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On clause 4 and the right to appeal against granted planning permission, the hon. Lady has hit on an interesting subject. People in my constituency get very cross when the Conservative-controlled council gives planning consent to projects that, frankly, it should not allow. Other than judicial review, which is virtually impossible in planning casesrather than the cost, the law itself gets in the way, as the test is so highlocal communities have no remedy whatever to challenge decisions of local planning authorities. With regard to clause 1, that is particularly so where the development is one in which the local authority may be involved, as in the case of the schemes in my constituency that I mentioned, and it is giving itself planning consent to do its own thing. Where is the check and balance in the democratic process to control a local authority giving itself planning consent? At the moment, there is none,
other than the Secretary of States call-in powers, or perhaps the new extended powers that will go to the London Mayor. Those powers are a very blunt instrument to deal with an issue that might not merit such huge attention, and they are very hit and miss, as the Secretary of State, with the best will in the world, will not involve himself in an issue that is relatively small beer nationally, although it might be a big concern locally. The hon. Lady needs to work harder on the wording. There are all sorts of different development plans, and all sorts of sub-plans, such as area action plans. Some work on definitions is therefore needed.
In addition, who is permitted to object to the application? That is where I bring in my concerns under the Human Rights Act. As the hon. Lady might know, I am Chairman of the Joint Committee on Human Rights, although my Committee has not considered her Billwhich I suspect she is not surprised to hearso I am speaking from my immediate impressions rather than from any considered legal analysis. I would be concerned, however, about whether the clause engages article 1 of the first protocol of part 2 on protection of property. Does it affect property rights in a way that may contravene the Human Rights Act? I asked her earlierI suspect that the answer is nowhether she had had her Bill monitored or proof-read, as it were, for compliance with the Act. If it does not comply with the Human Rights Act, the House has no business passing it.
The reason that I raise this issue is that several conflicting property rights are involved. There is the question of proportionality, which the Human Rights Act reflects, as well as the property rights of the person who owns the land that will be developed, perhaps the property rights of the shareholders of the company that owns it, and the property rights of people who may not be on the land but whose house prices may be affected by a development. All those conflicting aspects have to be taken into account when such measures are proposed.
Again, there is the question of a society sufficiently representing local amenity interests. All our constituencies have effective and well-established amenity groups. For instance, my constituency has the Mill Hill Preservation Society, an active group that considers such issues, and I pay tribute to its sterling work and the money that it sometimes has to raise to fight appalling planning applications which it seems the local authority might permit or it sometimes has to raise on appeal. I have no doubt that it is representative of the local community, and 100 or more people turn up to its annual meetings. We also know, however, as we are all politicians, that it is often relatively easy to set up behind the scenes a front organisation for a political party or for a small group of people in order to hijack an organisation if it is not well attended and effective. I would be concerned at growth in such front organisations or in the hijacking of organisations, which the hon. Ladys Bill as it stands might provoke. Will she explain how she would define a society that sufficiently represents local amenity interests?
There is also the question of how a local amenity is to be defined. There could be differences of view. I agree with the hon. Lady in principle about the need to
allow appeals against planning consent if it is obviously contrary to planning guidance and local authority planning policies, however they may be expressed in whichever document, but she should tighten the definition of those who are entitled to object. If we are not careful, the planning inspectorate, which is already bogged down with appeals against refusals, will become bogged down with appeals against consents as well.
The right to appeal should exist, although I hope it will never be used. It might cause those who make planning decisions to be a little more careful about what they say, and a little more considerate of local feeling, which is often overlooked. In particular, constraints imposed by the Standards Board for England suggest that councillors representing particular wards should not participate in the planning process, which strikes me as an Alice in Wonderland approach to planning. Wherever that approach originated, it needs to be sorted out. In my view, someone who has been elected to represent an area should be able to speak out on behalf of his or her constituents, whatever the Standards Board may say. If that is against Government policy, so be it. I feel quite strongly on the subject.
Mr. Dismore: I suppose I probably did, but not for the way in which it is operating. I have grave reservations about that. In fact, I sponsored a debate on its activities a while ago, referring particularly to the case against Councillor Paul Dimoldenberg for leaking documents that led to the exposure of the fix to settle with Lady Porter. I will say no more, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I see you are about to tell me off for straying down the highways and byways of Westminster history yet again. My basic point is that the hon. Lady should be a little careful about the definition, although I support the basic thrust of clause 4.
Clause 5 deals with repeat planning applications. My area has been bedevilled by them. One problem with which the law has yet to get to grips is the submission of applications that are a little like those that preceded them, but not sufficiently similar to be classed as repeat applications. We need to examine that aspect of planning law, and adopt a rather more broad-brush approach. If the site is the same and the application is more or less the same, it should be deemed to be a repeat application.
We all know what developers do. They will try to buy up a row of family houses with options to winkle out people who do not want to sell. They will put in a planning application for 50 flats, which is turned down. They will then put in an application for 45 or 40 or 35 flats. Each application will be just different enough not to be caught by the regime, in order to wear down local opposition. That should not be allowed. We need a much tougher approach to such behaviour by developers.
The hon. Lady suggests a three-year rather than a two-year threshold. She has not said why she feels that two, three or, for that matter, five years would not be equally appropriate. Perhaps she will tell us why she plumped for three years. I do not think that the
two-year period has caused any particular problems. The real problem with the present rules relating to repeat applications is the one that I have just describedapplications that are not really different from those that preceded them.
Clause 6 concerns trees. Like everyone else, I like to hug a tree, although not an oak tree with a green topwhen it is a logo, that is. I am quite happy to hug an oak tree for real. What worries me is that although the clause refers to
trees in urban or suburban areas,
there is no reference to trees in general. Examples were given earlier of trees in rural areas that ought to be protected. What about those trees? Perhaps the hon. Lady should delete the reference to urban or suburban areas, and refer simply to the preservation of trees more generally. Development is taking place in the countryside. I know that that is, to a degree, a politically controversial issue between the parties. We all want as much development as possible on brownfield sites, but inevitably there will be some encroachment on green land, and in those circumstances we should ensure that mature, historic trees are protected as much as possible in that environment as well.
Clause 7 refers to expenses. I challenged the hon. Lady on the subject earlier. I am concerned about the fact that we have no indication of the potential cost of the Bill. We might have a rough idea if we considered the clauses one by one in relation to our constituencies, because we all have a pretty good idea of what is happening on or own patches, but the notion that we could assess the likely cost nationwide is an impossible dream.
At this point I should put on my Eric Forth hat. The late Eric Forth would have taken the hon. Lady to pieces, but I shall try to be a little more gentle. As she has presented the House with a Bill that is likely to cost taxpayers money, we need to know what the cost will be. For instance, will the cost of an appeal against a grant of planning consent be borne by the appellant, the developer or the central Government taxpayer, through the planning inspectorate? A plethora of appeals against grants could lead to a very expensive operation.
We also need to know the potential cost of the referendums proposed by the hon. Lady. We can all probably work out what the cost would be in our constituencies, but how many referendums does she expect to be held in a year? Answering that question would require a breakdown of the number of planning applications and land disposals taking place in a year, which would be a major research project in its own right. Until we have a grip on the scale of the problem, it will be impossible to attach a price tag. The hon. Lady ought to do a bit of research to try to establish, perhaps by means of a survey of local authorities, how many such cases have arisen in the past five or 10 years. That would produce an average number of cases, from which it would be possible to calculate the likely number of referendums and, in turn, the cost involved.
The hon. Lady said in her introduction that the cost of the referendums should fall on the central
Government taxpayer, but the Bill gives no indication of that. There is no cross-reference between clause 1 and clause 7. As it stands, clause 7 would apply only to central Government costs, and as far as I can see the lions share would result from the planning appeals clause. It seems that the cost of a referendum will fall on the poor old local government taxpayer. That may not be a bad thing, but if there is to be a trigger mechanism, people ought to be aware of what a referendum will cost them in council tax. The importance of the issue could then be weighed against the cost of consultation. There is a lacuna in the Bill with which the hon. Lady must deal: what will it cost Joe Public in income or council tax?
Regulations under clause 8 would be made under the negative resolution procedure. I have concerns about that, given that we are talking about significant property issues. Why has the hon. Lady chosen to implement the Bill through the negative procedure instead of the affirmative procedure to which such issues are much more suited? Particularly as regards some of the key planning issues, I should think that the House would want to have its say through the affirmative procedure instead of merely trying to annul proposals from the Department.
I turn to the commencement provisions. Clause 10(2) says that the Bill would come into effect within two months of its passing through Parliament. That is a rather ambitious timetable. There could be several consequences if the Bill came into force so quickly. A blight could suddenly be put on a scheme that is halfway through because no one has had time to prepare for the Bill. Planning blight is already a problem. We could find that people are trying to trigger referendums all over the place without giving any thought to the bureaucracy involved for local authorities in implementing them. A mandatory two-month period would leave no wriggle room to make the Bill work.
Mr. Evans: There is also a danger that if the period is too long some local authorities that were thinking of trying to dispose of parklands might bring that forward. We must be careful about the timing.
What else might happen? If the Secretary of State had to issue guidance on back gardens, I suspect, knowing the wheels of Whitehall, that it would take rather more than two months to draft guidance on such an important issue affecting so many people. I have highlighted several of the issues and problems that would have to be addressed in such guidance. There would have to be consultation among interested parties as to how it should be drafted, as is always the case, rightly, when PPGs are issued. Local authorities, developers and community groups would have to be consulted to ensure that the guidance to the local planning authority is correct. That consultation period would have to take more than two months. There is nothing in the commencement date provisions for different commencement dates for different clauses, as might have been appropriate.
If there were to be appeals against grants for planning consultation, the planning inspectorate would
have to gear up for them. The Bill would require it to do something that it has never been asked to do before. It would have to hire and train additional staff to cope with an inevitable increase in appeals, as well as undertaking a degree of retraining for existing staff as to what criteria they should take into account when judging such appeals, and developing the basic ground rules for the process that would need to be established. The cost regime would also have to be worked out and consulted on. The hon. Lady needs to think about some of the implications.
Clause 5 refers to a period of two years or three years. Where did the three-year period come from? I suspect that it was plucked out of the air. The Department would need to consult people more widely about the practicalities as regards the appropriate period to determine whether it should be two years, three years, or possibly longer. It would have been better for clause 5 to give the Secretary of State a regulation-making power to vary the two or three-year period after appropriate consultations, with an affirmative resolution placed before the House.
Clause 6 deals with guidance to local planning authorities on the protection of trees. The Secretary of State would be required to issue guidance under section 197 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. We have canvassed several different ways in which that could be achieved, and whether it is necessary to extend the provision to rural as well as urban and suburban areas. There may be a need to have different guidance in different parts of the country. Rural development may require different guidance from urban development and, again, from suburban development. Each aspect would require wide consultation with amenity groups and, I suspect, arboricultural experts as well as local authorities. The idea that one can achieve such consultation and produce the guidance in two months is wishful thinking.
When considering cost, we must not forget the Treasurythe elephant in every room when we discuss private Members Billsand the provision that it would need to set aside for the Department for Communities and Local Government to enable it to meet the additional costs involved. Budgets are always under pressure and we would need additional resources to meet the planning inspectorates costs. Local authorities will not have factored the cost of holding referendums into their budgets and perhaps we should be more sympathetic about allowing them to budget for such matters.
There are several alternatives to clause 10(2). I agree with the hon. Member for Ribble Valley that the period should not be too long. However, what constitutes too long a period? Allowing for the consultations, drafting and budgeting processes, it would be difficult to bring the Bill into force in a shorter time than 12 months. An alternative would be to provide that some clauses were effected at a time that the Secretary of State may or shall prescribe. That commonly happens with such Bills.
Mr. Evans: To safeguard against local authorities trying to dispose of land in the interim period, perhaps the Government could let them know that, if they tried such tricks, their applications could be called in.
Mr. Dismore: That is another sensible suggestion from the hon. Gentleman. We could have some transitional provisions or instructions from the Department that such behaviour would be viewed dimly. However, the hon. Member for Solihull should reconsider clause 10(2), because two months is far too short a period and somewhat overambitious. I understand her enthusiasm for the Bill, but if she wants to reintroduce it in the next Sessionit clearly has little prospect of making progress this Sessionshe might like to ponder on some of the concerns that have been expressed today about its drafting and perhaps return with a measure that was a little more modest and better worked out.
Mr. John Randall (Uxbridge) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am sure that you recall that, at the beginning of todays proceedings, the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore), while telling us about the early hour that he arrived here and the excitement with which he reads every days Order Paper, said that the Bill promoted by my hon. Friend the Member for Cotswold (Mr. Clifton-Brown) had disappeared from the Order Paper since yesterday. I believe that approximately 15 private Members Bill have disappeared, but not that promoted by my hon. Friend, which did not appear on yesterdays Order Paper. The hon. Member for Hendon may therefore have inadvertently misled the House. I am sure that, in the interests of accuracy, you will want to correct the record, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
Mr. Deputy Speaker: I said to the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore) that the quality of his original point of order was such that it did not strictly constitute a point of order. However, I have now allowed the hon. Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Randall) to make a counter point, from which I am sure the House will benefit. If he is correct, all our sympathies go to the hon. Member for Hendon because a little more attention to detail would have spared him an early morning alarm call.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Solihull (Lorely Burt) on promoting the Bill. I agree with much of its content although, by her own admission, it is not the tidiest measure. I would not be so critical as to use the word untidy, but the number of clauses and the breadth of the subject matter that the Bill attempts to cover do not make for good legislation. However, they make for a good, extensive debate.
The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Andrew Miller) spoke of the Grace family in his constituency. In Southend, several families have donated land to the local authority for a specific purpose. I am particularly concerned about circumstances in which land has been donated to the local authority with the express intent of being used for educational purposes in the town. If that land were left as parkland, and nothing were done with it because of a lack of investment, the terms of the Bill could mean that that parkland could not have a new city academy built on it, for example.
Similarly, it would be impossible to adapt for other uses land that had been donated for use as a sports facility and was being used as a playing field. Nowadays, however, people do not go out and play rugby, football or hockey as much as they used to; instead, they are more likely to undertake sporting and fitness activity in a gym. It might therefore be more appropriate that the land have a gym built on it for public use, rather than remaining as a playing field.
Lorely Burt: I am sorry to intervene on the hon. Gentleman so early in his speech. It is certainly not the intention of the Bill that anyone should be precluded from building on land that has been specifically intended for such a purpose. The intention is that local people should have a say in the matter.
James Duddridge: There might be a contradiction between what local people want now and the original intention for the use of the land. For example, I have played sports a number of times on land that was given to the local authority specifically for the use and benefit of a big company in the town. If that company were to move away from the town, would it not be more appropriate to sell the landfor whatever purpose, and to whatever company, including a supermarketso that other land could be purchased near the new corporate headquarters? Sometimes what local people want and the original intention for the land do not match up perfectly.
Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), I am not a great supporter of local referendums. The example of California clearly demonstrates what can happen when we reach referendum overload. Moreover, certain propositions within a referendum can be contradictory, and, if used too frequently, referendums can be detrimental to local democracy.
I enjoyed the lengthy contribution of the hon. Member for Hendon (Mr. Dismore). It is unfortunate that he is no longer in his place. I felt, however, that he did his modesty a disservice with his constant references to the late Eric Forth. I knew Eric only for about a year, but I think that the hon. Gentleman has a little more to do before he reaches the dizzy heights of my late right hon. Friend.
Clause 1 refers to a piece of land. If my reading of this provision is correct, it is a little too prescriptive. I can imagine areas of parkland of which only a modest element may be given up, in which case a consultation would not be needed. For example, there might be a proposal to build a small road down one side of a park to allow access to a larger area. Also, proposals to use small pieces of land for certain purposes would not need to be subject to the same degree of consultation as others relating to larger projects. Building an Asda supermarket on parkland, for example, is materially different from building a small scout hut in the corner of a piece of land.
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