Planning Bill

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Mr. Curry: My hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst is concerned that developers might get walloped unfairly for what they do. My concern is that they do not get walloped enough for the things they do unfairly. Some developers are given an inch and they try to take a mile. They know that the local authority will be very reluctant to take enforcement action because it costs an arm and a leg. The entire budget of the smallest local authorities that are planning authorities may be £7 million or £8 million. Even a fairly significantly sized local authority would have a budget of less than £20 million. Planning officials are therefore extremely reluctant to commit the local authority to embark upon a great case for enforcement. Equally, they are often reluctant to refuse planning permission because they do not then want to have to face the costs of going to the inquiry and contesting that planning permission.
In many ways the odds are rather stacked against local authorities. We know that some companies resent the whole business of planning permission in any case; they regard it as unnecessary bureaucratic interference. They get permission for X, and they do X plus, and there is a deliberate challenge to the local authority to take enforcement action. The roof-lines might be somewhat higher than agreed; the intensity of development might be somewhat more than planned. Equally, we all know that in the corner of a field there might be a shed, and five years later 5 acres of landscaped gardens and goodness knows what else has been built there without planning permission. A deliberate gamble is taken that the local authority will eventually cave in.
I subscribe to the belief that we should try to make planning more rapid, effective and transparent, but the quid pro quo is that where people deliberately try it on, the powers to prevent that from happening should also be reinforced. I should be grateful if the Government considered looking at this issue so that, perhaps during the Bill’s later stages, we can get more of a balance. We need to balance the acceleration that we all agree is necessary with the reassurance that it will not mean that people who are somewhat cavalier with the rules will get away with it, because of local authority reluctance, for whatever reason, to get into the significant legal tangle of taking enforcement measures that could even result in the demolition of the development itself.
Mr. Dhanda: That is a very helpful contribution, and those are the steps that part 8 tries to take. It is not just about the hefty fine of up to £50,000 for developments without consent, which has already been mentioned. The later clauses in part 8 make it incumbent on developers who do not have permission to take down the development in question in some cases; indeed, under certain clauses the local planning authority can enter the land, take the development down and bill the developer for doing so. I hope that that reassures the right hon. Gentleman that this clause and others in part 8 take into account his understandable concerns.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 130 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clause 131 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 132

Time limits
Robert Neill: I beg to move amendment No. 420, in clause 132, page 61, line 28, leave out paragraph (a).
I am more concerned about the use of the information notice under clause 137 because it would require the person on whom it is served to provide information about any operations they are undertaking to enable the authority to determine whether one of the criminal offences has been committed. The notice would then hang over that person, whether or not the information process is proceeding. Once the notice is served, the time that it takes for that notice to be complied with—it will depend on the complications and nature of the works that are going on—will extend the time available for bringing proceedings. If an authority were strongly opposed to a developer, the time available could be stretched considerably longer than the four-year period.
Most people who have been involved in these things know that quite often in development, there may be a minor infringement of the conditions by, perhaps, a subcontractor acting in good faith. If those infringements are dealt with sensibly, the problem can be put right. In theory, however, the authority would be able to serve an information notice and trigger the provisions of the Act. Even if the information notice was served very shortly before the expiry of the four years, until the whole rigmarole was complied with, the risk of criminal prosecution would arise.
If a lot of notices were served, one after the other—as far as we can see, there is nothing to stop that if the local authority comes back with another notice after the first one has been served—the time in which there is a threat of prosecution would continue well beyond the four-year period. I suspect that that is an unintended consequence of the proposal, and the amendment would remove it.
Our view, which is held by many practitioners in this sector, is that although we do not have a problem in principle with the enforcement provisions of development consent orders, they might be better served if they followed the existing enforcement regime under section 171B of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990. That is why we tabled the amendment and it will be interesting to hear what the Minister says.
12.30 pm
Dan Rogerson: I listened closely to what the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst said in his case for the amendment. However, I also have in the back of my mind the case put forward by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon about ensuring that enforcement is as powerful as possible. There are many cases every week around the country of smaller developments of the nature that he mentioned, such as where roof lines are built slightly too big. However, we are talking not about that, but about very significant projects.
It is unlikely that the developers that we are talking about, having invested so much time in this process, will step outside the law. I do not think that there will be many cases of that. Having invested much time and effort in getting a huge application such as this through the process, it is unlikely that they will jump the gun. However, it is important that there is a clear provision that is as flexible as possible for enforcement to be carried out. On this occasion, I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst.
Mr. Dhanda: There is an interesting piece of triangulation on the Committee because I am inclined to agree with the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst. In a peculiar way, that gives the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon what he has been asking for all this time. He was saying that we have not given in on anything.
I suspect that the hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst has been talking to his old friends in the Law Society, and I confess that he is on to something. He expressed concerns that the clause, which is about invoking time limits for enforcement action, will mean that if an information notice is served under clause 137 before the expiry of the four-year time limit, a developer could find themselves faced with the indefinite threat of legal proceedings, under one of the new criminal proceedings. That may well happen because a local authority that is for ever opposed to a nationally significant infrastructure project could choose to use this process as a mechanism to keep the enforcement going. I am sympathetic to that point.
The Government are considering the application of time limits to the enforcement provisions. In doing so, we will be happy to take the hon. Gentleman’s concerns into account and will come back to him at a later stage. Although I am not accepting his amendment as worded, due to the potential consequences attached to it, I am happy to return to the matter and take on board what he has said. He has a fair point.
Robert Neill: I am grateful. In a different Bill Committee, on which the Under-Secretary of State for Transport, the hon. Member for Poplar and Canning Town (Jim Fitzpatrick) served, this would have been described by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt) as a “champagne moment”. I am very grateful to the Minister and will relay what he has said back to those who open champagne in the Temple and the Inner Temple. I accept his point and if we can find a way forward, I will be grateful. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 132 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 133

Right to enter without warrant
Robert Neill: I beg to move amendment No. 28, in clause 133, page 61, line 37, at end insert
‘provided that 24 hours notice of the intended entry has been given to the occupier of land.’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss amendment No. 29, in clause 133, page 61, leave out lines 38 to 40.
Robert Neill: The amendments are about proportionality in respect of rights of entry. Quite simply, they seek to redress the balance. We understand that there will be circumstances in which rights of entry are appropriate, but we are concerned that the Government are going too far in giving draconian powers of entry to people’s property and, in some instances, to what may be their home.
We do not agree with the Government’s contention that it could be appropriate for somebody to enter a dwelling without notice, and so have tabled amendment No. 29. The Government are proposing that someone can go in with 24 hours’ notice being given to the occupier of a dwelling. We think that that is very limited. If somebody is away, for example, that does not give them very much time at all, yet it is a significant intrusion into their home. That is why we are saying that if someone wants to go into someone’s home, they should get a warrant under clause 134 rather than rely on the power to enter without one under clause 133.
I understand that there will be circumstances in which someone will wish to enter other premises—business premises and so on—and, because that involves less intrusion into people’s private lives, to which they have a right under domestic law and the European convention on human rights, we do not have quite the same difficulty with that. However, we think that there ought to be an attempt to give notice first.
The trigger should be that if the premises is a business premises, someone should seek to give notice and, if that is not possible, go in without a warrant. If it is a dwelling house, or a family house, it is not that onerous to get a warrant. It does not really take that long to get one. Those of us who have had experience in criminal law will know that a warrant can be applied for quickly if there is an emergency. I appreciate that there will sometimes be such cases, but entry to a dwelling should require the extra safeguard.
Mr. Dhanda: I am afraid that I am not about to give in again to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] The bubbles are evaporating indeed.
The clause is about enforcement. The idea of a dwelling on the site of a nationally significant infrastructure project is an interesting notion. It almost goes back to the point made some days ago by the hon. Member for Beckenham about nuclear fusion—perhaps within a household, who knows?
It is quite fair for the clause to require 24 hours’ notice if we are talking about the remote possibility of a house on a site where there is development taking place, or if there is a nationally significant infrastructure project at the bottom of the garden. The Bill is consistent with the Town and Country Planning Acts. It gives the local planning authority the element of surprise in the likely scenario that it is actually the developer on the site who is perhaps doing something that he should not be doing. For those reasons, enforcement is important.
Robert Neill: I shall return to the issue of what dwelling houses might be on a site. Is the Minister’s advice that the clause would not permit entry into a dwelling that is not on the site of a major infrastructure structure project—it might be the home, let us say, of the developer or the engineer—to seize documents, plans and other correspondence that might indicate whether instructions had been given to carry out works on the site? It seems that if someone were carrying out the investigation, one of the things that they might seek to do is to go into the offices to get the drawings, for example. That is the situation that I am particularly interested in. Is the Minister saying that that would not be covered?
Mr. Dhanda: I am saying that the clause is specifically about getting on to a site. We will be moving on to another clause, and amendments tabled by the hon. Member for North Cornwall, that deal with a local planning authority not being able to access a site, the role of the justice of the peace, and giving a period of forewarning prior to accessing a site. Clause 133 gives an important power to local planning authorities to get on to a site, and to do so with an element of surprise.
Robert Neill: I understand much of what the Minister says. I do not want to sound ungrateful, but I have some residual concerns. It is possible that they can be met, but first I should speak again to those to whom I spoke about the previous clause. If concern remains, we can return to the matter on Report. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
Clause 133 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 134

Right to enter under warrant
Dan Rogerson: I beg to move amendment No. 405, in clause 134, page 62, line 16, leave out ‘a reasonable period’ and insert ‘14 days’.
This debate is related to that prompted by amendments Nos. 28 and 29. It is to do with the phrase “reasonable period”. Hon. and learned Members may well tell me that that is a standard phrase and that I should not be alarmed about it. The amendment simply suggests a period within which people should be notified that a warrant has been issued. The word “reasonable” could be open to interpretation.
Robert Neill: I have some sympathy with the amendment. I am open-minded about it because such phrases are used in other statutes. However, there is always an advantage in clarity, so I shall be interested to hear what the Minister has to say.
Sadly, the term “hon. and learned” has a particular connotation in the House; it requires appointment to a rank that, despite my career at the bar, no Lord Chancellor has yet thought suitable for me. If the hon. Gentleman wants to write a note for next year’s round, his support would be gratefully received.
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