HC Deb 20 June 1978 vol 952 cc374-88

11.40 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland (Mr. Ray Carter)

I beg to move, That the draft Planning (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 4th May, be approved. The purpose of this order is to up-date the planning law in Northern Ireland following more than four years' experience in administering the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972. The opportunity is also taken to include a number of planning provisions which have been introduced recently in the rest of the United Kingdom. Hon. Members will recall that the Department of the Environment for Northern Ireland, formerly the Ministry of Development, became the sole planning authority for Northern Ireland in October 1973. At that time a new planning code was introduced—the Planning (Northern Ireland) Order 1972—which was largely based on the Town and Country Planning Act 1947.

The 1972 Order has proved to be a reasonably effective measure, but some problems have arisen in the area of controlling unauthorised development. The principal provisions of this order—that is to say Article 11, which widens the scope of stop notices, and Article 7 which abolishes the four-year limit on the service of enforcement notices for changes of use—increase the powers of the Department of the Environment in this vital area of development control.

Several hon. Members and many district councils in Northern Ireland have made representations urging an amendment of the law to enable the Department to put an effective stop to unauthorised changes of use. The opening of a discotheque or the establishment of a scrap metal yard can quickly make life intolerable for neighbours. The powers contained in Article 11 will enable the Department as planning authority to take quick and effective action to halt unauthorised changes of use in existing buildings or land. The provisions are similar to the power taken in the Town and Country Planning (Scotland) Act 1977 and the Town and Country Planning (Amendment) Act 1977. These measures were introduced following a review of the development control system in England and Wales.

The present four-year limit on the service of enforcement notices for unauthorised changes in the use of land or existing buildings is abolished by Article 7. An exception is made for change of use to a single dwelling house. The particular difficulty in detecting unauthorised changes of use in the conditions, prevailing in Northern Ireland in recent years, reinforces the argument for giving the Province parity with Great Britain in this field.

One other important aspect of the order deals with matters related to the protection of our old towns and villages against new development which could destroy their special architectural and historic character. Article 4 prohibits the demolition of certain buildings in conservation areas and Article 5 gives statutory authority for financial assistance for schemes to enhance these areas.

The remaining provisions are relatively minor in character, although I should like to mention that Article 15 will extend blight protection to land affected by published development or rehabilitation schemes. I am sure that these provisions will make a worthwhile contribution to planning law in Northern Ireland.

11.43 p.m.

Mr. John Biggs-Davison (Epping Forest)

I thank the Minister for his expeditious and clear explanation of this order. A problem to which both sides of the House have addressed themselves in recent years has been how to associate the public with, and how to inform the public and its representatives about, the process of planning. In England and Wales, local authorities are planning authorities. But even in England, in my own Essex constituency, the complaint is heard that too many planning decisions are made by a process and by persons remote from those affected.

As the Under-Secretary of State has said, the object of the order is to bring planning law in Northern Ireland into line with the planning law on this side of the water. But, as he also indicated, the machinery of planning lacks the local tiers to which Great Britain is accustomed. He said that the Department of the Environment is the sole planning authority. Of course, the Department operates through its six planning divisions and there are district development officers, I understand, corresponding to the areas of the 26 districts. But the district councils have no planning powers. They are consulted, but planning applications can be decided far from those affected.

The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and the hon. Member for Antrim, South (Mr. Molyneaux) will put me right if I am wrong, but I am informed that the responsibility for planning in South Antrim resides in the Department's Downpatrick office in County Down. The two areas are distant from each other and certainly very different from each other.

The districts have very few powers, apart from matters concerning recreation, and councillors complain sometimes that they have been entrusted only with sweeping the streets and burying the dead. Therefore, the Northern Ireland Committtee welcomed the functions to be given to district councillors under the rent order, and Part II of another order which we shall discuss later confers new powers on district councils. But I should like to ask the Under-Secretary whether it is intended to add further to the responsibilities of district councils and, as regards this order, whether there is perhaps a case for involving district councils in the preparation of local plans and the control of development, subject to the Minister.

I conclude on a specific and topical subject. Article 6 provides for the situation that will obtain when law and order is sufficiently assured for barriers in shopping precincts in town centres to be removed. On this, may I sound a note of caution? Desirable though it may be to lift the barriers for the sake of commerce and convenience, I hope very much that those responsible for security will satisfy themselves that this is not done prematurely and with undue risk.

11.47 p.m.

Mr. Robert J. Bradford (Belfast, South)

I intervene briefly as one who represents an urban constituency which is almost entirely residential. One of the provisions of this order is very welcome. I know that the Under-Secretary of State has been very much aware of the problems which are not peculiar to South Belfast but must relate to North Belfast, which is almost entirely residential. I refer, of course, to the stop notice provision. I welcome the application of this legislation now and say that it will be a great source of relief to many of my constituents who unfortunately find themselves adjacent to industrial operations which arrive suddenly and without due planning permission.

There is another problem which is peculiar to Belfast and to which the stop regulations will apply. I have in mind the mushrooming trade in massage parlours in South Belfast and in North and East Belfast. Here, if a small terrace house becomes available, it may be bought by an unscrupulous speculator and used for this purpose. The Minister has been very sympathetic to trying to remove this kind of nuisance in purely residential areas. Like the rest of us, I am sure that he has felt frustrated by the lack of legislation heretofore in tackling this problem. Now the stop notice will not allow these people to function for the six-months period which they have claimed and used under the loopholes in previous legislation. As we have heard, they will have to cease operations forthwith when brought to the attention of the Department of the Environment.

For those two brief reasons, as one who represents an urban constituency I welcome the order and welcome especially the application of the stop provisions.

11.50 p.m.

Mr. Wm. Ross (Londonderry)

This is an order to which I give a general but in some respects a rather guarded welcome. It blocks a number of loopholes but perhaps leaves a number of other loopholes and a number of difficulties unresolved.

One of those concerns the provision to prohibit the demolition of certain buildings in conservation areas without consent. The Minister will be aware that sometimes the owners of these buildings do not share the views of those who wish to have them conserved. Occasionally they have to be repaired and they have to be pretty well gutted to make them habitable. In such circumstances, it is not unknown for a building to fall down. Can the Minister tell us what steps he intends to take to prevent such buildings from falling down under the attentions of contractors? It is a matter which has sometimes concerned me because it can happen more or less overnight and before action can be taken to prevent it.

Moving on to Article 7, I give a rather guarded welcome to the extension of immunity under the four-year rule. It would, perhaps, have been unjust to apply the order in its previous form, but the difficulty is that in improving it in this way for some folk, we have let some unscrupulous people off the hook. That is not a matter which anyone who has had to deal with these people through local government channels can view with any degree of joy.

I hope that future difficulties which will undoubtedly occur will be firmly and severely dealt with, because I know that when these things happen, there is a great deal of bitterness in the surrounding population and among people who have had planning applications refused.

With regard to that aspect of this order, may I ask the Minister what is the position about powers of building control officers in those buildings which have been erected and now have immunity. Some of these buildings were not only put up without planning permission but do not conform to the requirements of building regulations. What happens if there is an accident? That is something which councils and planning authorities need to take on board and to deal with.

This order also raises a matter which has been troubling me. That is the question of properties bought for development purposes, perhaps for redevelopment for housing, for road widening schemes, roundabouts and all sorts of things like that. In some cases these buildings are in towns. There are quite a number in Londonderry City. There is one area there where buildings have been blocked up. Would it not be wise if these buildings were knocked down as soon as possible?

What happens if a building has teen bought for such a purpose and is then let by the road service? I am thinking in particular of a case in Londonderry City where a block of two houses was bought for a roundabout in the Creggan area. One was let to a gentleman who was being displaced in the immediate vicinity for a similar scheme. I understand that he has broken through the wall and is now using both properties as a shop. It is in the Creggan and nothing appears to be happening about it yet. These matters are slightly outside the scope of the order but are still relevant.

In Article 10 we find that even where there is not an area plan, applications for planning approval are treated as if an area plan existed. This area plan may exist only in a very preliminary draft form in planning officials' offices or in the Department. Yet it is treated as if it were a statutory obligation. In these circumstances, how is the applicant to know what the planning regulations for the area will be? How will the Minister obtain guidance on these matters. If there is no requirement in law for an applicant to conform to an unpublished plan, why should he be required to do so? If there is no such requirement, I believe that the Department and its officials are grossly overstepping their authority. This matter is not without its complications.

Councils' powers are very limited in planning matters. Although increasing, I believe that those powers fall far short of the powers possessed by local government in Great Britain. In Great Britain the council is the deciding body. However, in Northern Ireland it is, and apparently will continue to be, the Department and its planning officials.

In regard to Article 11, I welcome the decision to put a stop to activities which not only annoy a great many people but which can also cost people who live nearby a great deal of money following the fall in the value of their homes where unauthorised development or activities take place.

The change of use is a great bone of contention and has concerned every councillor in Northern Ireland in the past, and no doubt will continue to do so in the future. I believe that the stop notices are a step in the right direction. I hope that this process will not end there. I hope that whenever a stop notice is put up, the Department or the council, or whoever is responsible, will go ahead and prosecute if the same activities continue.

I also wish to give a warm welcome to the extension of blight notices to pro- perty covered by compulsory purchase. Indeed, I welcome the increasing powers of councils throughout Northern Ireland in all sorts of small ways. I believe that it will be very good for councillors to be given these increased responsibilities. At present far too many of them have only a small sense of responsibility.

At present planning officers are used as targets of criticism at every planning committee meeting. The Minister knows this, and I saw it happening time after time. It is most unjust that planning officers are treated in that way. The planning officers and those associated with planning were delighted whenever the responsibility for planning decisions was taken from councils and put into the hands of paid officials. I am happy to say from my contacts with them that they are not as happy with the situation now as they were initially. I hope that those who serve in other areas of public service will have learned something from the planners' experience in this conection. It is difficult for a public servant to defend himself when he cannot answer back in the same terms as those in which he is sometimes addressed.

I believe that democracy works and that the planners need a change of status and should be put in a position in which they are advising elected representatives. In those circumstances I consider that their advice will be taken, and that whenever they get into a position in which they are advising rather than directing, they will find themselves acting as partners in the planning procedure rather than being seen, as they are at present, as the enemy of the applicant and of the councillor.

This change in attitude by planners and councillors is essential if the attitude revealed by the Cockcroft Report is put into practice. The provisions of that report appear to be driving a coach and four through the planning world. It is clear that in the present form that report would leave rural planning practically non-existent. Therefore, councillors will have to get used to the fact that in future it will be they rather than the planners who will be the target. This matter will have to be considered by councillors, the Department, the Minister and the public if we are to have a happy ending to the planning procedures in Northern Ireland.

Rev. Ian Paisley (Antrim, North)

I support what the hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) has said and I make a further plea that more powers should be restored to elected representatives in the district councils.

The order deals with planning, which is a terrible problem in Northern Ireland, as I am sure the Minister is aware. We have got to the sad position where elected representatives are in continual confrontation with planning officers. Indeed, one council has decided that every recommendation of its planning officer will be opposed. I have talked to the planning officer and the councils in my area and they tell me that they look upon their monthly meetings as confrontations. How can we ever have proper planning when elected representatives feel that there is confrontation instead of consultation on behalf of members of the community?

Let me give the House an instance to illustrate what I have been saying. The Ministry of Agriculture supported a recent application for a second farm house for a farmer's son in Ballymena, but although the Ministry and the whole council supported that proposal, the planning officer said "No". I am sure that my colleagues could give similar examples.

There was a hue and cry when planning was firmly in the hands of elected representatives. Planning officers suggested that they could do the job better, but they are beginning to find that without the co-operaion of the elected representatives, it is a very difficult task.

We shall be debating later other measures giving a little more power to councils, but the Minister would be well advised before bringing forward any more draft orders to consider which planning powers he could give back to locally elected councillors so that they can be involved in the planning for their communities.

Building control is another problem. What powers do the building control officers have in cases where those who are responsible for doing work according to building control regulations fail to meet those requirements? There has been a problem in Lame recently. A man purchased a house with an annex that was put up under the building controls and was passed by the building control officer. The man asked about the annex and was told that it had been built with proper beams, but when he removed the ceiling he found that there were no beams and the annex was about to cave in. He went back to the council and the building control officer, who washed their hands of it and said that it was not a matter for them. Surely if building control regulations say that a building must be erected in a certain way and the building control officer passes it and gives the required certificate that it has been built in the proper way, it is wrong that a purchaser can discover that it was not built in the proper way and yet have no redress. That position must be remedied quickly.

Will the Minister explain why compensation is to be withdrawn from certain parties? I am always suspicious when compensation is withdrawn.

I feel strongly about the four-year rule and I happen to disagree with the hon. Member for Londonderry. I feel that it is a good resolution of many knotty problems. Businesses have been established and run for a considerable time, thereby providing employment.

I do not know what the Minister's Department is up to, but there has been great activity within it to try to find all the houses that have been built without permission and all the busineses that are run without permission, on which it is slapping closing orders.

In my constituency there are people losing their jobs and livelihoods as a result of that activity, which causes me great concern. I could give illustration after illustration. As the Minister knows, there is a housing problem in Northern Ireland. One of my constituents on Island Magee put all his money into a building, renovated it and is living in it. Suddenly an officer arrives and tells him that he has two months in which to get out. However, my constituent is safeguarded because he has been in the building for more than four years. It seems that a considerable effort is being made by planning departments to ascertain the buildings that have been used and the businesses that have been run without the required and necessary permission. When we are trying to bring employment to Northern Ireland, it is not helpful for the Department to start a campaign of closing down certain industries and shops. A more sympathetic eye should be turned in that direction.

There are one-man businesses and other buildings that have been made available as living accommodation. A sympathetic view should be taken of the needs of the people of Northern Ireland, especially of those who are prepared by their own efforts and by investing their own money to do something to help themselves when so many others are looking for Government hand-outs and subsidies. Surely we should encourage those who are prepared to invest their own hard-earned savings in housing or in businesses.

12.8 a.m.

Mr. Carter

I am pleased to hear that the proposals contained in the order are welcomed. We need to keep step with the latest planning laws and regulations in the rest of the United Kingdom. In Northern Ireland, where we are still trying to catch up with the rest of the United Kingdom and trying to instil in the community an awareness of the need for planning, be it in rural areas or urban areas, we need to keep abreast of the latest changes and developments and put right any weaknesses or defects in our current legislation.

The hon. Member for Epping Forest (Mr. Biggs-Davison) made a general criticism of our planning system that was echoed by some other hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman said that it should be devolved to local authorities.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

I was not being as dogmatic or as critical as the hon. Gentleman suggests. I was merely drawing attention to the difference between systems on the two sides of the water and to views that have been expressed to me and asking for the hon. Gentleman's thoughts.

Mr. Carter

I am pleased to hear that. I apologise if I went too far.

All planning applications currently go to district councils. Admittedly some district councils and councillors say that they would like more control and more power over planning matters, but there is a consultation process. It is said by some that it does not go far enough. I have attended council meetings at which planning applications have been discussed. Opposition Members may not be pre- pared to admit it, but councils do have an influence on planning matters. It is something of a myth in Northern Ireland to believe that councils have no influence at all. That is very far from the truth, as constant deputations to my office on planning matters prove. At the end of the day, as the Minister responsible for planning, I am always prepared to listen to people's objections and to the objections of Opposition Members when they write to me. Indeed, on occasion we reach agreement about individual and general cases.

Within the context of the present system, local authorities are probably most able to participate in the problem of contraventions. Councillors more than anybody and councils can play a vital role in informing my Department or planning officials of contraventions. The order deals with the problem of contraventions, with which we have great difficulty not only in Northern Ireland but throughout the United Kingdom. We rely to a great extent on detection. If people detect contraventions and inform planning officers or my Department, we can act. But in many cases contraventions go undetected or unreported. In consequence there is little that we can do about them. I urge hon. Members to tell their local authorities, as I shall tell them when I meet them, to do what they can about the detection of contraventions.

The hon. Member for Belfast, South (Mr. Bradford) welcomed the stop notice provision in the order. I know that many people in Belfast, including the city council and obviously the residents in areas affected by nuisance of one kind or another, will welcome that provision. But, again, vigilance is important. We can have the legislation at our disposal, but, unless it is used, it will be to no avail. When contraventions or nuisances are detected, they must be reported. I hope that hon. Members will make that fact known to their constituents.

The hon. Member for Londonderry (Mr. Ross) referred to the protection that we now afford to conservation areas. Some owners are obviously not too pleased when conservation orders are placed on their properties. I know that such orders sometimes affect the value of properties. The hon. Gentleman said that placing an order on a property might affect its state of health, because an owner might not be prepared to spend money on it. If such an issue arises in his constituency, I hope that he will let my Department know. W e are responsible not only for planning law and conservation but for historic buildings. We shall be only too happy to step in and to use what finance we have to assist.

Turning to the four-year rule, obviously anyone who is outside the four-year limit at the moment will not be affected by this legislation. But, given that the legislation goes on the statute book, we would want to catch as many as possible who have contravened this planning law.

Mr. Wm. Ross

Perhaps I may ask the Minister about Dungiven Castle. When I was a boy it had a considerable amount of seventeenth century fortifications left. Today there is not a stone of those fortifications. They have all at some time or another—some quite recently— fallen down.

Mr. Carter

I do not know why that should have happened. We have only recently introduced legislation to preserve historic buildings in Northern Ireland. We are looking at the past there. For the future, we have sufficient powers to protect historic buildings. Again, however, we rely to some extent on the community and the local authorities to detect what might be going on. Anybody is free at any time to knock a building down, and unless someone is there to see what is happening and to prevent it, there is not much that can be done.

The hon. Member mentioned the important point about building standards. Even though a building may have been in existence for ever four years and is outside the scope of this legislation, it may nevertheless have ben built to a standard which contravened building regulations. If the hon. Member knows of any examples of that, I should like him to let us know. That is something we can look at outside the scope of this legislation.

The hon. Member referred to Article 10 and the fact that we can use the draft of a development plan as a reason for the refusal of a planning application. That stems from a legal judgment where the Department had used the development plan as a valid reason for refusing a planning application and its view was upheld in the courts. We are now including that provision in legislation, for very obvious reasons. The Department must have a coherent philosophy to work to. It must either be the development plan or, in the terms of the 1972 legislation, "other material considerations".

Obviously a draft plan is a material consideration. It may not have been published, but it would certainly be a part of our coherent planning philosophy and would serve as a reference point. The hon. Member asked, logically, how anyone would know about that. Anybody making a planning application would be made fully aware of the reasons why we would approve or disapprove a particular application, and where a draft plan existed an applicant would be made aware of that fact.

I thought that the Cockcroft Report might crop up this evening. It has no relevance to the debate, principally because the discussion will now take place throughout the Province as to its relevance or otherwise. I have my views about it. I will not reveal them tonight. That might prolong the discussion unduly.

Rev. Ian Paisley

Very sad.

Mr. Carter

I am not particularly sad about it. I am delighted that I cannot talk about it tonight.

The hon. Member for Antrim, North (Rev. Ian Paisley) went further than anyone in suggesting that planning should be given back to local authorities. I must tell him, and disappoint him in doing so, that there is no intention on the part of myself or the Government to give planning back to local authorities.

The hon. Member suggested that building standards were not high enough. He quoted a case in Lame. I do not know of that case. I have felt some concern about building standards in Northern Ireland and I have urged the building industry to step up its standards. We have an NHBC system in Northern Ireland. But one or two cases have been brought to my attention by hon. Members and I have been somewhat disturbed at the standards as they have been revealed to me. If hon. Members have examples such as that which the hon. Member mentioned I shall be only too pleased to look at them.

Mr. Harold McCusker (Armagh)

The Minister dealt with the point about giving some planning responsibility back to local councils. Does he not accept that in Northern Ireland we shall never get the commitment from district councillors to certain aspects of planning and the principles of planning in area plans unless they feel that they can have some influence and can modify decisions that are made and can regard planning officers as part of their responsibilities. They must be able to see the planner, not as someone to be confronted and fought but as someone to be supported. Until we can develop a system that provides a commitment and involvement for councillors we shall always have confrontations.

Mr. Carter

I would not dispute that. I am well aware of the vital role that councillors can play in the planning process. I do not want now to go over all the historic reasons why planning is vested in my Department and not in the realm of the local authorities. The hon. Member is only too well aware of the reasons why the change was made.

Councillors do play some part in the determination of planning policy. It is true that in the rural areas it is the subject of some deep controversy and bitterness. Nothing raises the ire of councillors so much as mention of rural planning. I did not think that it was an important subject until I went to Northern Ireland, but I quickly found out just how dear it is to the hearts of people in the countryside.

The truth of the matter is that 75 per cent. of all applications are approved; that is on average, throughout the Province. In some areas that proportion rises to over 80 per cent. We are talking about only 20 per cent. or something just in excess of that. Where I think people are unreasonable is in pretending that they can have the whole 100 per cent. of applications approved. That can never be, otherwise, if it were so, planning would not exist at all.

I hope that after a full discussion of the Cockcroft Report and the recommendations that my Department will ultimately make, we can draw nearer to a position of consensus. We desperately need it because everyone in Northern Ireland, be he a countryman or town man, needs a planning system. But it can operate properly only if it is given the fullhearted consent of everyone involved.

There was one last question raised by the hon. Member for Antrim, North, and that was the question of the revocation of compensation. That applies only where a person is given an alternative site on an existing planning application. What we shall not allow someone to do is to get two sites for the price of one. In the past, he would have got compensation if we had revoked a previous application that had been approved. We shall not allow him to get another site and yet be compensated for the first one if we revoke the application in regard to that.

Rev. Ian Paisley

I thank the Minister for his reply. On a previous point about the Cockcroft Report, he said that there would be consultations. Will he enlarge on that and tell us whether he will be consulting the local councils and other bodies and will then make his statement in regard to the action that he will be taking?

Mr. Carter

Yes, that would be the intention. Every local authority will have a copy of the report. All the political parties and all the professional bodies involved will have a copy of the report. The opportunity will be given to them to make their comments known to my Department. At the end of the day, we shall have to take some decision or other. But I can only take it in the light of the comments that will be made. I hope that all Members of Parliament present on the Opposition Benches participate in that discussion.

I think that that concludes the discussion concerning the comments on the order. I hope that hon. Members will feel that we have made some advance here in our planning law in Northern Ireland and that even though local authorities may feel that they are somewhat left out of the realm of decision making, they will, nevertheless, participate, particularly in the area of contravention and the stop notice provisions contained in the legislation.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft Planning (Amendment) (Northern Ireland) Order 1978, which was laid before this House on 4th May, be approved.