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Article 48(6) decisions could seek to confer on a European institution a power to require this country to act in particular way, or to impose sanctions on the UK for our failure to act in a particular way. Although that could be done only within existing areas of competence,
and not within new ones, it would enable EU institutions or bodies to use those existing competences in a different way. A future proposal under article 48(6) to do either of these things would, as a matter of general principle, require a referendum to be held.
Let me give the Committee a hypothetical example. There might be a proposal to allow an EU agency to impose sanctions on a national regulator or to act in a way that compelled British businesses to do something that would increase significantly the burdens on British business and harm the competitiveness of this country. That sort of decision would, in my view, be classed as significant and should attract the referendum lock, but there might equally be instances in the future-the hon. Member for Cheltenham was right-where article 48(6) might be used to give a new power to a body in an area that is not significant to this country. For example, it might require a national regulator or some other British organisation to provide an EU agency with a set of statistics annually.
Let us consider, for example, the European Maritime Safety Agency. It was set up to provide member states of the Commission with technical and scientific assistance in the field of maritime safety and the prevention of pollution by ships. If, in the future, it was decided to change the treaty so that that agency could issue binding directions to national regulators and that that would be a permanent cession of authority and powers, that would be a significant power within the meaning of clause 4(1)(i) or (j). If, however, the proposal was to change the treaty to allow the agency to require national regulators to provide it with an annual digest of statistics, I do not think that that would be a significant power under the Bill. That is why we have provided for the significance test.
Amendments 3 and 5 would remove the significance condition from the Bill, so it would in practice require a national referendum on such things as the provision of statistics. I think that most people in this country would accept that such technical changes should be left to the Government, under the scrutiny of Parliament, who of course would still have to authorise the minor treaty change through primary legislation-a formal Act of Parliament subject to detailed scrutiny and capable of amendment in either House. In all those instances the proposal would need to be thoroughly analysed and we have ensured that any use of the significance test would be subject to strong scrutiny and accountability.
When he spoke about amendment 11, my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere took a different approach to parliamentary scrutiny. His amendment would require a Minister to seek parliamentary approval not to hold a referendum on the basis of the significance test, through both Houses agreeing to a motion without amendment. I have a great deal of sympathy for where my hon. Friend is coming from and I do not for one moment challenge his passionate commitment to the duty of Parliament to hold Ministers to account or his wish to see the powers of Parliament over European Union business and ministerial decisions on Europe strengthened and improved. If I felt that his amendment would secure that objective better than the provisions in the Bill, I would be with him on the detail. However, I want to explain why I do not believe that it does that.
First, when a Minister makes the statement required by clause 5 on whether a proposed amendment requires a referendum, they must give reasons why the proposed
change does or does not meet the significance test. Those reasons will need to refer to the criteria set out in clause 4, so their reasoning will need to be clearly set out. There is a first measure of protection already in the Bill.
Secondly, the Bill ensures that every proposed treaty change, regardless of whether the significance test applies, would require the approval of Parliament through primary legislation. That would allow sufficient time for Parliament to scrutinise the use of the test to legislate for a referendum if it deemed such a provision necessary.
Thirdly, there is the risk that having a separate debate on significance in the way that amendment 11 proposes could weaken Parliament's scrutiny of the primary legislation that the Bill requires. That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for North East Somerset (Jacob Rees-Mogg) in an earlier intervention. In view of the dynamic of the House of Commons, it would be tempting for a Government who wanted to rush through a particular treaty change to schedule an early debate on the motion not to require a referendum and then, when the ratification Bill came forward and Members of Parliament had had the opportunity to look at the detail, perhaps consider the evidence of a Select Committee, and listen to what outside experts had to say on the matter, they would find their Whips coming up and saying, "We've already voted on this. You personally went through our Lobby to support the proposition that a referendum was not required. How can you change your mind and try to insert the requirement for a referendum at this stage?"
The unintended consequence of amendment 11 could be to strengthen the hand of the business managers and to weaken the independence of judgment that Members would be able to exercise under the requirement for primary legislation laid out in the Bill. Amendment 11 would also weaken any prospect of a successful judicial review. Judicial review is not a panacea, but the House should see it as a significant step to give the citizen the right to challenge a Minister's decision, where that decision is irrational or unreasonable.
There are two important distinctions between what we are proposing here and what we saw in the Wheeler case, to which a number of Members referred in the debate. First, the Minister has to give reasons, and give reasons by reference to the Bill. That opens up the possibility that a court might wish to consider a challenge to the reasonableness of the Minister's decision. Secondly, whereas in Mr Wheeler's case the Court was invited to judge the wording of the constitutional treaty against the wording of the treaty of Lisbon and declined to do so, in this case we are talking about a possible invitation to the Court to judge the actions and decision of a Government Minister in his Executive capacity against the statutory duties on that Minister set out in the language of the Bill. Those are important distinctions.
Mr David: Will the Minister give way?
No. I want to do justice to the amendments tabled by the Opposition. They have been presented as increasing the role of Parliament. In fact, they do the reverse. The effect of the Opposition amendments, especially new clause 9, is to subject every referendum criterion to a significance test. If accepted, the Opposition's amendments would leave it open as to whether a move to join the euro was significant, a move to give new competences to
the European Union was significant, a move to give up our border controls and take part entirely in a European immigration system was significant, or a move to join a European public prosecutor system was significant.
The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Mr David) is trying to persuade us that he is offering new powers to Parliament, when it is clear to anybody who studies the wording of his amendments and his new clause that the intentions are the reverse. The Opposition's amendments would drive a coach and horses through the Bill. They would deny both Parliament and the people the additional powers and controls which I believe Parliament and people in this country want to see. The Bill is designed to be tough. As academic experts have said when giving evidence to the European Scrutiny Committee, it delivers the referendum lock that we have promised. I will not yield by weakening the Bill in the way that the Opposition propose.
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Proceedings interrupted (Programme Order, 7 December).
The Chair put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that time (Standing Order No. 83D).
Clause 1 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Clauses 2 to 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
Amendment made: 56, page 4, line 24, at end insert-
'( ) In relation to an Article 48(6) decision adopted by the European Council before the day on which this section comes into force ("the commencement date"), the condition in section 3(1)(a) is to be taken to be complied with if a statement under this section is laid before Parliament before the end of the 2 months beginning with the commencement date.'.- (Mr Lidington.)
Amendment proposed: 11, page 4, line 24, at end add-
'(6) If the Minister's opinion is that the effect of that provision in relation to the United Kingdom is not significant the Minister must seek Parliamentary approval for his opinion.
(7) Parliamentary approval is given if-
(a) in each House of Parliament a Minister of the Crown moves a motion that the House approves of the Minister's opinion; and
(b) each House agrees to the motion without amendment.
(8) If the Minister fails to obtain Parliamentary approval for his opinion the significance condition is not met.'.- (Mr Clappison .)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
Clause 5, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
The occupant of the Chair left the Chair (Programme Order, 7 December ).
The Deputy Speaker resumed the Chair .
Progress reported; Committee to sit again tomorrow.
Motion made, and Question put forthwith (Standing Order No. 118(6)).
That the draft Breaks for Carers of Disabled Children Regulations 2010, which were laid before this House on 18 November, be approved.- ( Stephen Crabb .)
Mr Russell Brown (Dumfries and Galloway) (Lab): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. With the imminent disposal of Nimrod, do you know whether any Ministry of Defence Minister has approached Mr Speaker about making a statement to the House in respect of representations made by Government Back Benchers on this matter?
Madam Deputy Speaker (Dawn Primarolo): Mr Brown, I have not been informed of any request for a statement to be made by a Minister on this subject, but I know that you are very resourceful and that if you wish to pursue the matter, you will find ways to do it in parliamentary business tomorrow and the day after.
Mr Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Have you had any advice from those on the Treasury Bench about their disappointment that only the first group of amendments were discussed today, that 26 other amendments and new clauses were not discussed, and that four clauses were not discussed? Have you had any indication, Madam Deputy Speaker that a programme motion alteration has been brought forward?
Madam Deputy Speaker: I have had no discussion on the progress of business in the House today, which was orderly and within the programme motion. Neither have I had any discussions about any future arrangements for the Bill. However, I am sure that you, Mr Bone, will find ways of pursuing the matter in order to get the answer you are seeking.
Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn. -(Mr Vara.)
Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab): Early this morning, I joined a group of residents from Colliers Wood in a protest. We travelled up to Piccadilly circus to stage a small demonstration and deliver a letter of demands to people whom we think are ruining our neighbourhood-the owners of a building in my constituency that we call the Golfrate tower. This debate is designed to explain our point of view, and to convince the Government that they must do more to help communities such as Colliers Wood in our struggle against landowners who just do not care.
The Golfrate tower is an ugly, 17-storey former office tower block. It is made of black concrete and dominates the view for miles around. It runs along the busy A24 trunk road into London and stands directly above the Northern line. The tower was built in the 1960s, and was designed in the then fashionable style of the Chicago school, which used dark grey cladding and pre-cast concrete. My recollection as a young child was that it was almost as unpopular then as it is now. Even at the time the tower caused considerable controversy, particularly because of its ugliness and the way in which the immense black shard of concrete loomed over the surrounding area. Indeed, it suffered from bad luck even before it was finished. When builders reached the third floor, a construction error was discovered that meant that the tower had to be demolished and built all over again. Many people saw that as a bad omen.
First named the Lyon tower, the building was originally the headquarters of the property company Ronald Lyon Holdings, but was later known as the Vortex and the Brown and Root tower, after the American engineering firm Brown and Root Halliburton, which occupied it from 1971 to 1995. The building has always been hugely unpopular. One elderly Irish resident tells me that he believes that it is God's retribution for his being involved in laying the foundations that the Golfrate tower should be the first thing that he sees every morning from his bedroom window.
Many people, for perfectly understandable reasons, simply want the building knocked down. In 2006 it was voted London's most hated building in a BBC poll. In 2005, Channel 4 screened a series called "Demolition", dedicated to finding Britain's worst buildings and knocking them down, was presented by Kevin McCloud of "Grand Designs". The Golfrate tower reached the shortlist of 12, but sadly it cannot be demolished. First, it was worth well over £10 million, and nobody can afford to buy it just to knock it down. However, even more than that, the demolition costs are prohibitive. The Northern line would have to be shut and the A24 would have to be diverted. The compensation would be enormous.
Many residents understand that, even if, like me, they are not very happy about it. Development rather than demolition is the only real solution. In 2005, things started looking up when a company called London Green Development, led by the developer Philip Green, apparently became the owners, and told us that they were keen to develop the tower. Residents were consulted and included, and new and exciting plans were drawn
up. The design was excellent, and Merton's planning committee granted planning permission to turn the tower into just over 200 modern flats, many at prices that local people could afford. There would also be community facilities, such as a library and a police office, and shops. The plan included re-cladding the tower, so that it would be less ugly. However, six years later, work has still not even begun, even though house prices are higher than in 2005. The tower looks even worse now than it did then, and let us remember that that was the year it was voted London's most hated building.
However, none of that is Philip Green's fault. No, it is the fault of a company called Golfrate, owned by a man called Asif Aziz. That is who London Green Developments thought it had bought the tower from all those years ago. What seems to have happened is that when planning permission was granted, the value of the site increased and Golfrate refused to sell. A long legal battle ensued. The case went to court and London Green won, but then it went to the High Court and London Green lost. The existing owners, who were already very unpopular, could remain in control. Even without lifting a shovel, they found that their property, which was more rundown and ugly than ever, had increased in value.
Indeed, since the owners bought the tower more than 10 years ago, it has become increasingly rundown. All the tenants gradually moved out, until two years ago it was empty. The tower is now empty, dilapidated and unsafe. Green nets surround the building to prevent crumbling concrete from falling on people below. Last April work started on knocking down the unsightly and dangerous multi-storey car park, until the demolition firm discovered that the area's electricity substation was on the site. Realising the danger, the firm stopped, leaving us with a quarter-demolished car park surrounded by building rubble that in most areas would become missiles. Thanks to poor security fencing, the car park has frequently been broken into. A pornographic film is said to have been recorded there, and rough sleepers have been known to use it. It is hard to underestimate the blight. People talk about the broken window syndrome, which can bring an area down and increase crime and the fear of crime, but we have it in spades.
So who exactly owns the tower and what are they up to? Googling Asif Aziz throws up a lot of interesting information, as do searches for his companies, Golfrate and Criterion, and the numerous different companies connected to them, such as Yewbelle and Sutherland. Criterion Capital is reportedly worth £620 million. In 2006, Asif Aziz was reported to be Britain's seventh richest Muslim. He was born in Malawi, and his fortune is thought to have been made in Angola. Aged 16, he is said to have turned up in London one day, out of nowhere, to buy property in an auction. He has been accumulating more and more property ever since. It is not Asif Aziz's background that concerns me, however; it is what he is doing-or, more accurately, not doing-with his property that has upset residents not only in Colliers Wood but across south London.
I have conducted a little research, and found that the Golfrate tower is not the only grotty building owned by Mr Aziz and his companies. They also own the Trocadero. If Members have not been there recently, I should advise them that it is now a rather grubby and underused building. Once a landmark site at the heart of Piccadilly
circus, it is now gloomy, empty and unattractive, with broken escalators and graffiti murals along the subway where the shop windows would be if they had not been boarded up. I gather that even the efforts to let some of the premises to the discount retailer T. K. Maxx have run into difficulty, partly because the Crown Estate also has an interest in the site, and it does not approve.
Other prime sites owned by Mr Aziz's company include 1, Leicester square and the well-known nightclub, the Fridge, next to Lambeth town hall, as well as numerous locations throughout south London, including Sutton's St Nicholas centre and shops in Tooting, Streatham and Brixton. Interestingly, in 2008, shortly before Woolworth's went out of business, it was left with a £1.6 million rent demand after the rent that it had to pay to Golfrate was nearly quadrupled to £900,000 a year and backdated.
Numerous residents around London have complained about Golfrate on activist websites. According to these sites, Golfrate appears to be buying up key town centre buildings and then doing the bare minimum with them. It is almost as though they were being bought simply to go on the books, with no intention of spending further money on maintenance or significant development.
In my constituency, Golfrate owns a number of key sites, and it seems to cause considerable resentment wherever it goes. Cavendish house in Colliers Wood is a three-storey office block. It used to contain the jobcentre, but it moved out. It still contains Colliers Wood library, but it is by far the grottiest library in the borough, with the worst facilities and, not surprisingly, the lowest user levels of any local library. The rest of the building is empty and rundown. The parking spaces are often used by fly-tippers. Also in Colliers Wood, the company owns the former Six Bells pub site. It is currently boarded up and dilapidated, although I gather that tenants have moved into the flat above, despite the fact that planning restrictions usually mean that people can live above a pub only if their work is connected to it. Mr Aziz and his companies also own another derelict block in Morden, the former Crown pub and nightclub. We were informed that that would be turned into the Morden Islamic centre, opening in May 2010. It has yet to open, however, and remains boarded up, dirty and unattractive, resulting in another town centre being blighted.
This is not just about buildings. Golfrate owns and runs a car park in Mitcham, on behalf of high street shops including Farm Foods and Peacocks. In 2009, there was a furore when dozens of motorists had their vehicles clamped or towed away by rogue clampers who changed the parking rules overnight. When I contacted the shops, they were so appalled about what had happened that they forced Golfrate to dismiss the clampers. This all shows that Mr Aziz and his companies have history, and do not necessarily have the best interests of local communities at heart.
A year ago, I organised a local meeting to try to get something done about the Golfrate tower. It was attended by more than 100 residents, as a result of which local resident Phil Richardson established a community group on Facebook: the Colliers Wood Tower Action Group. We were very angry that a multi-millionaire could simply buy up the biggest building in our community and leave it to rot. We got legal advice and were urged to use planning powers under the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 to force the owners to clean up the site and
make it safe. After years of inaction, and thanks to the hard work of local residents and local councillors Nick Draper, Laxmi Attawar and Gam Gurung, the London borough of Merton finally used those powers to issue two separate section 215 notices. To be fair, this has helped. The weeds have been cleared and the security fencing is safer and more in keeping with the building, but neither notice has been fully complied with. In particular, the cladding has still not been repaired. Instead, the owners have gone back to the council saying that they now really want to fulfil the planning application that London Green obtained in 2005. Well, the residents will believe that when they see it. We are concerned that this is being used as a ruse to prevent the council from prosecuting them again.
In August, the owners held a meeting with officials at Merton council to discuss the planning application. Claiming that the recession meant that the 2005 scheme was no longer affordable-even though, as I have said, local flat prices are higher now than they were then-they tried to increase the number of flats in the development. When that did not work, they came back to say they wanted to renegotiate the 2005 scheme. Following threats of legal action-as we have seen, Aziz and his companies are not afraid of using the law-the council has been forced to consider a revised planning application. We have been advised that because of that new application, it would be hard to prosecute anyone for the condition of the site.
Faced with a ruthless and clever landowner, the community is powerless. Indeed, as the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors associate director at the centre of excellence said:
"There is no specific Building Control legislation for making a development site visually attractive. Building Controls are more concerned that the site is secure and safe from unauthorised access... Unless there are specific conditions on the planning consent... the authorities have limited power when it comes to enforcement when a project is being constructed or left in abeyance. Many high-profile cases have won high court actions in challenging any enforcement notice issued by the authorities."
Councils cannot even use development completion notices. A Department for Communities and Local Government report, "Completion Notices" said that a threat of such a notice should be used mainly as a negotiating tool. After all, a notice has to give a developer at least 12 months to do the work. Even if it is not completed in that time, a landowner cannot be forced to do the work. That is why, according to Heather O'Sullivan, a professional support lawyer at Campbell Hooper, local planning authorities rarely use them, as they
"prefer not to use these notices because the procedure is so time-consuming and the outcome is not sufficiently certain to guarantee the completion of part-finished schemes. Moreover, there are no penalties for non-compliance... and local planning authorities risk being left with part-built sites with no planning consent.
This is the crux of the problem. Most reasonable people can see that Golfrate has no serious intentions for the tower, but because the company is well financed, can afford good lawyers and its site is worth millions of pounds, we cannot take it on. Since buying the site, they have let it get into a worse and worse condition while the values go up and up. Is it right that communities like ours should suffer as a result of companies like Golfrate
land-banking in this way? The residents of Collliers Wood say no. We have used the powers that we have; we have caused a nuisance and there has been a bit of progress, but the basic problem has got worse.
Earlier today, the Collier's Wood action group went to Mr Aziz's office to deliver a letter of demands and to hold a short demonstration outside his premises. He was not there to see us-well, that is not much of a surprise, as we have invited Mr Aziz to numerous meetings, and he never comes. The action group's demands are not unreasonable. We want him to repair the building so it is safe, and to re-clad the back ugly exterior in order to make it look better. We also want Mr Aziz to knock down the rest of the car park and convert the whole building into flats in line with the planning approval that was granted nearly six years ago.
At the heart of this, all we really want from Mr Aziz is for him to be a good neighbour-except if we are relying on people like him to behave decently of their own accord, we might have a very long wait. Communities such as those at Colliers Wood need new powers to let landowners like Mr Aziz know that we in our communities, big or small, will not accept the blight any longer. I hope that the Minister will take the side of communities, not unscrupulous multi-millionaires. When the powers that we have are not enough, we need more. When a decade passes and a community is gradually worn down as a result of the actions of ruthless developers, I hope that the Minister will not just stand by. Thank you for the opportunity, Madam Deputy Speaker, to put the case for Colliers Wood.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government (Robert Neill): May I congratulate the hon. Member for Mitcham and Morden (Siobhain McDonagh) on securing this debate? I am grateful for the chance to set out the Government's position on "Planning blight and large property owners", which is the title on the Order Paper.
First, before going into more detail, it is as well to set out the background and to distinguish between planning blight, a term of art describing a form of statutory blight under part 6, chapter 2 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, and the kind of blight that occurs where buildings and sites are left vacant and unmaintained, adversely affecting the environmental quality of an area. It is the latter issue with which we are largely concerned this evening.
The hon. Lady mentioned planning permissions and it is worth bearing in mind that such permissions are normally granted for a period of three years from the date of decision, although this can be increased or decreased at the discretion of local authorities. In determining whether to permit a longer period, local authorities may wish to consider the economic circumstances and the ability of a developer to deliver the development. The Government consider that three years is a fair period to give the developer time to secure the necessary finance and to make arrangements to get on site and proceed with the development. It strikes the right balance between the commercial pressures that developers face and the need of the community to ensure that the development that they are promised materialises.
If developers are unable to proceed within the time period specified by the local planning authority, in certain circumstances they are able to apply for a replacement planning permission. That procedure was introduced in 2009 and its scope was expanded in October last year. A replacement planning permission is similar to a new planning permission but has less arduous consultation and information requirements, because principle and design have already been agreed. Local authorities have a lot of discretion over that procedure and how it applies in individual cases.
If a developer is unable to proceed with work on site, they face the prospect of the cost and uncertainty of having to apply for a new or replacement planning permission. That in itself is a major incentive for developers to get on site and start work within the allotted period. Sometimes, however, even with the best of intentions, things can go wrong for developers. Economic circumstances change, developers get into financial difficulties and projects can get stalled. It is important that the Government do what we can to remove bureaucratic barriers and support developers in delivering the housing and commercial developments that this country desperately needs.
We recognise, however, that there can also be circumstances in which landowners are not interested in progressing developments at all. They might simply try to make a profit on a site by waiting for it to increase in value, and might have no interest at all in what the site looks like in the intervening period. I think that that is the root of the hon. Lady's concern.
Where sites fall into disrepair, there can be a detrimental effect on local communities. As the hon. Lady rightly says, unused buildings can become a haven for drug users and other undesirable elements. The risk of falling masonry can pose a danger to passers-by, and general degradation of the environment can result. Where a building is dangerous and a threat to the local area, it is worth bearing in mind the provision for local authorities to serve a notice on the building owner to carry out works to remove that danger or demolish the building, under sections 77 and 78 of the Building Act 1984. I do not know whether that is appropriate in the case to which the hon. Lady refers, but the power is available generally to local authorities.
The Government take such degradation of buildings very seriously, and our first priority is to prevent such situations from happening in the first place. The Government have worked hard to prevent developers from building up banks of land, by making sure that they are required to start work on site within a timely period from the granting of planning permission. Where the state of the site has led to the quality of the environment being adversely affected, however, local authorities have a number of remedies available to them. The hon. Lady referred to the provisions under section 215 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990, under which a local authority can, in certain circumstances, take steps to make good the loss of public amenity. If it appears that the amenity or part of the amenity of an area is being adversely affected by the condition of neighbouring land and buildings, the authority can serve a notice on the owner requiring that the situation be remedied. Such notices set out the steps that need to be taken, and the time within which they must be carried out.
The use of section 215 notices by local planning authorities is discretionary. It is up to the local planning authority to decide whether a notice under those provisions would be appropriate. The hon. Lady says correctly that at least one extant notice is still in operation in relation to the site to which she refers. For that reason, the House will understand why it is not appropriate for me to comment further on the case.
Other remedies are also available to local authorities when development has already begun and has stalled for one reason or another. For example, a local planning authority can-with the agreement of the Secretary of State-issue a completion notice, which will terminate a planning permission at the end of a specified period if the development is not completed. If it is not completed within the specified time limit, there will be no planning permission for the remainder of the development. Local authorities can take enforcement action once the completion notice comes into effect if the development is resumed at a later date.
A key driver of the localism agenda is giving communities a stake in the future of their areas, and enabling them to achieve real change. We are giving communities the ability and the incentive to plan positively for their futures, and to safeguard the things that matter to them. The measures announced in our Localism Bill should ensure that the desires and intentions that people express in regard to their local environment through the planning system result in real change on the ground, and that developments are delivered in a timely manner to the benefit of all concerned.
I know the hon. Lady will understand that we must strike a balance between the need to support developers in the challenging economic circumstances that we have inherited and the need to ensure that local communities have sufficient power and resources to protect themselves from the loss of amenity that comes with boarded-up and vacant sites. As I have said, discretionary powers exist to help local authorities to achieve that, and ultimately it is for the community to work with them to ensure that the problems associated with vacant buildings are dealt with in a fair, proportionate and responsible way.
Siobhain McDonagh: The Minister's use of the word "proportionate" suggests that we are discussing parties with equal power, but I hope that I have conveyed our feeling of powerlessness in the face of a large and wealthy organisation that is willing to go to law and has access to expert legal advice. Residents do not have that capacity, and local authorities are often frightened to engage with those who are very litigious.
Robert Neill: The hon. Lady will appreciate that planning policy relates essentially to land use. We cannot have a system that is determined by the economic capacity of the parties as such. What is important is that the local authority, in particular, has powers. While I realise that the scope of individual community groups may be limited, I understand that the London borough of Merton has taken powers in serving section 215 notices in relation to this case, so it has a remedy.
We propose to give local communities much more control over developments of this kind in the first place through our changes to the planning system and, in particular, our concept of neighbourhood planning. I suspect that had neighbourhood plans been established
in Colliers Wood, a different view of such developments might well have been taken. The fact is, however, that this is an existing development with an extant permission, and the local authority must deal with the situation with which it is currently confronted.
Siobhain McDonagh: The point is, surely, that if a company has funds that enable it to invest in property and to do nothing with the planning applications that it receives other than sit and wait for the property price to rise, the planning process does not help. What local authorities need are greater powers of enforcement, and greater powers to require developers to be good neighbours.
Robert Neill: A number of steps have been taken in that regard. Until 2004, developers could extend the life of planning permissions by varying time limit conditions attached to existing planning consents. Because of concerns about land banking, the last Government amended section 73 of the Town and Country Planning Act 1990 in the Planning and Compulsory Purchase Act 2004 to prevent it from being used to vary such conditions. I have no issue with that. Those sort of steps were taken, and we also have to bear in mind that concern was expressed that action should be proportionate.
In addition, steps have been taken to examine the default length of planning permissions. As I say, the default length is three years, but local authorities have discretion under section 91 of the 1990 Act to grant permission for another period, having regard to the provisions of the development plan and other material considerations. The Department has previously issued letters to the chief planning officers reminding them of their discretion in this regard. Precisely because this issue is discretionary for the local authority it would be wrong for them or certainly for a Minister to try to fetter that. We can simply put in place the tools for them to use, if appropriate, and remind them if they are available. I do not know what consideration Merton
council gave to those matters, but it is clear that it did take steps in relation to the section 215 notices in this case.
I understand the hon. Lady's frustration. It may well be that when the Government consult in due course on the changes that we are making to the planning framework with our national planning priorities framework, both her local council and others who are concerned about this matter will wish to make representations as to what further can be done. One has to bear in mind that because proprietary interests are affected, whatever the rights and wrongs of the issue, any action has to be taken in a manner capable of being sustained, because it has to be justiciable. Therefore, the authority has to act in a quasi-judicial fashion and the Department has to make sure that any advice it gives in any legal framework that it sets in place is consistent with our legal obligation to fairness on both sides.
It is always difficult in a debate such as this to deal with individual cases, particularly while there are existing proceedings. These have the potential to result in court proceedings, because a fine can be imposed if they are not complied with. Although it is not possible to be more specific about particular cases, I can assure the hon. Lady that the Government are alert to these issues and are, of course, always looking to see whether there are sensible means of keeping these rules up to date. I hope that the pressure being applied and the good work that is clearly being done by people in Colliers Wood and the neighbourhood action group, together with their councillors, will have an effect on the owners of the building. Equally, I am sure that she will understand why it is not appropriate for me to say more than I already have about the particular circumstances of a case where, in effect, enforcement-type proceedings- section 215 proceedings-are ongoing.