HC Deb 28 February 1975 vol 887 cc999-1012

4.26 p.m.

Sir George Young (Ealing, Acton)

The House has just spent five hours debating the problems of mobile homes. I invite it now to look at the problems of mobile food. Many hon. Members will have seen on television advertisements for the sale of take-away cooked chickens. This type of meal combines uniquely, I believe, all the disadvantages of eating out—the need to make a journey, the probability of high cost and even of a wait—with none of the advantages of enjoying good food in congenial surroundings. But clearly I am in a minority in that view.

In America, nearly a quarter of all meals eaten away from the home are accounted for by what they are pleased to call "fast food". Over the past few years, this type of operation has grown very fast in this country and it clearly meets a need. Chicken, fish, hamburgers and Chinese food are the main commodities available, but I see from the latest quarterly magazine of the British Travelnews that a firm in Worcester now does take-away pigs' trotters.

Faced with this relatively new and fast-growing industry, I do not believe that the relevant authorities are dealing properly with the less desirable side effects. I am therefore delighted to have this opportunity to raise the planning and health problems of shops selling take-away food.

I have recently compiled a formidable dossier of the activities of the largest operator in this field, based on information painstakingly collected from the planning and health departments of 32 London boroughs. My inquiry shows that the current planning regulations are totally inadequate to deal with this relatively new phenomenon, that such regulations as do exist have loopholes and are easily abused, that the hygiene in some of these premises is a public disgrace and that enormous inconvenience is caused to the public by the litter, noise and fumes associated with this activity. In short, I would say that it is a finger-licking scandal.

My inquiry covered the operations of Kentucky Fried Chicken in London. This is the largest take-away food chain in the country, with 280 shops currently in operation and 800 planned for 1980. Most of the boroughs commented that this company was no worse than the others. To summarise my findings, half the London boroughs have taken or are taking legal action against the company. Local authorities do this only when all alternatives have been exhausted.

In seven boroughs, the firm has traded without having obtain planning permission. Nine boroughs are taking legal action against Kentucky Fried Chicken shops on other grounds. No fewer than 16 were taking action on grounds of public health. Eight complained about late opening. Seven had had complaints from residents about smells and 10 had had complaints about noise. No fewer than 18 complained about the litter associated with this form of activity. There was a host of other complaints, ranging from staff sleeping illegally on the premises to illegal employment of young persons. One complaint from the London Borough of Lewisham was that the firm was not supplying enough chips.

This record is of itself a serious indictment of the quality of management, betraying a philosophy of indifference to planning procedures and those whom such procedures are designed to protect, and a callous disregard of hygiene regulations which should protect their patrons.

But I am less concerned with indicting one company than with identifying solutions. May I start by dealing with the planning problems? Before October 1972, take-away-food shops were treated as ordinary shops. As long as a premises had been used as a retail outlet, no further consent was needed to convert them to a shop selling take-away food, although the hours of trading and methods of operation were clearly very different. Only in October 1972 was the Use Classes Order amended to distinguish this particular form of activity.

There are, therefore, many take-awayfood shops operating from premises which would not have obtained planning permission had we acted more quickly in singling out this activity for special attention. However, since October 1972 Kentucky Fried Chicken has opened new branches in Ealing, Havering, Lambeth, Hillingdon, Brent and Barnet without the courtesy of securing planning permission. In three of those branches, Ealing, Havering and Lambeth, it has continued to trade even when planning permission was refused.

In my constituency a branch was opened after extensive conversion in February last year, although the planning committee was not due to consider the planning application until 13th March. The committee turned it down because the use of the shop for such purposes would be detrimental to adjoining residential properties through noise and fumes. The committee's deliberations were much enlivened by the interventions from the public gallery by my constituents who lived above the shops, some of whom I am delighted to see in the Public Gallery of the House. One husband, according to the Acton Gazette, said: I am kept up to 1 a.m. through noise from this place. We have to put up with the fumes coming through the floorboards into the flat. The firm continued to trade after the refusal, and the borough served it an enforcement notice. The firm appealed and a date was provisionally fixed for June 1975 to hear the appeal. According to the Dobry Report, which came out last week, the decision from that appeal would take a further nine months, with perhaps a further three months thereafter for subsequent enforcement. So an activity which commenced in February 1974 could continue perhaps until June 1976. In the meantime, one's innocent constituents have to suffer. I hope that the Minister will not try to defend that situation, which I know is not unique, as other hon. Members have communicated to me the same problem in their constituencies.

What has happened is most unfortunate, because the local authority, not having given planning permission, was unable to control the hours at which that shop traded. It had to make a very difficult decision whether to give planning consent and then to try to enforce the basic hours, or to leave the situation as it was for over a year. It chose, reluctantly, the former course, and it was effectively bounced into so doing.

I was delighted to read in the Dobry Report reviewing the development control system, and published last week, that he recommends that this loophole he closed. On page 151, at paragraph 12.8, he says: There is to my mind the overriding need to have an effective means of bringing offensive activities to a halt, without having to wait for months or years while appeal procedures are completed. He goes on to say in paragraph 12.11: Cases may clearly arise however where the operation or use in question may be of a nature which cannot be accepted even for fourteen days—for example a change of use which involves intolerable noise or noxious smell. In these cases, a local planning authority ought to be able to serve a discovery notice together with a stop notice requiring that the development cease forthwith. The solution to the planning problems is contained in this report and I hope that particular sections such as these which can be implemented now will be so implemented. I hope that the Minister will give encouragement in that matter.

I turn to the problem of litter. If one were to purchase a take-away chicken, it would be handed to one in a package such as this which I have in my hand. These coffins, in which the half-cremated birds make their final journey, are unceremoniously abandoned on the streets of London in the small hours of the night, there to greet our constituents on the way to work the next morning.

We cannot blame the operators of the franchises for this abuse, because clearly it is the responsibility of the patrons. But local authorities should provide more litter bins and should empty more frequently those they have provided.

However, where the companies are at fault is with their treatment of refuse on their own premises. The morsel of chicken which one purchases over the counter is not of course the whole chicken. Its more intimate and less edible portions have been removed and in some cases put out at the back of the shop. Here they cause enormous offence, and I have several letters complaining of smelling waste. One person wrote: The rubbish is thrown out from the back of the shop into the yard and left to stagnate and decompose. My hon. Friend the Member for Sutton and Cheam (Mr. Macfarlane), who hopes shortly to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, has a similar story to recount.

Related to this is the question of compliance with food hygiene regulations inside the premises. In the London borough of Waltham Forest, for example, there are five premises operated by this company. All five are in breach of the food hygiene regulations. The public health departments of 15 other London boroughs are taking action, and many of these commented on the poor quality of staff employed. A typical comment from one chief officer was as follows: Employees are mainly foreign, often have minimal or even no understanding of English which clearly makes the health education aspect of food inspection quite ineffective. Another chief officer replied in similar tone: One of the main problems of this type of establishment is the low standard of employee. Generally they have very little knowledge of food hygiene standards. A third chief officer replied as follows: The question of food hygiene in this firm's various branches has given cause for concern and representations have been made on numerous occasions to improve conditions. I suspect that not all the London boroughs have inspected these premises with the attention that some London boroughs have. I hope that as a result of this debate they now will.

I ask the Minister whether he is satisfied that the language problem is not a barrier in establishments such as this to the effective implementation of food hygiene regulations.

I turn to the problems of noise and fumes. A typical comment was that made by the London Borough of Redbridge: The problem appears to be aggravated by the late hours of closing the premises which at present cannot be controlled. Another London borough tried to take legal action under Section 49(2)(b) of the Greater London Council (General Powers) Act 1968. It was held that while this legislation covered night cafés it did not cover take-away food shops.

I hope that in his reply the Minister will announce that the legislation that the London boroughs are now seeking will be provided so that the hours of trading of shops selling take-away food can be regulated.

I turn finally to the question of fumes. Nine London boroughs have had complaints from residents about fumes. The recipe for the batter that is applied to Colonel Sanders' chicken is one of the trade's most closely guarded secrets, leading as it does to this compelling urge to lick one's fingers. However, the fumes from the process are singularly malodorous. One resident living above such a shop wrote to his Member of Parliament—my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne (Mr. Hunt)—as follows: We also have the smell of frying in most of our rooms. The smell comes up through the floor near the walls and becomes very strong late at night. On one occasion this gentleman went downstairs to remonstrate because the noise was intolerable and he was assaulted by four men. His doctor wrote to his Member of Parliament appalled that such a Mafia-type situation could exist in Bromley.

I have suggested to the Minister the action he should take on the planning problems and I would like to do the same on the health grounds. Each planning authority is dealing with take-away-food shops in its own way, unaware of what is going on in other boroughs. I was struck in my inquiry by the number of times I was asked by chief officers for the results of my findings. I think that a circular from the Department to all local planning authorities and health authorities would be greatly welcomed and this could summarise the problems that have come to light and provide guidelines for dealing with them.

For example, public health inspectors insist on ventilation equipment to deal with the inside of premises without paying adequate attention to those who live near the outside ducts. There are variations in standards applied to the shops and the franchise operator is quick to exploit these.

I think that I have identified a serious problem as a result of my research. I am happy to hand over to the Minister all the evidence I have accumulated. I hope that in return he will assure me and the patrons of these shops and those living near them that the abuses that I have brought to light will be dealt with speedily.

4.38 p.m.

Mr. Neil Macfarlane (Sutton and Cheam)

I am grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) for allowing me to take up a few moments in this debate. I endorse everything that my hon. Friend has said, because I have had similar representations from my constituents in Sutton and Cheam, and more especially from those at the Worcester Park end of my constituency where there is one of these Kentucky Fried Chicken establishments situated in Central Road and on the corner of a pleasant residential road.

People have written to me. Some weeks ago six people came to see me representing 250 of my constituents to complain about this establishment. The aspects that concern them are hygiene.

I quote briefly from a letter I have received from a constituent of mine: Since the opening of the Kentucky Fried Chicken establishment, our gardens, roadway and pavements have been strewn with cardboard packages, chicken bones and broken bottles, this in turn has led to us having become rat infested. I have visited this establishment and witnessed all this myself. The Government can give us a firm lead by providing that these shops should close at 10 o'clock at night and not at 12 o'clock as at present. The local authority, which is desperate for guidance from the Government, would welcome that. My local authority in the London borough of Sutton has provided litter bins, but the problems are enormous. I urge the Minister to consider this matter. I hope that we can look forward to some Government action.

4.39 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Gerald Kaufman)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young) on raising this important matter this afternoon, and on the most formidably researched and documented case he has presented.

Tempted though I am, I hope he will forgive me if I do not comment on the individual cases he has mentioned, in view of the legal actions under way, and bearing in mind the quasi-judicial position of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. It is undeniable, however, that after his speech this afternoon it will be wounds that will be licked rather than fingers. He has made a most proper use of parliamentary privilege.

I certainly do not quarrel with the hon. Member in his demand for action. He will know, of course, that in the first instance action is for the local authority, acting either as a planning authority or through its public health, Shops Act or weights and measures inspectors.

I shall do my best to set out the actions and remedies available. I hope he will forgive me if my remarks lack the combination of high drama and homespun charm that characterised his remarks.

First, on the planning aspects, planning permission is required for the making of any material change in the use of premises. Whether a change of use is material will depend on the facts of each case. It is for the local planning authority to determine in the first instance.

The Town and Country Planning (Use Classes) Order 1972 groups uses into various classes. The effect of the order is that a change of use within any class defined in the schedule to the order does not involve development and does not, therefore, require planning permission. However, the order excludes a shop for the sale of hot food from the scope of Class I dealing with shop use, so that a change of use from any other kind of shop to a shop for the sale of hot food will normally require planning permission. Previously the use classes order excluded fried fish shops so that shops which sold other hot food were not affected.

During the consultations leading up to the revised order there was pressure to bring all hot food shops into control because they all give rise to the same sort of considerations which should be within the control of local planning authorities. This the 1972 order does.

Even where planning permission is required, the hon. Member will know that it is not an offence to carry out that development without permission. Successive administrations have accepted that in view of the range of matters which can constitute development, and the fact that planning control is a restriction on the right of the individual to use his property as he wishes, it would be unduly repressive to make it an offence without some preliminary action on the part of the local planning authority. The action which an authority may, at its discretion, take is the service of an enforcement notice under Section 87 of the 1971 Act.

Such a notice must allow a period of not less than 28 days before it takes effect, as well as allowing a further period for compliance with its requirements. Within the first of those periods it is open to anyone on whom the notice is served to appeal to the Secretary of State. An appeal stays the effect of the notice until it is finally decided or withdrawn. Where enforcement action is taken against operational development, it is open to the local planning authority at any time between service of an enforcement notice and its coming into effect to serve a stop notice under Section 90 of the Act, requiring the operations to cease pending the coming into effect, or quashing, of the enforcement notice.

Because of the problems which local authorities in some areas have encountered, due to people using land or buildings in contravention of planning control, the local authority associations have requested my right hon. Friend to consider extending the power to serve stop notices to development consisting of a material change of use.

The question of extending this power to material changes of use was put to Mr. George Dobry QC, as part of his overall review of the development control system. In his recently published report to which the hon. Member referred, Mr. Dobry in fact recommends that this be done. Further, he proposes an extension of Section 284 of the Act to allow local planning authorities to require the owner to furnish information on land use. This provision would help authorities in deciding whether a particular change of use constituted development within the meaning of the Act. My right hon. Friend has now initiated extensive consultations on the report, and will give careful consideration to the recommendations in the light of any observations he may receive.

I understand the hon. Member's concern at the establishment of cooked food shops without planning permission first being obtained where it is required under the planning Acts. I do not know the scale on which this is happening, but my right hon. Friend has currently before him six appeals against enforcement notices served by local planning authorities in Greater London and the Home Counties. These are being dealt with as quickly as possible, but, because of the large volume of appeals received over the last two years, I accept what he has to say as to the time which may be taken. One of these appeals relates to the failure of the firm concerned to comply with a condition relating to the hours of trading imposed in a planning permission.

The hon. Member will understand that I cannot comment on the particular cases which are under appeal in view of the Secretary of State's quasi-judicial role. I should, however, make clear that once an enforcement notice or a stop notice has come into effect it is an offence to continue the activity. The person concerned is liable on summary conviction to a fine not exceeding £400, or on conviction on indictment to an unlimited fine with additional penalties for continuing offences. I hope that this debate will give due and proper warning to all who may be affected.

The hon. Member referred to delays in deciding planning applications. These have been a result of the unprecedented increase in the number of applications in 1972–73 and, to some extent, of the reorganisation of local government in April 1974. The hon. Member will be glad to learn that the number of applications has now fallen back, and the practical problems of reorganisation are being overcome for example, by the adoption of effective development control schemes. The Department has, of course, urged the widespread use of practices designed to avoid delay.

We are well aware of the problems, and are now considering the recommendations in the Report on the Review of the Development Control System by Mr. George Dobry, Q.C., who has carried out a wide-ranging review of the system, with particular attention to delays.

On the appeals side, additional inspectors have been recruited and we are now disposing of appeals at a faster rate than we receive new ones. This is encouraging, but we are by no means satisfied and are looking for further substantial improvements in the time taken to determine appeals.

Next, the health and nuisance aspects. Where shops give rise to smells, action may be possible under the statutory nuisance procedure of the Public Health Act 1936. Where such a nuisance arises, the local authority may serve a notice on the person responsible requiring the abatement of the nuisance and the execution of such works as may be necessary for that purpose. The notice is enforceable in the magistrates' court. The same Act also allows any individual aggrieved by the nuisance to make a complaint direct to a magistrate, and the court has power to order abatement of the nuisance and to prohibit its recurrence. In either case it is a defence to show that the best practicable means have been taken for preventing or counteracting the effect of the smell. I hope that individuals, as well as local authorities, will not hesitate to exercise their rights where provoked.

If action is taken under the Public Health Act and the person responsible for the nuisance fails to comply with any court order, the local authority is empowered to step in and do whatever may be necessary in execution of the court's order.

Although similar powers are available to deal with noise nuisance under the Noise Abatement Act 1960 which applies the statutory nuisance procedure of the Public Health Act 1936 to noise nuisance these powers, involving serving notices on those responsible, are probably not appropriate unless the noise arises from within the premises themselves. The police have to act where people behave in a disorderly fashion, obstruct the footway or use insulting words or behaviour likely to cause a breach of the peace.

The Litter Act 1958 and the Dangerous Litter Act 1971 make it an offence to drop litter in any public place. There is a maximum fine of £100. Here again, I very much hope that all these statutes will be duly enforced in the sorts of situation the hon. Member has described.

Shops selling take-away food are subject to the Food Hygiene (General) Regulations 1970, in the same way as other kinds of food shops or catering establishments. The local authorities enforce the regulations.

The premises, the equipment and the food handlers working in the business have to comply with the comprehensive requirements of the regulations, which are aimed at securing clean and hygienic conditions in the operation of the food business. Breaches of any of these requirements may lead to prosecution and heavy penalties.

A further control is provided by Section 16 of the Food and Drugs Act 1955 under which most shops selling take-away food have to be registered with the local authority, which may refuse or withdraw registration if it considers, on grounds of hygiene, that the premises are unsuitable for the intended use or if the requirements of the regulations are not being met.

If the business is mainly a catering one, it will be exempt from the need to be registered. Instead Section 14 of the Act provides a comparable control. This section enables local authorities to ask the courts to disqualify a caterer found guilty of a breach of the food hygiene regulations from participating for a time in the operation of that business.

In addition, under local Act provisions secured recently a number of local authorities, including the London boroughs, can apply to the courts for an order under which a food business, where there are insanitary conditions involving danger to health, can be closed until the faults have been put right. When the situation calls for immediate action an interim order can be made by a single justice closing the premises until the case can be decided by the courts. These provisions are there to be used, rather than admired as examples of legislative drafting.

The requirements of the Food Hygiene Regulations together with these other provisions provide the local authorities with full and effective powers of control over food hygiene, practices and conditions at shops selling take-away food and safeguard the interests of the customer.

Finally I come to shop hours. Sales of newly-cooked provisions for off-consumption are not subject to either the general closing hours or local authority closing orders. Such transactions can therefore take place at any time, with the exception of sales of fried fish and chips from a fried fish and chip shop, which are not allowed on Sundays. Local authorities have no powers in relation to shops selling newly-cooked provisions for off-consumption comparable to those given by the Late Night Refreshment Houses Act 1969, which enable them to close restaurants—other than those licensed under the Licensing Act 1964—on amenity grounds, at any time between the hours of 11 p.m. and 5 a.m.

The situation is clearly unsatisfactory and I have no doubt that the Home Secretary will take note of what the hon. Member said. As for the rest of the case he has put forward, I think he will agree that remedies are available. It is essential that they should be used. Laws are there to be used, not left to moulder on the statute book.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes to Five o'clock.