HC Deb 16 February 1977 vol 926 cc492-3
20. Mr. Clemitson

asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he is satisfied that planning appeals are being dealt with by his Department as expeditiously as possible.

Mr. Guy Barnett

I am satisfied that there has been a substantial improvement over the last three years.

Mr. Clemitson

Does my hon. Friend agree that a considerable number of people are playing the system by knowingly not complying with the planning law and using the appeals system as a means of buying time so that they can continue their unlawful and often lucrative activities?

Mr. Barnett

There is certainly one sphere in which the kind of complaint that my hon. Friend has made is particularly true. This is with regard to enforcement over land use. I was pleased that a Private Member's Bill introduced into the House on the subject a short time ago received a Second Reading.

Mr. Sims

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the increasing tendency of his Department to deal with planning appeals by written representation rather than a public inquiry deprives individuals and local organisations of the opportunity of ensuring that their views are adequately considered? Will the hon. Gentleman reconsider that policy?

Mr. Barnett

The advantage of the written method is that it is quicker, and the original Question by my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, East (Mr. Clemitson) is about trying to speed up the planning process—a suggestion which I strongly support, for many reasons. I think I am correct in saying that the decision whether to go for the written method or a public inquiry depends on the views of the people who are parties to the planning application, though others who have views—such as amenity societies—may be adversely affected, and I take the point.

Mr. Molloy

Is my hon. Friend prepared to consider providing financial assistance to local organisations and citizens who band together and feel strongly about planning applications? They are at a grave disadvantage when they have to meet local authorities or my hon. Friend's Department which are represented by legal people. Ordinary people cannot afford that sort of thing. Is my hon. Friend prepared to consider whether, on certain occasions, financial help should be given for ordinary citizens to be properly and legally represented at public inquiries?

Mr. Barnett

That point has been put a number of times. It is my evidence that inspectors go out of their way to ensure that groups of the kind referred to by my hon. Friend are adequately considered. I do not think that we could consider giving financial help during the present economic situation.

Mr. Arthur Jones

The Minister will be aware of the general opinion that the delay in the Department from the date of an appeal hearing to the announcement of the Minister's decision is far too prolonged. Can he give any explanation for that and say to what extent he is taking into account the unreasonableness of the delay, which is generally acknowledged?

Mr. Barnett

If the hon. Gentleman has any special cases to bring to my attention, I shall be glad to consider them. I am doing everything I can to speed things up, but from time to time exceedingly difficult planning appeals come to the Department and inevitably take longer. It is in those cases that the difficulty so often arises.