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This section applies to land owned by a local authority which is,
and then it sets out a definition of the land. What needs to be explained is whose opinion would be relevant when considering those definitions. Would it be my opinion, the hon. Ladys opinion, the local authoritys opinion, or the opinion of the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (James Duddridge), who asked what would happen if the land is county land within an area governed by the district councils planning authority? There could be a conflict and we need tight definitions so that we are clear that the opinion is that of a defined group of people.
We cannot rely on the opinion of the green-ink letter writer who no doubt communicates with all hon. Members in the Chamber. It has to be the opinion of a proper authority. The hon. Lady rightly and valiantly covers the concept of parkland associations in clause 2, and that is a valuable contribution to the debate. However, we need to be clear about whose opinion is relevant.
Lorely Burt: Clause 9 deals with interpretation and defines what we mean by a local authority. I hope that the precise definition of every word will not be the focus of the rest of the hon. Gentlemans remarks. I also hope that we can address the spirit of what the Bill seeks to achieve. Clearly, it will need quite a lot of work, as he says, by those who know a great deal more than I do for it to be brought up to the right standard.
Andrew Miller: I am grateful for that observation, but clause 9 does not define whose opinion would be relevant to clause 1. That is a fundamental drafting flaw. We need to be absolutely clear that the Bill would address the outrageous situation that the hon. Lady described. That cannot be done by Solihull council because it manifestly does not care about a 350-year-old oak tree. There needs to be a rational opinion that is sufficiently independent of the person selling the land, but the Bill does not define who would have that authority. I hope she accepts that it is necessary to amend it to address that problem.
I appreciate what the hon. Gentleman is saying, but I agree with the hon. Member for Solihull that we should look at the thrust and spirit of the Bill, dealing with the complex issues in Committee. One solution to the problem of clause 1(1) is sometimes used in the USA where, if the inhabitants were concerned about what they deem parkland or open space, a certain number of signaturessay, 50,000on a petition would trigger a referendum. It is then up to the people themselves to ensure that local authorities
cannot mis-define a space of land and represent it as not being parkland in order to build on it. They cannot do so without a referendum.
Andrew Miller: That brings me neatly on to clause 1(2) and I am grateful for the hon. Gentlemans observation. It is important for the House to be clear on these important matters. I thought it appropriate to explore with the Bills prime mover some of the issues before determining which side of the fence I fall on later today. As drafted, the Bill has problems.
On referendaI prefer referendums, but I mention the pseudo-Latin styleit is important to examine the costs and benefits. If something as significant as suggested by the hon. Lady were proposed, having a referendum would be a good idea to test public opinion. A public consultationnot a referendum, but something similartook place in my area, in which each household was asked to vote about residents parking, which had been a controversial issue. In the end, the local authority defined the scheme in consultation with the public and then put it out to a vote. That makes sense in certain circumstances.
I would be rather more carefulit is perhaps an issue of definitionin other circumstances. The hon. Lady may be too absolutist in saying that a local authority cannot sell a piece of landany piece of land, however small for whatever purpose. I mentioned earlier the problem with buildings inside the curtilage of parklands. The hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) provided the example of an old mental health institution and I mentioned an old chapel. I postulate that it is a derelict building, so its value is fairly lowlet us say £200,000 as I am not talking London prices, but those that the hon. Gentleman and I understand. If the cost of the referendum were £250,000, it would be barmy to proceed on that basis. That is why we need much tighter definitions.
Mr. Evans: I am not so sure that a building in a woodland or in an open space would be covered in any event, but let us say that it is. The hon. Gentleman provides the example of a £200,000 building and a referendum costing £250,000but, frankly, so what? It would act as a deterrent to a local authority if it thought that the public was against the sale of part of the woodland. It could deter the authority from going ahead with the project. He says that the cost of the referendum could be more than the value of the building, but that is not the point.
Andrew Miller: That is why I said that we have to consider costs and benefits together. The benefit may be a potential purchaser who will do something inside the building that will have huge knock-on community benefits. The buyer may be a substantial player in the voluntary sector in the community, so the cost-benefits may need to be described differently. As I said, I am not an expert on planning law. The chief planning officer in my constituency, who has the same surname as me, would be able to spell out the position in no uncertain terms. No relation, but he is the expert on planning.
The Minister may be able to confirm this later if he does not have the information at his fingertips, but I
believe I am right in saying that the definition in the long title would include anything within the curtilage of the parkland. I am not sure that that was the hon. Ladys intention. I will back off if I am wrong and await further guidance.
Mr. Evans: I am not so sure. If there are buildings in the parkland, they would already be considered as brownfield development. With planning permission, the buildings could be converted, but the Bill looks to protect the parkland, trees and open spaces rather than the buildings currently within the parkland.
Andrew Miller: I will not develop my point any further, as it would be a waste of the Houses time. I openly posed the question so that the House could get an authoritative answer on the conundrum from the Minister.
Mr. Evans: What the hon. Lady just said is important. It is her Bill and if it becomes an Act, Hansard can be used as proof of exactly what was intended by it. The hon. Lady has therefore answered the question perfectly.
I strongly favour the concept of parkland associations in clause 2. The Friends of Whitby Park in Ellesmere Port have been enormously positive in their contribution to the parks development. We were lucky enough to succeed in our bid to redevelop the park under the Heritage Lottery Fund, but I am convinced that the only reason for that success was the partnership between the local authority and the Friends of Whitby Parkan organisation that covers the interests of all the parks users, from footballers and bird watchers to bowlers and many others. Dozens of different users work together positively in the interests of the park.
The hon. Member for Solihull has highlighted a good idea, although I do not know whether it is best for local authorities to establish such schemes or whether things should evolve from the bottom up. However, there are huge merits in such activity. I can tell the House from my experience how well such an organisation works and how well it serves Whitby park. It has provided checks and balances on top-down ideas coming from the local authority, as well as encouraging dialogue that brings into focus the needs of all users. When, for example, young people wanted a hardball court and a climbing wall, there was a dialogue through the community groups, agreement was reached and the end product is in place.
It is manifest that the organisation has made a positive contribution to the well-being and upkeep of the park. Sadly, as in all communities, a handful of vandals try to wreck all the good work done by those
people, but the cohesive group that has been formed is more likely to hold at bay the excesses of that handful than if they had been a disparate set of organisations, so I welcome the spirit of the clause, albeit with one caveat.
The Tories would scrap planning controls on domestic properties...John Gummer, who is chairing David Camerons Quality of Life task force...said...that he intends to turn the planning system on its head.
Mr. Slaughter: I would not want my hon. Friend to misrepresent the views of the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I read the same report and my understanding is that the proposal is simply to do away with the need for planning consent on properties built after 1945, so a person living in a Queen Anne vicarage would be all right, but if they were in a 1960s council home they could do what they liked.
It is time to scrap the planning appeals system.
That is big stuff and we need to handle it with great care. I resist the absolutist notion of the hon. Member for Solihull that people cannot build in their back gardens in any circumstances; on the other hand, I resist equally the notion that there should be no appeal process.
Philip Davies: May I clarify what the hon. Gentleman is saying? Does he mean that if a proposed development in his constituency was incredibly unpopular with the local public and was turned down by the local council, reflecting that public opinion, he would be more than happy for the planning inspector or the Secretary of State to overturn a decision made by his local constituents and his local authority?
Andrew Miller: I have an advantage over the hon. Member for Solihull: I have a decent, well-meaning local authority, which takes the views of the public seriously. For example, there was a series of planning applications for the masonic hall in Whitbyin Ellesmere Port, not in Yorkshirebut the local authority turned them down, not because the existing building has any particular architectural merit but because the plans included things that the hon. Lady suffers from in her constituency, such as the destruction of mature trees.
We need to tread cautiously. I am not a great fan of the existing system, because the developer has the right to appeal but an objector has little power in that regard. A David and Goliath situation can arise: communities v. large building companies. There is an argument for looking at how the appeals process works and for bringing equality into it, but, for the very reasons given by the hon. Lady, we need a mechanism whereby decisions can be removed from the local authority when it is acting against the public interest in
a community; for example, the destruction of the 350-year-old tree. It is a great pity that there could be no further process of consideration to prevent that and I am sure that my hon. Friend the Minister is contemplating how to achieve such a system. However, it will not be achieved simply by stripping out the planning appeals process.
the protection of large or mature trees in urban or suburban areas.
I think there is a gap in the provision, so I urge her to delete the end of the sentence; it should end at trees. There is no merit in trying to create artificial boundaries between town and country. Many of us live in small rural communities but commute into large cities, such as London, so we are stakeholders in both town and country. The boundaries suggested by the clause are artificial and reflect the functions of earlier planning developments.
Lorely Burt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his comments on that point. The subject arose when I was taking the good advice of the people in the Public Bill Office. It was felt that agricultural purposes belonged to a different sphere and that it would be too complicated to try to legislate for agricultural situations. That is why agricultural land is not covered by the Bill.
Andrew Miller: The hon. Ladys observation is absolutely right. The House recently passed a regulatory reform order governing the work of the Forestry Commission, allowing more commercial activity within the confines of lands owned by it. My Committee studied that matter in some detail. Where land is defined as agricultural land, it may be proper to leave the wording out of the Bill, but not every tree in a rural area is planted on agricultural land. They can be in domestic gardens, or on publicly owned land such as roadsides, and it would be a mistake for the Bill to draw an artificial boundary between suburban and rural areas, because there are trees worthy of protection that grow on such land. I hope that the hon. Lady will consider that point if the Bill reaches Committee.
James Duddridge: Will the hon. Gentleman therefore propose an amendment to delete the words urban or suburban areas and simply exempt agricultural land? Is he similarly worried about an accurate definition of large or mature trees?
Andrew Miller: That could take us into another area that I do not want to go into, because it would take too much of the Houses time, but other definitional issues arise from this clause about species, size, exceptions and what happens when nature does huge damage to trees. An oak on the verge adjacent to my land lost a branch in the gales at the beginning of September. Of course, there would have to be exemptions for trees if, unlike that tree, they were so severely damaged that they presented a risk to the public. On the other hand, every sensible effort needs to be made to protect trees. I hope that the definitional issues can be dealt with sensibly as the Bill proceeds.
The observations of the hon. Member for Solihull have been valuable. Even if I were to choose at the end of the day to vote against her Bill, I would say to her that she has done a service to the House in bringing these matters to our attention, and in particular in bringing to the attention of the House the actions of a local authority that is not acting in a way that I think every hon. Member who has spoken thus far would feel was appropriate in the circumstances. I hope that when the Minister is contemplating what to do as a result of todays debate, whether within the Bill or outside, he takes into account the difficulty that the hon. Lady has faced. She has been driven to write the Bill by a set of outrageous circumstances and we need a better mechanism of checks and balances on local authorities that do things that are so unpopular in the community. If the hon. Ladys 84 per cent. figure is verifiable, that is very substantial opposition, and when so much opposition exists, local authorities should listen to the public. I am glad to say that in my case they do; sadly in her case they do not, but that might just be both of us criticising the Conservative party.
Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I shall make a short speechcertainly shorter than that of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller), because he has covered most of the points that each and every one of us has reservations about. In congratulating the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt), I have to say that Solihull has had a bit of a kicking here today, and I suspect that because it is a Conservative council it gives the Government and the Liberal Democrats even more joy to give it a kicking.
I do not know the specifics of that case, but I am also wise enough to know that we could identify examples where local authorities of all colours throughout the country have sold off parkland or other open areas, or school playing fieldswhere do we stop? Labour local authorities, Liberal Democrat local authorities and even independents have sold off land that the public would prefer had not been sold or developed. So if we can, let us step outside party politics on this issue and say that what we are looking for is an environmentally friendly measure. That is what it is all about, and I believe that everyone in this country has prioritised green issues far more than was the case 20 years ago. I suspect that some past decisions would not be taken now if we could turn back the clock, because of what we know about environmental issues.
I shall confine my remarks to the thrust of the Bill, because the specifics of the various clauses can all be dealt with upstairs. I am minded to support the Bill. I know that the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston said that he was in two minds as to which way to vote. He probably did not hear me, but I did shout across the Chamber, Dont worryyoull be told how to vote.
The parkland in this country has been diminished over the years and we do not want any more of it to be lost. If the way to do that is to ensure that local authorities are handcuffed to their electoratesso that they are made accountable in new ways, in addition to people turning out once a year, or once every four years, to voteto make them more mindful before they choose to sell off parkland, I think that is the right thing to do.
The cost of referendums has been mentioned, but we can always get around that because if land as it is defined in the Bill requires a referendum to take place, that could always be done at the time of a local election. The question could be added to the ballot paper, which would greatly reduce the cost of the referendum. That is done regularly in the United States of America.
Mr. Dismore: I am sure that in the hon. Gentlemans constituency there are regular elections to the local authority, but in London we have a one-size-fits-all election every four years. It would be rather difficult to expect any proposal for development to wait four years for a referendum to be tagged on to the local election ballot paper.
Mr. Evans: I fully accept that. There may be cases where we just have to hold a referendum and the cost has to be borne, and that is thatalthough we can be more imaginative these days, because we seem to be holding elections all the time. We are all in favour of democracy, but there is such a thing as electoral fatigue, and in some cases we may be reaching that. There are all sorts of elections, ranging from the London assembly elections to the European electionseven to general elections. I do not think that the public are so thick that they cannot manage to vote on national issues in a general election and on other issues as well. California is famous for that. They have what they call propositions, which are put on the ballot paper. Some are put on by the public themselves by signing petitions, so that control is taken out of the hands of local authorities or Government. The people themselves say Hold on; we want to vote on this, and if we believe in democracy, as we do, we can do that. We could even stretch that a bit further and conduct experiments in online voting, which would also greatly reduce the cost. So let us be imaginative.
Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman has come up with some very interesting ideas, but I draw the line at the idea of internet voting because it would disfranchise an awful lot of people who do not have access to the internet or are not computer literate. I would have classed myself in the second category several years ago, but I have improved. But I know that many of my constituents simply do not have access to these facilities because they cannot afford them.
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