Planning Bill

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Clause 156

Power to make non-material changes to planning permission
Mr. Dhanda: I beg to move amendment No. 477, in clause 156, page 83, line 29, at end insert—
‘(1) TCPA 1990 is amended as follows.
(2) ’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments:
Government amendment No. 478
No. 30, in clause 156, page 83, line 33, after ‘may’, insert
‘on the request of a person interested in any of the land to which the permission relates’.
No. 31, in clause 156, page 83, line 34, leave out ‘relating to land in their area’ and insert
‘for which they are the local planning authority’.
No. 32, in clause 156, page 83, line 34, leave out ‘they are satisfied that’.
No. 33, in clause 156, page 83, line 36, leave out ‘a local planning authority must have’.
No. 34, in clause 156, page 83, line 37, after ‘regard’, insert ‘must be had’.
No. 35, in clause 156, page 83, line 40, leave out from beginning to end of line 1 on page 84.
Government amendment No. 479
Clause stand part.
Mr. Dhanda: This clause will enable a local planning authority to make a minor change to a planning permission that relates to land in its area where it is satisfied that the change is not a material one. This provision is necessary because, when developers seek to implement their permissions, they can often find that minor changes to their original proposals are necessary. Such issues are particularly common for complex, large-scale developments that take long periods to be built.
Examples might include slightly moving the entrance to an office or providing a new fire escape, because of changes to building regulations that have occurred during the development process. In the past, such minor changes were dealt with locally, with planning authorities making a judgment about whether they were so minor that they could be allowed without any formal procedure. We are taking advantage of and introducing such a formal procedure under the clause.
However, case law has thrown into doubt whether such an approach, which existed in the past, is lawful and acceptable. That has led to widespread uncertainty for both planning authorities and developers, and a generally more cautious approach has led to even minor and insignificant changes requiring a new full planning application. All we seek to do is to reintroduce a little practical flexibility into the system.
Mr. Curry: How many times could a developer come back for a minor modification in the course of a development? I know of circumstances in my constituency where planning permission has been granted and then a series of small incremental changes have been made that end up changing the shape of the development significantly. Local residents, having perhaps acquiesced to or been willing to accept an original planning permission, have ended up with something radically different from what they had consented to in the first place. They had no opportunity to intervene in the mean time. How many times can that happen and how much does it add up to?
6 pm
Mr. Dhanda: The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point. No two developments are the same, and when I say “minor” I mean it. That is part of the reason that I gave a couple of specific examples, such as fire escapes due to changes to building regulations. Such really minor matters have resulted in big planning applications being lost entirely. I hear what the right hon. Gentleman says, but it is a bit like asking me how long a piece of string is, because no two developments are the same.
Mr. Curry: My point was about a series of changes being applied for in respect of a single development, which have the cumulative effect of changing significantly the nature of the development. Is that dealt with in the clause, or could developers use salami tactics?
Mr. Dhanda: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the clause is not about changes to a development that result in a material change. It is about very minor changes. I hope that that reassures him. I also ask members of the Committee to remember that a similar provision has existed in Scotland for about a quarter of a century and has worked well.
The Government amendments will provide further clarity as to how the power will work. Amendments Nos. 477 and 478 are technical drafting changes that I trust will be totally uncontentious. Government amendment No. 479 makes a number of changes to the clause, first by inserting proposed new subsection (4) to proposed new section 96A, requiring that the power in the clause can be exercised only by a person with an interest in the land or someone acting on their behalf. I note that Opposition Members’ amendment No. 30 is intended to achieve a similar outcome, so I hope that that will allay their concerns.
Secondly, the amendment will add proposed new subsection (5) to proposed new section 96A, so that an application to make a non-material change—I emphasise that point again—must be in the form and manner prescribed. It is intended that, as with other planning-related applications, the standard application form will be used. Thirdly, proposed new subsection (6) will allow us to prescribe how such an application should be publicised and who should be consulted as part of the process.
Fourthly, there are amendments to section 5(3) and schedule 1 to the 1990 Act, providing that a local authority can make a change under the provision only if it is the local planning authority for the planning permission in question. Opposition amendment No. 31 is intended to achieve a similar outcome, so perhaps we are aligned in our thinking. Finally, section 69 of the 1990 Act will be amended to require that a request for a non-material change be recorded on the planning register. I hope that we can agree that those are sensible changes to a sensible provision, and that Opposition Members will not press amendments Nos. 30 and 31.
Robert Neill: The Minister has shortened what I need to say. He is right that we have the same objective. Lest anyone should wonder why the matter is of significance, there are situations such as that of the Thames Gateway involving urban development corporations, national parks and so on, which not be the local planning authority. I am grateful to the Minister for having dealt with such issues. Some of our amendments were drafted similarly, with objectives that I accept have been achieved by the Government amendments.
Amendment No. 35 is slightly different and harks back to the concern expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. In the first two proposed new subsections, the starting proposition was that any changes should not be material. However, the concern is that a number of changes can have a significant cumulative effect. Proposed new subsection 96A(3) worries me, because read together with the other provisions it suggests that new conditions can be imposed or old ones removed or altered if they are not material. I am trying to think of circumstances in which they would not be material. If they were not material, why were they imposed in the first place? That is the part that seems odd and tautologous. I am worried about the risk of what are asserted to be non-material conditions being changed, as it is difficult to think of a non-material condition. I would be grateful if the Minister could help us on that.
Mr. Dhanda: I have given an example on a couple of occasions about fire doors. It is a good example. There could be a development that is working but then a new set of building regulations is introduced. We cannot have a set of circumstances in which the entire process must begin again with the planning application. That has happened; I have an example of it that I am happy to share with the hon. Gentleman, but I do not want to bore him.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned amendment No. 35, which would remove the ability to make non-material changes by removing or altering existing conditions or imposing new ones. It would prevent a local planning authority from making minor changes to an existing planning condition, unless there was a further formal planning condition. We would not want to go through such a process. However, were it accepted that the kind of non-material changes to a planning permission that I have outlined should be allowed, the planning authority would be best placed to decide what is material or not. There seems little reason to impose a restriction that would prevent a minor change to a planning condition. While it is accepted that section 73 of the 1990 Act provides an existing mechanism to vary a condition, an alternative route to making minor changes should be allowed. On the record, I want to reinforce the point that we are talking about really minor changes.
Robert Neill: I am grateful to the Minister for reinforcing that point. I understand his point about minor variations to conditions, and the ability to amend a condition, but I am still interested to think of circumstances in which it would be appropriate to remove a condition completely or to impose a wholly new one. I understand and see the good sense in changing a condition for the reasons that he has explained. However, I am concerned that we do not open up the flood gates, beyond that which he would wish to see, by allowing the complete removal of a condition or the imposition of a wholly new one. Is the process to be circumscribed to allow an old condition to be removed but a similar one to be imposed, so that the package of conditions remains the same? That might make sense. Were a condition removed entirely, one might ask why it was there in the first place if it was sufficiently immaterial to be removed. That is a different matter from the Minister’s valid point about making a minor amendment to a remaining condition.
Mr. Dhanda: I do not have a great deal to add other than that local authorities who have worked with developers to get some of the important developments up and running have brought the matter to our attention. They have had difficulties, and in the past have done this in an informal and ad hoc way. The clause is necessary to remove that ad hoc and informal way of reaching the same position, because legal challenges have resulted in major developments being knocked back to square one.
Robert Neill: We have not had a Division all afternoon, and I am not about to ask for one now.
Amendment agreed to.
Amendments made: No. 478, in clause 156, page 83, line 30, leave out ‘of TCPA 1990’.
No. 479, in clause 156, page 84, line 1, at end add—
‘(4) The power conferred by subsection (1) may be exercised only on an application made by or on behalf of a person with an interest in the land to which the planning permission relates.
(5) An application under subsection (4) must be made in the form and manner prescribed by development order.
(6) A local planning authority must comply with such requirements as may be prescribed by development order as to consultation and publicity in relation to the exercise of the power conferred by subsection (1).
(3) In section 5(3) (purposes for which Broads Authority is the sole local district planning authority) for “97” substitute “96A”.
(4) In section 69(1) (register of applications etc)—
(a) after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) applications for non-material changes to planning permission under section 96A;”,
(b) in subsection (2)(a) after “(1)(a)” insert “and (aa)”, and
(c) in subsection (4) after “(1)(a)” insert “, (aa)”.
(5) In section 286(1) (challenges to validity on ground of authority’s powers) after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) an application for non-material changes to planning permission under section 96A;”.
(6) In Schedule 1 (local planning authorities: distribution of functions), in paragraph 3(1), after paragraph (a) insert—
“(aa) applications for non-material changes to planning permission under section 96A;”.’.—[Mr. Dhanda.]
Clause 156, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clause 157

Tree preservation orders
Alun Michael: I beg to move amendment No. 439, in clause 157, page 87, line 24, at end insert—
‘(7A) In section 210 (penalties for non-compliance with tree preservation order)—
(a) for subsection (1) substitute—
“(1) If any person contravenes tree preservation regulations, he shall be guilty of an offence.
(1A) In proceedings for an offence under this section, it shall be a defence to prove the following matters—
(a) that works to the tree were urgently necessary in the interests of safety or health or for the preservation of the tree;
(b) that it was not practicable to secure safety or health or, as the case may be, the preservation of the tree by other means;
(c) that the works carried out were limited to the minimum measures immediately necessary; and
(d) that notice in writing justifying in detail the carrying out of the works was given to the local planning authority as soon as reasonably practicable.”, and
(b) omit subsection (4).’.
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 440, in schedule 3, page 121, line 17, leave out sub-sub-paragraph (a).
No. 441, in schedule 3, page 121, line 26, at end insert ‘, and
(c) in the side-note and the heading above the section for “in conservation areas” substitute “not subject to tree preservation order”.’.
No. 442, in schedule 3, page 121, line 32, leave out paragraph 10 and insert—
‘10 In section 213 (duty to plant replacement tree in conservation area)—
(a) for the words from “at a time” to the end of the paragraph substitute “at a prescribed time”, and
(b) in the side-note, for the words after “controls”, substitute “under section 211”.’.
New clause 15—Register of trees
‘After section 210 of TCPA 1990 insert—
210A Register of trees of special interest
(1) The Secretary of State may compile and maintain a register of trees situated in England and appearing to him to be of special interest, or may approve with or without modification such a register compiled by other persons or bodies, and may amend any register so compiled or approved.
(2) The Welsh Ministers may compile and maintain a register of trees situated in Wales and appearing to them to be of special interest, or may approve with or without modifications such a register compiled by other persons or bodies, and may amend any register so compiled or approved.
(3) The Secretary of State or, as the case may be, the Welsh Ministers shall, as soon as practicable after including in the register an entry relating to any tree, notify the persons mentioned in subsection (4) of this section of the inclusion and send them a copy of the entry.
(4) The persons are—
(a) the owner and (if the owner is not the occupier) the occupier of the land on or over which the tree or any part of it is growing; and
(b) any local planning authority in whose area such land is situated.”’.
New clause 16—Protection of trees not subject to a tree preservation order
‘(1) In section 211 of the TCPA 1990 (preservation of trees in conservation areas), in subsection (2), after the words “in a conservation area” add “and to any other tree”.
(2) In section 212 (power to disapply section 211)—
(a) after subsection (2)(b), insert—
“(bb) trees in such other areas or descriptions of areas as may be so specified;”;
(b) in subsection (2)(c), before the word “size”, insert “description,”;
(c) after subsection (2), insert—
“(2A) Such regulations may, in particular, exempt from the application of section 211 any works to a tree whose felling would require a licence under the Forestry Act 1967.”; and
(d) omit subsection (4).’.
Alun Michael: Mr. Illsley, I have known you for more than 20 years as a vigorous and forthright Member of Parliament, so it is slightly odd to see you trapped in the Chairman’s role of complete neutrality. It is a real penance for a politician of your calibre. However, it does not prevent you from listening or indeed reading. I therefore want to lighten your hours on the Planning Bill by handing you a copy of “The Heritage Trees: Britain and Northern Ireland”.
Mr. Dhanda: Is it a signed copy?
Alun Michael: It is indeed. Mr. Illsley, you will find the volume entertaining and illuminating. It is evidence of the rich, national treasury that we have in our wild variety of ancient and precious trees and of the need for reform of the tree preservation order system. In recent times, some nationally important trees have been lost such as T’yr Ash oak, which was the largest oak by volume in Wales with a girth of more than 6 m. It was estimated to be about 375 years old. A large limb fell from the crown. The owner became concerned about the risk of further collapse and arranged for it to be felled. It was not protected by a tree preservation order. A good deal of campaigning took place to protect the tree because it was seen as a significant loss to the local community, members of which wanted an investigation into alternatives, such as whether retention was possible. Unfortunately—although it might have had reasons—the Brecon Beacons national park authority would not put a preservation order on the tree, despite an independent arboricultural consultant’s report that the tree could be managed to reduce the risk to acceptable levels. The tree has now been felled and lost for ever.
However, given that some trees throughout the country with little wider value are protected by tree preservation orders, I hope that the Minister will be willing to accept the amendments and new clauses. He is a reasonable and caring man so I am sure that he will listen to my suggestions or table his own amendments. There is always a belief, in any Ministry, that it can draft provisions slightly better than a Back Bencher can. I leave open the possibility of the Minister introducing, on Report, amendments that would have the same final impact.
I thank the Woodland Trust, the Tree Council and Charles Mynors, a barrister with considerable experience and the author of an authoritative book on these issues, for their assistance. I am also grateful to the Minister for enabling me to explore relevant issues with him and his officials before the debate so that we could move forward constructively. That sort of engagement is extremely valuable.
6.15 pm
Against that background, it is not surprising that there are unauthorised works on trees in a wide variety of circumstances. An unprincipled developer may fell a beautiful specimen tree to unlock a development site, or a householder may lop a branch off an unremarkable back-garden tree because it is shedding leaves, which block the gutter. Between those two examples, there is a whole range of situations, varying as to the number of trees involved and the amenity value of each. The extent of the works carried out varies between felling and pruning, and the culpability of those responsible varies accordingly.
The amendments would replace the two current offences with a single offence. When dealing with offences, the courts always have the power, and, indeed, the duty, to tailor the sentence to fit the circumstances of the case. In an either-way offence—one that is triable in the Crown court or before a magistrate; the parties have the option of going to either forum—a minor breach will usually attract a trivial fine from a magistrate. If either party is silly enough to go to Crown court, the eventual penalty will be significantly larger. Major breaches result in larger fines in the Crown court, and any significant element of development gain may be taken into account. That is reflected in practice.
There is similar legislation relating to listed buildings, with a single offence of unauthorised works that is triable either way, and the maximum penalty may be imposed . There have been more than 100 convictions since the existing penalties were introduced in 1991. Of those cases, 16 were tried in the Crown court, with only two resulting in a fine of more than £20,000. The remaining 85 cases were heard by magistrates. That suggests that the creation of a single offence would not result in trivial offences being at risk of excessive punishment, which has, until now, been the reasoning behind the refusal to move from two offences to one. Indeed, if anything, the penalties are too low to put off determined offenders.
There is a wholly artificial distinction between major offences—those that result in the death of the tree or seem likely to do so—and minor offences. For the former, there is an unlimited maximum fine. For the latter, the maximum is only £20,000. That leads to a somewhat arid debate on which category properly applies. That is particularly unprofitable when works are carried out on more than one tree, with some in each category. Sometimes, authorities choose not to prosecute the more serious offence because they cannot be sure that the tree will die, but they do not prosecute the minor offence, either, because the maximum penalty is perceived to be small.
The Bill simply repeals section 198(6) of the 1990 Act. The replacement provisions will enable the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers to make regulations to cover almost anything, but which do not relate specifically to situations that are currently exempt. The proposed provision makes it plain that works to alleviate a danger are always exempt from the need for consent. It also makes it clear that the exemption cannot, and must not, be misused or abused, and it justifies the carrying-out of the minimum works immediately necessary—again, that is exactly in line with listed buildings legislation, where the corresponding exemption was tightened up in 1986 with precisely the same aim as my amendments.
The second part of the exemption in section 198(6) of the 1990 Act, for works to abate a nuisance, was considered in the Court of Appeal, in the case Perrin v. Northampton, just before Christmas. The scope of that exemption is now very uncertain. The right way to deal with that dilemma is to remove that exemption altogether, which would be a matter for regulations that would be made in due course. It would also be prudent to lose the “dead or dying” exemption altogether—again, as in Scotland—but that, too, would be a matter for the regulations. If a tree is dead or dying, and if it is dangerous, works could be carried out without consent—because of the danger, not because it is dead or dying. Otherwise, there is no logic in the exemption. For all those reasons, it would be sensible to have the “danger” exemption tightly drafted in primary legislation, rather than leave it to the regulations.
The new clauses propose a register of trees which, following discussions, I have tried to make as simple as possible. It is not a requirement, and the responsibility would not be placed on the shoulders of a specific body. In the past, we have considered giving responsibility for such a register to English Heritage or equivalent bodies in Wales, or other alternatives such as the Countryside Agency or Natural England. I do not think that it is necessary for us to take such decisions. Indeed, an agency outside Government, or a voluntary organisation, may be the most appropriate body to draw up the register, which Ministers would then recognise. That would be the best of both worlds.
The amendments would provide flexibility—they give the Government the capacity to recognise the importance of those trees, some of which are visited by thousands of people every year and are a part of our very valuable heritage—without creating a bureaucracy, so to speak, or placing additional burdens, particularly financial ones on Government agencies. It is envisaged that works to register trees would simply be notified to the planning authority, as applies to non-TPO trees, in conservation areas. That pattern already exists, and it works perfectly well, as those of us with experience of conservation know. The new procedure would actually lead to a lighter touch.
Planning authorities use tree preservation orders in a wide variety of situations, so no consistent standard applies nationally. That should be compared with measures to protect historic buildings, which are listed by the Secretary of State or Welsh Ministers on the advice of English Heritage or Cadw on the basis of nationally applied standards. The production of a simple, straightforward and nationally supervised register that lists only the most valuable trees—it is therefore not a big bureaucratic list—would allow the protection of those particularly valuable trees and introduce a mark of excellence for trees of national importance, as opposed to those selected by local authorities merely because they are quite nice. There would be no question of trees being designated on the basis of groups in certain areas.
Finally, unless there is a guarantee that the dead or dying exemption is removed, planning authorities often decline to make tree preservation orders on veteran or ancient trees, as their removal might not require consent. While a register could be produced and maintained on a non-statutory basis, as is the case with the register of historic parks and gardens in Wales, a statutory register, as used in England, would have more weight, for example, as a material consideration in determining planning applications. I believe that the protection of our most precious trees, as illustrated in that book, and a recognition of the risk to them, as illustrated in the case that I mentioned and in other cases, would be a considerable step forward in recognising an important part of our national heritage, and I commend the amendment and the new clauses to the Committee.
Mrs. Lait: I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on tabling the amendments and new clauses, and I join him in hoping that the Government will accept them, particularly the new clauses. I congratulate the Woodland Trust, both on its initiative and on the work that it is already doing to seek out the ancient trees that it believes should be registered. I have never come across an organisation so open to being the registering body.
If the Government do not accept the new clauses, I hope that they accept the argument and introduce with their own proposals. I understand in principle why the Government want to move tree preservation orders into a regulatory system, but I am concerned that it is a centralising measure. Equally, as one travels around the country, one is aware that different local authorities operate wide and varying standards on which trees should be covered by tree preservation orders. However, I am concerned by about the scope of the new regulatory structure and the trees that it would cover, so I hope that the Government will assure us that it will not be drawn as broadly as possible, otherwise we will find unremarkable trees listed with preservation orders when there is absolutely no need to do so.
I also wish to know whether the Government think that all trees in town parks should be listed, remarkable or not. Anyone who has lived anywhere near a sycamore knows precisely how many small sycamores spring up each year and the sheer work that goes into ensuring that they do not grow any more. Having said that, those few that grow to full height are magnificent specimens, so one has to be reasonable-minded about how to approach the regulation of trees.
Mr. Llwyd: I once dealt with a tree preservation order on some sycamore trees, and I recall that a sycamore tree is treated as a weed, not a tree.
Mrs. Lait: As someone who contends with the problem on an annual basis, I agree that they are weeds. However, a full-grown sycamore is a magnificent tree, and one would not wish such a tree in a key setting to be omitted from the listing. Given that sycamores grow as weeds, however, there are times when one would not wish to make an order.
Inadvertently, as so often happens with regulation, a completely inappropriate class of use comes in. That is my concern with the transfer of tree preservation orders, which are decided locally, to a national system of regulations.
6.30 pm
Mr. Curry: I am sympathetic to what the right hon. Gentleman describes, but I should like a couple of reassurances that, when an organisation wishes to restore, for example, an historic garden, the tree preservation order will not prevent it from restoring the garden to what it looked like, for example, in the 18th century. In my constituency, near the village of Grewelthorpe, there is a site called Hackfall, where the ground descends to the River Ure. In the 18th century, it was a famous garden—so famous that Catherine the Great had a dinner service with scenes from Hackfall printed on it. It is now hopelessly overgrown, but I think that the Woodland Trust is now the owner, and the land is gradually being restored.
Perhaps even more famous is Fountains abbey, including the magnificent Studley Royal water garden, which hon. Members from Leeds will know about. The garden was laid out by John Aislabie, who was Chancellor of the Exchequer and made a packet from the South Sea bubble, which just goes to show that ill-gotten gains can be put to uses that benefit generations to come. The National Trust has restored magnificently that old 18th century water garden, which was a huge task.
I want to be certain that, if organisations seek to restore historic gardens, for example, and that necessitates the removal of plants, vegetation and trees that have subsequently grown up when the garden was neglected or simply became overgrown, nothing that is proposed will stand in the way of the re-creation of those magnificent areas. One of the greatest cultural achievements of this country is its gardens.
Mr. Dhanda: I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth and the Woodland Trust on the work that they have collectively put into the amendments and the new clauses. Under the present tree preservation order system, a maximum fine of £20,000 may be imposed when protected trees are felled or otherwise destroyed without consent. A lower fine of up to £2,500 is payable for other contraventions of the system, such as the failure to obtain the local planning authority’s consent before pruning a tree.
We need to take a closer look at my right hon. Friend’s amendments Nos. 439 and 440, because we believe that the two-tier approach is the most proportionate way forward. It is right that Parliament should recognise that some offences are demonstrably graver than others and reflect that in our legislation. A fine of £2,500 is not insignificant; it is the equivalent of level 4 on the standard scale that we have talked so much about over the past few weeks.
Some say that £2,500 is nothing to an unscrupulous developer who is keen to maximise the value of a site, but let us remember that we are talking about only the unauthorised pruning of trees. The unauthorised cutting down of trees is subject to a maximum fine of £20,000—so, too, is any excessive pruning that is so badly executed that it effectively destroys the tree as an amenity worth preserving. Case law has made that clear, too.
The amendments would have a further purpose. Under amendment No. 439, anyone accused of unauthorised tree works would have a defence if they could show that the works were urgently necessary on grounds of health or safety and limited to the minimum needed under the circumstances. I hope I can persuade my right hon. Friend that these matters are best considered not in primary legislation, but in regulations, and I hope he will continue to liaise and work with our officials and with the Woodland Trust.
The Bill includes the power to introduce regulations, including a power to make prohibited works subject to exceptions, which is something the amendments mention. I assure my right hon. Friend that we will carefully consider the objectives of his amendments when preparing and consulting on those regulations. Most people would agree that exempt works to protected trees, in the interests of health or safety, should not be open-ended; they should be limited to what is needed to deal with the problem. We will give careful thought to all this and consult widely on the detail to ensure that we get the wording right.
Turning to new clause 16, together with amendments Nos. 441 and 442, under the current system, trees that are situated in conservation areas have a form of blanket protection. Before carrying out felling or pruning works to such trees, one must first give the local planning authority six weeks’ notice, thus giving it the opportunity to consider whether the trees merit a tree preservation order. Local planning authorities receive, on average, 120 such notices each year, resulting in an average of only three new tree preservation orders per authority.
The amendments would extend the six week notification system to all trees in England and Wales, whether on private or public land. On the face of it, therefore, subject to whatever exceptions were included in the regulations, the felling or pruning of all trees would become subject to local authority control. However, we do not believe that the current system is failing. The last comprehensive review of the system concluded that it had stood the test of time and that its basic framework should be retained.
Turning to new clause 15, in our view a good framework for protecting special trees is already provided under the tree preservation order system, the felling licence system and our system for safeguarding sites of special scientific interest. Before embracing an additional statutory designation, we would have to be satisfied that current statutory systems were deficient. We are not convinced that they are deficient. Existing sites of special scientific interest include many of the most important concentrations of veteran trees and ancient woodlands, such as the New forest, Sherwood forest and Windsor great park. Criteria have also been developed that enable the designation of such sites of special scientific interest solely on the basis of a concentrated veteran tree population.
Turning to the tree preservation order system, I am conscious that there are those who say that it is ill equipped to protect some of the most outstanding veteran trees. I hope that I can reassure my right hon. Friend. First, when considering whether to make preservation orders, local authorities have a wide discretion. In my Department’s view a tree’s historical or cultural importance may be sufficient to justify making a tree preservation order. Many veteran trees are important for their historical or cultural associations.
Secondly, it is said that special trees may not be protected by tree preservation orders unless they are at risk. Let us be clear: the legislation states that an order may be made where it appears expedient in the interest of the amenity. There is no reference to trees having to be at risk. If it is helpful to my right hon. Friend, we will look again at our guidance on the issue to clarify that point.
Finally, it is said that veteran trees are compromised because, under the current legislation, consent is not needed to carry out works to trees that are dead or dying or have become dangerous. That is a valid concern. At present, the exemption is in the 1990 Act, so we have had limited opportunity to reform it, but the Bill provides us with the opportunity to do so. Our favoured approach is to move the exemption to regulations, and the Bill makes provision for us to do so.
Again, I assure my right hon. Friend that we will look critically at the exemption when we develop the regulations, with a view to ensuring that adequate provision is made for the protection of veteran trees. Therefore, a national register, which of itself would provide no additional protection, is not necessary. I applaud the work of the Woodland Trust and others in taking forward their ancient tree hunt, which seeks to identify veteran trees around the UK, and in securing the long-term protection of such trees. However, in our view, that is best pursued with local authorities and others who already have the statutory powers to take action.
I therefore hope that my right hon. Friend will withdraw his amendments, taking on board my comments in the spirit that they are intended. Let us engage further with the Woodland Trust and others who have an interest in these issues, to ensure that we get the regulations absolutely right.
Alun Michael: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He has obviously thought deeply about the issues raised in my amendments and new clauses, and he has clearly taken the trouble, with his officials, to engage with the issues. I think that I can describe the response as sympathetic, but it does not perhaps move as far as I might have hoped. However, he held out the prospect of further engagement.
I should be grateful if he agreed to meet me, perhaps with the Woodland Trust, to discuss the matter further, rather than detaining the Committee at this stage. I hope that he would be able to persuade me in such a meeting—he is on the verge of doing so now—that he intends to deal with most of the objectives absolutely in his regulations. But I also hope that I could persuade him further on the idea of the single offence and the value of the register.
Mr. Dhanda: My right hon. Friend is very persuasive, and I would be happy to meet him. I also have a copy of that book, for which I am very grateful, and it is signed.
Alun Michael: I am grateful to my hon. Friend. Applications in triplicate from any other member of the Committee are invited. On the basis of my hon. Friend’s willingness to engage further, I do not wish to detain the Committee at this stage. With a view perhaps to tabling amendments on Report in the light of further discussion or to there being an initiative from the Minister by then.
Amendment agreed to.
Clause 157 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 3 agreed to.
Clause 158 and 159 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Schedule 4 agreed to.
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