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19 Jun 2007 : Column 393WH—continued

The hon. Gentleman mentioned an unauthorised development in the green belt in his constituency, which was consequent on the actions of a small group of Travellers. Once again, I congratulate him on the sensitive way in which he dealt with that issue. Everyone who I know—certainly everyone in the Chamber—understands that the country has benefited from the rich diversity of traditions and cultures that make up the tapestry of British life. Some aspects of British life would have been impossible without Travellers and, as it is Ascot week, we should recognise that. Many of the events in the traditional British season, whether major racing events
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or local village fĂȘtes and fairs, would be impossible without the services provided by Travellers and showmen, so we should pay tribute to their contribution to British society.

Once again, however, as the hon. Gentleman pointed out, an appreciation of what Travellers and showmen have brought to our society is undermined by the actions of a small minority using the planning system in the way that he accurately described—they are playing fast and loose with the rules to push through unauthorised developments of a kind that make many local communities exceptionally irritated and lead them to believe that the law does not defend their interests. We heard, too, from the hon. Members for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Manchester, Withington, and for St. Ives (Andrew George), as well as from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) about the way in which local people’s faith in the planning system is tested when unscrupulous individuals or large developers think that it is more economical to ignore the law, take the hit, and profit elsewhere. That brings me back to something that we need to understand about the planning system. It is a legal framework. The rule of law matters in this country, and if people are to have faith in the system they need to see that laws are applied consistently and fairly.

You will appreciate, Mr. Chope, having had the good fortune to serve alongside Nicholas Ridley—a genuinely enlightened figure in that role—in the Department of the Environment, that the planning system is about economics, too. If it is to work, it must work rationally and ensure that incentives for developers and others are aligned with good behaviour. At the moment, that is not the case. We heard interesting suggestions from the hon. Member for St. Ives and from my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point about how we might better align the planning system to ensure that penalties and incentives make developers behave appropriately. I would be very interested to hear the Minister’s response to that.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Rogerson) pointed out that one of many disappointments in the planning White Paper, which was a well-intended but disappointing document, was the lack of detail about how enforcement might be better secured. As he pointed out, there is a serious question about capacity in the planning system. Do we have enough sufficiently trained planning professionals to deliver enforcement? I would be very interested in the Minister’s remarks on that, as well as his response to the initial questions posed by the hon. Member for Northavon about the way in which guidance has been framed to encourage and incentivise local authorities to be proactive.

Of course, those two questions are interrelated. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, if a planning department is run off its feet dealing with a rash of new planning applications, sometimes enforcement takes second place to the processing of those applications. However, I am sure that anyone here with experience of local government, such as the hon. Member for Manchester, Withington, would say that guidance and resourcing go together. Adequate resourcing and clear, empowering guidance can provide local authorities with the means to do what I suspect every Member in this debate would like them to do—apply the law in such a way as to restore faith in the planning system.

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10.48 am

The Minister for Local Government (Mr. Phil Woolas): Once again, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Chope. I congratulate the hon. Member for Northavon (Steve Webb) on the extremely helpful way in which he approached the debate and described the problem from the point of view of residents, the local authority and the developers. Obviously, the issue has raised emotions in his constituency and I have read the background to the issues that he introduced. As he and the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Michael Gove) said, I am limited in what I can say, but I shall try to be helpful.

Given the short time available, it will be helpful if I set out our policy before trying to answer the questions that have been asked, but I apologise in advance if some go unanswered. I suspect that we are entering a period in which debates on planning policy will rise up the policy agenda following the publication of the White Paper. Therefore, if I do not answer all the questions today, I am sure that they will be dealt with by my hon. Friend the Member for Castleford and Normanton—I am sorry, I mean my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Yvette Cooper), who is the Minister for Housing and Planning: those constituencies are easy to confuse. I am sure that either she or her successors, or I or my successors, will return to the point.

Bob Spink: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman is eating up time, but I can never resist his interventions.

Bob Spink: The Minister is a real gentleman. As he said that the Minister for Housing and Planning may write to us to answer our questions, will he add this question to the list? If a local authority fails to take enforcement action against breaches or irregularities, in effect ignoring complaints, what sanctions are available to communities or complainants against that local authority?

Mr. Woolas: A wide range of powers are available, and there are even more in the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Bill, if a local authority is deemed not to be doing its job. Of course, I recognise the frustration that residents can experience in such circumstances.

Let me set out the policy. Under successive Governments, local authorities have had very wide powers to impose planning conditions, which are an important development control instrument that can be used to overcome a broad range of issues that might otherwise lead to refusal of planning permission. More generally, conditions can be used to improve the overall quality of a completed development. In deciding whether to impose conditions in any particular instance, we expect—and Parliament expects—local planning authorities to follow guidance in “Circular 11/95: the use of conditions in planning permission”, which was issued by the former Department of the Environment, and is the key guidance document to which we all refer. It requires the following policy tests to be applied to the use of conditions. They should be necessary; relevant to planning; relevant to the development to be permitted; enforceable—that is a key criterion; precise; and

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That last test is a definition of which I am especially fond, as it is good guidance in any policy area.

The guidance advises that local planning authorities should give careful consideration to the need for a condition before imposing it. In particular, they should ask themselves whether planning permission would have to be refused if that condition were not imposed. If it would not, the condition needs special and precise justification. If a condition is considered necessary and is imposed, only to be flouted, authorities can enforce compliance by serving a breach of condition notice. If a valid breach of condition notice is contravened, the resulting offence is open to summary prosecution. We would not expect authorities to impose conditions if they had no intention of enforcing them should that prove necessary. There is no evidence, in our opinion, of widespread non-compliance with conditions, or that local planning authorities have any particular difficulties in using the statutory powers available to them properly. Planning conditions remain in force until they are revoked, amended or discharged. That is the basic system.

Mr. Rogerson: The issue of evidence is obviously crucial if we are to consider enforcement as we proceed with the planning White Paper. As it is not part of the consultation, because it is not in the current document, what is the best route to stimulate the gathering of evidence so that we can make progress?

Mr. Woolas: The Local Government Association and the Department meet regularly and planning policy is one of the issues raised. It is for local authorities to raise the matter with us if they believe that their powers are inadequate, and obviously it is open to Members of Parliament to do so as well. The debate today is an important cross-party contribution to discussions about people’s concerns. We have heard examples ranging from very significant developments, such as the quarry that was mentioned, through to smaller matters at local and, indeed, household level.

Hon. Members may find it helpful if I complete the point about policy, as it is important both to the debate as it goes forward and to today’s debate. Other provisions can come into play. Section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 provides for applications for planning permission to develop land without complying with conditions previously imposed by an earlier planning permission. That seems to be the position in the case described by the hon. Member for Northavon. The local planning authority can grant such permission unconditionally, or subject to different conditions, or it can refuse the application if it decides that the original condition or conditions should continue. The original planning permission will continue to exist and apply until the outcome of the application under section 73 is decided, at which point it will supersede the original planning permission.

With regard to the Wickwar quarry, Government guidance does not tell the council—the hon. Gentleman did not make this accusation, but it is part of the debate—that because there is a pending application that could regularise the situation, it should not take enforcement action. Our advice is that, although it is unsatisfactory for anyone to carry out development without first obtaining the required planning permission, an enforcement notice
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should not normally be issued solely to regularise development that is acceptable on its planning merits but for which permission has not been sought. If, however, it is not clear whether development is acceptable, it is open to the local planning authority to take enforcement action. Although enforcement is discretionary, we would certainly expect local planning authorities to take enforcement action in cases in which the amenity or the environment was threatened.

As I said, planning conditions remain in force until they are revoked, amended or discharged, and the conditions attached to the existing planning permission remain in force until any new planning permission with the same and/or different conditions takes effect. Local planning authorities therefore have a full range of statutory powers available to them, backed up by Government guidance on how to ensure that planning conditions are used properly. Where necessary, planning conditions can be enforced if there is non-compliance, but if planning conditions are breached, it is for the local planning authority to decide whether to take enforcement action. The hon. Member for Northavon asked a general question whether PPG18 is working in practice. Clearly, in publishing a White Paper, we believe that the time is right to develop policy, but to describe the planning system as dysfunctional is over the top.

Michael Gove: How can the Minister possibly be happy with the planning system when, as we know, household growth is running at the rate of some 223,000 a year, yet we are delivering new housing only at the level of about 160,000 a year, and housing starts in the three months to March of this year are down 9 per cent. on the previous year? He cannot be either happy with, or willing to commend, that system.

Mr. Woolas: I will not be tempted down that road, because it is outside the remit of the debate, but my contention is that, while the planning system has been described as dysfunctional, it is not so.

Hon. Members have made a number of suggestions as to how we could improve the situation. The hon. Member for St. Ives (Andrew George) mentioned the role of parishes, which are statutory consultees. The hon. Member for Castle Point (Bob Spink) accused us of deregulating the planning system. Incidentally, I would expect him to welcome deregulation; perhaps he would do so in a different context. The question that the White Paper raises is this: at what level should planning decisions be taken? The hon. Gentleman’s point is obviously important in that regard. He had one other suggestion, which may raise practical problems. Briefly, the answer to his question is that the period is four years for dwelling houses and 10 years for other changes of use.

We have had a useful debate. I have tried, in the time available, to answer the questions that were raised, but I look forward to further debate on planning policy, the White Paper and the important issue of enforcement.

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Sugar and Obesity

11 am

Dr. Ashok Kumar (Middlesbrough, South and East Cleveland) (Lab): I thank Mr. Speaker for granting me this Adjournment debate, in which I wish to explore some aspects of the relationship between sugar and obesity.

I am happy to see the Under-Secretary of State for Health in his place, because this is the first time that he has replied to one of my debates. We have been colleagues for a long time, and I have great respect for him and praise him for the way in which he does his job. If I say anything too controversial, I hope that he will forgive me, because I mean only to highlight some contradictions, not to criticise the Government. I hope that he will take my comments in that spirit and perhaps take a couple of them away to think about, given that I have, without being sycophantic, supported my Government on every occasion.

Sugar is a crucial ingredient in many foods that are enjoyed by millions of people in the UK every day, but consuming large amounts of it can lead to obesity. It is only recently that we have recognised the scale of the obesity problem, and I congratulate the Government on having responded energetically and quickly. The evidence clearly shows that obesity has become a real problem. The number of obese people increases by more than 1,000 a month on average, and the Eurostat yearbook published earlier this year revealed that UK adult obesity levels were the worst in Europe.

A summary provided by the British Medical Association highlights the severity of the problem, stating:

Every year, the health service spends at least £2 billion on treating ill health caused by poor diet. Soaring rates of obesity have led to an increase in childhood type 2 diabetes and will lead to more cases of heart disease, osteoarthritis and some cancers. The rise in type 2 diabetes among children parallels the steadily rising rate of obesity. Type 2 diabetes was once seen only among adults—the average age for developing it is 52—so the increase among children is worrying. In the five years between 1996 and 2001, the proportion of children aged between 6 and 15 who are obese rose by 3.5 per cent.

Obesity is responsible for 9,000 premature deaths a year in England and reduces life expectancy by an average of nine years. The National Audit Office estimates that 18,000 sick days a year are linked to obesity, costing the economy at least £2.5 billion a year, which includes the cost to the NHS and the cost of sickness absence to industry. According to the Department of Health, the rise in obesity, particularly among children, “threatens disastrous consequences.” If it continues, it could cost the economy £3.5 billion a year by 2010. The threat is therefore considerable, and the momentum behind increasing obesity means that it will be hard to stop, let alone to reverse. There is no doubt that the Government are responding to this great challenge, and I praise the Secretary of State and all the Ministers involved. However, the Under-Secretary will agree when
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I say that all available levers will have to be used effectively if success is to be achieved.

I want to draw attention to the school drinks regime, which needs to be looked at. Strictly speaking, it is a matter for the Department for Education and Skills, but that Department is taking advice on it from the Department of Health. Two of the most important factors to consider when deciding what drinks should be readily available in schools are calorie content and hydration. The effects of dehydration on learning have been shown in many studies, but they are not widely recognised or acted on. The UK expert group on hydration reported on a study conducted at Leeds university that showed that children’s ability to do arithmetic was impaired even if they were only between 1 and 2 per cent. dehydrated. The group advises that 40 per cent. of 11 to 18-year-olds do not drink the minimum amount of 1.2 litres a day recommended by the Food Standards Agency. It concluded that children should have access to a wide variety of beverages to encourage them to drink frequently.

The Government have recently addressed the issue of the range of drinks available in schools by setting out lists of foods and drinks that are prohibited in schools. Smoothies and fruit juices, which are high in nutrition, are still sold in schools, and rightly so, but they are expensive, fairly high in calories and not particularly good for hydration. However, low-calorie soft drinks, which are good for hydration and which tend to cost less, are prohibited. In effect, the school drinks regime bans all low-calorie cold drinks apart from water. Put simply, that means that one of the only options available to children who are thirsty but who are reluctant to drink water is expensive calorific drinks that will not hydrate them sufficiently. An alternative is for youngsters to bring high-sugar drinks from home or to buy them from off-school premises.

It is not too late to make adjustments to the school drinks regime. It would be absurd to be concerned about overweight and obese children, but to introduce a drinks regime that became part of the problem rather than part of the solution. The genesis of the new school food programme took place before our awareness of obesity increased, so the drinks regime might not take obesity into account to the extent that we surely now require. A recent undated “Dear Stakeholder” letter from the School Food Trust details several difficulties. It says that translating the school meals review panel recommendation on “pure” drinks is difficult given that European legislation sets safety standards for ingredients, and adds that changes might be required to the EU legislative framework. Does that mean that UK regulations covering drinks in schools cannot yet be tabled?

If the review panel had asked parents whether they wanted pure drinks, I am sure that it would have got a lot of positive responses. However, I am equally sure that if it went to parents now and asked whether they wanted to ban all low-calorie cold drinks apart from water from schools, bearing in mind the perils of dehydration and weight gain, the answer would be no. Such confusion is in clear contrast to the formula adopted by Ofcom in restricting television advertising to children of foods that are high in fat, sugar or salt. The definition of such products has not led to arguments with industry or conflicts with the EU legislative framework, and I commend it to the Department of Health and the Department for Education and Skills as a way ahead, in
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contrast to their more complex attempt to set menus. Of course, such an approach would lead to a different list of cold drinks that were allowed in schools. That is not to say that juices and smoothies, or other higher-calorie but nutritious drinks, should not be allowed. However, they should be available along with low-calorie options so that they are not used to prevent dehydration.

Recently we have become more aware of sugar in our diet, but I was surprised by the Government’s response when last year in the other place, Earl Howe raised the question of the link between sugar and body weight. Lord Warner replied:

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