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25 Mar 2008 : Column 63WH—continued

In summary, more than 500 new homes, two leisure developments and a courthouse have all been put in
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jeopardy through the deliberate targeting of sites with TVG applications by people whose first thought is to stop legal, legitimate and much-needed developments, and whose passion for open spaces is, at best, secondary to that aim.

In a letter to me of 3 March, the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), said that the “balance is about right” in the way in which TVG applications operate. However, Eversheds solicitors, writing in Planning Magazine on 14 March, takes a contrary view:

It describes as “effectively impossible” the process of having land removed from the register once it has been included. It notes, too, that councils and developers cannot reclaim costs from TVG applicants whose applications fail, even if the delays have caused great expense, often to the taxpayer, or the loss of an approved planning development. In short, Eversheds is warning of a crisis in the planning world caused by TVGs. Citing examples from all over the country, it says:

In another letter from the DCLG, to High Peak borough council in February, officials said:

Such naivety is frankly staggering. There is no evidence to suggest that it is the communities that are making TVG applications. It is clever individuals who see a way of putting a spanner in the works of a development that has local support and the endorsement of the planning system.

In my experience, it is developments that are required by, or advantageous to, communities that are being hit by this blight. In one instance, the council was told by the DCLG:

The civil servant who wrote that is simply showing ignorance of the local situation. Brownfield sites are few and far between in High Peak, so when campaigners make a concerted effort to attack every major greenfield development with a town green application, and when most of a borough is contained within a national park in which there is simply no chance of significant housing development, the planning experts at the DCLG are effectively telling the council to like it or lump it.

With my endorsement, the council asked for a prohibition on TVG applications being made after a planning application has been submitted, and special measures to deal with potentially vindictive applications that would not be in the public interest.

Private landowners such as Dorothy and Margaret need special protection, so that their lifetime assets are not lost by the removal of development rights on private land that would follow a successful TVG application. Secondly—this covers the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew)—we should make it
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compulsory for local authorities to include town and village greens in the local plan. That way, the need for public open spaces would have to be taken into account alongside other developments and not piecemeal, in conflict with them.

In 2006, there were 77 TVG applications across the country. In 2007, that figure more than doubled to 172. Unfortunately, that trend does not reflect a growing interest in access rights, the enjoyment of the countryside or the value of green lungs within urban environments. What it does reflect is that an increasing number of campaigners have discovered a low-cost, low-risk, low-effort way of delaying the development of sites, often to the extent of preventing the delivery of socially valuable projects, whether their TVG application is successful or not. “Crisis” is not too fine a word to describe the situation, and all the signs are that this misuse, bordering on abuse, of an otherwise beneficial law is going to make planning blight ever worse. We have created a virus that is loose in the planning system. I call upon my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues in the DCLG to stop it in its tracks and let sanity, balance and responsible government prevail in the planning system.

1.49 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Jonathan Shaw): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for High Peak (Tom Levitt) on the way in which he presented the case on behalf of his constituents and raised the important issue of the 500 houses. Clearly, many of his constituents need affordable, rented housing in Buxton—I know the town well having visited it on a few occasions.

My hon. Friend talked about the magistrates court. It is right that its staff should have modern facilities. He also mentioned the schools that want to develop their sporting facilities. It is laudable for Buxton council to co-locate those facilities next to a specialist school but one of those projects—the Buxton specialist school—is now uncertain. He highlighted the disagreement between planning lawyers and the Department for Communities and Local Government. He knows that I am confined to speaking about Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs responsibilities, but I realise that the community and the council have some particular difficulties in Buxton. I will, therefore, arrange for him to bring folk from Buxton to meet my colleagues and our colleagues in the DCLG to go through the matter. It is clear that barriers are preventing developments that are desirable for the local community and my hon. Friend pressed his case well. I am aware that he raised such matters previously with our colleagues during the passage of the Commons Act 2006.

We recognise that applications to register new town and village greens can cause delays, as my hon. Friend said, but they do not cause enormous delays. The Government’s survey of greens registration activity, undertaken in September last year, estimated that 133 applications were made in the first three quarters of 2007, compared with 103 in 2006. We welcome my hon. Friend’s recognition of the role that public open spaces play in delivering an improved quality of life, particularly in built-up areas. He said that there should be a compulsory measure to require new developments to have green lungs and the like, but that is for the local development framework and for local councils to determine. We are
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trying to move away from centralised imposition—to reduce the number of indicators and targets and so on—so such matters are for local communities to resolve.

It is only right that long-standing use of land by local people for recreation should have protection in law—as my hon. Friend knows, that has always been the position—just as there is protection for long-used paths or for rights to light. However, such rights are frequently asserted only when they are threatened. Although my hon. Friend is concerned about what the DCLG said about objections coming to the fore, he will know from his time as both MP and councillor that people say, “I only got to hear about this or that at the last moment, and I am concerned”. We need to acknowledge that people do not always know what is happening, despite the laudable best efforts of local authorities to advise them. The difficulty, therefore, is to distinguish the legitimate response that is intended to protect community recreational sites from the vexatious application that is intended to defer or obstruct, which my hon. Friend described.

Under the old common law, once a green became established through long use, it remained protected for good. My hon. Friend was kind enough to acknowledge that the 2006 Act brings the law up to date; a claim for green status may be brought only within two years of any interruption of use. However, as a transitional provision, we ensured that a claim can be brought within five years of cessation of use if the interruption took place before the commencement date of 1 April 2007, which gives much needed clarity both for landowners and for local communities. Once use as of right has ceased for the requisite period, the landowner can be confident that no subsequent green application can succeed. That may offer little comfort in High Peak, where there has been no delay in bringing forward applications for registration, but it should increase certainty generally.

The Government see the provision to register greens as a necessary balance between long-standing community recreational use and legitimate development proposals. That is not to say that the balance is likely to turn out right in every case, or in many cases, such as those to which my hon. Friend referred. However, let us look at the difficulties. An application to register a green will inevitably interrupt plans for development. Applications take time to deal with. Notices must be served and people must have time to comment; often, the local authority will want to hold a hearing or inquiry to test the evidence, so reports must be drafted, committees convened and so on. Meanwhile, no wise developer would proceed with work on land in respect of which such an application had been made, so there may be long delays to works. Sometimes, a deal might fall through, as my hon. Friend mentioned in relation to the courts in Buxton. Funding may be withdrawn, or the developer may sell up and try his luck elsewhere.

It is difficult to see how green applications can be properly and fairly determined without rigorous appraisal, and such appraisals inevitably take time, just as it might take time to investigate claims to an unrecorded right of way, or for the Secretary of State to call in and determine a controversial planning application. Nevertheless, we want to encourage local authorities to be sensitive to the circumstances surrounding applications, and to consider prioritising cases in which the determination of an
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application may be crucial to a wider development agenda. I am reassured to hear from my hon. Friend that Derbyshire county council has adopted just such an approach in its area, and that it has increased the resources available for determining the applications that have already been made.

We do not accept that planning permission should override claims to register new greens, any more than it prevails over any other third-party rights, such as rights of way, easements, rights to light and restrictive covenants. Indeed, it would be inappropriate to impose a cut-off on applications to register new greens as soon as planning permission for development of the site was granted, because it might encourage developers to act as quickly as possible, perhaps forsaking community engagement, to have plans approved.

My hon. Friend will know of developments where there has been good, positive community engagement, which eases concerns within communities and allows developments to take place.

Tom Levitt: I hear and respect what my hon. Friend is saying. However, the 10-year development plan, which is considered with full public engagement and consultation, is the time to decide on medium and long-term land use, not to look at every aspect of land use apart from town and village greens, which are then considered ad hoc, piecemeal and separately.

Jonathan Shaw: I have undertaken to meet my hon. Friend to look at his local circumstances. We have not seen the High Peak phenomenon elsewhere in the country.
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We must look across the board, but I should be happy to consider particular circumstances.

I have not much time, and my hon. Friend wants to know what the Government are doing about the situation. We recognise that there are difficulties, and it seems that his constituency is a hot spot. The survey of registration activity that we undertook last year found an increasing level of applications for registration, but it is too early to conclude that there is a huge and increasing trend. We already enable local authorities and others who want to develop greens to apply to the Secretary of State to change the status of the green, as my hon. Friend mentioned.

We are grappling with a complex policy area, the history and law of which stretch back several hundred years. I learned very quickly from the 2006 Act—as my hon. Friends the Members for High Peak and for Stroud (Mr. Drew) know—that there are no simple answers to the complexity of the questions that arise. Even so, I hope that my Friend the Member for High Peak accepts that in this brief debate, I have gained some understanding of the problems in his constituency that he described, and that I will keep them in mind as we develop measures for the full implementation of part 1 of the 2006 Act. The regulations that currently govern the registration of new greens in England are described in the Act as “interim arrangements”, and we have the opportunity to rethink them when we fully bring part 1 into force. I am hopeful that, as we proceed with implementation, we can tailor the measures to ensure that the balance does not tilt too far in favour of any one part of the community against another. My hon. Friend has articulated concerns; I have offered to meet him, and I am sure that the discussion will continue.

It being Two o’clock, the motion for the Adjournment of the sitting lapsed, without Question put.

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