with criminal investigations and proceedings. This will ensure that, where necessary, civil recovery or taxation proceedings can commence immediately after a criminal matter has concluded. The priority will remain criminal prosecution and investigation in the first instance. However the Assets Recovery Agency would become more effective at reducing crime and removing the proceeds of criminality if they were able to operate under the proposed guidance. I would add that my hon. and learned friend the Attorney-General, has been consulted, through the legal Secretariat to the Law Officers, and is content with the proposed amendments to the guidance.

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