HC Deb 19 December 1974 vol 883 cc2002-10

12.1 a.m.

Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a development in my constituency which threatens to destroy the whole purpose of the green belt. My constituency of Orpington lies on the south-eastern fringe of urban London, and two-thirds of it consists of farm land, both arable and dairy, and fruit orchards, which are scattered around picturesque villages. The beauty of the local countryside constantly attracts many Londoners from inner urban areas at weekends. It is green belt land in the proper sense of the words.

One farm, Waldens Farm, St. Mary Cray, of about 72 acres—mainly orchard consisting mostly of apple and pear trees—was sold earlier this year by its owners, who were then working farmers. The price paid was reported to be about £85,000. The purchaser, however, was not a farmer. It was a company named Vemera Limited, whose registered office is in Loughton, Essex. The company's business appears to be that of land development, for the company then began advertising the land for sale, not as a farm but in hundreds of small plots, mostly measuring 100 ft. by 30 ft., with access lanes staked out in between. Each has about 50 fruit trees, and the price asked for each plot is about £450, payable by easy instalments.

At this rate, the farm, bought for £85,000, is being sold for a total of well over £400,000—that is, assuming 15 plots to the acre.

The sale was advertised in a number of publications, including Exchange and Mart. The advertisement ran as follows: In lovely orchard setting, 15 miles from London, own your own orchard, 60 to 80 full bearing trees on a 30 ft.X100 ft. plot, from £450 freehold, terms arranged. Phone 508 6147 weekends. Many plots have been sold—according to local reports, more than 800 already—and the once idyllic scene has been transformed. During last summer the scene at weekends was described by one nearby householder as "a fairground", with people picnicking, lighting fires and milling about all over the place. Regular fruit-farming, crop spraying and pruning has ceased. The purchasers have been told by Vemera that the land is sold as agricultural land with no planning permission beyond that of any kind. But they have also been told that they may erect tents, swings and toolsheds. It is true that the purchasers do not gain many other legal rights beyond possession, but that is a danger rather than a safeguard for local residents because the purchasers appear to be relatively unsopshisticated people who have not apparently read the documents carefully and seem to imagine that they have full rights of ownership over their land. Indeed, one said recently that he intends to build a Turkish community centre on his plot. There have been other horrifying stories about the intentions of individual purchasers. We can, naturally, sympathise with them in their desire to own a bit of beautiful Kentish countryside, but the way this is being done is wrong.

The threat to the amenities and the reaction of the local residents prompted the local authority, the borough of Bromley, to act swiftly. It soon issued a direction under Article 4 of the Town and Country Planning (General Development) Order 1973, which withdrew the permitted development right in respect of temporary developments, including the erection of fences and the placing of caravans on the site without seeking planning permission. The Minister for Planning and Local Government approved that direction.

However, the question now is: where do we go from here? A 72-acre fruit farm has virtually disappeared. The food it produced has been dissipated and ruined. The loss to the country's food supplies could be serious if this use of farmland is allowed in other areas. It will also mean the destruction of a green belt amenity, preserved for the benefit of Londoners, which is the purpose of the green belt policy.

Local concern about the future of this site was increased when it became known that the company, Vemera, had a similar site at the White Swan Farm, near Brands Hatch, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers). What was farm land is now covered with shacks and caravans. I am told that it has become a dirty and insanitary weekend camp site.

Not only, therefore, have we lost the food potential of the farm, possibly for ever, by its break-up into hundreds of little plots, but the site is likely to become a nuisance of the gravest proportions by its development on the lines of the farm at Ash, because there are no sanitary arrangements at the farm and no public lavatory near by. There is only one water tap situated at the entrance to the farm yard. There is a litter problem.

The situation has not been helped much by the Article 4 direction, which is the only step the local authority can take under existing laws, as I understand it, to protect the interests of the community. Its effect is inadequate to prevent the despoliation of the site. The restrictions that the direction imposes are comparatively minor. It could be said that theoretically there was very little which could lawfully be done without planning consent even before the direction was made.

The local authority has powers under the Public Health Act, but here the enforcement problem arises, and enforcement will be a major problem. We have no means of ensuring that the law is magically enforced, and delay in enforcement can extend over two or possibly three years. If, for example, a plot holder on this site were to put a caravan on his plot—and it must be remembered that there are already a score at Ash— enforcement notice action could presumably be taken in the usual way. But that is a process which always takes at least three months. It has to go through the normal processes of investigation by an officer of the local planning department, a report to the committee, a report to the council, and the issue of the appropriate notice.

If the plot holder then applied for planning consent for his caravan, there would have to be a new process entirely starting from that point, and we all know that this could take another six months. An appeal against a refusal of planning consent could be made thereafter. The time allowed for the appeal—six months—plus the delay in hearing the appeal, which nowadays could be at least nine months, plus the time needed for the decision of the Minister—say, three months—could mean a delay of well over two years, after which, if the local authority were successful, it would have to start enforcement action all over again because the caravan would still be there on the site of the owner of the land.

What local residents fear most of all is that this site will be an eyesore, a rubbish dump, and a menace to public health, with the local authority helpless for at least two years, anyway.

If nothing is done about this problem, agricultural land in London and the Home Counties could disappear in large chunks. Yet what can be done? The council is unlikely to have the funds in these difficult times to buy by compulsory purchase, even if the compulsory purchase of nearly 1,000 properties were practicable. The local authority in this case and local residents' associations are doing their best to bring to the notice of individual plot holders the insecurity of their legal title and their general lack of the planning rights which they imagine themselves to have. It may be that the plot holders would be able to rescind their agreements on the ground of fraud, misrepresentation or mistake, if they wished. A private purchaser of the farm could probably be found if it were possible to buy it back in one unit as agricultural land. But it seems unlikely that the plot holders will voluntarily relinquish the land.

If, therefore, the Minister wishes to prevent this sore festering in South-East London and spreading all over the green belt, a solution will have to be found to this problem quickly.

12.13 a.m.

The Minister for Planning and Local Government (Mr. John Silkin)

First, I should like to thank the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) for his great courtesy in having given me the substance of the matter that he wished to raise tonight well in time for the debate. He has made a point which is not only a constituency one but has some wider validity, and he has done right to draw attention to it. Incidentally, he talked about the need to prevent the break-up of farms in the green belt. But in his own county of Kent I know of four similar cases which are not in the green belt though they are in areas of great landscape value. Perhaps it is endemic in this problem that they should be, when one thinks of it.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will forgive me if at this rather late hour I have to go into technicalities. I am afraid that a Minister who discusses planning, at whatever hour of the night, inevitably finds himself going into technicalities.

We are talking about a change of ownership of land from one indivadual or a small group of individuals to a thousand individuals. Unfortunately, planning is not concerned with the ownership of land or the reason for acquisition. It is concerned with the use of the land. The planning law bites only if there is a material change of use. That is under Section 22(1) of the Town and Country Planning Act 1971, which merely embodies many earlier precedents. Whether or not the change of use of land sold off as leisure plots amounts to a material change of use will depend on the facts of each case. If it can be shown that the primary activity has ceased to be agricultural—and I thought that the hon. Gentleman was perhaps telling us that— and has instead become recreational, the local planning authority might well consider that a material change of use had occurred in respect of which enforcement action could be taken.

As to the history of the location, Waldens Farm is, as the advertisement fairly disclosed, mainly orchard, and the plots are advertised as containing fruit trees. If owners continue to cultivate them it is difficult to allege that there has been a material change of use. I suppose it might be difficult also to allege that there had been material change of use were they, for example, to grow vegetables. That would still be an agricultural use of the land. It must depend on the facts of each case.

Development and change of development—for example, the building of houses or the location of caravans—is controlled through the planning system. Even if it is permitted development under Article 3 of the Town and Country Planning General Development Order, it can be brought back into control by a direction made by the local planning authority under Article 4 of the order. Planning permission is then required, but refusals can give rise to claims for compensation against the local authority for loss of permitted development rights. However, as far as I can see from a cursory look—and I do not want to be bound on this—it appears that the kind of development we are considering gives rise to very little compensation, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will bear that in mind.

Directions under Article 4 require approval of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State if they are to last for longer than six months, although there are certain classes of development where immediate effect can be created by the local planning authority and the approval of the Secretary of State sought for their extension beyond the six months' period.

What happened in this case was that on 27th August the London borough of Bromley made an Article 4 direction, and this was approved by my Department on 27th September, so not much time was allowed to elapse. The direction withdrew Classes 11(1), IV(2), VI(1) and XXII of Schedule 1 to the General Development Order, thus bringing into control such matters as the erection of fences, walls, gates and agricultural buildings as well as the parking of caravans and the temporary use of the land for camping or for other purposes.

Directions are approved only after consultation with the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food where agricultural land is involved, and this was so in respect of Waldens Farm. Each case is considered on its merits, but where there is evidence that such developments as those at Waldens Farm ought to be brought under control we are ready to give our approval quickly.

The hon. Gentleman referred to delays if the planning application and the enforcement procedures are taken in tandem. It is not necessary for an application for planning permission and any subsequent appeal to be disposed of before enforcement action is taken for the development already carried out or begun, although I have to say that, as a matter of convenience, the Department advises local planning authorities to start enforcement action simultaneously with any appeal, so that the two matters can be pursued together, thus avoiding two consecutive public inquiries.

The whole question—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be a little relieved by this—of enforcement procedures is at present being considered by Mr. Dobry. We await his final report with considerable interest. I do not think that it will be long delayed.

I have mentioned that when we are considering approving a direction which concerns agricultural land, as a matter of course we consult the Ministry of Agriculture. Perhaps it would not be out of place to say something about that Ministry's position. The Ministry of Agriculture is concerned with the long-term availability of land for agricultural production. Although, obviously, it is concerned about land conservation, it does not normally interfere in individual transfers of land.

It is interesting that there are powers, under Section 86 of the Agriculture Act 1947, to control the sub-division of agricultural land, including compulsory purchase powers. But these powers have never been used. They would need to be brought into effect by order, subject to affirmative resolution by this House. They have not been used in 27 years, and it is only fair to say that the legislators in 1947 did not really have in contemplation the sort of thing which has taken place at Waldens Farm.

The question, of course, is whether the present problem is yet on a sufficient scale for the Ministry of Agriculture to consider bringing these powers into use. I will explain what the dimensions of the problems are at the moment. The use of these so-called leisure plots is estimated to account for about 350 to 400 acres a year in the South-East—that is, about ½ per cent. of the total loss of agricultural land in England and Wales for development of all kinds, a loss which averaged about 67,000 acres annually during the five years up to 1973.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the problem he has highlighted causes me some concern, not least in view of the technicalities, the difficulty of knowing quite how to cure it, and, certainly, how to cure it rapidly.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that my Department is at the moment in correspondence not only with the Ministry of Agriculture but with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, of which Bromley is a member, and we intend to hold fairly urgent discussions with all concerned about the problem and about any further action that might be taken.

I hope the hon. Gentleman will feel that his problem and the problem of his constituents, which he has rightly and properly raised, is not being totally neglected by us. We will look into it, hold the discussions, and try to see whether there is any reasonable solution that can, in the not too distant future, be brought to bear on the problem before it spreads too far.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-four minutes past Twelve o'clock.