HC Deb 20 May 1968 vol 765 cc98-105


Where planning permission has been granted under Part III of the Town and Country Planning Act 1962, subject to the condition that the building is to be occupied by a person engaged in agriculture as defined in section 221 of the said Act, or by the dependant of such person, the condition shall be satisfied by the occupation of the building by a person, or by the dependants of a person, who is engaged part-time in agriculture.—[Mr. Turton.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. R. H. Turton (Thirsk and Malton)

I beg to move, That the Clause be read a Second time.

The Clause deals with the problem that arises where planning permission is given under Section 17 of the principal Act, subject to a restrictive condition on the dwelling being used by someone engaged in agriculture. The view originally held was that this would be satisfied in cases where a person was not a whole-time farmer or farmworker, but where his dwelling-house was surrounded by agricultural land and he lived in the house and cultivated that agricultural land. It now appears that this is not a correct interpretation of the restrictive condition, and a number of problems have arisen from it.

I would like to say at the outset that I put this new Clause down in order to have the position clarified and not because I thought that my drafting would necessarily satisfy the Minister. I hope that by putting the new Clause down, and explaining the case to the Minister, if he feels that I have made a point, perhaps he will introduce a new Clause in another place.

When one is dealing with a restrictive condition in an area where the only industry is agriculture, I do not believe that any great difficulty results. In those areas there will always be a large number of people requiring dwelling-houses who will be able to satisfy the condition of being engaged whole-time in agriculture. But when this condition is applied in areas where there are other industries, or in dormitory areas, then considerable difficulty occurs when this restriction has been laid down.

In the area surrounding York, in my constituency, the interpretation of this restrictive condition has resulted in houses being built which are unoccupied and unsaleable. This is a highly undesirable state of affairs in parts of the country surrounding York which are either dormitory areas or have some industry in them.

6.30 p.m.

Let me give two specific instances to make the position clear. In one case, a developer obtained permission under Section 17 to build a house. He sold it with 1¾ acres of land to a prominent solicitor in a nearby town. The value of the property was about £7,000 or £8,000, which indicates that it was a fairly expensive house and not a cottage. Intending to fulfil the condition, the solicitor took advice from the planning authority and from other members of his profession. As soon as he entered the house, he did what he could to cultivate the 1¾ acres by making it pasture and meadow. However, he was told that that was not consistent with the condition, because he could not be engaged whole-time in agriculture if he continued to be a solicitor. As a result, he was forced to attempt to sell the house. Unfortunately, he could not find a purchaser who was prepared to take on this fairly expensive house and be required to satisfy the condition.

The other case concerned a house with three acres of land. It was bought by the manager of a construction firm, who tried to fulfil the condition by turning the three acres into piggeries with a view to developing pig production. Unfortunately, the venture failed, because he discovered that the land was subject to flooding. Pigs not being aquatic animals, he was obliged to abandon his plans. He then tried to turn the land into a forest nursery. However, he was told that, to comply with the condition, he would have to give up his job as manager of a very well-known firm of building constructors, retire at once to his house, and do nothing but grow forest trees.

That was not a very attractive proposition to him, and the only alternative was to sell the house. He found a man wanting to buy it who was engaged in selling feeding stuffs to farmers, and he wished to cultivate the three acres and grow crops. However, he was told that, as he was not engaged whole-time in agriculture but was merely a salesman of agricultural feeding stuffs to farmers, he could not qualify under this restrictive condition.

By quoting those examples, I hope that I have shown that there is doubt about the way in which these restrictive covenants work. I think that the law on this matter, which is contained in the Section 221 definition, requires amendment in certain cases. I can see the difficulty. One does not want Section 17 permissions granted to people in agricultural areas whose connections with agriculture are too tenuous. On the other hand, if a planning authority attempts to operate the condition in a dormitory area such as I have referred to, it should be widened to give the authority greater latitude than it has at present. In such areas, housing accommodation is very short. There is a great demand for it from those working in local industry or requiring it for dormitory purposes. It cannot be in the public interest for houses to be unoccupied in those areas.

Mr. Skeffington

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the terms in which he has moved his Motion. There is a problem here, but, as is so often the case in planning, it is a matter of getting the balance right.

In developing his argument, the right hon. Gentleman pointed to some of the difficulties that any widening of the existing provisions might bring in its train. They are particularly important in areas of green belt outside our great conurbations, though it is a less urgent problem in his part of the country. Whenever I travel between York and Scarborough, I am reminded how fortunate he is to represent such a remarkably attractive area.

Nevertheless, in green belts and areas of outstanding natural beauty near conurbations, there is a very difficult problem in which the local planning authority has to balance the legitimate and genuine needs of agriculture with preventing the kind of pepper potting which one sees even now in some parts of the country under the existing provisions. From time to time, I indulge in fairly low-level flying over some of these areas, and I am horrified at the degree of pepper potting which exists. It is a very difficult and delicate exercise in power which a local planning authority has to carry out in these matters.

Perhaps I might put on record the form of condition which is usually put into a planning permission. Obviously, it is there because one must meet the demands for accommodation of persons employed in agriculture or forestry. It is usually in connection with stock, but there may be other very good reasons where there is no alternative. The form of the condition is generally along these lines: The occupation of the dwelling shall be limited to a person employed, or last employed, locally in agriculture as defined in section 221 of the Town and Country Planning Act, 1962, or in forestry, or a dependant of such a person residing with him (but including a widow or widower of such a person). That is the condition, and it is one which is necessary and right.

The condition is generally not interpreted as stipulating that the occupant shall be a person exclusively or whole-time engaged in agriculture. For that reason, I was interested to hear the cases to which the right hon. Gentleman referred. What he told us is not my experience of the way in which the condition normally operates.

It is true that there has to be a substantial interest. A planning authority would not normally contemplate cases where someone was engaged in agriculture very much on a part-time basis. The condition relates to a new building, and it is of particular importance in the sensitive areas to which we are referring. There would have to be a fairly substantial commitment to agriculture. However, it need not be a whole-time one. Since the right hon. Gentleman put down his new Clause, I have made inquiries, and I am satisfied that that is the way in which the condition is interpreted.

I see difficulty in accepting the new Clause. Obviously, one has to provide new accommodation for agricultural workers. I have evidenced what I have seen from the air. Anyone taking a train from London and going in any direction will see the amount of pepper potting that has taken place in the green belt. Any further weakening of the provision in the terms of the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment might open the door very wide. This is what worries the Government and the planning authorities in these sensitive areas.

I was surprised and sorry to hear the right hon. Gentleman referring to houses remaining empty because of this condition. Section 20 of the 1962 Act provides that permission can be obtained to retain buildings or works when the original condition no longer applies. Applications made under this section are sympathetically treated by local planning authorities. This gets over the major difficulty of empty properties. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will direct the attention of those concerned to this provision, which may be of help to them.

Concerning the other cases which the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, I understand—and I will be glad to look at any particulars he cares to send me— that while there must be a substantial commitment to work in agriculture, it does not have to be whole time. Because of the dangers, the Government are of the view it would open the door too wide. Therefore, with regret, but for sound reasons, I could not advise the House to accept the right hon. Gentleman's new Clause. However, I am glad that he has given us the opportunity to discuss it.

Mr. Rippon

I am grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for that answer. As always, he tries to give a considered reply to points raised in Committee or elsewhere, but I am not sure that he has altogether met the points raised by my right hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton).

There is great difficulty in the country. There is, first, the consideration of what provision needs to be made for agricultural dwelling-houses for full-time agricultural workers. The Parliamentary Secretary has referred to the dangers of pepper potting in areas of outstanding natural beauty. There may be cases when it is right that the most stringent steps should be taken to prevent any dwelling-house being erected. I always fear, in debates of this kind, that Ministers and local planning authorities are apt to treat the green belt as an area which should be absolutely sterile and in which no activity, agricultural or otherwise, should go on and there is great difficult in many areas in establishing with local planning authorities the need for an agricultural dwelling-house. I think that the view they take is often too stringent.

It is against that background that the Parliamentary Secretary has said there is anxiety about a Clause of this kind. The anxiety arises because, if the provision regarding residence is weakened in any way, local planning authorities may be even more difficult about granting planning permissions. I concede that difficulty, but I should like to think that the Ministry would give rather clearer guidance to local planning authorities about the circumstances in which they ought to allow what must be sporadic development in rural areas but which serves an essential agricultural purpose.

I do not think that the public visiting the countryside are in any way put off by seeing a certain number of dwelling-houses properly sited. We should not be afraid of allowing properly sited dwelling-houses in the countryside. It may be that we could do a great deal more by allowing the natural expansion of villages, though notionally into the green belt. We need to emphasise sometimes that the green belt was not meant to be a sterile area in which no activity takes place. However, I understand why the Parliamentary Secretary is saying that this new Clause might be dangerous in that it might induce local planning authorities to be even stricter.

The Parliamentary Secretary was helpful in what he said about a dwelling-house and whether it should be used exclusively for an agricultural worker. It would be reassuring if the Ministry would give some guidance to local planning authorities in interpreting the concept of an exclusive or whole-time agricultural worker. If the Ministry is fairly elastic in its definition of what is a substantial part of the time, that might meet the situation.

6.45 p.m.

There is a need in many areas to take administrative, if not legal, action in the form proposed by my right hon. Friend to see that more is done to meet the residential requirements of part-time agricultural workers. I do not know whether my right hon. Friend wishes to push this matter to a Division. I do not think that we need do that on this matter. I hope that the debate will have helped to show that we are concerned about a real problem. I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take some administrative action to bring the problem to the attention of local planning authorities, so that they can make greater efforts to provide more agricultural dwelling-house permissions and to interpret as fairly and reasonably as possible the concept of what is a substantial part of the time of the occupant engaged in agriculture.

Mr. Skeffington

Before the right hon. Member for Thirsk and Malton (Mr. Turton) makes any further contribution, I should inform him and the House that we intend to put out a further statement on particular aspects of the new planning legislation which will cover this matter. I hope that nothing I have said will be taken to mean that the local authority must not plan properly for the expansion of agriculture in the right places. As the right hon. Gentleman frankly admitted, the more expensive type of property tends to be in isolation. Therefore, the siting of it, unless controlled, can ruin a whole prospect. This is where the planning authorities want to be particularly careful, though weighing up all the matters I have mentioned.

Mr. Turton

In view of the clear explanation given by the Minister, and the further assurance that he will take administrative action to bring the present state of the law to the attention of planning authorities, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

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