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Greg Clark: If the application went to appeal, it is because the planning committee turned down the application.

Mr. Dismore: The hon. Gentleman is right. The appeal was against refusal to grant outline permission, so it was a case in which I supported the council. However, the problem is that the council was caught by its own housing and development policies. One of the difficulties that we have had in Barnet is the long lead-in time that it took for the council to adopt its unitary development plan, which is often used by developers as an excuse to make appeals that ultimately prove successful.

The inspector went on to say:

It would also be a new feature of the traffic jams in that area, which is very congested, especially at school times, because there are two local schools. I went to speak to the sixth form of one of them, Mill Hill county high, last Monday, and it generates its own traffic jam for about half an hour at its start and finish times. A one-way system had to be introduced to cope with it.

The inspector also comments that the gardens have an interesting biodiversity, but that was ignored, although it is a point picked up in the Bill in the definition in clause 6. The planning application was opposed by the local community and rejected by the council, with my support and that of the Liberal Democrat councillors in the area, but its decision was overturned by the planning inspectorate on appeal.

Another example in my area concerns the main roads, which seem to be seen as more up for development and requiring less protection. An application was made to erect two two-storey buildings at 114-120 Hale lane, containing 14—the magic number—self-contained flats. The application was refused and we will no doubt see an appeal, because we get them all the time.

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Holders Hill road has practically ceased to exist as originally constructed. An application for 179-185 Holders Hill road is for the demolition of the existing houses to erect a two and three-storey block with 14 self-contained flats—the magic number again. It is now difficult to find any traditional houses on the road any more, as it is nearly all blocks of flats. Once one is given permission, they breed, as my hon. Friend the Member for Tamworth (Mr. Jenkins) mentioned earlier.

Another example of the magic number 14 is 9-15 Highview gardens, Edgware, an application to demolish the existing buildings and erect 14 flats.

Mr. Pelling: I do not wish to antagonise the hon. Gentleman into speaking for a great length of time, but he said that he would refer to one or two applications. He now seems to be moving beyond that ambition.

Mr. Dismore: Well, I have several examples to illustrate different aspects of the problem. I have used an example of a bog-standard back-garden development; a couple of examples to illustrate the problem of developments on main roads, which are in back gardens but are somehow seen as fairer game than the traditional residential back streets; and another example to highlight the problem of 14 flats in application.

I shall now illustrate the problem of when a developer applies for 21 flats, as for 4-10 Heather walk. The application was rejected by the local authority because it did not contain affordable housing. That creates the perverse incentive to produce the larger, luxury flats, which none of us wants to see in the absence of social housing. The London borough of Barnet has not been as tough as it should have been in pushing developers to include an affordable element in their housing developments.

Mr. Jenkins: My hon. Friend is describing an important and complex situation. The incentive now is not to buy four large houses and develop the site as a large site, but to buy each house individually and develop each site separately. Those separate applications can be sneaked through. Does he agree that that is the case?

Mr. Dismore: That is exactly the point that I intended to make next. For example, 203-241 Watford way, the main A41 road, is an application for demolition of more than a dozen houses and the erection of a part three, part four and part five-storey building to provide a total of 120 residential units and basement parking for 182 cars. An appeal has been made to the planning inspectorate and we are waiting for its determination. Developers went along the road buying up houses and options, and gathering a property interest in the whole street. The planning application would involve knocking down a huge chunk of the property along that stretch of the A41, on the left side as one goes north, between Aerodrome road and Colindeep lane. Family houses, in this case with very large front gardens, would simply disappear, to be replaced by an enormous block of flats, if the developer were to get his way. That is the problem when such gardens are linked together. The first example I
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gave was of half a dozen gardens being linked together, but the last involves a row of gardens along a main road.

The hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Robert Neill), who is no longer in the Chamber, made an important point. Developers go around making offers to people. They get a few people signed up, then start to get heavy with the ones who will not sell to them. Often they are just buying options rather than putting the money upfront to buy the house altogether. They will winkle out those who do not want to sell. They will use threats. They will use fear. They will say to a little old lady “You do not want to sell; fine. But immediately next to you there is to be an enormous block of flats, small flats, full of very young people who will no doubt make a lot of noise at night. Do you really want to stay?” The old lady will say “Not really” and will sign up, usually without taking legal advice. She will pocket a relatively small amount of money, and a few weeks later will come to the constituency surgery absolutely petrified about what she has done in selling the family home where she has lived for decades. The developers are utterly unscrupulous in this respect, and we should try to do something—outside the terms of the Bill—to deal with a practice that verges on the dishonest.

Another 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 similar enough 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, the application should be deemed a repeat application. That would prevent developers from applying for 50 flats and, on not succeeding with that application, applying for 45, or 40, or 35, wearing down local opposition in order to get what they want eventually.

Mr. Jenkins: Has my hon. Friend encountered any cases in which a developer comes along knowing that he cannot obtain permission for 80 properties in a back garden or on a similar site and therefore applies for 40, gains permission, and then submits applications for 50, 60, 70 and finally 80, succeeding at each stage because each previous application constitutes a precedent?

Mr. Dismore: My hon. Friend makes his point very clearly. I think we all have experience of developers behaving in that way in our constituencies.

There is also the risk of appeals, which was mentioned earlier. Another example is 37 Parson street, a main road in my constituency that is slowly disappearing under blocks of flats. The application is for the demolition of an existing building and the erection of a new building consisting of seven two-bedroomed flats with car park and cycle parking.

I am pleased to say that the planning inspector, L. Rodgers, dismissed the appeal. However, at the end of his statement he wrote:

Effectively, although that particular application was turned down, the developer has the green light to come back with another application later. The local planning authority will say “OK, we opposed that development
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successfully, but our card has been marked by the planning inspector. If we turned down another application involving a building without quite the same bulk, our decision would probably be overturned on appeal.” Thus a lever has been applied to the authority to cause it subsequently to allow an application that goes a little too far and may not be appropriate.

New section 71B in clause 1 refers to “urban green spaces”. I have a little problem with that. The first definition of “green space” in clause 6 is

The next two definitions are


There is a loophole here, which I hope the hon. Lady will correct should the Bill proceed to a Committee stage, in relation to what are effectively private green spaces.

In my constituency there were a couple of sports grounds that were effectively private. A developer came along and made an enormous offer to the members of the Mill Hill tennis club in Flower lane, who sold out. They cannot be blamed for that: they were going to receive a huge amount of money. A block of flats was then erected on the tennis courts. The same thing has just happened in west Hendon, also in my constituency. The Neeld tennis club, on the corner of Foscote road and Graham road, was a club of long standing and was the lessee of the site. The new freeholders decided to give the lessees a lump sum of £25,000 to take out a new lease to which they had no rights, and a further £175,000 when they left, which could be at any time during the course of the short lease that they were to be granted. The inspector said

and added that the question of whether the tennis courts should be considered to be playing fields was debated at the inquiry. There is a real argument over whether private tennis courts are covered by the definition of a playing field in planning policy.

Mr. Jenkins: Is my hon. Friend saying that as a member and therefore owner of a private tennis court, I would be prohibited from selling it and gaining, but as owner of a back garden I can sell it and gain? Where do we draw the line? I understand what my hon. Friend is trying to do, but what is his view of the problem I have identified?

Mr. Dismore: I hope my hon. Friend and I are not at cross purposes. We are not talking about selling land in this context; we are talking about planning controls. It would, in fact, be possible to apply for planning permission to erect a block of flats on the site of Buckingham palace. I hope that Westminster council would not grant consent, although given its track record I would not be so sure. Anyway, it is possible to apply for planning consent in relation to a site that one does not own. We are not talking about the ownership of the site; my point is that developers try to winkle out sports clubs just as they try to winkle out those old ladies in houses. In my view, the planning constraints that apply to back gardens should also apply to privately owned sports grounds, not just the public
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grounds that the Bill probably includes in clause 6(b). That is another loophole with which I hope the hon. Lady will deal in Committee, if the Bill gets that far.

One of the problems with the case that I have just mentioned was that the local authority had not bothered to do any homework to establish the level of demand for tennis courts. That omission was criticised by the inspector, who said, “The developer has done some work on this, and he says that there is no need for additional tennis courts. The council has produced no evidence to the contrary. Therefore”—surprise, surprise—

He went on to say that

I have to say in parenthesis that I have difficulty with hectares. I am not sure what they are worth in old money—in acres. No doubt someone will put me right if necessary later.

Mrs. Spelman: If it helps the hon. Gentleman, there are 2.47 acres to the hectare.

Mr. Dismore: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. That puts us into a more informed debate—at least from my point of view. Those of us who went to school before hectares were invented often struggle with such things.

Proposed new section 71B refers to “urban green space”. Does that include suburban green space? The areas that we are talking about are largely suburban, rather than urban. There is a significant difference in London between the inner city and outer London. Again the hon. Lady may like to remove the word “urban” altogether or define it in such a way that it refers to the density or to the built-up area for the existing location.

The hon. Lady rightly raises the question of

which may not be green land. My constituency contains what remains of the old Hendon airfield, the first airfield in the country and a major second world war airfield. It has been nibbled away and built on over the years. The Ministry of Defence disposed of the last big chunk about 10 years ago. It was called the RAF East Camp site and is now a major housing development. Although it was technically a brownfield site, because it had been lying fallow for decades, before construction started, it certainly looked like a greenfield site with grass and weeds up to here and self-seeded trees all over the place. There was an issue of significant biodiversity.

There are difficulties in planning law as it stands. Look at the definitions of “brownfield”, “greenfield” and “parkland”. The land in question would certainly have fallen within the scope of clause 1(2), as it is defined in clause 6. While it may have been a brownfield site technically, it contributed to the biodiversity of the area.

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The RAF East Camp site is now more grandiosely called Beaufort Park by its developers, St. George——not that that stopped it being burned down in spectacular fashion last summer when it was under development. It was something of a nature reserve, primarily because it had been fenced off from the public for a long time. When one is talking about wildlife and biodiversity, definition is difficult. Obviously, we have the definition of a site of special scientific interest and we have relatively small ones dotted around the country. Perhaps the best way of protecting such sites would be to say “That’s the threshold that should be applied.” We have to find the right balance. A site that has important biodiversity may never have been tested under the objective test that will be provided by referring to an SSSI. A relatively small piece of land can be designated as one. If land needs to be protected under that provision, perhaps the definition could be cross-referred in that way. There is always the possibility of applying for SSSI status or similar classification at a later stage. Perhaps if there is a pending application, that could be used to defer consideration.

The way the provision is constructed is rather vague. That may have been deliberate. It may have been because the matter had not been probed, but it could be difficult to say whether an area particularly benefits wildlife to the degree necessary to stop a development. One could say that any piece of green land benefits wildlife. If there is a blackbird pecking on it, looking for a worm, it is benefiting that blackbird, although not the worm. However, it may not be of general benefit.

I was mystified by an issue raised in the Library briefing, which says that proposed new sections 71B and 71C do not say who exercises the function. I do not think that it needs to. It is self-evident that the function will be exercised by anyone taking action under the planning Acts, whether it be the local authority planning committee, the inspectorate on appeal or, if it ever got that far, the Secretary of State on a call-in—or for that matter the London Mayor using his call-in powers. The Library has been too critical of the Bill in that respect and it is not something that I would particularly be concerned about.

I would like to suggest one or two other ideas that the hon. Lady may consider to improve her Bill. We heard earlier about the perverse incentive for local authorities in terms of trying to meet the target of 60 per cent. development on brownfield land. With back gardens being designated as brownfield, there is a perverse incentive to allow such development to go ahead to help the authority to meet the 60 per cent. target. One way of dealing with that—I hope that she will take the suggestion on board—would be to say, “If someone builds in a back garden, it does not count towards the 60 per cent.” That would remove that perverse incentive. That would be a relatively easy thing to do. It would not necessarily affect the planning issues in that respect, but it would at a simple stroke tackle that perverse incentive.

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