19 Jun 2007 : Column 375WH

19 Jun 2007 : Column 375WH

Westminster Hall

Tuesday 19 June 2007

[Mr. Christopher Chope in the Chair]

Planning Conditions

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—[Mr. Michael Foster.]

9.30 am

Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): Good morning, Mr. Chope. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this morning.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to raise in the Chamber this morning the issue of planning enforcement. Although I shall provide one particular example of an issue that has arisen from planning applications that are under consideration with my local authority, I fully understand that the Minister is not expected to comment on individual applications. Nor, indeed, do I expect the Chamber to have the intimate knowledge of my constituency that one would need in order to assess them. Therefore, I seek to raise a much broader issue.

In summary, I seek to discuss the planning system’s credibility when the public see that what appear to be flagrant breaches of planning rules are neither punished nor dealt with. I am increasingly finding that in different contexts, my constituents are losing faith in the planning process, because their perception is that, to put it colloquially, people get away with it when they breach planning conditions. There is a particular set of circumstances in which it appears to be easy—in the vernacular—to get away with it. When a new planning application is pending, the authority takes the view that because it will have to assess the application, which might in principle be used to regularise the situation, there is no point enforcing in the meantime.

If all planning applications went through in eight weeks, one might say, “That is a reasonable thing to do.” However, the reality is that the period during which a council knows that an application might be made, it is made, the site visits take place, and the planning committee meetings—including delays—take place, can become protracted. During that period, residents feel that planning obligations are not being enforced. The not unreasonable assumption is that, if one is about to sort out the issue through a planning application anyway, one does not want to spend taxpayers’ money on legal action. However, is that not a potential loophole? That is the perception of my constituents.

I shall provide two different examples. The first relates to a quarry in my constituency. My constituency has several quarries. Quarrying is a significant local employer, and when most people buy a house in the area, they know that there is a quarry. This is not an anti-quarrying speech. Many residents recognise that quarrying has to take place somewhere, and there is a relatively limited number of places where it can happen, because one has to dig in the right place. People in my area understand the need for quarries, and recognise that quarrying cannot take place silently, that there are traffic implications and so on.

19 Jun 2007 : Column 376WH

However, my constituents also need to know that when limits are placed on that activity, particularly on hours worked, the volume and the scale, they will be observed. My example is a quarry, near a village called Wickwar in my constituency, which is operated by a Mexican company called Cemex, which took it over from RMC a couple of years ago. The quarry has permission to extract 400,000 tonnes of limestone a year. It extracts 750,000 tonnes of limestone a year, and it publicly admits that it has done so for more than a decade.

We have the rather strange situation that everybody knows that the quarry is breaking its planning conditions. It extracts almost double what it is allowed to extract, and its operating hours go beyond what is allowed. It is not meant to start until 6.30 am, but it starts at 6 am. That may be considered a marginal difference, but if one is woken up at 6 am, it is not that marginal. Residents understandably feel aggrieved.

The quarry company has put in three planning applications to try to regularise the situation. The first application is to expand the area in which it quarries; the second is to extend the operating hours of the coating plant, which coats the stone that is extracted for use in tarmac on motorways and so on; and the third is to expand the hours during which crushing and screening takes place. Some of those applications would regularise the existing situation. If they went through, the quarry would be allowed to work the hours that it already works, and extract the volume of limestone that it already extracts.

I have been swamped with comments from residents of the neighbouring villages of Wickwar, Churchend, Charfield and Cromhall, who are on the whole concerned about the applications. They are particularly concerned about the fact that the breaches seem to have been going on for a considerable amount of time. The feeling is that nothing is being done, which is the issue that I want to raise today.

I shall tell the story by providing the perspectives of the three different parties—the residents, the quarry company, with which I had a very constructive meeting yesterday, and the local authority. Each party sees the situation differently. The residents know that there is a quarry, and that it implies traffic noise. By and large, they recognise and accept that fact. However, they did not know that the higher levels of noise, traffic, dust and the rest of it were the result of a breach of the planning conditions.

We had a public meeting. I do not often chair public meetings about such issues, but many people were strongly concerned about the situation. At the meeting, somebody—I shall not say who—said, “Nobody has complained,” and there was almost a riot, because everybody had complained. However, they had complained about the noise, dust or traffic, rather than about a breach of planning conditions to the planning enforcement section. As far as the planning enforcement people were concerned, nobody had complained, which raises issues about the local authority’s complaints handling process, which I have subsequently raised with the authority.

The situation is interesting, because the public have said to me, “We assumed that if there are all these lorries and all this volume, it must be okay, because somebody must be checking that they are obeying the rules.” The public do not complain to the planning
19 Jun 2007 : Column 377WH
department about a breach of planning conditions. They assume that there could not have been any breach, because if there had been, something would have been done about it. When they discover that nothing has been done about it for 10 years, they are understandably aggrieved.

I shall provide some excerpts from residents’ letters. One resident wrote:

the quarry company—

In other words, residents are saying, “We had this meeting, and we said, ‘All right, they might get the new application or they might not, but if they do, there will be conditions attached’.” Everyone rolls their eyes, however, and says, ‘Yeah. They paid so much attention to the last conditions, how can we have any confidence that they will pay attention to the next lot?” They are rather sceptical about the process.

In another letter, a different resident wrote:

On the day that the applications are decided, some conditions will be set, but the public do not believe that they will be adhered to, which undermines the credibility of the planning process.

I shall give the Chamber a feel for what I am talking about. One resident wrote:

The concluding sentence mirrored them all:

I could go on, because I have dozens of letters. I shall not read them all out, but in a fourth letter, a resident writes:

Andrew George (St. Ives) (LD): My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, but does he agree that the problem with planning enforcement is that when they monitor compliance, enforcement departments in district councils—certainly in my constituency, where there are three—appear to be reactive rather than proactive? It requires local people and neighbours to complain in order to be well informed, to double-guess the way in which the system works and to go beyond what they might normally do in order to investigate the issue themselves. That work puts a great deal of pressure on ordinary citizens, and it is surely something that planning departments should do themselves.

Steve Webb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That very point was made by residents at the meeting, who asked why it was down to them to complain. Even when they have complained, their complaints have not
19 Jun 2007 : Column 378WH
been handled in a way that has prompted planning enforcement. I shall come to the council’s perspective shortly, however. At the moment I am being anti-the quarry and anti-the council, but hon. Members will soon see that the picture is slightly more complicated than that.

I have described how the residents see the situation. One can imagine the scene. There is WRAG—Wickwar residents action group—as well as various websites and petitions. Interestingly, not everybody wants to stop the expansion altogether. Charfield parish council thinks that a more limited expansion might be appropriate, so the issue is not black and white, even for those who have concerns about the applications. However, the process has raised a lot of concern, and I said at the public meeting that I would raise that concern with Ministers. I wrote to Ministers towards the end of last week, although I do not know whether they have received the letters yet, and I have been fortunate to have this opportunity to raise the issue today.

It is difficult not to have a lot of sympathy with the residents. They pay their council tax and they know that there is a limited amount of activity at the quarry, but they also want a quiet life, clean roads and so forth. However, the quarry has a different perspective, as one might imagine, and it is quite an interesting perspective, which is worth putting on record. I met the quarry company yesterday and was told, “It’s true that we’ve been operating on this scale for a decade or more, but the first thing you have to recognise is that there’s a quarry down the road that’s shut. If you add together us and the neighbouring quarry, the volume of activity now is no different from what it was when the two were running together and we were operating on a smaller scale.” The company’s argument was that the volume of traffic, dust and noise is pretty similar, but distributed slightly differently.

Although that is probably true of the traffic, I suspect that that is a flexible view of planning. The company says, “Well, you know, the broad impact’s kind of the same, so we won’t worry that we’re breaking our planning rules.” That is a defence, as it were, but I do not think that it will reassure residents. If the activity can be regularised, which is what is happening now, that is clearly the right way to proceed. The company’s argument was, first, that the volume of activity is not very different from what it was 10 years ago; it is just distributed differently.

The second thing that the quarry company said was, “We are now effectively the good guys. We have taken over this company. We have observed that we’ve been operating in breach of planning conditions for 10 years and we’re now trying to put it right. We’re trying to do the decent thing, by putting in an application that specifies what we are actually doing, and thereby regularising the situation.” In a sense, to attack the current company for submitting the application is a little harsh, because it is trying to sort the situation out. I am not in the business of apportioning blame, but to be fair to the company, it is at least trying to regularise the situation, so that whatever planning conditions are attached, they will hopefully be observed. Everybody should accept that that must be the outcome that we want.

As for operating outside the opening hours, the company said, “Well, yes it’s true we start a bit early; but actually we finish earlier than we’re allowed to as well, so overall
19 Jun 2007 : Column 379WH
we’re not operating for as many hours as we could.” Again, that is a creative way of looking at things. My view is that if the restrictions are there, they are there for a reason and they should be observed. If companies want to change their operating practices, they should do so formally, rather than just saying that they will decide what is appropriate and what is not. So that sort of variation cannot be justified.

The quarry company’s principal argument is that it has a minerals plan for the area. All the quarries are part of that plan, and the expansion that the company wants to make is broadly within the preferred area that has been identified, although it goes slightly beyond it, which is a source of considerable contention. However, the company’s argument is that if it does not develop in the place that has been identified on the plan, the stone will still be needed and will therefore just have to be quarried somewhere else. The argument is that it is better to quarry the stone in places that have been identified in a plan that has been debated and discussed, rather than saying no to any application to extend within a preferred area. That is the quarry company’s perspective. It points out that some local residents have signed a different petition, in support of the applications—including, obviously, those who work at the quarry—and that it is not simply the case that residents are anti and the company is pro. Again, the situation is more complex.

What is interesting is the council’s perspective. I have raised the issue with the council, as have local residents, and we have received two responses. In a letter dated 16 May, the senior planning officer for minerals and waste says:

that is obviously the key word—

One can imagine how thrilled residents were to receive a letter saying that the fact that existing planning restrictions were being ignored and that no enforcement action was being taken had been “noted”. That did not go down terribly well.

However, there is a slightly expanded version of that letter, referring to Government guidance, which is part of the reason for raising the issue today, and from which it is worth reading a couple of excerpts. The same official says:

That is what people want—in other words, to say, “That’s an application, that’s different. Let’s enforce the existing rules now.” The official also says:

That is what has happened—the quarry company has been talking to the council, they have both accepted that the conditions have been breached and it has been agreed that, in effect, a retrospective application should go in, in order to deal with the breach. The officer continues:

19 Jun 2007 : Column 380WH

That does not mean that absolutely nothing is being done—environmental health is looking at a few bits and pieces—but the central planning enforcement action is on hold.

As I mentioned, one of the problems is that there is not just an eight-week wait involved. The council has been in discussions with the quarry for some years about regularising the situation and it has known that the applications were to be submitted. Therefore, no enforcement action was taken over the period when the council knew that they were to be submitted, none has been taken while they are under consideration and until they are considered in July—even that might be deferred; we do not know—none will be taken. One can see the logic that says, “If it’s all going to be sorted out in a few weeks, don’t waste time”, but if the situation has gone on for so long, one can see why the residents are frustrated.

To return to the comment that my hon. Friend the Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) made, the council’s perspective is that it has a relatively small planning department, in a rapidly growing unitary authority, with masses of planning applications and a lot of development on the go. For the council, even simply to process what comes in and then to deal reactively with complaints is a struggle. I have some sympathy for the people involved in planning enforcement, but the council’s view is that it simply does not have the resources to be as proactive as it would like to be. The issue, particularly for growing authorities, is whether enough recognition is given in, for example, the funding formula for local authorities of an area’s growth and the planning burden that it brings. With many planning applications, we are not talking patios; we are talking out-of-town developments, new towns and major road network changes.

Planning departments are therefore in a demanding position, and I have some sympathy with the council’s enforcement officers. However, the bottom line is that the guidance that enforcement officers receive is not to enforce while an application is live, so we are left in a kind of limbo. My question for the Minister is whether he is satisfied that PPG18 is working as it should be in practice. I know that there has been a big review of planning, which reported last November, the conclusion of which was that the current balance is broadly right. However, I still get the impression from my constituents that they do not think that the balance is right, and that there should be more incentives and processes for existing conditions to be enforced. The worry is that putting in applications can be used as a loophole to allow irregular situations to continue.

Andrew George: I am listening to the case that my hon. Friend is describing and, although the council is understandably cogitating, debating and negotiating with the quarry, planning enforcement action can be taken only within 10 years of a condition first being breached, as he is no doubt aware. Given that the quarry has apparently been in breach for about 10 years, the longer cogitation and negotiation continues, the more likely it is that the quarry will be able to ignore any enforcement action.

19 Jun 2007 : Column 381WH

Steve Webb: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning that. He obviously has good eyesight and can see over my shoulder, because the quarry company wrote to me last night and said precisely that:

Next Section Index Home Page