HC Deb 03 February 1960 vol 616 cc1183-90

Motion made, and question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Col. J. H. Harrison.]

12.27 a.m.

Mr. John Parker (Dagenham)

I wish at this late hour to raise the problem of caravans in the country. The problem arises in two forms. One is that of the holiday caravan. There it is an alternative to a tent, but a tent has the big advantage that it can be taken down and moved away easily whereas a caravan cannot. Secondly, the holiday caravan is an increasing danger on the roads. Anyone who, at week-ends or in August, has travelled in many parts of the country following a caravan pulled as a trailer behind a car and has found difficulty in passing it, knows that a large increase in the use of caravans would increase the dangers on the roads.

There is a need for caravan sites at the seaside and at beauty spots. They should be properly located to prevent the amenities of the countryside being destroyed and to ensure that reasonable facilities, such as toilets, water supply and so on, are provided for the people using them. It is a serious problem to preserve the amenities and to provide reasonable facilities on the site.

The great difficulty about the caravan site is that it tends to become permanent. After the holiday season, people tend to remain in the caravans, and some caravans gradually become permanent dwellings. The difficulty about a permanent caravan site is that the law does not differentiate between the caravan site as a temporary holiday place and the caravan site which has become a permanent dwelling place.

The problem of the permanent caravan site is becoming very serious for all planning authorities in the country. The recent Arton Wilson Report shows that 150,000 people are dwelling in caravans at present, which means about 60,000 households, and that it is a growing problem, because the number of caravans is increasing year by year. The Report shows that most people living in caravans are young married couples, who usually have work available in the neighbourhood but who do not have a house available near their work. They hope to get a house at some time in the future, and most of them ultimately succeed, but they are replaced in the caravan or on the site by someone else. Most of these people collect around areas where work is available but houses are not available.

The problem is most acute, therefore, in the Greater London area and the Midlands, where there are prosperity and boom conditions. The problem is particularly serious to planning authorities in Surrey and my own county, Essex, but is generally a problem in all areas where industry is booming.

In Essex the problem has become so serious that last year the county planning committee set up a special sub-committee to consider and report on the problems arising from the caravan sites in Essex and to make recommendations. They have not been able to find a solution to their problems locally but they have made a number of suggestions to the Ministry on the matter.

It is basically a problem of housing and the location of industry. We do not find these colonies of caravans in areas where there is unemployment, and therefore—bearing in mind the discussions earlier this evening—in so far as we can direct industry into areas where there is unemployment and where houses are available, to that extent we relieve the need of people to have caravans in other areas. In so far as we can persuade development to take place either in new towns away from the developed industrial areas such as greater London or in developing towns such as Thetford and Ashford, which are out of the Greater London area but fairly near it; and in so far as we can bring new development to such places, both in industry and in houses, to that extent we reduce the pressure of those people who create caravan colonies and build up a problem in the Home Counties and other boom areas.

This is a way of dealing with the background of the problem as part of a way of dealing with the problem itself, but even when one has dealt with the background there remains a very serious problem. I do not think we can say that the caravan problem will disappear. It is a permanent feature. Some people pine for the caravan as a way of living at a certain period of their lives. We must accept the fact that some people want to live in that way and will live in that way.

In providing an opportunity for them to do so we must see that it does not create other serious problems. In providing sites for caravans we must deal satisfactorily with the problems of sanitation and health and with amenities both for the residents on the caravan sites and the remainder—the major part—of the population, who do not want to see the countryside destroyed, or made ugly, by a litter of caravans all over the place. If we are to deal with the problem we must see that sites for caravans are satisfactory from the point of view of both the people dwelling in the caravans and the community as a whole. That means that one does not have the caravan sites in the green belts. It is most important that we should not allow intrusion of odd caravans on any of the green belts round our industrial centres.

There is a strong case for putting these caravan sites near industrial areas on land intended for development for either industrial or housing purposes in the fairly near future. If the land is to be developed in that way then, temporarily, at any rate, it does no harm for it to be developed as a suitable caravan site.

When one comes to the open country and the seaside, it is very important that very careful selection of the sites should be made on a long-term basis—on a reasonable lease—so that the necessary hygienic amenities, shelter belts and the like can be provided, in order that the sites do not intrude on the public amenities as a whole. However, if we are to solve this satisfactorily, the local authorities must have adequate powers to control selection, and to prevent sudden development in the wrong places where satisfactory facilities cannot be provided, or where the caravans will annoy the general public. Under the present law there are very great difficulties and, particularly, delays in dealing with the matter.

The Essex County Council has drawn up an interesting programme of the sort of dates that arise in trying to prevent seasonal caravan camps coming into being. In giving these dates, the authority has assumed that the planning authority has moved at the earliest possible time all the way through. However, human nature being as it is, that is not always the case.

It is assumed that the operator brings caravans on to his site on 1st April. Under the general development order, he has 28 days' use. On 29th April the local planning authority, having ascertained that the operator is continuing to use the site, serves an enforcement notice in advance. The said notice is served by post on 30th April. The notice cannot become effective until 28th May. On 27th May the operator applies for planning permission.

On 1st June, the planning authority decides to refuse permission. Notice of that decision is served on the operator, who then has 28 days in which to appeal to the Minister. On 27th June, the operator appeals to the Minister for a local inquiry, and that local inquiry cannot be held before mid-August. The Minister rarely issues his decision before the expiration of two months from the date of the local inquiry. In mid-October, the Minister dismisses the appeal.

The enforcement notice then becomes effective and the second period specified—probably about a fortnight—begins to run. On 31st October, the site is cleared—at exactly the time that the seasonal planning permission ends. Therefore, to prevent such a site coming into being the whole period from 1st April to 31st October might pass and, of course, the same thing might happen again the next year if the same person again seeks to operate a seasonal caravan site.

I agree that some relief is furnished by Section 38 of the 1959 Town and Country Planning Act, which makes it possible to take enforcement action in respect of unauthorised use of land for the siting of caravans. That does not remove the difficulties created by the 1947 Town and Country Planning Act. In many cases it can be proved that caravans have been on a site before 1947. They may have been there occasionally since then, and suddenly the site is developed with a large number of caravans. It may be argued that there has been change of user, but if it can be proved that caravans were there before 1947 nothing can be done about it.

I would have thought that it was reasonable to give compensation for any capital sunk into development of a possible site, but the value of the site itself is largely created by the planning authority agreeing to that site and ruling out other possible sites. There should not be compensation for the site, therefore, but it would be reasonable to pay compensation for any capital sunk into the project.

I very much welcome the announcement yesterday that it was proposed to introduce legislation on this matter. I hope that it will be possible to bring in legislation which local authorities will agree to be facing up to the problem, but I hope that it will insist on the same planning and accommodation standards which one normally expects from council housing estates. Many caravans are slums on wheels, although, of course, there are many which are not. We want to see those bad caravan sites ruled out.

I also hope that, in dealing with the problem, the Government will not forget the background problems which I have mentioned—the question of the location of industry and the provision of housing to remedy the pressure to create these caravan sites in the areas around the boom areas. I have pleasure in welcoming the legislation to deal with these various problems.

12.42 a.m.

Sir Colin Thornton-Kemsley (North Angus and Mearns)

I had not anticipated that at this late hour the House would have the benefit of hearing from the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) about caravans. I had stayed to hear him talking, as I thought he would, about the development of Tower Hill in the City of London. He has spoken about caravans and as a caravanner, although I do not take strong exception to anything he has said, I do not think that he has sufficiently differentiated between two distinct types of caravan user.

On the one hand, there are those who are compelled, or prefer for their own private reasons, permanently to live in a caravan on a permanent residential caravan site. On the other hand, there are those, perhaps strange people, who, like myself, have their own caravan and like to go away into the country and spend their holidays on sites such as the hon. Member mentioned, on farms or other places where they are allowed to stay and enjoy a caravaning or camping holiday, living in the fresh air and so on. There are problems connected with both users.

On the question of the seasonal as opposed to the residential site, I very much agree with the hon. Gentleman that legislation is required.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I do not want to interrupt the hon. Member, but that is the one thing which cannot be proposed on this Motion. That is the difficulty.

Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley

I must ask you to excuse me, Mr. Speaker, in view of the lateness of the hour. I should have said that administrative action was required to prevent the kind of thing of which the hon. Member has reminded the House—site operators, whom no one would defend, seeking permission for temporary use of land for holiday caravans and using all the loopholes the law and lack of administrative action allow to extend the profitability of letting sites for caravans right through the season, then starting again the next year. I would not defend that for a moment and I hope that some sort of action will be possible to prevent it in future.

I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Member about permanent caravan sites not being in the green belt around our cities. I think that for seasonal caravan sites it is perfectly possible in a green belt to ensure the amenities if the sites are properly selected and the caravan is so placed under trees that it may be almost out of sight and without detriment to the amenities of the countryside.

The Minister is aware that a great deal of work has been done recently by an organisation of which I have been a member for many years and on the executive committee of which I sat for a long time. I am a member of its council at present. I refer to the Caravan Club, which is working in the closest harmony with planning officers of the counties, selecting sites for seasonal, mobile, caravaning, and awarding, as it were, a badge or sign approved by the Council for Industrial Design, which may be displayed only at sites which are approved by the planning authorities and by the Club, which is a large organisation, equivalent to the R.A.C. or A.A., and which has its site inspectors who make sure that it does not suggest to a planning authority that any site should be licensed unless it has full services and that the amenities are preserved.

12.47 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government (Sir Keith Joseph)

I must once again, as on Monday, walk with great verbal delicacy in your sight, Mr. Speaker, because, as the hon. Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker) has already indicated, my right hon. Friend told the House on Tuesday of his intention to legislate on this subject. I hope that the two hon. Members who have spoken will not think me discourteous if I say that I found their speeches most interesting, and I will read them with care. But I must be very cautious what I say about them.

May I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Sir C. Thornton-Kemsley) on his facility and ability to talk equally spontaneously on Tower Hill or caravans. Of course, we are much indebted to Sir Arton Wilson for setting out so clearly the facts about caravans as homes and the problems arising from the use of caravans as homes. It was my right hon. Friend who invited Sir Arton Wilson to write the Report because he was so aware of the problems, and one of the lessons we can learn from the Report is that caravans tend to cluster where employment exceeds housing accommodation.

The hon. Member for Dagenham rightly drew the conclusion that the Government's policy, which has been discussed this week, to take employment to places of more than average unemployment, will as a by-product, help to solve this very problem. It is one which we are most aware of, and I hope the hon. Gentleman will allow me to leave it at that.

It also arises from any reading of the Report that caravans must now be accepted as part of our national life, and a place must be found for them—a right place in each area—and if the right place is to be found, as has been said, local authorities must have proper planning and enforcement weapons in their power. Here I come back to where I began, and I hope I will not be thought discourteous if I deny myself the pleasure of discussing exactly how the present controls operate, and take refuge in my right hon. Friend's statement, in answer to a Question by the hon. Member for Dagenham when he said: My consultations have disclosed a wide measure of agreement on the need for remedying defects in the existing law, and I hope to introduce legislation for this purpose in the present Session."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 2nd February, 1960; Vol. 616, c. 103.]

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at eleven minutes to One o'clock.