HC Deb 28 January 1977 vol 924 cc1937-49

Order for Second Reading read.

3.24 p.m.

Mr. Dudley Smith (Warwick and Leamington)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second Time.

This is a short but not unimportant Bill which, I believe, will go a long way in helping to protect the quality of our environment, or at least in preventing its deterioration by making some necessary changes in our planning legislation. We are hard up for time owing to the length of the previous debate. I shall try to be as brief as I can, because I know that the Minister wishes to intervene, as do one or two of my hon. Friends.

Whatever deficiencies we may have in the length of our debate, we may be able to make up for them in Committee if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading. I am aware that the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Wales have informed the House of their approval of certain recommendations made by Mr. George Dobry, QC, in his report on the development control system. In particular, there were recommendations for improving and speeding up the enforcement of planning control.

The Government have undertaken to introduce legislation to implement those proposals as soon as a suitable opportunity occurs, but they have held out no hope that such an opportunity will be found in this Session. I understand that those proposals, on which consultations have taken place, go wider than the proposals in my Bill, but I do not think that it is right for the powers in this limited measure to have to wait for the promised Government action on enforcement. That is why I chose this subject when I was fortunate enough, for the first time in 15 or 16 years as a Member of this House, to draw a place in the Ballot for Private Members' Bills.

I submit that there are two reasons for not waiting. First, Mr. Dobry's report was presented about two years ago, and there has already been consultation on it and general acceptance of the recommendations that I seek to implement. Secondly, my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall), whom I am pleased to see here, sought to obtain powers in a Private Member's Bill back in 1975, but failed to obtain Government support primarily because at that time consultations on the Dobry Report were proceeding. I submit therefore, that there is no sound reason for further delay in view of the problems that local authorities are having in controlling changes of use in planning cases.

The enforcement procedure has to have regard to the various interests in land, particularly as enforcement notices become a charge on the land. The procedure is, therefore, cumbersome and time-consuming. Where the development in question involves building or engineering operations, local authorities have been able, since 1969, to serve a stop notice prohibiting the continuation of the work while any appeal against the enforcement notice is considered.

That procedure is not at present available where a use of land is commenced without permission, and a considerable amount of time elapses from the time the breach is detected—often following complaints by local residents—and there is any power to bring it to an end. Most hon. Members have been approached at various times by constituents who have been outraged by serious threats to their peace and quiet and, above all, by the time taken before anything effective can be done about it. I submit that nothing brings the law and local government into greater disrepute than not being able to operate the provisions that are there to protect the public and appearing to be impotent in a situation such as this. Therefore, it is right that this measure should come forward.

I am not complaining about undue delays by local authorities or, for that matter, by the Secretary of State in dealing with appeals sent to him. It is wholly the lack of power to secure cessation or reduction of activities while the lengthy enforcement procedures are going through that is the cause.

If I may, I shall enumerate fairly briefly the various steps that are involved in that rather tortuous procedure. First, the local authority must find out what is actually happening on the land in question. Then it must ascertain the names and addresses of all owners and occupiers of the land in order to serve an enforcement notice upon each of them. These notices have to allow a period of at least 28 days within which people may appeal to the Secretary of State, and the notices cannot take effect until that period has run. If there is an appeal to the Secretary of State the notice is stayed until the appeal is determined or withdrawn, and this commonly extends to a year. Even then there is a right of appeal to the High Court on points of law, and the notice is again stayed if there is such an appeal. When the notice comes into effect, there is a further period for compliance with its requirements.

In the case of uses of land which can be instituted without much capital outlay, this time scale makes it profitable for people to proceed without planning permission and to await the processes of the enforcement machinery. Cases of the kind that have arisen in many parts of the country have included second-hand car sales on open land, car breakers' yards, haulage depots and Sunday markets. In many instances the activities have had serious adverse effects on the residents living nearby and have continued for periods extending sometimes to a couple of years.

I know that out of the blue I can think of three examples in my constituency. One is a notorious tip and scrap yard that was brought into operation on the outskirts of a pleasant village, where those concerned burned tyres and caused an absolute outrage to the local inhabitants. In another village, a man started a second-hand car business on the side of the road, causing traffic difficulties and annoying the local villagers. In the village next to the one where I live in my constituency, a tropical fish business was started without planning permission. It attracted hordes of visitors on Sundays for a day out, and they left ice-cream cartons and other litter.

Complaints are often made about the volume or kind of traffic generated by such operations and often the unsuitability of the local roads to take it, or about the noise and the general activity and the adverse effect on a locality. One has to live near such an operation to understand exactly what hell it can be if it goes on for any period.

What finally proves to me the need for the additional power is that in a number of instances where people have been forced, after the protracted procedures that I have described, to cease using a piece of land for the offending activity, they have simply moved to another piece of land, again without seeking planning permission and in the full knowledge that they are contravening the control. In exceptional cases authorities may seek an injunction, but it is not appropriate for authorities always to be running to the courts in that respect. It is important to go ahead with the stop notices as I now propose.

Clause 1 extends the present stop notice procedure to uses of land by giving the local planning authority which has served the enforcement notice power to serve a stop notice prohibiting any activity, with limited exceptions, which is or forms part of the matters alleged in the enforcement notice to be a breach of planning control. The authority must serve the stop notice on a person known to have an interest in the land or to have engaged in the activities prohibited by the notice.

In addition, the authority is authorised to display a site notice giving details of the stop notice. The clause provides that any person served with a stop notice and, where a site notice is displayed, any person who knows of the stop notice or could reasonably be expected to know of it is liable to prosecution for contravention of its requirements.

The concept of a site notice is not a feature of the existing procedure, but it is now introduced to overcome the problems that arise in enforcing control of this kind due to someone's interest being overlooked or to a different person continuing the activity. The site notice would have to be clearly displayed stating that a stop notice had been served and setting out its requirements. The clause provides a defence against prosecution if a person who is not served with a notice can prove that he does not know of its existence and could not reasonably have been expected to know.

Clause 2 amends the present compensation provisions—this is the safeguard in the Bill—to provide a right to compensation for persons occupying land to which the stop notice relates, as well as for persons with an interest in that land. The circumstances in which entitlement to compensation arises from the quashing or variation of the enforcement notice on appeal to the Secretary of State are redefined to take into account the new provisions concerning stop notices. The clause also provides that failure to provide correct information about interests in land or uses of land is to be taken into account when compensation is assessed.

Clause 3 extends the power of local authorities to serve notices on the owner or occupier of land, requiring him to provide information about it.

In general, therefore, the Bill implements the necessary and urgent recommendations of the Dobry Report. It will save the need for local authorities to seek injunctions, which will enable them to serve stop notices which can go into effect where the offending use of land has been instituted without planning permission and will enable local authorities to require occupiers of land to disclose what they are doing with it and on it.

The application of the compensation provision to stop notices affecting the use of land maintains the balance between the public interest and that of the person occupying the land. It will ensure that local authorities do not serve stop notices without carefully considering whether the person concerned is entitled to do what he is doing. There are some who claim that the risk of compensation is too great a disincentive to the use of this power. I do not accept that. We need a balance and I think that this may be the right balance.

I am glad that authority organisations such as the Association of County Councils have given the Bill a general welcome, although they wish to raise specific points. We can perhaps go into those during the Bill's progress.

I am glad to say that the Bill has Government backing, and I appreciate the interest and support for it shown by the Department of the Environment. I am grateful to my distinguished sponsors for allowing their names to be associated with the Bill, and for their support. As can be seen from their names, the Bill is non-party political and has general support throughout the whole House. Although the measure is useful and necessary, it cannot be classified as controversial.

I have no hesitation in commending this small but useful measure to the House, and I hope very much that the House will give it a Second Reading. Any queries that arise can be settled in Committee.

3.36 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I should like to take this opportunity to congratulate the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) on the use he has made of his success in the Ballot. The Bill is a useful and desirable measure, and there have been a sufficient number of cases to show that it is necessary. Certain matters have been raised with me about the Bill, but I am satisfied that they can be resolved in Committee. With the unanimous support of Labour Members, I welcome the Bill and hope that its progress in Committee will be expedited.

3.37 p.m.

Mr. Hal Miller (Bromsgrove and Redditch)

I join the right hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) in congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) on the good use he has made of his success in the Ballot. The Bill deals wth a subject that has caused a great deal of inconvenience and distress, especially on the fringes of larger conurbations.

I wish briefly to refer to tipping and to the report that the Local Government Commissioner entered in August last year on the difficulties faced by the Bromsgrove District Council in controlling tipping operations. The Commissioner specifically called for amendment of the law along the lines provided in the Bill.

I wish also to refer to the practice of covering operations under the cloak of Class VI of Schedule 1 of the General Development Order (No. 31) of 1973. I shall seek to move an amendment in Committee to rectify this omission. Under the cloak of that order many of the operations which my hon. Friend seeks to prevent are taking place. I need only refer to heaps 20 ft. high—just under the 12 metres provided for by the class—about which there was a meeting with the Minister of State in November 1975. There are well-documented examples of this practice.

The question arises whether the stop notice provisions contained in the Bill should be extended to enforcement notices. However, these matters can be profitably dealt with in Committee. I warmly support my hon. Friend's valuable initiative.

3.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for the Environment (Mr. Guy Barnett)

I begin by adding my congratulations to the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) on introducing this Bill and having had the good fortune to be able to do so. It has already been said that the Bill is a valuable measure for strengthening the powers of local authorities to enforce planning control. In introducing the Bill the hon. Member has had the support of both sides of the House. I was particularly glad to note among the sponsors of the Bill the name of my right hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey). I was glad to hear my right hon. Friend's remarks.

I particularly welcome the Bill since It implements some of the more urgent recommendations of the Dobry Report. It embodies to a great extent the Government's views on how these problems of planning control can best be tackled. The Bill will greatly assist planning authorities in several important ways.

I am sure that it is right to bring all activities in connection with alleged breaches of planning control within the ambit of the stop notice procedure. It is no secret that we in the Department of the Environment have for a long time received numerous complaints about the inability of authorities under existing planning legislation to act quickly and effectively in dealing with offensive and unneighbourly activities as and when they arise. There has already been reference to this "planning piracy" that has taken place on an increasing scale. It is that sort of situation with which the Bill is designed to deal.

There are, unfortunately, a wide variety of uses instituted without planning permission where such permission is clearly needed, yet, when an enforcement notice is served on the persons concerned, they use every mechanism of delay they can to go on flouting the law.

I was interested to note that the Evening News of 24th January carried an article in which my hon. Friend the Member far Harlow (Mr. Newens) is quoted as describing the situation arising in the Lea Valley. At one point the article says: Scores of derelict nurseries have been turned into a hotch-potch of car-breaking yards, haulage firms, lorry spraying depots and other illegal industries. My hon. Friend demanded that the Government should tighten up planning enforcement procedures to curb this desecration. The hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington is doing our job for us in the sense that my hon. Friend has asked it to be done. It is for that reason that we are anxious to assist the hon. Member in any way we can and to facilitate the passage of the Bill.

As the hon. Member for Bromsgrove and Redditch (Mr. Miller) has said, there are matters of detail which we shall need to examine in Committee. Admittedly, the stop notice procedure is, because of its nature, quite a drastic power. But the planning authority is at risk if it uses this power unwisely. If it turns out that the original enforcement notice is misconceived the authority is likely to have to pay compensation to people who have suffered loss or damage by reason of the stop notice. I agree with the hon. Member for Warwick and Leamington that this is a chastening thought and that the Bill, in extending the existing stop notice procedure, maintains a correct balance between those who enforce and those who are enforced against.

The Bill's provisions will also go a long way to reduce the risk of enforcement actions proving to be misdirected in that it allows a local authority to find what activities are taking place on the land and when they began. This information is often peculiarly in the knowledge of the occupier and informal inquiries are not always answered helpfully. It is right that the authority should have the power to obtain this factual information. In some instances this will give the person carrying out an activity the opportunity of stating the facts which will show the authority that enforcement action would not be appropriate.

With those few words I welcome the Bill. It is certainly my intention as the Minister responsible to give whatever assistance and help I can. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will find that Bill has a relatively easy passage into law. I congratulate him on the way he has introduced the Bill and on his good fortune in being able to do so.

3.45 p.m.

Mr. Tony Durant (Reading, North)

I shall make only a short intervention because I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) wishes to speak and in the past he has himself attempted to introduce a similar Bill. I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith) on winning a place in the Ballot and on introducing such a worthwhile little measure.

My only comment at this point is that I think it a pity that the Government have done so little about the Dobry Report. I appreviate that time is one of their problems, but I hope that they will continue to consider that report and deal with many of the planning matters about which people are anxious.

I spent six years on a planning committee, and I understand the difficulties which these problems create. The work which a local authority has to undertake in dealing with them is time-consuming and expensive, and taking people to court and so on is an expensive business for local government. That is why I believe that the Bill will be of considerable help.

There are one or two matters which, I hope, my hon. Friend will consider in Committee. I am always conscious of the rights of individuals, and I hope that this aspect of the matter will be examined carefully. There may be difficulty over the 12-months' limit where there has been a change of ownership, in the sense that there may have been change in current use of land, and, with a change of ownership, the new owner may not realise that there is full planning permission. I hope that that also will be examined in Committee.

I am slightly nervous also about Clause 3 regarding information. Some of the people we are talking about here cannot even read or write, and it may not be easy to make them fill in the necessary forms to state what they are doing on land. Twenty-one days may not be sufficient time. Moreover, we shall have to consider the phrase "reasonable excuse" and perhaps probe what that means. I hope that my hon. Friend will take all these points into account.

I wish the Bill well, I hope that it will receive a smooth and speedy passage, and I believe that it will be a useful measure for local authority planning committees. I am sure that those whose homes are wrecked by people suddenly arriving in the field next door, dumping large numbers of cars and metal breakers there and banging about, will feel that the Bill will help to deal with their problem much more quickly than has been possible in the past, and will stop the long legal wrangles, bringing at least some peace and quiet back to their homes.

3.47 p.m.

Mr. Michael Marshall (Arundel)

As one of the sponsors of the Bill, I am delighted to give my full support to my hon. Friend the Member for Warwick and Leamington (Mr. Smith). He made his case very clearly, and, if I may say so, it is agreeable occasionally on a Friday afternoon to find that we have opportunity actually to tackle a worthwhile job for the House and the country.

I am grateful to the Minister for his references to my own Bill of February 1975 which carried the same name. He will be aware that at that time there was a feeling that we were up against a severe problem. Within a few days of my Bill being introduced, the Dobry Report came out, which, especially on the question of stop notices, made precisely the same recommendation as is envisaged in Clause 1 of the present Bill and as I envisaged in my own Bill at that time.

I hope that the Minister will take as the compliment which it is intended to be what I am about to say. This afternoon I am unusually heartened and my cynicism is somewhat tempered because, when I had the opportunity of discussions with the Minister's Department, although it showed genial good will and basic support, it told me that it did not feel that piecemeal legislation would meet the need. I was inclined to regard that as a delaying tactic which meant that these proposals would sink without trace.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Is not my hon. Friend aware that the longer one is in this place the more one realises that Governments inevitably follow progressive Back Benchers?

Mr. Marshall

I appreciate that entirely. My hon. Friend has done the House a special service since his Bill goes far wider than my Bill did.

Mr. Guy Barnett

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman recognises that one of the reasons why the Government were not willing to give to his Bill the support that we are giving to the present Bill was that the necessary consultations had not then taken place. We are now, I think, in a better position. I think it more than probable that by the end of this month we shall have the views of all those who are directly concerned. That is the difference between the situation now and that when he introduced his Bill. I thought that I should make that clear lest he had not understood it.

Mr. Marshall

I do understand. In explaining my attitude to the Bill I was coming on to make the point which the hon. Gentleman has fairly put.

I appreciate that the argument then was for looking at Dobry in detail, and that has been done. It is rare in the House to have unsatisfied customers, but it seems that today we are seeing Government support for and all-party interest in a Bill which will do a valuable job. I hope that the Minister will use his good offices to extend the principle into other areas of legislation, because it is rare to see matters picked up in this way.

If my hon. Friend's good fortune has not been pre-ordained, it is certainly a matter of the utmost value to the House. I should like briefly to explain why the Bill is still necessary. When I was involved with a similar Bill, I was particularly concerned, as my hon. Friend has been, with the question of Sunday markets and flying and other activities at airfields. The principle followed by certain companies in using the appeal mechanism was clear. It was repeated throughout the country. We found links between companies in different parts of the country which simply opened up shop and when they came up against the normal planning procedures carried on while an appeal was pending. They relied on the normal delay of 18 months to two years in which to carry on what might turn out to be an illegal activity. If at the end of that period they were obliged to comply with the law, those concerned simply moved on to another part of the country.

The problem is not simply one of the feelings of local residents, important though they are, about what they consider to be an unwarranted abuse of planning procedure. We must not ignore the costs incurred by local authorities and the Minister's Department in handling appeals. Highly paid legal authorities are involved. My local authorities, the West Sussex County Council and the Arun District Council, have told me that many thousands of pounds are spent on the whole appeal mechanism. I think that the Minister could confirm that many thousands of pounds worth of resources are also used in his Department in handling the problem.

The matter is urgent. It is not simply a question of the nuisance but of saving public expenditure, to which the Bill may fairly be said to make a valuable contribution. It will be helpful if at a later stage the Minister can give us an idea of the amount involved, as he clearly agrees that this is a point of substance.

We have no clear yardstick by which to judge the way in which planning procedures are examined. It is a considerable time since we had a chance to debate these matters.

Mr. Dudley Smith

Does my hon. Friend agree that while this is a useful small measure it behoves Governments of both parties to look at the whole matter of planning, because there is a belief that many aspects are getting out of date and that there is a need for a general revision?

Mr. Marshall

Yes, my hon. Friend has hit on the point precisely. We have a very valuable opportunity in Committee to look at the whole area of present planning procedure.

My hon. Friend has my full support and I am delighted that the Government are taking a helpful attitude. I hope to take part in later proceedings on the Bill, which I commend to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).