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Jim Fitzpatrick: I am sorry, but we do not accept that. We introduced the two-year extension in an attempt to ameliorate the situation and solve problems. We wanted to provide time to make sure that we did not provoke a crisis for settled communities, Travellers, local authorities and enforcement agencies such as the police service. Problems with evictions could be resolved over the course of time. Obviously, that did not happen in Basildon where, over the two years, the site became bigger and there was no attempt to use local authority powers to restrict the number of people coming on to the site. There is therefore some local responsibility for the fact that the position is more difficult now than it was two years ago. As I have outlined, that is a local statutory responsibility: we do not have that responsibility, and we will not take it upon ourselves.
As I was saying, the Government grant available to local authorities this year is £8 million. It is being used to allow local authorities to build new residential sites for rent as well as to refurbish existing sites. Local authorities could do more to deal effectively with unauthorised development, and we plan to provide further help by producing an enforcement toolkit to provide guidance. The purpose of the guidance is to support local authorities and the police in taking whatever action is required to address the local problem that they face. Under powers in the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, as amended by the Planning and Compensation Act 1991, local planning authorities have wide-ranging enforcement powers to deal with unauthorised development, including enforcement notices and stop notices, which carry penalties of up to £20,000 for non-compliance, and injunctions in the High Court or county court that can be used to restrain any actual or expected breach of planning control.
Since 7 March this year, local planning authorities have been able to use a new enforcement powerthe temporary stop noticewhere they consider that a breach of planning control has taken place and it is expedient that the activity that amounts to the breach is stopped. Temporary stop notices were introduced by the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004, and they are a new general enforcement power. Temporary stop notices have already been used, and I am aware of at least one case in which they were used both to stop the development of a Gypsy and Traveller site and to prevent caravans from going on to the site. Under the regulations, temporary stop notices can be used to halt all development. They need to be reviewed and, over the longer term, there should be scope to link stronger enforcement with greater site provision. Those measures should go hand in hand both nationally and locally, like measures to tackle unauthorised encampments.
I share the hon. Gentleman's concerns that the planning control regime should not appear to encourage unauthorised development. It is clearly unsatisfactory for anyone to carry out development without first obtaining the required planning permission. However, to remove the prospect of retrospective planning permission would excessively penalise those who inadvertently undertook work without permission.
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The Government's current approach is that development without planning consent or in breach of a consent which has been granted is not an offence, and that criminalisation would be an inappropriate and disproportionate response. The margins between lawful and unlawful development are not sufficiently clear-cut to form an acceptable basis for a new criminal offence.
Mr. Baron: Will the Minister, if not now, after the debate, address the specific issues that I raised with regard to the temporary stop notice? There are major flaws with that, and I tried to outline the main ones. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on my comments and let me have his response after the debate?
Jim Fitzpatrick: I am happy to give that assurance. I should have said earlier in my contribution that temporary stop notices will need to be reviewed over the longer term. We have given that commitment and I am happy to repeat it. We would be pleased to receive comments that the hon. Gentleman wishes to contribute to that from the experience of his constituents.
As I was saying about retrospective planning permission, we do not believe that magistrates courts are a suitable forum in which to argue the technicalities of planning legislation that a criminal prosecution would require.
In conclusion, the Government have sought to tackle these problems from three directions. We have obliged local authorities to do more to identify appropriate sites within their local plans where there is a demand. We are
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also providing funding for sites £8 million this year and £56 million over the following two years. We have strengthened the powers of local authorities to take swifter enforcement action against illegal developments by introducing temporary stop notices, and we have provided local authorities with stronger powers to tackle antisocial behaviour. Gypsies are part of the community and they have the same rights as anyone else, but with rights come responsibilities, and we support tough action by councils and local police to tackle illegal behaviour, including, where appropriate, the use of antisocial behaviour orders.
On the hon. Gentleman's question about the housing needs assessment, we have issued draft guidance. His county, Essex, as well as Cambridgeshire and Bedfordshire, are already conducting housing needs assessments and the final guidance will be issued by the autumn, so the position will be clear for all local authorities.
We will be working with local authorities to ensure that they understand their powers and duties, to encourage site and service provision, to promote the effective use of enforcement powers and to tackle antisocial behaviour. I am confident that when local and central Government work together, and are supported by elected politicians at local and national level, we will start to see real changes on the ground which will benefit Gypsies and Travellers and the settled community alike.