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The problem for my constituents arises from the construction in 2005-06 of five new platforms, three 300 m long canopies and eight new lighting columns at the railway sidings that immediately abut the rear garden walls of the homes in Sternhold avenue. Not only is there now cleaning and maintenance activity throughout the day and night at the sidings, but the sheer presence and visual impact of the columns and canopies is
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horrendous. The local topography means that the sidings stand on higher ground than the adjacent houses, so the canopies tower over the homes up to a height of 7.5 m, and at a distance from some homes of only 12 m. For all those poor residents, it is like having a highly modernistic airport terminal building at the bottom of their garden.

6.15 pm

The visual impact of the development means that it dominates the lives of residents and probably also reduces property values, yet the development was carried out under permitted rights without consultation and with limited scope for challenge by the local authority. Whether it was correctly carried out under permitted development rights is a matter of contention, although I suppose that it is arguable that, in drafting the new clause as an amendment to the law, the local Lib Dem councillors and the Lib Dem Front Benchers are tacitly acknowledging that the case was a permitted development and that the law needs to be changed.

Unfortunately, of course, since the law does not work retrospectively, there would be no benefit to my Sternhold avenue constituents if the new clause were passed. Although I welcome the opportunity to raise this shocking matter in the House on behalf of my constituents, I am not sure that anyone would be helped by the new clause. As the hon. Member for North Cornwall said, its purpose is to require railway undertakings to seek planning permission when they want to install plant and machinery on operational land. However, the issue for my constituents is not the construction of plant and machinery on railway land, but the closeness of the development to their homes. That is why new clause 38 does not meet the case.

I have looked in detail at the operation of the general permitted development order—indeed, I had responsibilities on it some time ago when I had the honour and privilege to be the nation’s Planning Minister. On the whole, the GPDO works well as it is applied to the railways. When the working of the GPDO was last reviewed in the Lichfield report of 2003, only 5 per cent. of responding local authorities reported problems with class A of part 17, which is what we are dealing with. Only 2 per cent. considered class A’s permitted development rights to be too loosely defined.

Railway undertakings make about 1,000 applications under the GPDO each year, many of which involve plant and machinery. I accept that it would be an unreasonable obstacle to the efficient working of the railway and a big new burden on local planners if all proposals to construct plant and machinery were subject to planning consent. I repeat the fact that the problem for my constituents is not the presence of plant and machinery on operational land but the proximity of the development.

Mr. Clifton-Brown: Is this not almost déj vu for the right hon. Gentleman? He dealt with the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 for the Government when I was the Opposition spokesman, and he will recall that that Act exempted Crown exemptions, so that the Crown now has to apply for planning permission. Does he not think that these utilities should be treated in the same way so that when large infrastructure is involved—such as the example from his constituency—they ought to have to seek planning permission?

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Keith Hill: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that trip down memory lane. He is right to say that we had many exchanges on these matters. Although I contend that it would be inappropriate for every item of plant or machinery to be subject to planning consent, the point that I want to draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister is that the Lichfield report anticipated that there may be circumstances in which a condition ought to be applied for the development of large infrastructure on railway land.

The Lichfield review of the GPDO suggests in two places that there is a need to consider introducing a distance restriction on developments that might involve night-time activity and visual impacts near residential areas. Paragraph 30 of chapter 21 of the report deals with part 17 of the GPDO, which discusses a failed attempt by a local authority to resist a particular railway development. The report says:

The following paragraph recommends that further consideration be given to clarifying whether buildings related to the washing and maintenance of railway vehicles should not be defined as an industrial process, as is the case with the Scottish GPDO. Interestingly, the report goes on to say:

In 2003, when the Lichfield report was prepared, it seemed that there could be a problem with intrusive railway developments close to people’s homes. Today, in 2008, the Sternhold avenue case shows that such a problem exists: it would therefore be helpful if my right hon. Friend the Minister would undertake to consider amending the GPDO along the lines suggested by Lichfield and bringing forward appropriate secondary legislation in due course.

Caroline Flint: I thank my right hon. Friend for his contribution. I do not want to say too much about the situation in the London borough of Lambeth, as I understand that it is considering further action. I am aware of the Lichfield report but, as he has acknowledged, it is not clear whether the problem is widespread. I should be happy to meet him if he thinks that there is more evidence of a wider problem to do with the development’s proximity to housing, but part of the balance that I have to strike depends on determining how big the problem is. To coin a phrase, we do not need a sledgehammer to crack a nut.

Keith Hill: I am very grateful to my right hon. Friend for that generous offer. It will certainly please my constituents, and I shall certainly avail myself of it, but in her initial statement she referred to the possible use of article 4 directions by local planning authorities to resist undesirable developments of the sort that I have described. She will know that that is not possible under part 11 of the GPDO. In the end, the Sternhold avenue development that has caused so much distress to my constituents was in fact carried out under part 11, and not part 17—the subject of new clause 38.

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Like all the permitted development powers, part 11 of the GPDO confers pretty sweeping powers on railway undertakings—for example, it excludes any requirement for an environmental impact assessment. However, there is a requirement for prior approval, albeit limited to grounds of injury to amenity or better siting being possible. In dealing with that part of the GPDO, chapter 15 paragraph 15 of the Lichfield report notes: “Investigation of case studies where part 11 rights have been used failed to find any examples of adverse impacts arising which could not be controlled by local planning authorities”.

It is therefore perfectly clear that local authorities have been able to prevent unreasonable developments. I very much regret that, back in 2002 and later, Lambeth council—at that period under a Liberal Democrat administration—did not use those grounds at least to put the proposals under vigorous scrutiny. At least local residents would then have become aware of the threat at an early stage. It was a missed opportunity, just as the opportunity was missed to take the enforcement action against Southern railway for which those same Lib Dem councillors are now campaigning. With respect to the hon. Member for North Cornwall, new clause 38 seems rather like a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Dan Rogerson: The right hon. Gentleman has highlighted the fact that he was the Minister at the time when the application went through. He has also highlighted the role of Liberal Democrat councillors, but did he consider at the time that the GPDO needed amending? Could he have intervened to do so, not as the constituency MP but as the Minister, on behalf of all local areas that could have experienced a similar situation?

Keith Hill: That is a very reasonable intervention. To be entirely accurate, the development somewhat post-dated my tenure as the nation’s Planning Minister. As my remarks have indicated, I did consider carefully the record and history of the GPDO, which we are debating. My feeling was that we were waiting for the council to report on whether the development was permitted, but that at some stage I would want to make a recommendation about the distance factor. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to do that.

New clause 38 is about the development of plant or machinery by railway undertakers, and I wish to say a word about the role and responsibilities of precisely the undertakers in the case that I have mentioned—Southern railway and Network Rail. It is all very well for railway undertakers to argue “caveat emptor” when people choose to live next to the railway, but Southern railway and Network Rail deliberately used part 11 of the order, which minimised the opportunities for local consultation and representation. There was no requirement of prior notice to local residents and only the most cursory notification of the commencement of works. The first that most residents knew of what was in store was a matter of weeks before building work began.

I want railway operators to think more about the impact of their activities, which have been the subject of this brief exchange. I cannot conceive of the fact that rail managers, engineers or architects would want to live next door to such a monstrous intrusion into people’s lives. Yes, the GPDO gives enormous leeway to the railway undertaker, but as usual—I know that my right
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hon. Friend the Minister will understand this point—freedom has to be matched with responsibility. In the case that I have mentioned, I do not believe that it was.

Southern railway and Network Rail behaved abominably, but they have the chance to redeem their good name and reputation. The quality of life of my constituents would be greatly improved if the canopy nearest their homes were to be removed. I therefore hope that Southern railway and Network Rail will enter into negotiations with officers and members of Lambeth council as a matter of urgency to remove the canopy nearest the residential properties in Sternhold avenue in my constituency.

Mrs. Lait: It is a pleasure to have caught your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, having had an opportunity to listen to the points raised in the debate. I hope that the right hon. Member for Streatham (Keith Hill) will forgive me if I do not follow him in covering the detail of his constituency interest. I am conscious that we are exceedingly short of time and that a number of Members wish to contribute, so I shall be as brief as I can.

I start by thanking the Minister for taking on board a number of the points that were made in Committee and in subsequent lobbying. I am glad, too, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has persuaded the Minister that things can be done about permitted development rights for the agriculture industry. I suspect that her colleagues in the Lords may well see the issue covered by new clause 2 re-emerging there, so that we can get further clarification.

I say to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson), with whom I shared many happy hours in Committee, that his new clause 4 on mobile phone masts comes close to a position on which we fought the last election. We believe that mobile phone masts should be brought into the mainstream planning system. That is part of the reason we have supported single consent regimes throughout the passage of the Bill. It was also why I tabled amendments to try to bring all the remaining bits of the electricity, pipelines and gas Acts under one planning regime in the Department for Communities and Local Government.

6.30 pm

I will focus on the amendments that my hon. Friends and I have tabled, starting with amendment No. 300 and the consequential amendments that would be necessary to allow their lordships to consider a logical Bill. The Minister made a fair fist of explaining why the proposals were incorporated into the Bill late in the Committee stage. However, we do not like in any way, shape or form the policy of the remote regional assemblies passing their responsibility for planning to regional development agencies in due course. The Housing and Regeneration Bill, which is nearly an Act, hands over responsibility for housing to the RDAs, and we object to that, too. We do not think that the proposals in this Bill are appropriate because they begin the handover. The ethos of the Bill is one of the Government taking away accountability from the planning system as far as they possibly can. Removing accountability from even the remote regional
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assemblies by handing responsibility to unelected and unaccountable regional development agencies is entirely wrong.

It occurs to me that I should have declared an interest. As I have said many times, my husband is the deputy chairman of the South East England Development Agency. However, he is there as an elected member. That does not mean that I resile from our position that RDAs should not have responsibility for housing and planning. They are entirely the wrong bodies for those functions. Housing and planning affect our constituents directly and they are already disaffected by the planning system —[ Interruption. ] I welcome hearing a contribution from the Minister for Local Government, whom we have missed. He has been overruled by his lady seniors. Would he like to repeat that comment? I thought that I heard a sotto voce intervention that applied to my husband, but if he does not wish to repeat it, I shall await it on a different occasion. It is lovely to see him back and I hope that he will be able to make a contribution at some point, given that he has worked so hard on the Bill.

A regional development agency is not the place in which housing and planning powers should be placed, given that they affect our constituents directly. RDAs are unelected and unaccountable. The regional Ministers are next to invisible. As the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Julia Goldsworthy) pointed out, RDAs are not expert and do not have the staff. I recognise that they could hire staff, but that would entirely change their ethos. Their memberships have no expertise in housing and planning, but are focused entirely on economic regeneration. It would be completely inappropriate to hand any planning powers to such a body, so we are opposed to the Government’s proposals in principle. The organisations that should have the powers are local authorities, which is why we have tabled amendments to that effect.

In amendment No. 290, which relates to local member review bodies, we are very generously trying to help the Government out of a hole of their own making. We believe that it is appropriate for local authorities with planning responsibilities to be able to review the decisions of their planning ministers on issues that are devolved to officers. Anyone with experience on a planning committee in a local authority will know that they are more than capable of sending officers back to review a decision, and to challenge it if they believe that that would be in the interests of their constituents.

I have here a letter from the Minister for Housing, who has come to the House today to talk about the Bill for the first time. The letter is addressed to representatives of the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors and the Royal Town Planning Institute, and it says that the planning decisions made by the local member review bodies would involve only

My copy of the letter is not quite clear, but I think that it was sent in April.

The Minister said that she had had further discussions with the various organisations to try to persuade them of the rightness of this proposal. However, a briefing that I have received from the Royal Town Planning Institute, dated 30 May, states:

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Clearly, the Minister’s persuasive powers have not worked, or at least they had not worked on 30 May with the RTPI. Perhaps things have changed since then, but I do not think so, given the briefings that I have received.

However, because we believe that it is for local members to make these decisions, we have come up with amendment No. 290, in order to get the Government out of this hole that they have dug for themselves. It proposes that councillors from surrounding local authorities could be invited to sit on the review bodies. As with any of our amendments that the Government are prepared to accept, I am more than happy to offer to amend this one to ensure that it is appropriate. The Minister thought that its wording meant that potentially every member of the review body could come from outside the local authority in question. If she wishes us to amend our amendment, I will be happy to offer to do so. None the less, I would be grateful if consideration could be given to the proposal, because it would deal with the concern that has been expressed by the various bodies involved.

Working on the basis that we would like to see the changes that I have outlined, I want to ensure that other Members have an opportunity to express their views. We will consider whether to press our amendments to a vote in due course.

Mr. Drew: I rise to speak to amendment No. 2, which stands in my name. Its contents are not a million miles away from the proposals put forward by the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Dan Rogerson) in Committee, and I should state from the outset that I do not intend to seek the leave of the House to press it to a vote, because I have heard what my right hon. Friend the Minister has said. I shall be interested to see what the proposed community empowerment, housing and economic regeneration Bill will do to enhance the opportunity of communities to get their point of view across in relation to aspects of the planning process. It might be one of the laws of politics that Oppositions like third party rights of appeal, and that Governments certainly do not, but I still think that there is merit in making the case that the planning process is not accessible, and certainly does not give a voice, to all communities.

Two obvious examples are pertinent to my constituency. First, when councillors on a local authority with planning powers support a particular application but people in the area concerned, which may include the parish or town council, are against it, the people have no voice once the decision has been taken. As has been said, the developer has two bites of the cherry in pursuing an application. Indeed, they may have many more bites, because they can keep resubmitting an application until they get consent, whereas those who oppose such an application have one chance—they have no chance if their councillors choose not to listen to their point of view. Secondly, sometimes people live very close to a particular application that is in a different local authority area. It is not unknown for a local authority as a whole to be against an application, but if the people in the community happen to be on the wrong side of the border, it means that there is no opportunity to make
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their voices heard. Those are two straightforward examples where a third party right of appeal would be of some benefit.

I know that people will always say that such an approach would not be practical and would be difficult to introduce. However, Australia and the Republic of Ireland, to which the hon. Member for North Cornwall referred in Committee, use such an approach, so there is good practice out there. We have a problem in this country when it comes to allowing the people to have a voice, even though they may choose to use their voice in a respectable way to exercise their democratic opinion.

I look forward to hearing what the Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Gloucester (Mr. Dhanda), has to say. The issue will not go away, because some of us will not let it go away, but this is not the appropriate moment to pursue it. I hope that the Lords will consider the issue and that the next Bill provides proper democratic accountability and an opportunity for people to make their voices heard.

Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove) (LD): New clauses 3 and 4 did not arrive out of thin air for this debate. They are substantially the same provisions as those included in private Members’ Bills promoted by the hon. Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring) in 2004, by me in 2005 and by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) in 2006. Those three Bills were all talked out in one way or another, and we are close to that today, so I hope that you will agree to test the opinion of the House on those new clauses at the appropriate moment, Madam Deputy Speaker, because the House should have an opportunity to say whether the system should be reformed. Those three Bills were supported by members of not only the three biggest parties but fourth parties, too.

We all have cases involving mobile phone masts in our in-trays. When the House previously considered the matter, the now Minister for Borders and Immigration was saying in his literature that Labour would

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